My Experience in Learning Standing Meditation
Standing meditation was not taught a great deal when I started taiji in the late 1980s. I learned from a great local teacher, and as this was pre-internet times, supplemented my learning by routinely travelling to weekend workshops and reading many of the books available at the time. I don’t recall any of the (then well-known and commercially distributed) taiji books even mentioning standing. Of course I didn’t read every single book or attend every single national or regional workshop, and there are certainly others that I did not know that learned from the heart of taiji tradition in China and taught standing in the late 80’s/early 90’s, but for the most part it was not mentioned in taiji circles. I had actually began a nascent standing practice (even once being gently chided by a taiji brother for “doing nothing”), and in a regional workshop sometime around 1990 I once asked the instructor about the purpose of standing. He said it is just an exercise to strengthen the shoulders and not important. My intuition at the time told me that was incorrect.
Dr. Yang Yang, who had lived and studied closely with Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang in Beijing, arrived in the U.S. in 1993 and from the beginning emphasized standing meditation practice as an essential component of efficient training. Dr. Yang was featured on the cover of the February 1995 edition of T’ai Chi magazine. To exemplify just how little standing was recognized or taught in the U.S. at the time, Marvin Smallheiser, the editor and author of the interview with Dr. Yang, wrote of his surprise that Dr. Yang even practiced standing:
“Nor would you think, at the age of 34, that he would be patient enough in his approach to developing higher T’ai Chi Ch’uan skills that he would consider Wuji standing meditation one of the cornerstones of practice for developing real T’ai Chi internal energy.”
Think about that. The editor of T’ai Chi magazine found it surprising that Dr. Yang practiced standing. That tells you how little the purpose and benefits of standing were known back in the day. (Quite humorously, the article following Dr. Yang’s interview in that 1995 T’ai Chi magazine edition talks about what the internet is and how it can be used to search information on taiji.) 🙂
Of course standing was a central practice at the heart of the internal arts in China. Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang was a top student of Chen Fake, the 17th generation lineage holder of the Chen style, and Dr. Yang learned of its importance from him. Chen Fake had moved from the Chen Village to Beijing, and during the years of the cultural revolution the only person from the Chen Village that could travel to and visit Chen Fake and his son Chen Zhaokui in Beijing was Mr. Wu Xiubao (allowed because he was a communist official). I once accompanied Dr. Yang on a visit to Mr. Wu Xiubao at his home in Jiaozuo near the Chen village, and asked him if standing meditation was emphasized by Chen Fake and Chen Zhaokui. His answer was an emphatic yes —of course yes—and he then ticked off a list of names of several standing postures.
Today much excellent written and video instruction is available on how to do standing. Of course if you practice the standing in earnest you will eventually come to understand the benefits, but there is still not much published information as to WHY it is an essential component of efficient practice. (Here again I am purposely excluding the traditional explanation that “it will increase your qi/energy,” which is true but of little value from a mechanistic perspective.)
From my experience of over 30 years of practice, three primary reasons for practicing standing are:
- Instilling correct posture;
- Recruitment of core musculature; and
- As a bridge from wuji to taiji
The first two are absolutely essential for the development of internal power; further discussion follows. The mechanism of the third point is more theoretical (though no less experiential), and will be the subject of a future post.
Standing meditation is traditionally called “standing pole” (zhan zhuang) and taiji form is called “moving standing pole.” This saying clearly illustrates the importance of standing practice in instilling the postural principles of taijiquan (actually of all internal arts). There are two primary standing postures: wuji (square) and santi (staggered) stances. Indeed, the Chen forms continually alternate between wuji and santi stances. For the purpose of this article it is enough to know that instilling correct posture is a primary purpose of standing, but below I will briefly review some of the key points of correct standing posture. Why posture is crucial to internal power was covered in a previous blog article.
The postural principles of wuji standing (wuji zhuang) are well-known to most taiji players. The body is to be straight and centered (zhong ding/zhong zheng) and not leaning or bent at the waist. The feet are positioned naturally in a square or even stance and knees slightly bent and “soft.” (The width of the stance can and should be varied after the basic posture is well understood). The chin is tucked in slightly and the head held as if suspended from the crown, and one should relax and slightly “open,” or “sink” into the crease at the hip joint (called the “kua” in traditional language). “Opening the kua” gently straightens and elongates the lower spine/tailbone. If done correctly, the tailbone hangs in a neutral position, neither pushed forward nor pulled back. When the position of the kua is correct, the tailbone will hang like a plumb line pointing to the ground/center of the base of support, and the hips/buttocks are very relaxed. In combination, suspending the head from the crown and sinking into the kua will produce a gentle elongation of the spine—a gentle upward pulling from the crown and a gentle downward pulling (generated by gravity and not physical force) at the lower spine. This gentle elongation will immediately improve circulation. (Note that I am purposely repeating the word “gentle”—no posture should ever be forced—think 99% intention and 1% muscle force). Internalizing this gentle elongation of the spine is critical for later combining with reverse breathing and realizing how power is stored and released from the spine—an essential mechanism of internal power.
As a square stance, practicing wuji standing also importantly allows simple practice of the correct positioning of the knees. To keep the “bows” of the legs (the five bows are the legs, arms, and spine/torso), the knees should be slightly bent and soft, but also slightly and gently rounded, as if sitting on a skinny horse. Keeping the knees rounded is essential in not allowing the knees to fold or collapse inwards, which destroys the bows of the legs and therefore the integrity/strength of the stance. Again, always be gentle and never forceful—99% intention of an “outward expansion” at the knees, 1% muscle force. One simple way to test correct positioning of the knees is to bend at the knees—taiji posture is natural and relaxed and the knees should always bend over the feet and not collapse inward.
The arms can either be held relaxed at the sides, for example relaxed and rounded as if holding a tennis ball under the armpits or with palms directly over the lower dantian, or held in various extended positions for reasons detailed below. One posture that I have found extremely useful in helping to teach the correct position of the kua/lower spine is to hold the arms with the elbows folded in and touching the sides of the rib cage, chest open, palms down just below shoulder height and fingers pointing straight to the sides (which requires a decidedly open chest). This posture was originally presented to me as “secret Wu style standing.” It looks a bit strange, but after practicing it I realized a primary functional purpose of this stance was to teach the correct positioning/relaxation of the kua/lower spine and knees, and to instill the feeling of the weight rooting strongly through the legs into the ground. I now include it in my daily practice and use it to teach introductory standing to beginners.
Santi standing is the other most common standing stance. Functionally, santi is the basic “on guard” position in taiji. For those familiar with MMA, santi is just about the median between the more square muay tai stance (a narrower stance where most of the weight is on the back leg—basically “cat stance” to a taiji player), and a western boxing stance (a staggered stance but where more weight is often kept in the front leg). All of the postural principles of wuji standing apply, but as santi is a staggered stance it is a bit easier for beginners to begin with wuji zhuang, perhaps especially with regard to correct positioning of the knees.
Imagery is often used to help beginners to grasp the postural principles. For example, the teacher may tell the students to imagine that they are holding a piece of paper on their head to keep the body upright and grasp the feeling of suspending the head, or to imagine that they are edging onto a tall bar stool to catch the feeling of sinking into the kua.
Of course learning to relax the mind and body is an initial purpose of standing. One bit of imagery Dr. Yang Yang often uses to teach beginners to relax is to imagine that they are standing in water, and to allow the water to carry the weight of the body. When the arms are held extended the student is guided to imagine that the hands rest on top of the water, and the elbows sink into the water.
The goal is to learn to relax all musculature not needed to maintain the integrity and strength of the posture—in other words to learn to maximize efficiency of musculoskeletal force. It is of course quite false to say that taiji does not use muscular force. To move (and therefore create force) absolutely requires musculoskeletal action. Any physical force generated by any human body requires muscle—you cannot even stand without muscle engagement. Every movement of taiji (and therefore every force), be it striking, pushing, kicking, grappling, or pulling, requires muscle force. There is no such thing as an “electrical qi shock” or “empty force.” At least not a physical force. One can, of course, mentally unbalance another with mental/emotional energy, as my wife demonstrated on me on more than one occasion. But this is something entirely different. Mental/emotional balance is another crucial aspect of taiji training, but practicing this is primarily the realm of sitting meditation. (At least initially. The big picture goal is to bring all of taiji practice to daily life.) Anybody claiming the ability to exert some type of force strong enough to use in physical self-defence other than plain ‘ole force generated by accelerating part(s) of the body is either ignorant or is being intentionally deceitful. Every physical force (at the scale of human movement) can be measured according to F=ma (ok, more accurately F=dp/dt), and the acceleration (change in momentum) is generated by musculoskeletal action. Period.
The entire taiji curriculum is intended to build strength and power, but also to use and express that power in the most efficient way possible. “4 ounces to deflect 1000 pounds” does not refer to total force output—it refers to efficiency of force output. There are two components of the efficient use of force. One is to “not enter the fight,” or to “give up the hard to push part and find the easy to push part,” which is primarily practiced in push-hands. The second is the recruitment of core musculature, as all power is generated from and/or transferred through the core of the body. This leads us to our second key mechanistic purpose of standing.
Recruitment of Core Musculature
Try this exercise. Sit in a chair at a table. Now tighten/flex your shoulders and arms and push down on the table. Unless you are really strong (or the table is really weak) the table will not move and you will feel the counter force (equal and opposite to your pushing force) stuck in your shoulders and upper arms. The muscles of the shoulders are relatively smaller fast-twitch muscles that tire quickly. The force generated with these “external” limbs is therefore very inefficient. And, unless you are into the feeling of exhausted muscles, quite uncomfortable.
Now, “sink” and relax your shoulders as much as possible and push down on the table again, but maintaining the rounded structure of the arms and relaxed feeling of the arms “connected” to the spine. To the degree you CAN relax your shoulders while maintaining your structure, you will feel the core musculature engage. If you are able to do this with skill (and if you don’t break the table) you will feel the counter force through the entire core, including the lower abdomen (dan tian). The core musculature is a system of mostly slow twitch, oxygen utilizing muscles that stabilize and flex the spine and do not tire. In combination the core musculature is exponentially larger than the shoulders/upper arms, and the potential force generated from the core is therefore larger and more efficient than force generated from the shoulders and arms. (If you have learned and understand flexion of the “spinal bow” through reverse breathing in practice of moving qigong exercises, the force on the table will be much greater still. In this case I take no responsibility if you break the table, but if you can do that you don’t need to be reading this article. Or you needed a new table anyway.)
Learning to relax the shoulders and engage the core is PRECISELY the reason for standing with the arms extended in various postures. This is how the soft (relaxing) becomes the hard (recruitment of powerful core musculature). As I said in the introduction to this article, intuitively I did not believe in my early taiji days that strengthening the shoulders was the purpose of standing. Just the opposite is the case; in standing we learn to NOT use the shoulders/arms and instead to engage the core.
. . . in standing we learn to NOT use the shoulders/arms and instead to engage the core.
Different shoulder area/upper arm muscles engage with differing positions of the arms. Holding the arms extended in different positions and at different heights therefore allows one to practice relaxing external muscles (to the maximum extent possible) and to engage the core in variable positions. For example, holding the arms extended to the sides, or above the head, requires different muscles than extending them forward. It is necessary to practice different postures and stances to become skilled in relaxing and engaging the core in various body positions.
It is true that, because the center of mass extends outwards beyond your base of support when you extend your arms, you MUST engage the core to stabilize your spine and maintain your balance when extending the arms. This is a natural response that everyone does instinctively and has been measured in academic studies. If you are not convinced, just try standing and extend the arms to the front—if your core does not engage (you must consciously not allow it, as it is a natural response), you will fall forward because of the change in the center of mass. So to a certain extent everyone practices core engagement when standing with the arms extended. But the reason beginners tire quickly in standing meditation is because they over-engage or “stiffen” external muscles necessary for the task (agonist muscles), and also engage external muscles counter to the purpose (antagonist muscles). And so they tire quickly, and feel the practice is uncomfortable and hard to do.
This recruitment of core musculature is, fundamentally, neuromuscular training. It is training of both intra-muscular coordination – the recruitment, firing rate and synchronization of motor units, and inter-muscular coordination – the interactions of agonist, antagonist, and stabilizer muscle groups.
Once you do gain the skill of core engagement, you can stand a long time. It even feels quite good, and you will feel relaxed but also increased energy/vitality. When you reach this level standing five minutes is like eating one potato chip. It feels so good, why stop so soon?
The core musculature is complex and it is not practicable (or necessary) to qualitatively and quantitatively describe all core engagement in various standing postures. But I did want to note one core muscle group activated when the arms are held extended and “rounded” in the “holding the urn” position, and that is the serratus anterior, commonly called the “boxer’s muscle.”
The first part of this short video illustrates the position and function of the serratus anterior. The muscle originates on the upper 8 ribs and inserts into the side of the scapula. Its job is to pull the scapula forward around the thorax; in other words this is the muscle that “rounds the shoulder blades.” It is referred to as the “boxers” muscle because pulling the scapula forward and around the rib cage is what allows a punching motion with the arm. So when you are standing with the arms rounded in front you are continually exercising the muscle used to punch. Who knew? Well, you do now.
After you have a good grasp on the postural principles in standing, focus on sinking and relaxing the entire shoulder area when extending the arms in various postures. You do not need to try to engage the core, your body will automatically know what to do when the shoulders are relaxed. And when rounding the arms in front, also have the intention of engaging the serratus anterior muscle. Don’t try to forcefully flex it, just relax and simply have the intention of engaging this muscle. (Extend the arms out a good distance; if they are held close to the body the serratus is not engaged.) With the shoulders relaxed and intention of using the serratus to round the arms, you will soon feel that it is much easier to stand for longer periods.
Why Standing? Why Not Just Form?
A famous saying from the oral taiji tradition is that “100 movements are not as good as one standing meditation.” So why is standing used to instill posture and muscular coordination and efficiency? Simple. Starting with standing is more efficient. You will learn much more quickly.
Internal power is not natural ability and is not easy to learn/internalize. It requires awareness and mind/body engagement even in the stillness of standing meditation—how much harder would it be to internalize posture and core engagement with the additional significant task of learning the motor skills and coordination of taiji form movement? We learn to stand before we walk, then learn to walk slowly, then we can run. Even after 30+ years I am still improving my taiji through standing in ways not possible from form movement alone. All of taiji is like this. Each different exercise—from sitting to standing to moving qigong to form to agility drills to push-hands—informs and improves the others. They are interrelated and interdependent, each performing a function along the mind/body/spirit continuum.
From Wuji to Taiji
Intention is the bridge from the stillness of wuji to taiji movement. (Here I use the term wuji as the purely philosophical concept, and am not specifically referring to wuji zhuang standing posture.) Once you have the intention to move or exert force, the body begins to organize in preparation for the dance of yin and yang, the storing and release of force.
After you have internalized correct posture and core engagement, a next step in standing is to practice intention—to practice exerting a force in different directions and with different postures, but from the stillness of standing meditation. Examples may be the intention of an outward expanding force, like a ball inflating, or simply pushing or pulling in different directions (every force being fundamentally a push or a pull).
The objective is to maintain the intention of exerting the intended force, but still keeping the mind and body relaxed. It’s one thing to simply practice relaxing the body in standing, and quite another to do so with the intention of exerting a force. In these intention standing exercises the intention itself is energy; as long as you remain relaxed and maintain the intention the energy is plentiful and you will not tire quickly. But is a razors edge and not easy to keep the mind and body fully relaxed while maintaining the intention to exert force. The way to begin is to imagine a smaller force, just as “moving through water” is used as imagery in moving qigong and form practice. Gradually you can increase the intended force, and eventually imagine pushing as hard as you can—provided you remain relaxed in mind and body. You will definitely feel a response in the body as you grasp this skill, but I will let you tell me what that feeling is.
This too is exercise of the nervous system, but in a different way. We’ll look at that a bit deeper in a future post.