Monday, 5 November 2012

YiQuan: Standing mindfully in Nature (ZhanZhuang 站樁)

"Lift and support Heaven and Earth,
Grasp Yin and Yang,
Breathing deeply air,
Stand and meditate profoundly,
(All) muscles (unified) as one."
- Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon (Huángdì Nèijīng 黄帝内经) ~200BC, GuTianZhenLun.
"Imagine a nebulous thing here before Heaven and Earth silent and elusive it stands alone not wavering it travels everywhere unharmed it could be the mother of us all" - Daoist Sage LaoZi, DaoDeJing (~400BC), Chapter 25.
"When practicing, you should focus your mind, standing silent in face of the space of universe. Inside there should be clear emptiness, outside there should be harmony, balance, roundness. At the same time you should achieve pleasant mood, get rid of disturbing thoughts and feelings, calm your breath, gently cultivating internal and external." - YiQuan Founder Wang XiangZhai, ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p14.
YiQuan founder Master Wang XiangZhai.
The first 'health' posture of the martial art and calisthenic system called YiQuan straight away gives one a sense of what the essence of YiQuan standing meditation/yoga is about. Although one later begins to use visualisations to tap into and detect various body sensations, the intention behind the practice is always the same. Master Wang Xiangzhai wrote of the early stages:
"Beginners, no matter which posture they practice, should start from relaxation and only later use other kinds of mind activity." - ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p28

The author standing in the basic health posture in a park in snowy Beijing.
The first posture I learnt is described in the following way by Master Wang, in 'ZhanZhuang', p24:
"Palms are at level slightly below navel. Insides of palms directed upward. Arms as if embracing a big balloon." 
This sensation of holding a balloon has also been described as holding a biological cell - it has a kind of squashy, springy 'turgidity'. This sensation can be felt more tangible between the palms in the posture - often described as a kind of elasticity of the joints and a kind of friction against the air. The palms holding a cell, the arms holding a cell, and all the other limbs of the body taking on the same feeling, all the while being made mostly of cells creates a kind of structural harmony that the body relaxes into. Wang XiangZhai describes this poetically as "bathing in nature" in ZhanZhuang, p13:
"Mind should embrace the whole and the internal. A part should not disturb the unity of the whole. External movement should not spoil internal harmony. Whole body should be naturally relaxed and light, you should keep pleasant mood, as if taking a bath in the great bathroom of nature".

Master Wang Xiangzhai's daughter.
A common metaphor for the YiQuan standing postures is a tree or bamboo stems. Master Wang writes about how to stand like a tree in 'ZhanZhuang' (2004), p28:
"Rooting. Imagine that you are as if a thousand years old tree, standing stable, as if roots of the tree were reaching deep under ground. Hurricane will not move you." 
As such, when we stand in the courtyard at TaoLin Yiquan Academy being adjusted and 'shaped' by Master Cui Rui Bin or his senior students, we are like trees in a Bonsai garden:

We patiently study our biology as we stand, and emphasize what we have in common with other living organisms. This allows us to harmonize with our natural environment and gain an understanding of how to act more efficiently as a whole physical unit. Master Wang Xiangzhai describes this process in Essence of Combat Science (2004), thus, p20:
 "The art of cultivating life is actually simple, human nature is taking pleasure from free action, natural potential is revealed then. Each morning just stand in place with fresh air, don't use any methods just make your all joints bend slightly, think that you are standing in the great space of universe, slowly experience what's happening, blood is flowing inside body, between body and outside space there is some slight, elastic tension, this is what is called "spirit as if swimming". You should feel comfort in mind and body, you not only are not limited, but gradually there comes feeling of being tuned in with the whole nature." 
When Master Cui Ruibin observes and adjusts us, he uses a model as a reference in order to correct any mistakes in our form just like a Bonsai gardener uses certain established preferred shapes for the trees he is working on.

Master Cui Ruibin observing the author practicing at Taolin YiQuan Academy. The middle and right-hand pictures are of Master Cui in his younger days.

A Bonsai enthusiast wiring up a tree to conform to an ideal shape.
As great as the metaphor of standing like a tree is, it seems there is an organism that displays more of the properties of YiQuan standing postures (ZhanZhuang) than a tree does, and that is the sponge. As I mentioned in my previous post, Mindful Sitting: Joy in Nature, sponges are one of our most ancient ancestors and I find them very inspiring for meditation - providing a seamless biological link between humans and the planet we live on. This time, however, the physical construction and behaviour of sponges becomes the inspiration. This video shows how a sponge 'works':

A seasponge is like one giant cell made out of many smaller cells, and absorbs nutrients through it's pores. Master Wang Xiangzhai's teachings advise one to practice by similarly 'opening one's pores' as follows, in ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p14:
"All pores of your skin are as if opening, there appears feeling as if wind was moving freely through them, through your body, inside and outside." 
The watery environment of a sponge can be imagined, as Wang describes in ZhanZhuang, p28:
"Standing in water. Imagine you are standing in water. Its temperature gives you comfortable feeling. Water is lightly hitting your body from different sides and your body is naturally following the movement of water."
The author standing like a sponge in a park in Beijing.
And finally, the upright, rooted, spongy elastic body of our most ancient underwater ancestor can be emulated thus:
"Body should be naturally erect, in a relaxed and elastic way. Spine should be naturally straight. All joints should be bent. You should guard emptiness and clearness, focus mind and calm breath. Arms rounded, armpits half open." - Wang XiangZhai, ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p18
Gently breathing and opening with the whole body, in this way it seems one can remain physically healthy in harmony with nature even into old age. The self-defense potential, if invested in, is a convenient by-product also, of course.

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