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Thursday, January 23, 2014

All these "30 day challenges". Well how about the "30 day Zhan Zhuang meditation challenge"??

Over the past few years, we've seen "30 day challenges" such as the "30 day plank challenge", "30 day squats challenge", etc. Most of these activities challenge the participant in some type of physical fitness activity to strengthen the body.
Well, what about strengthening the Body, Will, AND Mind?

I propose the
30 day Zhan Zhuang Challenge!

What is Zhan Zhuang?

For those not familiar with Tai Chi or other types of martial disciplines or meditation methods, Zhan Zhuang loosely translates to "standing like a post" or "standing on a stake" (pardon if my Chinese loose translation is incorrect, as English is my main language).

 There are many variations to this meditation practice, but the general idea is to stand firmly yet relaxed, all the while keeping aware of breathing and proper posture. It may sound easy, as many of us stand in lines for a substantial period of time.....but how many times have you STOOD MOTIONLESS without changing foot position or slouching or leaning to one side?

In Chen style Taijiquan, my classes and I practice this posture most frequently, as depicted in the accompanying drawing of Chen Zhenglei, my Grandmaster. Knees slightly bent, top of head to tailbone aligned, shoulders /hips/core relaxed, weight evening distributed on both feet and centered on both feet (no pronating or supinating), and arms raised in front of chest, as if "embracing a tree".

Most people jump right into this exercise, believing that standing is easy. But I suggest that if you try it, that you go into this with an open mind. Many people go into it then give up when their arms are tired.

"Wait....arms tired? I thought meditation was supposed to be easy!"

I suggest that people start with 2 minutes maximum to begin with. However you should always be aware of your body starting to compensate for shoulders fatigueing, etc. THIS IS NOT AN ENDURANCE EXERCISE as some people might believe. I do not suggest that you try going for as long as you can the first day just so you can have bragging rights. (yes, I've had students in the past do this...."look, I can stand in Zhan Zhuang for 15 minutes!" yet they don't see that their arms drop, they start to slump, their breathing changes due to discomfort, etc. ). Zhan Zhuang is not a contest to see who is strongest. The only competitor you have is yourself. The key here is to do Zhan Zhuang correctly and to not convince yourself that a bad posture is "correct". This is the hardest part, because if an individual is the competitive type, they will try to do too much too soon, thinking that they will gain benefits faster. Nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to Zhang Zhuang.

Take your time and you'll see the benefits over time. For some, the word "time" detracts them from the practice.....which means the Zhan Zhuang practice will most likely not be for them, and that's okay.

However the purpose of this challenge is to get people to try it.

Okay, In a nutshell, here's how to do basic Zhan Zhuang (refer to photo below)

1. Place feet about shoulders width apart. Place weight evenly on both feet, not pronating or supinating on the feet. Bend knees slightly.
2. Stand tall but relaxed.....have a feeling of having the top of head reach for the sky, let your center of gravity drop downwards. Relax your core, including chest......don't let your chest raise up and out like military style standing. Gently tuck your tailbone slightly as if seated in a chair in a relaxed upright position (try sitting on a chair with keeping torso upright as described....that is sort of the posture I'm trying to describe).
3. Raise arms as if hugging a tree. Relax shoulders. Keep elbows lower than shoulders and wrists.
4. Keep hands "alive". Don't curl the fingers in a limp fashion, yet don't use too much tension to keep them open. However, if you have conditions that prevent you from opening your hands, allow your mind's eye to keep an intention of "openness".


Now stand, keeping aware of your breathing and proper posture.

Remember, this is not a contest to rush into in an attempt to gain faster results. You would only hinder your training with impatience.

Keep in mind, if you feel any discomfort or pain, chances are you are using too much force or strength to stand in the posture. So stop the practice for a few minutes and go back to it or start again the next day. Your body will let you know of any postural mistakes as you stand.

Let's try.....

Phase 1, Finding your center, regulate breathing.
Day 1:  2 minutes
Day 2:  2 minutes
Day 3:  3 minutes
Day 4:  3 minutes
Day 5:  4 minutes
Day 6:  4 minutes
Day 7:  5 minutes

Some of you might say "Hey wait, why arent we going for 7 minutes in 7 days?". If you've never done Zhan Zhuang before, you need to 1) get into the routine of doing the activity and 2) allow your body to get used to standing motionless instead of sitting motionless and 3) slowly let your arms get used to remaining in that "embracing the tree" posture. 

Remember, I suggested "Don't Rush!" Moving on......

Phase 2, standing "in" the legs instead of top of them, allow breathing to relax tension.
Day 8: 5 minutes
Day 9: 5 minutes
Day 10:  6 minutes
Day 11:  6 minutes
Day 12: 7 minutes
Day 13:  8 minutes
Day 14:  9 minutes

"What?? not 10 minutes at 10 days??"  This is not a pattern based thing....its a "challenge the body yet allowing the body to gradually acclimate" thing. Again, dont rush. Its only a guideline meant to try Zhuan Zhuang for a bit each day.  Moving on.....

Phase 3, body strengthening
Day 15: 9 minutes
Day 16:  10 minutes
Day 17:  10 minutes
Day 18:  10 minutes
Day 19: 10 minutes
Day 20: 12 minutes
Day 21: 12 minutes

Phase 4, mind/will strengthening
Day 22: 12 minutes
Day 23:  13 minutes
Day 24:  13 minutes
Day 25:  14 minutes
Day 26:  14 minutes
Day 27: 15 minutes
Day 28: 15 minutes
Day 29: 15 minutes
Day 30:  15 minutes

You'll notice that its not a 30 days to 30 minutes schedule. It takes much more practice to get to 30 minutes. Resist the urge to try for 30 minutes right away....believe me, if you've never done Zhan Zhuang before or have little or limited exposure to it, don't go for quantity too soon. You'll just miss out on the subtle improvements to your practice other than the usual academically noted "relaxed and calm" items. To truly listen to your body take TIME. If you miss a day or two, that's fine. Just pick it up a the next opportunity. This is merely a guide, not a rule book. For experienced practitioners, stand as your skill allows.

Time....time for skill to develop. Skill gained through time, persistence and effort is.....


Who's in for the 30 day Zhan Zhuang Challenge?