Zhàn Zhuāng 站桩 is a static exercise of Chinese origin aimed at strengthening health. Zhàn 站 means "to stand", and zhuāng 桩 is a trunk or wooden pole. So many times we can see Zhàn Zhuāng translated as "standing like a log" or "like a tree".
The most notorious characteristic of Zhàn Zhuāng is that it is a physical exercise in absolute stillness, without making a single movement. There are different stances. The most basic stance, called Wújí 無極, consists simply of standing with parallel feet shoulder-width apart, and the arms hanging loosely on the sides of the body.
In another classic position, sometimes called "hugging the tree", feet are parallel, separated shoulder-width apart with the weight evenly distributed, the knees semi-flexed and the trunk straight, and the hands are placed in front of the body at the height of the shoulders, with the palms towards us and the fingers inwards, without getting to stretch the arms, with the elbows slightly fallen.
The exercise consists of maintaining this position for a time of between twenty minutes and an hour, while we try to keep relaxed all muscles that are not working to hold the position. During this time, the pulse accelerates but breathing must remain calm. Although at first it may seem that you are not doing any physical exercise, at twenty minutes the body is sweating copiously and it is normal that, at the beginning of the practice, the knees or arms come to shake by the effort.
This exercise also has an important meditative component, since the mind enters a state of calm and we pay full attention on the body and bodily sensations. In spite of this, Zhàn Zhuāng is not a meditation as such, since its purpose is not to meditate, but to improve health. This process of attention similar to meditation occurs naturally while we practice. However, attention, as we have said, must be directed to the body and not to the breath, in order to correct the posture and detect unnecessary tensions to be able to undo them.
Therapeutic Zhàn Zhuāng:
The therapeutic benefits of Zhàn Zhuāng are scientifically studied, and in China it has been used in hospitals for many years to accelerate the recovery of patients.
The most obvious and immediate benefit offered by Zhàn Zhuāng is the strengthening of the muscles that are working, especially the muscles of the legs, back and shoulders.
Zhàn Zhuāng helps to strengthen the muscles and heart, repair damaged tissues and remove energy blockages.
On the other hand — and this is one of the most remarkable advantages of this exercise —, Zhàn Zhuāng is suitable for all kinds of people, even those with heart problems. In a classic physical exercise, the heart rate increases as the body becomes active, it accelerates even more when we stop exercising, and later it can take up to two hours to recover the normal rhythm. This final acceleration of the pulse when we stop is precisely where the greatest risk lies for people with heart disease. In Zhàn Zhuāng, the pulse gradually accelerates with time, but when the exercise stops, the rhythm begins to fall immediately and in a matter of barely a minute the normal rhythm has recovered, so that its practice helps to strengthen the heart.
From the above is derived another of the peculiar characteristics of Zhàn Zhuāng. By increasing the heart rate but maintaining stable breathing, there is no oxygen deficit. The senses, unlike a dynamic exercise, "turn off", and the body has time to repair damaged tissues by sending oxygen and nutrients through the blood.
Finally, this circulation of blood through the body removes qi 氣 blockages, cleansing the energetic meridians and making the qi flow throughout the body.
However, the practice only begins to take effect after ten minutes, so to achieve all these benefits it is necessary that the practice time is at least twenty minutes a day, and can be extended up to 40 minutes or, as maximum, one hour.
The sensations of pain, tingling, trembling, numbness and heat are normal at the beginning of the practice, and will disappear little by little as we progress through the training.
Zhàn Zhuāng is not only hard physically, but also mentally. From a certain threshold of time, thoughts like "it's enough for now", "I can not do it", "this is a waste of time", etc. will begin to assault us, through which our mind will try to make us desist . The will is key to overcome these doubts and enjoy the exercise. With practice and small daily "successes", our mind and will are also strengthened, being able to endure more, which is also an important training for other situations of our life. Martial artists will not find difficulty in this exercise, since it is similar to training basic Kung Fu stances such as Sei-Ping-Ma 四平馬 or Ma-Bu 馬步.
Zhàn Zhuāng can be adapted to each person, to each constitution and physical situation. If the practitioner is in a low state of health, there are Zhàn Zhuāng positions to work lying or sitting down, which are also effective, and as his health recovers he can progressively move on to other stances.
Jǐn-sōng (tension-relaxation) exercices speed up the connection between mental intention and muscular response.
Martial Zhàn Zhuāng:
Zhàn Zhuāng is also a very interesting training in martial practice. There are many different positions; in some of them the weight is unevenly distributed and can even be practiced on one leg. On the other hand, if we want to make the exercise harder, we can place elevations under the feet, either under the heel, under the toe, or in the middle, so that the muscles that work to support the body vary. This helps strengthen the body as a whole and improve balance.
But, in addition to all this, there are tension-relaxation exercises known as jǐn-sōng 緊鬆, very useful in martial training. These exercises are done while maintaining the position we are using. They involve, dividing the body into muscle groups, tensing the muscles of one or several groups at a time and loosing them again, relaxing them, performing series of several repetitions. The aim is to speed up the connection between mental intention and muscular response, so that the body is able to react to a stimulus or brain order in the shortest possible time and with the greatest precision, that is, only tensing the desired muscles and keeping the rest in relaxation. This also ensures the lowest energy expenditure, since only the muscle groups necessary to give such a response are used.
The jǐn-sōng exercises increase the hardness of the practice, so it is only recommended to practice them when a certain level has already been reached in Zhàn Zhuāng practice, and it is advisable to do it under the supervision of a qualified teacher.
In conclusion, Zhàn Zhuāng is a very complete and useful exercise both to maintain and strengthen health and for training in martial arts. Its practice requires patience and perseverance to get results, but in the process intention and the will are strengthened, while we also develop a greater body awareness and learn to recognize and undo tensions in our position, which will improve our habits in the day to day.