Zhan Zhuang: The Art of Standing Still

We are fortunate to live in the heart of the South Downs National Park and as such there are many beautiful walking routes that stem right from our doorstep. When we discover an outstanding vista or interesting aspect of flora and fauna during our walks we slow our pace, come to a stop and observe – this gives us a chance to take it all in, to really pay attention to and appreciate the wonder of nature that surrounds us. Being still allows us the opportunity to notice a great many things that we would otherwise miss.

The faster we go the more things we overlook. By going slowly, conversely, the more we are able to immerse ourselves into the experience of where we are in the here and now. The pinnacle of slowness is stillness; one could assume then that by being still one might create the potential to deeply imbibe and learn something of great value from the optimum amount of experience on offer.

An Experiential Experiment

If you possessed a reasonable level of all round fitness, it probably wouldn’t seem unreasonable if I were to challenge you to walk at a comfortable speed for an hour. No doubt you would find it an elementary and enjoyable task, and certainly less taxing than if I asked you to run, jump or crawl for the same amount of time. During your 60-minute walking challenge you may notice some of the sensations of your body here and there, but you would probably consider these as inconsequential or just par for the course. Similarly, your mind may wander considerably on your journey but whether you notice this, or indeed make anything of it if you did, is another thing entirely. 

Now imagine that I were to ask you to stand still for an hour in one simple and seemingly innocuous position; you would probably feel a little apprehensive at the prospect. After all, don’t we usually find standing up and seemingly ‘doing nothing’ a bit of an uncomfortable inconvenience incurred when we are waiting for something more interesting to happen? 

With my enthusiastic encouragement and sage advice that you merely approach the hour of standing still as a kind of body/mind research project, you agree to give it try. Just before you start your ‘standing experiment’ I give you three basic pointers to aid you. Firstly, I advise that you do not stop breathing – this will have dire consequences. Secondly, I suggest that you relax as much as possible whilst making sure that you do not let your posture collapse, and thirdly I assert that you observe every nanosecond of your experience because I want to hear all about it afterwards. 

With some basic adjustments and tactile cues, I help you to assume the optimum standing posture available to your body at that moment in time. After reminding you that you have a reasonable level of all round fitness, I leave you to your experiment with a parting postulation: in theory it should be a whole lot easier than the walking challenge seeing that standing still is a much simpler task in comparison. 

Being still creates the potential to deeply imbibe and learn something of great value from the optimum amount of experience on offer

It is highly likely, if you were ever to conduct such a mind/body experiment, that you would encounter some impressive difficulties despite the simplicity of the task – unless you entered a catatonic trance of some kind which would be undesirable and defeat the object entirely – and I would wager that there would be a strong possibility that you would not be able make it to the end of the hour. The challenges that you would most likely discover would simply arise from your enhanced experience of the two commonalties that as humans we possess throughout our lives: the body and the mind. 

No doubt you would notice a vast plethora of body sensations during your experiment, far more than what you may have noticed in the previous walking challenge and certainly of a different quality. With the ‘doing’ aspect of movement taken away you could start to experience the ‘raw form’ of your body and how it manages and supports itself when balanced on two feet. Depending on how perceptive you were you may even realise some fundamental truths about your own physicality. On the other hand, you may not notice anything at all – which in itself would be very insightful. 

In conjunction with this you may realise the busyness of your own mind and just how much this affects your overall experience, especially seeing that there would be no obvious distraction or escape route on offer.

Restricted to a Singularity

If, for some strange reason, I was restricted to choose just one thing to share with people from the trove of body/mind arts that I have trained in and taught for many years it would undoubtedly be Zhanzhuang, the art of standing still. For no matter how unlikely a contender for developing oneself the simple act of standing still might seem from the outside, for me it would be quite an obvious choice. Out of the many training methods that I have enjoyed, endured and taught over the years, including the more orthodox systems of exercise of my early days, no other ticks quite as many boxes as Standing. Nor have I come across any other practise that illustrates how all of those very boxes that we might want to tick, but usually assume to be disparate, are in fact inextricably linked.

I have spent many hours standing still over the years and although physically and mentally challenging, a large proportion of that time has been wonderfully educational and liberating. In terms of improving all other aspects of my training it has been absolutely invaluable in terms of accruing fundamental ‘body knowledge’ for myself from myself.

A large part of the motivation for my choice would be inspired by the fact that it is very common for us to completely miss the simplest treasures of physical reality that are only tangible in the present moment of the here and now because our minds are almost permanently distracted by the constant buzz of habitual busyness; a discursive noise completely unrelated to what is happening in an around us in real time. To be able to do anything well, and I mean that in the most genuine sense, this issue is something that we must first recognise and then get to grips with. For if we do not, which is all too often the case, we live at the mercy of a top-down dictatorship comprised of our thoughts and one that impels us on a constant search for a better experience than the one we are currently having. 

If we could slow down and stop for a time, we might give ourselves a chance to experience life from a clearer and more stable perspective and the futility of this rush would be more than obvious: there is no other time than now and it is in the omnipresence of the present moment that life unceasingly reveals itself.

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact – Sherlock Holmes

Like seated meditation practise Standing meditation can be an excellent tool to address this serious impediment to the quality of lives. However, it comes with the major bonus that it serves as an excellent method for training the body at a deep level. For through the lens of physio-cognitive stillness, which Standing builds in increasing acuity, we can access and develop qualities of the body that are always with us regardless of what we do, and that ‘normal’ exercise and movement fail to give light to. For as our experience changes so too does our understanding, if we can be open minded; and can you think of any genuinely valid reasons not to be open minded? The fundamental body development and awareness skills we can build from Standing practise can and should significantly alter our assumptions about how we use the body and mind for the better, and I mean better in every way.

Another reason for my choosing Standing would stem from my fascinating experiences of having taught it to many people over the last two decades, if only for a class or two. That one might find some difficulty in learning a new skill shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise and one might safely assume the more complex a skill the more difficulty we might experience in the learning of it. Yet although being incredibly simple the majority of those people found Standing surprisingly difficult to do for more than a few minutes despite many who tried being proficient in other fields of training; and here I’m referring to standard fitness enthusiasts as well as practitioners and teachers from the realms of Yoga, Dance, Alexander Technique, Pilates and numerous Martial Arts. 

Through a lens of physio-cognitive stillness we can discover and develop the fundamental qualities of the body and mind that are with us whatever we do

One might well ask why the simple act of standing in what appear to be innocuous positions for a short while be difficult. That someone can run a marathon, bench-press their own body weight, or easily perform a full backbend fail to be able to stand still for more than a few minutes without experiencing serious physical and mental discomfort poses some fascinating questions about the ways in which we train our bodies and what we assume to be useful in doing so. In this article it is my aim to shed some light on questions such as these. 

Fortunately, the predicament of only being allowed to teach one thing is unlikely to arise and this is a relief. Despite the multifaceted brilliance of Standing people certainly require a selection of training tools at their disposal in order that they might develop themselves holistically and sustainably – when I teach Standing I incorporate a variety of essential auxiliary trainings to help pave the way. It is rare however that ‘stillness training’ has a place in most peoples usual toolbox and when it does it usually takes the form of sitting or lying down. While meritorious, Standing is significantly more functional; for when we want to move in our lives it is usually when standing upright and balanced on either one or both of our feet. After all, isn’t this what humans have evolved as their modus operandi?

Cultivating a clear sense of how your entire body is connected and balances in all directions, all the time, and learning to let go of what impedes this process, naturally orients the way in which one moves and operates to be, simply put, more balanced. After having trained seriously and consistently in a number of modalities for almost thirty years I am convinced that ‘balanced’ is better – in every sense of the word. 

Rather than by brute force, wishful thinking or imagination to be able to actualise such a thing requires ongoing perceptive physical training, the systematic soothing of the nervous system and a calming of the mind. Standing is one of the most effective ways to achieve all these things and many more. And although it requires practise, it is quite possible to stand still for an hour or more and enjoy a deep sense of balance and ease, even in positions that are physically demanding. I can’t think of a better foundation for a complete spectrum of useful skills for the budding biped.

A body unbound from unnecessary tension is at liberty to respond to gravity with free support from the ground upwards; to effortlessly inflate in all directions with fluid stability and elastic movement potential

A Body of knowledge or ignorance?

People seem to have complicated relationships with their bodies. We constantly adjust ourselves and modulate our experience to avoid discomfort, usually without even realising it, and yet we are more than content to sit in strange positions for hours on end while we watch flashing lights on a screen. When we are not sitting down, we assume it is a good idea to flagellate our bodies and contort ourselves into bizarre positions regardless of the intense discomfort such actions incur and their distinct lack of relevance to how we live the rest of our lives. We do not usually train to feel our bodies more, instead we usually train to feel them less, as if to escape somehow, and as a result frequently impede or destroy the very body that we are meant to be training in a bid to achieve abstract goals – goals in fact which are just warped ideas in our head. And although usually assumed be at the more intelligent end of the training spectrum ‘alternative eastern arts’ – for want of a better term – are frequently riddled with dubious dogma, doctrine and impracticality.

If our felt sense of how the body balances and functions was clearer, then our subsequent training notions would be better. From such an experiential standpoint it would be obvious not to go to movement or exercise extremes frequently enough that they either compromised our internal organs, destroyed our joints or fuelled neurosis. Indeed, we would be equipped to know how to come back to operating within a boundary of all-round balance and ease as a most useful default setting. Discomfort is a natural part of life and there are many types of comfort and discomfort that we can experience. As a teacher my aim is to help students develop the tools that allow them to discern the whole spectrum so they might readily distinguish between the beneficial and the destructive.

Standing is about the process; it does not require any beliefs or theoretical knowledge. All it requires is a willingness to immerse oneself into the experiential study of ones own body and mind whilst doing something simple and quintessentially human 

The challenges that people face when they incorporate Standing into their training often mirror the amount of benefit they will be able to glean from doing it – as with any other training method that one might experience some challenges at the beginning is standard procedure. However, there is something about stillness training that sometimes makes it hard for us not to take such challenges personally especially if we are usually driven by aesthetics, external validation or competition. Once you take away the ‘doing’ aspect of movement you are left with the current state, for better or worse, of the raw form of your body and mind; it doesn’t seem to get much more personal than that. Indeed, many people can’t sense their bodies at all unless there is a strong stimulus. This is analogous to being deaf to all but the loudest of noises – not particularly useful – but once ones hearing improves the vast nuances of sound can be surprisingly educational. 

There are many common mind/body hurdles that we all face. Standing can help us overcome them and see them for what they are: myriad shifting natural phenomena within the broad range of our overall experience. With regular training, sensible guidance and the passage of time much can be discovered about the essential mechanisms of the human body and mind and ones deeply engrained physical and cognitive habits; perceiving them more clearly offers us a chance to let go of the ones which do not serve us well – and cultivate the ones that do.

©The Internal Athlete 2023

2 responses to “Zhan Zhuang: The Art of Standing Still”

  1. A thoughtful read, thank you Sam. I will take you up on your challenge.. though I may need to do it in three lots of 20 minutes, which will no doubt be sufficiently challenging.