The first question from KT was about zhanzhuang. I told him I do not do zhanzhuang. I have learned it, got little out of it and as far as I am concerned zhanzhuang does not figure on my menu.
I have learned from five Tai Chi teachers out of which only one teacher taught zhanzhuang. Two in particular, the Dong and GM Wei lineage, specifically said we do not practice zhanzhuang. In the discussion with KT rather than say zhanzhuang is good or bad I asked him why train zhanzhuang since he actually did it.
KT said isn’t zhanzhuang a means of practicing the basics of internal skills. Perhaps it is for some but he was not able to answer the question rather than to state a general assumption which did not answer the question.
I didn’t get my skills from zhanzhuang hence it does not figure in my practice. I can teach it but once students learn TaijiKinesis they will understand why we do not really need to do it. By all means, if you like it then do it. However, I would share a word of wisdom from one of my Wing Chun teachers who too questioned the value of zhanzhuang as combat is about movement rather than standing still.
Some readers will raise their eyebrows and think ha, this fellow knows nothing about real internal skills since he does not practice zhanzhuang. This could be true since by comparison with my teachers I know but a little. In fact, writing this I remembered the late Steven Boo (my classmate who was also a Tai Chi master) once saying that zhanzhuang is important to the cultivation of internal skills.
Here is what I do know, zhanzhuang can help when done the right way. The question that is begging is what is considered the right way and why should a particular way of zhanzhuang be the right way.
Most of the results of zhanzhuang training I have come across show an increase in strength that felt stiff rather than soft yet filled with an intangible, expansive power. KT is an example of this – strong arms but body not quite unified when moving. Its probably because he does not train hard or long enough. But then I have seen similar results in practitioners of many years.
Arguments can be persuasive. More important to a learner is can the way translate into a practice that leads to skills that can be used in techniques, yet be consistent with the principles that define one’s art. We learn an art in the belief that what our teacher can do can be passed to us. We also believed that the art is authentic and traditional.
The reality of our learning can turn out to be murky in that many times we learn for many years (perhaps decades) only to find that we did not really learn much. And when we did learn something our learning was not always authentic or traditional when it comes down to actually using it and what we read about the principles of our art can sound different from what we are actually doing.
This is why we should always question our own learning if making progress is important. Knowing what constitutes a benchmark, why the benchmark should be considered so, how to evaluate the benchmark, how to acquire the skills that can be compared to the benchmark, etc, these are issues that should be important to those of us who are genuine in our desire to master a skill.
KT’s santi zhanzhuang gave him strong arms that can exert forward pressure powerfully. I used the understanding gained from playing forms to counter his power. KT was not playing compliant; he gripped hard, followed my movements, reacted fast and held on strongly. This was good because it is also a test of the usefulness of the games that we play in push hands.
If zhanzhuang is to be your poison of choice then you need to critically examine your learning and benchmark it against a reference standard so that you know your progress. This will also help you adjust your learning goals.
For example, in the class where I learned zhanzhuang there was a veteran who had learned Tai Chi for a long time and had heavy power. After I learned push hands from my Dong teacher for 2 years I pushed hands with this veteran and was surprised that I could move him off balance whereas previously I would have struggled trying to handle his heavy power.
The sudden insight from that encounter confirmed for me that this was the way for me to move forward and so far I have not had the reason to want to go back to zhanzhuang.