Stand (like) Stake or ZhanZhuang (站桩) as it is popularly known is an exercise in which you stand still. In the few Tai Chi styles that I have learned only one particular style had ZhanZhuang.
This was the lineage of Yang Sau Chung —> Chu Kin Hung —> Richard Wong. None of the other Tai Chi styles (Cheng Manching style, Dong family, Nip Chee Fei, GM Wei Shuren) that I learned taught ZhanZhuang.
2. DOING ZHANZHUANG
I don’t remember much of what I learned in ZhanZhuang. I remember that the first posture taught was standing with feet parallel and both arms in front as if embracing a ball. Later we added three or was it four more postures.
I forgot how long we had to stand but if I had to make a guess it was probably about 30 minutes before we moved on to doing the form and push hands. We had our posture adjusted if it was out. Mostly it was a battle to keep the posture correct and boredom at bay.
3. GETTING SOMETHING OUT OF IT
Once I left this Yang style I tried to do ZhanZhuang on my own. Frankly speaking, to me doing ZhanZhuang was boring. After picking up the Dong style I stopped doing ZhanZhuang.
Three reasons for dropping ZhanZhuang :-
a) I didn’t get much out of ZhanZhuang in terms of skill improvement
b) In Dong style my teacher said we do not do ZhanZhuang
c) Proof of the pudding is in the eating
4. DON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU ARE TOLD
My approach to learning is to give the benefit of a doubt to what I am told is the correct, the best, the ultimate, the secret, the whatever other accolade you can think of to heap on the method you are selling or praising.
Some methods are good, some not so. Some are good for the short term and others for longer term learning. Some are good methods ruined by bad explanations.
The best way to check out something is to try it. If it does not work out it may mean the following :-
a) The method sucks
b) The method has potential but the teacher sucks
c) You didn’t practice it long enough
For point (c) the problem is how long do I need to practice it before I give up. This is where having a standard of performance helps. Or in its absence a teacher who can act as a reference of the high standard that I aspire to.
5. RED PILL MOMENT
The decision you make today can affect the future outcome of your learning journey. If I did not walk out of the first Dong style I went to check out I might have ended up learning it. As it is, I saw it, didn’t like it, turned around and walked back the same way I came up the stairs.
The first Dong style I saw didn’t inspire confidence and I nearly bailed on checking out the second Dong style. But I didn’t cancel the appointment. Yes, for the first Dong style I just walked off the street and had a look. No appointment necessary. For the second Dong style I had to call the teacher and made an appointment to meet him in his office in the Central Business District.
One thing led to another including meeting the grandson of the founder of Dong style. This sparked my interest to learn from the teacher I met. I did so…………….. a year later after I saved enough from working a full time job and part time job. This was the first time learning Tai Chi would cost me an arm and nearly a leg if I had not negotiate for a lower fee.
Two years on I caught up with my Yang Sau Chung style teacher. His father was still learning from him. His father was a veteran of Cheng Manching style and had heavy arms, doing push hands like he was turning a stone mill with great strength.
I had a problem doing push hands with the father previously. He could stick and adhere well, applying strong pressure that made it difficult to neutralize. But this time was different. This time I came off two years of constant push hands training with my Dong style teacher.
Most Tai Chi class would spend a lot of time doing forms and very little time on push hands. My Dong teacher would spend half the time on getting the long form correct and the other 50% of the time on push hands. Because of this I spent a lot of time doing push hands with my teacher as I was his only student.
So here I was two years on facing the father. He piled on the pressure as soon as the pushing began. However, this time I had a way to deal with his pressure. The most surprising part was when I could neutralize his strong push and push him back. That was my red pill moment, realizing that I was correct not to pursue doing ZhanZhuang.
There is a postscript to this story. Many more years later I heard that my Yang Sau Chung teacher and his father attended a seminar given by the Grandmaster Dong I met. Apparently, the father tried to test GM Dong without warning and was pushed hard into the wall, banging his head against it.
The son was not happy and wanted to show up GM Dong. The son fell prey to GM Dong’s superb plucking technique (I had seen him do it against a partner putting up strong resistance), losing his balance forward, falling and hitting his cheek against the floor. This story was told to me by my Cheng Manching style teacher. Later I met up with my Yang Sauchung teacher and he was very upset with GM Dong, complaining about something but never explaining clearly what the grouse was.
6. RIGHT OR WRONG
You might think that I am anti-ZhanZhuang based on my experience. In a way I am but I constantly evaluate what I know and conclude. One good argument against ZhanZhuang is that in a fight you never stand still, you always move.
So what is the point of learning to stand still when you could spend the same time learning to move. This was the argument my Wing Chun teacher gave in arguing against the need for ZhanZhuang (note – in his Wing Chun style (its an old style, much older than the popular Ip Man style) there’s no ZhanZhuang training).
My point of contention is simply that we can look cool when standing still. The problem is when we have to move we have a problem keeping the body together as what we had trained in ZhanZhuang.
So whose argument is right and whose argument is wrong? Or could it be that we are looking at it from the wrong perspective? The hint came when I read that Yang Chengfu when doing the form would pause at certain postures and stand for a while.
7. ALL AT ONCE
In the light of what I now know about the practice of Tai Chi particularly after more than two decades on GM Wei’s Tai Chi this is what I think of ZhanZhuang :-
a) Getting a beginner to stand still is pointless; it is better to work on moving.
b) Teach the beginner what he needs to know about moving properly. Get him to slow down to a pace at which he can move as per the requirements. Later, he may need to move even slower in order to nail certain refinements in moving.
c) When the movements are properly coordinated and harmonized there will be moments at which the body feels as if it is moving as one unit. You would normally feel this at a slower speed. At a slow speed which approximates zero velocity this is when you would feel as if your entire body is moving all at once.
This is what I feel is the critical lesson from doing ZhanZhuang – to align the body not so much by not moving but by keeping relatively still so as to facilitate learning how to move the different parts of the body together. For those of us who don’t do ZhanZhuang we are simply approaching this from another perspective. We move until we can move in such a manner that if we slow down to near zero velocity it looks as if we are not moving.
For example, when we do the Single Whip motion in GM Wei’s 22-form at the conclusion of the technique it looks as if we are standing still to do ZhanZhuang. However, this is not what we are doing. Instead, we are still moving but we are focused on using the intent while adjusting and moving the body in a very intricate way that allows us to prime the five body bows all at once. You can say that even as we stand still our mind is moving.
When we go through the 22-form we are moving, flowing like a river. If you study the movement of water you would know that water does not flow at a constant velocity. Instead, the movement of water can slow down or speed up.
Amidst the body movements our mind is focused on the steps on how to actualize and fulfil the principles of the Tai Chi Classics. The mind is relatively still when compared to the body.
Similarly when the entire body is moving there are parts that are not moving a lot relatively. When the speed of the various parts of the body is synchronized with each other the entire body feels as if it is moving at the same overall speed. If you now slow down this overall speed to near zero velocity you approximate the ZhanZhuang condition of standing still but you are not still.
You can never be still because physics requires you to move your body in order to transform potential energy to kinetic energy. Without this you do not have the ability to fajin. When you can move in a very refined manner it will look as if you are not moving when you are doing fajin but this is not true. You are still moving but you are moving in ways that fulfil the requirement of the laws of physics. This is how I view ZhanZhuang.