Archive for the ‘Class Notes’ Category

A Special Kind of Pain

February 6th, 2009 No comments

Zhan Zhuang posture 1On Friday nights we play host to Sifu William Chau, who is kind enough to teach us the inner workings of the martial art known as Yiquan (yee-chwan) or Dachengquan (Dah-chung-chwan). It’s a 20th-century art founded by Wang Xiangzhai, of whom Chau Sifu is a second-generation disciple.

An important part of our study is Zhan Zhuang (“jam jong” in Cantonese), which can be translated as “standing like a post”. As the name suggests, we stand motionless, not unlike a post. For most of the classes that I’ve attended, we’ve stood in four poses with our arms in front or at our sides, holding each pose for 15 minutes.

Yes, it’s hard.

At first, you sort of dive into it thinking this can’t be so hard. Pretty soon it’s oh, man, this hurts. Then Sifu comes around and you think oh, good, he’s going to put my arms down, then he just gently adjusts your hands to a new position. Noooooo! Then you start playing mind games to make it seem shorter. I used to count down from 150. Finally , after the last pose, Sifu asks us to place our wrists on our kidneys. Blessed Nirvana! It’s over!

Some people don’t come back. Some get woozy and have to sit down. Big muscular guys often have trouble, on some occasions feeling their strength drain out of them.

So why do we come back?

Part of it is faith. We hear the stories of our fellow students, read up on Yiquan, and we start to believe that there’s something in this, but we just haven’t felt it yet. Speaking for myself, there’s also a certain Yoda-machismo about being able to stand for an hour and outlast the “tough guys”. 

But then you start to feel something. Maybe your hands tingle. Maybe they feel fat. After some more sessions, you figure out how to make it hurt less. You learn which body parts to relax. You find a balanced way to stand. You learn to let your arms hang out there like a lined suit jacket on a contoured hanger, instead of holding them up with your shoulder muscles. After that, maybe your arms tingle, your face tingles, or you get a strange humming feeling if you lightly hold your jaw closed. Or you feel a strange turning motion or vibration not of your doing. I’ve felt all of that. Tonight I felt the turning and vibration, if only for a brief interval. And then, eventually, you relax and feel amazing. 

So what’s going on? 

Well, to begin with, some call this standing meditation. In my opinion, it’s not meditation until you get to a point where this is actually comfortable. Until that  point (and afterwards, actually) it’s physiotherapy. Imagine all the junk we do to our bodies during the day. We sit on one hip, we hunch over, we tighten up our necks and our shoulders, and we even sleep in funny positions. But what if we could stop for an hour, straighten out the kinks, and let our body do what it does best …

… heal itself?

Now of course, you can’t grow back an arm (yet), but you can heal a cut, a sprain, a bruise and all sorts of little indignities. The body isn’t static, it’s quite busy — trying to undo the daily damage we inflict upon it. So here we are in zhan zhuang, using our (slow-twitch stabilizer) muscles, ligaments and tendons to stand in a way that is actually neutral, trying to spread the task of standing to the optimum number of bodily agents, so each of them does as little work as possible. At the same time, we are stretching the parts we normally compress, but in a calm, gentle manner.

It’s not entirely passive, though. Speaking for myself at this stage, I’m also creating a mental inventory of the body, checking to see where I’m holding tension, then releasing that tension. It’s surprising to see how much tension we can release and still keep the pose. Check the neck, the shoulders, the hands, the lower back, the quads, the calves, the stomach … or check whatever zone is calling at that moment. Relax it, hang out for a while, check again … this is one way to avoid boredom in zhan zhuang.

So why do this? Well, it’s well-known in the “internal” martial arts community that standing practice can add a lot of power to the regular skills. It can benefit all martial artists. Maybe it’s the healing, bringing us closer to our uninjured potential. If you believe in Qi (ch’i), zhan zhuang frees up the blockages allowing qi to flow more smoothly. Personally, I’ve found that I can pull all-nighters without losing the rest of the week (I’m almost 49), I haven’t been sick in years, I have a generally higher level of energy compared to ten years ago, and my squash game is really picking up.

And there’s something addictive about the feeling you get when the standing gets easier. Right near the end of one session, I moved my back a particular way, and all of a sudden, it was as if it didn’t exist. It felt cool — all the heat in it dispersed. All the parts of it were as one, no tight upper back, no tight lower back, nothing needed to be relaxed … just one big hollow trunk-thing. Wild. I guess the tension had gone away … 

… until next time.

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