STANCE TRAINING AND BECOMING A SCHOLAR-WARRIOR
by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
“How good a fighter you will become depends not just on the length of your training but also on how you train.”
Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
Fundamental Force Training
I have been practicing the first two positions of zhan zhuang for about 4 weeks. I would like to include Ba Duan Jin at the beginning of my zhan zhuang. Can you tell me if it is safe to do Ba Duan Jin, or is there a danger of doing them too soon. I am 57 years old.
Zhan zhuang is a generic term referring to a category of chi kung exercises where a practitioner remains stationary in one chosen poise for a length of time. The Horse-Riding Stance and the Three- Circle Stance are two most popular examples.
In some modern kungfu literature written in English in the West, zhan zhuang is sometimes translated as "standing on stakes". In my opinion, this is a mistranslation and may give a most misleading picture of what zhan zhuang is. This problem is due to mistaking "zhuang" as "stakes".
"Zhuang" has a few meanings, and although one of them is "stakes", the correct one in this context is "stances". Literally zhan zhuang (which is in Mandarin pronunciation) means "standing at stances". Hence, stance training is a better translation for zhan zhuang.
The term zhan zhuang is popularly used in north China, where the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese language is prevalent. In south China, stance training is more popularly known as chat ma, which is in Cantonese pronunciation, the prevalent dialect in the South.
Cantonese is a very interesting and poetic language. Chat ma literally means "tying up a horse"! But if you mention chat ma to any Cantonese speaking kungfu practitioner, he knows you mean "stance training". Translating chat ma as "tying up a horse" is as misleading, and comical, as translating zhan zhuang as "standing on stakes".
Many kungfu students have heard that zhan zhuang or chat ma is very important in kungfu, but most of them do not know why. They think that stance training develops solid stances, which is only part of the picture. More important than solid stances, stance training develops internal force and mental clarity. It is a most ingenuous method evolved by masters through the centuries where a practitioner reduces his form to the bare minimum so that he can focus on his energy and mind. It is probably the single most decisive method from which kungfu masters derive their tremendous internal force.
Zhan zhuang is therefore a very powerful form of chi kung exercise. Paradoxically, because it looks simple — and is simple — it is easy to make mistakes when one trains without proper supervision. Because there is only one form, if you make just one mistake, you are 100% out. Making mistakes in powerful chi kung training can lead to serious side-effects.
On the other hand, Ba Duan Jin or "Eight Pieces of Brocade" is a gentle form of chi kung. There are eight exercises and each exercise consists of a few movements. Hence, even if you make a few mistaken movements, you are only a few percent out, and the gentle nature of the exercises further minimizes their harmful effects.
The way you asked the question, suggests that you practice chi kung without a master's supervision. At 57 it is best for you to leave powerful exercise like zhan zhuang aside. Ba Duan Jin is an excellent set of exercise for you. You can have marvellous results if you practice Ba Duan Jin as chi kung, which is energy exercise; but even if you practice the set as gentle physical exercise, you still can have many benefits, such as loosening your joints and muscles, giving you balance and elegance, making you relaxed and improving your blood circulation.
I have been practising the Ba Duan Jin exercises and Zhan Zhuang for the last 12 months and have experienced an improvement in my health (already good) and an increase in my energy. As there are no high level teachers in my area I prefer to practice every day on my own and so far I have not experienced any deviations.
Ba Duan Jin and Zhan Zhuang are wonderful chi kung exercises. By themselves, without having to learn anything else, you can attain very high levels. Not only you can have good health, vitality and longevity, you may also attain spiritual fulfillment. If you are a martial artist, zhan zhuang can bring you tremendous internal force. It is simply amazing that by merely standing still at a chosen posture for some time over a long period, you can be very powerful — most people do not believe this is possible.
But if you train on your own, you must pay attention to the following points. Practice Ba Duan Jin, or the Eight Pieces of Brocade, daily for at least six months before you attempt Zhan Zhuang, or Stance Standing. You have to make sure you do not have any major energy blockage before starting Zhan Zhuang, and Ba Duan Jin can look after that, provided, of course, you practice correctly.
Zhan zhuang is a powerful exercise, and is best done under supervision. Those who practice wrongly and still persist on, may vomit blood, have deformed bodily structure, or insidiously damaged internal organs. There are usually warning signs for wrong practice, such as discomfort, pain and nervousness. Whenever you have such warning signs, stop your zhan zhuang and revert back to Ba Duan Jin. Resume zhan zhuang training only when the warning signs have disappeared.
If you practice zhan zhuang on your own, which is actually not advisable but may be attempted if you are very careful, you have to proceed very slowly; I repeat, very slowly. If someone training with a master takes 6 months to attain certain result, you should aim at that for two years.
The two qigong practices I have picked to start practicing are zhang zhuang and Ba Duan Jin. Any comments or suggestions on these practices?
Zhang Zhuang, which means stance training, is a genre of powerful qigong exercises. It is the single most widely used genre by kungfu masters of various styles, including Shaolin, Taijiquan, Bagua and Hsing Yi, to develop internal force. But it is not suitable for beginners, especially those without the personal supervision of competent instructors.
It looks easy, as you remain in the same static position for a long time. It is easy for you to make mistakes, and easy not to realize the mistakes. Because Zhang Zhuang exercises are powerful, the adverse effects of the mistakes are potent. Even in the unlikely situation that you do not make a single mistake in your long period of training, but if you have substantial blockage in your body to start with, the accumulated energy derived from Zhang Zhuang would cause internal injury.
Ba Duan Jin, which is pronounced as "P'a T'uan Jin" and not as "Ba Duan Jin", and which means "Eight Pieces of Brocade", is a set of eight dynamic qigong exercises. It is a wonderful set and is very popular today, although most people today practice it, like they practice other qigong exercises, as physical exercise rather than as qigong, which is energy exercise.
But even if they practice only the physical aspects of Ba Duan Jin, and missing its qigong dimension, there are many benefits, such as loosening muscles, promoting blood circulation and relaxation. It does not have the adverse effects of orthodox western exercises like forcing the organs to overwork and depositing much toxic waste in the body cells. It is an ideal type of exercise for you to practice on your own. Without the personal guidance of a qigong master, you would not obtain the wonderful qigong benefits of Ba Duan Jin, but at least you would not have serious side effects from wrong practice.
Flowing Breeze, Swaying Willows
I wish to prepare myself to excel in kung fu. I have some technical questions regarding the horse stance. On page 63 in your book, The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu, you recommend not to raise your body if you get tired. So what do you do after your posture-holding session is over?
Try not to raise your body when you are tired. When you find that you can not continue holding your posture further, raise your body, and bring your feet together in the centre, and drop your arms leisurely at your sides.
If you can jump to bring your feet together, it would be better. Just before your jump, bend your body slightly forward, release your fists (which you have been holding at your waist) and place your open palms near your knees. As you jump, breathe in gently through your nose into your chest, and simultaneously bring your open palms together facing upward at chest level. When you are standing upright with your feet together, turn your palms to face downward and lower them to your dan tian level, simultaneously breathing out through your mouth, and letting your chi sink gently — this is very important, gently — down to your dan tian. This is called “Chi Focusing at Dan Tian”. Then drop your arms leisurely at your sides.
Whether you bring your feet together in an ordinary way, or perform “Chi Focusing at Dan Tian”, remain standing upright in a totally relaxed manner with your arms hanging comfortably at your sides. Then think of nothing and do nothing for 5 to 10 minutes. This thinking of nothing and doing nothing is most important. If you relaxed sufficiently, you will find yourself swaying gently due to your internal chi flow. This is called in Shaolin Kungfu in Chinese (Cantonese pronounciation) as Yew Foong Pai Lau, or “Flowing Breeze and Swaying Willows”, sometimes read in classics but seldom understood by the uninitiated.
“Flowing Breeze and Swaying Willows” is one of the secrets in Shaolin Kungfu. As far as I know, I am the first person to explain it in public. If you do not perform “Flowing Breeze and Swaying Tree” after horse-riding stance or any chi kung exercise, you would lose more than half the benefits. It is this “Flowing Breeze and Swaying Willows” that generates the internal force in the horse-riding training, without which it becomes merely physical exercise.
Golden Bridge & other Zhan Zhuang Methods
Some instructors do their horse stances lower to the ground and with their hands outstretched at shoulder level. What's the difference between your method and theirs?
These instructors are right. We at Shaolin Wahnam also perform the horse-riding stance with our hands outstretched. We call it “Lohan Carrying Water”.
In the basic Horse-Riding stance, the hands are held in fists at the waist on both sides. After performing this basic mode for some time (which can be a few weeks, months, or years depending on the standard aimed at), one may use alternative modes. “Lohan Carrying Water” is one of them.
Another is “Holding A Ball”, which is holding your two arms in a big circle like holding a big ball in front of your chest at your horse-riding stance. The “Three-Circle Stance”, widely used in Taijiquan, probably evolved from “Holding A Ball”. Yet another is “Lifting Water”, which is stretching your two arms gently in front while at the horse-riding stance, with your palms open and fingers pointing forward. “Lifting Water” is also performed at the goat-riding stance, and is an important part of the “Golden Bell” training. Again, the Taijiquan pattern “Lifting Water” may have evolved from this stance.
The most important variation of the horse-riding stance is the “Golden Bridge”, where you are at the horse-riding stance with your two arms outstretched in front and your hands holding the One-|Finger Zen hand-form. It is the most important force training method in Southern Shaolin Kungfu.
The different modes of the horse-riding stance give special effects. The basic stance focuses energy at the dan tian as well as builds energy at the body, arms and legs. “Carrying Water” develops powerful arms. “Lifting Water” focuses at the palms. “Holding Ball” enables the energy to circulate along the arms, as well as focus at the dan tian. “Golden Bridge” consolidates the energy all over the body.
Centre Of Gravity
I am currently undertaking a six month practice of the basic exercises in your book, Introduction to Shaolin Kung Fu. You say that practising the horse stance lowers the centre of gravity. I am wondering if taking part in activities such as swimming where balance is more or less forgotten affects the centre of gravity.
Three factors influence one's centre of gravity: his state of mind, his energy balance, and his physical position. Theoretically, even when a person is physically well balanced, but if his mind is so powerful that he can focus a lot of energy to a finger tip, then his centre of gravity is at the finger tip. But in practice and for most people, it is his physical position that determines where his centre of gravity is located.
If a person stands upright and is perfectly relaxed, even if he is untrained in any art, his centre of gravity is naturally focused at a point about two or three inches below his navel, at a vital point called qihai, or "sea of energy". It is so called because his qi (chi) or vital energy is focused there naturally. This qihai vital point is often also called dan-tian, which means "elixir field". His shen, which is spirit or consciousness, may also be focused there. That is why some spiritual disciplines regard this vital point as the spiritual centre too.
But most people do not stand upright, and are not perfectly relaxed. Many people stand with their toes pointing outward, and leaning back slightly. If they were perfectly relaxed, they would fall over because their centre of gravity has shifted from their dan-tian to their back. But they would not fall, because they tense their back muscles and leg muscles to support themselves. They are so used to this tension that they normally are not aware they are tensed.
Even if they stand upright and are physically relaxed, they are not relaxed emotionally and mentally (or in chi kung terms, energetically and spiritually). They are often excited or nervous, or experience other negative emotions, thus causing their vital energy to float upward. They also think of myriad thoughts constantly. This causes their spirit to be dissipated. But most people are unaware of such subtle activities going on inside them.
Practising the horse-riding stance is an excellent way to over these problems. The form of the stance itself lowers your spiritual focus as well as your energetic focus to your dan tian. At first you would be physically tensed, as you are not used to sustaining the form. But with practice and as your energy flows, you can be physically relaxed. Hence you attain a one-pointedness of mind, energy and form. When you understand this, you will understand why the horse-riding stance is so important; it is not just a physical exercise to strengthen your leg muscles, but involves all your three components of form, energy and mind.
Once you have acquired the skill of focusing your mind, energy and form at a point through horse-riding stance training, i.e. once you have achieved a unity of jing, qi and shen, you can apply the same skill to any forms or movements, such as to swimming, combat application or your daily work. It is a mistake to say that you forget about your balance in swimming or in any other activities like playing games or writing your examination answers.
When you swim, your physical centre of gravity may or may not be at your dan tian. In fact it is good to keep your physical centre of gravity at your dan tian when you swim or are engaged in other physical activities, as this will give you good balance and gracefulness.
But even if you physical centre of gravity is elsewhere, such as when you perform an acrobatic kungfu movement, you must always maintain your focus and balance. This is even more important when you perform mental work. Many people have expressed amazement at how I could produce so much work. An important reason is that I always have focus and balance as a result of my kungfu training.
Taijiquan, Baguazhang, & Xingyiquan
I heard from my friends and also read from books that standing in the Three-Circle Stance and the Xingyi Sanzai Stance is crucial to developing chi and internal force.
Zhan zhuang, or stance training, is the most important single category of exercise for developing internal force. It can be safely said that all Taijiquan masters, all Xingyi masters, most Bagua masters, and many Shaolin masters obtained their internal force from zhan zhuang. Many Shaolin masters used other methods to develop internal force because Shaolin Kungfu is very rich in internal force training.
Different kungfu styles favour certain stances for zhan zhuang. In Taijiquan the most important stance for zhan zhuang is the Three-Circle Stance, so much so that it is sometimes called the Taiji Stance, though it is also used in other kungfu styles, including in Shaolin. The most important zhan zhuang method in Xingyi is the Sanzai or Three-Treasure Stance. Bagua masters use the formations of their eight fundamental palms for zhan zhuang.
In Shaolin Kungfu, the most important stance for developing internal force is the Horse-Riding Stance. There are many zhan zhuang stances in Shaolin Kungfu, the most popular of which is Golden Bridge. Besides zhan zhuang there are many other methods for internal force training in Shaolin Kungfu. One-Finger Shooting Zen and Sinew Metamorphosis are two famous examples.
Chi and internal force are closely related. Sometimes there two terms are used interchangeably. Technically speaking, chi is the ingredient; internal force is the product.
Developing Internal Force
My instructor also tells me that this would take 3 to 4 years. I wonder why by just standing, it can generate chi and internal force, and why it must take 3 to 4 years?
To the uninitiated it is just standing, but to the initiated it is more than just standing.
Every person is made up of three components, namely "jing", "qi" and "shen", which mean physical body, energy and mind. In a zhan zhuang exercise, the initiated practitioner assumes just one physical position so that he can fully focus on energy and mind. If he performs many physical movements, he may be distracted from energy and mind to pay attention to the physical body.
But he does not merely assume any physical position, he assumes a position that is best suited for his purpose. Hence, there are different stances for zhan zhuang for different specific purposes.
Once he has taken care of his physical position and does not have to worry about it any more, he focuses on his mind. He assumes one of two mental positions. He focuses his mind on one point, or he focuses his mind on nothing. In Zen terms, he attains one-mind or no-mind.
After having taken care of his mind, he concentrates on energy training. He does one of two tasks. He lets his energy flow or he lets his energy accumulate. This is accomplished naturally. If his energy flows, he lets it flow. If it accumulates, he lets it accumulate. Either task will generate tremendous internal force.
In theory the principles and workings of zhan zhuang are simple. In practice they are most difficult. Most people cannot remain motionlessly relaxed in one position. They tense their muscles. As a result, instead of attaining a one-pointed mind or no mind, their mind becomes stressful, and instead of letting their energy flow or accumulate, their energy becomes locked up in their tensed muscles. So, instead of generating tremendous internal force and peace of mind, they have harmful side-effects.
Many students do not feel any internal force even though they may have practised for a few years. This is because they have never got past the first requirement of attaining a motionlessly relaxed position. The luckier ones may have some feeling of internal force inside them after three to four years.
Nevertheless, I am proud and happy to say that practically everyone who attended my intensive courses in Malaysia — in chi kung, Shaolin Kungfu or Taijiquan — discernibly felt internal force on the very first day of their zhan zhuang training! Then, why most other people need three to four years?
It is because these other people, and possibly their teachers, do not understand the principles behind zhan zhuang. Even if they understood, they lack the skills and appropriate effort to put the principles into practice. It needs great skills, for example, for a teacher to get his students relaxed, and great effort for the students to remain motionlessly relaxed for a period of time. Hence, if they force themselves into a tensed position with an agitated mind, they may train for a few years but not only they have no internal force, they may sustain serious harmful effects.
Oh, the pain!
Also, can you give any tips to deal with the pain of the horse stance?
Although kungfu training is very demanding, it should not be painful. Indeed, feeling of pain indicates that you have practised wrongly. However, especially if you have not been exercising for some time, your body may be aching all over. A very good piece of advice for horse stance training is to be relaxed at all times. This is simple, but may not be easy. Once you can relax — physically, emotionally and mentally — you can remain at the horse stance for a long time without feeling tired. You will also savour some of its subtle joys.
So many questions
I have many questions. It seems that when one is answered another comes up. Will my practice spontaneously bring answers and understanding or is it necessary to ask questions?
If you practise correctly, your practice will often bring answers and understanding spontaneously. For example, you will realize from direct experience why being relaxed in your horse stance you can develop internal force and also savour subtle joys. You may be unable to explain this in words, but you will understand intuitively.
On the other hand, there are situations where it is necessary to ask. For example, without asking me about the horse stance, you may never know that being relax in its training brings internal force and subtle joys. In your ignorance you may practise and practise, yet not only you do not have benefits you may encounter adverse side effects.
Zhan Zhuang & Visualization
When practicing Zhang Zhuang to get the full benefits of this form of Qigong, do you eventually need to start mentally moving energy around your body (i.e. microcosmic, macrocosmic, etc), or will that take care of itself?
As Zhang Zhuang is a genre of qigong, there are many types of Zhang Zhuang exercises. Generally the practitioner does not intentionally move qi around his body; he merely remains at his stance thinking of nothing and doing nothing. Sometimes, for specific purposes, a practitioner may channel his qi in some specific directions, such as along his arms or down his legs.
Also, will just standing eventually (without visualizing anything) allow you the ability to move chi around mentally at will without having to do any breathing or moving techniques?
The answer is yes and no. In theory, everyone has the power of mind over energy and matter, which means that not only you can move your energy to flow anywhere you wish inside your body, you can also, by an act of will power, move the shoes you are wearing to the top of your friend's head. In practice, most people have lost this natural ability. Most qigong dancers, for example, cannot even start their own energy flow, which is actually a basic skill in qigong training.
If you have the skill, you can move your qi around mentally at will without having to do any breathing techniques or moving techniques while you are in any position, at Zhang Zhuang or otherwise. This is not a difficult skill to acquire if you are properly trained. In fact many of my students can do it after just one qigong course with me. But they usually do it while not at a Zhang Zhuang pose, for doing so would defeat the main purpose of Zhang Zhuang, which is accumulating qi and not circulating qi.
Doubts, Confidence & Success
I can only hold my horse stance for about 2 minutes. My master who has been practicing for over 20 years can remain in a horse stance for over an hour! This is what I aim to be able to do in a few years' time. I am reasonably fit and am in my early 20's. Is this a reasonable target for me to achieve within the next three years? I seriously doubt it but I am hopeful.
Not only you realize the importance of stance training, but also you are willing to put in time and effort to achieve result. Stance training is probably the most important single exercise to develop internal force, and internal force is probably the most important factor in kungfu. Not only it contribute to your combat efficiency, it also contributes to your good health, mental freshness and spiritual joy.
As you have a master who himself can remain at the Horse-Riding Stance for over an hour — a remarkable achievement even for masters — you should ask him for advice. Nevertheless, I shall give you my advice too.
Your master can remain at the stance for over an hour because he has spent a lot of time and effort in his training. But you can achieve similar result in three years, which is a reasonable target to aim at. You can achieve similar result in shorter time not because you are smarter than your master, but because you have certain advantages he might not have.
You have at least two advantages. You are willing to seek advice, and presumably act on the advice. This enables you to be more cost-effective in your training. Secondly, you have a master who already has the result you aim at. He can therefore point you the way he himself has traveled, and personally correct fine points to enhance your result.
Three pieces of advice will be very useful. One, your training must be regular and consistent, at least once a day everyday. It is permissible if you miss your training once a while, but on the whole it must be regular and consistent. Two, you must progress gradually. Remain a bit longer, say a few seconds or one or two minutes longer, after every three days. Three, be physically, emotionally and mentally relax in your training. Here is where personal supervision from your master can be of great help.
But the most important advice, the one that you must follow before you even begin, is that you must be confident that you will succeed. This is overcoming your mental blockage. Once your mind is clear about your mission, your body and emotion will follow suit.
Secondly I am seriously doubtful as to what I can achieve in kung fu since I am already over 20 years old. I am prepared to put in a lot of work into my training, but am never satisfied with the amount of progress I make.
Your worry is unfounded. As I have said earlier, it is most important that you must have confidence of your ability. There are two main approaches to develop this confidence. The first way is intellectual, and can be realized by seeking advice like what you are doing, and comprehending the reasons that you should succeed.
The second way is intuitive. According to Chinese medical thought, which may appear odd to those unfamiliar with it, confidence is closely related to one's gall bladder system and bones. If you strengthen them you would develop confidence instinctively. Sinew Metamorphosis, an advanced set of Shaolin chi kung exercises, is excellent for this purpose.
Being 20 is a very good age to train kungfu. Hard work is necessary, but you must also work smartly. If you just train and train, without really understanding what and why you are training, you would waste a lot of time. This, in fact, is the big problem with most people, often without their conscious knowing. They learn kungfu sets after kungfu sets, and often can perform them beautifully, but they never develop internal force nor practise combat application. As a result, after many years of training they still achieve little.
A main reason for their lack of achievement is their lack of vision and direction in their training. They do not really know what they want to achieve in their training, consequently they do not know where they are going.
While having vision and direction is important, you must also know your limitations. Set yourself goals which are reasonable, and which you can achieve readily if you put in effort. Be modest in your goals at first, such as being able to perform typical kungfu patterns flowingly, and savor your satisfaction when you achieve your modest goal. Then gradually increase the scope and depth of your achievement.
It is also extremely hard for me as the other students in my class are very lazy and are satisfied with mediocre results. Although my master is very capable he never pushes his students to their limits. Can I reasonably expect to be a very good Kung fu fighter if I put in a lot of work over the next 10 years?
If your classmates are lazy, it would be comparatively easier for you to achieve results. You could set yourself as a model for them to follow, instead of following your lazy classmates as your models.
But you need to be tactful as well as considerate. Sometimes you may have to slow down your progress so that they do not look too bad when compared to you. If you can do this, i.e. developing consideration and care for others, you would have achieved more than becoming a good fighter.
How good a fighter you will become depends not just on the length of your training but also on how you train. Many people cannot fight even after training so-called kungfu for thirty years, whereas others can fight well after three. You should aim not just to be a fighter, but to be a scholar-warrior, i.e. one who can fight well and at the same time be well versed in literature and philosophy, poetry and music.
I would greatly appreciate it if you could share with me your experiences as a student when you were learning Kung fu. Did you have similar doubts about yourself? At what age did you start training?
I started my life-long kungfu training when I was ten. I learned from four masters, all of whom were patriarchs of their respective styles. It was no co-incidence. I was (and still am) an idealist. I searched for the best available teachers.
I was a good student. I never had any doubt about my learning ability. In fact I was a fast learner; in fact I could learn a kungfu set by merely observing it three times.
But I also never pushed myself beyond my limits. I did exactly what my teachers told me, and never tried to be smarter than my teachers. If my teacher told me to practise a certain movement for three weeks, I would practise it for three weeks, though I could learn it in three minutes. I owed this attitude much to my father's advice. Another of my father's advice which benefited me greatly was that I respected my teachers deeply and sincerely.
I trained diligently and consistently, averaging an hour a day, and often more. I read a lot too, and listened to stories as well as advice of my seniors and other masters. At one period I went round looking for martial artists from various marital arts to spar so as to improve my combat efficiency. At another period I went round looking for masters for advice to deepen my skills and knowledge.
I also involved myself in music, chess, poetry, philosophy, painting and science. I aspired to the Chinese ideal, i.e. a scholar-warrior. Later, when I was more advanced in my kungfu training, I aspired to the Shaolin ideal, i.e. a warrior-monk.
My aim in my training is to be as good a practitioner as my master, but I think this is an unrealistic expectation. At the very least I want to be the best I can be.
It is a very good idea to be the best you can. One day you may even be better than your master, in which case he would be very proud. But you must always respect and honour him.
You may like to read a related article at Horse Stance
Courses and Classes