Monday, November 27, 2006

Standing Meditation

In honor of the Festival of the Trees, today's technique introduces the meditation and wellness practice of Standing Like a Tree Qigong. (Qi means energy, and gong means practice or work.)

My love for spending time in the forest is partly an emotional recognition of the physical healing nature of plants since I use herbal medicine exclusively; I feel comfortable and comforted spending time among these elders of the herbal kingdom.

(Photo courtesy of Jade Blackwater)

I love to sit with my back against a tree in seated meditation; it's very grounding and centering. Even better is to practice Standing Like a Tree qigong among the trees. That is just an amazing experience…like becoming One with the forest. (Not to mention cultivating exceptional good health and wellness at the same time.)

Li Nianzu L.Ac., founder of the Song Ho Health Center, calls this qigong "Pine Tree Meditating." Even though the Chinese calligraphy characters are slightly different, Pine Tree is a fitting image for this practice because as you stand, your fingers are splayed out like the needles of a pine tree, and the pine tree is a Chinese symbol of longevity which this mind-body-energy practice certainly promotes. On his website, Martial Artist and Teacher Michael Garofalo of Valley Spirit T'ai Chi Ch'uan lists the name as "Enter the Heart of the Trees." Doesn't that sound like it would be an amazing experience?

"Standing like a tree" qigong, zhan zhuang qi gong in Chinese, is one of the few Asian wellness and energy practices in which continuous movement is not integral to the form as it is in the popular "Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan" or Baduanjin qigong (which I previously wrote about). In the zhan zhuang form, you do literally "stand like a tree;" your arms assume positions resembling the branches of a tree while your feet and legs remain motionless. Some instructors include the visualization of roots reaching out from the soles of your feet and spreading into the soil.

Like all qigong, the intent of this form is to maintain the free-flow of your internal energy (qi or chi) since stagnant or blocked energy is at the root of most illnesses. Zhan zhuang delivers the added benefit of actually increasing your internal energy and making you stronger as you stand while holding your arms in each of the five basic positions. It is recommended that you begin with five minutes and build up to standing for about thirty minutes each day. At the height of my practice, I was standing for forty-five minutes every day; I've toned it down a bit since then.

(Photo courtesy of free Adobe Acrobat book available on the YiQuan website.)

This is the second of the five basic postures. As you can see, it looks as if the practitioner is hugging a tree, and indeed the position is called cheng bao zhuang, "support by embracing tree," and is reported to bestow remarkable recuperative powers. (I assure you, it can.)

I had a marvelous experience standing like a tree during one of the world-wide meditations in which I participated. At the appointed hour, I stood in the cheng bao zhuang position with my eyes closed. In a dream or a vision, I'm not sure which, I saw a tree in the distance….an enormous tree with millions of widely-reaching branches. The tree was bare of leaves, but there were hundreds of colorful birds scattered among the branches. To add to that avian population, the sky was filled with chirping birds flying toward the tree from every direction. It was noisy, but pleasantly so, not raucous. As I approached the tree, I saw that all the birds had human faces portraying every race and color on the Earth, and we all were coming together on the branches of the tree. When I ended the meditation, I wondered if that had been the World Tree, and if the birds represented all the people meditating together!

"Standing Like a Tree" can be very challenging at first because as you stand, most of your muscles are naturally contracted. About 100 days of dedicated practice using the powerful intention of your mind to relax your muscles while mastering the five basic postures brings the rewards of complete physical relaxation and vibrant health (or improvement in most chronic conditions), as well as improved mental concentration, control, and stamina. There are also four advanced postures, and a very advanced practitioner may develop the ability, as is shown in the book, to create an energy circuit enabling her to experience the circulation of qi between herself and a tree. Perhaps that is why Mr. Garofalo calls this practice "Enter the Heart of the Trees."

You too can practice "Standing Like A Tree" by following the instructions of Master Lam Kam Chuen in his book The Way of Energy, ISBN 0671736450, which you can see in the sidebar on the left.


JLB said...

Michelle, thank you SO MUCH for sharing this post! It's absolutely delightful! I am definitely going to try the more prescribed version of "standing like a tree" as you describe in this post.

Michelle said...

The free Adobe Acrobat book from the YiQuan website (see link below the standing man) has instructions for positions two and three in the five-position zhan zhuang system, and makes a nice 'starter' practice you can expand upon later . :-)

JLB said...

Say, I know this is totally late, but check out Cindy's "birds in trees" picture...

Follow the link below, and scroll down to the second image. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

And thanks for the info where I can find instructions for the positions! MUCH appreciated Michelle!

Michelle said...

Great birds-in-tree picture...I love it! Thanks!

I'm pretty sure that the positions for Standling Like a Tree can be found online, however the websites do not give the background information in terms of physical/mental/spiritual changes and benefits, nor the complete instruction for standing properly (those little details are Very Important), nor do they outline the temporary bodily reactions and changes you are likely to experience as you progress in the practice. (For example, for a couple of weeks, your legs tend to shake - and I don't mean just a little; they shake so hard you can fall down! - which can be very frightening or disturbing if you are not prepared for it.) The book describes all of these temporary reactions in detail; I have not seen a web page that does.

The Adobe Acrobat book from the Yi Quan website is a nice little starter introduction, but if you decide to stick with the practice beyond a week or two, The Way of Energy book will be invaluable.

Amit said...

"however the websites do not give the background information in terms of physical/mental/spiritual changes and benefits, nor the complete instruction for standing properly (those little details are Very Important), nor do they outline the temporary bodily reactions and changes you are likely to experience as you progress in the practice."

Do you think it's important to know the benefits or would you say that it wouldn't have the same effect without people knowing what the benefits are?

Without knowing the ultimate outcome does it still produce the same overall result?

I'm thinking outloud now! :)

Michelle said...

Hi Amit,

Knowing the proper stance is imperative.

Knowing what the benefits should be, yes and no, depending on the level you want to take the meditation practice.

Yes, standing meditation as a general wellness practice can be just like a prescription medication; you don't need to know the benefits ahead of time, you will still receive them.

However, it's certainly beneficial to know what to look for and what to expect just as it is with medications. You would want to pay attention to your body and make sure a medication is working correctly, and not creating any terrible side effects, so you need to know what "working" means and feels like, and what the side effects would be. The Standing Like a Tree practice can be like that, too. It does generate some unusual but temporary reactions (i.e. "side effects") that a person should be aware of, for example the shaking I mentioned. Also, when you know what benefits to expect, paying attention and noticing that the process is working can be a motivation to continue practicing.

For people wanting to learn and practice more of the mind/body connection, expanding their awareness, sensing their energy, and using their intention to direct their energy/qi to heal themselves and others, it surely helps to know ahead of time. (You wouldn't want a doctor to operate on your leg if he didn't know where your knee was, or the relationship between your femur and fibula! On an energetic level, directing your qi is a similar "operation;" it takes awareness and practice to direct the qi.) :-)

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Zhan Zhuang has been an incredible addition to my daily prayer & meditation.

Michelle said...

Hi PV,

Nice to meet another Z. Z. practitioner. It does offer its challenges, but it's very rewarding. :-)

Michelle said...

To PV,

In case you stop back...I tried to leave a comment on your blog, but am having trouble leaving comments on any Beta-Blogger sites....sorry. I'll try again, or maybe contact Blogger since this has been going on for a couple of days now. :-(

Daniel said...

Thanks to all for your comments. I am a nurse, long time martial artist and chi kung practitioner including Tai Chi and Z.Z. I believe that it is very important to have as much information as possible and continually be learning in one's practice. We must remember that many of the benefits of chi kung are related to the rebalancing of the system. These exercises, done carelessly, can unbalance the system further leading to health problems. One will note that in The Way Of Energy" the author gives timelines for one's practice. We Westerners often rush ahead thinking that we will progress more quickly... Quite the contrary.

In addition to The Way Of Energy, Bruce Frantzis has a wonderful book on standing and moving Chi Kung called "Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body". This detailed approach is invaluable for one involved in independant energy work. In the absence of a master, a student needs an abundance of quality information" and discipline. We all acknowledge the power of these exercises... They merit caution and respect. As written in Frantzis' book, "The energy systems of the body are much more quickly damaged than they are repaired."

Blessings to all and may your practice be fruitful.