What to Consider When Practicing Qigong
Relaxation is without doubt the most vital element not only in the Qigong Zhan Zhuang exercises, but also in any form of qigong or internal martial arts training if it is to be effective. Only when the body is relaxed will the internal organs settle, the blood flow freely and genuine coordination of the muscles (“the muscles as one”) and control of strength be possible. Exerting brute force will create tension, obstructing the blood flow and exhausting the body.
Wang Xiangzhai wrote:The Zhan Zhuang Exercises seek to develop strength from no strength (non exertion), movement from non-movement, and rapid movement from slight movement.
The more relaxed the body, the faster the circulation of blood, and the faster strength will develop. Exerting brute strength will cause tension, and the body will lose its spontaneous flexibility, often to the point of obstructing blood-flow. This (relaxation’s) type of strength is largely formless, and of the mind (shell). If one uses the strength of “form” then the intrinsic nature of movement is lost…. When the body is as relaxed as possible, the mind (shen) is completely collected. though the form may appear base and sluggish, the mind is agile.
How can we achieve relaxation? Due to conditioned artificial actions and reflexes, many parts of the body are unnecessarily tense a great deal of the time. Such tensions are not easily got rid of. Therefore we must learn to relax. At the start of practice, we should use the mind consciously to relax first the head, then face, neck, shoulders and so on right down to the toes.
During practice we may need to recheck frequently, endeavouring to release tensions which arise, if necessary repeating the above process each time. In this way, we can through persistent practice gradually induce a high degree of relaxation. People who find it especially difficult to relax may find facial expression a help, aiding relaxation by adopting a calm, composed expression, smiling and yet not smiling, as if extremely content.
Of course, “relaxation” here is a relative term. When standing in a fixed posture we cannot be as completely relaxed as when reclining. We must be “relaxed but not slack, tense but not stiff,” as relaxed as possible without breaking the posture. We know when we have reached such a state since we feel, as Wang Xiangzhai said, “as if pleasantly drunk or leisurely bathing in warm water.” We feel as if we are floating in the air, air pressing in on all sides, the skeletal frame so perfectly aligned that it remains in position without effort, the muscles just hanging off the bones like clothes on a clotheshorse.
Concentration and “Entering a Quiet State”
“Entering a quiet state” is a common aim in all methods of qigong. In general, the deeper the state of quiet, the more effective will be our practice. The ideal is a state where the mind is completely calm, unruffled by random thoughts, and the attention clear and concentrated. Such a state is clearly intimately linked with the relaxation of the body, each enhancing the reaction of the other, and it is instrumental in developing the deep relaxation and patience necessary for long practice.
At a shallow level, our mind generally has periods of calm and periods of thought. At a deep level, all is calm and we abide in a state of self forgetfulness where there seems to be no mind or body within, no world without. Yet, our attention becomes extremely lucid and alert, acutely sensitive to our environment, but undisturbed. This is the most beneficial state for nurturing health as well as serving as a basis for the development of combat awareness.
Taoist and Buddhist adepts developed a great many methods for calming the mind and concentrating the attention. However, Wang Xiangzhai, like many before him, emphasized that any method used should be as natural and simple as possible, never straight-jacketing or over-exciting consciousness.
When starting practice it is vital to assume correct posture, correct in form and correct for ourselves. The postures are dynamically balanced so as to create maximum physical equilibrium. This allows maximum potential for relaxation and the development of physique. Thus we must assume correct posture, though if need be allowing minor alterations to suit our individual make-up.
We must also choose the correct posture for our physical condition. Each posture has differing characteristics to meet differing needs. The form and details of posture are set according to the needs of the practitioner and not applied indiscriminately. Neither is it necessary to press time limits. Each person should be allowed to progress at his or her own natural pace.
In general though we start by practicing for ten minutes two to three times per day, gradually increasing to forty minutes to one hour, by which time one practice per day is sufficient. Stick to one posture until thoroughly relaxed in it for a prolonged period. It is not advisable to rapidly alternate postures.
Breathing throughout practice should be completely natural. Clearly controlled respiration is essential for energetic forms of martial arts training or indeed any exercise involving strenuous tensing activity. Likewise, it is as important in Zhan Zhuang exercises as in any other form of qigong to have deep, slow and gentle respiration. In Zhan Zhuang exercises however this is achieved quite naturally. The nature of the postures emphasizing overall mental and physical relaxation and especially relaxation of the torso and abdomen, meaning that breathing can gradually settle and deepen unhindered, as the practitioner develops without any need for artificial interference.
Never force the breathing. Quite apart from being a large unnecessary mental burden, conscious forcing or interfering with the respiration can upset its natural rhythm, sometimes causing damage to abdominal nerves and muscles, constricted chest, and dizziness due to hyperventilation or asphyxia. The exercises are more than just “quietist meditation.” They involve the intimate integration of appropriate mental and physical exercise, mind influencing body and body mind.
The relationship between the two, and indeed the whole sense of the Zhan Zhuang exercise is expressed in the term xingyi. Wang Xiangzhai defines it as “taking intent (yi) from form (xing), shaping form from intent, intent born of form, form following the changes of intent.”
Though the outward form of practice is very simple, grasping the above concept and its details in reality is difficult. Do not be put off by early problems. Understanding comes through personal experience, application and testing. Most of all enjoy it, keeping yourself fresh and relaxed, not treating it as a chore.