Zhan Zhuang: Qi Flow and Emotional Molting

Zhan Zhuang with little helper (In the middle of our recent move.)

If you have not read my previous post about Zhan Zhuang, I recommend it before reading this one. This post further describes how to engage with Zhan Zhuang.

When doing Zhan Zhuang (ZZ), after we have warmed up and done Wuji for five minutes, we put our hands in a certain position, like for instance in hugging the tree.  When we do this, we hold that position and do not move.  We hold ourselves in that position and engage in how to relax the body completely while doing it. This relaxing the body, the joints, muscles, tendons, fascia, etc, is the trick, and it can be explored forever with more and more depth. This post is about some of the processes involved in that relaxation.

If the practitioner can become curious enough, honest enough, although the body is in a certain position, a whole process of opening up and relaxing from within will ensue.  Holding ourselves in place, we wait.  While waiting, we gradually become more patient, as we can’t make the time go faster, but must let go.  While we wait, we begin to feel the incomprehensible way that we are unconsciously holding ourselves, our bodies. We’ve been holding ourselves, say in our thoracic spine, or in our neck or cranium, for years and years, not being aware those places are stuck. Or perhaps knowing they are stuck but not knowing how to engage them, or thinking it is just “who we are” and not opening ourselves up to the possibility that a different way of being is available to us.  Whatever the case, the dialogue has not been there.  It’s a closed conversation between stuck place and our minds.  But ZZ is a practice to help unlock these stuck places.

So, to engage with these stuck places, we have to think differently.  We have to think out of the box.  We have to be creative. We’ve been trying to let go of or avoid our tension for years, it has not worked.  But standing there hugging the tree, in order to do it for twenty minutes, we’ve got to creatively find ways to engage with ourselves.  This is partly an emotional exploration, exploring our psyche.  So, the very act of standing there can be a practice to change how we think and experience life.  In relaxing our bodies, we let go of how we think or function in every moment in a limited way.  So, this microcosm practice can lead us to think differently about everything.  Our lives can be measured by how we can think differently in this simple standing.

Gradually we will find ourselves enjoying this process.  It will feel liberating.  It might feel like, “Oh, I can finally engage with this part of myself which I could not reach, or could always avoid before.”  So, our stuck places, where unconscious emotions are held, can begin to be investigated, and eventually integrated.  This translates to everything in our lives.

Having the hands and body in the exact position is important, but perhaps not as important as engaging with this whole internal process of letting go from within, letting go of our stuck emotionally charged places in our bodies.  It is both, of course, maintaining the posture, and letting go.  But it might feel at times that we must throw caution to the wind and let our bodies release in strange unfamiliar ways in order for the ZZ to really deeply change us.  And when we do, it will feel very right, invigorating, we’ll be flooded with life, energy, in a new unforeseen way.  The strange part of this is that our hands may stay in the same place the whole time, but our experience of them might drastically change through this process.

So, to reiterate, ZZ is partly an emotional exploration.  In order to open up Qi flow, we have to be able to let go of fixed notions, think and experience reality in a different way.  In order to have Qi flow, we must go through a type of molting.  ZZ is a type of molting.  Discovering Qi flow could be described as emotional molting.  We are cracking our own shells. One changes through this emotional molting, and experiences the world differently.  Practically speaking, this can sometimes feel like all of a sudden a burden has been lifted from our bodies, and we feel buoyancy, blood flow, a full and taut experience.  But in the process of opening up, emotions can come up.  Fear, sadness, anger, all of these feelings arise at times, depending on what is opening up.  So this is a physical medium to explore where we are stuck.  It is not journaling or going to a therapist.  But it is a type of self healing, and for the right person a practice to learn about yourself and the universe.  Like any good practice one connects with, one can find the key to explore your whole life through it.

With ZZ, we may not feel the changes immediately or obviously.  It takes time.  And the practice may feel for a long time like work.  We do the exercise and feel a bit better over time.  Our posture improves.  We can walk longer.  We don’t get tired as easily.  And then sometime you may have a big break though.  Gradually you’ll feel that your true body is growing up through you internally, expanding to every limb.  It will feel like you’ve unlocked something dormant which will forever expand through you.  It will keep becoming more fascinating.  This is a type of internal integration. I’m certain that will happen if you sincerely keep going.  And perhaps a few will discover that as we connect with this great life energy, and feel more connected with the universe, we’ll feel more connected with everyone and everything.  So this practice could make better people, as we see others as ourselves.  This is not an idea, but a lived reality.

Related image

A Few More Tips:

Sometimes twenty minutes feel likes a long time. Other times is feels like a few minutes.  Or it might seem like a bit of both during the same twenty minutes.  Sometimes we feel incredibly liberated for a while during the standing.  And that might last for minutes during the standing, or the whole time.

Sometimes we are just waiting for the time to go by and this practice is not romantic at all.  It hurts!  It is tiring!  But keep going!  Keep consistent.  Big rewards come from this practice.

When we have been practicing ZZ for a while maybe you’ve been doing ten minute sessions for a while, and something begins to open up.  You may feel like you’ve got to go for eleven minutes.  Something might let go.  Something important is happening.  You may feel that if you stop in your normal time, you are betraying the process.  In this time, definitely go to eleven minutes.  But maybe not twelve.  Go slow with adding time.  Don’t be a hero.  Take it slow.  Little by little.

It is more important to honestly feel where you are tight and creatively open up than to have your hands in the exact minutia placement.

Tongue on the roof of the mouth behind the teeth.

Tucking the chin (without tension) like a hook is gently pulling your head up.

Gently engage your perineum, but do not clench it tightly.

Occasionally look down.  Can you see your toes?  If not, relax your hips.  Sink deeper.

Sink deeper if it is becoming easy.  Relax your kua (pelvis).

Imagine tree roots growing up through your feel to your knees.

Find a way to enjoy the standing.  This is very important.

I recommend not doing anything else while standing. No TV.  No Podcast.  No radio.   Give yourself to it, make the most of it.

Good luck!  Questions and comments welcome!  Please share this with others if you think it will be helpful or informative.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Nadine says:

    Thanks for this; especially love the fabulous photo!

  2. Robert says:

    Thanks for this Corey , I’ve been doing ZZ a while now so I’m really grateful for this advise

    1. Wonderful! It is my pleasure!

  3. nickwalser says:

    Hey Corey,
    Can I ask what your relationship to “formal” zen practice is these days? Do you favour more “bodily” practice?
    I ask because I have trouble balancing practice with family life. I did zen and tai chi for a decade before our daughter arrived. Time is limited for practice now…I try to listen to the body, but feel like I am shortchanging all the practices (particularly zen) as I cant do them all everyday…would love to hear your take on this. Thanks N

    1. Hi Nick!
      I’ve been thinking about your question for a couple of days. These days I am only lightly involved in ‘formal’ zen practice. I am so grateful for my time in the monastery and in intense training. It forever changed me.

      I like to think that I extracted the clear liquid from the training, getting out before I was too tied down in internal politics. I’d like to think that all that I do is imbued with the essence of formal zen, and that zen in much more than bald people in weird clothing acting serious. Also, when I left to become a father, my position within the organization changed, and I was no longer in a position to change the whole system from within. No longer the “chosen one”. But that all is a strange dance, a razor’s edge. I’m happy to be out of some of the drama.

      I hear you about time! It seems that, especially us parents, we’re constantly dealing with TIME. Prioritizing what we’ll squeeze in while the baby is sleeping or on that lunch break, or before we head home after work… Well, I think that we’ve got to figure out how to make our practice something we are always doing. Something we are always applying, always engaging in.To find what is essential in it all. I feel that at this point, I am mostly doing that. It’s in there enough, I got it in my bones enough, to constantly explore and dialogue with it in everything that I do. Although messy at times, It is like my life is an arrow of focus driving toward the essence of each moment, and my job is to allow that to guide me.

      I am still quite fascinated by this practice. And I have a great calling to share some of what I have experienced with others to help them, so that keeps me going. The desire to offer myself helps me go deeper in my own process. The Vow to save all beings is forever in my experience.

      So, I do concentrate on the body practices a lot. But that has always been my orientation to practice, even in the monastery. When others were practicing calligraphy, I was out in the garden trying to get energy moving through stuck places in my body. So, luckily, through that, I found a very real way to engage with my practice which I could apply in a non-formal setting. So, for me, they are not distinct practices, formal and non-formal, its kind of the same thing in my experience.

      I would also say that, if I step away from practice, turn my focus elsewhere for too long, I begin to feel physically ill. They say that the deeper you have gone into this practice, the harder it is to leave it. It is as if a great process in underway, and one cannot just jump ship. I fully believe that. Of course, that early desperation of the great doubt is no longer there for me, thankfully.

      So, using “kufu”, creativity, to break down our limited ideas of practice, discovering the key in each moment to engage with and embody our practice, becoming every room we enter, this is advanced practice. I personally think we need to discover this as the main point of our practice, and then we can constantly keep our practice going. I think remembering what we love about practice, what inspires us, diving into that, finding a way to connect with that, is really helpful. Maybe it is a book we love about zen or a great tai chi teacher or whatever. To connect with that energetic essence, and apply that to our daily life. That inspiration is very helpful in my opinion. Sometimes I’ll just see a photo which inspires me or read a sentence and try to go explore that in my body.

      By the way, there are some teachers out there who will work with lay people who cannot go to Osesshin all of the time. So, finding a teacher who you can check in with here and there might be helpful if that is possible.

      I do enjoy supporting formal zen. I spend quite a bit of time each month encouraging people to go train who are a good fit. Or to help them find a path that works for them. That brings me joy to be helpful. I also get a lot out of being supportive of friends who are teaching like Meido Moore. I am a big proponent of monastic or residential training if at all possible. At some point, I’ll get back and do some Osesshins here or there with respectful practitioners and friends, mostly to be within a group, mostly because I’d like to be a big brother to new zen maniacs. And I think Zen needs advanced practitioners who are sane and cool and real, who have lived life and benefited from all of this weird stuff. Plus, sangha is just wonderful if the right situation.
      I hope that is helpful! Feel free to contact me with more questions. Happy to be helpful.

  4. lgentili says:

    Corey, I enjoy sooo much your blog! checking often for new articles 🙂

    1. Wonderful! Thanks for the feedback!

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