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How Standing Stake - Zhan Zhuang - Can Improve Your Tai Chi

Dan-Tienby Ken Gullette

Zhan Zhuang is also called "Standing Stake" or "Standing Like A Pole." It is the most important exercise in Tai Chi. It can be used for meditation and qigong, but it also will help improve your Tai Chi.

Here are the basics of getting into a Zhan Zhuang stance:

1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.

2. Raise your arms as if hugging a tree with the palms facing you.

3. Relax the knees and let them flex a bit.

4. Relax every muscle in your body - neck, shoulders, chest, abdomen, hips and legs.

5. Keep the head up and the chin slightly tucked.

6. "Sink" your weight -- your "energy" -- and feel as if your weight is sinking into the ground or floor.

7. Calm the mind along with the body.

Here are important things you need to incorporate into your Zhan Zhuang practice:

8. Relax the lower back. We usually keep it tense when we are standing. When you relax the muscles in the lower back, you will feel your buttocks sink and "tuck" slightly. That is a good thing.

9. You should feel your weight centered in the feet between the heel and the ball of the foot, just behind the ball of each foot. You may have to adjust your sinking, or lean slightly forward from the waist to the head to feel your weight reaching this point in the feet. 

Usually when we stand up, we are actually leaning backward. By leaning slightly forward from the waist to the head, you may feel like you are leaning too far forward, but usually, that is right where you want to be.

10. Maintain a feeling of ground path and peng jin. Your arms should feel as if there is a gentle pressure pushing outward, as if you are hugging a large balloon that is having air pumped into it. At the same time, you should feel as if someone is pushing gently inward on your arms and you are grounding the push through your feet. 

Stand in this position for at least five minutes. If you are a beginner, your legs may start getting tired before then -- they may start shaking. 

Every day, your goal is to do a little more time -- perhaps one minute longer. Your goal should be to do Zhan Zhuang for 30 minutes each day.

Here is how Zhan Zhuang helps your Tai Chi:

-- It helps strengthen your legs. Strong legs are crucial to good Tai Chi. By relaxing the legs, relaxing the knees and keeping them flexed as you sink your weight, you are working the muscles. As you get accustomed to standing for five, 10, 15 minutes or more, you will find that when you do a Tai Chi form, you will feel stronger, and your base will feel more stable.

-- It helps you to manage stress. Calm the mind and turn your thoughts away from daily worries such as deadlines at work or school, relationships, bills, and other things. Focus on your breathing and on the mental visualization of energy collecting in the Dan T'ien and growing warmer each time you inhale.

-- It helps teach you to sink and relax. One of the problems many Tai Chi players have is keeping the "chi in the chest." That means their weight is not sunk properly. Zhan Zhuang teaches you to sink and relax the shoulders, chest, arms, hips, and you should carry that into your Tai Chi practice.

-- It teaches you to maintain a "centered stance." In your Tai Chi practice, you need to keep the weight centered in the feet as much as possible. In Tai Chi and in push hands, you are constantly trying to maintain or find your center.

-- It is an outstanding Qigong exercise. Even though I do not think chi is a scientific reality, it is a great mental visualization tool. When I do Zhan Zhuang, I imagine chi entering the body when I inhale and when I exhale, I imagine a ball of chi growing warmer in my Dan T'ien. I also sometimes imagine it flowing through my body. There are many exercises explained in detail on my Qigong DVD and in my Kindle ebook.

Zhan Zhuang can change your life. If you learn to calm the mind and relax the body, and if you recreate those feelings when you find yourself in a tense, stressful situation, you can teach yourself to react to stress with relaxation and calmness rather than tension. That is the most important lesson of all.

Tai Chi for Basic Self-Defense -- A 4-Step System for Learning to Defend Yourself with Taijiquan

Ken Gullette and Tom Revie tai chi
A simple Taiji self-defense move against a punch.
by Ken Gullette
I was 13 and the bully was 16. He was the sheriff's son and he had terrorized younger kids in Wilmore, Kentucky for years. On this particular Saturday around 1966, I was his target. After some taunts and dares and a shove or two, we walked with our friends, including a couple of my cousins, behind the drugstore where no adults were looking. Our friends circled around and the bully swaggered up and stood in front of me. I was scared.
The bully was bigger and more confident than I was, and I was pretty sure he was going to beat me up. My God, he was 16!! When you are 13, a scrawny kid wearing glasses with tape holding them together, that's a big difference! Since he was the sheriff's son, he used that information to scare other kids, making them afraid to fight back. I took my glasses off and handed them to my cousin Mike.
The bully started punching me and I blocked what I could and moved around. We circed for what seemed to be hours, the bully laughing and taunting me, throwing occasional punches that stung my face. In my memory, he looks a lot like the bully in "A Christmas Story." His friends cursed and taunted me while my cousins, who were younger than I, circled with the group in quiet support, afraid to see me hurt but also afraid the bully would turn on them next.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of circling and getting hit, I could feel the scratches and bruises taking their toll on my face and I decided, "To hell with it. If I'm going to get beaten up by this bully, I'll go down swinging."
He came closer and WHAM! I punched him in the face as hard as I could.
The bully staggered back, shocked, his eyes watering from a good punch in the nose. This put things in a new perspective. The kid was fighting back!!!
The bully was suddenly scared and made up some excuses and scrambled out of there quickly, his little toad friends jumping after him in a panic. My cousins cheered. I had beaten up the town bully. The story would spread like wildfire through Wilmore for months, a reason for every scrawny nerd to celebrate. I was a hero.
This memory went through my mind when I received an email this morning from a member of my online kung-fu membership site telling me that he had been in a situation recently that could have turned violent, and he realized at the time that he did not know how to use Tai Chi for self-defense.
Like any martial art, it takes a systemized approach and a lot of practice, but using Tai Chi to defend yourself is no more difficult than any other martial art. The truth is, most Tai Chi instructors do not know how to teach you to defend yourself.
Here is one secret to preparing yourself mentally. You do not have to be Muhammad Ali to use boxing for self-defense, and you do not have to be Chen Xiaowang to use Taiji for self-defense. If you think your skills have to be at a master level, you are setting yourself up for defeat.
In my view, self-defense is something many of us do naturally. We all have it within us to defend ourselves -- we can punch, kick, claw, bite, throw if someone attacks us. Unless we freeze, and fear keeps us from moving, our instincts help us cover up or block punches. When the bully attacked me, I had no martial arts training, but I managed to deflect a few strikes.
19-2-12-CA self defense system simply focuses our power and technique. The best type of system helps you learn principles of movement and a flowing of technique so you can adapt to different attacks as they are changing. Where a system of self-defense helps is to focus your power and help you anticipate attacks so you can respond almost as soon as the attacker begins his attack.
At its higher levels, Taiji is more complex in the way it responds to force from an opponent, and the body mechanics it uses to "listen," adapt, neutralize, and counter incoming force. 
But we won't worry about the higher level skills right now. 
There is also no difference in the time it takes to learn how to defend yourself with karate, or boxing, or Taiji. Using the arts in an ideal way is not the same thing. Effective self-defense does not require you to be able to sense and neutralize every bit of power that comes at you. It does not require high-level push hands skill. And so I am taking an unorthodox approach here and taking push hands out of the mix.
Here are steps to take for learning to defend yourself with Taiji or any internal martial art:
1. Learn the fighting techniques. On my Tai Chi Fighting Applications DVD series there are 400 self-defense techniques from the Chen family Laojia Yilu form. There are defenses against shoves and pushes, grabs, punches and kicks. The defenses include punches, kicks, joint locks, evasions, sweeps, throws and takedowns. You do not need to learn 400 techniques. Only a few will serve you well in a variety of situations. It is better to be really good at 5 techniques than mediocre at 50 techniques. By studying 400 techniques, you can learn how the principles of movement are similar between techniques.
Study the techniques. Write your favorites down. Think about them. Practice them with an imaginary partner at first. Work on the body mechanics.
2. Practice techniques with a partner. Practice techniques against a partner using very light contact at first. The partner will throw attacks that you expect and the partner is not trying to make contact, either, except in grabs and chin-na. This is a learning situation for both of you, not a situation where you are trying to win. Take ego out of it. Do not injure your partner. It is not necessary, believe me.
Practice the techniques over and over and over. It will take hundreds of times over a period of weeks and months. You are looking to work on positioning, timing, and power. There are ways of using power without hurting your opponent. When you punch, miss your opponent, or learn to pull with power and barely touch your opponent (pads are good here). Don't practice in a wimpy way. Don't be stiff. Use relaxation, speed and strength together -- the body mechanics of Taiji, which you should also be developing through practicing the form.
A boxer does not become an expert with a jab overnight, and he can't put together effective combinations in a month. It takes time in any art to develop skill. Taiji is no different.
3. Put on protective pads and use techniques against a partner who is throwing random attacks. This step comes after you have learned how to move with the techniques against a partner. Start slowly. There are no specific rules to this. Your partner should use attacks creatively. It is your job to anticipate but not script a scenario in your head. 
If you find yourself unable to respond with the right technique against random attacks, don't worry about it and don't give up. Ask your partner to repeat the attack. Practice the proper technique. Ask him to do it again. Learn to anticipate. This is why we practice. It is the reason kung-fu is a "skill that comes from years of hard work." No martial art comes easily -- karate, jiu jitsu, boxing, Taekwondo -- anyone can do some moves, but applying those moves with body mechanics, speed, timing, strategy and power -- that is the real art.
When you get to the stage when you are using protective gear, you should still respect your partner and not injure him. Use caution especially when doing techniques to the head, throat, or a joint such as the elbow, wrist or knee. I have trained people who successfully used the internal arts in self-defense and they never hurt anyone in class. It is a myth that you need to inflict pain to learn how to fight well.
All you have to do in each system is learn the fighting techniques and practice with a partner, then put the techniques into action in a sparring situation using light contact and wearing protective padding. Learn to be creative and respond with the right technique against the right attack. 
4. At a certain point, your partner should stop cooperating. By the time you get into step 3 for a while, your partner should cooperate less and less. If you are attempting a joint lock against a punch, he should try to escape the joint lock. If you are deflecting a kick, he should follow up as quickly as he can with another technique, just as someone would do in a real fight. Or your partner should try to get you in a clinch, and you practice chin-na, short attacks such as elbow strikes, and takedowns.
Your job is to adapt quickly and flow with the principles of movement, capturing his center and taking care of the attacks as they come. Your goal is to put him down. In a real fight, your goal is to break him and put him on the ground.
Here is one additional tip after you learn some basic fighting techniques:
5. Work on your Push Hands skill, which teaches you to become sensitive to your opponent's "energy" when you are grappling. A lot of fights end up in a clinch, but true skill at push hands takes years. Usually, you do not practice push hands until you've become halfway proficient at a Taiji form. As you practice the forms, you should work push hands into your practice. After you learn the proper movement and mechanics, you should begin learning how to neutralize force and take advantage of your partner. Move from pushing hands to chin-na, for example. Learn how to flow against energy coming at you. Learn to counter against his counter. This takes years, too. And it is not something every instructor will tell you, but since I was the kid fighting the bully, I can tell you that push hands skill is not crucial for using a basic level of Taiji for self-defense, just as a powerful jab-cross-uppercut combination is not crucial for using boxing for self-defense.
Keep working on your Taiji forms. The forms teach body mechanics. As your movement gets better, your push hands and your self-defense will get better.
If you practice fighting techniques with a partner, and also in sparring situations, you can learn to take care of many situations, but it requires a lot of thought and a lot of practice. Joint locks, sweeps, throws and takedowns should be part of the possibilities you see when an opponent attacks.
No art is easy. It takes time to practice the techniques and then it takes time to learn how to adapt the techniques to a partner who is not cooperating with you. What is truly difficult is using Taiji in its ideal, advanced form, but if you expect that from the beginning, you are defeating yourself before you begin.
19-3-8-CLearning how to move like Chen Xiaowang or Muhammad Ali takes a long time and more work than most of us want to put in. But you don't have to be a master or a champion to defend yourself successfully, so don't worry about that. Study the techniques and body mechanics and practice each one against the appropriate attack with a partner. When you feel comfortable enough, put on pads and have your partner attack and not cooperate with you. Practice in sparring situations. Practice against a heavy bag to develop power.
When people ask me what would I use if I was attacked on the street -- Xingyi, Taiji or Bagua -- I tell them I don't know. It depends on what the attacker was doing, and the LAST thing on my mind would be to justify my practice of any art. I would simply defend myself. I would even bite if someone got me in a good choke hold. Why limit myself? There are no rules in a real fight, and biting is not a typical Taiji technique.
By the way, the bully's father, the sheriff, never came after me to throw me in the pokey. I think the bully was probably too afraid to say he had been whipped by a 13-year old. He never bothered me or my cousins again. Bullies don't like it when you hit back, whether you are using Taiji or not.

San Ti - How to Practice Xingyiquan's Most Important Stance - Download the Video

By Ken Gullette

Ken Hsing-I 2-25-06 Web
Performing San Ti as part of a Xingyi form at a tournament in 2005.

The most important stance in Xingyiquan (Hsing-I Chuan) is called San Ti (pronounced "Sahn Tee"). It means "trinity" and focuses on three main points:

1. The hip is over the rear heel

2. The front knee is over the forward heel

3. The front fingers are over the forward toes.

Also, more of the weight is on the rear leg (about 70%). Relax your weight and sink. Relax the shoulders. The front hand has the palm forward, aimed at your opponent. Some schools have the palm actually facing forward and some slant it to varying degrees. The rear hand is palm down. The thumb on the lower hand is pointed at the Dan T'ien.

This is an excellent posture for building leg strength. You will find when you start practicing San Ti that your legs are burning after a short time, particularly the rear leg. Switch to the other side and hold it until the other leg burns.

In some traditional Chinese schools, beginning students were required to come to practice and hold this stance -- and learn nothing else -- for months, sometimes years. I'm sure they were SOLID in their San Ti after that.

If you practice this stance a little longer each time, your legs will grow stronger and will give you a good foundation for quality Hsing-I.

My DVD on the Five Fist Postures shows you how to do San Ti.

I also have a short video that teaches San Ti that you can download for only 90 cents. Click the button below to get video instruction of this important basic stance that forms the foundation of "Mind Shape Boxing."

Download and Own the San Ti Instructional Video - Running Time 3:45 


The Coiling Leverage of Silk-Reeling Energy -- Four Ounces Deflecting A Thousand Pounds

Taiji and Bagua are especially dependent upon Silk-Reeling Energy (San ssu jin) but it is also present in Xingyi.

Silk-Reeling Energy provides “coiling leverage” to movement. Silk-Reeling is not a scientifically valid “energy” in our bodies and it is not related to an invisible energy called “chi.” It is just like every other “energy” in the internal arts – it is a method of moving in response to force. The body mechanics of Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi are physical skills that require a lot of mental focus so you can be prepared to respond like an echo to an opponent’s force.

5-5-Lute-vs-grab1Silk-Reeling energy gives more power to concepts such as “four ounces repels a thousand pounds,” or “four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” depending on who tells it.

One of many ways this can be demonstrated is with a wrist grab. Your opponent grabs and you try using normal muscular actions to pull away as he tries to hold on. It will be difficult to escape. You may be able to escape, but it will take a lot of muscular strength.

Next, try spiraling out of the grip and see how the coiling leverage gives you an easier escape. It is described very well with the term "rotational force." By connecting the ground through the wrist and using the spiraling movements of silk-reeling (and other body mechanics listed below), your movements can overcome simple muscular force.

In normal internal movement, the rotational force of silk-reeling is dependent on your core internal strength:

  1. Establishing and maintaining the ground path
  2. Maintaining peng jin
  3. Whole-body movement
  4. Silk-Reeling (spiraling) movement
  5. Rotating the Dan T’ien
  6. Opening/Closing the Kua
Coiling gives you the ability to deflect the energy of the grab.

Four ounces (“si liang”) cannot generate enough force without the core internal strength provided by the key body mechanics of the internal arts (neijia).

Properly using the coiling leverage of silk-reeling involves practicing the mechanics so you can develop an understanding from a physical perspective. When Chinese masters talk abstractly about developing “rou jin” (soft) with “gang jin” (hard), it can sound like gibberish. But you want your Taiji to be “iron wrapped in cotton.” The cotton is the softness – sensitivity, relaxed strength, supple flowing motions; the iron is the core strength of the body mechanics that give the movements their underlying power.

6-9-Monkey-vs-punch5Another way to apply this (there are countless ways) is to have a punch directed at you and you intercept it and spiral as it comes toward you, leading it softly into a different trajectory.

When you see someone like Chen Xiaowang do a form and suddenly explode with fajing, you see a burst of power that is a perfect combination of soft and hard (rou and gang) – yin and yang. It is not really that abstract but it requires an instructor to show you so you can practice it properly, and then it requires years of corrections and practice to begin getting it right. I am still working on it, but I have been shown the way by some talented internal arts teachers.

I will shoot a video this weekend showing this principle in action. It will be on the membership website by Monday (Aug. 11, 2014) at In the meantime, if you have not yet learned the core body mechanics of the internal arts, I would suggest checking out my Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling DVDs. They provide the foundation that you need for this long journey. They are available through my website (free shipping all over the world) and for U.S. members of Amazon Prime, they are available through Amazon with free 2-day shipping.

Both DVDs are available as a bundle at a special discount price. Go to this page and scroll down for the special offer.

Both DVDs are also available in the form of Amazon Kindle ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle Store.