One practice that really helped me in the beginning to go deeper into my zazen, and continues to keep me healthy in my life every day, is a type of Chi Kung first introduced to me in the monastery by a fellow training person. It is Zhan Zhuang, "Standing Like a Tree" and it involves standing and holding static positions for some period of time.
The idea behind standing still in static positions, for instance with our arms holding an energetic ball around our chest or other positions, is that in order to be able to hold these positions for more than a few minutes, we have to completely relax. So our body has to find harmony, and we need to use our bodies as a unit in order to be able to stand there. Then we are holding our arms in place with our tanden (dantien) rather than the muscles in our arms and legs.
When people first start this practice, it is very difficult. Often people begin to shake and sweat. Our legs look like sewing machines needles, bouncing around, as the normal unconscious tension we are holding in them is let go of. This practice is not glamorous. We joke it is like chewing raw iron. But the point is not to stand there suffering, but to learn to allow our bodies to relax in the position. This is very odd and difficult for a while, until breakthroughs begin to happen. Then, instead of using the wrong muscles to hold up our arms and legs, our body unites, and energy begin to flow through us.
When we begin this practice, we only stand for a few minutes in the poses. We don't jump into standing for twenty minutes right away. This is a gradual practice, not to be rushed. Don't be a hero! Little by little is the way.
One way to look at this practice is that there are two types of muscles employed when we are moving and standing. Phasic muscles and Tonic muscles. Phasic muscles are the fast twitch muscles we use for work. We need them to work and mobilize, but they get tired pretty quickly. Tonic muscles are for more for keeping our posture happy and stabilizing the body. They are not good for doing work or for lifting stuff. The problem with most of us is that the two jobs have become confused. So postural muscles are being used to do work, and the movement muscles are being used for posture. Therefore the whole system gets exhausted in its disorganization. ZZ (Zhan Zhuang) makes us use the postural muscles to stand there, because we cannot hold the Phasic muscles for that long until they get exhausted. So it balances the body out.
Over time, our body becomes integrated and stronger. Our eyes shine. Posture improves. Our steps are certain and we are rooted in the ground. We are able to use our bodies as a unit when we do things, such as lifting heavy things. All kinds of health benefits occur, just from standing still.
This ZZ was kind of the yang to my yin Non-Directed Body Movement Standing around. Where the non-directed standing around is all about doing nothing and allowing the internal process to emerge without effort, the ZZ is very intentional. It is bitter work, and quite uncomfortable at first, but the rewards are pretty immediate. I highly recommend it for people beginning to explore their internal worlds.
For Those Interested in How Zhan Zhuang Can Apply to Zazen
When people say that when they sit down to do zazen, nothing happens, I think, they need to get their ki flowing. Nothing is happening, because their internal momentum and energy is not flowing. For me, this was an indispensable practice to help in my early zazen. Often when people begin to sit in a zendo, there are all of these experienced sitters all around. And we wonder what the heck they are all doing. They seem to be involved in a big process and we are just there out of the loop. Well, doing the Zhan Zhuang gives the energy of the body momentum in that early time with zazen, when someone can't feel zazen yet. When it is too subtle. When we are still spinning our wheels, or when our stuck places are so dense that we can't even seem to get started in our zazen.
Also, if we are feeling low energy or our zazen has become uninspired, and our ki seems stuck, doing ZZ can really help to get us going again. Maybe we are forty or fifty and used to sit but have lost interest for a few years. ZZ can act as a jumpstart to the whole internal unfolding process in zazen. After doing ZZ consistently for a while, when we sit down in zazen, immediately a whole internal momentum and process begins to happen.
For those with little interest in meditation, ZZ can be extremely helpful for overall health. It is a stand alone practice for health, removing stuck places in the body, increasing overall energy. People's bodies really change through this practice.
I hope this has been helpful. Please contact me with questions or comments.
This is a book which really helped me: https://www.amazon.com/Way-Energy-Mastering-Internal-Strength/dp/0671736450
Thanks for reading. Good luck!