Stand in the sun. Be still. Breathe.
For the past six months, I did just that. Once in the morning, once in the evening. Thirty minutes at dawn, ten at dusk, and slowly increasing.
The results were extraordinary.
The Foundation of Movement
Zhang Zhuang is a foundational practice in the Chinese internal martial arts, deemed as the most important practice. Variously translated as ‘standing practice’, ‘stance training’, ‘pole training’, ‘stake standing’, the practice is deceptively simple.
Stand. Breathe. Be still.
Yet in that practice lies the cultivation of immense internal power.
The internal arts prescribe different methods of zhan zhuang. The horse stance, ma bu, is the most famous among them, seen in Chinese, Japanese, Korean arts. The method I use comes from Xingyiquan, a Chinese internal martial art renowned for its simplicity and brutality.
The foundational stance of Xingyiquan is the Santi Shi, the Three Bodies Stance, sometimes called Sancai Shi, the Three Powers Stance, by certain schools. Santi Shi practice requires the practitioner to stand in the stance, and hold it. While different xinyi schools have their own variations of the stance, they adhere to the same fundamental philosophy. The below video shows the Santi Shi from the Henan branch of Xingyi.
Santi Shi is a technically demanding practice. It requires perfectly angling and positioning your entire body. Arms and legs, chest and back, even toes and fingertips and nose. Once perfectly aligned, you must stand in stillness: maintain the posture, empty your mind of thought, and breathe in an effortless, almost imperceptible, manner.
As you stand, a curious sensation emerges. You identify points of imbalance and weakness within your body. You sense unneeded tension and stress. Adjust the posture to root yourself firmly to the ground and release tension. Go deeper still, and you may sense something even stranger: dynamic movement within stillness.
In outwards stillness, you become intimately familiar with inner dynamism. Your heart beating in your chest. Air flowing through your nose, into your lungs, and back out. The expansion and contraction of your belly as you breathe. The quivering of weak muscles. And if you go deep enough, the flow of energy within you.
You cannot be completely still. When your lungs and heart are still, you are dead. What you can do is hold your body still to bolster the function of your organs and fame your heart-mind. Done properly, Santi Shi combines physical, psychological and spiritual cultivation into a single posture.
The legs are held in a static position under tension. This is an isometric hold, strengthening the legs. As you grow into the practice, you develop superior rootedness and balance.
All unnecessary tension elsewhere should be consciously released. This includes the neck, shoulders, arms, chest, and anywhere else. By releasing tension, you also release pent-up stress within you. At the same time, it also improves your whole-body connection. With practice, your hands, arms and legs should feel heavy but relaxed.
The lead elbow is sunk and rotated to the side. This opens the chest, benefiting the lungs. Ever since I began regular Santi Shi practice, I experienced fewer and less severe cold and asthma symptoms.
Santi Shi requires intense inner work and awareness. This develops your sense of proprioception, and with it your ability to align your joints and the rest of your body. This translates into smoother movement, better weight distribution, and improved balance.
Santi Shi is standing meditation. At its heart, it requires you to stand and breathe and do nothing more. Allow any stray thoughts to dissolve and fade away. Your mind will naturally settle, like standing water becoming completely calm and still. When the mind settles, it creates a sense of peace and tranquility. An excellent antidote to the stresses of the modern world.
One method of practicing Santi Shi requires you to focus your gaze at the tip of your index finger. This develops your powers of concentration.
Another method is to hold the intention of sinking into the ground, through the soles of your feet, and aligning your posture such that you feel weightless. This further enhances proprioception and physical alignment.
A third technique is to hold the intention of pouncing forward, like a tiger. Especially useful for martial artists, this concentrates your intention into a relentless forward pressure, priming you to explode into your opponent.
Through these practices, you learn the difference between thought, emotion and intention. Thought fills your conscious mind, taking the form of words, dialogue and imagery. Emotion is an urge stemming from your subconscious, in turn influencing how your body reacts. Intention, or yi, is a feeling that permeates and directs your entire body.
By stilling thought and releasing emotion, you learn how to direct intention. With intentionality comes even more esoteric benefits.
The Chinese hold that life energy, qi, governs bodily functions. When qi is abundant and flows smoothly, the body is healthy. Where it is blocked and weakened, your health suffers.
Yi leads qi, and qi leads the body. After practicing Santi Shi long enough, you may sense the flow of qi in your body. By adjusting your body to allow the smooth flow of qi, you bring your entire being into alignment and cultivate your inner energy reserves.
There are many ways to practice energy work while holding Santi Shi. They involve holding your awareness at specific meridian points and breathing into them, or using special breathing methods while holding the position. My own research and experiments into qi breathing have yielded immense results, chief amongst which is improved health and reduced stress.
Describing these methods is beyond the scope of this post. Without proper guidance and experience, you could harm yourself.
In addition to being the foundational battle stance, Santi Shi primes the body to absorb a large amount of energy and quickly discharge it. Simply standing in Santi Shi, without additional breathwork, enhances qi flow. This is why Xingyi Quan is termed an internal martial art: it unifies mind and body, energy and movement, in every stance and strike.
When practicing Santi Shi, it is vital to stand on both sides. Spend half your time training one side, then switch to the other. This prevents long-term postural asymmetry, and with it muscle tension, pain, and other problems.
As days became weeks, and weeks became months, I noticed a host of other, more subtle transformations within me, all of them linked to Santi Shi in one form or other.
My movements became cleaner, more fluid, more precise. Standing, walking, other martial arts practice, everything I do that requires body movement feels more balanced and accurate. These days I find myself being unbalanced and unsteady less often, and better able to recover if I do lose my balance.
When facing stressful situations, I retain a sense of deep calmness. As with Santi Shi, it emanates from my core and expands outwards to fill the entirety of my being, bringing psychological stability. Just recently, I was in the middle of an intense discussion that came a few steps away from being a heated argument and quarrel, and I was the only one who remained as stable as a rock.
The most important takeaway is stillness and presence. I time my practice with my breath. It is always tempting to rush things, to get practice over and done with. By letting go of this thought, staying aware of my breathing, and directing my intention, I anchor myself in the present and appreciate every moment of practice.
Santi Shi unifies, stabilizes and strengthens mind, body and spirit. These benefits bleed into all aspects of life, transforming you from the inside out.
From stillness, explode into motion. From motion, sink into stillness. When standing still, do nothing but remain still. When moving, perform only that motion that nothing more. Everything described above is derived from these deceptively simple principles.
The modern lifestyle is a sedentary lifestyle. The Covid-19 pandemic heightens this by forcing so many people into working and studying from home. This spells long hours of sitting at a computer, doing nothing more strenuous than staring at a screen and working a mouse and keyboard. From here comes stress, stagnation, poor posture, and other health problems.
The antidote to this is movement and meditation. Santi Shi is one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal, part of my daily regimen.
If you want a simpler method of standing practice, all you have to do is to take time out every day to stand and breathe. That is all. Just stand in the sun, half-close your eyes, and breathe.
As you breathe, draw your attention inwards. Align your body from sole to spine to crown, stand with both feet apart and your back upright, and allow your arms to hang loosely from your shoulders. Breathe into your belly, smoothly and calmly. Keep your mind on your breathing, and slowly count it. If you find yourself distracted, bring your attention back to your breath and continue breathing.
This is basic standing practice. It’s not as advanced as Santi Shi, but it is perfect for everyone. Stand and breathe every day, holding the intention of doing so in a calm and focused manner, and watch your mind, body and spirit unfold.
In this strange world that demands your mind to move quickly and your body to remain still, physical and psychological derangements will quickly develop. Address this by being still in a way that restores your mind and strengthens your body.
Stand and breathe.
And in doing so, become more than you are now.
These strange times want to reduce you to a monkey staring at a screen. Stand up and take back your humanity here!