Why do Standing Meditation?
Meditation of any kind is of great value. Standing meditation is a way of greatly increasing its value to health. I can think of nothing more powerful and nothing close to the efficiency of standing meditation for restoring health, producing prodigious strength, energy, and mental clarity.
There seems to be a misunderstanding about exercise and health. Some things we do because we know we must. Does anyone enjoy brushing their teeth? We know the consequences if we neglect our teeth. Yet most of us are unwilling (and unaware) that we should be doing anything to take care of the rest of our body. If I told you that one practice could lower blood pressure, fix your acid reflux, anxiety, and protect cognitive function would you consider it?
What we think of as exercise supportive of health is like a shotgun. There is little precision and specificity. It often injures. The best are the simplest and therefore most natural things. Like walking. There is no substitute for walking. As with standing meditation, there are ways to advance our understanding of walking to elevate it to a powerful health practice. One capable of contributing to cancer care for example. Standing meditation grows upon you. Eventually, it can become a favorite practice. Deep impressions on body and mind are made that last much longer than the training effect of other exercises.
“The uniqueness of standing meditation lies in the distinction that one can rest and exercise at the same time. All cells and physiologic processes in the body become coordinated, slowing, or accelerating as needs dictate. The heart and lungs are not overtaxed as with other forms of exercise, and yet one breathes easier, and circulation is enhanced after performing it.” Wang Xian Zhai Founder of the Yiquan system of qigong and martial art
To this I would add, standing mediation works on the postural muscles, tendons, and fascia in a special way. Postural muscles are those that hold us up against gravity. Slower contracting and less dynamic than the phasic muscles we think of as prime movers, they bind our skeleton together and keep it from harm. They undergird, integrate, and coordinate between bone, inelastic fascia and the neurologic control of the prime movers. When trained to act as one along with the phasic muscles, grace and power is achieved. Normalizing blood flow to them and their nerves corrects stubborn, chronic pain problems. As implied above, the standing practice is much broader in application than pain control.
These are not the only reasons I do it. For me it brings joy, insight, and freedom into my life. I believe one can improve the trajectory of their life in this way in other words, our destiny. Standing meditation is a path of self-actualization. Most of us need a more compelling reason, one with a sense of immediacy. Remember, health and energy are merely the first step on this journey.
Before Standing 1. Seated Meditation
Even briefly calming yourself before engaging the standing practice is important. Stress, anxiety, or preoccupation can lead to pain, dissatisfaction with practice, or boredom. See the Basic Seated Meditation paper. It is best to also do some sitting after standing as well, to consolidate the changes.
2. Perform the Shaking Qigong
The practice of ‘Reach Up’ and attunement of the 5 Needles precedes the shaking. It is the same practice described below with the arms down. Shaking and mentally scanning the entire body prepares us for posture-holding. As with seated meditation, things happen much faster and more pleasantly if we shake before we stand. See the Shaking Qigong paper.
This sequence of postures is how Grandmaster Sam Tam taught to stand. The 5 Needles concept and element-finger correlations are teachings of Master Zhongian Wu.
1. Wuji Posture
This posture can be as simple as standing straight with attention to the 5 Needles. The arms are relaxed and hanging to the sides, but with proper song tension extending to the fingertips (see below). One usually attends to the dantien but it is advisable to notice the many other phenomena manifesting in body-mind as we become still. (Dantien refers to the area below the navel seen as a reservoir of energy and source of the body’s own medicine. It corresponds to the center of gravity for the entire body.) This posture is the expression of the pure potential energy of the primordial void before any differentiation into yin or yang. We make contact with our potential in stillness. Make yourself content with doing no-thing. All the fingers, each corresponding to the organs, are activated in this position.
Use the mental image of projecting each fingertip to the center of the earth, and top of the head to the sky. You may notice the thumb, index, and middle fingers on one arm may seem as if they cannot make the imaginary descent to the center of the earth. This is associated with the shoulder that is hiked up and won’t relax. Conversely, if the last two fingers act this way it is on the side of your high hip that won’t drop down. Take these sensations to your dantien to balance this postural asymmetry.
Draw the backs of the hands together while exhaling slowly. Draw the wrists to the navel as you inhale, transitioning to the second position, Holding the Belly. Note how this movement moves your lower spine. Wuji Qigong is an entire system. See the Wuji Qigong paper.
2. Holding the Belly
This is the second easiest posture. One simply imagines holding a ball at a level about halfway between the navel and the bottom of the breastbone. It is helpful to the “middle qi” of the stomach and spleen, as well as the liver and gall bladder. By adjusting the height of the ball over four inches the emphasis is shifted between these organs. Feel for specific activation of qi in the thumb for the stomach and spleen or the ring finger for the liver and gall bladder. Can you activate both or, all the fingers in this position? Note stiffening of the farthest finger joint, lightness or spontaneous motion in the finger under study. Imagine the wrists hanging a strap around the neck. To transition to the third position, turn the palms down and allow the fingertips to approximate until the backs of the hands are again together. Drop them to the navel, exhale, and Open the Elevator Doors (#3).
3. Elevator Doors
This position engenders great strength. The little fingers will lighten and stiffen, indicating the kidneys and bladder are balancing. Turn the palms outwardly at the level of the navel, as if holding elevator doors apart. Imagine great pressure building on your hands as you exhale then relax this pressure as you inhale. Use the mind to exercise the body. Spread the back; the shoulder blades separate. Finally, give in to the pressure and allow the back of your hands to approximate exhaling slowly. Draw them up like a zipper toward your breastbone as you inhale. Move every backbone while maintaining the 5 Needles. This is the transition to the Universal Posture.
4. Universal Posture
This posture is so named because it activates all the internal organs. You will notice all the fingers stiffen at their last joints and they fill with light. Make sure your index and middle fingers feel activated to include the heart and lungs. After drawing the wrists toward the breastbone, exhale and expand the arms to the position of holding a beachball to your chest.
In all the postures maintain the forward and outward movement of the elbows. This allows the shoulders to move backward and downward, reseating them in their shallow sockets. Much of the ability to use the arms correctly derives first from the spine. So, it is an indirect way of working on stubborn postural deficits and chronic spinal misalignments that project their effects to the limbs, neck, and head. The organs are also affected by postural strain both mechanically and via the spinal nerves.
A lack of development due to modern lifestyles limits the ability to hold the arms up comfortably, even for five minutes! Observe the atrophy of shoulder girdles as we age. Start with the other postures and don’t torture yourself with excessive efforts in the Universal Posture. The feeling of the arms floating means you are performing the exercise correctly. Heavy arms with pain and muscular fatigue means you are working on developing your muscles, not your energy. This torture and misuse is characteristic of most exercise. We are learning a new way of using our body. We do this first in stillness, later in motion.
Feet- Point the toes straight ahead so the outer borders of feet are parallel. However, don’t overdo it by straining the joints of your legs. “Straight-ish” is fine. Move the toenails toward the ground to relieve pressure on the heels. Use the finger and toenails like a tiger uses their claws.
Knees- Obtain a slight bend in the knees by unlocking them. We say, “unlock” to avoid the idea of straining them by over-bending. Ensure your knees are not collapsing together. By pointing the feet straighter the tendency is for the knees to collapse inwardly, especially in women owing to the difference in pelvic conformation. You should feel as though riding a horse. This is the “Horse-Riding Stance”. Neither should your knees widen beyond your feet. The kneecaps should align with the second toe, but they needn’t bend that far. They should never extend beyond the second toe.
The key is having the feeling as though the knees are pulled upwardly to the abdomen, alongside the navel. This will protect the knees and reduce the swayback of your lower back. The sacrum will assume the correct posture. This lifting action of the knees is more like sitting down rather than bending the knees. Avoid too much pressure on the heels by clawing the toes to the ground. Lifting the knees stretches the lower spine in a uniquely therapeutic way. Balancing between staying off the heels and lifting/bending the knees unmasks the subtle tightness in the lower back and requires considerable attention.
Hips- In aligning the feet it is the hips that do the in-turning. Avoid excessive pressure in your hip joints. The crease should feel deeper at the groin in front of the hip joints.
Shoulders- The shoulders are stretched apart and kept down. They should sink down and back. Try to move between the postures moving the hands and keeping the elbows relatively fixed in position.
Elbows- Elbows and all the joints exhibit a most gentle curve. They should elevate and be held forward in a relaxed manner. This ‘elbows up and forward’ maintains the ‘shoulders down and back’, thereby reseating them in their sockets. Avoid holding the hands too far from the body. A foot away is good.
Neck- If one balances the neck the entire body is in postural balance. Begin by noting the chin can rest in elevation from the top of the breastbone. The chin will suspend itself from the chest so long as the 5th cervical vertebra near the apex of your neck curve is not stuck nodding forward. Next, note that the fronts of your shoulders feel as if separated by a stick or bar that prevents them collapsing together. This forms a triangle from the two shoulders to the chin of self-maintaining postural support. The apex of your neck’s lordotic curve (C5) is at its center. All that is required is to avoid leaning back! Most of us, most of the time are subtly leaning back. This short circuits our postural balance and thus, abuses our frames.
The next step is to feel a similar pressure separating the back of the head from the big bone at base of the neck. Finally notice the ears are similarly supported away from each shoulder. Now, with your neck in equipoise, note the comfort thus obtained throughout your body.
Meditation: Mind and Breath
Song- Relaxation with Structure
A key concept is to use the minimum amount of effort to maintain effective structure. The Chinese call this song. This is the mechanical basis of internal power along with the passive recoil of the inelastic fascia, or connective tissue. It may be summarized by the observation that while there is a limit to the development of strength and speed, there is no limit to the degree one can relax. The speed with which one can move between deep relaxation and the integrated stiffness of a practiced posture is shocking to the opponent in sport or martial art. Release of tension in the deep hip, pelvic and lumbar muscles solve many problems and turns the body’s core into a powerful spring. The wonders of these internal arts come from opening the channels of Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine. They do not come from any Western understanding of exercise and mindfulness.
Yi- Intention and Energy
Using the mind to train the body A unique feature of the Yiquan system of standing meditation is the many uses of mental imagery to develop whole-body or integrated strength. The first step is the use of imaginary balloons strategically placed to support our posture. One of the most interesting involves the use of trees. The use of mental imagery is unlimited in the pursuit of health and many skills.
Rooting and sinking the qi These concepts are integrations of mind and body that allow for development of superior balance for the martial arts and prevention of falls. This saves lives and preserves independence in geriatric medicine. Rooting involves reorganizing the relationship of our lower body to gravity and the ground. Sinking the qi is a primary skill for integral strength in martial arts, which means becoming stronger and avoiding injury. In the field of health, it is involved in everything from headache management, lowering blood pressure, and anxiety.
Observation of Breath and Learning from Breathing Standing meditation is not generally associated with the many types of breathing exercises associated with seated meditation. In this tradition we observe the breath as it undergoes many modulations associated with the effects of posture-holding. This is a primary source of education for the practitioner. The rate, depth, and timing of respiration will spontaneously normalize and deepen with practice. By holding the arms at different heights, the spine and rib cage are stressed in different ways by breathing. This is most pronounced in the postures with the hands at higher levels (in front of the chest). Then the upper, stiffer parts of the rib cage and spine are forced to open. This has tremendous anti-aging properties.
From discrimination to inclusion Initially our mind is directed toward an internal structure, mental imagery using the hands, or balloons supporting our posture. This singular focus serves the purpose of adjustment of body and mind. As this is accomplished the mind fatigues of this focused attention. Then consciousness expands beyond the narrow borders by which we usually define ourselves. This expansion, proceeding from inward to outward, has the potential to allow for inclusion of anything and anyone within our meditative mind. Thus, we develop balance moving from a solely discriminating mind of left and right, black and white, cold and hot, male and female (i.e., yin and yang) to an inclusive mind that is unburdened by dualistic thought. The oneness of inclusive mind yields compassion, clarity, and responsibility. Standing meditation is a path of self-realization.
“To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi Founder of the San Francisco Zen Center
How to Proceed
· Pick a place to stand where you have a distant view, if possible. As you practice you will use the mental imagery suggested. However, you will notice that your mind fatigues of maintaining an internal, or imaginary focus like holding a ball. Then your mind will expand, and it is good to allow consciousness to expand to the horizon. Grandmaster Sam Tam says, “look far away and smile”.
· Use the lower-handed postures more initially. Allow your spine and rib cage to open at their own pace. Relax but focus.
· Start with at least 5 minutes if you are reasonably healthy. Aim to add a minute a day until you get to 25 minutes. Unless pain or health issues prevent your progression, never go back. Add a minute a day! You will feel a well-earned sense of accomplishment.
· 15 minutes is not bad. Even 5 minutes has benefit but, we only receive the benefit corresponding to the effort put forth. How long does it take to treat you in the office? When 25 minutes is practiced regularly magic happens Everyone feels significant changes after 100 days of practice.
· There is nothing easy about standing meditation. Our problems seem to rush up to greet us. From great effort comes rich rewards. Great effort here means above all, relaxation! Endurance and perseverance are required. As your body and mind stop squirming a great Stillness pervades. You are burning your problems away in a cauldron of change.
· In summary, work up to 25 minutes and give it 100 days. Remember, it is the quality and regularity of your practice that matters far more than the quantity. 10 minutes of highly focused practice is more beneficial than an hour of daydreaming. Remember, to learn any art requires a teacher.
· The standing meditation as presented is suitable for everyone. Although safe, powerful and effective, I found that I needed to develop more precise postures and movements to address my and my patients concerns. More specific needs can be met using standing meditation in the Movement as Medicine portion of the Meditative Exercise curriculum