What is stance? Any standing posture can be a "stance". Standing in line at the supermarket or standing and waiting for the bus is a "stance". Similarly any martial art "stance" can be performed like and yield the same results as standing in line at the supermarket or standing and waiting for the bus.
Therefore, I don't think there is any magical something inherent in any particular stance posture that through repeated performance will develop internal strength. Which is not to say that certain results cannot be realized through continuous and repeated practice of a stance. What I want to focus on here is using a stance as a tool to develop the feeling of whole body connectedness, what is felt as "internal strength".
There are numerous variables that determine the results of any stance training program. Among these are:
- My purpose
- My personal characteristics including ability to learn, commitment, etc...
- The teacher's level of whole-body connectedness; internal strength
- The teacher's ability to adjust my posture to elicit the feeling of connectedness in my body
When I first started Tai chi, I started with forms, not stance. I assumed there was a magical something inherent in the form that through shear repetition would develop internal strength in me. Stance training was not part of the curriculum. Outside of class and on my own I practiced a low Horse Stance for the purpose of strengthening my legs. Still, no internal strength.
Years later when I realized that I didn’t develop internal strength through forms, I thought maybe I could develop it through stance training and so I began practicing zhan zhuang. (This also could have turned out to be a wrong assumption had I not found the right teacher.)
Early in my zhan zhuang training, I also took classes from Gary Torres. I learned and trained a variety of stances: Tiger Stance, Horse Stance, Half-Horse or “L” Stance, Bow and Arrow Stance, Lotus Stance, Rooster Stance, Empty Stance, Short Empty Stance, Tai-chi Stance. Note: This is the breadth of my stance training experience.
The depth of my stance training has occurred in practicing Wujifa Zhan Zhuang for several years with The School of Cultivation and Practice. I think I am now beginning to feel and understand the process of developing internal strength through the use of stance.
I like browsing the health and martial arts sections of the local bookstores looking for others' experience with stance training. The martial art books tend to mechanically describe postures. The chi kung books seem to go into more depth using, imagery, chi and meridian language, and references to Taoist philosophy but that "depth" is often an illusion.
I personally have not yet found any published authors that describe in depth their experience with using stance training as a method to develop whole-body connectedness, internal strength and are written in plain English.
I did however find a few articles on the internet that I think provide a good summary of a general "why" and "how" of stance training and are generally written in "plain English". If this is your first time reading about stance training, please visit these sites and read the entire article. Below are some excerpts from these articles.
* * * * * * * * *
The Four Right Reasons for Stance Training by Master Eric Sbarge
The real reasons for stance training are to develop solid root, to improve posture, to temper and control one's mind, and to cultivate chi or inner energy. If any of these qualities aren't fully developed in your own training, then your skill will never reach its full potential.
The first reason for stance training...
Why is rooting essential? Because only from a rooted stance can you generate power through your legs and waist to effectively strike with "whole body" power, which is the signature of an advanced martial artist.
The second reason for stance training is to improve posture...
Our minds must first ingrain the gross and subtle characteristics of each posture, and then our muscles and joints must be conditioned to be able to form the posture correctly. This is far easier if we are standing still, focusing only on the posture rather than moving and thinking about stepping or sequences.
The third reason for stance training is to temper and control our minds.... stance training inherently stills the body and thus allows for observation and work on the mind.
The fourth and perhaps greatest reason for stance training is to cultivate chi or inner energy....
To cultivate chi while holding stances, you don't need to consciously think about or manipulate your chi; the process is automatic. ... What you should pay attention to is correct posture, proper rooting, releasing the mind and body and breathing naturally and correctly. If you follow these simple guidelines, an increase in energy and chi will come naturally and in time will spread throughout your body of its own accord.
* * * * * * * * *Traditional Shaolin Stance Training by Shi Xingmi (This article also available in pdf format.)
Stance training has for centuries represented an important part of Shaolin training, often considered a fundamental element without which most other aspects of the discipline would be impossible to understand, perform correctly, and have any martial efficiency.
Often it is argued that as a means of physical preparation stance training has today been surpassed by other more modern and scientific methods; this however is a conclusion that simply displays limited first-hand stance training experience, and limited understanding of the “science” of stance training and its multiple objectives.
Stance training has a number of fundamental objectives, which can be divided in three main groups; technical, physical and mental.
Most importantly, and quite uniquely, traditional stance training combines all the above technical, physical and mental training objectives, providing a single fundamental training foundation.
* * * * * * * * *
Training Advice for Chenjiagou Taijiquan by CHEN XIAO WANG
Learning Chenjiagou Taijiquan is similar to learning other forms of sports. There are some basic facts and training requirements which will be helpful to know.
3. Always start from a high stance to loosen up the joints. When you feel sufficiently relaxed and warmed up, you can then practice at the more demanding middle to low stances. This way, you lessen the chances of getting a muscle pulled or other sports injury.
5. Do take note that with martial arts training, you must not try to accelerate your progress by over-exerting your own limits. It does not work that way, there are no short cuts, and it means you must train yourself in stages, bit by bit. Train with moderation. Adjust the frequency of your training, the intensity and the level of difficulty based on the height of your stances according to your age group, fitness level and physical health. As a rule of thumb, if you feel relaxed, comfortable and alert after training, it means you have trained at your optimal intensity and level (that is just right for you). On the other hand, if you feel shaky, tired, and take longer than others to recover your breath, it means you have trained beyond your body’s capacity. In this instance, you must tone down your training activity accordingly.
6A … When you have not fully controlled your inner emotions, you will not be able to concentrate on generating your qi. So if you try to train at the lower stances, you will not be able to maintain a line of connection for your qi, it will get broken easily, and your qi will not reach your “梢节 (shao jie)”; the tips of your extremities.
* * * * * * * * *
As I said, The School of Cultivation and Practice uses the Wujifa Zhan Zhuang Qi Gong for stance training. Wujifa works on connection as their primary focus. Wujifa does not talk much if at all about "chi" because for many people this becomes very misleading. What I like about Wujifa is that it is functional and practical. A question for beginners and which is also re-asked of long-time students is: "What is your purpose?"
For me, the answer to the above question is what frames and authenticates my stance training.
What does this mean? I remember my first time answering this question and feeling something phony about the answer. There was something in-congruent between my words and my intention. I've noticed this in others as well, like, they don't quite believe what they are saying. And I remember the last time I answered this question and feeling less phony about the answer but still not completely rock-solid in it. It's a very interesting question.
The answer also sets my direction of training and ultimately the results I get.
What is your purpose? My purpose is to feel internal connectedness; to develop internal strength. In the beginning I didn't know the way to develop internal strength, but when I state my purpose, I establish the intention that I'm doing stance training for "this" instead of for "that". The subsequent questions I formulate will be focused on "this" instead of on "that".
Knowing my purpose for training is an important aspect of my training. Stance training is more than simply standing in a "stance", eating bitter and hoping for some result.
At the level of individual practice sessions, I can also ask a question which "frames" that particular session. See my article on "Framing Your Zhan Zhuang Practice". The question can be asked for each session; my focus for the week. For example, "How can I feel more "let go" and relax and open my lower back even more?"
If my purpose provides a general frame for my training, and a question provides a frame for individual training sessions, then the details of how I practice, what I do or don't do during practice, how I engage my mind, how I engage my body, what I feel or don't feel, and how deeply I feel or don't feel as I progress through the process are "the trick" to developing internal strength.
Such is my understanding as of this writing.
What tripped me up the first several years of stance training was wanting to "get it" (and wanting to "get it" through data and mental understanding and not through feeling). I would have an "a-ha" moment and then mostly think and a little feel that I finally "got it" because I noticed what felt like 100% change. However, to a trained eye, I really only changed .001%.
Only within the last year, I no longer concern myself with "getting it" because I've learned there is always more to "get". There's always more drop. There's always more inguinal crease. There's always more peng. There's always more. Eventually I let go of my desire to achieve a defined goal... (When I look back, I've far surpassed those earlier achievements)... and I've changed to focusing on continually refining my internal gong fu stance training.
Happy practicing, everyone!