The Way of Least Resistance, on the Standing Stake practice, Zhan Zhuang. The full article may be read here.
Zhan zhuang: grounding, structure, intention and qi
There is a tendency in the Chinese, and increasingly in the Japanese, martial arts to venerate “standing post” training - what is known as zhan zhuang (站樁 - literally “standing like a post”). In particular the internal arts of China are known for this practise. Even more particularly, the art of yiquan (意拳 - literally “concept fist”) focuses almost entirely on this as a martial training method.
Yiquan, which is also called “da cheng quan” (大成拳 - literally “great achievement boxing”), was developed by xingyiquan master Wang Xiangzhai (26 November 1885 - 12 July 1963). One of his students was the Taiwan-based martial artist Wang Shujin (a master of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan who happens to have also been one of my grandmaster Chen Pan Ling's main students).
In Japan the yiquan tradition was continued by Kenichi Sawai, founder of the school of taikiken (体気拳 - literally “mind and spirit fist”).
So what is the point of “standing post training”? Can it have any martial function at all? Clearly Wang Shujin, a respected and well-attested and experienced full-contact fighter, felt so. However things tend to get more than a little clouded whenever people start to go into specifics of “how” or “why” zhan zhuang should be useful in martial training...
Mostly the claims centre on the notion that zhan zhuang helps you develop “great power”. And in a sense I can corroborate this claim. However it does depend greatly what you mean by “power”.
Of concern to me is the notion that zhan zhuang is useful because it develops a kind of “mystical” or “superhuman” power - one which is often read into the character 気 (qi/chi in Chinese and ki in Japanese). In my experience zhan zhuang does no such thing.
However, it might be said to develop “qi” if by this term one means something far more subtle - namely “intention”.
Channelling intention: the martial function of zhan zhuang
An ability to channel “intention” is of far greater value than most martial artists think. In some respects, I see it as the cornerstone of all effective martial training.
After all, what is it that differentiates MMA champions like Georges St Pierre and Anderson Silva from any number of rivals? Is it their size, strength or speed? I would say no: there are many fighters who are larger, stronger and faster than either of those champions.
Is it their overall skill and athleticism? Again, I would say no: there are many fighters who have pinpoint accuracy, excellent technique, efficient movement, etc.
I have gone some way to suggesting that champions have better defence - but even that comprises just another set of skills in movement - skills that many fighters have.
Now we could go all “vague” and say “champions have better timing” but that just delays a further question: what is it that makes their “timing” better?
I think the answer is simply this:
They are better able to translate “intention” into “action”.
In other words, the psychology of the fighters makes all the difference: how you think affects how you feel, which affects what you do, which affects what you become.
This should come as no surprise: the notion that our minds and bodies are somehow separate is manifest nonsense. Cartesian dualism has always been, in my opinion, a con. Rather, each of us comprises one single, connected organism.
So the answer to why champions are better than their rivals is, I think, summed up in this way:
Champions are better than their rivals at channelling their intention.
I think the Chinese ancients tried to describe this channelling of thought into efficient action as the “guided flow of qi”.
However if it is true that the ancients used "qi" to describe what are basically mental processes, why didn’t they just use the expression "guided thoughts"? I suspect it is because they intuitively understood that thoughts are not separate, “non-physical” processes. After all, the whole "mind-body dualism" is a Western conceptualisation that wasn't part of the east Asian world view to begin with. And in the absence of modern science - in particular, understanding the functions of neurons and electro-chemical signals, fascia, muscle tissue etc. - they devised a suitable, internally consistent paradigm to cover these processes as one single, unified system they called "qi".