Many patients seek out acupuncture and herbs as a way to overcome specific health challenges such as chronic pain, hormonal issues, digestive complaints, anxiety, and sleep issues. In the West, acupuncture and herbs are two of the most well know aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
One of the most powerful aspects (yet not as well known to Westerners) of Traditional Chinese Medicine is the practice of qigong—a form of ancient, gentle exercise which aligns the skeleton, strengthens the muscles, enhances focus, calms the mind, and nourishes the spirit.
Qigong is revered as such a critical part of the healing process, that many Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors will not recommend a treatment plan without it.
In fact, there have been entire medicine-less hospitals created in China which rely solely on Qigong for healing a variety of conditions, and they report very high success rates.
Yet despite its incredible health benefits, qigong has not experienced the same popularity as other ancient movement/exercise practices such as yoga (from Ayurvedic medicine) or tai chi (another ancient Chinese practice).
Qigong is finally catching on in the West (and no, it’s not just for martial arts enthusiasts)
As a qigong instructor myself, I have noticed a surge of interest in my classes in recent years.
I’ve also observed how the healing processes seems to accelerate when patients incorporate qigong into their routines.
The tricky thing for many people is how to get started.
Unlike more popularized practices like yoga and tai chi, there just aren’t a lot of online qigong resources translated into English for the beginner. I envision the day where there qigong classes are available in every neighborhood!
However, throughout years of practice I’ve learned qigong need not be inaccessible to us modern-Westerners. In fact, even just brief sessions (one pose for a few minutes a day) can offer profound healing results…which is what inspired me to write this post.
Qigong can be practiced as a martial art, however it also encompasses two other realms of healing/being:
- Health (energy or “qi” cultivation)
- Spiritual development (the meditative aspect of qigong)
As a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, I recommend qigong to my patients as a health or spiritual practice—to help re-balance the qi and to assist in the cultivation of inner peace and resilience, which thus enhances the effects of their acupuncture treatments significantly.
So, how does one get started solo?
There is one simple qigong pose almost everyone can do which will give you a profound boost in energy, brain power, and productivity, while greatly reducing stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness (and anyone who can stand upright can do it).
Standing Like a Tree Pose (Zhan Zhuang): your ultimate qigong starting point
Standing Tree Pose, traditionally known as: “Zhan Zhuang”, is (arguably) the most foundational pose in qigong..
…and it’s as simple as hugging a tree!
Well, it may be a tad more involved, but that’s the basic pose: to stand firmly on the ground and hold out your arms like you’re embracing a tree.
I’ll get into the how-tos on this in just a moment, but the main goal of this standing pose is to get yourself rooted and grounded in the earth while you relieve all tension throughout your body.
It’s an especially helpful pose for those who:
- Sit at a desk all day
- Have to focus for long periods of time
- Have chronic pain issues in their necks, shoulders, and backs
- Suffer from “busy brain”
- Don’t have enough energy
- Have demanding jobs and work schedules
- Are dealing with kidney, joint, or bone health issues
- Have physically demanding jobs (this includes new parents, anyone who stands a lot at work, etc.)
- Suffer from sleep issues
How Zhan Zhuang (Standing Like a Tree Pose) Helps Boost Brain Power, Energy, and Focus
One of the benefits of qigong, and specifically Zhan Zhuang, is that it helps to align your posture.
You see, when our posture is misaligned it puts a burden on our entire body and blocks our qi, which zaps energy from all our organs and system.
By using standing poses, like Zhan Zhuang, you will free up any stagnant qi (energy), while taking pressure off your organs and allowing for the free flow of nourishing blood.
At its core, Zhan Zhuang is a form of standing meditation and offers many of the mental benefits of mindfulness training.
Ken Cohen, a qigong master of whom I have had the honor of studying with, writes about Zhan Zhuang extensively in The Way of QiGong, “Standing meditation is the single most important and widely practiced form of qigong, integrating all elements of posture, relaxation, and breathing…”
The surge of energy one experiences from the pose comes from that freeing of the qi and blood, which in turn, helps boost your brain power and focus.
Further, as you practice this seemingly simple pose, you are forced into a single-minded, meditative state, which helps empty the brain of racing thoughts, leaving your mind refreshed, re-charged, and ready to function optimally.
Additional health benefits of standing like a tree pose (Zhan Zhuang) include:
- Increased oxygen in the body
- Reduction in back, neck, and shoulder pain
- Greater joint fluidity
- Higher quality cerebral cortex excitation
- Better sleep
- Healthier kidneys, marrow, and bones
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved mental and physical performance
How To Stand Like a Tree
Like I said, the pose looks just like you’re standing strong while hugging an invisible tree—but, you are doing so much more, and the first step is to set yourself up in proper alignment.
- First off, imagine your body akin to a tree with your your legs and torso as the trunk, your limbs and head as the branches, and your feet as the beginning of a root system which goes deep into the ground.
- Next, stand with your feet shoulder-width and press your big toes into the ground.
- Put a gentle bend in the knees—not so far that your knees go over your toes, but never with the knees locked.
- Tilt your pubic bone slightly forward, like you’re sitting on a tall bar stool.
- Raise your arms up like you’re hugging a tree (or large ball) —wrists shoulder-height, shoulders relaxed.
- Tuck your chin slightly.
- Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and relax your lips.
- Keep your eyes relaxed and open with a nice, soft gaze forward.
- Allow for gentle, relaxed diagphragmatic (belly) breathing.
It’s a lot to think about, right? But, the point is not to overthink it (-:.
In other words: do not to aim for perfection at the beginning, just create your best tree-hugging pose and relax. The nuances will fall into place the more your practice.
Now, hold that pose and breathe deeply. Focusing on maintaining that proper alignment as best you can.
You can start with holding the pose for three minutes, working up to five minutes a day. If you have any discomfort, place your attention on the your breath and make sure you are relaxing into the pose, not efforting. Often the discomfort passes. Do not continue if you have pain. If you have a medical condition, please check with your health care practitioner regarding proceeding with this as well as any exercise.
The Paradox of this Simple Pose
I first learned this pose in 1989 from Dr. Roger Hirsch, an amazing qigong master and my professor at Emperor’s College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where I was a student at the time. Truth be told, I did not like this pose at all! I didn’t see the point of standing still. I wasn’t able to appreciate the profundity in its simplicity. In spite of my dislike, I remember that something inside me knew there was something to this. Over the years, as I have regularly revisited this pose and all of its possibilities, I have come to have a deep appreciation and respect for it. I also benefit tremendously from the practice of it. I notice increased focus, I feel more centered and grounded in my day-to-day life, and I experience better energy, as if my batteries are recharged. As the world “out there” seems to get busier and overstimulating, I notice I appreciate the simple and profound aspects of simply being more and more. I cherish practices such as qigong, meditation, being in nature, and, of course, heartfelt encounters with the wonderful people and animals I get to share time with on this fascinating adventure called Life.