Stand Up and Meditate: Get Started with Qigong

If you do sitting meditation regularly, you've probably experienced internal resistance at some point. It's that overwhelming feeling that you are temporarily locked out of your inner world. You go to practice and every fiber in your body is pulling you away instead.

Standing qigong is a similar practice to sitting meditation, except when you hold standing postures, you bring your physical body into the experience in a stronger way. From the point of view of learning to work with your internal resistance, and release your way into new internal space, this is actually a huge advantage.

What is Standing Qigong?

Qigong (pronounced "chee-gung") is the Chinese art of developing your body's energy. Classically, having a healthy body and strong chi flow was viewed as a gateway to meditation. Because meditation practices work with more subtle energy, getting a feel for your body and the energy that runs the body is a natural bridge to more advanced work.

Many qigong practices involve movement – even Tai Chi can be considered a complex form of qigong – but if you really want to explore the way your mind, body, and energy interface, nothing beats holding standing qigong postures.

For meditators, standing qigong is great for two big reasons: you will get physically stronger and healthier, so you can continue your sitting practice and the quality of awareness you develop in standing will make you more sensitive to the internal work in your meditation practice.

How Does Standing Qigong Work?

When you do standing qigong, you hold a single posture for 10, 20, or 30 minutes or longer. By eliminating voluntary, conscious movement and simply holding a posture, the only thing left to do is observe the movements of your mind and your energy.

Standing for longer periods actually shifts your sense of internal space and time. Tai Chi practictioners will cross-train with standing qigong, for example, to allow them to move even slower and more fluidly.

To get a feel for the kind of relaxation you experience in standing, clench your fist. Now, without deliberately opening it, let it release. It make take a few minutes to completely release and that's fine. If you can imagine it, this is actually what the entire body starts to feel like when you stand. Instead of a couple of minutes of releasing your fist, though, over 20 or 30 minutes, deeper and deeper spaces inside your shoulder, torso, hips, and legs will begin to let go. You walk away from your practice feeling looser and more relaxed from deeper inside the body than you would otherwise access.

But that's not the biggest benefit of standing from a meditator's point of view. Go back to clenching your fist. You can feel the tension in the fist, but you should also start to notice how you can hold your mind there, just feeling. In order to relax your fist, you have to stabilize your feeling awareness. If you don't, and your mind wanders, the fist won't release smoothly. The paradox is, how do you hold your mind in one place and simultaneously let go of any sense of holding? This is how you train your mind and your awareness using standing qigong.

Taking on a standing practice can seem like a punishing task. In fact, students often tell me that the reason they came to Tai Chi in the first place was because "I couldn't sit still long enough to meditate". We have a desire to slow down and connect with our deeper inner senses, but we have so many external pulls and distractions, that it can be hard to figure out how to do this.

How to Get Started with a Standing Practice

The key to developing a standing practice is to look for internal stability and avoid internal resistance.

You have to gauge your own level of comfort and resistance at the beginning of this process and then gradually add to the length of time that you hold any basic posture. It is easy to think, “okay, I’m going to hold this posture for thirty minutes”, and then start your countdown timer. What happens, though, is that you fixate on an external reference point (the clock) instead of internal ones. You will add mental and physical tension, and give up some internal clarity, to reach the external goal. Does this sound like something you've encountered in your sitting practice?

Instead of the "by the clock" approach, you should look for internal stability points. Compared to sitting, standing postures can offer much more obvious internal stability points – because they are so strongly tied to the physical body. An internal stability point is the place where everything opens up inside the posture and you feel connected and whole in a way you never do just standing around.

Once everything clicks in a stability point, you want to maintain this state for as long as possible. When you lose it or you shrink out of it or you start to collapse a little bit, the moment is over. Your standing practice then becomes a process of returning to these stability points, becoming more and more familiar with how to get there. What are the right physical alignments? How do you hold your awareness? Think of these early indicators as sign posts on the road to greater internal stability.

The best standing practice to start with begins with a downward body scan. This method works well because you learn to connect your mind to your physical body at whatever internal speed feels comfortable for you. You start by feeling the crown of your head and work downward until you reach your feet. Naturally, as this process becomes more familiar, you find more and more space to explore inside the body. If you follow this approach, you never have to worry about the clock, but you will stand for longer and longer as you refine your internal awareness.

To help you begin this process, I've created three different guided practice mp3s that will take you through the intial stages of this practice. Each one takes you through different things to feel: 5 minutes of "settling in", 10 minutes of "softening the body", and 20 minutes of "sinking chi". You can download each one here.

Try them as more physical warm-ups for your sitting practice. Many people alternate between sitting and standing and find the right blend of obvious and subtle energetic connection on any given day of practice.

When you begin to stand on a regular basis, you'll feel more internally connected, have greater internal awareness, and begin to become attuned to more subtle energetic shifts as well. Enjoy! 

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