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Chan Si Gong 1

Circles, Spirals, Internal Energy and Taiji

Diagram showing Chan Si Gong posture

In Chen style taiji quan there are circles and spirals everywhere.   The circle and the spiral are almost like a principle of movement.  Within the forms your body constantly traces numerous circles and spirals simultaneously.  They are so numerous that sometimes it can be difficult to see them and if you don’t know where they are it is quite easy to miss the principle of the moves.

Fortunately there are some exercises to help.  Zhan zhaung and chan si gong are the foundations of good taiji practice.   For the beginner they are usually the first place where the movements of qi are experienced and for the more senior students they continue to be an important resource for the clarification of principle.  Both are also powerful exercises in their own right.

Zhan zhaung is the standing meditation of taiji quan.  It is common to most styles of taiji and in the west it is often referred to as ‘holding the tree’.  Zhan zhuang is usually performed standing up-right, with the feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent and the arms held in front of the body, at about shoulder height, forming a circle.  The variations on this stance mostly depend on how high you hold your arms and how deep your stance is.  The lower your arms and the higher your stance the easier it is.

The lowest your arms should be is forming a circle with the hands just in front of the dan tien.  The highest is at shoulder height.  The highest stance is with the legs only slightly bent and the lowest is with the legs bet to almost 90 degrees.  This deep stance is like a horse stance but with the feet closer together – either shoulder width or one and a half times shoulder width.

Beginners should work progressively from the easy to the more difficult.  It can take a number of years to develop a good deep stance, but it is better to have a correct posture than a deep stance.  Beginners should also gradually build up the length of time that they hold the zhan zhaung posture.  To start with most people have difficulty holding the stance for more than a few minutes, but after a few years of diligent practice it is possible to meditate for an hour or more.  To attain a good standard of taiji quan takes years of practice and conditioning.  Trying to make yourself develop more quickly than your body is ready for is likely to be counter-productive.

One of the things that you learn from zhan zhaung posture is what your body is capable of, but another equally important lesson can be learnt from the shape that your arms form in front of your body.  This circle is one of the fundamental shapes of taiji quan.  For example, if you simply rotate your palms so that they face out you should recognise the ‘peng’ or ‘ward off’ posture.  Because of the length of time that you hold this posture during meditation it is one of the physical shapes that becomes most refined.  The more you do the meditation the more you learn how minute variations of posture and position can affect qi flow. 

The basic arm shape of zhan zhaung (the angles that are formed at wrist and elbow in particular) should also inform your chan si gong practice.  Chan si gong or ‘silk reeling exercises’ isolate many of the movements of the form, and by reducing them down, often to single circles or spirals, reveals the base structures and principles of movement in taiji quan.  The correct and regular practice of chan si gong exercises is one of the most efficient methods of improving the more complex movements of the taiji forms.

Chan si gong exercises help us to see the underlying simplicity of the movements of taiji quan.  Through chan si gong we can learn effective co-ordination, between the movements of the arms, body, dan tien and breath.  Most importantly though chan si gong teaches the circle.  It is through the circle, the movement of qi and the interplay of yin and yang (initially in the form of opening and closing) that taiji quan attains its philosophical depth.

The circle can be seen as representing the undifferentiated whole – the state referred to as wuji.  From wuji taiji is born, and everything else flows from taiji.  Intellectually it is easy to see how the principles of taiji quan can lead us to the heart of the tao, but is the correct practice of the movements that perhaps may allow us direct experience.

For those interested in a more detailed understanding Chen Xiao Wang’s chan si gong exercises are available on DVD.


Glenn Gossling