In the early morning, before of the daily life, Chinese people of all ages begin the day by performing traditional exercises in the parks and woods wherever they live. You will see some doing rhythmic stretching movements - others are training in the martial arts. A common sight is Tai Chi Chuan, the exquisite slow exercise, one of the soft martial arts, which develops and relaxes the whole body. But as you look more closely you may come across an even more remarkable sight. Among all these moving forms, here and there you will see some figures that rivet your attention. They are like the trees themselves. They are fully alive, but they are utterly still. Although there is no obvious movement, they are deeply engaged in one of the most demanding and powerful forms of exercise ever developed. They are so utterly focused that it requires learning to stand like a tree. It is known in Chinese as Zhan Zhuang, "standing like a tree".

Like a tree with its deep roots, powerful trunk and great spreading branches reaching into the sky, you will appear to remain unmoving. In reality, you will be growing from within. Previously shrouded in secrecy, this health system is now attracting considerable international attention and scientific examination. The results are unmistakable: strengthened immunity; successful treatment of chronic illness; high levels of daily energy and the natural regeneration of the nervous system.

This system of energy exercises takes most people completely by surprise, because although it is an energetic system of exercise, it involves virtually no movement! Unlike almost all other exercise methods, which consume energy, this generates energy. How is this possible? The answer lies in the nature of energy in the human body: how it is produced, and how it moves within the body.

Your natural energy

Our bodies are full of energy, but it is blocked within us. We are born bursting with life, yet we grow old depleted of vitality. Chi Kung is a unique exercise that reverses this process of decay. It builds up and releases an extraordinary flow of natural energy that is dormant inside us and raises the body and mind to remarkably high levels of fitness. The energy in our bodies is like the constant rhythm of our lungs and the ceaseless circulation of our blood. Thousands of chemical reactions are taking place at any one moment, and countless electrical impulses are passing through every part of the system. Not only that, but we are all part of the entire flow of energy around us. The intricate networks of energy in your body form part of the energy of the natural world. You are a miniature field of the electromagnetic energy of the universe.

Cultivating internal strength

The secret of the art of internal strength is to rediscover and release the powerful energy that is dormant and blocked within you. Complete relaxation is only one part of the process; the other is the development of mental and physical capacities that have lain untapped since birth. It is common knowledge that we use only a tiny percentage of our brain cells. It is also true that we are aware of and train only a percentage of our physical capacity. Most forms of exercise — running, swimming, weight training, team sports, and aerobics classes — concentrate on developing our physical strength. Most develop key muscle groups and have a powerful effect on the lungs, heart, and cardiovascular system. But there is a limit to the extent and benefit of such exercise. Long before your muscles are worked to their full capacity, the demand on your heart and particularly on your lungs is so intense that sooner or later you become fatigued and must stop. The result is not only temporary exhaustion, but limited development of your muscle power.

The Chi Kung exercises outlined here will enable you to exert the full capacity of your muscle networks over long periods without exhausting your lungs. In fact, your breathing will become even deeper and slower, generating a generous supply of oxygen to your heart. At the same time, your pulse rate will rise, enabling your heart to carry these high volumes of oxygen to your muscles and internal organs. Even though you will be exercising yourself as never before, you will not be left gasping grotesquely for the air. You will be able to exercise without fighting against yourself. Very few other forms of exercise stimulate, cleanse, and massage all the body's internal systems in this way.

Chi Kung - The energy exercise

The goal of Chi Kung exercise is to stimulate the flow of energy internally in the body so that it effectively rushes through and clears the entire network of Chi channels, or "meridians". What Chi Kung offers is a method of training the nervous system, the mind, and the internal organs simultaneously. This way the inner strength of the whole person rises to a new level of power and fitness.

One destination, many routes

There are many styles and schools of Chi Kung. There is Chi Kung for health, for therapy, for martial arts, and for spiritual development. There are Buddhist and Taoist schools of Chi Kung. In the martial arts, Chi Kung training includes techniques known as "iron palm", "iron shirt", and "metal bell cover". In athletics, Chi Kung is used to develop muscle power and endurance. In medicine, especially in China, there are two main branches of Chi Kung: one is moving Chi Kung, which involves movement exercise; the other is limited to static breathing and meditational exercises. In the spiritual field, there are Chi Kung exercises that enable the student to experience other dimensions and to develop telepathic powers. The goal, however, of building internal strength, remains fundamental to all.

Learning to stand

The Chi Kung system begins with two basic standing exercises. These start to build up and release the natural flow of energy inside you. The first position, a simple standing posture, enables you to relax your body in preparation for the other exercises. The second position, "Holding the Balloon", is the key position in the whole system. It is essential to become thoroughly comfortable in both these positions before moving on to the next level.

The simple warm up routines before standing prepare your body for the internal changes that take place in the Chi Kung exercises. They are essential for beginners, because although the standing positions do not look strenuous, if you do them properly the resulting activity inside your body is enormous and affects your whole system. During the standing, you may feel a little weak, start to tremble, or begin to tense up. But don't move: breathe naturally and relax. Use the time to notice all the remarkable changes and sensations in your body. Remember: standing still is not doing nothing, it is the exercise. When you are familiar with the first two standing exercises, you will need to learn how to breathe and relax. This will give you the experience of simultaneous exertion and relaxation during the standing postures, which is fundamental to this exercise system.

Start by doing the standing exercises for five minutes a day. After three weeks, increase this to ten minutes. Three weeks later, aim for 15 minutes, and 20 minutes for a further three weeks. You can stand for longer if you wish, but 20 minutes will refresh your whole system. Follow the step-by-step advice, practicing a little every day. Do not skip ahead: developing self-control is part of the training.

Warming up

As with all exercise routines, the warm up is essential. It helps your body become flexible and helps open up the internal channels along which your energy flows. The two largest and most important joints are the knees and shoulders. So by loosening these up first you are most likely to get the rich benefits of the later Chi Kung exercises. As a beginner, it is important to do these warm-up exercises every time you start your Chi Kung practice. They will take you about six or seven minutes. Regularly practiced, they give long-term protection against arthritis and other painful ailments that reduce the original flexibility of the body.

The first warm up is for your knees. During the exercise, try to remain relaxed from your waist up. Stand with your feet together. Bend your knees and stoop over so that you can just touch them with your fingers. With your hands on your knees, rotate your knees 30 times to the left and 30 times to the right.

The second warm up is for your shoulders. Make 30 to 40 complete circles with your arms. You should start very slowly, and then speed up slightly, and then slow down again toward the end. Do 60 circles for the greater benefit. Breathe in as your arms come up. Breathe out as they come down. If you are short of breath, breathe in and out as your arms come up, and in and out as they come down.

The third warm up is for your hips. Make 30 to 40 complete circles with your hips. You should do it very slowly. Do 60 circles for the greater benefit. Breathe slowly while doing it.

Wu Chi - the first position

All Chi Kung training begins with this position, which is profoundly important. Even at extraordinarily advanced levels of exercise, we begin with a period of quiet standing in the Wu Chi position - the position of primal energy. The Wu Chi position involves simply standing still. It is an opportunity to pay careful attention to the tensions in your body and its nervous system. At the same time, it becomes a moment of powerful, deep relaxation in your day. Simple as it may seem, this opening position, correctly practiced, holds the key to unlocking the storehouse of your great internal energy reserves. It is a good idea to go to the toilet before starting, to ensure that you do not have to interrupt your stationary exercise. Try to do your training outside, with your back toward the sun. If you can stand near a large tree with the sun on your back, this is the best location of all. Don't stand in the rain or fog. If you're indoors, you can either use a quiet room or create a tranquil environment by playing a recording of softly flowing instrumental music.

Stand with your feet a shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward, either parallel or turned slightly outward. Let your hands hang loosely by your sides and drop your shoulders. Imagine that, like a puppet, your whole body is hanging, suspended from your head. A string holds your head from a point at the top of your skull, directly in line with the tips of your ears. Feel yourself sinking down, relaxing, as you hang from the string. Breathe calmly and naturally. Stand quietly, allowing your whole system to calm down, for up to five minutes. As you do this, mentally follow through the points on the illustration, starting at the top of your head. Study it carefully and make sure that you pay meticulous attention to all the elements presented in it. Return to these points again and again until you can assume the Wu Chi position naturally and perfectly.

  • Your eyes look forward and slightly downward. Put your attention on the Tan Tien point that lies 3cm (1.25in) below your navel, one-third of the way into your body.
  • Pull your chin a little back so that upper part of your spine gets in the straight line. Release any tension in your neck.
  • Let your arms hang loosely. Drop your shoulders and your elbows.
  • Relax your hips and belly. Tuck in your bottom so that the lower part of your spine gets in the straight line.
  • Stand with your heels at least a shoulder-width apart. Never stand pigeon-toed.
  • Inhale and exhale gently through your nose only. Place your tongue up against the palate. Your mouth should be closed, but not tightly shut. Don't clamp your teeth shut. If saliva forms, swallow it.
  • Exhale completely and allow your chest to drop: this is the ideal posture.
  • Don't stiffen your fingers. Allow them to curve gently and remain slightly apart.
  • Unlock your knees. Bend them little so that the tip of your knees is in alignment with the tip of your fingers (as in the illustration).

Aligning mind and body

When you stand still in the first position, with your body correctly aligned, you are drawing energy (Chi) from the earth, and accelerating its flow through your body. This practice of standing still is an ancient discipline. You stand aligned between the ground and the sky, connecting the two great forces of heaven and the earth. You can understand the fundamental forces of energy in your body. When you practice in this way, your whole body and mind be synchronized, but you will have the feeling that heaven and earth are fused together through you.

Adjusting your position

When you become comfortable in this position, think about the points below. Quietly adjust your body to correct your balance and position.

  • Your whole frame is suspended from the top of your head. You bang it like a puppet or a garment on a coat hanger.
  • From below your kneecaps your roots extend downwards. From your knees, upward you rise like a tree, resting calmly on the earth and the sky.
  • Your weight is evenly distributed between your left and right feet. These roots sink deep into the earth, like those of a tree.
  • The point, from which you are suspended, is in line with the tips of your ears.
  • The Tan Tien lies 3cm (1.25in) below your navel, one-third of the way into your body. It is in line with the point at the top of your head. Look with your eyes forward, but hold your attention at this point where the energies of the earth and the sky meet.
  • The weight of your body rests in the middle of the soles of your feet. Earth energy enters the body through the point located in the middle of the foot.

The Chinese like to exercise in the presence of trees, whose Chi is wonderful. Trees are totally exposed to the elements and draw their power from everything around them. They reach deep into the soil with their roots. They reach upward toward the light. Their fibrous trunks are filled with the flow of life. They take strength from the earth, from water and the rain, from the sun, from the air, and from space that surrounds them. This is what we have in mind when we say "stand like a tree." You are a field of energy. You are nourished by everything around you, like a tree standing in the midst of all the elements.

Holding the balloon - the second position

The next step in Chi Kung training is to start "Holding the Balloon". This position forms the basis for many of the more advanced exercises and speeds the inner circulation of energy through your feet, up through your entire body, and to your hands and head. Try holding the second position for up to five minutes. You will probably experience considerable pain from the tension in your shoulders, arms, and knees. This is partly muscle fatigue, partly the reaction of your nervous system. Be patient. Nothing you are doing, is harmful. You are returning to an original state of being. Your journey will take discipline and diligence. As you hold this position, imagine that you are resting on a series of other balloons that take your full weight. To begin with, as you stand quietly holding the imaginary balloon, review all the guidelines for this position.

From the first position, the Wu Chi position, sink slightly. Your knees bend as you sink downward. Your head, torso, and pelvic girdle remain gently aligned, exactly as they were in the first position. Your spine unfolds downward and straightens naturally. Do not bend forward. Imagine you are simply resting your bottom on the edge of a high stool. Your weight rests equally on both feet.

1. Slowly bring both your arms upward and forward to form an open circle in front of your chest at about shoulder level. Your open palms face your chest. The distance between the fingertips of your hands is the equivalent of one to three fists, 7-21cm (3-9in). The tops of your thumbs are no higher than your shoulders. Your wrists are as wide apart as your shoulders. Your elbows are slightly lower than your wrists and shoulders. Inner angle between your upper arm and forearm is slightly more than 90 degrees.

2. Imagine that you are holding a large inflated balloon between your hands, forearms, and chest. You are gently keeping it in place without tension. It is resting naturally on the inner surface of the circle formed by your fingers, palms, arms, and chest.

  • Your armpits and upper arms rest on two small balloons.
  • Your thighs gently hold one balloon in place.
  • A huge balloon takes your weight behind you. The weight on your feet remains slightly forward.
  • Your elbows rest on two large balloons that float on the surface of a pond.
  • Like a tree, you reach upward to the sky.
  • Like a tree, you are rooted from below.

Visualizing the balloons

The balloons are an indispensable element of this remarkable system. You must visualize them clearly in your mind. By holding the imaginary balloon in your arms, you release any pressure constricting the sides of your chest and abdomen. Maintaining the position builds up both your physical and mental stamina. You begin to place carefully balanced, but increasing demands on your energy and blood systems that step up the circulation in both. The other imaginary balloons are a powerful aid to relaxation; learn to sink fully into them.

Practical tips

The benefits of Chi Kung practice result from inner growth and transformation. The fundamental changes begin to occur in your internal organs and nervous system. Without unusual sensitivity or training, most of us cannot sense these at first, whereas we can all feel the immediate effect of hard muscular activity such as jogging or weight training. The initial impact of Chi Kung takes place deep inside you. It is like an explosion in the depths of the sea, and so it is all the more important to be aware of what to do when you start your training.

Points To Remember

If you feel tired or faint, don't close your eyes. Otherwise you might risk falling down.
Remind yourself to relax while holding the correct position. You will need to check for tension over and again.
When you finish the second position, lower your arms and stand quietly for two or three minutes. Then gently shake your arms and legs. Then it's a good idea to make a final series of 20 circles with your arms at moderate speed.
Finally, walk around slowly for a couple of minutes. You are then ready for the day!

Checking yourself

Two simple tests show that the exercises are making changes in your body. Stand with your feet a shoulder-width apart. Leave one arm loosely by your side. Raise your other arm into the second Chi Kung position, as if you were holding a large balloon between that arm and your chest. Breathe slowly from the Tan Tien several times. After one or two minutes, you will feel the difference in your right and left sides. Then, raise your other arm to hold another balloon. You can feel the energy circuit without your fingers touching! To feel the increased circulation, try a second test. Stand for 10-15 minutes, holding the invisible balloon between your hands and chest. Then, lower your arms. The tingling sensation in your fingers is the result of the rush of blood and Chi.