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Internal Martial Arts, Zhan Zhuang Standing & the Internal Organs by Tom Bisio

Some form of Zhan Zhuang – “Stake Standing” or “Pile Standing” – is an important part of the physical and energetic training in all Chinese internal styles. Zhan Zhuang has many purposes and many spiritual mental and physiological effects, one of which is to harmonize and adjust the internal organs.

In the book Dachengquan, author Wang Xuan Jie states that Zhan Zhuang:

readjusts the functions of the various organs while keeping the outward form of the body motionless and consequently is movement without moving any parts of the body and yet involving all of them. Meanwhile, this exercise is not a strenuous one demanding excessive expenditure of energy; actually it replenishes the body to some extent. Thus it is one which properly combines both the training and recovering of strength. It strengthens the physique, prevents diseases and delays the aging process.[1]

How does Zhan Zhuang adjust and regulate the internal organs? Radiological evidence suggests that the organs are suspended from the diaphragm and held in place by equilibrium between the force of gravity and elastic thoracic forces that have an upward direction. The elastic potential – the potential energy of the deformation which will be transformed into kinetic work as structures within the body return to their natural orientation – of the thoracic cavity helps to maintain this balance. Thus the elevation of the ribs during respiration can be compared to a bent bow, or a watch spring.[2]

This natural elasticity of the body and its connection with gravity is part and parcel of Zhan Zhuang standing exercises. As one stands, whether in the natural Wu Ji posture, the embrace posture or even Xing Yi Quan’s San Ti Shi, one of the most important steps is to remove unnatural and unconscious tensions from the body while maintaining a relaxed posture in which the sinews and muscles hang on the skeletal structure like velvet cloth on a hanger. Respiration should be natural, and one lets the mind withdraw from the outside world. The skeleton, in concert with the natural elasticity of the body and its bow-like structures, holds the body up with minimal tension in the fascia.

One of the important alignments often discussed in internal martial arts and Zhan Zhuang is the idea that the chest is relatively empty, while the lower abdomen is relatively full. This body alignment is aided by deep, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing that is natural, silent, and unforced. Chinese teachers often refer to this idea as “abdomen firm and chest relaxed.” Part of being “empty” in the upper body is letting go of mental activity – letting thoughts go downward and release.

There are a number of reasons why having a firm abdomen and relaxed chest is a healthier body pattern:

  1. The intestines are less delicate then the heart and lungs and therefore their functioning and harmony is less disturbed by pressure. Hence, the lungs and heart are protected from pressure by the sternum and rib cage.
  2. Chest volume is restricted by the rib cage and has less room for expansion and contraction.
  3. When the lower abdomen is firm and full, it becomes stronger and healthier. Intestinal function improves, and the chest becomes lighter, nimble and more spacious.
  4. The combination of heaviness below and lightness above creates a condition of stability and calmness, and a structure that is relaxed and natural
  5. Being “empty” in the chest means that the heart is relaxed and open to new thoughts and ideas. The heart can then be expansive and open because it feels secure in being anchored to a strong Dan Tian/Ming Men, and therefore backed by the power of the Will.

The following statements are traditionally used to describe the alignments of chest and abdomen

  • Solid (substantial; full) abdomen; unimpeded chest (Shi Fu Chang Xiong 實腹寬胸)
  • Contain or round the chest (like holding something in one’s mouth), and draw up the back (Han Xiong Ba Bei 含胸拔背)

Shi (實) means solid, full, substantial, can also mean firm and Fu (腹) signifies the belly or abdomen.

Chang (寬) can mean wide, broad, spacious, relaxed, relieve, extend, or even comfortable, while Xiong (胸) signifies the chest and implies the connection of the chest with the heart and Heart-Mind (Xin 心)

When the chest is relatively empty and the abdomen relatively full, the body’s center of gravity sinks slowly and naturally to the Dan Tian/Ming Men area. Dan Tian/Ming Men form the core of the body, where strength gathers in order to be released. Qi and Jing are stored here. When energy and breath concentrate in this area, we feel balanced and stable, the heart and mind stay calm, and we have a sense of vitality and inner strength. We are better able to deal with the vagaries of life and we don’t feel physically or emotionally off-balance. We feel centered. When you are centered, you are less affected by stress, and life’s pressures and challenges are less likely to negatively affect you. This is much like a buoy, “weeble,” or a Humpty-Dumpty Daruma Doll – push it over and it pops right back up again.

Zhang Nai Qi, an internal boxer writing in the 1933, felt that most people have a constant underlying state of chest tension, and that the intestines and organs, rather than being naturally suspended by gravity, are often “falsely suspended” and held upward, Zhang felt that these unnatural tensions created many problems:

The abdomen presses upward, encroaching upon the intestines, while in turn, the intestines encroach upon the stomachs natural position, and the stomach encroaches on the natural position of the liver, lungs, heart, and gallbladder. Consequently the chest feels tense and as a result there is a sense of “ti xin diao dan” (literally: to lift the heart and hang the gallbladder) meaning to be scared, jittery, etc and a feeling of “zhi fei jian gan” (literally; roasted lung and fried liver). For most people it is difficult for the internal organs to escape this kind of condition, it is only a matter of “more or less”.[3]

Zhang felt that this kind of tension produced unnatural fatigue that drains the body’s strength and physical, mental and emotional resources. He also posited that correct practice of internal boxing could change this situation, so that one exhibits a relaxed awareness at all times. Zhang’s analysis ties in with one of the important ideas in relation to Zhan Zhuang mentioned in the quote  by  Wang Xuan Jie at the beginning of this post – namely that the effort of holding the posture is less the internal energy generated by holding the posture. this is particularly true for postures like the embrace posture or Wu Ji Standing. This aspect of Zhan Zhuang is what allows standing practice to build energy and strength, even in those who are debilitated.

In a passage that sounds remarkably similar to Zhang’s analysis vis-a-vis the internal organs, Osteopath Jean-Pierre Barral feels that a combination of elasticity (turgor) and intracavitary pressure maintain a relatively homogenous visceral column upon which the diaphragm presses during inhalation.[4] Intra-cavitary pressure above the diaphragm is normally less than intracavitary pressure below the diaphragm. Hence the organs of the abdominal cavity are in effect suspended from the diaphragm, while the force of gravity in the abdominal cavity acts against this upward force.[5]

Zhang also delineates two basic types of chest and abdominal structures common to most people. The “obese type has an abundant, full abdomen where the disorder is one of the “outside pressing out”. The second type is categorized by an abdomen that concaves inward more than the chest. The organs appear suspended, but they are “falsely suspended”, because they are lifted higher than their natural positions, and the person is unable to release them.[6]

This seems a bit simplistic, yet some osteopaths who work directly with the viscera use a similar two-model mode of differentiation:

  1. Type 1: An abdomen that bulges outward like a ball. The pressure inside the abdomen is high and the respiratory diaphragm must work harder, because it is resisted by the high pressure inside the abdomen. [7]
  2. Type 2: the abdomen is soft and easy to palpate. Diaphragmatic tension is less, so the lungs pull the abdominal contents higher into the thoracic cavity.[8]

Another Osteopathic concept relating to posture, fascia and the internal organs is that of the “Central Tendon.” This term refers to a “fascial string” that is anterior to the spinal column running through the body from the base of the skull to the pelvic floor. It is in the superficial and deeper-lying fascial layers of the body. Elevated fascial tension can disturb circulation and impair organ function, so Osteopathic techniques have been created to restore normal function.

In a similar vein, Advanced Rolfing Practitioner Thomas Myers, delineates what he calls the “Superficial Front Line”, a linkage of fascia that connects the entire anterior surface of the body from the tops of the feet to the sides of the skull. This line has two parts, one that connects toes to pelvis, and one that connects pelvis to head.[9] Excessive tension in the Superficial Front Line can pull the head forward, contributing to forward head syndrome. Myers recounts how a tense rectus abdominis can pull down on the ribcage, depressing the ribs and restricting breathing. This tension is then conveyed through the sternum to the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM), which then pulls on the head.[10]

The famous 14-character mnemonic on Zhan Zhuang has much to say about this scenario:

  1. 虛靈頂勁 (Xu Ling Ding Jin): “Empty spirit supports (carries) strength” or “Empty awareness and alert intelligence ascend to the crown of the head with vitality.”
  2. 含胸拔背 (Han Xiong Ba Bei): “Contain or round the chest” (like holding something in one’s mouth) “and draw up the back.”
  3. 尾閭提 (Wei Lu Ti): “Lift or raise the coccyx” (“tail gate”)
  4. 頂頭懸 (Ding Tou Xuan): “Support the head as if hanging suspended”, or “supported from the crown the head hangs suspended”, or “push the head up form below and suspend it.”

The implication here is that raising the coccyx, containing and rounding the chest, and drawing up the back all serve to raise the head upward. Supporting the head and pushing it up form below is often described as bringing the nape back to touch one’s collar. This interweaving of body alignments effectively opens not only the Superficial front line, but also affects the Superficial Back Line, which Myers describes as going from toes to knees and knees to brow in one integrated myofascial line. Internal boxers know that making these connections not only creates an elastic spring-like force that passes through the whole body, but also activates and engages the Jing Shen so that one’s spirit is vibrant and lively. The Nei Gong Classic, the Nei Gong Zhen Chuan, talks about this concept in another way:

There is a boney prominence behind each ear, which is and acu-point called Ti Qi (“Qi Uplifting”). When uplifting Qi it is necessary to raise it vertically, straight and bilaterally to avoid the many problems of leaning to the side. Students who are unaware of this key point are incapable of great Gong Fu.[11]

A very capable fighter who is a friend of mine describes this posture as being “regal.” Although he would not use terms like “fostering spirit” or “activating Jing Shen”, in fact this is exactly what he is referring to.

The concept of the Central Tendon, and to some degree the Front and Back Superficial Fascial Lines, in relation to Nei Gong and internal boxing, sound a lot like the “Central Channel,” a term which encompasses both the energetic pathways of the four of the Eight Extra Channels (Ren, Du, Dai and Chong), their surrounding physical structures, and the interconnection of Dan Tian and Ming Men, which also have energetic and physical elements. The interweaving of the Sinew Channels of Chinese medicine with the Central Channel creates nexi through which force and power can be transmitted, with the primary nexus being Dan Tian/Ming Men.

In Nei Gong and internal boxing, breathing, body alignment and subtle internal movements are trained in order to promote elastic, relaxed, and strong tissues, and healthy internal organs. Healthy organs make for healthy tissue and healthy tissue allows free circulation through the internal organs.

The famous Xing Yi boxer Cao Ji Wu said that the Wu Xing (Five Elements) are really five passes that are not guarded or blocked. In talking about the Five Elements, Cao includes the Five Zang Organs (Heart, Liver, Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys), which he says must be “full and replete.” When these passes are open, power is smooth and unblocked. Similarly if the Five Element Fists of Xing Yi are performed properly the organs are nourished and unrestricted. Xing Yi Master Liu Wen Hua says that only by training precisely and breaking the blockage of the five passes can Qi have the ability to gather in the Dan Tian area and flow into the four limbs.

Da Cheng Quan master Guo Gui Zhi builds on this idea as follows:

One past practitioner said: “Obtain more Qi after having understood the five organs. Obtain more force after having understanding the four extremities.” Filling the five organs consists of developing the capacity of being empty above and full below; empty and full of vitality in the abdomen and chest. It is necessary to understand that “empty and full of vitality” aims to have a sensation of fullness generated by the spirit.[12]

This statement brings us back to the most basic alignments of Zhan Zhuang practice with which this discourse began, but it adds the concept of the “Four Extremities” or “Four Tips”, which themselves are extensions of the internal organs. Cao Ji Wu describes the importance of the four tips as follows:

What are the Four Tips? In relation to the body as a whole, the hair pores are the tip of the blood, the nails of the fingers and toes are the tip of the sinews, the teeth are the tips of the bone, and the tongue is the tip of the flesh. When engaged with an opponent, the tongue must lift up the palate, so that the flesh tip is integrated When the wrist and ankle fill and open, the sinew tip is integrated. When the teeth come together, the bone tip is integrated. When the nape of the neck is propped up and open the blood tip is integrated. When the four tips are integrated internal power and force (Nei Jin) can be released.

For Xing Yi boxers the relationship between the Five Zang organs and the martial movements of the Five Elements or Five Fists is palpable. With practice is easy to see how Beng Quan moves and frees the liver, how Pao Quan opens the heart cavity and Heart Channel and how Heng Quan massages the spleen and stomach and frees sections of the spine related to these organs.

In this sense the Five Fists of Xing Yi, to some degree operate like Osteopathic techniques or Zang Fu Tui Na (organ regulating Tui Na) techniques, in which the organs are manipulated and their suspensory ligaments freed of restriction so that the organs can hang and move freely again. The internal organs slide and move in relation to one another and many organs, for example, the liver, have indentations or “impressions” that adjacent organs fit into. As one organ moves, rolls and rotates it other organs move with it.

Ba Gua practitioners say that the human body is a microcosm of the universe in which the celestial bodies rotate and circulate in relation to each other. By waking and rotating in a circle we harmonize more closely with these natural forces, and the organs themselves rotate in relation to one another. After a long session of circle walking, when one stops and stands quietly, one can feel the internal rotation of the organs, bones, sinews and other structures inside the body, that have been aroused by the internal circulation of Qi, which itself has been enhanced and augmented by walking the circle.

In Ba Gua Zhang and Tai Ji Quan the relationships between specific organs and specific movements are perhaps less clear than in Xing Yi, but still palpable. For example, in Ba Gua when holding the Heaven Upholding Posture while walking the circle, the chest and shoulders gradually and relax the lower abdomen becomes full. One has a sense of the stomach and intestines relaxing and being suspended, while the large intestine and stomach channels open and course freely. This posture is aid to “open Yang Ming” –  the stomach and  large intestine organs and their meridians.


[1] Dachengquan. Wang Xuan Jie (Hong Kong: Hai Feng Publishing Co. Ltd, 1988) p. 56)

[2] “The Action of Gravity on the Visceral Cavity” Francis Polgar (1946) Acta Radiologica, 27:6, 647-665, DOI: 10.3109/00016924609170121

[3] Science of Internal Strength Boxing. Zhang Nai Qi (1933). Translated by Marcus Brinkman. p. 18.

[4] Visceral Manipulation. Jean-Pierre Barral & Pierre Mercer (Seattle: Eastland Press, 1988) p. 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, pp. 24-25

[7] Visceral Manipulation in Osteopathy. Eric U. Hebgen (Stuttgart and New york, Thieme, 2011) p. 8.

[8] Ibid and “The Action of Gravity on the Visceral Cavity” Francis Polgar (1946) Acta Radiologica, 27:6, 647-665, DOI: 10.3109/00016924609170121 (p. 663).

[9] Anatomy Trains: Myofacial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapist. Thomas W. Myers (London and New Yrok: Churchill Livingstone, 2001) p. 93.

[10] Ibid, p. 114.

[11] Nei Gong: The Authentic Classic – A translation of the Nei Gong Zhen Chuan. Tom Bisio, Huang Guo Qi and Joshua Paynter, translators (Denver: Outskirts Press Inc, 2011) p. 35.

[12] Dacheng quan, L’art ultime de combat by Guo Guizhi (Paris: Arkanorum, 2001) pp. 37-38