When you set out to develop your internal energy using standing postures, there are two main ways you can go about it: by feel or by form.
Now, there will be a lot of overlap in these two broad approaches, like aligning your body with gravity without collapsing internally and progressively releasing and relaxing as you stand, but when it comes to the role of the mind, form and feel can be very different.
The Feeling Approach
You stand “by feel” for a few different reasons.
First, a good period of feeling, taking stock, and getting comfortable is useful almost any time you do your standing practice. Because our initial orientation in standing is inward, and we’re likely coming to it from a lot of outward-facing activity, taking 3, 5, or even 10 minutes to just stand and feel creates a nice buffer.
If you’ve settled in to your practice, then any “form” work you do for the remainder of the standing session will be much more productive: you’ll be quieter, more relaxed, and more tuned-in to your internal environment.
In fact, I recommend that you get to a comfortable baseline of just being able to settle, relax, and feel your body in a standing posture for 20 minutes before you move on to the form phase.
Another reason to take the feeling approach is to fully appreciate the effects of your posture.
The posture pictured above is a neutral posture, also referred to as Wu Chi. As soon as you raise the arms or change the stance, the effect of the body position will begin to shape what you feel, physically and energetically.
In other words, if you pick a different posture, you automatically start doing a different form. You don’t need to do anything special with the mind. Just feeling the new effects of a specific posture, compared to your Wu Chi baseline, can be enough to keep you occupied through much longer (2-hour!) standing sessions.
Finally, by taking the feeling approach, you can build your connection to the ground. As you stand, ask yourself these 3 questions. Over time, you will become more rooted, relaxed, and connected.
Moving into Standing Forms
Once you have a solid baseline of feeling the body, you can begin to work on the form.
Now, most people are familiar with Tai Chi Forms or choreographed sequences in other martial arts, but what do we mean when we use the word “form” in this context?
If you don’t think of “form” as movements, but instead think of it as a procedure, then it starts to make more sense. And the value of having a procedure, or a repeatable process, is that you can begin to see how you’re changing over time by performing it, both because you can use it as reference point and because doing it actually changes you.
In standing, the form is going to be what you do with your awareness.
Here I want to warn you: just like someone who follows the rote choreography of the Tai Chi form with no regard for softness, relaxation, and connection will be really stiff and awkward, if you follow the mind-forms without regard for the qualities you develop in the feeling approach, you will be stiff and awkward in your standing. You will just be going through a rigid mental checklist and the impact you will have on your energy and physical body will be limited.
On the other hand, if you can introduce a pattern of progressively sinking the mind through the body, while you maintain relaxation, connection, and root, all of the qualities you began to develop in the feeling approach will be amplified.
Your First Form: Downward Flow
In Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body, Bruce Frantzis teaches a standing qigong sequence that is designed to clear stagnant chi out of your energetic system.
The basic process is a standing “form” where you begin at the crown of the head and move your mind downward through the body each time you practice.
At the first level, an Energy Gates practice session is structured like this:
- Settle In (using the feeling method described above)
- Downward Scan
- Stillness, Settling Again, or Storing Chi
The more you practice Energy Gates, the more you will refine the Downward Scan piece. Specifically, you will go through stages of feeling your body to feeling your energy to sinking your energy and finally to dissolving your energy. Bruce discusses each of these stages in depth in the Energy Gates book.
At each stage of this process, though, the form is the same. You start at the top and work your way down. Every time you go through the body this way, no matter at what layer, you are strengthening the downward current of energy, which has a powerful restorative effect over time.
We often joke that the downward flow of chi in your body plays the same role as the downward flow of water in the plumbing system of your house. Not enough downward flow is a problem there, right?
Energy Gates Over Six Months
When you read the book or hear someone explain the Energy Gates process, it’s easy to picture a whole bunch of dots all over the body that light up as you do your scan. In fact, learning to feel the gates themselves is a natural extension of just being able to feel the denser tissues of the body directly.
You have to tune the mind to a slightly different frequency, but all the time spent standing and feeling pays off here: you’ve trained your mind to stay in one spot for extended periods without jumping around and without tensing up.
When you set out to do a complete pass through all the gates, it roughly breaks down into a six-month project. There are 23 main places you’ll want to work with and you could work with one per week (you can definitely spend longer on each gate, but this is just the basic formula). Here is the list from the Energy Arts resource page:
- Bai hui, or the crown of the head.
- The third eye, the eyes, the center of the ears and the temple. Also the four jaw points.
- Where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth and the throat notch.
- The base of the skull and in between each of the cervical (neck) vertebrae down to the seventh cervical vertebra at the base of the neck.
- From where the tongue touches the roof of your mouth to the end of the breastbone, on a line about the width of your mouth.
- The four points of the shoulder.
- The elbows.
- The wrists.
- The hands (all the points).
- The joints where the ribs connect to the sternum, the spaces between the ribs, the joints where the ribs connect to the spine, the area between the shoulder blades and the spine. For women only: the gates of the breasts (directly behind the nipples).
- The solar plexus.
- The whole of the belly, starting from the front and dissolving through the internal organs back to the spine.
- The tantien and the mingmen.
- All the points along the spine, from the occiput to the tailbone, paying special attention to the occiput, the seventh cervical vertebra, the vertebra in the center of the shoulder blades, the one at the base of the shoulder blades, mingmen and the tailbone.
- The hip sockets, the pelvic bones, and the kwa (that is, the area inside the front crest of the hip bones).
- The anus.
- The genitals.
- The perineum.
- The knees.
- The ankles.
- The feet.
- Below the floor.
- Above the head.
Now, when you start working through the gates, the structure of your practice session will change from what we laid out earlier.
For example, in week 1, it could look like this:
- Settle In – 5 minutes
- Feel the Crown of the Head – 5 minutes
- Scan Down through the Body – 3 minutes
- Storing Chi – 2 minutes
But week 11 would look something like:
- Settle In – 5 minutes
- Feel from the Crown of the Head down to the Solar Plexus – 5 minutes
- Feel the Solar Plexus – 8 minutes
- Scan Down through the Rest of the Body – 5 minutes
- Storing Chi – 2 minutes
In other words, you should spend a substantial amount of time on whatever gate is the “gate of the week.” However, your practice session should always start with settling, finish with gathering, and have an easy flow down to the “gate of the week” and then from the “gate of the week” down into the ground after the main focus time.
You’ll notice that as you go through the process of the gates, your standing time can go from 15-20 minutes during the first few weeks up to 45-60 minutes towards the end of the process. If you can only manage 15-20 minutes and slowly adding more feels like too much of a strain, I recommend that you stick with the feeling method and not worry about the gates.
Is it Very Taoist?
Here you might start to wonder about whether some of these guidelines for the form seem too rigid. How do you reconcile these recommendations with what you feel when you stand free-form?
And by the way, I’m not saying that “feeling” is kindergarten and “form” is more advanced. In fact, you should cycle between periods of each as you practice over time.
Guidelines and form serve a purpose. You need to work through the structure to develop certain things. Eventually, will you have a more intuitive feel for what you need and how much? Of course.
In the mean time, though, Flannery O’Connor captured the issue well, when she argued for a classical education: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
However counter-intuitive it seems at first, the best feeling, the most relaxation, and the greatest internal stillness that I’ve ever uncovered has come from the practice periods when I’ve given over to a form to follow. Later on, I can bask in that energy and “just feel” and enjoy it, but to get there, it was a lot of little small, formal steps along the practice road.
Wherever you find yourself on the standing path now, I hope this helps orient you a little more. Enjoy!