Updated: Oct 6
I’m a big fan of standing meditation and I try to encourage my students to practice it as often as they can. Most people think of meditation as an activity that involves sitting. Sitting meditation is a wonderful way of cultivating awareness and getting in tune with the workings of your mind of course, but lots of people struggle with sitting, even for relatively short periods for a variety of reasons.
If you’re tired or have some physical pain, sitting meditation may not work particularly well for you. The pain might increase or, if you are tired, it could give your mind exactly the excuse it needs to drift off into daydream or sleep. Not much awareness or focus going on there.
Meditation is about developing the mind’s ability to rest in and be deeply aware of the present moment without judgement. We want a posture that is going to help us develop that state. The standing posture might be the solution if you struggle with sitting.
Most people find that in standing meditation it takes a shorter time to get centred and come to a place of stillness, allowing for a much easier path into focused awareness than the conventional sitting posture. It’s partly for this reason that the novice monks at the Shaolin Temple in China are made to stand whilst meditating. Sitting meditation is only for the more advanced practitioners. It is said that the Korean Zen master, Kusan Sunim would push himself to practice standing meditation for longer periods by practicing with a knife placed at his throat for motivation and to keep himself from falling asleep.
Even when held for relatively short periods of time (no need for a knife at the throat!), there are many benefits to standing meditation.
THE BENEFITS OF STANDING MEDITATION
1/ The standing position forces you to become much more deeply aware of the places in your body where you hold excess tension. By placing your awareness into those locations, the tension tends to dissolve very quickly.
2/ It can help to energise and realign your physical posture, enhance your endurance and strengthen your core muscles. Bad posture is ‘normal’ for most modern people resulting in sluggish energy levels and a lack of vitality. Standing meditation corrects this, improving your posture throughout the rest of the day.
3/ Meditation can stimulate the immune system through an increase in electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insular, and the right hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain that control the positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety levels. They are also the parts of the brain that control the immune system and help it to function more effectively when stimulated.
4/ According to Yang Yang, founder of the Centre for Tai Chi and Qi Gong Studies in the US, standing meditation is also said to increase bone density. In standing meditation, you are encouraging your bones and posture to take your body weight, which is normally held by furniture and the stabilizer muscles. Standing acts as a catalyst for activity within the skeletal structure by creating intense pressure.
5/ The quality of your sleep can improve, and it can help fight the effects of insomnia. It’s also a great way to energise your day.
6/ If you suffer from arthritic pain in your hips, legs, or spine (as I do), you might want to take up standing meditation sooner rather than later. The standing posture allows for the free flow of energy and blood through the areas that are the most prone to pain, especially the lower back. Standing meditation can repair, regenerate and amplify the natural springiness in the sinews and the strength of the joints.
I’ve suffered from severe pain in my left knee, left hip, and lower back for some years, but always managed to cope with it somehow. However, about six months ago the pain in my knee and the rest of my leg became so intense, I could barely walk to my front door. Zhan Zhuang eased the pain in a matter of days. My lower back is now mostly pain-free, and although I do still suffer from arthritic pain in my knee and leg, it is significantly less than it used to be. I can now walk for some considerable distance before I have to take a break.
7/ Standing meditation can help to boost the body’s own self-repair and health recovery systems. A Chinese study by Professor Yu Yong-Nian, of Teh Lu Hospital in Beijing, showed a significant increase in the protein of red blood cells which resulted in an increased flow of oxygen to various organs, helping the body to relax further. This relaxation response led to an optimisation of the body’s ability to restore health.
HOW TO DO STANDING MEDITATION
So how do you practice standing meditation? One of the best ways is through a practice called Zhan Zhuang (pronounced Jan Jong), a dynamic form of standing meditation from ancient China.
Zhan Zhuang means standing like a tree or pole standing. There are traditionally five separate standing postures in Zhan Zhuang. When practiced together they encourage a free flow of energy through the body. It’s a method that the Chinese use to cure many of the body’s illnesses through the release of long-held tension. In this practice, we are going to focus on just the first posture. This is a posture called wuji. Wuji is the position of primal energy and encourages huge flows of energy or chi through the body, strengthening it and bringing harmony and balance back to the body’s various systems.
Let’s not lose sight of our primary meditation goal, however, which, like sitting meditation is the cultivation of awareness, bringing the mind to a deep state of absorption. In practicing Zhan Zhuang it's important to bring your awareness to the state of your body, subtly adjusting it if necessary to perfect the posture as much as possible.
This is how we stand in our wuji posture:
1/ Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel to each other. Imagine that you are standing on train tracks.
2/ Stand up straight and extend from the crown of your head upwards towards the sky. Imagine that your head is suspended above your spine and floating above your neck.
3/ Now roll your hips forward a little as if you were sitting on the edge of a high stool. This straightens the spine a little in the lower back region and helps to open up the flow of energy within your body.
4/ Have your knees slightly bent, but make sure that when you look down, you can still see your toes. The knees should not be blocking this view due to being over-extended.
5/ Make sure that your shoulders are relaxed. Bring your awareness there and if you find any tension, consciously breathe it out. Now round your upper back a little so that you create a slightly concave shape with your chest and with your shoulder blades relaxed so that they sit flat against the back of your ribs.
6/ Allow your arms to hang comfortably at your sides. Imagine that you are holding a small egg under each armpit. I want to emphasise the SMALL egg bit here. I was teaching the standing meditation in a class in Cairo recently and it seemed to me that my students were imagining dinosaur or ostrich eggs under their arms! Allow your hands and your arms to hang loose. Your palms should be facing your hips but not touching them.
7/ Tuck your chin in and roll your head back so that you open up the area where the spine meets the base of your skull.
8/ Keep your eyes slightly open and gaze ahead. Allow your lips to be slightly parted and your jaw relaxed. Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
9/ Now breathe naturally and comfortably through your nose and allow your whole body to relax on each out-breath.
10/ Once you feel settled in your posture, do a body scan. Start at the top of your head and scan down your body towards your toes. Wherever you find any tension, such as in the jaw, mouth, neck, shoulders, etc breathe into it and allow the tension to dissolve. Apart from releasing the tension, which is a practice of perfecting the posture itself, we are not attempting to do anything with the body. We are just standing and noting what we find. If we find an itch or an irritation, we note it and pass on.
If your mind wanders, this is okay, this is what the mind does. Notice it and bring it back to the focus. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered, this is a moment of awareness. You are succeeding in the meditation.
Standing meditation is a wonderful alternative to sitting meditation. Even if you are fine and comfortable with sitting, it would still be a good idea to have a go at standing for the different health benefits that are not available to you through the conventional sitting postures.
A good meditation practice should be able to move fluidly into our normal daily activities. Standing, like walking, is a normal human activity that requires the use of the body. We should try to incorporate this into our regular meditation routine whenever possible. It will help us to become more mindful at times when we are not sat on our cushion as well as improving our overall health. We can stand and meditate anywhere.