The Transformative Power of Conscious Standing
The Transformative Power of Conscious Standing
by Dennis Lewis
Human beings spend most of their time in three postures: lying down, sitting, and standing. These postures represent different ways of being in the world. Lying down, which releases us from the major influences of gravity on our bodies, activates our parasympathetic nervous system, a sense of our vegetative reality. It is a posture that generally relaxes us and leads to unconsciousness and dreams. Standing, which maximizes the influence of gravity on our bodies, activates our sympathetic nervous system, a sense of the aims and aspirations related to our self-image. It is a posture that lends itself to alertness and action. Sitting, which is a kind of middle ground, activates both our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, but to a lesser degree than either lying down or standing. It is a posture that naturally lends itself to meditation and calm reflection.
Though most meditative techniques are taught in sitting postures, the recent influx into the West of qigong standing practices has opened the door to what is to most Westerners a powerful new approach to self-study and self-transformation. Authentic qigong standing practices (qigong means energy practice) are designed to help conserve, balance and transform our inner energies, as well as to help open us to the energies of the earth, of nature and of the heavens. Because these practices are able to help harmonize all the various energies available to us, they are ideally suited to healing and self-transformation.
Learning to Let Go
One of the most powerful aspects of qigong standing, and one that is sometimes overlooked, is its ability to help us learn to “let go” at both the physical and psychological levels. You may have heard about or seen tai chi or other masters who, while standing in a totally relaxed posture, cannot be moved from their position or lifted off the floor, no matter how small they are or how big the person attempting to push them or lift them. This has to do with learning how to release any unnecessary tension in our bodies and discovering how to allow our weight to settle downward through our bones, tendons and ligaments into the earth. Such a person is supported by the earth not just physically, but also energetically. One does not have to be a master to learn this, although one does need the help of a teacher to demonstrate the principles involved.
If one works with this practice both deeply enough and long enough, one begins to understand that letting go physically is not possible without letting go psychologically, and that letting go psychologically is not possible without letting go physically. One sees with absolute certainty that the old stale ideas, attitudes, emotions and impressions of our minds are equivalent to the unnecessary tensions and habits of our bodies, and that they are all irrevocably linked. Body and mind must be worked on simultaneously if any real transformation is to take place. Before we can undertake such a transformation, however, we must recognize that this linkage is indeed a reality in our lives. As an experiment, over the next few days observe as often as you can how you stand in the various conditions of your lives. Wait until you’ve had a chance to experiment in this way before continuing on with this article.
If you are honest in your observations, you will see that, in fact, you seldom “just stand,” that you almost always do something else as well. You will catch yourself leaning against a wall, crossing your hands over your belly or chest, putting your hands in your pockets, twisting your body in some way, shifting your weight back and forth, and so on. As you observe yourself in these various standing postures, see if you can sense your breathing and the various tensions in your body. See if you can also notice the kinds of thoughts and feelings you are having. Try this for a few days before reading further.
Once you’ve received clear impressions of the ways you normally stand, try a new experiment. When you stand, whether you’re with people or alone, allow your weight to sink equally onto both feet and let your hands simply hang at your sides, palms facing behind you. Be sure that your weight is sinking to the middle of your feet, not just to the balls of your feet or your heels. Have the sense that you are being supported by the earth, and that there is nothing that you need to do except experience yourself standing in this way. Try carrying on a conversation with some one this way. As the conversation continues, can you continue to stand in such a way that your weight is evenly balanced and that you maintain a sense of openness and vulnerability? See if you can notice the precise moment when the openness vanishes, when you twist, turn, lean, shift or use your hands to cover or protect some part of your body. If you try this experiment seriously over a number of days or weeks, you will receive many new, informative impressions of yourself.
Now you’re ready to take the experiment a bit further. By yourself, try all the same things standing with your feet parallel to each other, about shoulder width (or less) apart, with your knees just slightly bent. Relax your shoulders, shoulder blades, and chest. Gently adjust your coccyx (tail bone) so that it is more or less pointed directly down toward the ground. When this happens, the arch in your lower back will naturally flatten out. See if you can sense your lower back and sacrum connecting directly to your legs. (Remember to let your arms hang naturally at your sides with your palms facing back.) Once you are more or less comfortable in this posture, use your attention to slowly scan your entire body from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet, noting where there is any unnecessary tension in your muscles. As you scan your body, do not attempt to change anything. Simply observe and sense. Once you reach the bottoms of your feet, start again from the top of your head and see if you can gradually release any unnecessary tension in your muscles downward through your body into the earth. As you try this, you will begin to sense a new dimension of inner balance, a sense of being supported by and rooted to the earth. Start out by standing this way for at least five minutes a day. Once your legs and pelvis begin to feel comfortable in this posture you can move on to ten or fifteen minutes a day or more.
After undertaking this practice for a couple of weeks, begin to experiment with it in your ordinary life-as you talk to friends, wait in line, and so on. The idea is not to take the same exact posture that you take when working alone, but rather to have the continuing sensation of releasing all your muscular tension downward through your body into the earth. See if you can “just stand” with your weight equally distributed through both feet and your arms at your sides, totally open to whatever impressions or perceptions the moment may bring. If you observe a thought or emotion making some part of your body tense, just return to the sensation of releasing this tension downward into the earth. As you continue to work in this way in whatever circumstances you may find yourself, you will begin to discover a deep sense of relaxation not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. You will find yourself spontaneously “letting go” of much that is unnecessary in your life.
This article was originally published in the quarterly newsletter/journal Inner Alchemy: Exploring the Art & Science of Self-Transformation, and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. Dennis Lewis is the author of the highly acclaimed book The Tao of Natura Breathing, and the recently released audio program from Sounds True entitled Breathing as a Metaphor for Living. To communicate with Dennis Lewis, or to learn more about his book, audio program, or journal, you can visit hiswebsite at http://www.breath.org, call 415-282-4896, or write Mountain Wind at PO Box 31376, San Francisco, CA 94131.