Releasing Tension and Improving Flexibility through Mind in Body and Self-Applied Massage

For the longest time, I always viewed Qigong instructors saying to “relax the hips” as referring to the exterior lateral area. You know, like the top of the pelvis, or the ‘hip joint,’ where the femur and pelvis intersect.

I had been practicing qigong regularly for over two years, with little improvement to show in my hip and leg flexibility while in various postures, when I had an insight that allowed my elasticity in that region to progress dramatically.

There is really but one practice I can attribute this discovery to.

Zhan Zhuang

Zhan zhuang, also known as “hugging tree” position, is a static Yiquan Qigong meditation practice.

It involves the practitioner standing as if in the wuji stance, elongating the spine by envisioning the tailbone sinking down to the earth and head suspended from heaven above, breathing into the gravity center or lower dan tian. Knees are slightly bent and facing straight ahead while envisioning the Bubbling Spring (Kd 1) point firmly rooted, grounding you to the earth.

The intent with both postures is to center the mind in the dan tian, and seeks to establish a connection to and stability of your gravity center (core). Proficiency in resting the mind in the dan tian makes you mentally and physically infrangible.

However, the main difference between the practices is that in Zhan zhuang, instead of placing your hands clasped over the dan tian (lower abdomen below navel) your arms are straight out in front of your chest, slightly relaxed, as if your were hugging the trunk of a mature oak tree. Hence, the nickname.

This added positional/structural element is often viewed as a way Zhan zhuang brings your mind into your body better than the Wuji stance, which is considered more a “resting” posture—for centering between exercises. Zhan zhuang forces the practitioner to be aware of the spots they have tension when the arms are outstretched, typically in the upper and mid-back regions.

As one commenter on a healing modality message board noted, “you can be completely lost in your mind in Wuji and there is no presence that forces you back into your body,” as in Zhan zhuang.

And even though you are not physically guarding it in Zhan zhuang like you would in Wuji since your arms are outstretched, you are forced to bring your attention back to the body, as there will no doubt be pain and tension somewhere, especially when just starting out.

Muscular tension signifies a blockage in Qi flow in the tender area. It is believed that Zhan zhuang, with enough intent practice, will resolve any habitual tension through the normalizing effect it has on the body.

This was certainly my experience when I began to practice. It blew my mind (though it probably shouldn’t have) how many knots were in my shoulder muscles and tendons. Through quick jerks of my neck, lower back, and knees, I was able to release a lot of these points with a satisfying ‘crack.’

But things really opened up when I took it a step further and began to massage the tender trigger points I discovered in Zhan zhuang.

Unsung Benefits of Self-Massage

Using a theracane, a hook-shaped hard plastic massage tool, I would novicely dig into tender spots in my back that were brought to my attention during Zhan zhuang practice. It was certainly difficult to relax the spots and breathe into them while applying consistent, pressure because of the sharp pain many radiated throughout various parts of my upper body. But the payoff was sure worth it if I was able.

I’d released blockages in all sorts of body awareness meditations—static or dynamic, seated or standing, short practices and long ones. But never did I achieve the sort of gratification from any of them that I’ve gotten from self-massage.

I would literally feel like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. The neck muscles around my collarbone just seemed to open up, and I felt more lucid and mentally alive—maybe this was from improved bloodflow to the brain as the neck muscles were at least temporarily relaxed and dilated.

Beyond just the release of years of bottled up tension in my upper back and neck, pinning down and easing into those shoulder trigger points allowed releases in several other seemingly unconnected tissues. Specifically, my knees and ankles.

I knew I had fairly severe inflammation or swelling in the back of my knees and interior of my ankles that came and went, and I was occasionally able to find relief while in practice or sometimes just moving around. However, I never really found a method that offered a more permanent solution.

But, this problem surprisingly began to resolve itself through massaging my upper back. Suddenly with a resounding, satisfying ‘crack,’ the unshakeable swelling in the back of my right knee was resolved. I also released swelling in my ankles, but the newfound knee mobility was the most satisfactory.

Now I was equipped with knowledge of the reactive measures I could take to combat this occurrence. But what I really sought was a proactive approach to prevent the swelling from happening in the first place.

Well, an insight from Qigong Master Mantak Chia led to me to discover something I could do in my practice, and even better, in waking life in general, to prevent it.

Releasing the Gracilis

I was watching an old lecture of his that showed diagrams of all the primary organ meridians and their corresponding physical manifestations of deficiency. The one in particular which piqued my interest was the spleen meridian slide.

Courtesy of Mantak Chia

I already believed I suffered from a spleen Qi deficiency because of the emotional symptoms associated—obsessive thoughts and overthinking, disordered eating, and lack of mental constitution (clarity) (brain fog and forgetfulness).

However, prior to seeing this slide I wasn’t familiar with the physical symptoms like ankle, interior knee and thigh muscle pain, tightness in the groin, and a strained mid-back region.

Though for years I’d been coping with a hernia (that seemed to come and go) and tightness along the groin and upper thigh adductor muscles, I’d stretch that region while warming up, but never thought to make it a particular point of emphasis until now. Honest mistake, though; I hadn’t been privy to the physical manifestations of a spleen Qi deficiency.

I immediately began looking at images of the composition of the “adductor muscles of the thigh.” I discovered the existence of a long, ribbon-like muscle running from the bottom front of the public bone to the back of the knee, where it connects with the top of the tibia, and turns into a tendon. This muscle is named as “the gracilis.”

As soon as I read that it connects to a tendon in the knee, I put two and two together—instantly I knew this was the muscle I was habitually tensing up and the culprit holding my flexibility back from progressing.

From then on, I started making the gracilis a particular point of emphasis during stretching, tai chi practice, and equally, if not more importantly, just while sitting, walking or standing in waking life.

My practice has improved by leaps and bounds. And really all I needed to do was stop straining my face, enjoy the exercises, and breathe in and relax the hips and thighs, specifically the gracilis muscle.

I used to dread doing the splits while warming up, and several other adductor muscle-focused positions because of the discomfort. But now that I’m not fearful these positions are not as uncomfortable, and I can enjoy the practice, release the gracilis and improve flexibility.

Enjoying the posture has become easy because I sense and can appreciate the growth. I’ve taken on a growth mindset in my practice, and am rewarded by the improvement itself, instead of treating myself to some external reward after the exercise.

Just like with so many other things, it’s primarily a psychological battle.

The various areas I’ve improved flexibility or alleviated deep-seated tension through self-applied massage and just bringing my mind into my body include:

  • The ability to finally put my left heel on the ground in Pubu position after two years of daily practice.
  • Release of a mad knot in my neck around the C7 vertebrae, and what felt like years of inflammation/edema in back of my left knee when staying grounded and relaxing face and specific spot in my back I was applying massage to.
  • My hernia seems to have subsided, at least temporarily.

Using the takeaways I gathered through these experiences, I formulated a new hierarchy of areas to be mindful of when in practice, or just going about my day. I only call it a hierarchy because it goes from head to foot—the lower body focus points aren’t particular more important than the top; they are all equally essential to focus on.

However, despite all this hubbub about the gracilis, if I had to pick one thing that I’ve found most important, it’s relaxing the face, smiling to the organs, and not fighting the position—just releasing the mind and letting go is paramount for any Qigong practice I’ve come across.

My newfound “chain of focus” is:

  • Relaxing face and shoulders and smiling with the eyes into the organs
  • Breathing into/straightening spine, specifically the T7 vertebra
  • Mind centered in the lower dan tian
  • Grounding, while paying particular attention to the gracilis, the back of the knee, and Yongquan point (Kidney 1) at the ball of the foot

– CC


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