I’ve been in martial arts a long time and I’ve seen this issue volleyed back and forth. Personally, I continue to believe that standing practice is important and useful. The trouble is that there is a deep, deep contradiction in the way it is taught in many schools.
To start the discussion, it is important to remember that when you talk about teaching Chinese orphans in, say, the Tai Gou school near the Shaolin Temple, you are also talking about a school where they beat them with sticks, literally, when the young ones are not practicing right. In this paradigm, standing practice is as much punitive as educative. Like the mandatory pushups in boot camp, Horse standing until your legs quiver like Jello in a rainstorm, at least makes your young miscreants stronger if not better behaved. The instruction in this case is simple, “Stand there and don’t move,” because kids are going to be fidgeting all over the place. But this type of instruction—remain immobile or get beaten—has somehow grown into an adult goal, too. That’s not to say that there are not those who subscribe to the idea of perfect stationary standing, but probably to a much lesser degree that people believe.
In significant books like the invaluable Wujishi Breathing Exercise by Cai Song Fang, a member of the Yi Quan practitioners, Mr. Cai is very strong on the side of stillness. He quotes, “Slight movement is better than violent movement whereas stillness is the best.” But closer scrutiny makes us realize that he is talking about uncontrolled and ever-disturbed movement. Slight movements he considers comparatively insignificant. To make the point even clearer, he is discussing movement that can be easily observed from the outside. The concept of focused intent and appropriate internal movement is not discussed, though other Yi Quan practitioners have a similar viewpoint that focused movement can be more beneficial than just standing.
It is easy to become confused here. There is an ancient Taoist saying that many forms of training use as a guide, “When the outside is still the inside moves. When the outside is moving the inside is still.” This implies that when you are standing still you have a maximum force building up in you. Many teachers take from this that the idea is to not move at all so the maximizing internal movement can be monitored and refined. Yet, what do we do with the famous Qigong adage quoted so often by Tai Chi students? “Moving meditation is 100, 1000 times better than stationary.”
We have to regard standing practice as a conversation rather than listening to a speech. The use of it—to heal, to strengthen, to explore, to calm—is the criterion for how we practice it. Every method, if understood properly has something to offer. The idea is to avoid creating the energy and then suppressing or ignoring it from too strict an adherence to misunderstood principles. Movement must exist in the stillness or there is no real stillness. We are not talking about transcendental goals but mindful martial practice.
For instance, I believe that every stance should have internal movement. There should be no denying the inner workings you are supposedly promoting. If you are in a Horse Stance you should feel the motivated planting of both feet into the ground while dropping the kua and arching the legs to focus into the lower stomach: all active verbs. You should also sense a counter-action of elevating the spine. In the Cat stance the movement is retreating. Here the counter-action is the front leg pushing forward. A Cat stance is really sitting in a invisible chair at such a glacial rate that it is undetectable. In a Bow stance you thrust forward so the action should feel something like you are going to propel yourself into in the next step. This is the essence: to seem like you are about to advance. The counter-action, pushing back against the forward tendency, keeps you from actually executing that step.
These are fine distinctions. You can stand and just wait for things to happen. You can stand and encourage them to happen. You can stand and do both, listening for uncluttered information while continuing to focus your intent on the appropriate goals. The highest level therefore recognizes no difference from Yin and Yang—listening and doing—because it sees them as sunlit and shadowed sides of the same knoll.