Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wujifa Zhan Zhuang Practice: Tight Calves and Ankles

A fairly common sticky point in people’s Zhan Zhuang practice(s) shows up in the arena of tight calves and ankles. There are a number of reasons for this; from simple tension, misalignments, prior injuries, and poor postures. Many times these problems haven’t happened over night and have been years in the making. The good thing is that we will be taking another look at this today.

First of all there are a number of ways to practice: lying down, sitting in chairs, and a number of different postures. If you’re just starting out be sure to find someone who can help you start out on the right foot as they say. If the standing postures are too difficult ask about seated or laying postures. Also, just because you are seated or laying down doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult. Some postures can be very advanced and other postures more helpful and simplified for those who do not have the ability to practice standing or even certain seated postures.

Since there are so many different ways to practice let’s start with a basic Wujifa Zhan Zhuang standing posture. The basic standing post posture, feet parallel about shoulder width apart, lining up the body over the feet, arms at your side and bending your elbows so your forearms are parallel to the ground, palms of hands facing each other. Then bend the knees slightly and the feeling is “as if” you were going to start to sit down.

Now, let’s talk about the ankles and lower legs. It is becoming more and more common to find beginners having problem showing up with tight ankles and associated tightness in the tendons and ligaments of the ankle and lower leg. I’ve seen people who try to move slightly deeper into posture and end up shifting their weight into their toes or even start to rise up off their heels or losing their balance because of this problem.

Of course if tight ankle tendons, ligaments and calves are a problem remember doing basic warm-up like circling of the ankle and simple stretches can help. Still there are a number of people who have deep set patterns in their body that took years to develop and it will take some time to change or re-pattern these. No worries, assuming you are healthy enough to practice standing postures such as a basic Zhan Zhuang posture there is a trick, method, or as we like to say in Wujifa “medicine” that has worked very well for a number of people with this sort of problem. This method uses an artificial aid placed under the heels or heel blocks to compensate for the shortened tendons and calf muscles.

Heel blocks can be as simple as a piece of sturdy wood an inch or so thick placed under the heel to start with. This allows the shortened ligaments of the ankle and calf to relax. This way they are not put under as much stress as with the more aligned basic Zhan Zhuang posture. Then over time the block can be sanded down or thinner blocks used. Some people have even used books and placed them under the heel, removing a page every couple days until the ‘medicine’ isn’t needed any more. Always make sure that whatever “method” you use that it is sturdy enough and won’t slide out from under your heels. As you can see this heel block method aims toward allowing the body to let go and re-pattern slowly and more naturally over time and for many people with this kind of issue this is a much better way to learn and grow. Of course you can always practice in a higher posture and slowly over time allow yourself to sink down. That is a good method too. Having more than one option is always helpful to gaining insight and making progress in your practices.

Remember eating bitter may be a good medicine, as they say. At the same time forcing the body to do something it isn’t ready to do isn’t. Sometimes taking the easier road may be the right medicine or method for your practice. The bottom line is, use common sense, be practical, and like all good gongfu learn and grow over time.


  1. Hey! For such a "foundational" part of the body, the lower legs are a part of myself I have not given enough attention over the years. Perhaps you can give some advice for a twisted lower leg... one where the knee does not habitually want to line up right over the 2nd toe to heel line? This is my issue... it seems right now my #1 and #2 tend towards a 30 degree angle to each other instead of parallel.


  2. Practicing the Wujifa Zhan Zhuang with their method of structural alignment (feet are parallel) has pointed out a problem with my foot-ankle-calf-hip complex which prompted me to see an orthopedist and physical therapist. At a very broad level, it all comes down to identifying and stretching and relaxing specific, chronically tense muscles. Between the therapist's exercises and Wujifa exercises, I'm slowly "unwinding" even more.

    As my therapist told me, if the feet don't provide a stable foundation for what's above, then the the pelvis tightens to provide a stable foundation for what's above.

    You have to get the feet right to allow the body to relax!

    Thanks for hitting this important point again!