Pole Shaking is one of those often referred to and rarely explained publicly training exercises that seem to carry a sense of the esoteric with it. There are various methods of pole shaking found in many different arts and all of them are working towards the same goal of connectivity, structure, power and the ability to emit force over a distance. That in itself sounds pretty far out but that distance is not referring to projecting qi though the air it is getting the power generated within the body to the hands or ideally through the extension of the body, the pole, in order to carry it into an opponent’s body in combat.
One of the things mentioned about the exercise is that it trains the Dantien. Unfortunately often times this is left as a statement that students just accept and are left wondering what that means and to hope something good will happen over time. If the exercises are trained and corrected well then yes the Dantien will be trained and power will be generated but what does that actually mean?
Dantien is not just a space under the navel where “qi” is stored, it is that from a certain point of view but it is also not just that as well. Using the word Dantien is referring to many things and like any Chinese concept needs context for any discussion. Briefly the idea that it stores post heaven qi that is used to perform the functions of daily life means that the things you put in it like sandwiches, water and so on give one a good feeling in that area and allows you to have energy that you can then use for your life. It is post heaven because it is gathered after you are born, no sandwiches, no energy. (I think I am hungry…)
Martial artists refer to Dantien as a place where movement originates in the body and since it is the centre of mass and the location of many different muscle groups in the abdomen (Psoas, Illiacus, upper and lower abdominals, etc.) it is a powerful place where muscular chains of movement can be activated and radiate outwards through the body. The ability to move those muscles first in the torso and have that twisting (ning jin捻勁) power cascade upwards and downwards through the torso to the limbs allows more and more muscle groups to be added to the force of the movement. In this way by the time a movement ripples out to the hand many various groups of muscle have activated to continue to accelerate and generate force for when that hand touches an opponent.
Pole shaking then requires the Dantien to be moved first in order to create the cascade of muscular contraction throughout the body needed in order to move a heavy stick with enough force to shake it at the completion of movement. In order to do this Dantien must be “tightened like the head of a drum” meaning an engagement of the abdomen that is not “tightening” nor “relaxed” or “loose”. The head of a drum must be tuned by stretching it to create a desired tone. The abdomen needs to be engaged in a way that creates tonus in the muscle beyond its natural state but still having much more ability to engage. If I were to arbitrarily put percentages to it then I would say the Dantien should be 10 – 20% engaged before movement begins in order to create connectivity through the torso especially for cross body engagement. Pole shaking is like weight lifting for the Dantien.
A good pole for the training will be heavy enough that the player needs to engage the Dantien in order to effectively move it without relying on the arms alone. If it is too light it is easy to cheat and try to shake it with the arms only but it should not be so heavy as to be unwieldy for a person to lift. In my experience a pole of Bai Lai Mu (白蠟木) White Wax Wood is not only the traditional material for the pole but is a perfect material for flex. You can pole shake with a hardwood staff but it simply won’t shake so it will be hard to get the feedback to know if you are doing it well and when you generate enough force to try and shake a pole any mistakes in your own structure can cause you harm. Something is going to shake either you or the pole simple as that. When I first started learning it I was told it was not safe to shake a hardwood pole and being me I tried anyway when Shifu was not around and dislocated a vertebrae in my neck…. Get a soft flexible pole. I would caution against rattan simply because it is too flexible and easy to shake, you don’t want easy, you want training.
So long as the movements of the pole shaking are done with Dantien moving first, the Dantien engaged and the rest of the body engaging towards its extremities throughout the movement then over time as everything gets better coordinated and you become stronger all over the pole will start to shake. Each movement of the pole should have a shaking quality to it when you pause on them. The typical variant is Lan (Obstruct), Na (Sieze), Zha (Stab) from Chinese spear training and each movement should have the shake from the power emitting from the body. Not as easy as it sounds.
Of course there is always a yin/yang reversal in any exercise and to only understand or train one side is to limit your progress and understanding. In this case the physical movements and engagements of the Dantien and rest of the body are the Yin 陰– the tissue, the thing you can touch like the earth, the physical. The Yang 陽 aspect- the untouchable, the ethereal like the sun or heaven is the mind. Once the physical movements are trained and become fairly natural one generally finds that the pole does not want to shake yet or does not move very much especially in comparison to more advanced players. A caution about using a pole that is extremely long and flexible it is very easy to shake such a stick and that gives one a false sense of accomplishment. If it is too easy it is not training, if it is too hard it is not useful, balance, as always, is the key.
The mind must be free from the basic movements in order to train the more Yang (ethereal) side of the exercise. Once the mind is no longer concentrating on the basic fundamentals of the movements like shoulders down, scapula pulled towards the waist, neck long like listening behind you, Dantien tightened like the head of a drum, pressing the earth away from you with the feet, standing in your legs not on them, spine straight from Da Zhui to Mingmen, elbows closer to the body than your wrists, knees remaining above the feet through each movement and so on. Then the mind can be freed to work on the intention that creates the long power (Chang Jin長勁) which is the specialty of the spear and pole shaking practice.
Chang Jin means power that can travel a long ways. This does not mean through the air to hit opponents like street fighter style fireballs (Hadoken波動拳, Down, Down-Forward, Forward + Punch ) it means power that can travel through the body or weapon you hold and then transfer into an opponent, ideally either right through them to cause internal damage or to throw them away. The mind during the pole shaking exercises simply needs to be “reaching” through the pole past its extreme end. It is like reaching for your keys under the couch and trying to make your arm just a few inches longer. In bare handed training I tell students to reach through their fingers in the same way. This allows connectivity and power to reach your fingertips. Training with a long pole and doing this same mental training allows for the pole to become more a part of your body than something you are holding and lets that connection be used to have the power you generate reach the tip of the pole more easily. Mental change creates physical change in the same way our posture changes when we experience emotions like grief or joy changing how we think as we move changes what happens within us as we move. This is one of the many reasons martial artists benefit from meditative practices to strengthen the mind. Without a focused mind free from distractions this type of progress is very hard to achieve.
Pole shaking was a huge turning point for me in my training; nothing ever gave me a more visceral feeling of connection in so little time. It was one of the few exercises I was made to do and trust and saw results quickly in technique practice and sparring with and without weapons. I could not recommend it more.
Hope this helps.