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The very first time I did standing qigong (8 postures held for 5 minutes each, totalling 40 minutes), my arms and legs started to violently shake, not necessarily at the same time, and then there were moments of stillness before it would start up again. It was a remarkable experience, if a little unnerving, but my whole body felt so light and relaxed at the end and it made me realise how much tension was stored up. The next few times I did it, my body still shook a lot, but less intensely than the first time.

What is happening physiologically to cause this shaking? Is the intensity of the shaking cumulative, such that it will reduce over time with regular practice? Or does it just depend on how tense you are at the particular time you do it?

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Every individual muscle fiber cannot contract for long without being damaged. Therefore, in any static posture or exertion of strength over a significant period of time, muscle fibers within muscle bundles and muscle bundles within muscles coordinate with each other to do the job in turns, as it were.

This is normal and the reason why we can exert much more strength in extreme situations than in less existential ones: You activate (almost) all fibers at once, which allows you (or the ones you rescue) to survive but at the cost of doing structural damage to your muscles.

Now, why do you start to shake? This is a sign of your muscles being stressed beyond their normal parameters: The muscle fibre and bundle coordination breaks down as they cannot recover properly and allow for a smooth transition between activation and deactivation anymore. In other words: You experience what happens when fibers and bundles "fail" to do their job as they cannot sustain the energy generation and others "jumping in" too late (hence the shaking) since they did not fully recover to their normal parameters and were not ready to do the job in time.

On one hand, this is good and wanted since that is the training stimulus that leads to stronger muscles (here: via better coordinated muscle fibers and bundles and more efficient energy production so that they outlast longer). It also means that all fibers are used extensively, after which they have to recover, ie. your muscle tension is lower, the muscles can completely relax since they must. On the other hand, it means that you should be aware that maintaining this overstressing of muscles for longer periods of time necessarily leads to structural damage. If you do this for too long or neglect recovery times of 48-72 hours, it can even lead to exercise-induced haematuria ("red urine").

In other words: If you start to shake violently too early into the eight minutes, say, earlier than 30-45 seconds before they end, I would really consider shortening the time until your muscles adapted accordingly. Also, if it comes to this, at least 48 hours of recovery time should be standard. Otherwise, it can actually be detrimental to both your muscular development and your kidneys (since they are the organs that have to deal with the "waste" produced by structural damage, ie. dead cells and blood).

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    This is the correct answer, IMO. Qigong exercises have you bend your knees and hold postures. Even if they seem easy to do at first, after a while they can add up to cause muscle fatigue. And that causes the shakes. The traditional Chinese explanation is like: "Shaking is caused by blockages in the chi flow. In time, they will be cleared away." If not "blockages", I've heard it called "toxins" and "weakness" in general. It makes students want to do it more and more, and most will just give up altogether, because the shakes don't generally go away. They may lessen a bit over time. Oct 19 at 17:12
  • Thank you for the detailed answer. The standing qigong I did was for 40 minutes total and the shaking would start about 3 or 4 minutes in, then grow in intensity until about 8-10 minutes, where I would peak until about 25 minutes in, at which point, it calmed down significantly with some spikes until the time was up. There was some brief reduction in intensity when I changed pose. It was a weekly class, so I didn't experience any negative effects as I had plenty of time to recover.
    – Jenny
    Oct 19 at 18:24
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    @Jenny At one (brief) point in my life, I trained to hold a standing Zhan Zhuang qigong for over 2 hours at a time. It's a bit silly now that I look back on it. I don't think you're accomplishing anything except being able to tolerate it. The shakes will make you feel like you're a weak person, not just physically but also in terms of your character, as is often alluded to by instructors. There's a cult-like feeling to it. If only your character was stronger, you could endure it longer and your spiritual energy will grow to the point where you can be a master, or even a Buddha. :) Oct 19 at 19:35
  • @Steve Weigand I get that 😊 I'm definitely wary of any cult-like vibes. I guess there's probably a sweet spot in the middle when it comes to practice. I could do with pushing myself more towards that point, so that's more my issue rather than having to rein it back in. I definitely didn't feel like doing more than the 40 minutes, that was plenty and it felt good 😊
    – Jenny
    Oct 19 at 20:25
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I do not have experience in qigong, but I have seen this behavior in yoga, when standing at attention in odd poses in marching band Color Guard, and in some martial arts. It basically comes down to muscular tension in an unaccustomed pose. Almost every static position that humans hold requires some degree of effort to maintain that position, even just attempting to stand still. One the goals in training a static position is to train your brain and muscles to be able to maintain a position with minimal effort, but initially, especially with an unfamiliar position, it requires more effort, and as you start to tire, the balancing pressure of the muscles fail to properly match, and much like overcorrection of steering on a icy road, it's easy for this to grow worse as you try to correct it. This shaking will often stop when your body refinds the equilibrium, goes to a position where it's easier to balance, or simply exhausts itself enough that it's not firing as strongly to maintain that position.

My experience is that this has more to do with general familiarity with the positions, and overall lack of fatigue, rather than any particular tenseness in the body, although tenseness (or caffeine) can lead to twitches that start the instability feedback loop.

Alternately, I'm sure one could form a narrative of how your body is channeling the chi imperfectly and so your limbs are twitching like a garden hose that is suddenly filling with water. 😁

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What is happening physiologically to cause this shaking?

Sorry, I can only speculate on this.

Is the intensity of the shaking cumulative, such that it will reduce over time with regular practice? Or does it just depend on how tense you are at the particular time you do it?

The shaking goes away with repeated practice sessions. It goes away because you learn not to fight yourself, not because your muscles get stronger, similarly to how a ball player with metaphorical stone hands learns to catch better by relaxing.

The most basic qi gong posture is simply standing with your knees slightly bent and your arms down by your sides. In a practice session you stand still in one place for long enough that your muscles somewhere get tired. This is your indication of where your body is not aligned well with gravity and you are using muscular tension to make. You adjust your posture both in the moment and across sessions to try to reduce the muscular tension needed to maintain the standing position. Over sustained practice, your posture improves and the act of standing becomes easier. In some sense, you are simply learning to relax or rest better, and practicing basic posture should become pleasant.

In my experience, the "qi blockages" are not so much about shaking, as the difference in body feeling between the state where you are holding the body up with excess muscular tension and not. There is a spectrum of such conditions, but when you first feel the muscles relax, there can be a feeling like you have had a great massage or sauna session.

Not every posture should be used for standing qigong. The horse stance, for example, can be done in multiple ways. In wushu, the ideal is with the thighs parallel to the floor. This develops a great deal of leg strength, but it would be a waste of time to use this for a standing qigong session because it is impossible to hold this position without a great deal of muscular tension. If, however, you create an arch with your legs, your structure carries your weight and the muscles just have to hold the bones in place. In this version of the stance, you can learn to use less muscular strength.

The standard qigong advice is that you should not try to intentionally recreate events like this, but simply experience them.

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  • Oh, I definitely don't try to recreate it intentionally. My body seems to start shaking by the end of the first pose. It's a bit weird but cool as an experience. My tai chi instructor had said in advance that this would happen - I just hadn't expected the intensity the first time. I'm looking to get back to it regularly after a long time, so I expect it to be quite intense.
    – Jenny
    Oct 19 at 15:23

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