Standing like a Tree: Effects and Mechanisms of Daoist Zhanzhuang on Human Flourishing
TWCF Number
Project Duration
August 1 / 2024
- July 31 / 2027
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Zhuo Chen
Institution University of North Carolina at Charlotte

This project investigates the impact of Daoist Zhanzhuang on human flourishing, and explores the physiological, psychological, and spiritual mechanisms. Zhanzhuang, "standing like a tree," is a standing meditation rooted in Daoism, with its earliest form documented on a Chinese silk manuscript called Daoyintu, dating back two thousand years. By aligning the human body, Zhanzhuang promotes the circulation and accumulation of qi, fostering enhanced energy, health, and healing. In Daoist theology, qi acts as an intermediary connecting physical energy (jing) and the spirit (shen). Zhanzhuang serves as a foundational practice that establishes conditions for the convergence of the physical and non-physical aspects of human being. One of the greatest Daoist spiritual achievements lies not in transcending the body but in the harmonious integration of body and spirit. While many definitions of spirituality emphasize transcendence and non-physicality, the study of Zhanzhuang suggests that immanence and embodiment are equally significant in defining spirituality.

Data from eight clinical trials demonstrate that Zhanzhuang can improve physical endurance, reduce fatigue, enhance body awareness and emotional regulation, and promote better quality of life. However, none of the studies included an active control group, so it is difficult to dissect the effects from merely extra exercise. Overall, existing studies have construed Zhanzhuang (or more generally qigong) as an out-of-the-box alternative behavioral medicine approach, without trying to understand why and how it works. None have examined its spiritual underpinnings. We find this decontextualized scholarly work as a disservice to both the Daoist community, where Zhanzhuang practice originates and is taught, and to the public they serve. Zhanzhuang could offer more than being another complementary therapy. Among many benefits, the practice shows that there is a spiritual aspect that resides within one’s physical body, and the spirit and the body can join each other to make genuine flourishing possible.

This study will be a two-arm randomized controlled trial, with mixed-methods and repeated-measures assessment of outcome variables. The two arms will include an active control condition (i.e., sham wall squat) and the Daoist Zhanzhuang condition. Outcome variables will include physiological measures of heart rate variability and inflammatory biomarkers, psychological scales of human flourishing variables, phenomenological interviews of mystical experiences, and daily ecological momentary assessment of human flourishing and mysticism. Randomly assigned into two conditions, 120 participants will complete a three-week intensive practice phase with 9 in-person sessions, followed by a nine-week self-guided practice phase with 4 in-person check-in sessions, and 3 follow-up practice and assessment sessions. Complete assessment (physiological measures, psychological scales, and phenomenological interviews) will be administered at five time points: T1 at about two weeks before the intervention, T2 at the end of the three-week intensive practice, T3 at the end of the 3-month intervention, T4 at the 6-month follow-up, and T5 at the 12-month follow-up. In addition, daily ecological momentary assessment of flourishing variables and practice-induced experiences will be administered daily after the practice for the entire 3-month intervention period.

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