“Do you sell Chinese incense?” I asked.
The year was 1995, and the young man behind the counter seemed to be a caricature of a NYC smoke shop employee. He had thick dreadlocks, a Bob Marley t-shirt, and he looked stoned out of his mind.
I was not his usual customer, however. I was there on a very specific mission.
“Sure, we’ve got incense, man,” he said. He gestured casually in the direction of the incense sticks, right next to the bongs.
“I’m looking for really long sticks,” I said after taking a quick look and not seeing what I wanted. “Like a foot long.”
“Yeah man,” he said. “We’ve got some like that.” He disappeared into the back of the shop and returned with a foot-long tube covered in Chinese writing. It smelled like smoky perfume.
Mission accomplished! I paid the man and left the shop with thoughts of my Incense Stick Horse Stance…
Incense Stick Horse Stance?
When my first Sifu proudly said that he had an “incense stick horse stance,” I was confused. My mind immediately went to that old kung fu movie with Jackie Chan.
In the movie, Jackie Chan’s character was punished in the Horse Stance, where he had to sit with bowls of hot tea on his thighs, shoulders, and head — plus a hot incense stick below his butt (see image below). I assumed that this is what my teacher was talking about.
This particular teacher of mine was extremely stern, and asking questions was tricky business. At times, a question would get you a swift rebuke. Other times, you would be rewarded with a fascinating lecture.
I was intrigued by this “incense stick horse stance” idea, and I wanted to know more. One night, a bunch of us took our Sifu out to a Japanese restaurant, and I saw my chance. Sake was flowing freely, and I worked up the courage to ask him a question.
“Sifu,” I said, filling his sake cup in the traditional manner. “Can you tell us more about the Incense Stick Horse Stance?”
He paused for a moment, and I was afraid I was about to get reprimanded. But he broke into a big smile and then proceeded to tell us how hard it had been to get his Horse Stance up to one incense stick.
“My training was tougher than yours will ever be,” he said. “We just sat and sat in Horse Stance, watcing the incense stick burn and enduring.” He paused and sipped his sake.
“And not one of those sissy incense sticks,” he clarified. “Chinese incense sticks!” He held both index fingers about 15 inches apart, indicating the length. “At least one hour,” he added as he drained his sake.
Aha! That’s when I suddenly understood. My Sifu didn’t use an incense stick below his butt; he used it to time how long he could endure in a horse stance!
He was right to be proud. To do a horse stance correctly for 1 hour is an amazing feat. Most people can’t do 2 minutes. Even college athletes can’t make it past 5 minutes.
The Origin of the Method
When you’re deep in meditation, the passage of time can be elusive. This is probably why monks began using incense sticks to time their meditation sessions.
Actually, there’s something called an Incense Clock (香鐘, lit. Fragrance Clock). This is an ancient Chinese timekeeping tool that uses incense sticks. It’s a clever idea. You can read more about it on Wikipedia.
I don’t know if kung fu masters (including tai chi masters) got the Horse Stance idea from monks, or from the Incense Clock. Either way, this incense trick can still be found in many different schools of kung fu.
Unfortunately, it’s a dying art, which is a shame. I think that many 21st century students can benefit from this method.
Let’s see if we can keep it alive in a more modern context.
Who Can Benefit from This Method?
If you learned qigong the traditional way (see #18 on this list), then you would be taught the Horse Stance, and nothing else, for the first 3 months of your training.
As you can imagine, if I taught the traditional way, then I would have exactly 4 students (you know who you are).
Teaching qigong in the 21st century needs to be more modern. Most of my students are not interested in a 1-hour Horse Stance. They just want to get healthier, and a 15-minute daily qigong session is challenging enough.
The beauty of the incense stick method is that it can be used by students at all different levels.
You can benefit from this method whether you are:
- a new qigong or tai chi student struggling to practice 15 minutes a day
- an ambitious kung fu student who likes the challenge of a 30-60 minute Horse Stance
- a seasoned tai chi practitioner who wants to increase their practice time
I’ve already written trillions of articles about willpower and discipline. Do we really need another article on the subject?
The answer is yes. We need all the help we can get. I think that this incense stick trick is another good tool to keep in your box.
If this article inspires one person to be more diligent with their practice, then I’ve done my job as a teacher.
Japanese vs. Chinese Incense
For most of you, the foot-long Chinese incense sticks won’t be helpful. They simply take too long to burn.
Sure, you could cut off some of the stick to shorten the duration, but there’s a simpler method.
I like this Japanese incense. My first Sifu would call them “sissy sticks,” but that’s okay. I think underneath he would be happy that people are using the method, even if it’s an abridged version.
These sticks are shorter and last for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the humidity. So they are already more useful than the foot-long ones.
But Japanese incense is different. There’s no stick running down the center. The entire thing burns, which means that you can also break the sticks in half — and still use both halves.
These sticks are perfect for setting a minimum practice session for qigong, especially with Flowing Zen Qigong where the standard session is about 10-20 minutes.
A big box contains 200 sticks, and also comes with a little holder that works great. They also have smaller boxes of 50, and you can buy them in many different scents.
How to Use Incense With Your Qigong or Tai Chi
By now, the method should be pretty clear, but here is the step-by-step breakdown:
Step 1: Light your incense stick. I keep a small Bic lighter inside my box of incense. The Japanese incense above comes with a small stick holder, so the entire thing is self-contained. The ashes just drop down onto the sticks, so there’s no mess.
Step 2: Begin your session as normal. Don’t do anything special, but try to make it a really high-quality session in order to set your baseline. (If you don’t know any qigong, click here to start learning for free.)
Step 3: Look at the incense stick. How much is left? Did it burn down completely?
Step 4: Rinse and repeat. Try to develop the habit of simply lighting the incense stick to initiate your practice session. Even if it’s just going to be a short session, try lighting the stick anyway.
Why It Works
But I still prefer the incense stick. Here’s why I think it works so well:
1. The Visual Reward: There is a feeling of intense pride at watching your box of incense sticks empty gradually over time. I like to write the start date on the box so that I know how long it takes me to go through all 200 sticks.
2. The Olfactory Reward: For me, the smell of incense is wonderful. I guess this is where the word “inspire” comes from because as soon as I light a stick, I’m inspired to practice.
3. The Power of Ritual: If you light an incense stick every morning, it becomes a ritual. Later, simply lighting the incense stick will help to initiate your morning practice, even if you’re feeling lazy.
4. Analog vs. Digital: I don’t know about you, but the last thing I need is another digital device in my life. I appreciate analog options whenever I can get them, and incense is as analog as it gets!
5. Portable Discipline: When I travel, it’s easy to bring my ritual with me. The smaller boxes of incense work great. Be aware that some hotels frown on incense, but I tend to stay in Airbnbs these days anyway.
There you have it, the simple incense stick trick that can dramatically improve your willpower.
How do you feel about incense? Love it or hate it? Do you have a favorite kind? Let me know in the comments below!
And if you decide to give this trick a try, I’d love to hear how it works for you. From the heart, Sifu Anthony