Bodhidharma Exercises


Originally from South India, Bodhidharma ventured to China in 520 A.D. to spread Buddhism. Because the Chinese emperor was not yet ready to embrace Zen principles, Bodhidharma journeyed north. He settled in a Shaolin monastery seven years later, but found the monks too weak for the rigors of meditation, according to “The Complete Book of Zen” by Kiew Kit Wong. To prepare the monks for enlightenment, Bodhidharma instructed them on two exercise systems – “Eighteen Lohan Hands” and “Sinew Metamorphosis.”

The History

  • Bodhidharma spent almost a decade sequestered at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song. In that time, he laid down the foundations of two lasting and renowned traditions – Zen Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu. While one tradition is a spiritual path and the other is a martial art, the two disciplines are inextricably intertwined. Bodhidharma believed that a human being’s physical, mental and emotional states are linked. You must attend to all three areas if you aim to reach nirvana.

Eighteen Lohan Hands

  • The Eighteen Lohan Hands was a set of 18 routines combining methods from both Chinese and Indian boxing and grappling. Incorporating breathing and meditative techniques, the series of physical movements was designed to promote the Shaolin monks’ strength, agility, flexibility, endurance and balance. It would later form the basis of Shaolin kung fu. According to “The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present” by Shannon French, Bodhidharma’s regimen included strenuous exercises, such as slapping water out of a bucket, performing complex movements while balanced on stakes and pounding rice, sand or iron pellets with bare hands throughout the day.

The Sinew Metamorphosis

  • Along with the Eighteen Lohan Hands, the Sinew Metamorphosis was a second series of exercises to develop your internal life force, or chi, according to “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu: The Secrets of Kung Fu for Self-Defense, Health, and Enlightenment” by Wong Kiew Kit. While Bodhidharma’s concern was the control of this energy in meditation and its use to form superior beings, this methodology evolved into the art of Shaolin Chi Kung and was also used in kung fu. The flow of chi begins not in your core but in your feet. Flowing upward, it’s channeled through your spine. It then reaches your arms, hands and fingers. When you can control the release of your chi, your body becomes a unified conduit for action.

Evolution of the Martial Art

  • The Shaolin monks expanded the Eighteen Lohan Hands into a system of 72 movements. During the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the late 1200s to the mid 1300s, the system had grown into a complex system of 170 movements. The warrior-monks observed the fighting behavior, traits and spirits of various animals, such as the dragon, snake, crane, leopard and tiger, to create new ways of moving. By mimicking animals, they were in sync with the principles of Zen Buddhism, which values the setting aside of the human ego. From 1368 A.D. to 1644 A.D., during the Ming dynasty, martial arts training at the Shaolin Temple began to incorporate weapons -- swords, spears and iron staffs. The monks were forced to use weapons as a defense against incursions by Japanese pirates, according to “The Spiritual Legacy of Shaolin Temple: Buddhism, Daoism, and the Energetic Arts” by Andy James.

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