Shaolin Arts Online: Strength and Focus

Training as a health practice, not a martial art.

This purpose of our Shaolin Arts Online project has been to give people an introduction to the martial arts of the Shaolin temples in China from the comfort of their homes. This series, however, is taking a slightly new direction, but with the same origin. 

We have to remember that the people who designed and practiced these martial arts were not warriors; they were monks. Their training, all the way through, was to promote longevity and to strengthen the body and mind for a spiritual practice. For Strength and Focus, we’re stripping away the martial aspects to make these teachings more accessible to the general public as a health practice.

Strength and Focus is a 4-week program designed to help you:

  • calm your nervous system
  • manage stress
  • focus your energy
  • connect your strength
  • build mindfulness

How It Works

Our emotional reaction to stress, rather than the cause of it, is often the origin of many uncomfortable physical and mental states, i.e. suffering. If we could improve our management of these reactions, we would be better able to focus on issues under our control and let go of the ones that are not.

This video series aims to train these healthy responses by purposefully introducing manageable, self-induced stress and offering guidance on maintaining equanimity through them.

The “manageable stress” takes several forms. First, it’s the physical pain of stationary stance training, which sets the ground work of this practice by stressing and thus strengthening our legs. Next, it’s meditation, where we move through the more mental stresses of boredom, inability to focus, and the uncomfortable turmoil of thinking of the past or future. Then, through slow, controlled movement through the stances we originally learned. Finally, we introduce the I Chin Ching, which are a series of challenging full-body postures that comprise the original kung fu training of the Shaolin temples.  

Introducing stress to your body or mind usually causes one of two responses: 

  1. Flight – you want to get away from the pain as fast as possible. This feels like an anxiety to be done with what you’re doing.
  2. Fight – your nervous system kicks into overdrive and you create a lot of tension as a way to get through. This is much like the expression “grit your teeth and bear it.”

By noticing what reactions manifest during these different stressful practices, we can begin to calmly let go of them before they overtake us; reprograming our our body’s natural fight or flight instincts.

This is a 4-week video program with the goal of helping you develop your own practice to keep yourself grounded when you need it most.

The Result

  • Staying Present – By practicing relaxing through uncomfortable sensations, and let go of the feelings of wanting to run away from them, we are actually training the mind to stay present. The benefits to your everyday life of being able to withstand more pain or discomfort while maintaining equanimity should be immediately apparent. 
  • Calm Strength – Training your mind in this way creates a feedback loop into your life because when you’re getting agitated, you rely on the mind being in charge and you stay calm, which makes you stronger and healthier and further strengthens the mind’s resolve.
  • Resiliency – By feeling and working through prescribed stress, we gain confidence in our resiliency. We can begin to see outside pressure as a teacher, rather than a threat, which opens up a whole new, exciting way of living. This way of life is ultimately beneficial to the world, because as we become calmer, we give off less stress to others, thus promoting peace in the world around us.

Enjoy your training!

Warm-ups and Cool-downs

Get the blood and energy flowing with the warm-ups and then learn to start letting go of physical tension with the cool-downs.

Ideally do the warm-ups as part of each session, before you view each video. And then do the cool downs after. 

Or just do the warm-ups or cool-downs on their own as you have time. You can’t do these too much.

Week 1: Basic Stances

Stances are the essence of the Shaolin arts. They train the body into a certain alignment to open up certain energy channels, build leg strength, and help focus and relax the mind.

More importantly, stances make you struggle through the desire to come out of the stance due to pain. This is the beginning of overriding your animal fight or flight systems, and of truly mastering yourself.

For each session, I’ll give you the name of the videos to watch and in what order. Each session can be repeated as desired.

1st Session: Horse Stance video

2nd Session: Bow Stance Video

Week 2: Advanced Stance Training

Now we move on to harder stances to continue building our solid connection to the ground. We start with the one-legged Cat stance, introduced as part of a 9-minute stance set, and Reverse Bow, which is the opposite of the bow stance you learned above. The singled-legged cat stance requires more strength and the reverse bow requires more flexibility. These additional factors increase the stress of maintaining the posture. Again, work as hard as you can without blowing out your nervous system. 

1st Session: Cat Stance + 9-minute Stance Training for Overriding Fight or Flight

2nd Session: Reverse Bow Stance and Kua (hip/groin) Stretches and Mobility Practice

Week 3: Stillness and Movement

First, we’ll take a break from the strength-building practices, and introduce basic seated meditation and abdominal breathing. The key here is to come into the correct posture and NOT MOVE. This brings up all sorts of feelings of agitation. Feel these agitations but don’t respond to them.

Then we return to the stances, this time with slow, controlled movement as we flow between the different stances you’ve learned. This builds new levels of balance and strength in all the places BETWEEN the initial stances… and you guessed it: new levels of pain.

1st Session: Beginner Meditation: Abdominal Breathing to Still Your Energy

2nd Session: Shaolin Stance Flow

Week 4: I Chin Ching

I Chin Ching means “Tendon/Sinew Changing Classic” but is better translated as “Material for Changing and Opening the Channels.” Legend tells us that these exercises were introduced to the Shaolin temple by a wondering Indian monk named Da-Mo, or Bodhidharma. He saw that the monks were too weak to meditate for long periods of time, so he introduced these postures and movements so they could become stronger. They jumped on the idea of combining physical practice and meditation which set them down the road to their now-famous temple martial arts.

Having open channels and strong energy flow are extremely important for both Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi because it helps build strength, health, and ultimately prepare one’s body for a meditative spiritual practice.

The I Chin Ching set that has been passed down through the Shaolin-Do system contains 49 postures. Some of these are very simple or very similar to hatha yoga postures. For this video module, however, we will be trying some of the more… challenging… postures from the set specifically because we want to increase the amount of stress we put on our system. 

If we are able to maintain equanimity as we try these near-impossible postures though, rather than blowing out our nervous system, we’ll be able to focus our awareness inside the body. This will make us aware that the postures are connecting our bodies along certain pathways, or “channels”. By building our awareness of these pathways and strengthening them, we increase the amount of energy our body can store and mobilize.

1st Session: Sissy Squat (I Chin Ching #27) – Known as the “Sissy Squat” in modern fitness terminology. It’s named after the Greek god Sisyphus, who was cursed to repeatedly roll a giant boulder up a mountain. He is always depicted as having large quadriceps so this exercise, which primarily strengthens the quads, was named after him.

2nd Session: L-Sit (#23) – Sitting with legs extended and trying to pick the body off the ground with the hands. Designed to activate us from the core out to the legs.

3rd Session: Elbow Lever (#25) – Balancing like a see-saw on your hands as your body rests on your elbows.

Personal Practice

After learning the basics with the videos, I suggest making a personal practice that you return to again and again. This practice will become a place of solace, reminding you to check back in with your body and the moment when you’re feeling stressed in any way.

Start small. You can do some variation of this entire routine in less than 10 minutes. The goal is to practice, so start with a time that you’ll actually do regularly.

Recommended Personal Practice

  • Warm-ups – do the whole routine if you’re feeling like you need to burn energy. If you’re feeling low energy, just simply shake out all your limbs to free up stuck energy.
  • Stillness – this is the KEY to this practice. Set a timer and do a couple of the stances for 3-5 minutes each. Or set a timer and do the seated meditation.
  • Movement – Do some slow flowing movements,  staying in your body, either from the stance flow video or into one of the I Chin Ching postures. Only needs to be a few minutes.
  • Stretching – finally, end by either doing the stretches from the cool-down video, or simply reach overhead and take a few seconds to open your body back up.

Wrapping Up

I hope this series has provided some valuable tools for strengthening your body and managing stress. At the very least, I hope it has offered an interesting insight into the ancient teachings of the Shaolin temple system. I believe these teachings are valuable and I hope that promoting them can create a healthier and more peaceful world.

While it’s designed to be a 4 week program, I recommend revisiting the videos periodically, because as you become more competent with this practice, you’ll be able to grasp more of the small details that may have slipped through the cracks initially.

If you have any questions or feedback, please contact me at sam.shaolin.nola@gmail.com.

Also, please share this page freely with anyone you think might benefit from, or enjoy these practices.

Thank you.

Donation

If you haven’t already, and are financially capable, please click here to pay the requested donation of $49 for this series. Doing so will help me continue to operate my small Shaolin studio in New Orleans, LA and continue offering these teachings online. 

Or to make a small donation of any amount, please use the following: Venmo: @Sam-Killpack, CashApp: $SamKillpack, or paypal.me/SamKillpack