Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been continually drawn to the ancient ways of Shaolin training.
There’s something magical about them… Perhaps it’s their seamless embodiment of balance, strength, flexibility and power, not just on the outside, but on the inside too.
One of the big questions I asked for a long time is…
…How do you get more flexible like a Shaolin Monk?
To begin to find some answers I dove into their practices, and I learned a lot.
In this post I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve learned about how Shaolin flexibility training can help you get flexible fast - not just physically, but mentally too.
Beyond the mysticism, Shaolin is a style of Chinese martial arts developed by the monks of the Shaolin Temple, a Buddhist monastery in China.
You’ve probably seen the modern day Shaolin Monks perform awe-inspiring physical feats from acrobatics to being able to survive blows from hard objects to soft areas.
The Shaolin possess a powerful balance of physical and mental attributes built around what I call the Five S’s to Re-Balance Your Body (and Mind), taught in our online courses.
Now let’s get to what I’ve learned about Shaolin Monks, and the lessons they’ve taught me about how to safely get flexible fast from a body and mind perspective.
Below you’ll learn 6 principles inspired by Shaolin Training, to bring into your health and wellbeing practice to help you move better, get more energy, improve your flexibility, beyond just your body…
The Shaolin address their body very holistically, focusing on balancing body and mind, or heart.
The Shaolin really see the mind and the heart as the same thing. They realise that if you neglect one, it has an effect on the other.
To balance movement with the breath, the Shaolin practice Qigong (pronounced Chee-Gong).
It’s almost impossible to translate this in writing, but Chi loosely translates to ‘breath’ or ‘vital energy’.
In personal experiences of mine, it’s definitely much more than this. Gong translates to ‘work’ and ‘time’.
Shaolin Qigong involves a series of breathing exercises, movement sequences and self-massage techniques to develop their Chi (or Qi), open their meridians (energy channels throughout your body), and strengthen their internal organs and bring the body to its innate sense of inner health.
The deep breathing linked with gentle movements in Qigong increases oxygen into the blood and it allows it to flow more easily around your body’s organs and tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments and all of that cool stuff that helps you move).
In my personal experiences the effect of Qigong encourages better functioning of all of these key areas to create a supple, more flexible body.
Here’s a video I created to teach you a breathing technique used in Shaolin Qi Gong, to help you get more energy.
The external side of Shaolin training revolves around Kung Fu, which involves different combinations of kicks, punches, stances and combined into forms.
Through consistent and correct practice; punches, kicks and stances can have a deep effect on strengthening and stretching the body.
Due to their effectiveness I combine the elements I’ve found most effective in Shaolin training as part of the approach that I teach to develop strong supple bodies.
Throughout eastern philosophy the Yin and Yang are powerful symbols of the dual nature of life. From their teachings I’ve realised this flows into the way the Shaolin approach flexibility training.
To the Shaolin, stretching is not just about relaxing in a position, but demonstrating an even balance of contraction and relaxation whilst in the stretch.
This is a concept that I teach in my flexibility programs (included in Physical Freedom Academy), and it continues to deepen as you experience it.
The objective is reminiscent of becoming bamboo – soft and flexible and strong all at the same time.
So to learn from the Shaolin, think of how you can embrace that Yin and Yang in your flexibility practice. Don’t just go for one side and look for relaxation, or the other side and really amp it up with loaded stretching all the time. Find somewhere in the middle and see how you can embrace that balance in your body.
Mindfulness is a term that is becoming more widely talked about these days. The Shaolin speak of mindfulness as a way to banish stress through seeing all actions as a form of meditation.
When you look at the Chinese symbol for mindfulness it has two parts.
The upper part simply means ‘now’ and the lower part of the symbol means ‘heart’ or ‘mind’. Remember to the Shaolin, the heart and the mind are as one.
So to translate that, to be mindful is to bring our heart and mind into the present moment.
That’s a powerful thought, huh?
From my experiences, this is not something that you can’t try or contrive. It’s something you must put your heart into and embrace fully.
The state of mindfulness is akin to a well-tuned guitar string. If the string is wound too tight, it will break. Too loose, it won’t be able to produce music.
So just be the guitar string… You don’t need to over think this too much. Mindfulness is more about being than having.
We often really focus a lot on having things. If we can shift our attention towards the practice of being, the having often starts to take care of itself.
To integrate mindfulness in your flexibility practice, or work, or training, or any facet of life, here’s a few tips:
Be consistently enough and the practice of mindfulness has the power to take you far, not only with your flexibility, but also in your life.
There’s a saying that I really love, ‘the way we do one thing is the way we do all things.’ If you can be mindful of that in your flexibility training you may learn a thing, or two about yourself
This brings us to the next section… where I share why getting to know your self is very important if you want to get more flexible.
Although the Shaolin are renowned for their fighting prowess, their focus is not necessarily on defeating an external opponent.
Through my research, I’ve found that they view the best opponent as ... their self.
Their body and mind practices, including how they get more flexible, are a vehicle to conquer, or embrace and 'know thyself.'
'Know thyself' is a saying that I continue to recite in my mind each and every day, and it’s one thing that drives me in my practice. In my experience, the more you practice this thought during your stretching, the more your body can allow you to move into new ranges.
Get to know yourself while you’re stretching.
There’s no need to be a future or past version of yourself. Simply explore what is, and do it enough to create a stimulus for what will be.
Then all you need to is trust that tomorrow you will be presented with a new version of you. You won’t know that version until you experience it… So why worry about it?
Bring yourself back to the moment. Get to know yourself right here and now.
This is a really big thing that I notice in reading and practicing the Shaolin ways.
There’s a great story about the Zen Archer; who never worries about where the arrow is going to land, yet is very good at hitting the target.
The Shaolin don’t solely focus on where they’re going in their training, they focus on where they are. Letting go of the future allows full presence in the moment and more powerful experiences to unfold.
You may be noticing a couple of patterns here.
It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. You can’t really think of how to do it. You just have to stop ‘trying’ to do it, let go and allow yourself do it without thought about every minuscule movement.
Try this out…
The simplest of tasks can actually be extremely complex to the point where the conscious mind can’t even process all the information. Here’s an example for you to experience.
Stand up after you read this post and think about how you walk. The more you think about it, the more you get confused. The simple thing is just to walk and to allow it to happen. Your body knows what to do.
An important element of Shaolin training I’ve discovered is they view everything as being deeply connected.
There is no separation, only connection.
Interdependence is about seeing how you’re deeply connected to the world around you and allowing that to inspire your actions.
For example, the simple act of breathing in air from the atmosphere, and its circulation through your body; illustrates every moment we carry the power of the universe inside of us. It’s a powerful thought and some people may think, “Ooo, that’s a bit woo woo.” But it’s purely physical. You are breathing in the air that we’re all sharing together to keep us alive, every moment.
In viewing things this way it can help us move beyond our small individual selves and we can see how deeply connected we are to everyone and everything.
Here’s some practical ways you can bring interdependence into your practice:
The next element of interdependence that can really help you get flexible fast is:
In honouring that what effects one, effects all, it can be useful to find a bigger purpose than just yourself and your personal flexibility training. Perhaps your training can inspire others around you, or bring more happiness to your children’s, or pets lives when you can play with them more easily.
The point here is to bring something bigger to your practice.
Step outside of yourself and see how you can contribute to the world through your practice.
I hope you may find the power in the teachings of the Shaolin, as I continue to. There’s much more that can be said and I will continue to share in future posts.
However, the information that you’ve received here has the power to provide a great start, so may you discover new freedom in your body and mind.
Studying the ways of the Shaolin is what initially inspired me to create the Embodied Flexibility program (included in Physical Freedom Academy).
Embodied Flexibility is my foundation program to teach you how to say goodbye to tightness, and hello to a dynamic, flexible body, used by hundreds of my students to improve their sports, hobbies, and life. Will you be next?
To see if you're ready for Embodied Flexibility, the first step we recommend is to assess where your body is currently at, and get clear on your highest needs, with our Physical Freedom Challenge.
Cover image courtesy of think4photop at FreeDigitalPhotos.net