If our current age of fitness has showed us anything, it’s that strength is both physical and mental; one is only as strong as the other. Nothing exemplifies this better than the mastery of Shaolin monks.
Revered for their strength, flexibility, mental toughness, and fidelity to tradition, these warrior monks perform extraordinary feats. They balance their bodyweight on two fingers, break bricks with their skulls, and stop spears with their necks.
But how do the monks perform such skills? At the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan, monks rigorously follow Chan philosophy, or ‘action meditation’, says Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, the temple’s founder who was raised in a Shaolin temple in China.
In Chan, it’s believed that the temple is everywhere. So meditation doesn’t just mean sit-down-and-close-your-eyes-meditation. “Every single action is meditation,” explains Yan-Ming. Playing tennis, swimming, or jogging might be your form of zen, he says. “Any action where you can express your life is action meditation.”
For the monks, action meditation comes in the form of kung fu: movements and bodyweight exercises like stretches, stances, kicks, and jumps that push mind and body to the limits. “To become a warrior monk you have to understand that the philosophy and the martial arts are one—you can’t separate them,” Yan-Ming says. “Become the strength, endurance, and positive energy.”
Dedication matters, too. While Yan-Ming notes that everyone is different and all monks are different (some dedicate more time to prayer, others to fitness), we can all fight the chatter in our mind. “Don’t make excuses. It’s easy to say ‘I don't have time,’ or ‘My body is not feeling well from yesterday’s training.’ Life has pain. But stop yourself and push yourself forward,” he says.
To work your way toward warrior status, start with these moves from Yan-Ming and the USA Shaolin Temple, included in Yan-Ming’s book Shaolin Workout: 28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior's Way.
1/4 Side Stretch
Stand straight and lace fingers together. Lift arms straight overhead with elbows straight, palms facing up. Stretch arms up, looking up at hands without going onto the balls of feet. Stretch left, leaning from waist. Stand straight. Stretch right. Repeat 10 times on each side.