For agility and strength training, Northern Shaolin forms are best done while young, when the bones and muscles are still forming. The serious student must work on the basic postures to whatever range of motion they can manage without injury.
Northern Shaolin Kung Fu is the forerunner to the other main Far Eastern martial arts — i.e. Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Wushu. Different aspects were emphasized and codified — breaking and throwing, high kicks, joint locks, and athletic performance, respectively.
The fifth century Buddhist monk from India called Tamo, or Bodhidarma is credited with the origination of kung fu. This 28th patriarch of Buddha traveled for three years to get from India to China at Emperor Wu’s behest. The Emperor had been building Buddhist temples and expected to be deemed righteous by Tamo. But Tamo’s form of Buddhism, commonly known today as Zen (Ch’an in Chinese), was based on austere meditation rather than scriptural teachings. Tamo and Emperor Wu did not see eye to eye.
Tamo fled the royal court to a cave in the forest where he meditated and exercised to stay fit. He practiced wall-gazing — his rigorous, seated meditation — and his yogic exercises, next to the first Shaolin temple at Henan. After nine years in the cave, Tamo was acknowledged by the Chinese monks within the temple. Tamo found them sickly and in poor shape, and began to share his own rigorous training with them.
Since then, kung fu has persisted and evolved, handed down from Master to disciple. Despite the ongoing desecration of the five main Shaolin temples during regime changes, people kept training and teaching. Villages had their own styles and masters would teach only those in their familial clan or circle of trusted insiders. Nowadays, most systems and forms of kung fu are available at academies all over the world.
Northern Shaolin stances are the foundation training for all other styles of kung fu, internal or external. The range of motion will make it possible to perform any other style of martial arts, and especially other styles of kung fu. Training in the eight basic postures provide the leg strength and agility for the main internal styles — T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Xing Yi, and Bagua, and any of the many external styles – Preying Mantis, Monkey, Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, White Crane, Wing Chun, etc …
The eight basic postures, with a few variations are Horse, Bow and Arrow, Low Tiger, High Lotus, Empty, T’ai Chi, Rooster and Unicorn. You can hold each position or drill them in a row, continuously. Once the postures are memorized, basic kicks, punches and leg sweeps follow.
Meditating in each posture strengthens the body. Then connecting them in different combinations creates a series of movements called forms. Forms contain real fighting techniques and can be practiced alone or with a training partner to develop skill and agility.