Impossible Training Methods of the Shaolin Monks

Impossible Training Methods of the Shaolin Monks

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Shaolin monks put their bodies through the extremes of head-hardening, nail-pulling, and even gravity-defying stunts. This isn’t for the faint-hearted! So, take a deep breath and breathe out the bad energy as we explore some impossible training methods that make Shaolin Masters unbeatable.

Shaolin School

Before we get into what they do, it’s probably best to find out who Shaolin monks really are. To our surprise, the Shaolin temple wasn’t founded by RZA, ODB, and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan. Its origins date way back to China in 495AD when Emperor Xiaowen ordered the construction of a monastery to preach the teachings of Bátuó.

Bátuó had come to China from India in 464AD to spread Buddhism, and he became the first abbot, or head monk, at the monastery.

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Despite numerous attempts to burn it down over the years, the temple still stands strong in the beautiful Song Mountains, Henan, 1,500 years later. Amazingly, it’s still operational as a practicing Buddhist temple where adaptions to original Shaolin Kung Fu are taught to this day.

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So, what do they actually do? The main pillars of Shaolin culture are Chan Buddhism, Martial Arts, Buddhist Arts, and traditional Chinese medicines, and each monk is tirelessly devoted to developing, researching, and perfecting Shaolin Kung Fu. They wake up every day at 5.30 AM, go through a rigorous day of training and meditating, then go to bed and do it all over again.

And if you thought all that training would work up an appetite, the bad news is that there’s no McDonald's in Shaolin. Monks eat an exclusively vegetarian diet consisting of soups, noodles, and bread. But if you think these guys are weak, I would suggest not to jump into any conclusions.

Shaolin Kung Fu

Back when Sensei Carl Douglas said Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, were they really? Because if you did Kung Fu in a bar, you’d get a felony charge.

In the early days of Shaolin, five unique styles of combat were honed which would assist the monk in hand-to-hand combat. Each style drew inspiration from an animal: Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Dragon, and Snake.

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Before you start thinking sliding on your belly like a snake is gonna win you any battles, it’s not. The goal isn’t to completely imitate the animal. It’s about capturing its nature or temperament. From these original styles, countless other animal styles have come to fruition; you name an animal and there’ll be a kung fu practitioner somewhere who’s embodied it.

Primarily, kung fu isn’t about giving your opponent a beating they’ll never forget. It’s about finding harmony between your inner self and your outer strength, and how that can help you overcome an opponent no matter how big they are.

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And, there’s also this one small thing , alongside their kung fu, as part of basic training, all aspiring master monks must specialize in two weapons. There are eighteen weapons in total for a Shaolin monk to choose from, split equally between long weapons and short weapons.

From the short weapons there’re swords, sickles, canes, and axes, and from the long weapons, whips, spears, staffs, and forks. Near or far, wherever you are, you’re always in their range. However, it gets worse grandmaster monks are required to have sufficient knowledge of all eighteen weapons.

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Shaolin Monks are expertly trained in martial arts and deadly weapons. These guys sound dangerous. But hold tight, the best is yet to come. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of what these incredible humans can do.

Finger Training

Anyone who can wield a sword is dangerous but don’t be fooled by a barehanded monk. They could do just as much harm with their little finger. From a young age, monks begin training their finger strength by poking wooden planks and trees with each finger.

Over many years, this builds strength in the fingers until they can strike harder and harder. Eventually, every finger becomes powerful enough to produce huge feats of strength just like the clip below, in which a monk's doing a handstand on two fingers.

Watch on YouTube

If you think that was impressive though, you haven't seen enough. A former head monk of the Shaolin temple, Hai Deng, achieved unparalleled mastery of this skill and could support almost his entire weight on just one finger.

In recent years no one has come close to Hai Deng’s single-digit abilities, but that’s not through lack of trying. The tree in the image below in the Shaolin monastery is filled with holes from decades of students striking it with their fingers. And others train by putting bricks on their lap and lifting themselves off the ground!

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Pulling Out Nails (Bo Ding Gong)

Shaolin monks train their grip strength in maybe the most hardcore way ever, by pulling rusty nails out of a wooden board. In total, 108 nails are driven into the board, which the student must remove using a combination of their thumb, middle, and pointer finger, and we know how deadly those are.

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Even so, the rust in the nails causes their skin to blister and crack, making them even harder to grip. Only once they can remove all the nails does the monk begin training their ring and pinky fingers. The final test involves removing 1000 nails hammered deep into the wood.

When this is complete, it’s bad news for any potential opponents. A well-trained monk's fingers are so incredibly strong that if they get hold of you, there’s no wriggling free. Plus, they’re expertly trained in finding vulnerable and sensitive nerves around your body.

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Kicking Rocks

Defeat at the hands of a Shaolin monk is inevitable, but what about when they defeat you with just their feet? New monk initiates training their feets every morning by kicking rocks along the ground barefoot. Think of it like stubbing all of your toes over and over again. In time, the muscles in their feet develop, and they’re able to kick larger rocks at greater distances. The most experienced monks progress to kicking literal boulders!

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There is a clear pattern; many of these Shaolin training methods start off very simple. But by putting in the work every day those simple actions develop into something exponentially powerful. This is how monks transform their bodies into deadly weapons.

Iron Head

Generally, taking a blow to the head is a bad idea. Many contact sports are finally waking up to the dangers caused by knocks to the noggin and implementing strategies to avoid serious long-term injuries. But there’s no room for this kind of behavior in the Shaolin temple!

Students actually strengthen their skulls by wrapping their heads in silk and bouncing their bonces off brick walls. As time passes and they keep up the painful act, they get more used to it, and the silk can be gradually peeled back layer by layer. Eventually, the entire skull is strong enough to hit against the wall without any protection at all.

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Repetitive impacts cause tiny fragments of bone called microfractures to snap away from the outer, more brittle layers of the skull. These fragments then get digested by tiny cells called osteoclasts. When newer cells appear on the bone’s surface they’re mineralized by osteoblasts, which help the bones grow back really hard.

The more this happens, the stronger the bone becomes. And monks do this across their entire heads, strengthening their temples, mouths, and even their eye sockets until all the bone is as strong as iron. After years of practice, their heads become hard enough to smash through thick blocks of ice, prevent a drill machine, and even sleep standing on their heads.

Strength and Flexibility

I used to think practicing Buddhism was all about being one with nature. However, Shaolin monks will routinely rough up a tree or two for the sake of getting stronger. Young disciples are taught to wrap around a tree sapling and try to pull it out of the ground. Only, it’s more difficult than it sounds, and at their tender age, they’re not expected to be strong enough to actually succeed.

As the junior monk grows, the tree grows alongside them. Over a span of many years, a student will build immense physical strength in their chest, arms, stomach, and back, and one day they’ll be able to shake the trunk with enough force to fall a few leaves. Then, eventually, the monk will grow so strong they can uproot the entire tree!

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Some very dedicated followers of Shaolin have apparently been able to uproot trees weighing over a staggering 770 lbs. And remember, they would’ve spent years working on that same tree without so much as a wiggle. I guess in the end, what’s good for the monk isn’t so good for the trunk.

But that’s not the only tremendous way monks battle with the bark. Young Shaolin monks can hang from trees and balance on tall poles. By starting flexibility training from an early age, older, more rigid monks can still fold themselves up like in the image below.

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The Pillar Squat

There’s no skipping leg day for Shaolin monks even though it looks a little different to how most of us might get a pump on. They practice something called The Pillar Squat to build their leg endurance, and it’s about as simple as it sounds, squatting on top of two pillars.

To make it harder, many also balance a bowl of water on top of their head. They sit perfectly still in this position for two hours. And to make it even harder, some monks place a bowl of water in each hand too, which under no circumstance can be spilled.

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And also falling has pretty serious consequences. Positioned directly beneath the monk’s junk in the trunk is a wooden spike. So if you fell you’d be turned into Shaolin Shawarma before you hit the deck.

Tie Bu Shan Gong

Monks have a special kind of armor, they call it Tie Bu Shan Gong, or Iron Shirt, and it makes them unbelievably resilient to heavy impacts. It’s believed by training the body’s internal energy source, Qi, the internal flow of energy can be redirected to minimize the damage taken. They also utilize a mix of movements and power stances to absorb damage.

They train by lying flat across wooden stumps, as well as having large blocks of granite dumped on top of them. Some monks even choose to enhance their training by making a special tincture, like a secret potion, made from herbs and roots that gets applied to the area being trained.

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These mixtures, sometimes composed of up to 25 different ingredients, help stimulate blood flow, bone strength, or muscle relaxation. Honestly though, putting yourself through pain just to feel less pain in the future sounds incomprehensibly sucky.

The Skill Of Light Body (Jin Shen Shu)

As we get older and softer around the middle, we can all fall into the trap of stepping on the scales and wishing we were a little lighter. And the Shaolin temple has found an amazing way to train the body to achieve almost total weightlessness. Once they do, they can achieve way more than holding themselves over the edge of a mountain.

It’s called Jin Shen Shu, or the skill of light body. A new student starts off with a large clay bowl filled with water. They must practice walking around the rim carrying a weighted backpack. Then, on the 21st of each month, some of the water in the bowl is removed, and more weight is added to the backpack.

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Initially, the weight of the water counterbalances the weight of the student, but the less water in the bowl and the heavier the backpack, the greater the balance required by the monk. Any budding apprentice must practice this skill for months until they can circle the whole rim with a backpack weighing 5 and a half lbs and the bowl completely empty.

But this is just the first stage of training. Once they’ve achieved weightlessness on the bowl, it gets replaced by a wicker basket, and even more weight is added to the backpack! Monk Shi Liliang has spent years mastering this technique and in 2014 he achieved something out of this world.

He ran over 400 feet across the water, supporting his entire weight on thin wooden boards held together by string. This is only possible if you’re really fast and tread incredibly lightly, so your weight passes over each board before it sinks.

Watch on YouTube

Walk On The Wall

Monks can literally climb up walls and defy gravity. This skill is aptly called Walking Up a Wall and it enables the monks to scale any vertical surface with ease. Shaolin monks train their vertical leap to be greater than most NBA players and they will tie iron weights to their legs and arms before running at a wall.

Foot placement is paramount for achieving the greatest height, and once a monk can ascend with apparent ease, the weight is increased. This carries on until one day all the weights are removed so there’s nothing holding the monk back. Because they’re so used to the additional weight, without it, they can practically fly up the wall effortlessly.

Lizard Climbs The Wall

Monks scale the wall, but what about if they could stick to it like glue? There’re rumors of a very difficult skill that even the most advanced monks struggle to master. It goes by many names, Lizard Climbs the Wall, Hanging Painting, or Climbing a Wall but they all mean the same thing.

When mastered, it allows a monk to maneuver around a wall in any direction using only their elbows. And it is supposedly only two or three out of every one hundred people who begin acquiring the basic movements ever achieve full mastery.

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It’s said that by pressing their back against a wall and squeezing their elbows down, the student can raise their body off the floor and fix it in that position. And with more practice comes more power. Eventually, a monk will be able to shuffle their body around using just the force in their elbows, wiggling just the way a lizard would.

The only problem is there are no records of somebody actually doing it. The astronomical skill cap means there may only be a handful of monks who can actually do this, but it is weird that it only exists in Shaolin books.

One Finger Of Chan

Many of the incredible feats achieved by the students of Shaolin seem impossible, but that’s why we love them, isn’t it? However, there’s one in particular which sounds genuinely impossible.

The story goes: Some time ago, in the early days of his monk training, Xi Hei Zi hung a heavy weight from an overhanging tree branch on a path he traveled every day. Whenever he passed, he’d jab the weight with his finger to make it swing.

Days became months became years, yet Xi continued to jab the weight, from further and further away, until his fingers barely grazed the surface. As he grew stronger and stronger the weight would swing harder, even though Xi was barely touching it. Until one day, he didn’t touch it at all but, incredibly, the weight still swung.

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Xi began honing this phantom strike, known as the “one finger of chan”, by meditating in a courtyard and striking his fingers toward lit candles. At first, the flames just flickered, but with enough practice, he was able to blow them completely out from 11 feet away.

Then the story goes that Xi traveled around China visiting every monastery that he could and facing any worthy challenger in a fight. No man could defeat him. Rumor was, he could cause severe internal damage to his opponents by just thrusting his finger towards them. While some monks can achieve incredible things, what this guy claims to have done is literally impossible.

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The Skill Of A Golden Cicada

This last training method is a real tear-jerker. You don't need to study martial arts to know one reliable fighting style if your opponents bring the ruckus. It’s not Karate. It’s not MMA either. It’s kicking the enemy’s nethers and running away.

However, out of all the 72 Shaolin Arts, some masters walk the path of enlightenment by actively choosing to get hit repeatedly in the crotch. It’s called the Skill of a Golden Cicada and a significant part of it supposedly trains the body to live without anxiety.

Watch on YouTube

By learning to control the flow of energy around the body, the monk begins by lightly tapping himself with his palm, before slowly progressing to harder and harder strikes. Many students of Shaolin spend years of their training outside messing up a tree, and others choose to sit indoors messing up something else. Hopefully Nirvana is worth it because it's hard to think of anything worse.

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