Shaolin and Wudang Health and Longevity Patterns
Some of the most renowned health practices to emerge from Chinese martial arts find their origins in the oldest traditions of Wudang and Shaolin. While the first is closely associated with Daoism, the second is more closely associated with chan Buddhism. So close are these associations that these martial arts are often seen as physical manifestations of the spiritual process of obtaining enlightenment, both in the hardships of training and the sense of dissolution of the self into the pattern during a performance.
Yin and Yang
The martial arts practices of Wudang and Shaolin are often described as perfect opposites - the yin and yang of martial arts world - but of course they share many similarities.
Daoism and chan Buddhism themselves also have more in common than many suppose. In fact many scholars suggest that chan Buddhism, known as zen in the west, was created sometime in the middle of the first millennium AD when Indian mahayana Buddhist monks poured into China and were subsequently influenced and molded by the indigenous Chinese Daoist thought and practices. In this light chan Buddhism could be said to have Daoist ancestry.
Therefore it is not surprising that there are striking similarities in Daoist and chan Buddhist practices, including in their pursuit of health and longevity. Both religions incorporate arduous meditative practices sitting in quietude designed to teach the students - monks or priests - to empty their mind and heart (seen as the same thing in Chinese thought) as a first step to more esoteric goals.
Meditation often involves hours of sitting, which can have a negative physical impact on the student's body and health. Many students need to counteract the stiffness and loss of blood circulation caused by meditation with physical exercise. Indeed, it is widely held that Shaolin martial arts developed out of a series of physical exercises introduced by Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of chan Buddhism, to reverse the physical decline of the monks at the temple.
The need to look after the health and physical well being of the monks lies at the root of the flexibility and health patterns developed in both Shaolin and Wudang martial arts. These patterns are designed to stretch the muscles, joints and sinews, after long hours of sitting still, but they also provide benefits on a different level. By incorporating deep breathing techniques these patterns effectively become systems for generating energy and then circulating it to every part of the body. It is this, and not just the physical suppleness, that is seen to be particularly important for a person's longevity.
Different goals, same methods
Where Daoism and chan Buddhism, and therefore Wudang and Shaolin, differ is in the greater purpose of such longevity. For Buddhists, long life itself is not the goal, as they believe in a system of reincarnation. However, a long and healthy life gives the individual more time on this earth to achieve his goal of personal enlightenment (nirvana) and more time to fulfill his duty of compassion to his fellow human beings. Siddhartha Buddha himself was said to have lived until he was 80 years old, despite achieving enlightenment as a young man, and he devoted his later life to teaching.
Daoists do not share the same concept of reincarnation and achieving freedom from reincarnation as Buddhists. Rather they believe in an individual's ability to achieve immortality by aligning himself with dao. Therefore, longevity for Daoists is far more important than for Buddhists. It is not merely a way to acquire more time to achieve your own goals, it becomes the goal in itself, where truly exceptional practitioners are believed to be able to extend their life spans indefinitely. One example of such an immortal is the founder of Wudang Quan itself, Zhang Sanfeng, who is said to have lived since the Song Dynasty, appearing again in different parts of China at different times since then.
Any student of martial arts should be careful to avoid simply mimicking the external movements without the dedicated foundation training and particularly without understanding the internal breathing and energy cultivation techniques involved. Practicing these patterns may help you achieve flexibility, but you would have missed the essence of these movements that are intrinsically linked to their respective religious theory. So enjoy these videos, but take care in using them as training guides.