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The Five Animals of Shaolin Kung Fu: Tiger
Tiger: Shaolin Self-control
I recently completed a new design for the “Five Animals” poster in the dojo, which further piqued my interest about the role of these animals in the development of kung fu. As the story goes, the Shaolin monks used their observations of animals to inform certain moves, forms, and defensive behaviors. Being ever curious — I wanted to put this story to the test and see if observable animal behaviors could inform my own kung fu practice. Since we’ve just begun a tiger year, we’ll take a look at the tiger first.
This is a quote from the poster that we use during classes:
“The tiger teaches us to be simple, direct and in control of our actions, and that we are not to fear our opposition. One of the most powerful animals, it must learn to utilize good self-control to contain itself. The Tiger represents Shaolin self-control. That means controlling your body by being calm and relaxed without bothering others—not teasing, hitting, or yelling. It also means only using your kung fu, karate, and jiu jitsus to protect yourself and others you care about.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of tigers in Pittsburgh that I can follow around for some good old-fashioned observational research, so I had to rely on Google. Here are some key tiger facts that I found:
- Tigers (Panthera tigris) are the largest living cat species. Pound for pound, they’re even larger than lions.
- Tigers are extremely powerful hunters that fight only when absolutely necessary - when they are hungry and need to eat or when another male encroaches on their territory during mating season. Even then, tigers will first attempt to intimidate rivals with a loud roar which can be heard up to 2 miles away.
- Tigers are masters of stealth whose striped coat helps camouflage their movements in dappled forest light or among tall grasses as they slowly sneak up on their prey. They’ve been known to spend hours creeping ever-closer to their target before attacking…giving Cranes a run for their money as the “most patient Shaolin animal!”
- In the wild, tigers can be very generous and social animals when in a group. They often share meals among family groups, and they will even share food with unrelated tigers.
- Tigers can live in diverse habitats. They’re perfectly adapted to living in forests, swamps, or grasslands. They’re great swimmers and actually like the water.
- Tigers have very strong legs that allow them to jump up to 16 feet or sprint up to 37 miles per hour (for short distances.)
How can we apply the observations of Tigers to our kung fu practice?
Once I had gathered some tiger facts, I definitely could see how the description on the poster was accurate. But how can I interpret tiger behavior to inform my own practice as I work to embody the spirit of the tiger? Here are just a few ways:
- Develop an intimidating voice - especially when you kiai.
- Be patient and persistent in your journey to reach your goals or when learning new forms and techniques. Take small, incremental steps.
- Always be generous and kind in your approach to fellow students.
- Avoid getting into confrontations. Instead, use your voice or walk away.
- Be adaptable. If you have an injury, modify your workout, practice, or form.
- Always use good self-control, especially when sparring with another student.
- Be patient when sparring. Wait for an opening before you strike with speed.
- Grab on and sink, pulling your opponent off balance. Use your body weight to overpower your opponent.
When I think about it, I see so many moves that incorporate the spirit of the tiger: from Four Pinan (obviously) to the rake in Purple Belt technique #4 and the grab in #18. Even when we grab on and sink our body weight in some of the jiu jitsus, we’re learning from the mighty tiger.
I’d love to hear how YOU incorporate the spirit of the tiger into your practice!