Bodhidharma Exercises

Man doing Kung Fu outdoors with pagoda in background

Bodhidharma, who lived from 470 to 543 AD, was an Indian prince who studied to become a Buddhist monk under the tutelage of famous Buddhist master Prajnatara. After his master’s death, Bodhidharma traveled to China, where he taught Zen Buddhism and developed a system of exercise designed to improve his students' health and fitness. Modern forms of Bodhidharma exercises are used today in martial arts such as kung fu and chi kung.


Upon arriving in China, Bodhidharma had a meeting with emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty. During their discussion, the emperor asked Bodhidharma his opinion of the merit of the Buddhist community and the meaning of the holy truths. Incensed by Bodhidharma’s vague answers, the emperor banished him from the court. The young monk travelled north across the Yangtze River, where he came across a Shaolin temple at Mount Song. Bodhidharma was welcomed by the monks but dismayed at their poor physical condition. This inspired him to set about teaching them a set of exercises to improve their health and physical strength.

Modern Versions

These exercises, known as the 18 Arhat Hands of Shaolin, are used today in Shaolin martial arts. Many modern versions of these exercises are taught today. One of the more common is known as the 18 Lohan Hands and is comprised of 18 chi kung exercises. The exercises are intended to improve physical strength and balance, create fluid movement and promote energy management.

18 Lohan Hands

The 18 Lohan Hands include lifting the sky, shooting arrows, plucking stars, turning head, thrust punch, merry-go-round, carrying the moon, nourishing kidneys, three levels to ground, dancing crane, carrying mountains, drawing knife, presenting claws, pushing mountains, big windmill, deep knee bending and rotating knees. The movements are performed in a fluid and consistent manner. Instructors at the Shaolin Waham Institute recommend the 18 Lohan Hands be learned from a competent instructor rather than a book or DVD.

Health Benefits

Modern Bodhidharma exercises have many health benefits. The flexing exercises ease tension in and strengthen muscles, as well as increase flexibility. The regular deep breathing decreases the heart rate and helps to lower blood pressure. The stretching exercises realign the posture and strengthen muscles in the back. The combination of slow stretching and breathing exercises improve circulation and stimulate the internal organs, improving digestion and liver function.