The Five Animals Qigong, Wu Qin Xi, is the perfect form for Covid-19 isolation and lockdown. We can prance and lumber around our lounge rooms without anyone else seeing! Add to that the wonderful benefits of the movements and the focus required and you have a wonderful antidote to spending too much time alone on the couch.
I’ve videoed the form in mirror-image with commentary and I hope my enjoyment of the form comes through. It really is fun to do, plus my whole body feels quite amazing during and afterwards. The postures mimic the moves of five animals: tiger, deer, bear, monkey and bird. Ideally we also get into the spirit of these animals when doing the moves, and the character of each is quite unique.
When thinking about how we move in our everyday lives, we don’t really come close to moving our bodies in the way we do in this form. And that’s one of the many things I really like about it. There are some great stretches to muscles we don’t normally stretch, and some bending and twisting that require the little stabilising muscles to work. And then there are the hand shapes! My point here is that there is a lot of unaccustomed activity in this form and it’s important to start gently otherwise you could make yourself quite sore. It’s very tempting to launch in there and pounce like an outstretched tiger straight away, but I really don’t recommend it. Keep your pouncing contained and gradually work your way out to a full stretch. This theory follows for all of the animals and I’ll go through some of the modifications you can make to ensure you enjoy the form without your nervous system flipping into fight or flight mode.
Tiger – Raising the Tiger’s Paws: Making the tiger claw hand posture is excellent exercise for the hands, but it’s hard work. When learning new moves we typically repeat, repeat, repeat, however that has the potential to make the muscles very tired. Back off a little, experiment with making strong claws, then tone it down again. The claw not only works the hand muscles, it also works the forearm muscles, particularly when rotating the hands (pronating and supinating) and it’s amazing how tired they get repeating this move. If you have any kind of chronic hand and arm injury or joint degeneration, take care with this. Absolutely do it, but don’t overdo it.
The other part of this move that may require modification is the pressing of the hands straight overhead. Many shoulders and thoracic spines simply won’t let their owners get into this position. Instead, place the palms forward of the head so that you get a gentle stretch with no pain. You can also soften the elbows to take further pressure off the shoulders. We also look upwards during this posture. I’m very cautious with neck hyperextension. I prefer to lengthen the front of the neck without compressing the back of the neck. Keep the neck long and look up with the eyes rather than tipping the head all the way.
Seizing the Prey: This is great fun but mighty challenging. When starting, only lean back a little way during the wind-up (or not at all) and then keep your pounce conservative. Don’t stretch out the arms too far and don’t lean forward too far. I know that sounds like I’m taking all the fun out of it, but trust me that you don’t want a hamstring strain from this move—that is no fun at all! (Yes, I gave myself one…) Once you get used to the rhythm of the move, then you can stretch it out a bit at a time. Switch on your core muscles to protect your low back.
When positioning the heel into empty stance, listen to your knees and make sure the knee bend of the supporting leg is comfortable. Again, be conservative here and avoid tweaking your knee joints. Prevention is better than cure.
Deer – Colliding With the Antlers: Another challenging hand form! Take your time forming the antlers so that you hit the fully extended position as you reach the end of your stretch. Then gradually soften the position as you unwind back to the starting posture. As you get used to the move you can form it earlier and hold it longer.
Ensure the length of your step is comfortable and experiment with the turn and lean. We’re aiming to look towards the back heel, but you might not get there on your first try. Start gently and gradually increase your range. Consciously draw in your core muscles to support your spine as you lean. I love this stretch and some days I will lean a little more to the side and other days I will rotate a little more. The stretch feels great as long as your core muscles are strong enough to support you. You might like to just turn with no lean, or lean with no turn. Work out what feels best for you and don’t worry about what it’s ‘meant’ to look like.
Running Like a Deer: When stepping out to a bow stance, remember that you’ll be shifting your weight onto the back leg, so make sure your stance is not too long. Let comfort be your guide as to how far to round your back and tuck your head. Feel the stretch, work it a bit, but then remember to really relax your shoulders and straighten your posture when you return to the bow stance.
Bear – Rotating the Waist Like a Bear: Imagine waking from hibernation and gently rotating to wake up your muscles. This looks like a really easy move, but don’t underestimate its power. Your spine will be moved through a position of flexion with a bit of rotation and move through lateral flexion into extension with a bit of rotation. Take care if you have active disc bulges. Consciously activate the core muscles by drawing the belly button in towards the spine and lifting the pelvic floor. Hold this contraction as well as you can while moving (and keep breathing!) Start with a small range of movement and gradually increase it as strength and flexibility allow. Stay present and aware throughout every moment of this move.
Swaying Like a Bear: Ahh, this is beautiful! Let go and sway and roll and flow. But don’t let go of your core muscles, you need them active to support your spine. Feel your shoulder girdle and your ribs responding to the movements. As long as you stay aware and keep flowing throughout the move this shouldn’t present too many problems.
Monkey – Lifting the Monkey’s Paws: The quick rotation of the hands into hooks could be tricky for wrist injury and degeneration. If your wrists don’t like the move, take out the rotation and raise them straight up into hooks. Keep your hooks fairly soft too - no need to have the fingers and thumbs pressing too hard.
We shrug the shoulders up, which is a really unusual move for qigong where we are typically all about relaxing the shoulders. But I think this is a really beneficial exercise as our lifestyles tend to cause dropped shoulders, and lengthened and weakened upper trapezius muscles. Here we get the chance to lift them up and make them work in a controlled manner and without any loading (think carrying heavy bags). There are of course degrees of shrugging, so don’t feel you have to lift your shoulders to your ears. Pick a height that feels comfortable to start and then experiment.
Possibly the hardest part of this exercise is rising up on the balls of the feet and holding the position without wobbling, then lowering with control. Like the shoulder shrug, you can pick the height of your heel lift and experiment. Go for the position where you feel the most control with rising and lowering. It can help to subtly shift your weight forward before lifting your heels. You might prefer not to lift your heels at all and if that’s the case, then do shift your weight a little forward because this helps to activate your calf muscles even if you’re not lifting up. It can help with balance to lift your pelvic floor, engage your core and clench your glutes. As you rise up, send your roots down into the earth from the balls of your feet so your energy stays grounded.
Picking Fruit: The main challenge here is following along in mirror image. A good bit of brain focus is required to ensure you’ve got your lefts and rights right! As far as modifications go, keep the size of your step contained and the knee bends comfortable. Don’t reach to the really high branches, lower is easier! I love this move and imagine that I’m swinging in the branches of fruit trees, plucking the fruit and then delicately supping on it. You might not agree with me if you’re still trying to work out what body part goes where. Just let go of any need to get it ‘right’, trust that you’ll get it eventually and enjoy the flow of the move. Stressing about whether you’ve got it correct or not will just get in your way and create tension. Let it go and have faith that the moves will fall into place (just not out of the tree).
Bird – Stretching Upward: The hand position to indicate wings is not really that hard physically, but it’s one of those moves where you think you’re doing it, then look at your hands and they are doing something else entirely. Like the monkey, don’t stress about it, do what you can and focus on the details once you have the main body movements under control. And the body movements are actually a little hard. Think about sitting at a computer—hips flexed, spine rounded forward, arms forward and shoulder rolled inwards. Stretching upward is pretty much the opposite of that, so it’s an excellent exercise for most of us to work on.
Part one is lifting the arms so that they look like the long neck of a crane from side on. The upper body is tilted forward as the arms rise and I’m just not convinced by the need for this forward movement. It feels most precarious to me and my low back feels vulnerable in that position. I prefer not to tilt forward and to just raise my arms (and not too far either) with upright posture. Have a play and see what you think.
Part two I love. This is where we reverse the sitting posture by extending the spine, arms and legs. We activate all of the spinal extensors, the posterior shoulder muscles, the inter-scapular muscles, the gluteals and the hamstrings. We should all do this daily. And did I mention that we are balancing on one leg while we do this? There’s good reason why this move is at the end of the set—all of the previous moves help to prepare our bodies for it. This is very much unaccustomed activity for most of us so go gently and keep your range of movement small to start. You might like to keep the toe of the extending leg on the ground to start with and then lift it by small amounts each practice. You could even slide the toes back. Limit the knee bend to start as well.
Flying Like a Bird: Relax and flow! There is more balancing here but the lifted leg is closer to the centre of gravity, so it’s a good bit easier than Stretching Upward. You can lift your knee to whatever height suits you, or shift into an empty stance with the ball of the foot forward instead of balancing. Remember to engage your core and keep your hips level as you take one leg off the ground. Flap your wings to a comfortable height and no further. The emphasis here is on flow more than stretching upwards. Notice the opening of the chest when the arms are raised out to the sides and fill your lungs to enhance that feeling.
A common theme throughout all of these forms is that they all work the spine and core muscles. But not only that, they encourage us to move in thoroughly unfamiliar ways and push us outside our comfort zones. You will become aware of muscles you did not know you had and learn how to move them with control. Try not to overdo it, but if it does happen and you get sore, take note of for how long. If it’s two days or so, that’s quite normal for new activity. If it’s longer than that then you worked too hard and need to back off a bit. But don’t think that you should give up this form if you get sore. It’s really worth persisting and taking the time to find the level of movement to suit you because there are such benefits to be had from practising this regularly. Not the least of which is fun!