History of Qigong: Sinew Metamorphosis

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In the 6th Century AD, Bodidharma taught 3 different sets of qigong exercises to the monks at the Shaolin Temple:

1) The 18 Luohan Hands
2) Sinew Metamorphosis
3) Bone Marrow Cleansing

Sinew Metamorphosis

This article will discuss the history, philosophy, and practice of The Classic of Sinew Metamorphosis.  Click on the links above for information about the other two sets.

In romanized Chinese, The Classic of Sinew Metamorphosis is written Yi Jin Jing (易筋經), which is pronounced as follows:

  • ee (rhymes with “see”)
  • gin (rhymes with “pin”)
  • jing (rhymes with “sing”)

Yi Jin Jing is sometimes translated as The Tendon Changing Classic.  I prefer the translation Classic of Sinew Metamorphosis, or simply Sinew Metamorphosis.  In the qigong community, the term Yi Jin Jing is also widely used, even in the U.S.

Actually, the word jin refers not only to the sinews, but also the bones.  This  is a good example of how tricky it can be to interpret classical Chinese.

When writing, scholars would often leave out words that would be obvious to other scholars.  For example, the scholar who translated the Heart Sutra in the 6th Century,  Xuan Zhang, abbreviated many Buddhist terms because he knew that the they were understood by other scholars.  (To see what he left out, click here.)

In Bodhidharma’s time, scholars would understand that jin refers to jin-gu.  Unfortunately, not all modern scholars still know this.  So Yi Jin Jing is an abbreviation of Yi Jin-Gu Jing, or The Classic of Sinew and Bone Metamorphosis.

But it gets even more confusing! Jin-gu means more than just sinews and bones.  In Chinese medicine, jin is related to the muscles, and is closely connected with the Gall Bladder Meridian. Gu refers to Internal Force, which is the internal power that manifests when you develop an abundance of Qi, especially through Tai Chi Chuan and Shaolin Kung Fu practice.

Inside the gu is the sui (sounds like “sway”), which is literally translated as “marrow”.  But in Chinese medical theory, sui is more than just the bone marrow.  It also refers to the nervous system.  In other words, training gu also trains sui, which benefits the nervous system.

The Benefits of Sinew Metamorphosis

Thus, Sinew Metamorphosis is not just a set of calisthenics to develop tendons, muscles, and bones (which is how some people view it).  It is a set of powerful qigong techniques that bring a wide range of benefits:

  • It nurtures the tendons, muscles, and bones.
  • It develops fast reflexes.
  • It develops courage and righteousness
  • It develops Internal Force
  • It clears deep-rooted emotional blockages.
  • It is wonderful for spiritual cultivation.

Interestingly, when a Chinese person says gu qi (literally “bone energy”), he means “integrity and righteousness.”  And when he says da dan (literally “big gallbladder”), he means “courage.”  So we can see how qigong and Chinese medicine have influence the Chinese language over centuries.

The spiritual side of Sinew Metamorphosis is simply amazing.  In Zen terms, it helps you to see your Original Face.  What is your Original Face?  It’s your face before you were born, before the stars were born, before the galaxy was born.  In other words, when you see your Original Face, you catch a glimpse of timeless, cosmic reality.  I will say that this is one of the most beautiful and indescribable experiences I’ve ever had.

Hard Qigong?

The 12 postures of Sinew Metamorphosis involve subtle, internal contractions.  This is why they are sometimes classified as “Hard Qigong”.   It’s true that these techniques involve slightly more tension than other techniques, but “hard” isn’t quite the right word.  If your contractions are too hard, you’ll miss the essence.  On the other hand, if they’re too soft, you’ll also miss it.

In most of the postures, there is hardly any visible movement at all.  To a casual observer, it might look like the technique is static. Those who haven’t spent time with the basics like the 18 Luohan Hands and Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow probably won’t be able to appreciate Sinew Metamorphosis.

It’s too subtle, and too advanced.  Even if you mimic the postures perfectly, it won’t work, just like mimicking a perfect lotus position won’t automatically make you a meditation master.  You need real skill to appreciate Sinew Metamorphosis.

How Does it Work?

For those with skill, Sinew Metamorphosis is surprisingly powerful.  For me, even after years of practicing these techniques, I still get a kick out of how powerful they are.  With hardly any movement, and with just a dozen repetitions, suddenly there’s a ton of energy surging through my body.  Cool!

How does it work?  I can only speculate.  My best guess is that the subtle contractions stimulate the energy meridians in the body, as if plucking a string on a guitar.  Because the string has some tension in it, when you pluck it, the string resonates.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s probably the best we can do to explain what’s happening with Sinew Metamorphosis.

How to Practice

It goes without saying that you can’t learn Sinew Metamorphosis from a blog post like this.

Because these techniques are so powerful, we do less of them. Typically, we do about 8-12 repetitions that takes roughly 1 minute.

Think of these exercises like that super-concentrated laundry detergent which requires a smaller amount.

Duration: 10-20 minutes.

  1. Opening Sequence
  2. Choose 1 technique x12 repetitions (1 min)
  3. Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow (2-3 min)
  4. Choose another technique x12 repetitions (1 min)
  5. Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow (2-3 min)
  6. Choose another technique x12 repetitions (1 min)
  7. Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow (2-3 min)
  8. Stillness (2 mins)
  9. Closing Sequence (2 min)

If you are new to Sinew Metamorphosis, don’t practice it every day.  Do it once or twice a a week for starters.  If you enjoy it (like many people do), then gradually work up to every other day, and later every day if you like.

The 12 Postures

Historical records give descriptions, but no names for the postures. Years ago, one of my teachers created his own names in the classical Chinese style. Personally, I think they are great, and I use them myself:

1. Golden Dragon Taps on Earth

1. Golden Dragon Taps on Earth

2. Sacred Tree Grows Branches

2. Sacred Tree Grows Branches

3. Gold Hidden in Fists

3. Gold Hidden in Fists

4. Immortal Ties Belt

4. Immortal Ties Belt

5. Immortal Reaching for Heaven

5. Immortal Reaching for Heaven

6. Luohan Emerging from Water

6. Luohan Emerging from Water

7. Lohan Playing with Bamboo

7. Lohan Playing with Bamboo

8. Immortal Clears Eyes

8. Immortal Clears Eyes

9. White Crane Carries Heaven

9. White Crane Carries Heaven

10. Black Bear Grips Paws

10. Black Bear Grips Paws

11. Lohan Offers Blessings

11. Lohan Offers Blessings

12. Double Holding Sun & Moon

12. Double Holding Sun & Moon

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.
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20 Responses to History of Qigong: Sinew Metamorphosis

  1. Mike Rocha September 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Hi Anthony,

    Back in Jacksonville, Sifu taught us “Sinew Metamorphasis” on the last day. Until I read this article, I thought it entirely consisted of assuming posture 1 (from your pictures) then “flicking” the fingers 3 times.

    Was I mistaken in my thinking?

    Is “Sinew Metamorphasis” actually a set of 12 exercises, from which Sifu taught us only the 1st one?

    Should I flick my fingers 12 times instead of 3?

    I feel a little confused.


    • Sifu Anthony September 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

      Hey Mike,

      Yes, Flicking Fingers (now called Golden Dragon Taps on Earth) is #1 of the 12. The course you took was called “Merging with the Cosmos”. In that course, Sifu Wong emphasizes the spiritual aspects of Sinew Metamorphosis.

      How many times you “flick” or “contract” depends on your aims, and your level. At an advanced level, you only need to flick 3 times. But for intermediate students, flicking 12 times is more cost effective.

      You can try a few sessions as described in this article, i.e. flicking 12 times and then going into chi flow.

      • john antony October 9, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

        these are postures right shifu? or we need any action for it?
        sorry because am new to this great “shaolin ocean”!



        • Sifu Anthony Korahais October 9, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

          John, yes they are postures. But there is also some action. In each posture there is a subtle, internal contraction. It’s impossible to describe this contraction in words. You really have to learn it face-to-face.

          • john antony October 10, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

            great thanks shifu!

          • Arsath March 20, 2016 at 10:57 pm #

            Are these postures static . There were a lot of them when i sawed it in wiki

            • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 21, 2016 at 8:07 am #

              Arsath, the postures look static, but there are subtle contractions of the muscles and fascia.

  2. Mary Bast September 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    At first I was confused by the photo illustrating #6 Lohan Emerging from Water, but then I clicked on the photo to enlarge it and went through the posture myself. To my surprise it looks exactly as you’ve demonstrated. When I’m doing the posture with my eyes closed, I feel myself lifted up to where my closed hands are. 🙂

    • Sifu Anthony September 6, 2012 at 10:45 am #

      Thanks, Mary. I’ll have better pictures soon.

  3. Stephen September 6, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    Awesome post Sifu Anthony. Will you be attending the Legacy of Bodhidharma Course in Vegas by any chance?

    • Sifu Anthony September 6, 2012 at 10:45 am #

      Hey Stephen. Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can make it to Vegas this year. But I’ve taken those courses, and they’re fantastic. Enjoy!

      • Stephen September 6, 2012 at 10:52 am #

        Thank you Sifu Anthony.

        That’s too bad. I will see you in St. Petersburg then!

  4. Stephen September 6, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Sifu Anthony,

    Which Sinew Metamorphosis exercise is ideal in developing strong bridges/arms?

    • Sifu Anthony September 6, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      If you want strong bridges (forearms), then nothing beats Golden Bridge. But practicing Sinew Metamorphosis in general (any of them) will also help a lot.

  5. Kelleen September 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    “Those who haven’t spent time with the basics like the 18 Lohan Hands and Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow simply won’t be able to appreciate Sinew Metamorphosis.”

    Does this mean a student should take your 18 Lohan Hands class before the Sinew Metamorphosis class?

    • Sifu Anthony September 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

      Not necessarily, Kelleen. The “9 Qigong Jewels” classes also cover the 18 Lohan Hands (i.e. the 9 most important ones). Go ahead and try Sinew Metamorphosis. If it goes over your head, then you can opt for other classes for a few months before giving it another try.

      • Kelleen September 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

        Great Thanks! I will continue to try the Sinew Metamorphosis classes.

  6. David Burch September 25, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Sacred Tree Grows Branches is my favorite.

  7. Ludo Cools September 6, 2016 at 2:51 am #

    Looks as if this comes close to Zhan Zhuang, which look static but is very dynamic in a very subtle way. And close to Nei Gong too. Or do I make a beginners fault now?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais September 6, 2016 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Ludo. Zhan Zhuang is completely still, and much more relaxed than Yi Jin Jing (Sinew Metamorphosis).

      Neigong is simply another word for more internal and quiescent forms of qigong.

      Does that help make things clearer?

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