In the 6th Century AD, Bodidharma taught 3 different sets of qigong exercises to the monks at the Shaolin Temple:
The 18 Luohan Hands
This article will discuss the history, philosophy, and practice of The 18 Luohan Hands. Click on the links above for information about the other two sets.
In romanized Chinese, the 18 Luohan Hands is written Shiba Luohan Shou (十八羅漢手), which is pronounced as follows:
- Shi (like the word “ship” but without the “p”)
- Ba (rhymes with “La”, )
- Luo (rhymes with “claw”)
- Han (rhymes with “con”)
- Shou (sounds like “show”)
Who are these 18 Luohans, and why are we interested in their hands?
The word Luohan comes from the Sanskrit word Arhat. Both words refer to a person who has cultivated a high level of spirituality, somewhat like a Christian Saint.
After the Buddha passed away, 500 of his top disciples gathered together in a grand council. Together, they reviewed and discussed his teachings word by word. These disciples became known as the 500 Arhats.
When Buddhism spread from India to China, it naturally adjusted to the new culture. For example, the Chinese paid special homage to 18 of the 500 Arhats. Statues of these 18 Luohan are often found in Buddhist temples today.
Bodhidharma taught at the Shaolin Temple roughly 1000 years after the passing of the Buddha. He chose to pay homage to these 18 Luohan, perhaps in an effort to reach across the cultural divide. Thus, he named a set of qigong techniques after them.
The word Shou means “hands”, but refers to the 18 techniques. A figurative translation would be the 18 Techniques of the Enlightened Ones.
Over time, the 18 Luohan Hands evolved into the 18 Luohan Fists. Here, “fists” also refers to the techniques, but implies that they are not just for health. In other words, it was a form of Kung Fu. This was the birth of Shaolin Kung Fu, a martial art that would become legendary.
Internal and External
The 18 Luohan Hands are the fundamental qigong exercises that I teach. The first exercise, Lifting The Sky, is the very first exercise I teach to new students. (Click on that link if you want to start learning it.) Over the years, I’ve used selections from the 18 Luohan Hands to help my students do some powerful healing.
If you practice these exercises on a physical level (which is the norm today), then you won’t get the same results that my students get. The visible form is the least important aspect in qigong. It’s what happens on the inside that matters most.
The secrets lie not in the visible form, but in the internal dimensions of energy and mind. All over the world, students practice the visible form correctly, often for years, but the don’t get the results they deserve because they don’t understand this important point. Don’t be one of them.
The Benefits of Luohan Qigong
In theory, the benefits of The 18 Luohan Hands are limitless. Most of my students spend most of their time practicing these techniques. So most of their results also come from these techniques. This is why we say that The 18 Luohan Hands can heal “1000” diseases. I’m not sure if we’ve healed 1000 different diseases yet, but in Chinese medical theory, each person is unique, so in that sense, we definitely have!
Here are some general benefits of this type of Qigong:
- Open the energy meridians.
- Get the energy flowing.
- Boost the immune system
- Loosen the joins.
- Loosen the muscles.
- Relax the nervous system.
- Flowing meditation.
To get these benefits, you need to know the secrets of the 5-Phase Routine.
The 8 Pieces of Brocade
Yue Fei, a famous Shaolin master in the 12 Century AD, is famous for “inventing” a Qigong set called The 8 Pieces of Brocade (八段錦氣功, Ba Duan Jin Qigong). This is one of the most widely practiced Qigong sets in the world. Although practiced as a separate set, these 8 exercises correspond to the first 8 exercises in the 18 Luohan Hands.
There are countless versions and interpretations of the 18 Luohan Hands. The set that I inherited is probably as close as we’ll ever get to the original without traveling back in time.
But whether or not the set is the same as the original is not as important. What matters is this: It works. The exercises that I teach in my school are amazingly effective. It’s possible that they’re even more effective that the ones that Bodhidharma taught. After all, they’ve had 1500 years to perfect them.
Where did Bodhidharma get these exercises? It’s impossible to say, but a good guess is that he was originally taught some form of Yoga in India. Legend says that Bodhidharma meditated in the cave near the Shaolin Temple for 9 years. It’s possible that, in his deep meditation, Bodhidharma modified the techniques he had learned as a prince into the three sets of techniques.
Does that sound woo woo to you? I admit that, 20 years ago, it might have sounded pretty weird to me too. But now I realize that all great art happens in a deep state of meditation. Mozart said that his music flowed to him from God. Da Vinci went into a deep state of meditation before creating his great works. When you look carefully at artists throughout history (and across all cultures), you find one thing in common — they all tapped into the power of meditation.
Wherever these exercises came from, they are a godsend. They have changed my life, and the lives of my students. If I had to teach only one set of exercises for the rest of my life, it would be an easy choice: The 18 Lohan Hands.
The 18 Exercises
If you’re trying to learn the patterns from the pictures, you’re going to have a hard time. These pictures will be helpful if you’ve already learned the exercises.
Otherwise, you can start learning them via my Qigong 101 Program.
1. Lifting the Sky
shuang shou tuo tian
Both Hands Lift Sky
Useful for: postural problems, back pain, neck pain, hemorrhoids, incontinence, stress relief.
This pattern is arguably the best single Qigong pattern in the world. Its forte is that it promotes a holistic Qi flow throughout the body. The exercise works on the Triple Warmer Meridian (San Jiao Mai) and thus harmonizes the upper, middle, and lower energies.
2. Shooting Arrows
zuo you kai gong
Shoot Arrows Left Right
Useful for: skin problems, respiratory issues, excessive or inadequate grieving, high blood pressure (hypertension), depression, self confidence issues, memory issues.
This exercise uses the One Finger Zen hand form, which is a special Shaolin technique that must be learned from a master. Practicing Shooting Arrows is an excellent way to massage the Lung and Heart Meridians.
3. Plucking Stars
zhai xing huan dou
Pluck Stars Change Galaxies
Useful for: indigestion, acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation,diabetes, liver and gallbladder problems, Crohn’s disease, and diverticulosis, tennis elbow, Endometriosis, yeast infections, dysmenorrhea, vaginitis, and ovarian cysts.
This exercise nourishes the Spleen and Stomach Meridians, which relate to the Western concept of the digestive system. According to Chinese medical theory, good digestion is a prime ingredient for good health and vitality. This exercise can help with virtually any digestive or gastrointestinal problem. It also opens up the 8 Extraordinary Meridians along the sides of the body, which are important energy reservoirs.
4. Turning Head
lu lu xuan zhuan
Useful for: tension in their neck and shoulders, headaches, migraines, neuralgia, thyroid issues, Parkinson’s disease, stroke recovery, preventing colds and flus.
This exercise isn’t just for loosening your neck. Energetically, Turning Head is used to powerfully cleanse the Chinese concept of the Sea of Marrow, which loosely translates to the head, spine, and nervous system. The exercise brings energy to the entire spine, the brain, as well as the throat, ears, and eyes.
da zhuan qian kun
Big Turning of the Cosmos
Useful for: anxiety, acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation,diabetes, liver and gallbladder problems, Crohn’s disease, diverticulosis, back pain, tinnitus, rheumatism, indigestion.
This exercise stimulates Water energy at the vital point known as the “gate of life” (mingmen) thereby giving an energy boost that is far superior to coffee. This exercise is a great pick-me-up. It is also nourishing for the Stomach, Liver, Spleen, and Kidney Meridians.
6. Punching with Eyes Wide
nu mu chong quan
Punch with Eyes Wide
Useful for: excess or insufficient anger, hemorrhoids, myopia and other eye problems, liver disease, stress relief, lack of self confidence.
This pattern helps to develop powerful punches for martial artists. But the power comes from the Qi, not from the muscles. If the muscles are tensed, then the Qi has trouble flowing to the end of the punch. Besides developing internal force for martial arts, this exercise massages and strengthens the Heart and Small Intestine Meridians. In order to obtain the benefits listed above, it’s critical to make the appropriate sounds and use correct breathing, both of which should be learned face-to-face from a master.
7. Carrying the Moon
hui tou bao yue
Look Back Carry Moon
Useful for: back pain, neck pain, emotional cleansing, herniated discs, bulging discs, neuralgia, sciatica, Parkinson’s disease, stroke recovery, scoliosis, youthfulness.
Students love this exercise because it makes them look and feel young. It cleanses away negative energy in the body, especially the nervous system, by stimulating an internal shower of energy. According to a Chinese proverb, you need not worry about getting old as long as your spine stays healthy and erect. This exercise is a great way to do that.
8. Nourishing Kidneys
pan zu gu yao
Touch Toes Nourish Kidneys
Useful for: sexual dysfunction, memory problems, sciatica, low back pain, incontinence, phobias, fertility, impotence, low libido, self discipline.
A Western doctor will tell you that your kidneys have nothing to do with sex. A Chinese physician will tell you that your kidneys have everything to do with sex. This exercise, as the name implies, powerfully nourishes the Kidney Meridian.
9. Three Levels to Ground
san pan luo di
Three Levels Down Ground
Useful for: knee pain, palpitations, cardiovascular health, hypertension, flexibility, strength, weight loss.
On a physical level, Three Levels to Ground will make your legs strong and flexible. As a Qigong exercise, it can strengthen your Heart system, generate better energy flow, and increase your vitality. It’s also useful for opening the Small Universe Circulation. (Note: if you have serious heart problems, then don’t try this on your own.)
10. Dancing Crane
xian he qi wu
Divine Crane Begins Dancing
Useful for: knee pain, kidney stones, strength, flexibility, longevity, weight loss.
This exercise helps to channel energy down the legs. Because everything is interconnected via our energy matrix, channeling energy to the legs sometimes helps to solve problems in other parts of the body. Of course, this exercises also helps build strength and flexibility.
11. Carrying Mountains
er lang dan shan
Second Son Carries Mountains
Useful for: back pain, neurological disorders, bulging discs, herniated discs.
This exercise opens up the spine energetically (but in a different way than Carrying the Moon). It also channels energy down the arms, which is useful for martial artists.
12. Drawing Sword
luo han fa dao
Luohan Draws Saber
Useful for: neck and shoulder problems, headaches, migraines, tennis elbow.
The The Eight Wondrous Meridians (Qi Jing Ba Mai) are often mentioned in Qigong texts, but seldom understood. Drawing Sword is an effective way to generate energy flow to these eight meridians.
13. Pushing Mountains
meng hu tui shan
Fierce Tiger Pushes Mountains
Useful for: arthritis, tendonitis, impotence, low back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, grief, memory problems.
This is one of the best exercises for channeling Qi to the hands. Because of this, it’s part of the method for an advanced Kung Fu art called Cosmos Palm. In combination with other exercises, it’s also excellent for stimulating the Five Animal Play.
14. Separating Water
qing long fen shui
Green Dragon Separates Water
Useful for: depression, anxiety, COPD, lung disorders, excessive or insufficient grieving, fibrocystic breast disease, general breast health, self confidence issues.
This is an excellent exercise to open and nourish the Heart and the Lung systems. It is especially useful to cure clinical Depression. Interestingly, it will also give you powerful arms for martial arts.
15. Presenting Claws
qing long xian xhua
Green Dragon Presents Claws
Useful for: kidney stones, diabetes, anxiety, arthritis,
This exercise channels energy to the Spleen, Pancreas, and Kidney Meridians, as well as all ten fingers (and the Meridians associated with them). It is also used to develop the Art of the Dragon Claw in Shaolin Kung Fu, which is a compassionate way to disable an opponent without doing serious damage.
16. Big Windmill Hand
da feng che shou
Big Windmill Hand
Useful for: diabetes, arthritis, tendonitis, tennis elbow, shoulder pain.
Do you want to break a brick with your palm? This exercise, when done correctly, will give you the internal power to do that, without any other conditioning. Those problems related to the Liver and Spleen Meridians will also find this exercise useful.
17. Lifting Heels
qi zheng wan zuo
Lift Heels Bend Knees
Useful for: arthritis, knee pain, edema, varicose veins, sacroiliac pain, long leg disorder.
This is another excellent exercise for the lower body. It opens up the meridians in the legs so that negative energy from other parts of the body can be efficiently drained out into the ground. It’s also useful for opening the Small Universe Circulation.
18. Rotating Knees
xian he zhuan xi
Divine Crane Rotates Knees
Useful for: knee pain, sexual dysfunction, edema, varicose veins, incontinence, impotence.
You may be surprised, but Rotating Knees can help to overcome sexual problems, and it can enhance sexual performance and enjoyment. Like Lifting Heels, it also helps to drain negative energy down the legs. Since this energy often gets stuck in the knees, this exercise is extremely useful. 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 how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.