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Stepping Patterns, Rhythms & Internal Movement in the Internal Arts and Five Animal Play Exercises: Part 1

Five Animal Play Exercises

Walking, along with breathing, sitting and standing, is one our most primal movements. Very early on in China there was a recognition that these primal movements could have profound effects on human consciousness and physical functioning. Indications of this awareness appear in some of the oldest known medical documents unearthed from the Zhangjiashan (Hubei province) and Mawangdui (Hunan province) tombs.

Dating from the Early Han period in 160 BC, these documents pre-date the Huang Ti Nei Jing, which was previously thought to be the oldest book on Chinese medicine. Two of these manuscripts, the Yin Shu (Pulling Book) and the Dao Yin Tu (Guiding-Pulling Chart), detail methods of An Mo (self-massage), Tu Na (breathing; inspiration-expiration) – also called Xing Qi or Yun Qi – and moving exercises that imitate animals or advocate pulling on (stretching) the sinews or the area of pain.

In the Huang Ti Nei Jing (attributed to the later Han dynasty), it is clear from the very beginning that movement is tied into the rhythm of the seasons. One should relax the body and move freely in the spring and summer. As fall gives way to winter, one should be more contained and quiescent:

The three months of spring, one calls the “issuing and laying out.” Sleep at night and rise early; stroll at ease around the yard, loose the hair, relax the body. Allow intent to come to life. [1] In winter, sleep early, and rise late; Be sure to wait for sunshine. Keep an intent as though lurking, hiding; as though in private thought; as though you have succeeded already. [2]

This early understanding of the inter-connectedness of movement, our own internal processes and the changes in the world around us permeates much of the thinking in Chinese medicine.

Even our own everyday movements – such as walking, standing, sitting – are connected to these changes and processes:

Walking, if performed moderately and correctly, helps the liver and its associated meridians and activities, relaxes the sinews and massages the tissues around the liver and its paired organ the gallbladder. Performed incorrectly or to excess, walking damages and exhausts the liver.

Sitting, if performed moderately and correctly, allows the kidney energy to gather and replenish itself. Performed incorrectly or to excess, sitting can damage the kidneys and lead to stagnation of energy in the lower body.

Connective tissue (fascia) physically links all the parts of the body in an interconnected web. Many acupuncturists believe that connective tissue and the meridians are, to some degree, congruent. Thus, movement in even one discrete area has ramifications throughout the entire body. The spinal column is in constant motion, in response to blood circulation, respiration, peristalsis. The spinal column lengthens when we inhale, decreasing the natural curves of the spine. The curves settle into their “normal” angles when we exhale. Neither the spine nor the connective tissue that wraps the vertebrae and their associated muscles is ever ‘at rest.’ [3]

From the perspective of Chinese medicine, the spine is intimately associated with the Du (Governing) channel, which governs yang and movement. The Du channel holds us upright so that we can stand and move forward into the world. To some degree, the Du channel is the center around which movement revolves. Movement from even a small gesture of the arm travels through the arm, into the spine and is then transmitted to the opposite side of the body. [4] This is even more apparent with movements of the legs, or the act of walking, which creates wave-like motions that pass through the entire body 

Like breathing, walking has its own inherent rhythms; and like breathing, walking is a product of internal movements that manifest externally. These internal movements create a series of vibrations, pulsations, or waves that move through the body’s largely fluid composition. Different modes of walking, like different ways of breathing, create different vibrations and different wave forms. Wherever there is  blockage or restriction in the connective tissue or in the meridian system (both of which are in fact intimately connected), the wave is disturbed, it breaks. This idea is one of the key principles underlying the different hand methods employed in Tui Na (Chinese Medical Massage). Each hand method or “hand technique” sends a different wave form into the body which simultaneously disperses blockages and also “feeds-back” to the practitioner, telling him or her where these blockages can be found.

In Chinese medicine, in Nei Gong and in the internal martial arts, we understand that these waves and vibrations are simply movements of the qi, blood and body fluids. Many systems of Nei Gong employ various types of walking (and breathing) to modulate these movements of the qi, blood and body fluids. According to Chinese medicine, movement and transformation within our physical bodies – even changes of emotion and mental state – are ultimately manifestations of the qi. Therefore, modulating the movement of the qi and the other fundamental substances of the body can in turn modulate physiological function and psycho-spiritual consciousness and perception.

In internal martial arts like Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang, stepping is fundamental to the internal body actions. Ba Gua is based on walking with a curved step. This curved step creates spiraling horizontal forces that integrate with the vertical force of the forward movement. When combined with the turning of the waist and wrapping of the arms in Ba Gua’s circle walking practice, spiraling, spinning and twisting movements are propagated throughout the entire body.

The stepping movements of Xing Yi Quan are like an animal walking. Although humans stand upright relative to four legged animals, in the Splitting fist of Xing Yi the practitioner moves forward with a manner similar to an animal walking, ie with three points touching the ground at all times. This is created by the forward extension of the arms emanating from the back. In performing the cat-like, pouncing forward movements of the five fists, the four limbs land almost simultaneously. Each of the five fists creates a different internal wave: Pi (Splitting) rises and falls; Zuan (Drilling) creates and upward spiral force; Heng (Crossing) creates a wrapping, rotating force; etc. The twelve animal forms then employ modification of the mind-intention and body form plus changes in the steps to create other internal waves that propagate differently through the body: galloping like a horse; pouncing like a tiger; swimming like an alligator; coiling and striking out like a snake etc. Each animal creates a different step, a different spinal wave, different internal vibrations and wave forms that in turn modify mind and intention.

The manuscripts from the Zhangjiashan and Mawangdui tombs mention exercises like the “Bear Ramble” and “Bird Stretches”. It is believed by many that these kinds of exercises evolved into the Play of the Five Animals (Wu Qin Xi) , a set of movements based on the movements of five different  animals. These exercises are usually attributed to Hua Tuo, a famous physician who lived toward the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220). By mimicking the movements of these animals, the constitution can be built up, the body strengthened, and diseases prevented.  Some of these movements bear a relationship to animal movements of Xing Yi Quan (Form-Intention Boxing). There are several versions of Hua Tuo’s Wu Qin Xi, however one in particular emphasizes the different walking patterns of the five animals. In this versions of the Wu Qin Xi, each animal has a particular walking step that activates different organ and meridian systems, and each modulates the movement of the qi in specific ways that are congruent with the principles of Chinese medicine. The five animals are the bear, crane, deer, tiger and monkey. In a single session one or two animals can be practiced.  When one is more advanced, all five can be performed in a single  session. They are usually learned and practiced in the following order:

  • Bear (Xiong)
  • Deer (Lu) 鹿
  • Bird(Niao) 鳥
  • Tiger (Hu) 虎
  • Monkey (Hou) 猴

The Bear’s movement is slow and stable while the Bird is light and flexible. The Tiger is violent and powerful while the Deer is relaxed and limber and the Monkey, active, agile and alert. Qi circulation is the most stable in the Bear’s movements while in the Bird (often described as a crane) movements, qi moves gently up, down and around the body. The five animals can also be performed in accordance with the seasons. In Chinese philosophy there are four heraldic animals that are symbolic of the internal organs, internal processes, stages of life and seasonal change.

In the Wu Qin Xi, the heraldic animals are replaced by living animals:

Season                                  Animal        Heraldic Animal

Spring  (Feb 4/5)                  Deer               Qing Long (Azure Dragon)

Summer (May 5/6)               Bird                Hong Niao (Red Bird)

Fall (Aug. 8/9)                      Tiger              Bai Hu  (White Tiger)

Winter (Nov 7/8)                 Bear                Hei She Gui (Black Snake-Tortoise)

The center of these seasonal changes is Earth represented by the Monkey, which can be practiced in the two week period before each season begins. Monkey can also be practiced during Indian Summer. Each animal works with the organs that are associated with the seasons according to five element/five phase (Wu Xing) theory in traditional Chinese Medicine. These correspondences are:

Deer               Spring                         Liver/ Gall Bladder

Bird                Summer                      Heart/Small Intestine

Tiger              Fall                             Lungs/Large Intestine

Bear                Winter                        Kidneys/Bladder

Monkey         Indian Summer/      Spleen/Stomach

Between Seasons

This is diagramed below:


Although there are five exercises for each animal, totaling 25 exercises, the most important exercise for each animal is the first – the basic walking step. Each animal has its own unique step with its own rhythm and wave-like pulsation. All the animal steps are circular movements containing spirals, waves, and arcs. There is no stiffness. The steps for each animal are supple and relaxed. The movement and step are rooted and full of energy and strength, yet the strength should not be too obvious, or too firm. Firmness must be combined with gentleness. These two qualities should interchange seamlessly when performing the steps. Finally each step should be performed with the attitude and spirit of the specific animal.

The Bear

The Bear at first glance seems clumsy and lumbering when it walks, yet it is simultaneously soft and supple, moving as though it has no bones. The steps are heavy, solid and rooted, hiding flexibility and lightness. The Bear’s power lies in its neck, which erects upward, and its shoulders, which shake and rock. The rocking force passes through the upper arms, in coordination with the shoulders, elbows, hands, hips, knees and feet. Qi is conducted to Dantian during the performance of the Bear step, thereby strengthening the kidneys.

Bear Stepping Pattern [5]

熊步式  (Xiong Bu Shi)

  • From the  Wu Ji Posture: Slightly stretch the head forward with the neck and back, exerting a slight backward force.
  • Draw the left foot inward to lift, so that the left heel comes near the inner side of the right foot as you simultaneously inhale and lightly clench the fists with the thumb tip inside the other fingers.
  • As the weight goes to the right foot, slightly lower and turn the body leftward. Simultaneously, elbows flex slightly and the fists bend slightly back.
  • Exhale, take a half-step with the left foot, and imagine wading against a current as though challenging a resisting force. The step is to the side and slightly forward, but not long, resembling a bear on its hind legs. The wrists relax and the body weight goes to the left leg. As the body sets into the left leg, movement at the Mingmen creates an internal rocking/spiraling causing the wrists to subtly bend and relax, with emphasis on the back of the forearm (San Jiao channel)
  • Let this motion happen through the entire exhalation.
  • Repeat on the other side. A basic practice session can contain five repetitions on each side.
The Bear Step
The Bear Step

The Deer

The Deer is relaxed. It leans forwards and looks backward with a light and smooth step. The tendons and muscles are relaxed. Qi is conducted to the tail (Wei Lu) located at the lower end of the Du channel, so that a sensation of qi travels along the Du channel thereby clearing and dredging this important pathway. It is said that “conducting qi to the tail trains the sinews.” The Deer step aids the liver in its function of promoting smooth circulation of qi and blood, thereby nourishing  the sinews (muscles tendons and ligaments), and allowing them to move smoothly and supply.

Deer Stepping Pattern

鹿步式 (Lu Bu Shi)

  • Withdraw the left foot, toes touching the ground, to the inner side of the right foot while inhaling.
  • Continue to inhale as you rotate the body leftward. Lower the palms and as you rotate to the left, flex the palms so that the fingers hook pointing back behind you. Pause and then extend the left foot forward to the left front, suspended off the ground, sole parallel with the floor. Simultaneously the fingers flick to point forward.
  • Flex the foot back so the toes point up and the heel drops, as the palm root drops and the fingers point slightly upward.
  • Exhale and the foot relaxes, so that the sole is once again parallel with the floor, while the palm hands relax so that the fingers point forward once again. Stretch the leg out and let the whole foot land as if walking in mud.
  • Continue exhaling as you shift the weight onto the left leg as the palms press down, and the body is pulled forward, as though pulled between the hands. The chest spreads slightly and the Ming Men is open, the action pulling on the pelvic floor.
  • Repeat on the other side. A basic practice session can contain five repetitions on each side.
The Deer Step
The Deer Step


[1] Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, by A.C. Graham. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. 1989, p. 352.

[2] Ibid, p. 353.

[3] The Endless Web, Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality,  R. Louis Schultz and Rosemary Feitis, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1996, p. 30.

[4] Ibid.

[5] All pictures of steeping patterns are from: Qi Gong Essentials for Health Promotion by Jiao Guorui. PR China: China Reconstructs Press.