The Eight Brocades
These famous and widespread Qigong exercises are at least 800 years old. They are used for gently training the intrinsic health of the muscles, joints, connective tissues, digestion, the spine, and more. The Eight Brocades engage the physical body wholly, bringing flowing, resilient, flexible, strength. There are many different versions of the Eight Brocades. The version below is from Shanghai Lan Shou teacher Master Wu Ji, via Bob Lau, with a few small changes. (Lan Shou is a type of Kung Fu that is usually practiced at slow speeds, and gently.)
1. Hold Up the Sky
Inhale: Raise palms up the centerline, fingers pointing to each other; turn palms over as they reach the top of the torso. Look up only with the eyeballs as you press the palms straight over head.
Exhale: Lower arms in arcs down the sides with straight arms, then bring palms inward—fingertips leading—to the Lower Dantian, bringing the eyes back to neutral.
More Keys to the First Movement
Push down with the feet as much as you push up with the arms.
Really, you want to push down with the entire body, while pushing up with the entire body—quite a feat, a Qi-feat.
Notice how you open the belly and chest, a way of creating more space for flow in your tissues and internal organs.
2. Pull the Bow
Pull the Bow is the most complex of the 8 brocades. It is a Qigong course all in itself, with many useful lessons in posture, movement, breath, focus, and Qi flow. There are many bow and arrow exercises found in Qigong. My imagined provenance of this exercise is that ancient folks observed in bowmen a certain quality of vigor and vitality. Bow-pulling exercises arose to recreate such health for others.
Right side: Lower the arms and turn to the right (3:00), stepping slightly forward into a right, leaning-style, bow stance while raising both straight arms to shoulder height, palms almost touching, fingers pointing to the right. Pull the left arm to the left shoulder while making fists with both palms and turning the torso and legs to a front horse stance (with a pelvic tilt.) You are still looking to the right. Right arm is pushing to the right at shoulder level. Push the right fist to the horizon, stretching the ligaments of the wrist and arm. Left elbow is horizontal and pushing back to the left (not twisting back.) The pull is through the side-to-side width of the chest.
Left side: Lower the arms to waist level as you twist the body counterclockwise, 180 degrees, to a left bow stance to the left (9:00). Raise the straight arms up to shoulder height, palms almost touching, fingers pointing to the left. Pull the right arm to the right shoulder while making fists with both palms and turning the torso and legs to a front horse stance. You are still looking to the left.
Alternative version from Bob Lau: Pull the bow with two fingers, not a fist and come to rest the pulling fist on the side of hip instead of the at the shoulder.
More Keys to the Second Movement
The bow stance in this style of movement is a leaning stance. A straight line could be drawn on the slight diagonal from the back of the leg, up the back, back of neck and back of head.
The weight is placed on the front thigh, in the muscle and bone.
Don’t put weight on the knee or kneecap and don’t bend the leg so much that the kneecap is more forward than the toes of that leg.
Try to move the body as a unit, not in staccato sections.
The horse stance is a wide stance. Drop into it, letting the quadriceps (front thighs) hold you up. The ankles, knees and hips are lined up. The lower back slightly rounds backward (pelvic tilt position.)
In the final posture, a slight, but definite outward push with both the straight arm and the elbow at the side push to their respective sides. This gives stability and improves Qi flow in the body.
Further, your head “pushes” up and your feet “push” down.
This is a very stable posture when done with correct form and proper Qi-flow.
On the arm-raising:
The arms are lifted from the back muscles, not the shoulders. Also push into the ground with the back foot.
The arms are kept straight as you raise them.
Even straight arms have some bend in the elbows and play in the shoulders.
The palms face each other, building Qi between them.
Inhale into the back to help lift the arms with easy power.
Make a real fist: The thumb pad compresses against the middle bone of the index finger.
Keep the wrist straight, not curled inward, upward, outward or downward.
The curled index and ring fingers lead the punch.
This is a vertically-oriented punch, with the thumb on top and the pinky on the bottom. The back of the hand, of course, faces to the side.
Relax your shoulders; let your back, pelvis and legs hold up your arms.
Make sure to look into the distance at the final position of each rep, following the arrow.
Pull the Bow Benefits Include
• Opens the lungs for charging, strengthening, and breath-building.
• Builds thigh strength.
• Promotes the health of the cervical spine and throat (the turning of the head to the side.)
• Relaxes and opens the shoulders
• Strengthens the Kidneys (the turning of the waist and sitting into the pelvic tilt.)
3. Press Heaven and Earth
Press and stretch one hand high and one low. The high hand is over the head and the lower hand at the outer thigh. The palms are bent on the stretches, with fingers facing inward. Exhale as hands go away from each other. Inhale as they come toward each other, crossing at the chest. The hands also twist as they rise or sink, especially the rising hand.
Keys to the Third Movement
Press the lower hand down to the ground. The Qi must go all the way down the leg to the foot, and then into the ground. Don’t get your consciousness stuck in your legs. It must flow through.
Open the internal organs too; and the fascia and other structures in your torso.
Opens, stretches, massages, and pumps the lymph of the chest (and breasts) through the crucial nodes in the armpits.
4. Twist the Spine
Transition Move: Raise the arms to the sides, straight and at shoulder height in fists, pushing to the sides with the knuckles of index and middle finger in order to stretch the tendons of the hand, wrist and arm.
Twisting Move: Turn from the spine to look behind. The lower fist stretches behind lower back on the opposite Kidney area. This is the arm on the same side you are turning to (left turn = left arm behind back.) The high fist comes to rest in front of the head. Both fist are in the fingers-out position.
Transition Move: Lower the upper arm and raise the lower arm so they pass each other as open with arms to the sides and straight at shoulder height in transition; then you twist to the other side.
Alternative Version: Just look left and right with the head turning.
Keys to the Fourth Movement
Keep the elbows heavy-feeling, and relax the shoulders.
Try to keep the fist-wrist-forearm line straight.
Note that the knees do not twist.
5. Shake the Apple out of the Tree
Do no more than 7 reps. Don’t let the head shake too much.
Look up and keep looking up during the whole of this exercise. Raise straight arms straight up, shoulder width, palms facing each other. Come up on the toes and make fists above the head. Drop on the heels and let arms swing down and back as palms open.
As the arms swing forward, raise up into the next rep.
Keys to the Fifth Movement
Coming up on the toes strengthens the ankles, improves balance, and energizes the 6 pairs of meridians in the legs.
The vertical bounce n the heels is strengthening to the skeleton.
Grasping “bad” Qi in your orbit, you throw it into the earth.
Use the muscles of the back to raise the arms, not the shoulder muscles.
Don’t let your head wobble; or any body part. Come down straight and solid into the ground.
6. Circle the Hips
Hands on hips (or Kidneys.) Make big circles of the torso from the hips (not from the back.) Do a bunch of reps one way, then a bunch the other direction. This helps relax the body and open the kua.
Alternative Version: Instead of circling the torso, lean left then right, from the kua. (ball and socket joints of the hips.)
Keys to the Sixth Movement
The movement here is an unusual one for Westerners to learn. It involves rotating your pelvic bones around the spherical heads of the femurs (thigh bones.)
Keep the legs strongly connected and sunk into the earth so you are solidly rooted as you rotate your head and torso.
There are two circles in motion: one is physical, the other is of Qi. The Qi circle, you may perceive, is traveling the opposite direction as the physical circle.
7. Squeeze the Fists
Begin with slightly open palms near the waist on either side. Elbows are bent. Fingertips face mostly downward. Make tight fists with fingers facing the sides of your torso as push the fists toward the ground. Release the fists back to the beginning position. This exercise is said to bring the Qi to the extremities.
Keys to the Seventh Movement
Make sure that the line of the arm to hand is through a straight wrist on the back of the arm. Don’t bend the wrist. Bending the wrist breaks the Qi and might break your wrist, if it is a habit you use elsewhere. A bent wrist position is a weak structural connection.
Squeezing the fists is an entire body exercise. By pushing down with the straight, one-unit, arms the rest of the body rises up. Even the internal organs are involved, as well as the legs. This is a strong posture—a full, strong, oneness of your body.
The whole spine is stretched vertically—a great way to help the discs, facets, and intervertebral foramina of the vertebral column to expand and open. This action greatly stretches the tendons, fascia and joints of the arms and wrists while strengthening the grip. It is also excellent for opening the upper shoulders and cervical spine, preventing a great many physical ailments.
8. Fold Over
Stretch arms and palms above the head. Palms are essentially facing each other at shoulder width. Bend over at the waist as low as you can go safely. Grab the undersides of the toes (or place palms behind the legs if you are not flexible), Pull slightly to stretch down a bit more. Let go of the hold and unhinge at the waist to stretch up again.
Keys to the Eighth Movement
Fold Over is a jackknife type of bending, with the hinge at the waist. It is not a rolling down and up as is often done in Qigong.
Use the breath to pull yourself up. Inhale into the back as you rise. This makes the unfolding go more easily and benefits the Qi flow of the back of the body greatly.
This exercise massages the abdominal organs and strengthens the back of the legs, back muscles, and spine. It invigorates the Kidneys.
When you bend forward, you put a lot of yourself to the front, You have a lot of weight, mental energy and Qi forward. In order to stay balanced and rooted, use your mind to place Qi and consciousness behind you. It is an anchoring with Qi that makes even this folded over position quite stable.