Having just finished a brief overview of the character of Bak Sil Lum (BSL) a couple of weeks ago, this post briefly continues on the topic of BSL to explore an oft-cited adage found in various materials on Northern Shaolin kung fu. Translated, it says “Sleep Like a Bow, Walk Like the Wind, Sit Like a Bell, Stand Like a Pine”. This adage came up while I was speaking with Sifu Lam for the blog and he expounded on what it means.
Sleep Like a Bow
This refers to the sleeping position that puts the body in a natural shape with correct spine curvature (reference to a bow refers to this curvature). One should sleep on their right side, with knees bent and arms in comfortable position. Basically, one should sleep in the fetal position on their right side. There are two main reasons why it is important that one sleeps on their right side as opposed to their left: First, the heart is located slightly to the left of center. Because of this, it is believed that sleeping on the left side places more pressure on the heart, while sleeping on your back or stomach disrupts the natural curvature of the spine. Sleeping on the right side places the spine in correct alignment while putting less pressure on the heart than the left side. The second reason is the shape of the stomach. The stomach has a slight curve from left to right, so sleeping on the right side is believed to be more conducive to the stomach’s shape and allows for gravity to aid in any digestive processes.
This sleeping position also preserves the “jing”, or essence, and keeps the mind more alert and aware of the surroundings. In sleep, jing is sometimes lost through “wet dreams”. On your side with your legs curled it is not possible to lose jing this way, as bending the legs reduces tension and sensitivity in the groin area and sleeping on your side prevents contact with the area.
Walk Like the Wind
This if a fairly straightforward idea. “Walk like the wind” refers to one keeping their stepping light and controlled, while maintaining “floating” energy. This means that one does not “set” their foot down while stepping and sink their weight onto it; instead, one maintains light and swift stepping that allows one to quickly react and move in any direction at any time. Maintaining this posture serves not only to provide for the physical ability to react and move quickly, but is conducive to the mental state of alert awareness.
Sit Like a Bell
Another rather simple one, this saying has to do with one’s posture while sitting. One should sit erect with the top of the head gently pressing up and the shoulders relaxed. “Sit Like a Bell” is a reference to maintaining the natural curves of the spine, similar to the curves of a bell. Maintaining the correct posture keeps one’s energy up and circulating, keeping one alert, aware, and able to react quickly to outside stimuli. Another reason for keeping this posture is the promotion of healthy organs. When you sit slouched or hunched over, it compresses your organs and causes them to sit stacked on top of each other. By keeping your body straight with the natural curve of the spine, the organs maintain their optimal alignments and the qi is allowed to flow freely throughout the body.
Stand Like a Pine
At first glance, this adage seems a bit more obvious than it is. “Stand Like a Pine” just means stand like a tree, right? Stand straight and erect with good posture. This is a fair point and certainly good advice, but there’s a reason why the saying goes “Stand Like a Pine” and not “Stand Like a Tree”. Pine trees don’t have leaves, they have needles. These needles grow in dense bunches and jut out in every direction. Just as a Pine’s needles grow outward in every direction, one should stand with the intent of projecting their energy much the same way. By standing with this intent of pushing their energy out in all directions, one keeps their energy readily available, allowing them to physically react quickly to stimuli from any direction. Also, this intent (once again) keeps one mentally alert and aware.
You may have noticed quite a bit of repetition in the descriptions and reasons for each phrase. All four of the concepts that are mentioned have to do with maintaining a ready supply of live energy, as well as keeping a certain level of alertness. The idea is to be training even when you are not actually training; to maintain a state of readiness and correct structure at all times, keeping your energy fresh and preventing it from going stale. This carries both martial benefits and health benefits, further reflecting Shaolin’s combined history in martial arts, medicine, and philosophy.