When the Covid-19 outbreak hit, anxiety spread all over the world like a giant, virus-shaped fog. Loved ones were lost, daily routines disintegrated, and media became a stream of pure dread.
This whole experience can feel especially destabilizing for people who struggle with anxiety. Disappearing support networks, emotional self-isolation, and feelings of powerlessness are all very real.
But — despite evidence to the contrary — it’s not the end of the world. We just need to take a new approach in order to find our center.
Shifu Yan An
Master Yan An began training at the Shaolin Temple at the age of eight. Over the years, he grew to excel in kung fu and spiritual training, and was invited to travel the world with the temple’s performance troupe. Fluent in English, he went on to lead the official Shaolin Temple chapters in Washington DC and Los Angeles. Today, Shifu — Chinese for “master” — works to spread the temple’s teachings as head instructor of the Shanghai Shaolin Cultural Center.
We spoke with him to learn how a Shaolin monk stays calm when life gets crazy.
“Sit down and close your eyes,” Shifu tells us. “Feel the thoughts in your mind and the feelings in your heart. Slowly, they will calm down.”
For Shaolin monks, this is a go-to solution for many of life’s problems — and for good reason: meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and depression, and improve focus and cognition.
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Some people meditate by clearing away their thoughts, while others focus on their breath. Still more meditate simply by doing regular tasks, like walking or eating a meal, with complete awareness.
In daily life, our brain struggles to distinguish itself from its thoughts. Especially in times of stress, these thoughts, emotions, and associations can all rush to the surface of the mind at once. Meditation allows you to step back and become the observer of your thoughts — not the product of them.
“It’s like shaking a cup of muddy water,” says Shifu. ”If the cup remains still, the silt will settle to the bottom, and the water will become clean and pure.”
Is your current sleep schedule 5:00 AM-1:00 PM? Shifu won’t like that.
“The daily habit of work and rest is especially important in times of stress, and when you feel physically or mentally tired,” he explains. “Pay attention to your flows of work and rest right now.”
With offices emptied, a lot of us are working from home. Some of that is nice — opening up your laptop on the couch with your favorite album playing, or enjoying a cheeky 5:00 PM cocktail while you finish up an email.
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But there can also be too much of a good thing — with all that freedom, you might find yourself bingeing Netflix and sending emails at odd hours, or waking up in the afternoon to start your day.
Research shows that sleep deprivation can cause adverse effects ranging from depression and lack of focus, to reduced sex drive and an increased chance of illness. To make matters worse, it affects our judgment, especially when it comes to our own sleep routines: you might feel like you can function fine off of just 5-6 hours of sleep, but the truth is that your body needs those extra couple hours of deep sleep to make repairs and process information from the day before.
At the Shaolin Temple, cycles of work and rest are rigid. Each day starts at 5:30 AM with half an hour of Buddhist chanting. At 6:00 AM, they enjoy a breakfast of Eight Treasures Porridge. The day goes on to alternate at specific intervals between physical kung fu training, meditation, and vegetarian meals, until the clock hits 10:00 PM — time to sleep and do it all again.
Our first two tips have been pretty easy to digest, but this one may be a little new to some readers.
Qigong (literally, “energy work”) is a traditional Chinese mind-body practice that combines coordinated movement, breathing, and mental training. The result is an exercise rooted in both physicality and mindfulness, scratching an inner itch that conventional exercise may not quite reach.
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Qigong has been recognized as a “standard medical technique” in China since 1989. It’s taught in the medical curriculum of major universities, and prescribed by doctors as a therapeutic treatment.
“Shaolin Ba Duan Jin [Eight Pieces of Brocade] qigong is an excellent traditional Chinese health care method,” Shifu tells us. “Its simple movements yield remarkable effects.”
Shifu was even so kind as to film this demonstration video — follow along to try out these basic qigong movements for yourself. And don’t forget your breathing:
“The ancients found these movements as soft and supple as a silk brocade tapestry, which is where the form gets its name from,” Shifu explains. “The movements link together, alternating between loose and tight, dynamic and static, regulating your system of qi and softening the bones and muscles.”
These are certainly strange times for all of us, and right now, life may feel extra rough. But this isn’t the first time human beings have had to deal with tough or unexpected circumstances — who could forget the 14th century Red Turban Rebellion, when bandits ransacked the Shaolin Temple and drove its monks into hiding?
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What we mean is: when we get knocked off balance, we stand back up, root our qi, and get back to the fight. Here’s wishing you all the strength of a Shaolin warrior. You got this.
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