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Daoyin 導引 (a.k.a. Tao Yin), which literally means “guiding and stretching,” is a traditional Chinese form of “calisthenics” (Grk.: “beautiful strength”; physical exercise) or “gymnastics” (Grk.: “to train”). Traditionally and historically speaking, Daoyin practices are stretching exercises, usually combined with breath-work. Some Daoyin practices involve specific breathing (huxi 呼吸) patterns. The earliest forms of Daoyin were developed during the Early Han dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE), in the context of health and longevity as well as therapeutic movements. Daoyin practice is also sometimes referred to as Yangsheng 養生, which literally means “nourishing life.”


Some of the earliest sources on Daoyin include the Daoyin tu 導引圖 (Exercise Chart) and Yinshu 引書 (Stretching Book).



Modern Reconstruction of the Daoyin tu


Dating to around 168 BCE, the Daoyin tu was discovered in the burial materials of Mawangdui 馬王堆 (near Changsha; Hunan). It consists of forty-four color illustrations of human figures performing therapeutic exercises, with accompanying captions. The exercises involve standing in specific postures that aim to cure corresponding illnesses. Here it should be noted that the title of this series of illustrations was supplied by modern scholars. The Yinshu, which dates to around 186 BCE, is an archaeological manuscript discovered at Zhangjiashan 張家山 (Jiangling, Hubei). Lacking illustrations, it consists entirely of text. The second section describes about a hundred Daoyin exercises.


The earliest Daoist reference to Daoyin practice appears in chapter fifteen of the Zhuangzi 莊子 (Book of Master Zhuang), which is part of the so-called Outer Chapters (8-22) and is roughly contemporaneous with the Daoyin tu and Yinshu. “To practice chui 吹, xu 呴, hu 呼 and xi 吸 breathing, to expel the old (tugu 吐古) and ingest the new (naxin 納新), and to engage in bear-hangings (xiongjing 熊經) and bird-stretchings (niaoshen 鳥申), with longevity one’s only concern—such are the practices of Daoyin adepts, people who nourish their bodies and hope to live as long as Pengzu” (cf. Daode jing ch. 29). In this section of the Zhuangzi, Daoyin practitioners are grouped in a hierarchical ordering of five lower forms of practice. Such adepts are contrasted with the Daoist sage (shengren 聖人), who does not practice Daoyin but rather aims at mystical unification with the Dao through quietistic meditation. Nonetheless, the above passage from the Zhuangzi as well as the Daoyin tu and Yinshu are among the earliest predecessors for the later practices known as the Method of the Six Breaths (liuqi fa 六氣法), a.k.a. Six Healing Sounds, and the Five Animal Frolics (wuqin xi 五禽戲).


In later organized Daoism, Daoyin practice, especially in the form of stretching routines aimed at health and longevity, was eventually incorporated into larger Daoist training regimens. In those contexts, Daoyin was most often understood as a foundational and/or preliminary practice. A famous example is the seated Eight Brocades (baduan jin 八段錦). One of the earliest known presentations appears in the thirteenth-century Xiuzhen shishu 修真十書 (Ten Works on Cultivating Perfection; DZ 263). There the sequence of eight seated postures is a set of exorcistic and cleansing exercises that involves stretching, devotional activation of body gods, and meditations that serve to prepare practitioners for internal alchemy practice. It should be noted that seated Eight Brocades is different from the standing version, which seems to be of quite recent provenance. Both are rudimentary practices.



Eight Brocades as Appearing in Xiuzhen shishu


These types of seated Daoyin, including the Twenty-four Node Seated Methods (ershisi qi zuogong 二十四氣坐功), became especially popular in Daoist circles during the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.



Exercise for Slight Fullness Node

Source: Neiwai gong tushuo


In addition to cosmological attunement, Daoist Daoyin frequently utilizes the orb-meridian system, the understanding of which parallels classical Chinese medicine. They are documented in texts such as the Neiwai gong tushuo 内外功圖説 (Illustrated Instructions on Internal and External Exercises) and Chifeng sui 赤鳳髓  (Marrow of the Crimson Phoenix). Note that most of these practices employ seated postures and are intended as supplements to meditation.


In contemporary Daoism, Daoyin practice is most clearly expressed in Daoist self-massage techniques, which include tapping the teeth, beating the Celestial Drum, and so forth. Most contemporary Daoyin sets are either of fairly recent provenance and/or reconstructions of earlier practices.


One important consideration in the study and practice of Daoist Daoyin and Yangsheng is the way in which such practice is understood from a Daoist perspective and within a Daoist context.


Further Reading: Ancient Way to Keep Fit/Zong Wu and Li Mao; Chinese Healing Arts/William Berk (ed.); Chinese Healing Exercises/Livia Kohn; Daoist Body Cultivation/Livia Kohn (ed.); Early Chinese Medical Manuscripts/Donald Harper; La moelle du phenix rouge/Catherine Despeux; Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques/Livia Kohn (ed.).


See also Daoist Practice, Qigong, Taoist Yoga, Yangsheng, and entries on Daoism.