by Gail Cross, Level 4
Animals are amazing. Each species has its own characteristics and its own way of harmonizing with the world around it. They sense activity and energy all around them and act or react according to their needs. The Five Animal Set is a wonderful introduction into the essence of the Dragon, Tiger, Crane, Snake and Leopard. I have been teaching and rotating through the Five Animal forms in my Tai Chi class pretty consistently for a couple years. I always ask my students how they feel after performing each animal form. Did they feel, for instance, the yin and yang and the powerful swaying of a dragon’s tail in the Dragon form? Or did they feel the openness and balance of the Crane or the coiling and precision of the Snake? I like to repeat the comment Master Hill relates from when he learned the Tiger Form. “In doing the Tiger form, should we be angry like a tiger?” his instructor laughed and replied, “Tigers aren’t angry…they’re just tigers!” Then he went on to explain that tigers are naturally strong and full of charged up, powerful energy. Animals don’t have human emotions and we should not characterize them into emotional categories. Instead, dig down to the primitive state of your chi and think about how it might feel to be that animal. I think I am a Crane.
I also ask my students which animal they feel closest in tune to. Most of them relate to the Dragon pretty well. That makes sense since it is the first form and works to open the meridians in the body. The form itself is very symmetrical and uses a lot of strong back and forth movements—like water or the ocean. I taught the Tiger form to some karate students. They related to that form very well, I think because of the harder, more explosive movements, like the pouncing. The Crane, I think is my favorite. I love the balance and grace of that form. It is just what I need after slumping over a computer keyboard all day. It gently stretches my spine, straightens my shoulders and frees up my tense muscles so energy can flow through my body and out my fingertips. The Snake is very similar to the Crane in some ways. They are both lighter energy forms. The Snake has large, open, circular movements like the Crane, but also has sharp, precise strikes. I also have a few students who related most to the Leopard. One student commented that it made the most sense. Both of them have had other martial arts experience, so I think they could relate to the powerful martial aspects of the form. Movements in the Leopard form are very connected—much like in boxing. There is lots of pivoting and using the entire body to connect to your opponent with powerful strikes.
Sometimes I think it’s fun to watch people and fit them into an animal category. I was watching some people in a sparring class and I was taking notes and noticed one teenage girl throw a round kick that was very quick yet powerful and connected perfectly to her opponent. Her fast punches packed the same kind of power and connectivity. “Definitely a Leopard”, I thought. Another student moved fluidly and threw rapid punches one after the other. A Snake. We can truly learn a lot from watching animals, each other and even more from practicing their essence through the Five Animal Set.