Tai Chi Ball Basic Warm-up and Stretching Exercises
Dr. Yang, Ming-Jwing and David Grantham,
The following are basic warm-up and stretching exercises are highly recommended for any and all external exercises. They are designed to prepare the body for more strenuous activity.
Loosening (Song Jie)
These movements are designed to loosen the muscles and tendons in the areas surrounding the joints. The movements will also assist the synovial fluids to lubricate the joints.
To begin, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and parallel. Raise your hands in front of your body approximately chest height and shake your wrists back and forth as well as up and down.
Once you have warmed up your wrists for approximately 30 seconds, drop your arms to the sides. Loosen the joints in your arms from your shoulders to your fingertips by gently moving your arms in the shoulder sockets. Your elbows will flap gently as will your hands.
Next, bounce gently to loosen the shoulder joints. At the same time, you should make small circles with your arms to focus on loosening the elbow joints. Bounce your body without allowing the feet to rise off the ground. It should only be enough to get the shoulders to move in an up-and-down motion.
Warm-up the Torso, Hips, Ankles
Now that you have warmed up your wrists, elbows, and shoulders, move on to the waist area. Rotate your hips in both directions. This hip movement will cause your arms to swing. The twisting action will help loosen the whole torso. Repeat this action for at least 12 repetitions.
In the next warm-up exercise, move your torso in a downward arcing motion, starting to your right, sweeping down toward your left side and then lifting your torso and moving toward your right side to complete the counterclockwise cycle. Repeat this for at least 12 repetitions; then change the direction of the movement and repeat this action for an additional 12 repetitions.
Make large gentle circles with your hips. Your hips should trace a circle parallel to the ground. Your arms should drop naturally to your sides and move only as a result of your hip action. After completing 12 repetitions change the direction and repeat for an additional 12 repetitions.
Continue your warm-ups by focusing on the lower torso. Circle your hips in a counterclockwise direction. Next, bend your knees and place your hands lightly on them. Circle your knees counterclockwise. Repeat for 12 repetitions, and then change to the opposite direction for 12 more.
Finally, warm up the ankle joints. Transfer your weight to one leg. Place the non-weighted leg slightly behind you with only the balls of your feet on the floor. Circle the ankles in one direction for 12 repetitions, and then 12 repetitions in the opposite direction. Switch to the opposite ankle and repeat the same action as before. If desired, you may also include a gentle circular movement with the thigh. This will provide an additional rotation to the joint of the thighbone in the hip socket.
Stretching (Ba Jin)
After you have warmed up your joints, you should stretch the muscles in your body. If you stretch your body correctly, you will be able increase your muscular flexibility and joint range of motion. In addition, you can stimulate the cells into an excited state thus improving qi and blood flow. This is the key to maintaining a healthy physical body. Remember your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are like rubber bands. If stretched too fast and too far, they will tear. A good stretch should feel comfortable and stimulating. For each static pose you perform, we are recommending 20 seconds minimum to stretch or lengthen the muscles you are working on.
Stretching the Golgi Tendon Organs
Generally speaking, stretching beyond 6 seconds allows the Golgi tendon organs to send the necessary signal to the central nervous system allowing the muscle to relax and stretch. If at any time you feel this is too much, it is best to back off to a point where you feel comfortable. If necessary, shorten the time of the stretch and work your way up to the 20 seconds. Remember to listen to your body. The purpose of a good stretch is to allow the muscle to extend to its optimal length and this will not occur if you are not relaxed. Most important of all of these exercises is to remember to breathe throughout the movements.
Start by stretching the torso, then the outer limbs. The torso contains major muscles that control our trunk and also surround our internal organs. If our torso is tense, the whole body will be tense and as a result our internal organs will be compressed. In addition, there will be stagnation of qi circulation in the organs and body. Therefore, prior to any qigong practice, you should stretch the muscles of the torso and the limbs. The best qigong practices remove qi stagnation and maintain smooth qi circulation in the internal organs.
To start, stand with your feet together and interlock your fingers. Inhale while raising your hands in front of your body. As your hands pass your head, begin to exhale and continue to raise your interlocked hands up above your body, rotating your hands so the palms face toward the ceiling. Imagine your feet pushing into the ground and your hands pushing into the air. This action will open up your triple burner (san jiao) (i.e., torso).
Assisting the Triple Burner; Qi Flow
The triple burner is one of the yang organs in Chinese medicine and divides the torso into three sections: chest, stomach, and lower abdomen. The function of the triple burner involves the combustion, digestion, and excretion of the food the body uses for energy. Lifting your arms above your head will assist the triple burner by opening or expanding these three sections and allowing the qi in the area to flow more freely. Slightly tuck in your pelvis to assist in the stretch and do not allow the body to arch backward. Your arms should be as straight and parallel to each other as possible, while keeping your shoulders and chest relaxed. Remain in this position for 20 seconds, gently adjusting the body and arms to reach their optimal extension.
Stretch and Twist the Torso
Next, twist the torso toward your left side as far around as is comfortable for you. Hold the position for 20 seconds; then relax back to the neutral position. (Important note: While you are in the twisted position, do not hold your breath. The twisting action creates different pressures on the lungs. Breathing deeply in the varied positions allows different parts of the lungs to reach excited states.) Next, twist your body as far around as you can to the right side. Hold this position for 20 seconds, and then relax back to the neutral position. Repeat this procedure for both sides; however, when you reach your maximum stretching point, keep your chin tucked in, twist your head, and look back behind you are far as you can. This will provide an additional stretch of the spine up through the cervical area.
Once you have twisted the body twice to each side, face forward, and bend the upper body to one side. As you tilt to one side, grasp the wrist of the opposite hand and pull gently. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds; then change to the opposite side. To check your posture, you can perform this stretch while standing against a wall. Try to keep your back flat against the wall throughout the stretch. Again, remember to breathe deeply.
Next, come back to the center and bend over reaching down in front of your body as far as you can. Initially, keep your legs and back straight. Concentrate on stretching the hamstring and calf muscles.
After 20 seconds, gently relax the back and allow it to curve naturally. This will change the focal point of stretching to the lower lumbar section. It is also good to turn or twist the waist side to side. (Important note: If you have lower back problems, be especially careful when stretching the lower lumbar section.)
After 20 seconds, squat down. Try to keep your feet flat on the ground throughout the stretch and focus on the Achilles tendon. If you have problems squatting with your feet together, try squatting with your feet farther apart. If squatting with your feet close together is easy for you, try placing your hands behind your back. Hold this position for 20 seconds.
Next, while in the seated position, rise up on your toes. This will focus on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments on the bottoms of your feet.
Spinal Qigong Warm-Up (Ji Zhui Ruan Shen)
Now that you have warmed up your joints and stretched out your body, it is time to exercise the spine and trunk muscles. The spine and trunk muscles support the torso. These muscles are constantly being stressed from the time you get up until you go to bed at night. Performing these four exercises on a daily basis will assist in relieving the tension of these muscles. In any martial art, it is important to recognize what is known as the six bows (liu gong) of the body, which are used for the manifestation of power, or jin. These bows occur in the two arms, two legs, the spine, and the chest.
- Circle the Waist Horizontally (Pin Yuan Nui Yao)
The first movement of the spinal motion is circling the waist horizontally. This exercise will help you regain conscious control of the muscles in the lumbar section of the back and the abdominal muscles. Loosening this area will also help you lead your qi from the lower dan tian.
To practice this movement, stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Begin to circle the waist on a horizontal plane. Try to keep your knees in alignment with the direction of your toes. Your upper body should not initiate the circles. Start with small circles; then gradually make them larger. Reaching the desired size, repeat the movements for 12 repetitions.
Next, slowly turn the upper body as far as you comfortably can to the left for an additional 12 repetitions. Do the same to the right side. The twisting action will assist in loosening up the waist area when practicing the horizontal movements of taiji ball. Return to facing forward and reduce the size of the circles until reaching your original position. Reverse the direction of the circles and repeat the exercise. At first, your muscles may be tense. Through time you will be able to relax and focus on the flow of qi in the area. The ultimate goal is to have strong qi flow with minimal physical movement, thus enhancing the presence of qi in the girdle vessel.
- Waving the Spine and Massage the Internal Organs (Ji Zhui Bo Dong, Nei Zang An Mo)
The next exercise is similar to the last except the movement is now vertical. Place one hand on your dan tian and the other hand above it with the thumb on the solar plexus. Now gently create a wave-like motion from your lumbar section and dan tian area up the spine to the midsection of your body approximately in the diaphragm area. Allow the motion to flow back down again as well. In addition to moving the spine, you are massaging the internal organs. Repeat this exercise for 12 repetitions.
Now twist your waist to one side while continuing to vertically move the spine. Remember to stay centered, do not rock back and forth, and do not lean too far forward. Wave the spine to one direction for 12 repetitions; then change the direction to the other side for an additional 12 repetitions.
- Thrust the Chest and Arc the Chest (Ting Xiong Gong Bei)
Next, extend the motion up into your chest. To assist in this movement, place one hand farther up in front of your sternum while leaving the other hand in front of your abdomen. Begin to inhale and start your wave-like motion up the spine. Roll the shoulders back while inhaling, then forward while exhaling. Your elbows should make large vertical circles following the action of opening and closing the chest. Each time you move, try to feel the movement flow in your spine, vertebra by vertebra. This exercise will help loosen up the chest as well as improve the qi circulation in the lungs. Repeat this action for 12 repetitions.
- White Crane Waves its Wings (Bai He Dou Chi)
Now, extend the motion out into your arms and fingers. As the movement flows through the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, allow both arms to extend out in front of you. Repeat this action for 12 repetitions.
Finally, retract one hand back to your waist area while the other one remains out in front of you. This time generate the wave-like motion as before; then twist the waist and redirect the arm accordingly. Repeat for 12 repetitions, and then repeat the action for the opposite arm.