When training in any physically demanding endeavor, it is very important to start each session with a good warm-up routine. This is especially true with Tai Chi because you not only need to Practice with a relaxed body but you must also have a relaxed and Centered mind. Below is an easily understood and effective warm-up regimen taught by a Chinese Master, Sifu Kuo Lien Ying, and presented here by one of his longtime students, Ellen Serber. This is just the Introduction page with instructions for proper breathing and locating your tan tien, or Center. Click on the link to get to the first exercise. Practice should be done every day because you are actually changing the way the neurons in your brain align and fire in new patterns – Neural Plasticity. One day missed is like losing a week’s worth of Practice so Be the Warrior and Live your Tai Chi!
My Tai Chi Chu’an teacher, Sifu Kuo Lien Ying, had a limited English vocabulary. The few words that he did know, however, were well chosen. He often said, “every day,” meaning that we should practice every day without fail; “loose,” referring to the state our muscles should be in while exercising; and “beautiful” in support of one’s progress and as a reward for concentrating and practicing faithfully. Every day, loose and beautiful became the words that helped transform my life.
I discovered that if I warmed up and stretched early in the morning, before my regular activities began, I could set myself up for a calmer, happier, more productive day. Not only did I work out the stiffness of my muscles, but I began to observe that my attitude altered. I dropped away from anxiety while I was practicing; when I re-entered my daily routine, I came back a little more observant and less distracted.
I saw that this morning warm-up contributed to my health in many ways. I noticed that the deep breathing helped to remind me to breathe deeply all through the day . The stretching helped to solve my persistent lower back pain. The mental concentration led me towards meditating and self-observation, an ongoing journey.
The morning warm-up is best done outside. If this is not possible, any space with fresh air will do. I suggest that you open the window if you are practicing inside. Wear warm and comfortable clothes and flat-soled shoes. It is best to do the warm-up before you eat breakfast. As you do the exercises, breathe easily and fully. Let the belly relax.
Breathing and Balance
There are many different breathing techniques taught by Yoga and Tai Chi Chu’an instructors. In this warm-up series, I suggest that you breathe as naturally as possible, not forcing anything. Just be sure to relax the abdominal muscles so that the breath can move freely in and out of the body.
Some of us always hold the abdominal muscles in, either to reduce the size of the belly or out of unconscious tension. Sometimes we tighten the belly in order to stabilize our balance. There is another, more productive, way to balance. Instead of trying to hold on with the belly, or the shoulders, or the neck or jaw, try dropping the weight of the body into the pelvis, supported by the legs. When you stabilize from the pelvis, but relax the belly, breath moves more freely in and out of the body.
In Tai Chi Chu’an practice the center of movement is located about two fingers’ width below the navel and inside the body, slightly more to the front of the torso than the back. This area is referred to as the “tan tien.” It is the symbolic center of the body, not an anatomical body part. The tan tien is thought of as a storage area for energy. One objective of the morning warm-up is to “circulate energy” through the body and store it in the tan tien.
These concepts may seem strange when you first begin because they are not how we normally view our bodies. Energy (described as “chi” in Tai Chi Chu’an practice and “prana” in Yoga) is considered the essence of all living things, the essence that makes up all existence. The sensation of energy coming into the body, circulating, and being stored comes with practice. The more you relax and visualize this circuit the more readily it will be felt.
Balance and stability are aided by good postural alignment. The head over the shoulders, shoulders over the pelvis, weight placed equally on both feet. Finding center and finding a balanced standing posture are daily challenges. Each morning take a moment to stand with your arms at your sides, feet placed hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Relax your jaw, shoulders and belly. Imagine that your tailbone drops down to the ground and the crown of your head reaches up to the sky. Now, take your attention to the area below the navel and inside. Shift the weight on your feet right and left, front and back, finding as balanced a position as possible. Take a few deep breaths and then proceed to the morning warm-up exercises.
The morning warm-up exercises should be practiced with ease; no force, no aggression. If an exercise is painful, back off, do smaller, slower, fewer rotations or minimize the stretch. If this does not stop the pain, then discontinue that exercise for the day and move to the next. Always inhale while coming up from a head-down position, so that you don’t get dizzy.
Remember, the warm-up is meditation in motion, so attend to what you are doing, feeling the movements fully and staying conscious of your breath and alignment at all times. This aspect of concentration, of focus, is the part of the practice that takes you away from the constant mental noise of reviewing lists of things to do, things already done, or dwelling in feelings and emotions unresolved in the past or in the future. Use your morning warm-up as a break from those voices and emotions by concentrating on the sensation of the movements, the alignment of the body and the feeling of your breath.
Instructor: Ellen Serber