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The Tai Chi Warm-Up

Whenever possible, begin your Tai Chi practice with this short set of warm-up exercises.

This warm-up may be different from what you may have experienced with sports, aerobics or cardio classes. Your goal is not to get your heart rate up or increase your range of motion. Any stretching is done softly and gently.

As we mentioned in the How Tai Chi is Different from Western Exercise article, the point of these exercises is to simply “wake up” the tissues and the joints. We want to get the joint capsules lubricated so they move freely, and gently get all of the major muscle groups moving.

During this warm-up, put away your headphones. Instead of listening to music, you want to really be listening to your body. As you move and stretch the different parts of the body, pay attention to any creaks and pops, any stiffness or pain, any weakness, tightness or tension. These are usually signs that these parts of your body will need a little extra love and attention.

0: Preparation
Bring your feet together and stand at perfect attention with the body straight and balanced over the feet. Be relaxed but active. Let the arms hang loosely at your sides. Lift the crown of your head as if being pulled gently by a golden thread from above. Breathe gently and normally. This is Mountain Post (Tadasana) from Yoga.

1: Heaven and Earth
Look up to the sky, look down to the ground. Repeat five times.

2: North and South
Imagine that you are facing East, looking at the rising sun. Turn your head and look over your left shoulder (North), then turn and look over your right shoulder (South). Repeat five times.

3: Puzzled Puppy
Imitate the quizzical head tilt of a puzzled puppy. Keeping your head balanced and centered, tilt your head so that your chin points left and the crown of your head points right. Now tilt in the opposite direction. Repeat five times.

4: Exasperated Teenager ¯_(ツ)_/¯
For the shoulder shrug, left your shoulders towards your ears, then totally relax them and let the shoulders fall back with gravity. The shrug denotes “bemused resignation,” a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe. The shoulder drop is like the exasperated “Whatever” of a 15-year-old (the eye roll and heavy sigh is optional). Repeat five times.

5: Shoulder Circles
Keeping the arms relaxed by your side, roll your shoulders in circles from front to rear five times, then reverse direction for five rolls.

6: Dry Land Swimming
Step your right foot back into a high lunge posture. Raise your left arm straight in front of you and your right arm straight behind you, both palms down. This is the popular “Warrior Two” (Virabhadrasana II) pose from Yoga. Now swim forward, rotating the arms at the shoulder joint. After five complete circles, return to the original position, then swim backwards five cycles. Return to the original position, then step back up to attention stance and relax the arms back to your sides.

7: Wave Hands Like Clouds
Step your left foot out to shoulder width, both feet parallel and weight evenly distributed. Raise both arms in front of the body with the elbows bent and the forearms straight up-and-down. The forearms should be parallel with the palms facing each other. Rotating the elbow, let the left hand fall towards the right elbow. As the left hand continues to circle back to the original starting point, the right hand will fall inwards towards the right elbow. Continue this staggered forearm circling five times, then reverse directions and circle again five times.

8: Wrist Roller
Bring your palms together in prayer position in front of the heart, then gently open/extend the elbows and point the fingertips away from you. Open the palms towards the sky, hands touching on the pinky-side. Roll the fingertips towards your heart, letting the backs of the hands roll across each other. Lift the elbows out to the sides to allow the hands to continue to roll all the way around back to the original position. Repeat five times, then reverse directions and roll the wrists another five times.

9: Tiger Claw
Open both palms away from your body, as if you were pressing gently on a wall. Clinch both hands tightly into fists, then open the hands and fiercely extend all ten fingers as if you were extending tiger claws. Repeat the clinch and extend five times. Gently shake the hands back into a relaxed state.

10: The Hula (Hip Circles)
Bring the feet back to parallel at hip’s width and place your hands on your hips. Shift your weight to your left leg and gently press your left hip to the outside. Softly and slowly, make a big circle with your hips, moving first to the back, then right, then forward and back to left. Repeat five times. Now shift your weight to your right foot and gently press your hip outward to the right. Reverse the circle and move the hips back, left, front and return to right. Repeat five times, then return to Attention stance..

11: Knee Circles
Bring the feet together and the knees together, keeping the hands on your hips. Gently bend the knees and point them slightly to the right, then move them in an arc towards your left side. Straighten the legs as you complete the circle. Repeat the circle to the left five times, then change directions and circle to the right five times.

12: Ankle Lift
Step the left foot out to hip width, with just enough space between your feet for a third foot. Keep your hands on your hips. To the point where your balance and leg strength allow, lift your heels and stretch up on the balls of your feet. Gently lower the heels back to the Earth. If your balance allows, sink your weight into your heels and gently lift your toes off the ground. Bring the feet back flat to the Earth. Repeat for a total of five times.

13: Ankle Rotation
Let your arms fall to your sides. Pour your weight fully into your right leg. Bend your left elbow and begin to lift your forearm to a vertical position in front of your body with the palm facing your centerline. As the elbow lifts, also lift your left knee. Let the shin and foot relax and point straight to the ground. In this exercise, it should be as if the knee is connected to the elbow by a golden wire, and it is the elbow which lifts the knee and keeps it suspended. Point the toes straight ahead, then trace a circle with the toes: first with five revolutions towards the inside, then reverse directions and circle the toes five times towards the outside. Finally, completely relax the leg and let the knee and low leg “hang from the elbow.” Gently lower the elbow, allowing the foot to return to the Earth. Repeat on the right side.

14: Knee Rotation
Using the same stance and imagery that you used for Ankle Rotation, lift the left elbow and left knee. Keep the shin and foot relaxed and circle them inwards with a gentle rotation at the knee. Complete five rotations to the inside, then reverse directions and complete five rotations to the outside. Let the elbow return the foot to the ground, then repeat on the right side.

15: Leg Infinity
Bring both arms up in a circle in front of your chest, as if you were hugging a big tree. Keep the shoulders relaxed and dropped away from the ears. Lift your left knee and trace an infinity symbol or numeral “8” in the air using your entire leg. First kick forward and across your centerline to the South East corner, then trace your foot in a small arc to the North East corner. Now kick backwards with your heel across your centerline to the South West corner, then arc to the North West corner. Kick forward again to repeat. This rotation should come from the hip joint. Trace the figure 8 five times in this direction, then change directions and repeat another five times. Shift legs and repeat on the right side.

16: Shoot the Moon
Step the feet out to shoulder width. Let the knees gently bend and relax and sink your weight into your heels. Bright the right arm up into the “tree hugging” circle. Place the back of your left wrist on the inside of your right wrist and let the left elbow relax straight down. Pivot with the hips and turn your entire body to the left, keeping both feet firmly on the ground. As you begin to turn, the left hand will rotate from palm-facing-you position to palm-facing-away. Extend the left elbow and stretch the left palm out along your line of sight. The right elbow will bend and the fingers of the right hand will curl in with a motion that is like pulling the string of a bow. How far you turn depends on your balance and core flexibility. At extension, lift the forward hand. The full posture should appear as if you are poised to shoot an arrow at the moon over your shoulder. Unwind the rotation, letting the extended arm round back into the “tree hugging” posture while the bow-string arm relaxes into the elbow-down position. The rotation continues and the full “shoot the moon” posture is mirrored on the other side. Repeat the rotation to both sides three to five times.

17: Drumming
The Drumming exercise is about total relaxation and whole-body integration while moving from the center. Stand with feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Sink into your heels and try to completely relax, using only the minimum amount of effort necessary to hold your body upright. Completely “turn off” your shoulders and your arms, letting them hang loose and limp at your side. Bring your complete attention to your body’s center, the Dan Tien, a point about three-fingers distance below your navel. Imagine that you have a light at that point and that it is shining straight out in front of you like a flashlight beam. Smoothly swing that beam of light first to the left and then to the right by moving your hips. Let the shoulders be connected to the hips and move with them so that your entire body swings left and right as a single, integrated whole. As you continue turning left and right, let the arms swing freely. If they are completely relaxed, they should begin to swing out and “drum” against the body with each rotation. Find a rhythm and degree of rotation that feels good for you and continue for several breaths. Gently slow the swing and return to the original position.

18: Closing
Bring the feet together and stand tall and straight. Open your arms out wide to open your chest and heart and gently look upwards. Smile and take three full breaths. Bring the hands together in prayer position at your heart and smile, acknowledging the miracle that is the human body.

Once you are fully warmed-up and relaxed, it is time to begin the full Tai Chi Chuan forms practice. The Tai Chi Transformation program begins with the Primal 13 form.