I remember being at school in the 80’s and for the first minute or so of our PE lesson we’d do the warm up. It was a case of the teacher shouting something along the lines of, “Okay boys, touch your toes… now you’re good to go!”
I would hope that things have moved on somewhat now. However, I do find that many of my students when they start learning tai chi with me, need as much instruction on how to devise a good warm up, as they do on learning tai chi or qigong itself.
For me, when I start to prepare myself for tai chi (or any other form of exercise or activity) I start with the joints before moving on to static stretching.
A good joint mobility routine is crucial. Speaking as someone who had several knee operations a decade or so ago, including to repair a torn ACL, I make sure that myself and my students focus on healthy, mobile, and supple joints. The knee in which I suffered a torn ACL I would say is as good as it was before the tear – and I put this down in a large part to my dedication in keeping my joints mobile on a daily basis.
The Bicycle Chain Analogy
When it comes to joint mobility, I will often use the analogy of a bike chain. Some mornings you may feel as though your bike chain is a little rusty and creaky (some mornings more than others!) you need to get a little lubrication going through the body to keep it working optimally – rehabilitating old injuries, as well as preventing new ones from occurring.
By following a very simple and usually quick exercise routine on the joints, you flush them with synovial fluid, which acts as oil would on a rusty bike chain, you will then be able to move more efficiently and safely as you go about your day.
Focus on Your Weaknesses
You can use this time to also focus on any weaknesses, injury rehabilitation, and areas of the body which may perhaps feel stiffer than others.
Personally I know I need to take good care of my knees, so I ensure that during my warm up I do plenty of knee rotations, rubbing the knees to keep them warm, slow squatting movements, sitting in a squat position, etc.
I remember from the days back when I had an office job, it was quite often stiff shoulders from sitting in front of a computer that needed a bit more warming up than other parts of the body, so I would spend more time on the neck, shoulders, and upper body.
The point is, your warm up is unique to you, and a time for you to focus on what you need to do to prepare your body for the activity which you are about to begin.
Relax Your Body
I spend quite a lot of my time telling my students to relax more, my instructor will also often tell me that I need to work on relaxation. After one training session when we were talking about his instructor, I asked my instructor what his instructor would tell him he needed to work on, his answer was of course, “relax more”!
I know from my own experience, as I’m sure many of you do yourselves, if you jump straight in to performing your tai chi or qigong sequences without doing any warm up to prepare, they do not feel as good as when you’ve spent even as little as 5-10 minutes on a warm up.
We’re often coming to our tai chi practice first thing in the morning, after work, on a lunch break, having just driven a car, been sitting in front of TV or a laptop, etc… we need to have a little time to warm our body up, allowing it to relax and ease out a little bit of the tension we may feel from what we have previously been doing, which will often have been in a sedentary position.
Once I have worked on joint mobility, I will often then do some stretching exercises. Quite often the two go very much hand in hand and there’s a grey area as to where a mobility exercise becomes a stretch but generally speaking, if I’m moving I consider it a mobility exercise, if I’m static then I would consider it a stretch. (Many people might technically disagree with this as a definition but it’s just a very basic way to think about it).
Static stretching, can be used to great effect to relax the body, many of us spend far too much time shortening our muscles, just held in one position, sitting, driving, standing…. Our bodies desperately need stretching, tendons and ligaments need to be stretched, muscles need to be worked. I would always advise to focus on gentle movement before static stretches.
Set the Tone
By having almost a kind of ritual which begins our tai chi practice, we not only prepare our bodies but also set the tone for our minds as well to switch into tai chi mode from our previous activity.
It’s sometimes easier said than done but we want to try as much as we can to leave to one side problems at work, phones buzzing in our pockets, emails pinging in the background, demands from families, friends and colleagues, issues in our personal lives.
Remember, tai chi is a form of meditation as well as a physical practice and I find that approaching my warm up as almost setting a buffer zone for my mind, really helps when it comes to deepening my practice and being able to relax deeply.
(It’s one reason when I also like to have a tai chi ‘uniform’, even something as simple as changing into your tai chi footwear can be something which acts as a min-ritual to get you in the zone and sets the tone of your practice).
Deepen Your Breath
I will very often use qigong breathing exercises as a part of my warm up, particularly if I am warming up for tai chi.
There are so many things to work on and have as a focus when it comes to performing a tai chi sequence. You need to be able to move fluidly, relax the body, increase your flexibility, calm your mind, deepen your breath, remember what your arms and legs are doing, hold your posture correctly, etc. It’s very difficult to improve all of these things and keep them in mind whilst doing a form.
What a warm up gives you the opportunity to do is to focus on these things one at a time, improve them, and then add them back into your form.
As I write this, I’m looking at my bookshelf. I can see books on history, anatomy, Chinese medicine, Mandarin, science, geography… If I want to improve my knowledge, I wouldn’t attempt to get them all off the shelf and read them at once. I’ll grab them one at a time, improve my knowledge in that area, put that book back, pick up another one, and so on… then my general knowledge will be sure to improve at a quicker, more efficient, and enjoyable rate than if I were trying to read several at the same time.
Likewise when I want to improve myself in tai chi, sometimes I have to work on flexibility, sometimes strength, sometimes mobility, sometimes meditation, sometimes breathing…. Improving all of these aspects individually will then help the bigger picture of improving my tai chi.
Depending on your time, you can choose one or two qigong breathing moves, or a whole qigong form (we have plenty of both on WCO), and use this time to warm yourself up internally as well as your external musculoskeletal system.
As tai chi practitioners, we always want to improve our standard and deepen our knowledge of the forms that we know and practice.
By adding a very straight forward and short warm up to our practice, you will really improve the level of your performance when you are going through your tai chi and qigong forms.
However, as with everything I teach, I like to make parallels to our everyday lives. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you’re warming up with the intention of doing tai chi or something else afterwards.
I think we should be warmed up and prepared for our lives, whatever it is we are doing. A sluggish, stiff, aching body, one that is not moving and active, is not going to keep you performing optimally, whether that’s tai chi, at work, at home, with friends.
Personally, I’m warming up all the time! We should try to be always moving, always keeping our bodies prepared, as relaxed as we can be, for the sake of our physical and mental health, and that of those around us.