Over the years, I’ve heard Grandmaster Eng Chor say many times to practice tai chi first thing in the morning. I’ve tended to view this as an unattainable goal. In fact not even a goal, more with an air of wistful romanticism… “Wouldn’t that be lovely, but it’s not for me.”
There were many excuses: too busy, too tired to get up early, no peaceful place when the kids are buzzing around… But excuses are very much what these were.
The real reason I never wanted to do tai chi first thing in the morning is that I’m often in pain. Mornings were a time of assessing just how sore and stiff I was going to be that day. I’d hobble around, creak my way down the stairs and ease myself into the day.
By afternoon I would have warmed up to the point where I could have a good practice, and I would always enjoy it and feel better for it.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I have fibromyalgia; I was diagnosed when I was 19 and this is what sent me to tai chi at what many consider to be a young age (I was 24). Many people drawn to tai chi have forms of arthritis, chronic injuries, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and other conditions that affect our quality of life. Tai chi and qigong are the ideal exercise for these sorts of conditions, but first thing in the morning?
Well, I’m now a convert. This year I decided to give it a go and I have learnt much.
I started in summer, so I literally rolled out of bed, went over to the window and began. First I did Shibashi set 1, next day set 2, next day set 3, then back to set 1. I rolled through the Shaolin qigong, the Lotus and some Golden Treasures and Ba Duan Jin (all on different days). I practice for about 15 minutes a morning.
I developed a new appreciation for the ancient Chinese Masters who came up with these exercises. Initially I was planning to put together a program of a bit of this, and a bit of that to ensure that the main joints of the body were all being taken through a range of movement. But of course I didn’t need to do that – the Masters had already taken this into account.
Take Shibashi Set 1 for example. We start very gently by just floating the arms with a gentle knee bend, then we open the chest a little, then we stretch upwards, then some deeper knee bending is introduced.
Add in some gentle spinal rotation, a little spinal flexion, some rising up on the toes (singly then together), some weight transference, making a fist, and some left/right brain challenge. Add to this the rhythmical breathing and you have a very complete exercise for most of the joints of the body as well as the internal organs. I don’t think you could possibly do better than Shibashi Set 1 for morning qigong.
For an afternoon session, I would take fairly large steps and bend my knees a lot. In the morning I take very small steps with minimal knee bend very gentle spinal movements. Because my movements are within a smaller range of movement, I get through them slightly quicker, so I alter my breathing accordingly. Instead of breathing in and out during one move, I might breath in one move and out the next. I love to do the Shibashi very slowly, but for the morning, a quicker tempo just works better.
There are so many benefits: I go to bed at night looking forward to getting up in the morning; my fuzzy morning brain has cleared by the time I finish; my body has been warmed up gently; I am calm and relaxed; I get through my day more efficiently and can focus for longer. Plus I don’t seem to be hurting quite as much (fingers crossed).
I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are many different ways to practice tai chi: there’s the quick run-through for when you are learning new moves; the solid ‘training-style’ practice where you really work your body and have a good warm up and cool down; the moving meditation practice where you are transported somewhere else as you flow through your moves; the days where you just want to get it right and the days where it doesn’t matter that you’ve got the move wrong, you’re just happy to be doing some exercise. These all have their place.
My early-morning tai chi has in fact been pyjama qigong. I love qigong in the morning, but you might prefer your tai chi levels, especially if you haven’t learnt the Shibashi yet. The same principles apply – smaller steps, smaller arm moves, smaller knee bends.
As we move into autumn and winter I expect my pyjama qigong will turn into Ugg boot and beanie qigong. I don’t mind. As long as I keep this practice going, I’ll be very happy.
Senior Instructor - Camberwell and Eltham