Traditional Tai Chi Ball Training
The tai chi ball is a traditional training tool used to strengthen the muscles, joints, and bones. It is also a method used to open and strengthen the circulation in the belt vessel. You may use any kind or size ball or any object that will fit between your hands for this exercise.
Stand with the feet parallel and the weight distributed evenly between the ball of your foot and your heels or sit comfortably on the edge of a chair. Maintain healthy alignment: tailbone dropped, head suspended, face and shoulders relaxed, and knees slightly bent. Holding the ball can also strengthen our energetic visualization abilities by giving us physical feedback. Visualize that there is an internal energetic circulation in your body that follows the outer movements of the ball in your hands.
Tai Chi Ball Overhead
Take the tai chi ball and hold it over your head. You can stand with feet apart or feet together. You can also sit on the edge of a chair, whatever is most comfortable for you.
Slowly, on an inhalation, move the ball down toward the neck and on the exhalation move the ball up as high as you can.
Do not lock the elbows straight up, keep them a little bent. This skill is like a typical weight-lifting exercise. The only difference is that we use the tai chi ball. Another difference is that we try to integrate some of the physical skills and mental visualizations while we are lowering and lifting the tai chi ball.
If you pump around ten repetitions with an eight to ten pound tai chi ball, it is a good start. You may feel it the next day, but if you use a two to three pound tai chi ball, then you will not feel as much progress. Start with about ten repetitions and gradually build up to 30 to 50 repetitions. If you raise your shoulders when doing the exercise or if you have weak muscles, you might use your neck muscles, which means you may get a sore neck the next day. If this soreness happens, balance this mind/body prescription by stretching the neck and the shoulder girdle. When my neck gets tight, I use the mind/body prescription, ‘vitamin L’ (Sunrise Tai Chi, page 51), or ‘vitamin H’ (Sunrise Tai Chi, page 57). You can also use the loosening the neck exercise (Sunrise Tai Chi, pages 60 and 61).
This up and down motion of the tai chi ball is used to help strengthen the visualization of the heaven and earth connection. When you move the tai chi ball up, extend your mind, and move and grow from the lower energy center through the baton out the heavenly gate in the top of your head upward, all the way to the heavens. Once the ball is at your shoulder blade level, exhale as you move the tai chi ball up.
Continue moving with your mind upward even when the tai chi ball stops. Do not straighten your elbows. Once your mind is in the heavens, you can feel a sensation of expanding the baton from your lower energy center all the way up to the heavens. Maintain the visualization of your lower energy center when your mind is in the heavens. Be in both places at the same time.
Before you try this long energetic baton visualization, you may want to try visualizing the baton from the lower energy center to the tai chi ball above your head. When the tai chi ball is above your head, use your imagination to visualize it as your upper energy center. It will help you to extend your upper energy center by a foot or two above the real location, which is the pituitary gland area. It helps you have a sensation of a bigger internal baton. This exercise will prepare you for the visualization of expanding to the heavens.
Expand your mind between the lower energy center and the tai chi ball over your head.
You do not stretch or release the bow in this exercise. You just want to maintain alignment through the spine as well as the legs. This part is like weight lifting. You feel gentle compression through the spine and shoulders when the ball moves down and a light opening feeling when the ball moves up toward the sky. Do not lock the elbows and do the motion slowly.
Empty Moon, Full Moon, More Than Weight Lifting
To make the physical components different from just weight lifting, coordinate the movement of the ball with the empty-full moon technique. When the ball moves down to the shoulder blade area, go to empty moon and when it moves up it is the full moon. Inhale on the way down—empty moon, and exhale on the way up—full moon.
Over time, try to improve your coordination of the empty-full moon with the movement of the ball. When the ball reaches the shoulder blades, it is empty moon and when the ball reaches over your head, it is full moon.
In the belt vessel exercise, tai chi ball belt vessel, and in many other qigong standing postures in which you physically move the arms, the ball, or a weapon, you want to make sure to balance the physical movement upward with a mental downward visualization or sensation. When the ball rises up to its extreme, over your head, you want to create a sinking feeling through the lower energy center into the floor and a light feeling through the spine. When the ball moves to the shoulder blade area, maintain that sinking sensation from the lower energy center to a few inches into the ground.
There is a tendency to lose the sinking sensation into the ground when your mind moves up with the ball toward the sky. Balance that upward physical movement of the tai chi ball with a mental visualization of sinking into the floor. You should always employ this concept of balance between the mind and the physical movements. I recommend starting with ‘residing’ in the lower energy center to avoid having the energy just rise. The upper energy center as well as the bubble will become stronger by sinking your mind into the ground. The more you sink through the legs, the more relaxed and balanced you will feel.
Regarding the elbows, you have two options when you hold the tai chi ball behind your shoulder blades. If the elbows are naturally moving toward the side at a 45-degree angle, you will feel the resistance more in the biceps, triceps, and in the shoulders.
If you move the elbows inward so they are pointing forward, you will strengthen your upper back and chest muscles as well as the biceps and the triceps. In this position, you will also feel it closer to the neck and more in the spine.
Training in both positions is recommended. Each position develops different muscles and will strengthen all around the chest, upper back, shoulders, and arms. Remember to balance this exercise with stretching the shoulders as well as the neck to avoid tension and stress around those areas.
Move the ball slowly to increase the time of resistance. Coordinate the movement with your breath. Exhale as you lift. Inhale as you lower the ball. You may use any ball, or any lightweight object. As with all of the exercises, once you are comfortable with the movement, add our other skills like empty-full moon, visualizing draining the energetic baton, four gates breathing, bubble visualization, as well as being one with the three forces. Over weeks and months of practice, you may gradually add weight or increase the number of repetitions.