No matter what we are focusing on in tai chi class, there are a three activities that we always begin with to ensure that everyone gets the most health benefits and are moving correctly when we begin the tai chi form. We stretch of course, do standing meditation, and work through a set of tai chi ball exercises. While tai chi ball exercises are probably new to most people, they have been practiced for hundreds of years. Also, you don’t need to practice tai chi to reap the health benefits of using a tai chi ball.
Tai chi balls are used in sets of movements to improve health by warming up joints, massaging the body and organs, and teaching a person how to move and step with good posture and balance. Tai chi ball exercises may include one large, often weighted ball or two smaller wooded balls.
What is a Tai Chi Ball Form or Set?
Tai chi ball sets fall into two categories. There is a more physically demanding set that uses a large steel ball and a lighter, qigong form that uses one or two smaller wooden balls. They were designed to develop ground path, internal strength, and train the power and movements needed for push hands.
The larger tai chi ball is made of steel and weighs between 15 and 25 pounds. There is a screw in it which allows a practitioner to add sand as they progress. It is the size of a medicine ball and feels like a bowling ball. Truth is, they are hard to purchase. Practitioners most often use bowling balls but you should know that a bowling ball can be palmed so try to keep your hands relaxed and support the weight with your center. Some also use medicine balls. Here we have the right dimension but a rough texture can get caught on your clothing. Both are really good alternatives to the steel ball though.
What Do the Sets of Activities Look Like?
Tai chi ball training was once a common practice in China in both the internal and external martial arts. It is still practiced but possibly due to its secrecy few people have learned it. Tai chi ball sets are a series of 9-18 movements done repetitively. Each exercise moves the ball in vertical and horizontal circles around the body. Movements closer to the body fatigue the larger muscle groups and moves where the ball travels away from the body stresses your posture and arm strength.
You can see a portion of the set in this video about Chen QingZhou: minute 3:49
What are the Health Benefits of Using a Tai Chi Ball?
Tai Chi Ball Movements Massage the Organs
This set of movements massages the organs from both the inside and the outside. In many movements the ball is pressed against the midsection while it is being moved in circles. When the set is learned correctly, the movement of the ball is an outward example of how you are supposed to move yours= muscles internally to massage the organs from the inside. The circle movement of your stomach area, much like a belly dancer, puts healthy pressure on your organs.
Our major organs are filters and digestive tubes. Basically, if we massage the organs we can help facilitate the process of eliminating waist and cleaning the blood.
Tai Chi Balls Improve Posture
We are in the dawn of an informational deluge that is finally tying back pain to posture and giving us tools to treat it. Books like 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back and Jwing Ming’s A Pain-Free Back have helped us connect the injury to the source and provide a solution. If you have chronic back pain, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back is a must read. The basic idea is that injury is not caused necessarily by the activity itself (golf on Saturday) but the poor posture that is ongoing the other 6 days of the week when your back is tired and most vulnerable. The “injury” comes from trying an aggressive movement when we no longer have the right alignment. We blame it on the movement but in truth, we created the camel’s back and are blaming the straw that landed on it. This could be a golf swing or a sneeze.
We all want good posture but how do we know if our posture is bad? And how do we know how to make improvements? The tai chi ball can tell us. As the ball swings away from us, you are pulled forward and into bad posture. You are required to remain upright in order to stop this from happening. The Chen style ball set for example contains nine moves which are repeated several times which enables us to systematically move and then reset our posture.
Strengthen the Muscles of the Legs
The tai chi ball set is performed while standing. Many of the movements require a person to stand in a deeper posture or squat repeatedly. This makes it a really good leg workout especially if you are using the heavier ball. The set of movements can be made easier simply by standing up taller and not squatting as deeply.
What are the Martial Benefits of the Tai Chi Ball?
A beautiful aspect that has been designed into the movements is that if you are not powering the movements of the ball from the legs, the arms and upper body fatigue really fast. It is a great teaching tool to develop ground strength, grounding and connected movement.
Fajin – Explosive Energy
At many points in the form you pull the ball tight into your stomach which forces you to breathe low and in towards the back. This teaches the breathing needed for explosive fajin energy. During the form you also pull the ball tight against you and issue into the ball sending it away from your body to train fa jin in a tightly controlled repetitive way.
Modern Rebirth of the Tai Chi Ball Set
Tai chi ball movements are reemerging under new fancier workouts involving kettlebells and medicine balls. These modern versions of tai chi ball exercises do not typically credit tai chi for their origins. Kettlebell enthusiasts may have never heard of the tai chi ball. Yet, they are discovering the innate strength and balance that are developed from doing these core activities.
CrossFit and many “new” athletic paradigms are waking up to the power that can be transmitted when movement is initiated from the core. Kettlebells, ball slams, medicine balls all develop movement from the center and use of the body to power the movements because the arms fatigue quickly if you are not employing core strength.
I think that the original tai chi ball sets are better for two reasons:
- They ensure better posture because you have to engage your core the entire time. If you bend over in the slightest, your upper back immediately gets sore telling you to “Straighten Up!!” This isn’t possible with a kettlebell. There is a gym I drive past on my way to work. They have a morning group working out in the parking lot swinging kettlebells between their legs and out in front of them. In the time I am sitting at the red light, I watch their form deteriorate. By the 8th or 10th rep I am left cringing for their lower back.
- Tai chi ball movements ensure you move from the ground and engage all your muscles at once. The larger tai chi balls are not textured and do not have a handle. You can’t palm it. You can’t swing it without using ground force and continual control. It is true tai chi movement.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I love the fact that western gyms are learning about and improving core movement. I love that they are investigating ground path. It just has to be done in a way that is safe and the teacher should know what they are teaching. Russian Systema Is a great example. Systema has properly been given credit for popularizing kettlebell exercises and introducing them to the West. Systema fighters have both strong internal and external strength. We often forget about the decades of relationship that existed between the USSR and China during the Cold War. Could it be that their militaries shared more than political agendas?
Where Do I Get a Tai Chi Ball?
A large tai chi ball would need to be ordered from China and can cost between $150 and $200. It is an “oddly shaped large amount of steel” was how it is was explained to us when we looked into have a machining shop produce them locally. But for a few bucks at a used sporting goods store you can have a bowling ball or medicine ball and trade it back in when you need something heavier. Another option, used by students working with Chen Yu in Beijing, is to slice a small hole in a basketball, fill it with dry cement and then water.
Wooden tai chi balls can purchased individually and some instructional videos include the balls as part of the order.
Learning How to Use the Tai Chi Ball
The best instruction for learning the heavy, larger tai chi ball exercises is led by the Chen family Grand Master Chen Qing Zhou. He and his family members travel to the United States and teach this series and there are schools in California, Texas, and Ohio that routinely host the visits and practice the sets.
It is a more physical set intended to train the energies and abilities of push hands. It is amazing for developing balance and strength. This set is practiced with a steel ball which is hard to find. A bowling ball is the right density and texture but a tad too small. A medicine ball is the right size but is a bit floppy. The larger diameter CrossFit weighted balls are the right diameter but may drag on the clothes if they are the really grippy kind. Use whatever is easiest to find for you. I prefer bowling balls because you can buy them for around $10 at used sporting goods stores and then trade up when you want a heavier weight.
A DVD exists that is really well done showing all the movements from different angles with lots of commentary. It is sometimes difficult to find though but you can search for it: Ancient Respected Chen Style Tai Chi (Taiji) Ball
Tai Chi Qigong Ball
These tai chi ball resources are closer to traditional qigong and use a smaller, often wooden ball. They are less rigorous and demanding than the set developed by Master Chen Qing Zhou (above). They also flow more like a tai chi form when the movements are all put together. Again, if you can’t find the perfect wooden ball, find a ball that is smooth and weighted evenly, regardless of weight.