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Originally published Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 7:17 PM

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Tai chi: Consider these moves a starter kit for focus and fitness

Tai chi is a mind-body practice that goes back thousands of years.

Chicago Tribune

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Tai chi is a mind-body practice that goes back thousands of years.

Arthur Rosenfeld, one of the world's foremost experts, calls tai chi one of the crown jewels of traditional Chinese culture, and explains that it is built on a tripod: traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese martial art and Taoist philosophy.

Rosenfeld has been practicing tai chi for more than 30 years. His books are available online, his "Longevity Tai Chi With Arthur Rosenfeld" runs on PBS, and he has created a series of six short YouTube videos that do a masterful job of explaining tai chi. He is the tai chi go-to guy.

"One of the dimensions of me being in this field is that most really senior skillful guys in this art are not Yale literature majors, and they're not media people," he said. "They're old Chinese men. They're fantastically gifted masters, and I am dirt on their shoes. What they don't have is the ability to pass these on to people skillfully."

Rosenfeld, however, does. Here he offers five exercises that combine the body and the mind, a starter's kit if you will to tai chi. Learn them and grow; the result will be better physical and mental health and self-defense. "You have a recipe no other exercise can offer," he said.

Depending upon how many repetitions you want to do — Rosenfeld recommended a number with each exercise — this sequence could take from 10 to 20 minutes. He emphasized that because tai chi is a mind-body practice, "these exercises must be performed with mindful attention. If the mind wanders, tai chi is lost."

— — —

Raise hands 20 times (up and down counts as one repetition):

Benefits quads and smoothes your breathing.

Stand with feet hip- to shoulder-width apart.

Inhaling, bend your knees slightly and lift your hands, together, palms down, arms extended, until they reach the level of your eyebrow.

Exhaling and keeping your knees slightly bent, let the arms come back down to the level of your hips.

After the movement is completed, and before you begin the next movement, stand back up.

The breath should begin and end with the movement, and should not be forced. Palms face down the whole time, wrists flat, elbows point to the floor the whole time, shoulders are down and relaxed the whole time. The arms should be fairly straight, but not locked. The lifting begins with the hands, not the shoulders, elbows or wrists.

— — —

Big twist:

5 times on each side

Benefits your digestive system, backs of arms and shoulders.

Stand with feet together, knees touching and ever-so-slightly bent.

Inhaling, turn your waist and hips to the left, while pushing your right palm toward the sky and your left palm toward the ground. Stretch up and down but don't lean or bend the spine at all. Hold for 2 seconds and exhale back to center.

Repeat in the other direction, this time inhaling while pushing your left palm toward the sky and your right palm toward the ground and turning to the right. Hold for 2 seconds and exhale back to center.

It's best to alternate, first one side, then the other. Remember to match the breath with the movement. When the hands come to center, they are together, momentarily, as they pass at the breastbone.

— — —

Full circle:

5 times in each direction

Benefits lower back and muscular core.

Stand with feet twice shoulder width apart.

Hands on hips. Bend your knees. Rotate your torso to the left.

Once you complete 5 full rotations, reverse your direction and circle your torso to the right.

Keep your back flat at all times. No hunching. This is a circular movement. No need to time breath to movement here, but remember to breathe freely and not to hold your breath. Feel the activation of the hips in this one, as well as the massage of the lower spine.

— — —

Circling the crane's leg:

5 times each leg in each direction

Benefits balance, hip, knee and ankle joints.

Stand on your left leg. Pick up the right knee as high as you can. Circle the knee clockwise, keeping your circles as large as possible. Don't let your lifted foot touch the ground. Once you have completed 5 revolutions, circle your knee counterclockwise for 5 revolutions.

Stand on your right leg. Pick up the left knee as high as you can and do the exercises you just did on the right with your left knee this time.

It's fine to point the toes of the lifted leg downward as you circle it. Imagine you are drawing perfectly round circles with your big toe on the ground, or, if you've lifted your foot quite high, then in the air. Use a table or chair for support on the same side (if you're standing on your left leg, have the support to your left). Inhale as your leg comes up and exhale as your leg goes down.

— — —

Wave hands like clouds:

20 times

Benefits concentration and a meditative state of mind.

Stand with feet shoulder width apart.

Start with your right hand at eyebrow height and off the right of your body, left hand by your hip. Right palm is down, left palm is up.

As you circle your right hand downward, let the left hand rise up the centerline of your body until the position of the hands is switched.

As one hand goes up, the other goes down. Do not cross the centerline of your body. Imagine you are scooping some ice cream and bringing it up to your mouth, then deciding better of it and throwing it away.

Continue circling your hands, keeping both of them moving at all times.

Notice how when you pay attention to one hand, the other one tends to freeze and then "hurry to catch up." Practice until the movement becomes smooth and hypnotic. Relax into it. Empty your mind.

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