Look at this!

The Ai Chi step Freeing is the most common spontaneously named “favorite” movement in my classes. I hear words like “I finally feel like I am moving normally!” and “It feels so good!” What is special about this step?

In freeing, you start in a grounded position and add movement. You turn as far as you can comfortably. You follow your hands as they skim across the surface of the water, creating ripples and fractal patterns. Start grounded, move comfortably and watch with eyes wide open.

The component of focused attention on gazing with intent reminds me of my horseback riding experience, where the horse was able to follow my direction simply by where I looked. The subtle weight shifts that accompanied my eye motions cued the horse to move in that direction.

I once had a physical therapy patient with severe neck pain who subconsciously turned her entire body when she needed to look to either side, rather than shifting her gaze. Our plan to re-establish neck mobility started with simply moving her eyes as far as she could comfortably from one side to the other. I associated this response with dependency on habitual patterns (as described by Moshe Feldenkreis), but maybe something else was at play… Perhaps subconscious hyper-protective responses were influencing her reluctance to move her eyes~ sending messages to inhibit weight shift at the same sensitive level that horses can perceive from riders. Restoring her ability to shift her gaze was an easy but vital step in her return to functional motion.

So what does this have to do with Ai Chi and why Freeing feels good? Freeing hits us on many levels. It brings tiny muscles surrounding your joints and the most primary levels of motion into play, which is especially appreciated by those who have movement challenges. The buoyancy of the water provides a comfortable support so that you can move to the available extremes of trunk, neck and shoulder motion~ and almost magically that “end range” keeps extending the more you move. That feels good, especially if a once painful movement doesn’t hurt. And a focused gaze allows you to give attention to the patterns in the water that your movement creates, stimulating “relaxed but alert” alpha brain waves. Ai Chi is a progression of steps and Freeing is dependent on what comes before~ the initial core activating steps and crescendo of arm and trunk movements. Combining focused gaze with movement is the icing on the cake~ and something to celebrate and feel good about when it happens.

Do you want to know more? I will be presenting “Ai Chi Boosters” as a part of Ai Chi Innovations sessions at the ATRI International Symposium, June 19-22, 2018 at the Sanibel Harbor Marriott Resort and Spa. This conference is an invaluable resource for those interested in aquatic rehab and fitness. Please follow this link for more information~ I hope to see you there! http://www.atri.org/Symposium18.htm

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Balancing act

Our bodies rely on a wide array of sources to maintain balance. The sensation of the ground beneath our feet and messages from receptors in our joints give our brains data to keep us upright. We get additional positional information based on what we see. And our inner ears have a system using fluid movement on tiny hairs in multiple planes to give information about our position in space. These somato-sensory, visual and vestibular systems work together with varying degrees of impact depending on the circumstance. If we’re standing on an unsteady surface like a boat or a grassy lawn, the somato-sensory system gets a real workout. We usually rely heavily on vision for balance but it is of little to no help in poorly lit or dark places. An inner ear infection can completely disable the vestibular system. When one system is limited, the others step up to keep us balanced. And sometimes other influences like drugs, medications, alcohol, changes in blood pressure and illness affect the ability of these balance systems to do their job.

Balance also relies on good core strength, muscle symmetry and mobility so that our bodies can react to all of the balance information coming to us. I had to wear a “moon boot” on my left foot for many weeks after I broke a small bone in my foot. Even after x-rays showed that my foot was healed, being immobilized left my ankle so weak that I was unable to walk across the room on my tiptoes without losing my balance.

Our bodies are constantly adjusting to maintain balance without our even realizing it. I took a series of English horseback riding lessons a few years ago. One of the first things I learned was that I could signal my horse which way to go simply by looking in the desired direction~ without consciously shifting my weight or even turning my head. When I gazed in the direction I wanted to go, the horse was able to pick up on my intent through subtle changes in the distribution of my weight. But unbridled intent can have unintended consequences. Horseback riding instructors warn new riders to avoid OVER-looking and sending confusing messages to the horse. A tense or intense rider may set off an escalating sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response in both the horse and in herself. There is a constant interplay between internal and external balance that can affect those around you~ even horses.

It is equally important to nurture body, mind and soul~ physical balance, muscle strength, mobility and internal equilibrium and calm. That’s why I like doing Ai Chi.

Do you want to know more? I will be presenting “Ai Chi Boosters” as a part of Ai Chi Innovations sessions at the ATRI International Symposium, June 19-22, 2018 at the Sanibel Harbor Marriott Resort and Spa. This conference is an invaluable resource for those interested in aquatic rehab and fitness. Please follow this link for more information~ I hope to see you there! http://www.atri.org/Symposium18.htm

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Ai Chi Primers

Did you know that being exposed to particular words or senses can subconsciously affect you down the road? We go into life events primed to respond to whatever we may encounter. An obvious example of priming is the old trick where someone asks you to spell “folk,” “joke” and “poke,” quickly followed by asking what the white of an egg is called. There are plenty of studies on word priming, but some have gone on to look at sensory priming as well.

Psychology professor John Bargh designed a study where research assistants incidentally handed test subjects a cup of hot or cold beverage to hold briefly in an elevator while en route to the lab to participate in a faux study. Later in the masked “real” study, these subjects were asked about the demeanor of the assistant they initially interacted with in the elevator. This study showed a statistically significant correlation between assessing the assistant as warm or cold with the temperature of the beverage that they were asked to hold.

What is going on in our minds when a seemingly unrelated encounter colors our later impressions and responses to life events? Linguistic scholars suggest that our minds are constantly taking in and filtering information from our surroundings, but even filtered input stays with us and can influence our actions down the road.

That’s why the input we receive surrounding Ai Chi practice is important. The temperature of the water, the sounds, sights, sensations, the words we hear and the way they are presented all feed into our Ai Chi experience. This is key if your goal is inner balance and parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest/RELAX) activation.

So check the water temperature, find some relaxing music, enjoy natural sounds and sights, notice the fractals created as you move through the water and enhance your Ai Chi experience!

Do you want to know more? I will be presenting “Ai Chi Boosters” as a part of Ai Chi Innovations sessions at the ATRI International Symposium, June 19-22, 2018 at the Sanibel Harbor Marriott Resort and Spa. This conference is an invaluable resource for those interested in aquatic rehab and fitness. Please follow this link for more information~ I hope to see you there! http://www.atri.org/Symposium18.htm

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen!

Reflections of nature

It is an amazing experience to practice Ai Chi in a pond, in the ocean or in an outdoor pool in a beautiful place. Being enveloped in a natural setting enhances the relaxing body mind effects of Ai Chi. Taking in the fullness of natural surroundings, listening to the sounds of birds and animals nearby and noticing in the smells of plants and earth all work together to lower stress. But it is not always possible to find an environment in the heart of nature to do Ai Chi. We are often restricted to practicing in aesthetically bland community pools. How can you incorporate nature in your practice when you are not in a natural place? Research has shown that even viewing pictures of nature can be relaxing, especially pictures that include water. Likewise listening to recorded sounds of nature can reduce stress.

An app called “Relax Melodies” can help bring the sounds of nature to you, even when you are not in a wilderness. While it was designed to help create a relaxing atmosphere to go to sleep, it includes a great variety of sounds of nature, simple instrumentation and chants that can be combined to create a custom Ai Chi nature mix. As with music, memories and past experiences can contribute to how relaxing sounds are perceived to be, so having a variety of options to choose from allows for the factor of personal preference. And if you’re like me, you may be drawn to different mixes at different times.

After accessing the app on your mobile device, listen to the sound choices and pick relaxing sounds that you like, remembering the components of stress-relieving music: a slower rhythm, consistent volume (thunderclaps may not be an ideal choice), narrow pitch range and lack of a consistent “melody.” Some of my favorites include ocean, forest and birds combined with one of the gentle music choices like piano, flute, Zen or Sweet Hour Prayer.

If you are doing Ai Chi in a private setting or are teaching a class in a public venue, playing music or nature sounds is likely not an issue. But what if you are in a place with sound restrictions? Look for waterproof headphones with Bluetooth pairing to your mobile device. Some headphones are especially designed for swimmers and will stay in place as you move about.

And when the opportunity arises, don’t miss the experience of doing Ai Chi in a natural setting. Reflections are beautiful representations of something even more amazing.

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A shell seeker’s guide to pain free beachcombing

I love beachcombing. Walking the beach with eyes wide open, scanning for unusual shells is one of life’s joys. If I find a live one, I’ll take a look at it and maybe snap a picture. If the shell is empty, I may stick it in my pocket to take home to use in my latest shell project or to add to my collection. Each trip to the beach is a new adventure.

Shells come in all sizes~ some are big and easy to spot, and some are tiny. Either way, you have to look down to find shells. But eight out of every ten people experience back pain that keeps them from doing their normal activities, and shell seeking is definitely a high-risk activity for back pain. You can minimize that risk with attention to a few easy steps…

Train for shell seeking! (and general good health)
Strengthen your core. There are many ways to build a strong core~ doing Pilates, T’ai Chi, focused core exercises, and Ai Chi… Do at least one of these regularly!

Make good posture a habit. Sitting, standing and moving with your body in good alignment promotes muscle symmetry and balance that lessens strain and pain when challenges come. Bear your weight equally on both sides of your body~ or shift your weight to the other side after you’ve been in one position for a while. Stand with “soft” rather than rigid knees. Flatten your back slightly. Pull your shoulders back and your shoulder blades down and together. Avoid slumping your head forward~ keep your head over your spine.

Stretch the right way. No bouncing! Bouncing puts muscles, tendons and ligaments at risk for injury. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds to a minute allows soft tissue structures to fully relax and realize the full benefits of stretching.

On the beach~
Pay attention to your posture as you stop to look for shells. Use a wide leg stance with an inward curve in your low back. A flat back will strain soft tissues and makes disks vulnerable. You can even rest your forearms on your thighs for extra support. Try sitting down to sort through piles of shells.

Change it up! Look for shells in short stints, moving from focus on the beach to enjoying the surroundings. Take time to appreciate the fractal patterns of the tide and the patterns of the clouds above. Watch for dolphins popping up between the waves and pelicans dive-bombing for fish. Take in the sights of children building sand castles and shore birds doing their own beachcombing. Breath the sea air in deeply and notice the sounds and smells around you.

Spend part of your beach time walking for exercise. Shell seeking is a slow activity~ balance that time with a fast activity, walking at a somewhat hard to hard pace. Choose a level area of the beach to walk~ or if walking on a slant is your only option, change direction to allow equal time for slant direction.

And finally, have fun on your amazing, ever-changing beach adventure!

 

 

Everything Is Waiting For You

One of my favorite modern poets is David Whyte. I like his works because they are mindful~ bridging universal internal wants and needs with the real world around us. Reading his words is fulfilling, but adding the sense of hearing and listening to him read his own poems adds an extra dimension to his mindful creation. His voice is mesmerizing as he repeats key lines and adapts his poem to the moment, speaking from his heart. I doubt that he ever expresses his poems in exactly the same way. As with Ai Chi, however it turns out is how it was meant to be.

There is a great opportunity during the contemplation step of Ai Chi practice. By definition, contemplating is looking at something thoughtfully for a long time. I like to begin and end my practice with this step, my arms floating on the surface of the water before me~ breathing in and bringing my palms skyward and exhaling as I bring them downward. I view “contemplation” as a “fill-in-the-blank” spot for Ai Chi. You can extend this step for as long as you like. You can contemplate about whatever you choose: empty your mind and just be; focus on the sensations of the pool floor below you, the water on your body and the air you are breathing; say a prayer; insert a meditation practice; listen to sounds of music, nature, or a mindful poem…

Today I offer a poem as shared by its author, David Whyte, a nice conclusion to Ai Chi practice: Everything is Waiting for You.

 

 

 

Mindful Responses

When we are injured, our bodies have an involuntary protective reaction. Our muscles tense and spasm around the injury site, limiting movement to stressed joints and soft tissue structures and guarding us from further physical insult. Once the trauma is over, we need to begin the path of healing and return to normal movement patterns and function. Our muscles are good first responders, but sometimes they don’t know when to stop and we enter a dysfunctional pain/spasm cycle that is hard to escape. The water provides a safe environment to find this recovery. The buoyancy of the water provides support and holds us up so that we can move more fully once again. And proactively, if we build a strong muscle core in a safe environment, we are better able to respond to potential threats and to lessen or even avoid injury.

So it is with our spirit. When we experience threats in our lives, our unconscious tendency is to guard ourselves and resist change~ we react with an involuntary protective spasm of inward focus and preservation to avoid further harm. In his book, “Before You Know It, The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do,” John Bargh sites a political psychology study where a group of liberal students first imagined a troubling personal scenario, then were surveyed on their attitudes toward social issues. Their imagined trauma resulted in an expression of a social outlook that was on par with those of conservative students who had not been biased by threat. Fear temporarily led the liberal students to react to target social issues with an atypical, involuntary protective response of preservation. They were caught in a guarded “pain/spasm” cycle of inward focus. But just as our bodies need to return to normal movement patterns in a safe environment after injury, our spirits need to regain the flexibility to be able to move from inward focus to a conscious perspective after being threatened.

Regular practice of Ai Chi provides a safe environment for the spirit to move from inward focus to mindful function in the world. The warm water, slow regular movements, relaxing music and focus on breath enhance nourishing rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system activity and stimulate parts of our brains that promote a relaxed and alert state. The stage is set to look within and understand ourselves, and then to reach out to others and see the world around us. And just as building core strength prepares us to meet physical challenges, proactive cultivation of mindfulness allows us to build inner strength to be better prepared for conscious response to potential life challenges.

You must look within for value, but must look beyond for perspective.

Denis Waitley

Water reflections

This week marks the conclusion of my latest “pop-up” Ai Chi class. I love sharing Ai Chi with others. The physical benefits of core strengthening, extending mobility, improving balance, enhancing breathing and relieving pain along with the gift of internal calm and stress reduction are all things I want to pass on to others. But I always come away from each encounter having learned much myself as well. This series of classes was no exception.

The size of the shallow area of the warm water pool where I taught this class limited my class size, so it was easy to observe the participants and gauge the speed of progression to their needs. This particular group enjoyed new challenges, so while the movement patterns were consistent with each practice, I introduced a new concept or different type of music every time we went through the steps. And to make the experience personal, I asked participants about their class goals so that I could emphasize those aspects during practice. Because relaxing music has so much to do with personal preference, I asked them what type of music they liked and compiled a new Ai Chi Kitaro playlist based on their feedback.

I generally demonstrate from the pool deck while class members mirror my movements in the water as I give verbal directions. Landmarks have been helpful for large movements (“turn toward the wall,” “face the lap pool”) but figuring out which arm or leg to move was distracting for this group until I began specifying “right limb” or “left limb” which was opposite of what I was doing. When I noticed that space issues were restricting movement during “flowing,” we embraced the Ai Chi focus on roundness and transitioned the group to circling clockwise, then counterclockwise.

Ai Chi is considered a body mind practice~ with a primary focus on body stabilization and movement. Mindfulness is often considered to be something that “just happens” when muscle memory kicks in or when we achieve flow. I decided that I needed to know more about mindfulness, and enrolled in and completed an interesting and challenging online certificate program through the University of Leiden in the Netherlands called “Demystifying Mindfulness.” This led me to add a focused meditation to our practices, either between Ai Chi cycles or during an extended final “contemplating” step. While the goals of our group were primarily body focused, they appreciated this addition, gravitating mostly toward the breath-focused meditations that tie in so well with Ai Chi breathing. And I found that by focusing within, my eyes were opened to experience more around me.

Finding mindfulness

There is a lot to think about when you do Ai Chi: how to do diaphragmatic breathing; how to move and which way to go; maintaining postures; staying balanced on a decreasing base of support… Your instructor’s demonstration and verbal cues help, but the most reassuring comment is, “however it turns out is how it was meant to be. “

After a session or two, things begin to come together. You start to feel like you know what will be coming next. Your breath is tied to your movements, and you are effortlessly moving to new bounds. Your balance is actually getting better! Then you realize that you have a “favorite move.” You notice the patterns of the ripples as your arm caresses the water. The haunting music fills you with each breath. Maybe you even find “flow-time,” losing track of time as you enjoy this experience… You are calm, centered and in the moment, equally aware of yourself and your surroundings. You are mindful.

Finding mindfulness is a very personal experience. An outside observer has no way of knowing if you are mindful or not. There is no objective way to measure it. No two people experience mindfulness in exactly the same way, and no two mindfulness experiences will be identical for you.

There are many paths to finding mindfulness. Coursera offers a free 6-week online course on “De-mystifying Mindfulness” through Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands that provides a comprehensive introduction to mindfulness and many practice techniques. This self-paced course is a good way to gain insights into this aspect of Ai Chi. And if you are in the Chicago area, please consider joining me doing Ai Chi:

Ai Chi Workshop

Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30-11:30 AM,  Oct 10-Nov 3, 2017​

Evanston Athletic Club, ​1723 Benson Ave, Evanston, IL, 60201

CAC member: $10 per class or bundle all 8 classes for $60;

Special non-member price: $15 per class or a bundle of all 8 classes for $80.​

Call (847) 866-6190 to sign up (space is limited).

 

The calm after the storm

When a storm wreaks havoc and leaves, it is not forgotten. It changes the course of life for those it leaves behind. Some are drastically affected, some face unexpected challenges and some are inconvenienced. Those facing moderate challenges and inconvenience are likely counting their blessings that friends and loved ones are all right and are grateful that life can move on. Those who were drastically affected will walk a new life path. In any event, all with a connection to the storm likely felt a surge of stress in the face of uncertainty, sometimes over an extended time. When Hurricane Irma gathered strength and inched toward Florida, I lost several days focusing on media reports, with thoughts of friends and loved ones in her path. My sympathetic nervous system was completely “on.” That might have been helpful if I were a first responder, but I was not. I was just an armchair hurricane participant from afar.

Our “fight or flight” response is very important in emergency situations. It allows us to respond on autopilot when stress is high. But it may also come into play when we are feeling empathic, and if not controlled it can evolve to unproductive fretting, worrying or even anger. Time to reset, to re-center! This is what Ai Chi is all about.

Life changing experiences can have psychological effects, and sometimes those experiences happen to be linked with water. The decision of how we will respond to life’s experiences is ours. Ai Chi founder Jun Kono responded to the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan by adding some new Ai Chi steps to promote mindfulness. He observed the development of discomfort and a profound mistrust of the ocean following the storm. His empathy led him to share an opportunity to re-center with those who had grown fearful of water through their devastating experiences.

Following Irma’s havoc, my family was safe and they had even helped others to be safe during the storm. My safe haven escaped with only inconveniences. And I found peace as I gave thanks and recentered by doing Ai Chi in a quiet space.