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.


Finding peaceful spaces

Sometimes you have to go to a peaceful space to regroup and center. I really enjoy doing Ai Chi alone in restful places with relaxing music in the background. Spas often have warm water pools where I can find shoulder depth water and generally have the right sort of background music. But even if I arrive at a non-peak time, there may be another guest who decides to do splashy laps in “my” pool. Or two friends may appear who are excited to see one another and interrupt my calming experience with their exuberance. Maybe I am alone in this perfect place, but my own thoughts and worries about a stressful day just keep intruding… How do I find my peaceful space?

Ai Chi begins with focus on breath. My Apple watch even reminds me to “breathe” throughout the day. It’s good advice. As Ai Chi becomes automatic, you may forget to think about breathing. But focus on breathing has allowed me to find a peaceful space, regardless of what is going on around me.

Set your posture to optimize diaphragmatic breathing~ weight forward over the balls of your feet, knees in a loose packed, slightly bent position, back slightly flattened, shoulder blades down and in, head tucked back… let your stomach poof out as you breathe in through your nose, and relax as you exhale through your mouth… concentrate on the whole process of the wonderful, life-giving process of breathing… Aaaah…

It’s wonderful to come across a peaceful space during a walk in the woods, in an empty church, at a spa… but even though that perfect physical calming space is not always there, don’t miss out on the opportunity to create your own peaceful space through dedicated focus. You control the ability to find your peaceful space.


Moving toward pain relief

A recent pilot study was done in Hong Kong that looks at how Ai Chi affects subjects with knee osteoarthritis, which was published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Following just five weeks of bi-weekly Ai Chi classes, subjects reported significant decreases in chronic knee pain and knee stiffness and improved daily task performance. Why would doing Ai Chi have this effect?

Just being in warm water relaxes muscles and soft tissue. Knee joint temperature receptors block the signals from pain receptors. And the hydrostatic pressure of the water improves circulation to reduce joint swelling and pain. At shoulder depth, the water’s buoyancy unloads the lower limb joints by 90%, significantly lessening the pressure on the damaged knee joint.

But when my friends who spend nearly every weekday in a warm water pool joined me in Ai Chi, they reported relief of chronic knee pain for the remainder of the day that they had not experienced before. Something more was happening…

The diaphragmatic breathing that is a part of doing Ai Chi stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, enhancing relaxation. This is the type of breathing I used during childbirth to lessen pain, as a part of a battery of Lamaze techniques. Enhancing relaxation sets the foundation for another important component of Ai Chi: movement. The researchers in the Chinese study point out that Ai Chi involves a wide range of increasingly more complex movements on a diminishing base of support and uses both closed and open chain patterns and weight shifting, which place varying demands on muscles. These are progressive movements with constantly changing variables. Movement is important to normal joint function, and the water creates a comfortable environment to move in ways that are often painful outside of the water. As one of my group participants commented, “I finally felt like I was moving normally.” While doing Ai Chi cannot repair joint damage, it can allow for pain curbing movement in the water.

This pilot study supports the pain relieving effects of Ai Chi that I have seen anecdotally, but it only provides a preliminary look. It opens the door for future studies to substantiate these early results that include more participants and a non-Ai Chi performing comparison group.

You must take the first step. The first steps will take some effort, maybe pain. But after that, everything that has to be done is real-life movement.  Ben Stein

Natural effects

As I walked my dog down a busy urban street today I took special care to attend to the patterns and features of nature around me. I noticed the curve of tree branches, the bushes covered in bright blooms and the chirping birds as we walked. It was a lovely and very interesting walk, but I was not feeling relaxed. A jogger called out that she wanted to pass me causing me to rein in my dog and step to the side. Car horns blared and an ambulance siren sounded abruptly. My cell phone alerted me to an incoming call from yet another telemarketer. It was hard to give full attention to the sensory input from nature. Florence Williams describes a similar experience in her book, The Nature Fix. One summer she decided to use a portable EEG device to find environments that produce alpha waves. Not surprisingly, she repeatedly found that places filled with excessive noise and interruptions, actively trying not to be distracted and feeling angry all inhibited alpha wave production, those brain waves that indicate an alert, relaxed state. To really benefit from being in nature we need to unplug and retreat from society’s distractions.

But even in imperfect environments, nature affects us. Frances Kuo, a psychologist who heads the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory did seminal research comparing levels of psychological aggression and violence in women in a Chicago housing project apartment building. One group had a view of an asphalt parking lot out their windows and the other group lived in apartments facing lawns and trees. Through this research and subsequent studies evidence shows that just living in a place with a view of nature correlates with better impulse control, resistance to distraction, delayed gratification and lower violence, aggression and crime.

What is it about nature that brings calm? It may boil down to the influence of viewing fractal patterns. Benoit Mandelbrot introduced the term “fractals” and the idea of fractal geometry in the 1970’s. Unlike straight-forward, predictable linear geometry, fractal geometry involves systems that change radically due to a myriad of internal and external influences~ and fractal patterns that result from this complex and chaotic system are found repeatedly in nature. The diminishing patterns of a snowflake represent fractals. A head of cauliflower with smaller repeating versions of the whole appearing at each branch exemplifies fractals. The lines of a tree trunk, its branches, its smaller limbs and the striations of its leaves are fractals~ a pattern that appears over and over in different dimensions, sometimes unpredictably inverted or altered due to some intrusion of time or force. British information engineer and internet social scientist George Dallas gives a clear and thorough explanation of fractals in his blog “What are fractals and why should I care?”

Fractals represent an aesthetic order through haphazard grouping, which has the effect of being a very pleasing and sometimes even a spiritual experience for most people. NASA recognized this and funded early work on fractals to create a relaxing environment in space stations without using images that made astronauts homesick. Their studies showed that low to mid-range fractal ratios of large to small pattern repetition increased production of frontal lobe alpha waves in viewers. Mid-range fractal patterns activated parts of the brain responsible for visual processing, for spatial long-term memory and most interestingly an area of the brain which regulates emotions and also is active when listening to music.

As you do Ai Chi, take in the fractal patterns around you- in your surroundings and as you move your arms through the water.

Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation. Charles Cook



For the 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.

Janine M. Benyus