Ai Chi walking

Ai Chi is an amazing practice in its pure form. But Jun Konno’s mantra that “however it turns out is how it is meant to be” opens the door to infinite possibilities for variations. It may feel right to prolong doing a particular step. You may develop your own “holding pattern” step to settle and reorganize in the midst of doing Ai Chi. One Ai Chi master has developed flowing ballet steps in her Ai Chi practice, while another has doubled the tempo to adapt to colder water temperatures. There are partnered versions of Ai Chi for those who are fearful of the water, with advanced mobility issues and for children.

“Warm water walking” is commonly recommended for post-injury and post-rehab patients who are not able to participate in other exercise classes. I like to include a walking variation of Ai Chi at the conclusion of my GaitWay to Mobility water walking classes. In the class we typically begin with a mindful walking experience, then ramp up to walking activities at higher exertion levels. Ai Chi walking provides a great way to cool down from higher level exertion, as it prevents blood pooling in the legs and lessens the likelihood of post-exercise blood pressure drops, lightheadedness, fainting and cardiac arrhythmias. Plus doing Ai Chi at the end of class leaves participants feeling relaxed and refreshed!

I often refer to the first 5 steps as the “core Ai Chi steps”, because they are performed in a planted posture that challenges the core muscles of the spine and trunk. They set the foundation for mindful movement and focused attention, and I like to do them in their traditional form. But variations on the middle steps are a great way to incorporate locomotion in Ai Chi practice. The Ai Chi steps can be a bit challenging until participants have practiced enough to be able to move without cues, so look to the movement needs and degree of attention engagement of your participants as you make decisions about introducing more complex variations.

An easy foray into Ai Chi walking is with the moving steps. Flowing is already a walking variation~ it is basically “braiding” or a “grapevine step.” Reflecting and Suspending transition to Ai Chi walking by moving in a prescribed direction~ alternating between left arm and leg over right and turning 180 degrees, with right arm and leg over left and turning 180 degrees. These movements can be done straight across the pool or in a circle.

The balancing steps are also prime walking steps, but require more cuing. I’ve included diagrams below outlining these movements.

In Accepting, shift back, arms back, front toes lift as usual, but as you shift forward onto the front foot and arms come forward, take a step forward with the back leg bringing weight forward, and repeat the cycle.

Accepting with grace follows the same pattern with a front leg lift in place of front toe lift and stepping forward with the back leg as the front leg comes down, weight shifts forward and arms come forward.

In Rounding the back leg comes forward toward extending arms, then lowers straight down to a forward position as the arms move back, rather than returning to its original position. The opposite leg is now to the back, and becomes the next leg to move forward toward extending arms.

Doing Balancing as a walking exercise is a great intermediate step for those who struggle with an extended single leg stance time in traditional Ai Chi. Lean into the forward leg with arms extending forward and back leg lifting behind. Then swing the back leg forward, arms and trunk extending back before setting the moving leg down in front of you. This leg now becomes the forward, stance leg as you repeat the cycle.

Not challenging enough? Do these movements going forward across the pool for several steps, then try them in reverse, moving backwards across the pool. Not only are you challenging different muscle groups, but your mind is working in new ways as well.

Music tempo sets the pace for water walking, and this is another adaptable variable to consider in your planning. I like to use a few tracks from Katrien Lemahieu’s Ai Chi in 3 music for a 10 minute Ai Chi walking cooldown.

Are you interested in learning more about GaitWay to Mobility? I will be teaching a pool workshop at the ATRI 2019 Fall National Aquatic Therapy conference in Chicago, November 7-10. For more information, visit the ATRI website.

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Sensing stability

I recently had a class participant who had peripheral neuropathy due to lumbar spinal stenosis. Arthritic changes in her low back vertebrae were pinching the nerves traveling down into her legs, causing back and leg pain and loss of sensation on the bottoms of his feet. She had lost the ability to sense the bottom of the pool.

Balance is dependent upon input from vision, the semicircular canals in the inner ear, and from somatosensory receptors in our joints and muscles. My challenge was to find a way for this class member to do Ai Chi despite her somatosensory deficits. Thankfully, vision and her inner ear mechanisms allowed her to walk and function on land. But even standing still in the Ai Chi “core posture” was difficult, and that was where she needed to start. She held her own pretty well with contemplating, floating and uplifting, but after that point her trunk and leg muscles were working so hard to remain upright, that she felt back and leg pain creeping in. Fortunately, our pool had a sitting ledge, allowing her to sit as she performed the next few steps, but then it was time to stop moving and simply focus on breathing as the rest of the class moved through the remaining steps. Ai Chi cannot be done “wrong way,” however it turns out is how it was meant to be, and this was her way of doing Ai Chi that day.

Recent EMG studies comparing muscle activation during land versus water walking show that most leg muscles don’t work as hard in water as they do when walking on land. This could be due to arm movements during water walking, or to a lower stride frequency and shorter stride length that occurs as a result of  buoyancy and drag influence. Buoyancy also produces reduces ground reaction force, which may have had an influence on muscle activation.  Another causal hypothesis is that buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure may influence reflexes that are activated by pressure receptors in the body.

The gastrocnemius muscle is an exception to this~ it fires at similar levels on land and water and shows a continuous tonic activation in the water, likely in response to drag forces. And soleus activity is higher with weight loading in the water. This is important because weight loading stimulates activation of the joint and muscle receptors.

So what can be done to help somatosensory problems? Of course the degree of nerve damage causing the deficits will be the limiting factor, but joint loading and movement stimulate joint neuroreceptors and paced Ai Chi provides a supportive and safe environment for weight bearing and movement.

An Ai Chi guide must be aware of the physical issues impacting class members and invite changes when participants struggle or cannot maintain form. A “good” Ai Chi practice does not necessarily mean getting through all of the steps~ it is about the perfect experience of Ai Chi in the moment, as it was meant to be.

Join me in November for GaitWay to Mobility at the ATRI Fall National Aquatic Therapy Conference in Chicago. Go www.atri.org to sign up!

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It always comes back to Ai Chi

The world is a bit unsettled at the moment. I’ve noticed that people seem less likely to respect boundaries than in the past~ opening doors marked “staff only” or unapologetically soliciting personal information over the phone. “Private” seems to be an invitation for exploration. And respect, civility and kindness too often seem to be forgotten~ especially with those you don’t know. This has the result of raising general tension levels and promoting distrust of others. When I get particularly bothered by such things, I am prone to commenting to my husband, “The world needs more Ai Chi!” and his joking response is “It always comes back to Ai Chi.”

And figuratively speaking, it does. Our society is better when we are more centered, more appreciative of our God-given gifts, more aware of our surroundings and more respectful of others. We need to rely more on our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system than our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. Sharing smiles and joy is contagious. Now Ai Chi is not the only way to accomplish this, but it is a very effective way to find equilibrium. Plus Ai Chi promotes so many other good things, like core strengthening, improved mobility, deep breathing and balance. It lowers blood pressure and slows your heart rate… So many good things come from this practice…

A few years ago, one of the Ai Chi Masters was in an accident that left her traumatized and immobilized in the hospital for an extended period. She shared that doing Ai Chi in her head was a calming, healing tool that helped her through a difficult time. When my busy mind keeps me awake at night, I do the same to bring calm that allows sleep to come. 

I have recently been sharing Ai Chi with a population with multiple comorbidities~ lots of health issues that make some Ai Chi steps overwhelming. I’ve had to modify or skip some of the steps, and to place a lot of emphasis on how to move, weight-shifting and breath. However it turns out is how it was meant to be, and I’ve seen amazing physical performance improvement in my participants, but the calm that comes with doing Ai Chi has been in the background~ until now. A new participant joined us whose main focus was finding centering and grounding and her enthusiasm as she experienced Ai Chi for the first time set the tone for the class. By this time the other class members were pretty adept at the steps we’d been practicing, and we hit that “sweet spot” of Ai Chi where everyone experienced the amazing calm that Ai Chi can bring~ that centering that automatically compelled us to turn to one another and say “ahhhh” and “Namaste” as the class concluded. 

Yes, it always comes back to Ai Chi…

Do you want to share Ai Chi with others? Check out learning opportunities at upcoming conferences and education days through ATRI.

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Your choice…

It was the last class in an Ai Chi series, and we opened with Ai Chi in 3, a lively version of Ai Chi that was new to the class members. We transitioned to traditional progressions with Jun Kono’s Ai Chi Synchrony. Finally, we moved through the water to my favorite Ai Chi music, Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy. This music always reminds me of a wonderful family trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico many years ago. We set off in different directions to explore the ancient Pueblo ruins, each of us on our own journey into the past. Unexpectedly, soft flute music drew us to one of the dwellings, where we found our teenage son playing a newly purchased Indian flute. It was a precious moment that forever linked the good feelings of a special family time to the sounds of the Native American flute.

As our Ai Chi class concluded, one of the group members asked, “Can certain music make you feel sad?” I replied that studies of remote cultures around the world have shown that slow music with predominantly minor chord progressions have a universal effect of creating a feeling of sadness. I added that personal experience with music can also create emotional associations. She then shared that she felt sadness during Ai Chi Synchrony. This surprised me, as Ai Chi Synchrony is not in a minor key and her experience with it was limited to our class. Suddenly it hit me~ it was not the music that was affecting her emotions… It was me.

I love sharing Ai Chi with others. Ai Chi has many positive effects~ improving balance, enhancing breathing, extending mobility, core strengthening, pain relief, stress reduction… But the aspect that I most appreciate in this world that seems skewed toward a first response of anger and hate, is the ability to find centering and calm. One of my class members has commented that she feels tensed up a lot of the time, but when she does Ai Chi she is relaxed for the rest of the day. On this particular day I was feeling sad that a very fun series was coming to an end. I was also in the midst of processing some upsetting news I had recently received. At the start of the class, the group was fully absorbed in new learning with Ai Chi in 3. Ai Chi Synchrony brought familiar territory, and the group was more fully able to soak in the moment~ and to subconsciously absorb my shallowly buried unsettled feelings. Fortunately, the last music selection rescued my frame of mind and lifted the spirits of the class.

I have often asked my class participants about their favorite music genres to create customized playlists based on recognized attributes of relaxing music. Personal preference is the bottom line determinant as to whether or not music is relaxing, so what is very relaxing for one person may be less so for another. But in a class, there is another factor in the mix~ the chameleon effect of participants as they consciously and subconsciously mimic the leader. Ai Chi class preparation includes setting your internal tone as well as the external surroundings. Yes, your role is to be a facilitator but you cannot escape being a part of the experience as well.

What is the most relaxing class music? The leader’s favorite.

Upcoming Ai Chi classes in Evanston, IL: Join me doing Ai Chi at the Evanston Athletic Club on Tuesday and Thursday mornings during the month of September, 2018. Call (847) 866-6190 to reserve a spot.

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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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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.

 

 

 

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.

Where do I start?

Many Ai Chi instructors begin their classes with an experiential approach, interspersing details about what they are doing and why strategically as they discover Ai Chi together. The participants start in the water and the class begins by following the cues and movements of the teacher without much ado. I can appreciate that everyone has their own Ai Chi experience and “however it comes out, is how it was meant to be.” However, I tend toward a more pragmatic approach. I’m not a particularly “touchy-feely” kind of person (although I always appreciate a sincere hug!) and as a physical therapist I find myself presenting Ai Chi from a basically clinical perspective.

I start my first Ai Chi classes with about 15 minutes on land. I introduce myself, explain what Ai Chi is and the goals of Ai Chi practice. I give a bit of information about the history of Ai Chi and the contributions of Jun Konno and Ruth Sova. And I discuss balance on many levels, including how Ai Chi affects the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Next I introduce the different types of breathing, and we practice doing diaphragmatic breathing. I explain that Ai Chi should not be a painful experience, and talk about the effects of shoulder-depth water on joints and what participants can do if do too much and experience discomfort.

Finally we talk about core muscle strengthening and practice the posture used in the first 5 Ai Chi steps. I give a general overview of the Ai Chi movements and a final reminder: Remember, one of the primary goals of Ai Chi is to relieve stress, and “However it comes out is how it was meant to be.” I will give you verbal cues and demonstrations, but whenever you breathe or whichever direction you move is okay.”

The participants then get into the water and we start with 5 to 7 repetitions of movements 1-5 then 5-1, giving special attention to form and breathing. I teach from the pool deck, cuing for performance and naming each movement as we do it. Depending on how the class responds, I will move on to another round including more steps consecutively, always concluding with 5-1.

Some of the steps can be confusing, especially when the class is mirroring me, so I use pool area landmarks or body position to explain movements, (“Pivot toward the lap pool” or “Stretch the arm on your forward leg side behind you.”) As time and circumstances allow, I will introduce adding music to our practice and go through the sequence again with Ai Chi Synchrony playing. I gauge the number of repetitions we do based on available time.

To close, I thank the participants for sharing Ai Chi with me, remind them of our upcoming schedule and provide them with a laminated sheet with the basic Ai Chi steps so that they can practice on their own.

Often new members join our group at future sessions, so I review diaphragmatic breathing and the core posture used in the first 5 steps, and provide the new arrivals with a short laminated sheet explaining the basics that they can read later. I always reiterate that Ai Chi should not be painful and however it comes out is how it was meant to be. I decrease the amount of cuing over time and change the music to give variety. I watch the expressions and form of the participants to provide extra cues, encouragement or praise.

As the class becomes comfortable, participants often share which music and movements they like the best or least, and why. If one movement is particularly confusing or difficult, I will review it and we will practice it separately. And if a movement is too difficult or continues to produce anxiety, all or some of us may do fewer repetitions or skip it altogether.

In a world where stress runs high, it is a joy to share Ai Chi.