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!

 

 

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

We’ve only just begun…

Last month marked a celebration of landmark birthdays for the “father” and “mother” of Ai Chi at the 2017 ATRI Spring National Aquatic Therapy Conference, Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort. Jun Kono and Ruth Sova both turned 70 this year. What a delightful international gathering highlighting Jun’s mantra, “However it turns out is how it was meant to be.” We did Ai Chi with a Puerto Rican dazzle and Ai Chi with a southern twang. We gracefully followed Ai Chi Russian ballet moves and learned about clinical applications of Ai Chi in China. Ruth presented progressions of traditional Ai Chi and Jun shared the healing evolution of his original practice to Ai Chi Zen in response to the 2011 tsunami. And all the while the restorative beauty of palm trees and pelicans, dolphins and osprey surrounded us.

Happy birthday, Ruth and Jun!

Thank you for your gifts to the world.  You have made this world a little calmer, a little less stressed and a little more peaceful, which means so very much. Just look at what you have started!

 

 

Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Gift from the Sea

A Gift from the Sea

Ann Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the renowned pilot Charles Lindbergh, led a roller coaster life of accentuated by fame, loss, love and betrayal. She retreated to a yellow cottage on the island of Captiva, FL~ a place of calm and healing, and she penned an inspirational book of her insights entitled A Gift from the Sea. This little book has brought connection, empowerment, comfort and calm to its readers for generations since its 1955 publication. Ann Morrow Lindbergh loved being by the ocean. I think she would have appreciated the Gift of Ai Chi…

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open , choiceless as a beach- waiting for a gift from the sea.”

“I am very fond of the oyster shell. It is humble and awkward and ugly. It is slate-colored and unsymmetrical. Its form is not primarily beautiful but functional. I make fun of its knobbiness. Sometimes I resent its burdens and excrescences. But its tireless adaptability and tenacity draw my astonished admiration and sometimes even my tears. And it is comfortable in its familiarity, its homeliness, like old garden gloves which have molded themselves perfectly to the shape of a hand. I do not like to put it down. I will not want to leave it.”

“And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense—no—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channeled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.”

“I walked far down the beach, soothed by the rhythm of the waves, the sun on my bare back and legs, the wind and mist from the spray on my hair.”

“At whatever point one opens Gift from the Sea, to any chapter or page, the author’s words offer a chance to breathe and to live more slowly. The book makes it possible to quiet down and rest in the present, no matter what the circumstances may be. Just to read it—a little of it or in its entirety—is to exist for a while in a different and more peaceful tempo. Even the sway and flow of language and cadence seem to me to make reference to the easy, inevitable movements of the sea.”

I just want to get into the water…

A group of older ladies meet in the warm water pool every week at the same time on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. They are all post-therapy patients who are not quite up to the rigorous aqua aerobic classes that the club offers, but they no longer meet 3rd party payer requirements to work with an aquatic physical therapist. And while many have forgotten the exercise routines that their therapists recommended, they are still drawn to the water. A couple of them walk laps, a few bob on noodles as they scissor their legs, and some just hold onto the wall and chat. By all appearances, this is just another social support group. But why meet in the water?

When you immerse yourself in water, the pressure produced by gravity in the water (hydrostatic pressure) provides resistance to the diaphragm from all sides, strengthening this important muscle for breathing. Resting heart rate decreases and you burn more calories. The tissues around the joints relax when underwater and joint pressure lessens. The heat of warm water helps muscles relax and relieves pain.

And add exercise and movement~ and the benefits multiply. Studies show that obese women burned 35% more fat calories exercising in the water than on land. Hydrostatic pressure offsets lower body swelling that sometimes comes along with exercise. The relaxation of muscles allows you to stretch further than you can on land. The water resistance as you move through the water challenges core and extremity muscle strength, balance and endurance. With the decreased effects of gravity in the water, muscle fatigue is postponed and you can exercise more efficiently. At shoulder level, 80% of the effects of gravity are relieved, so even someone with lower extremity joint problems or weight bearing limitations can enjoy the benefits of water. What better place to be?

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Stretch your limits!

Ai Chi touches many beneficial areas for good health~ decreasing stress, improving balance, core strengthening, enhancing breathing, increasing joint mobility… but don’t limit your exercise to just Ai Chi! The secret to successful aging is staying active, and it is important to make exercise a part of your everyday life. Choose enjoyable activities that improve large muscle strength, heart health and targeted stretching of tight muscles. I like bike riding, walking, horseback riding, water aerobics and kayaking, so those are fun ways for me to meet some of those needs. I ride my bike instead of driving when I can, and I tend to go for a more distant parking place when I drive. It’s fun to track the number of steps with an activity tracker, and you can even inspire friends by sharing your numbers through technology. I also keep a 10-12# weight and water bar bells nearby for daily use.

Exercise theories have changed a lot over the years. It’s not necessary to spend lots of time dedicated to working out~ the secret to results lies in how you spend your time. Studies show only a 2% gain in muscle strength in doing more than 10-12 repetitions of a strengthening exercise, if you are exercising at a somewhat hard to hard exercise level~ so I typically do 12 curls with my hand weight, which is somewhat hard when I start and hard by the final repetition. If the weight is too light or resistance cords are too stretchy, I lose out on the strengthening benefit. If they are too heavy and I am struggling against the resistance, I risk muscle strain and injury.

What if you want to improve endurance? Decrease your weight to fairly light to somewhat hard and do 23-25 repetitions. By adjusting resistance based on your perceived level of exertion you can work to achieve your personal goals in an efficient and effective way. The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion is a handy visual chart for determining effort.

What about mobility? In the old days Jane Fonda modeled bouncing at the end of joint ranges to get more mobility. Studies now show that a quick stretch to muscles actually causes a reflex contraction of the muscle~ the opposite of what we want to achieve! But if you hold a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds, you achieve a muscle relaxation effect. So if you want to stretch a muscle, gently move to the end of its range where you feel some tension, hold it there to a count of 30 to 60, then gently release it. I often do this with my hamstrings before doing Ai Chi to enhance the mobility benefits during Accepting with Grace, Rounding and Balancing.

Finally, if you have discomfort after any exercise, use your best method of calming things down~ ice, mild heat, anti-inflammatory medications~ and if pain persists more than 2 hours following exercise, you have done too much. The next time you exercise, pace yourself and decrease the resistance, excursion, range of motion or number of repetitions. Don’t give up exercising if you meet some challenges, but mindfully adapt your approach.

 

Something to contemplate

What are you suppose to think about when you are doing Ai Chi?

As you start to practice Ai Chi~ to hold postures properly, to move in a synchronous direction, to breathe at the optimal time, your mind is pretty busy with new learning. All the while, however it turns out is how it was meant to be, but your thinking is pretty focused on those details. As motor learning kicks in and these details fade into the background there is space for other thoughts to come in~ sometimes very distracting thoughts that disrupt the hoped for flow and relaxation. The Buddhist response to this sort of disruption is to acknowledge that those thoughts are there, to gently push them aside and to return focus to your mindfulness experience in the here and now.

Each of the Ai Chi steps have names. I want to ask Jun Konno how he determined what to call each of the steps. I know that the steps are ordered according to ancient Asian tenants, but I would like to know more about that. Unlike T’ai Chi, Ai Chi is not a martial art, which I assume has some bearing on the order of that practice.

In the meantime, I can turn to my understanding of the Ai Chi names to guide my practice. Doing so makes Ai Chi very personal and enriching. The word contemplating implies thinking about something in a focused manner. With this first step you can acknowledge and toss off those things that are burdening you. You can bring in a religious focus by acknowledging God in a breath prayer. You can reach out to the universe by letting your mind soar… Then go on to floating, uplifting, enclosing, folding, soothing and the way you feel as you move through the water.

I don’t know who the original author of this was (perhaps John Chappelear, author of The Daily Six: Simple Steps to Prosperity and Purpose) but Ai Chi guru Ruth Sova shared this today on an Ai Chi listserve and I found it well worth contemplating:

5 ways to love and forgiveness

1. Forgiveness relieves us of stress.
Let’s use the example of running late in the morning, specifically the long line for coffee. We basically have two choices. There’s the toe tapping, head about to explode option, fuming at the inefficient and under-staffed establishment, considering a scathing online review or storming to the counter demanding to see the manager.

Or, maybe we could take a deep breath. Realize it’s our decision to wait in line for coffee and instead, consider the servers behind the counter. They are clearly working hard. Maybe they left a crying child with a sitter to get to their minimum-wage job on time. Maybe they’ve been filling orders since before we got up and they’re flat out exhausted. Quite possibly their situations makes ours look like a cakewalk.

So, rather than dwelling on how someone else has negatively affected our day, we can shift our focus, control our emotions and change our perspective. The good news is when we work to understand others, we are far less likely to condemn.

When we forgive, we are free. When we are free, we are without stress. Let’s take a deep breath and feel the tension go.

2. Love breeds Love.
Attitudes are contagious. Positivity breeds more positivity. Negativity breeds more negativity. We are surrounded by both. It is up to us to gravitate toward positive people and positive situations while striving to be as optimistic and encouraging as possible in our everyday lives.

Take the running late, long line for coffee example again. We’ve moved beyond head exploding, taken a deep breath and shifted our focus toward others. Whew. But we’re still late and the line is moving at a snail’s pace.

Why not strike up a conversation with those around us? A little bantering goes a long way toward passing the time and who knows? Our next best client might be standing right next to us.

Many people travel through life under the negative influence of outside circumstances. They let someone else’s bad mood put them in a bad mood. They sacrifice their own opinions to keep the peace, often at the expense of their own identity. But, not us. We are not most people. We are the catalyst for the positivity around us.

We choose to positively affect people’s lives rather than letting them negatively affect ours, and we do this by understanding that love breeds more love.

3. Forgiveness exhibits maturity and control.

Not control over others, but control over ourselves. In fact, practicing forgiveness is the exact opposite of allowing others to control us. When we allow the actions of others to negatively affect us or our mood, we are allowing them to live rent-free in our hearts and minds.

Being able to forgive is the ability to free ourselves from the grips of others and take back the reins of our lives. This certainly does not mean that if someone has intentionally hurt or betrayed us that we should welcome them with open arms and trust them again. But forgiving them is the only true way to let go and move forward.

4. We will live longer. No, really.

In a study entitled “Forgive to Live,” a psychologist by the name of Loren Toussaint and her colleagues studied the relationships among forgiveness and health. They used a national sample of 1,500 adults, age 66 and older. The study was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

The ability to forgive others without an apology was seen to benefit longevity. Harboring emotions such as resentment and holding grudges negatively affected heart health, decreasing chances for a longer life.

5. We will, someday, need forgiveness, too.

Not to suggest some Karmic connection between our willingness to forgive others, and others’ willingness to forgive us – but the fact of the matter is that none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Hurt someone unintentionally, say or do the wrong thing.

By practicing love and forgiveness in our daily lives, we send the message to others that we are trustworthy, kindhearted, and genuine. When the day comes and we do make an honest mistake, our character and reputation will carry us forward.

Being loving and forgiving is not only part of  The Daily Six, outlined in my book, it is a daily practice that has a positive effect on those who use it as well as those around them. It is not just something we do, or an act we put on and it’s not a sometimes thing. Love and forgiveness is an all the time thing, brought forth not by what we do but rather by who we are.

We are forgiveness, and we are love.

So that’s it.

Five great reasons to practice love and forgiveness.

And now that we’re finally at the counter, we’ll need to buy some extra coffee and donuts for that meeting we just remembered.