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.

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

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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!

 

 

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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