Breathing matters

This week I participated in an aquatic Yoga-lates class, particularly to compare this practice with Ai Chi. Yoga-lates combines poses of ancient Indian Yoga and the controlled movements of 20th century Pilates. Our instructor was enthusiastic and encouraging as she lead us through the fast-paced warm-up, stretches, core strengthening and balance activities, explaining breathing techniques at various points in the hour long workout. The water was a bit cool, but our quick movements helped keep our heart rates up and our blood circulating well. At one point our leader emphasized contracting the abdominal muscles with a breath intake (often described as apical or clavicular breathing) and commented on how alert we all looked when we did this. It was no wonder~ this type of breathing calls on the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system that we were already beckoning with our quick pace. It’s the type of breathing weight lifters do just before lifting heavy weights. It’s the way we breath when we are anxious, stressed or angry. In contrast, slow-moving Ai Chi employs diaphragmatic breathing, which stimulates the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system~ the type of breathing that I relied on during the births of my children using LaMaze techniques. It is cleansing breath at the end of a Yoga session and the gentle exchange of air used in a “breath prayer.”

Who would guess that the way you breathe could make such a difference? I loved the Yoga-lates class and I will go back for more~ but I also felt compelled to find inner calm and balance through Ai Chi at the conclusion~ the inseparable Yin and Yang.

The 30 second relaxation break

While Ai Chi is a stress reducing aquatic practice, some of the relaxing benefits can be experienced out of water as well. Deconstructing Ai Chi practice to focus on simple movements and breathing on land can produce physical changes, such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently I was a bit anxious on a recent visit to a new doctor, causing my blood pressure to be high. My doctor said that she would return to retake my blood pressure in a few minutes, and I took the opportunity to run through the Ai Chi breathing and motions before she returned. She was surprised at how much my blood pressure had diminished in just a few minutes. I have found that just thinking about the Ai Chi steps allows me to fall asleep at night before I get through the entire sequence. Add relaxing music and the benefits are even greater.

Even if you do not recall all of the Ai Chi steps, you can still reduce stress with body awareness and focused breathing. Ruth Sova suggests regular practice of the following quick relaxation exercise:

“The first step to relaxation is to become aware of what the body is doing. Take some time to move slowly. Experiment with simply pronating [turning palms up] and supinating [turning palms down] your hands for two minutes. More relaxation will be gained as more attention is paid to the smallest movement of the hand, wrist, or eyes. With that deep relaxation and focus, the brain will become more alert, and mental-development and self-efficacy will improve. More is discovered each time it is done.

After several practices of moving only the hands, add coordinated diaphragmatic breathing to the hand movement. Inhale slowly into the nose (with tongue behind the top front teeth) as the palms turn up (supinate) and exhale slowly out of the mouth as the palms turn down. Continue to watch and think about your hands. Do this exercise a few times everyday or every time you feel overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, or tension. Thirty seconds can make a big difference in your health.”

Excerpted from Ai Chi – Balance, Harmony and Healing by Ruth Sova. The book is available at https://squareup.com/store/ruth-sova.

Why should I practice Ai Chi?

However it comes out is, how it was meant to be… right? So why practice Ai Chi?

Practicing Ai Chi can take your experience with it to another level, as muscle memory~ or more technically, motor learning comes into play. Basically, you don’t have to occupy your conscious mind with thinking about when to breathe or which way to move, because you already know it. It’s like typing, or riding a bicycle, or playing a musical instrument. There are three phases of motor learning, with each phase integrating the “how-to” to open the door for new experiences.

When our boys were first learning to ride a bicycle, they started with training wheels so that they could get the feel of the basics without worrying about the influence of controlling lateral sway on balance. We gave them lots of verbal instruction and encouragement at the beginning. They were able to focus their attention on pumping the bicycle pedals and steering in the direction they wanted to go. They were learning how to make the bicycle work. This cognitive stage of motor learning relies on vision and figuring out the mechanical basics, or how to do it. Soon they were comfortable with the groundwork for function, and able to move on to the associative stage, learning to ride their bikes more accurately. When we removed the training wheels, we took them to a large open parking lot so that they would not have to worry about staying within the bounds of a narrow sidewalk. There they could practice on keeping their balance while moving. When they were pretty steady, they graduated to ride on the more challenging sidewalk in front of our house to focus on controlling their bikes. Soon they could ride their bikes anywhere~ they leapt onto them and raced around the neighborhood without giving the logistics of balance or bicycle control a second thought. They had reached the autonomous stage where riding a bike just happened. And those bicycle-riding skills are now deposited in their memories so they can get on a bike and ride without thinking, even if months or years have passed since they had last ridden.

Practicing Ai Chi uses these same phases of motor learning. In the cognitive stage, you will rely a lot on vision, watching your instructor and listening to her verbal cues. Not worrying about doing it wrong allows you to focus on the various aspects of the mechanical basics at this early stage of learning. The benefits of Ai Chi surface even as you start this practice~ feeling more relaxed, breathing more easily, moving farther, improving your balance, strengthening your core~ but it is all on a continuum. In the associative stage doing Ai Chi starts to come together~ you automatically notice and tweak your posture, knowing when to breath is more natural and you realize which direction to move even before the instructor cues you… Soon the movements and breathing and postures just happen and you can give your attention more fully to the way the water feels, the joy of moving, the rhythm of the music and sounds around you, and how you feel as you do Ai Chi. We are often impatient by nature, but practicing Ai Chi is like so many things we encounter in life~ accomplishment and fulfillment come by experiencing every step of the journey.

Sharing Ai Chi

This year we have endured a very heated presidential election in the United States, with much anger and turmoil that has not subsided since the results have been finalized. Both the “winners” and the “losers” continue to lash out at one another and at the world. What can we do to bring positive? Ai Chi means “love” and “life energy” ~ the supreme ultimate positive. I have found that cultivating the positive in body, mind and spirit provides resources to share hope and inspire others.

Ai Chi is a regular practice for me, and while the quiet peace of doing Ai Chi alone is restoring, it is also something I feel compelled to share. Whenever I can find a warm pool and interested participants, I will offer others to join me. This was the motivation for my current pop-up holiday de-stresser Ai Chi class at our local health club.

Despite the club’s emails and posters, my class was as a surprise to some of the club’s warm water pool regulars. My hour long class uses the entire shallow end of the pool, where some of the regulars drop in to do water walking as they socialize. My class disrupted their expected routine, but I could feel the energy change and their initial indignation retreat as they watched the class from the deep end of the pool. Then a man who had just finished swimming in the nearby lap pool sat down in a chair near us, propped up his legs, leaned back and closed his eyes to soak in the calm of the music I had selected to accompany our class. I was amazed to see how the various components of our class had a positive effect both on those in the class and those nearby~ music, visualization, moving in warm water and experiencing the Ai Chi steps. I enjoy my personal Ai Chi practice with my headphones on in the water, but sharing Ai Chi is even more fulfilling.

Today I share Ai Chi from the perspective of the “Mother of Ai Chi,” Ruth Sova. Because of Ruth’s motivation to share, Ai Chi is now a global practice: http://www.nchpad.org/373/2078/Ai~Chi

Cultivating the Chi

Jun Konno has added three optional movements which may be included at any point of the Ai Chi progression. These movements represent cultivating the Chi, our vital life force, just as one would cultivate a garden.

Encircling: Gently stir, prepare, find and care for the Chi around us.Start in a stable posture with feet shoulder width apart, arms held out to the side on the surface of the water. Exhale and as you push your hands together in front of you, as if you were holding a soccer ball. Inhale as you simultaneously shift your weight over your left leg and circle the “ball” to the left, then draw it in toward you. As you shift your weight over your right leg, exhale and push the imaginary “ball” out in front of you and to the right. Repeat several times.

Surrounding: Surround your body with the power and energy of the Chi. Transition smoothly to pivot left and exhale as you carefully tip the “ball” to the left, then inhale as you sweep it to the right and pivot and tip the “ball” to the right. Repeat several times.

Nurturing: First expel all toxins, stress and tension from your body, then draw the Chi in. Pivot left and push the ball away as you exhale, then draw it in toward you as you inhale. Repeat to the right.

 

Jun Konno demonstrates Accepting with Grace, Rounding, Balancing, the 3 Cultivating the Chi steps, Flowing, Reflecting and Suspending:

 

Nurturing Body, Mind and Spirit

Ai Chi is about nurturing a stable base for body, mind and spirit.

Core strength and good postural alignment are needed to develop a stable base for the body. The muscles surrounding the spine and pelvis provide the foundation for movement. These muscles grow stronger when you maintain good posture, and then challenge your position, whether it be by the length of time you hold that posture, by adding limb movement to a stable core or by external forces such as water turbulence. What happens when you don’t have a stable physical base for movement, but you move anyway? Unstable areas are vulnerable to strains and overstretching of soft tissues~ which can be painful! Holding good postural alignment and working within your own personal limits to maintain good form nurture a stable physical base for movement.

How do you nurture a stable base for the mind~ an inner calm that allows you to relax? Minimize distractions while doing Ai Chi~ auditory distractions such as conversation and noises, visual distractions that require your attention like children that are under your supervision or mental distractions like a problem you are trying to solve or emotional issues. Play calming, arrhythmic music with a slow tempo and a small dynamic range, (not something that you would hum along with). Use waterproof headphones, if needed. With inner calm as a stable base, clear thought and heightened awareness can flourish.

There is nothing more personal than your soul, and each person must find their own path to know and nurture their own spirit. Many find this through religion or spiritual practices such as prayer, spiritual traditions, Holy Scriptures, being in a natural setting, singing, walking a labyrinth or making a pilgrimage to a holy place. When you nurture a stable spiritual base, the fruits of the spirit have a place grow- love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and inner strength.

In Hebrew, the words for breath and spirit are the same word, ruach. A breath prayer is a short prayer that can be said or thought in a single phrase. To nurture your soul, consider inserting a “breath prayer” on one step or throughout your Ai Chi practice.

In Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, Thompson describes developing a breath prayer in response to the search for one’s innermost yearnings. She prompts readers to look deep inside to allow a response to emerge from a place of profound hope and prayer. This desire is combined with a comfortable name for God or for the divine, to create a breath prayer. As it is spoken or thought, the prayer takes on the shape of every breath. Examples include: “Give me strength, Oh Lord,” “Teach me patience, Holy One,” “My God and my All,” (St Francis).

Air and Form

As you work on steps one through five~ contemplating, floating, uplifting, enclosing and folding~ give particular focus to air intake and form, i.e. diaphragmatic breathing and posture… Through regular practice of Ai Chi, diaphragmatic breathing and maintaining good posture become automatic and you will be able to move on to a deeper Ai Chi experience.

Diaphragmatic breathing was an important part of the Lamaze classes I took as I prepared for the births of my children. As I went through labor I visualized every breath I took as traveling directly to my unborn child. It was important that I gave my baby as much life-giving oxygen as possible as he entered this world. As you perform Ai Chi, think of contracting your diaphragm with each breath as enhancing your lung capacity and breathing efficiency. That’s exactly what you’re doing with diaphragmatic breathing!

I love music, and I have sung in choirs and played musical instruments since I was a child. My childhood singing and wind instrument directors were the first to introduce me to the importance of diaphragmatic breathing to give good breath support to focus tone, sustain performance, control dynamic levels, stabilize vibrato and produce a pleasant, unstrained sound. Through music I learned that you can breath in a way that is focused, efficient, relaxed and easy by calling on your diaphragm. Like each of our muscles, the dome-shaped diaphragm muscle between the lungs and the abdomen needs exercise to stay in shape. As you conscientiously relax the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm will contract and descend, creating a vacuum and allowing air to fill the lungs. Think of creating a vertical depth as you expand your ribs out simultaneously. Aahh~ oxygen! Our cells need it, our blood needs it, our brain needs it~ and your diaphragm is the muscle to get oxygen exactly where it is needed!

For more information on breath control, I recommend Vocal Technique, A guide for Conductors, Teachers and Singers by Julia Davids and Stephen La Tour, 2012. Singing is good for the heart and soul~ and lungs!

Maintaining a stable posture during Ai Chi performance is an important aspect of strengthening core muscles~ the deep muscles that provide the structure for your body to move and function. The core muscles include the tiny muscles surrounding your spine, the deep muscles of your trunk and the muscles of your pelvic floor. These muscles are in a position to be challenged and grow strong when you hold a posture that allows them to contract and hold the rest of your body in good alignment. You can accomplish this by performing the first five steps of Ai Chi with feet shoulder width apart, with your weight evenly distributed on the balls of your feet, your knees gently bent, your pelvis tipped slightly backward (think of tucking a tail down, flattening your back a bit) and your shoulder blades pulled down and in (no hiking your shoulders!) And as I mentioned in my last post, the core muscles are challenged even more in moving water.

Air and form are the foundation of Ai Chi. That’s why I like starting and ending with steps 1-5. I have attached a schematic of these steps below:

aichi1thru5