However it turns out is how it was meant to be

Doing Ai Chi affects each of us in a unique and individual way every time we do it. We come to this practice from different life experiences~ from interactions with others at home or en route to the pool, after hearing a breaking news broadcast or listening to relaxing music. We have different backgrounds, health issues, emotional experiences, support systems, coping mechanisms and internal resources. Some come to Ai Chi with a goal~ to improve balance, mobility, core strength, or breathing, to reduce stress, find pain relief or simply to feel more centered… Ai Chi can bring all of these things. It is a tool for strengthening and healing.

But there can be roadblocks to being in the frame of mind to fully enjoy Ai Chi practice in the moment. Perhaps the water temperature is not quite right or the noise level is high. Perhaps you had a distracting encounter or something is weighing on your mind. What can you do?

The structure of Ai Chi is there to help you. The introductory steps invite grounding, with a stable posture. Turn your attention away from the commotion around you to your breath, to the sensation of the buoyancy and support of the water and to the fractal patterns in the ripples as you move. Acknowledge your concerns, and leave them behind for a little while~ you can get back to them later. Accept the presence of distractions, but let them be. They may persist, but you are involved in something else for the moment. If you find yourself inhaling during an exhalation movement, know that it was because you needed it. Don’t let stress creep in if you omit a step or move left when you normally would have moved right~ the structured patterns of Ai Chi are a framework for you to build your own experience. Jun Kono reminds us through his words and through his own practice adaptations that however it turns out is how it was meant to be.

In the 1930’s, a chef at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts named Ruth Wakefield wanted to serve her guests a new variation of cookies and ice cream. As she started her baking project, she was tight on time and realized that her supply of easy-melting Baker’s sweet chocolate was depleted. The only chocolate available was a semi-sweet chocolate bar, which she chopped up and put on top of the cookie batter, hoping it would melt to create a chocolate cookie. Instead, the beloved chocolate chip cookie was born~ comfort food that was meant to be.

Ruth Sova recently shared these timely words from Henry Ford: Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.

Sometimes what we perceive as “mistakes” are really how it was meant to be.

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen.

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.

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen!

Pass it on

Sad things and bad things will happen. At some point, someone you love will be very sick. A family member or close friend will die. You won’t be able to help a dear one who is traveling a difficult road. Relationships will end. You will be treated unfairly. So you may harbor sadness, anger and resentment or long for the “good old days.”

But good things will happen too. You will be surrounded by love. You will share special times with others. You will experience the wonder of a new life coming into this world, and you will make a new friend. You will accomplish something you didn’t think was possible. A puppy will greet you with an affectionate lick. You will encounter the wonder of nature as you walk in the woods on a crisp fall day. You will make amazing discoveries, plan an adventure, watch the glorious opening of a new day with a sunrise… And gratefully remembering those special encounters is also a good thing!

Our subconscious minds take in all that surrounds us, both the negative and the positive. Without even realizing that it is happening, we pass on the effects of our experiences with those we touch. Studies have shown that when people read angry posts on Facebook, they are more likely to post something that is heated themselves. Or they may be short with others later in the day without realizing why. Likewise, goodness and kindness reach farther than we ever know.

Breathe in deeply, and contemplate joy. Float in the moment. Experience feeling uplifted by the buoyancy of water. Enclose your arms to bring in wonder. Give yourself a hug with enfolding… The steps of Ai Chi can give focus, awareness and inner balance, nourishing our souls with hope and faith that will give us strength when we need it most. The centering and the calm of Ai Chi opens the door to appreciation and sharing gratitude and love with all we touch.

Today I share quote from my father, who was a beacon of hope throughout his life, through good times and bad…

 

Are you in the Chicago area this summer? Join me doing Ai Chi at the Evanston Athletic Club on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30-11:30 am through July 19, 2018. Call (847) 866-6190 to reserve a spot.

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen!

Seeing red… or blue

Have you ever felt green with envy, been purple with passion, seen red, or had the blues? Color has been linked so closely with feelings and emotion that it has crept into our language.

Objects do not emanate the colors we see. When we look at something, our minds absorb light waves of differing lengths and interpret them as colors, ranging from long waves (red) to shorter waves (violet) across the visible color spectrum. Color perception begins with information received by cone cells in the retina of the eye. Sighted creatures have between one and five different types of cone cells to gather this information~ humans typically have three types, (although those who are color-blind only have two and 2-3% of women have four). The cone cells pass information on to the right visual cortex in our brains, (which also happens to be where emotion is processed) and other brain centers for filtering and interpretation as color.

Perhaps this close proximity of vision and emotional brain centers affects personal color preferences and emotion. When I was a young child, my mother often set a little blue vase filled with purple violets from our garden by my bedside when I was sick, to help me feel better. And they did. When I was twelve my parents let me choose new wallpaper for my bedroom, and the paper I picked had clusters of violets everywhere. My bedroom was a visual display of my mother’s love to wake up to every morning, and I announced that purple was my favorite color. It still is.

Culture influences our understanding of color as well. In America, red makes us think of love on Valentine’s Day, while orange and black are “Halloween colors”. The people of the remote Candoshi tribe in Peru spend considerable time making bright dyes and pigments for pottery and face paints, yet have no words for colors. Instead they might describe a particular shade of red as being “like ripe fruit.” The Himba tribe from an obscure part of Nambia have a unique system of categorizing colors, with no distinction between blue and green. They can easily identify subtle green shade differences, but struggle to pick out a blue tile as different in a grouping of identical green tiles.

While there are differences in color symbolism, language and association across cultures, there is a high degree of cross-cultural correlation for relating red and yellow with danger, fear and anger. Globally, blue-green elicits the highest number of positive responses, while green-yellow is most often viewed negatively. Some surmise that color perception may have deep historical roots for survival, with some colors implying an invitation while others signifying a warning.

Colors may not look the same to everyone, stir the same feelings and emotions or hold the same cultural significance, but they appear to have common physiological effects. Studies show that heart rate and pulse are elevated when looking at red and yellow and lower when seeing blue and green, found so often in nature. Reds and yellows can help build on excitement and energy, while blues and greens support calm and reduce stress. Perfect for Ai Chi.

 

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

Join me for a pop-up Ai Chi workshop at the Evanston Athletic Club, 1723 Benson Ave, Evanston, IL on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:30-11:30 am, June 26-July 19, 2018. Space is limited~ call 847-866-6190 to reserve a spot!

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen.

Look at this!

The Ai Chi step Freeing is the most common spontaneously named “favorite” movement in my classes. I hear words like “I finally feel like I am moving normally!” and “It feels so good!” What is special about this step?

In freeing, you start in a grounded position and add movement. You turn as far as you can comfortably. You follow your hands as they skim across the surface of the water, creating ripples and fractal patterns. Start grounded, move comfortably and watch with eyes wide open.

The component of focused attention on gazing with intent reminds me of my horseback riding experience, where the horse was able to follow my direction simply by where I looked. The subtle weight shifts that accompanied my eye motions cued the horse to move in that direction.

I once had a physical therapy patient with severe neck pain who subconsciously turned her entire body when she needed to look to either side, rather than shifting her gaze. Our plan to re-establish neck mobility started with simply moving her eyes as far as she could comfortably from one side to the other. I associated this response with dependency on habitual patterns (as described by Moshe Feldenkreis), but maybe something else was at play… Perhaps subconscious hyper-protective responses were influencing her reluctance to move her eyes~ sending messages to inhibit weight shift at the same sensitive level that horses can perceive from riders. Restoring her ability to shift her gaze was an easy but vital step in her return to functional motion.

So what does this have to do with Ai Chi and why Freeing feels good? Freeing hits us on many levels. It brings tiny muscles surrounding your joints and the most primary levels of motion into play, which is especially appreciated by those who have movement challenges. The buoyancy of the water provides a comfortable support so that you can move to the available extremes of trunk, neck and shoulder motion~ and almost magically that “end range” keeps extending the more you move. That feels good, especially if a once painful movement doesn’t hurt. And a focused gaze allows you to give attention to the patterns in the water that your movement creates, stimulating “relaxed but alert” alpha brain waves. Ai Chi is a progression of steps and Freeing is dependent on what comes before~ the initial core activating steps and crescendo of arm and trunk movements. Combining focused gaze with movement is the icing on the cake~ and something to celebrate and feel good about when it happens.

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

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen!

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.

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

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen!

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.

  • NEW~ click the follow button in the lower right corner to follow this blog!

 

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

Immersed in Nature

Shinrin Yoku is the Japanese practice of walking through the woods and experiencing the natural setting with intent through all 5 senses. This practice became an organized movement in Japan in the 1980’s and Japan now has 60 dedicated “forest therapy” trails. In English Shinrin Yoku means “forest bathing.” Promoters of Shinrin Yoku suggest regular slow walks in the woods while breathing deeply and paying attention to the colors and patterns of the forest, the sounds of birds, the smells of plant life releases, the feel of tree textures and the taste of plants; (n.b. the promise I made to my grandfather never to eat plants he did not approve as safe will probably limit me from tastes in nature, as he is not here to ask…)

The Japanese government has prioritized study of the affects of nature on the human body. Studies headed by Qing Li, associated professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine have shown that this focused forest walking experience has calming, parasympathetic nervous system affects, lowers blood pressure and stress hormone production and boosts the immune system when compared with city walking.

I like being surrounded by nature and have always enjoyed getaways to state or national parks for hikes. My dog walks often lead to lake or ocean beaches. Qing Li advises that you don’t have to be walking all of the time during Shinrin Yoku, but movement is an essential part of the experience. He sometimes stops to do T’ai Chi on his forest journeys. I like the descriptive term forest bathing, which brings thoughts of water. Slowly moving through the Ai Chi steps in a natural water setting brings the positive affects of Shinrin Yoku and Ai Chi together. And you don’t actually have to be in a forest to bathe in nature; you may find yourself in a pool in the desolate beauty of the desert or in a tropical paradise. Breathe deeply, notice the colors and patterns and smells and sounds around you and suck on kava infused candy. And enjoy Ai Chi.

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.”

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.

The wild card~ personal music preference

Studies have defined objective traits of relaxing music, but the final component that can make or break stress reduction in an individual is subjective~ whether or not the person “likes” the music.

Not surprisingly, some of the information on the area of personal preference comes from marketing research~ research done with the intent of creating a feeling or emotional connection to commercial brands or products. Whether or not individual marketing researchers follow strict scientific method which can be applied to a general population is unknown~ they are not bound by the same stringent standards as scientific researchers. These standards include assurance that the researcher seeks to be objective and neutral, that the study can be replicated, that the study participants accurately represent the target population, and that the research is done in such a way that it is considered valid by statistical analysis, using equipment that provides accurate and reliable results. Companies spend billions of dollars to reap the benefits of accurate research, but because the studies are proprietary they are not available for public interpretation.

A British marketing research company headed by a neuropsychologist called Mindlab measures responses to target areas through numerous tools and measures. They collect data on brain waves, facial muscle contraction, skin moisture, heart rate and heart rate variances to learn about attention, positive motivation, emotion, cognitive load, and sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Using this data they develop presentations that promote desired associations in most people. This is the strategy that went into developing “the world’s most relaxing song,” Weightless by Marconi Union. Listening to this music reportedly reduces anxiety by 65% and reduces physiological resting rates by 35%. A 10-hour recording of this music is available on youtube.com. I may be in the minority, but the problem for me is that I don’t like this music. Regardless of the research, it is highly unlikely that I would listen to it.

What kind of relaxing music do I turn to for Ai Chi? The first year I practiced Ai Chi I did so solely to Jun Kono’s Ai Chi Synchrony, imbedding strong relaxing associations for me. The second year I started looking for variety, and I turned to some of my old favorites. Music affects many parts of our minds, including the amygdala, which is linked to emotion and memory. I learned to play the acoustic guitar in my early teenage years and spent many hours playing both alone and with friends. Playing the guitar helped me center during this often turbulent stage of change and transition. And later as an adult when I drove between workplace sites, I found myself tuning to the Coffee House Sirius XM radio station, especially on stressful days. This music that helped me center during my formative years has continued to lift my spirits throughout my life. So my relaxing music list includes acoustic guitar music.

I love to travel and explore new places and different cultures. On a trip to South America my husband and I discovered the haunting sounds of Incan panpipes as we explored Incan ruins. And later on a family trip through the four corners area our son purchased a wooden flute. Shortly after we dispersed to explore an Indian pueblo, the unexpected soothing sounds of his flute echoed through the clay dwellings and we found him playing in a small, ancient room. These special memories put panpipe and Native American flute music on my relaxing list.

The analytical approach can only go so far~ in the end, relaxing music is personal, and stress-reduction starts with a relaxed leader. I like different music on different days. And as an Ai Chi instructor, I share a variety of relaxing music that I like with my classes, and make choices within my own library of music based on their responses. There is no “one size fits all” music.

Finding flow

While slow music tempo is identified with relaxing music, studies also show that participants perceive music with a low volume and a small range of tones as most calming~ in other words, music that is consistent, without any surprises or sudden distractions. Parents across the ages have found that a quiet lullaby has an amazingly calming affect on a crying baby. Even at a faster tempo, consistent music brings calm that can inspire the experience of flow, a concept that Katrien Lemahieu highlights in the faster paced Ai Chi in 3.

What is flow? It is becoming completely engaged in and enjoying the process of doing something in the present moment. Flow is not specific to any one type of activity~ it may be experienced by artists, writers, dancers, runners, swimmers, surgeons, rock climbers, those who play games and musicians as they focus on, perform and enjoy an appropriately challenging activity that they have mastered. It is being “in the zone” for runners and “finding pace” for swimmers. In fact, flow can be experienced in everyday activities that you feel good about~ driving a car, sweeping a floor, ironing clothes, putting away dishes… When you are in flow, what you are doing and awareness of your surroundings merge and even a sense of time may be lost with this intensely positive focus.

But flow hangs in a delicate balance. It is threatened by the intrusion of challenges that exceed your abilities and in not being challenged enough. If I am trying to do Ai Chi in the ocean where an unrelenting strong tide challenges my ability to maintain my balance, I become anxious, stressed and flow is lost. On the other hand, if I do a dozen repetitions of each Ai Chi step I may feel relaxed at first, but boredom may creep in, causing my mind to wander as I lose the anticipation of moving through the dance of Ai Chi~ again, flow is lost.

You are rewarded when you find flow~ there is a sense of balance in giving full attention to something you like, that is challenging and that you know you can do. Thoughts, feelings, desires and complex activity all come together. And studies show that finding flow in one genre can help empower an individual to deal with other potentially stressful or challenging areas of life.

I love the calm and consistency of the topically titled “River Flows In You” by Lindsey Stirling… This music opens the door to finding flow for me.

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.

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.

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).

Flowing, Reflecting, Suspending and coming full circle

After the challenges of Balancing, Flowing provides gentle and artful stability. There is a lot of movement with Flowing, but your weight shifts from one leg to the other in a predictable pattern as your arms move symmetrically in an opposing pattern. If you’ve ever danced the “grapevine step” or are familiar with the “braiding,” Flowing will be familiar to you. As in all Ai Chi practice, however it turns out is how it was meant to be, and attention is given to quality of movement, rhythmic breathing and moving within the available space rather than to which arm or leg crosses in front or how many repetitions you do to each side.

Flowing: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms crossed under the water in front of you. Breathe in through your nose as you open your arms to the side and cross your left leg in front of the right. Exhale gently through pursed lips as you step to the right with your right leg and cross your arms in front of you again. Repeat these movements to the right several times, then to the left several times.

Reflecting and Suspending are very similar movements, and both should be performed gently and slowly. In reflection we look to the past for the benefit of the future. And in suspension the water momentarily holds us without firm footing on the surface beneath, before we turn in a new direction.

Reflecting: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms open at your sides, palms up. Blow out through pursed lips as you cross arms and legs in front of you, and gently pivot 180 degrees to a position with legs and arms open once again. Repeat this movement.

Suspending: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms open at your sides, palms up. Blow out through pursed lips as you gently spring up from the pool surface while crossing arms and legs in front of you. When your feet return to the pool surface, pivot 180 degrees to a position with legs and arms open once again. Repeat this movement.

You have now completed the 16 basic steps of Ai Chi. To come full circle, I like to end with Folding, Enclosing, Uplifting, Floating and Contemplating. I hope you enjoy this body mind practice on many levels as you experience it over time. Namaste.

aichi14to16

This is just the beginning… Future posts will explore additional facets to Ai Chi, Ai Chi in 3, Jun Konno’s extra movements, relaxing music and more…

 

Balancing

This is one of the more challenging movements. You will be maintaining a single leg stance throughout the repetitions for each side. And the more turbulent the water is, the greater the challenge. Use your arms and adjust the way you shift your weight as you move to maintain balance. That’s the thing about maintaining balance~ movement requires constant adjustment and adaptation.

We are constantly seeking balance of time and energy in our multidimensional lives. There is an old saying that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Jack has lost his work/leisure balance. We need to balance our time with family and friends to grow rich bonds, and to allow for solitary time to know ourselves. Physical fitness is important to keep our bodies healthy, but we also need to challenge our minds with reading and learning new things, and our souls with attention to spirituality.

There are times in our lives when we find ourselves out of balance by choice or circumstance. Perhaps a family member is ill and needs more of our time and attention than usual. A career may end abruptly. An aspiring Olympic athlete will need to devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to her sport to achieve her goal. Many aspects of balance shift when you become a parent~ and when your nest is suddenly empty. These universal changes challenge our equilibrium on many levels, but we can find balance even in the process of change. As you move through the challenges of this next movement, consider the challenges of balance in your life.

Balance: Blow out as you reach both arms out in front of you while lifting your left leg behind you in a “superman” pose. Stretch as far as you can comfortably, then breathe in while bringing your arms behind you with slightly bent elbows and swinging your left leg to the front, lifting it to a comfortable level. Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.

aichi10to13

Rounding

Roundness is important in Ai Chi. A circle implies wholeness, enhancing internal and external harmony. There are no sharp edges or defined corners, no roughness or coarseness. The smooth quality of round movement avoids joint and soft tissue strain.

Roundness is all about us~ from the sun and the moon, to shapes in nature and beautiful things we create. Appreciate the wholeness of roundness as you experience this movement.

It is important to note that those with upper back problems should give particular attention to limits of motion during Rounding. Bending forward to extremes may restrict the space where nerve roots exit the spine or bulging discs may encroach upon irritated nerves, causing discomfort. Move slowly and pay attention to your body, avoiding ranges that bring on symptoms. As with Accepting with Grace, only lift your leg as high as you feel comfortable. If you are unstable balancing on one leg you may only be able to lift your foot an inch or two off the floor of the pool to be challenged. That’s okay~ practice at your challenge level will extend what you can do.

Rounding: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time bringing both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you shift your weight forward onto your left leg, bringing your right leg and both hands together in front of you. (*If you have upper back problems, this is the point where you need to move carefully and avoid extremes). Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.

round2b round2a

rounding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accepting with Grace

From Accepting we move on to Accepting with Grace.

What is grace? I googled “grace” and serendipitously the first definition seemed tailor-made for Ai Chi:

Grace: ɡrās/ noun

simple elegance or refinement of movement.

“she moved through the water with effortless grace”

synonyms: elegance, poise, gracefulness, finesse;

Accepting with Grace is challenging, but the buoyancy of the water provides the support to move with finesse. This movement is exactly like Accepting, with the addition of gently lifting your front leg as you bend backward. If your hamstrings are tight or if you are a bit unsteady standing on one leg, you may want to start out just lifting your foot a few inches off the floor of the pool and work on increasing the range of motion over time.

Soon you will be moving through the water with effortless grace… free and flowing… automatically breathing deeply, maintaining good posture without thinking about it, experiencing rather than concentrating, movement as art…

Accepting with Grace: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time lifting your left leg in front of you to a comfortable height and bringing both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you lower your left leg, shift your weight forward onto that leg and bring your hands together in front of you. Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.

grace

Accepting

Now we move to accepting. Accepting challenges balance a bit. You’re moving more~ shifting your point of stability. Accepting yourself for where you are, here and now. Feeling the gentle caress of the water around you as you move through it. Sensing the surface beneath your feet as you shift backward and forward. This is mindfulness~ giving direct attention to body and breath, focusing on the moment while calmly accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and sensations.

Accepting: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time reaching both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you shift your weight to your left foot and bring your hands together in front of you. Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.

Ai Chi founder Jun Konno demonstrates the first 10 steps in this video to the soothing sounds of Ai Chi Synchrony:

 

 

Transitions

Nothing lasts forever~ change is certain to happen. My mother gave me some great parenting advice. She shared that there would be trying times as a parent, but just when you feel like you are at your wit’s end, things change. I found this to be true, and it was a very good thing! Of course all of the changes we encounter are not welcome, and whether positive or negative, change creates stress. Holmes and Rahe’s insightful 1967 life event stress scale is an evidence-based predictor of likely physical illness. While many of the stressors listed in the scale are not unexpected, some positive items may surprise you.
http://www.testandcalc.com/Richard/resources/Teaching_Resource_Holmes_and_Rahe_Social.pdf

Change will happen. How we respond is up to us. Ai Chi can be a helpful tool to deal with stress and change.

I view Shifting as a regrouping or re-centering step, which is important during times of change to ease transition. The first Ai Chi steps involve a solid base of support~ feet planted firmly on the ground as your core muscles are challenged and you explore the limits of trunk and upper body range of motion. The upcoming steps present new challenges to balance of body, mind and spirit.

Jun Konno advocates round-arm movements, symbolizing wholeness and connectivity during shifting. I like the concept of expanding round-arm movements to a timeless figure eight pattern or infinity sign.always

Infinity Shifting: With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms up, shoulder blades pulled down and in, knees slightly bent, weight bearing on the balls of your feet, shift your body weight over your right foot while sweeping your left arm away to form the left loop of a figure eight symbol, then in toward you before moving further to the right and away to form the right loop. As your left arm passes in front of you again, shift your weight over your left foot and move your left arm further to the left and away to form the left loop, at the same time beginning a figure eight pattern with your right arm. Pause with your left arm until the right arm passes in front of you a second time to complete the figure eight. Each time your hand passes in front of you a second time to complete a figure eight pattern, begin a new figure eight with the opposite arm.

aichi6to9

Something more~

While ideally Ai Chi is performed in an environment without distractions, this does not always happen. There may be others nearby talking or laughing. A sudden noise can interrupt practice. I have even had birds and rabbits come by to watch me as I do Ai Chi~ a peaceful occurrence, but distracting nonetheless. While technically not an Ai Chi step, I have found that adding the following move can help me get back on track without disturbing the flow of movement. It can be randomly inserted whenever it is needed.

Regrouping: With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms up, shoulder blades pulled down and in, knees slightly bent, weight bearing on the balls of your feet, exhale through pursed lips as you turn your palms down, and inhale through your nose as you turn your palms up.

 

Freeing

Freeing is the most complex movement, and should be done smoothly and without pausing between segments. In this explanation I have broken down the description into eight segments for clarity…

Freeing: 1a) With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms up, shoulder blades pulled down and in, knees slightly bent, weight bearing on the balls of your feet, turn your head to look at your right hand and breathe out through your mouth as you turn your right palm down and bring it across your body to meet your left hand, pivoting your body to the left as you move. 1b) Segway immediately to breathe in through your nose and watch your upturned left hand as you bring it behind you, twisting your trunk to the left as far as you can comfortably move. 2a) Gaze at your left hand as you turn your palm down, blowing out through pursed lips and sweeping your left hand forward to meet the right. 2b) Shift your attention to your right hand as you turn your palm up, sweeping to the right and moving back to starting position~ arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms up, shoulder blades pulled down and in, knees slightly bent, weight bearing on the balls of your feet…

The next steps are identical to the first four, but to the opposite side…
3a) Turn your head to look at your left hand and breathe out through your mouth as you turn your left palm down and bring it across your body to meet your right hand, pivoting your body to the right as you move. 3b) Breathe in through your nose and watch your upturned right hand as you bring it behind you, twisting your trunk to the right as far as you can comfortably move. 4a) Gaze at your right hand as you turn your palm down, blowing out through pursed lips and sweeping your right hand forward to meet the left. 2b) Shift your attention to your left hand as you turn your palm up, sweeping it to the left and moving back to starting position~ arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms up, shoulder blades pulled down and in, knees slightly bent, weight bearing on the balls of your feet…

Freeing: health-giving, heart-warming, inspiring, invigorating, lightening, refreshing, relieving, restoring, revitalizing, upholding, warming

gregfreeing

Moving

The next steps focus on mobility~ moving to the bounds of range of motion. The limits of motion for each joint is individual, and it is important to remember that what is right for one Ai Chi practitioner may not be right for another. Fortunately, the amazing buoyancy properties of water relieve 80% of the effects of gravity while moving in shoulder depth water. That’s good for your joints, but you can relieve stress on knee joints even more by maintaining a slightly bent, soft knee position~ descriptively deemed the “loose-packed position.” As you move, a stiff-kneed position will transfer stress to the tendons and ligaments surrounding the knee, to the hip and spinal joints above and to the ankle joints below. Softly bent knees relieve stress on your entire body.

Your shoulders and spine are focus areas of the next steps, with progressive stretching to your available limits. Working in shoulder depth water allows the water to comfortably support your joints as you move. Only stretch as far as you can move without causing pain. Frequently, you will find that pain-free excursion will increase with each attempt. As with any exercise, if you experience pain lasting more than two hours, do not throw in the towel, but turn to your best means of relieving joint inflammation, and scale back the excursion or number of repetitions the next time you exercise.

The following steps are performed symmetrically, first to one side, and then to the other. Symmetry in movement helps to maintain balance in body, mind and spirit.

Soothing: With arms outstretched to each side on the water’s surface, palms down and shoulder blades pulled down and in, exhale through your mouth as you sweep your right arm across the water in front of you to your left. Inhale through your nose as you turn your right palm up and sweep your right arm back across the water to the starting position. Complete all repetitions with your right arm, and then duplicate this move with the left arm.

Gathering: Pivot your body to the left, so that your left foot is forward and the right foot is behind. This position can be made more challenging by placing the back foot directly behind the left and by pointing the toes forward, or less challenging by positioning your back foot off to the side a bit, and by turning your feet slightly outward.                                                                            

Keep your gaze forward as you breath in through your nose, turn your left palm up and move your left arm across the water surface behind as you as far as you can comfortably move. I like to turn my right palm up and reach forward with my right arm simultaneously to add a shoulder blade stretch on the right side. Blow out through your mouth as you turn your both palms down and return your left arm to the starting position in front of you, while relaxing your right shoulder blade. Complete all repetitions with your left arm, and then pivot and duplicate this move to the right side.

Seeing all life
in perfect symmetry.

Perceiving each day
with righteous clarity.

Living each moment
in purposed reality.

Believing each day
is the start of eternity.
― S. Tarr, Love, Adventure and Other Noble Quests

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

Next steps: Enclosing, Folding + practice considerations

Enclosing: With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms down, shoulder blades pulled down and in, exhale through your mouth as you bring your thumbs together in front of you. Inhale through your nose as you bring your palms up and open your arms as far behind you as is comfortable. As you practice this, you may be able to reach farther.

Folding: With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms down, exhale through your mouth as you move to cross your arms in front of you in front of your stomach under the water. Keeping your elbows at your sides, turn you hands out to the side underwater as you exhale through your mouth.

 

I begin and end each Ai Chi session with the five steps presented thus far. Concluding an Ai Chi cycle by reversing these steps takes the practice full circle and provides closure and calm. The order of the final steps in my practice are folding, enclosing, uplifting, floating and contemplating.

How many repetitions should you do? Whatever you choose is how it was meant to be. I have typically chosen between 3 and 10 repetitions per cycle, depending on how much time I have, the needs of any group participants and my mindset at the time. You may choose to do just one cycle, or to start over again after the first round. You may choose to move very slowly or to move more quickly, especially in cooler water.

The ideal water temperature for classic Ai Chi is between 88°F (31°C) and 90°F (32°C), but it is not always possible to find a pool with just the right temperature. Katrien Lemahieu from the Netherlands has created an adapted “Ai Chi in 3” for colder water pools with a faster paced version using 3/4 music~ (more on her approach in a later post). Personally I have enjoyed effective practice in cooler water temperatures, but water that is too cold inhibits relaxation and moving in water that is too hot leads to overheating and a rise in core temperature. Your best option may be to find a pool that offers an Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program, as the water temperature will be between 83°F (28°C) to 92°F (33°C).

I like to do Ai Chi whenever I can get into water. I thought that the warm Gulf of Mexico waters would be a delightful place to do Ai Chi. I found that mild to moderate tidal currents provided nice core strengthening and balance challenges during the initial steps involving a stable base of support (steps 1-5). However, the tide effects became increasingly overwhelming when trunk movement and single leg stance were added, and all hope of relaxation was lost. I have also done Ai Chi in a cruise ship pool on gentle waters, which was a more unpredictable environment than a land based pool but the water movement proved to be cathartic and enhanced core strengthening and balance benefits. You don’t have to visit the ocean or go on a cruise ship to add core and balance challenges~ try doing Ai Chi in a pool full of people moving about.

pool

 

Contemplating Ai Chi Beginnings

Ahhhh… Ai Chi….

Contemplating: You are standing shoulder deep in comfortably warm water. Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with your arms stretched out on the surface of the water in front of you. Slowly and deliberately you breathe in through your nose, filling your lungs so deeply that your stomach pushes outward. Then, just as deliberately you relax and blow the air out, pulling your shoulder blades together, tucking your tummy, and sensing the feel of water on your body… Breathe in again, palms up; breathe out, palms down.

Contemplating… And so it begins.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ai Chi is a relaxation practice that shares some physical similarities and accomplishes some of the same goals of land-based T’ai Chi, but the addition of moving through water adds an extra dimension to this relatively new body mind practice.

Ai Chi was created just over two decades ago by Jun Konno, a former Japanese Olympic swimming coach, and is now practiced all around the world. Jun Konno was working with older adults in Japan using a two-person water relaxation program called Watsu, but he found that many older people were uncomfortable with the close holding and innate intimacy of that program. He developed Ai Chi to be a bridge to Watsu, but it quickly gained popularity as a stand-alone technique.

What does Ai Chi mean? Jun Konno named Ai Chi after his daughter Ai, which means love in both Japanese and Chinese. Chi means life energy. T’ai Chi is spelled the same way, with only a “t’” in front of it, but its meaning has a different origin. T’ai chi ch’uan” translates directly as “supreme ultimate fist” with chi representing the fusion of Yin and Yang into a single ultimate ~ the familiar circular interlocked paisley sign.

If Jun Konno is the “father of Ai Chi,” Ruth Sova would be considered the “mother.” Ruth Sova is the founder of ATRI, the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute, and as an internationally recognized aquatic fitness leader, she has espoused Ai Chi and become the English speaking spokesperson for this practice. ATRI sponsors national conferences and educational sessions for therapists and fitness specialists throughout the United States where Ai Chi practice is shared.

Ai Chi is about balance~ physical balance which comes with core strengthening and the challenges that happen as you hold yourself upright while moving through the water~ the balance between our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system and our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system~ the balance between mind and body as your focus on breathing, posture and movement becomes automatic ~ the balance between air and water.

Today I leave you to contemplate a water poem by David Whyte:

WHERE MANY RIVERS MEET

All the water below me came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains
gave it to the rivers,
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.

And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
cloud fall and stream rush, tree roots and tide bank,
leading to the rivers’ mouths
and the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back,
from the depths,
where nothing is forgotten.

— David Whyte
from “River Flow: New & Selected Poems”
©2012 Many Rivers Press