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