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).

 

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.

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…

 

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.

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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