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.

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.

I just want to get into the water…

A group of older ladies meet in the warm water pool every week at the same time on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. They are all post-therapy patients who are not quite up to the rigorous aqua aerobic classes that the club offers, but they no longer meet 3rd party payer requirements to work with an aquatic physical therapist. And while many have forgotten the exercise routines that their therapists recommended, they are still drawn to the water. A couple of them walk laps, a few bob on noodles as they scissor their legs, and some just hold onto the wall and chat. By all appearances, this is just another social support group. But why meet in the water?

When you immerse yourself in water, the pressure produced by gravity in the water (hydrostatic pressure) provides resistance to the diaphragm from all sides, strengthening this important muscle for breathing. Resting heart rate decreases and you burn more calories. The tissues around the joints relax when underwater and joint pressure lessens. The heat of warm water helps muscles relax and relieves pain.

And add exercise and movement~ and the benefits multiply. Studies show that obese women burned 35% more fat calories exercising in the water than on land. Hydrostatic pressure offsets lower body swelling that sometimes comes along with exercise. The relaxation of muscles allows you to stretch further than you can on land. The water resistance as you move through the water challenges core and extremity muscle strength, balance and endurance. With the decreased effects of gravity in the water, muscle fatigue is postponed and you can exercise more efficiently. At shoulder level, 80% of the effects of gravity are relieved, so even someone with lower extremity joint problems or weight bearing limitations can enjoy the benefits of water. What better place to be?

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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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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.

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