Ai Chi walking

Ai Chi is an amazing practice in its pure form. But Jun Konno’s mantra that “however it turns out is how it is meant to be” opens the door to infinite possibilities for variations. It may feel right to prolong doing a particular step. You may develop your own “holding pattern” step to settle and reorganize in the midst of doing Ai Chi. One Ai Chi master has developed flowing ballet steps in her Ai Chi practice, while another has doubled the tempo to adapt to colder water temperatures. There are partnered versions of Ai Chi for those who are fearful of the water, with advanced mobility issues and for children.

“Warm water walking” is commonly recommended for post-injury and post-rehab patients who are not able to participate in other exercise classes. I like to include a walking variation of Ai Chi at the conclusion of my GaitWay to Mobility water walking classes. In the class we typically begin with a mindful walking experience, then ramp up to walking activities at higher exertion levels. Ai Chi walking provides a great way to cool down from higher level exertion, as it prevents blood pooling in the legs and lessens the likelihood of post-exercise blood pressure drops, lightheadedness, fainting and cardiac arrhythmias. Plus doing Ai Chi at the end of class leaves participants feeling relaxed and refreshed!

I often refer to the first 5 steps as the “core Ai Chi steps”, because they are performed in a planted posture that challenges the core muscles of the spine and trunk. They set the foundation for mindful movement and focused attention, and I like to do them in their traditional form. But variations on the middle steps are a great way to incorporate locomotion in Ai Chi practice. The Ai Chi steps can be a bit challenging until participants have practiced enough to be able to move without cues, so look to the movement needs and degree of attention engagement of your participants as you make decisions about introducing more complex variations.

An easy foray into Ai Chi walking is with the moving steps. Flowing is already a walking variation~ it is basically “braiding” or a “grapevine step.” Reflecting and Suspending transition to Ai Chi walking by moving in a prescribed direction~ alternating between left arm and leg over right and turning 180 degrees, with right arm and leg over left and turning 180 degrees. These movements can be done straight across the pool or in a circle.

The balancing steps are also prime walking steps, but require more cuing. I’ve included diagrams below outlining these movements.

In Accepting, shift back, arms back, front toes lift as usual, but as you shift forward onto the front foot and arms come forward, take a step forward with the back leg bringing weight forward, and repeat the cycle.

Accepting with grace follows the same pattern with a front leg lift in place of front toe lift and stepping forward with the back leg as the front leg comes down, weight shifts forward and arms come forward.

In Rounding the back leg comes forward toward extending arms, then lowers straight down to a forward position as the arms move back, rather than returning to its original position. The opposite leg is now to the back, and becomes the next leg to move forward toward extending arms.

Doing Balancing as a walking exercise is a great intermediate step for those who struggle with an extended single leg stance time in traditional Ai Chi. Lean into the forward leg with arms extending forward and back leg lifting behind. Then swing the back leg forward, arms and trunk extending back before setting the moving leg down in front of you. This leg now becomes the forward, stance leg as you repeat the cycle.

Not challenging enough? Do these movements going forward across the pool for several steps, then try them in reverse, moving backwards across the pool. Not only are you challenging different muscle groups, but your mind is working in new ways as well.

Music tempo sets the pace for water walking, and this is another adaptable variable to consider in your planning. I like to use a few tracks from Katrien Lemahieu’s Ai Chi in 3 music for a 10 minute Ai Chi walking cooldown.

Are you interested in learning more about GaitWay to Mobility? I will be teaching a pool workshop at the ATRI 2019 Fall National Aquatic Therapy conference in Chicago, November 7-10. For more information, visit the ATRI website.

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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

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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.

 

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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