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

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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

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

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).

 

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.

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).

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