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).

 

Finding peaceful spaces

Sometimes you have to go to a peaceful space to regroup and center. I really enjoy doing Ai Chi alone in restful places with relaxing music in the background. Spas often have warm water pools where I can find shoulder depth water and generally have the right sort of background music. But even if I arrive at a non-peak time, there may be another guest who decides to do splashy laps in “my” pool. Or two friends may appear who are excited to see one another and interrupt my calming experience with their exuberance. Maybe I am alone in this perfect place, but my own thoughts and worries about a stressful day just keep intruding… How do I find my peaceful space?

Ai Chi begins with focus on breath. My Apple watch even reminds me to “breathe” throughout the day. It’s good advice. As Ai Chi becomes automatic, you may forget to think about breathing. But focus on breathing has allowed me to find a peaceful space, regardless of what is going on around me.

Set your posture to optimize diaphragmatic breathing~ weight forward over the balls of your feet, knees in a loose packed, slightly bent position, back slightly flattened, shoulder blades down and in, head tucked back… let your stomach poof out as you breathe in through your nose, and relax as you exhale through your mouth… concentrate on the whole process of the wonderful, life-giving process of breathing… Aaaah…

It’s wonderful to come across a peaceful space during a walk in the woods, in an empty church, at a spa… but even though that perfect physical calming space is not always there, don’t miss out on the opportunity to create your own peaceful space through dedicated focus. You control the ability to find your peaceful space.

 

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.

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?

http:/

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.

The 30 second relaxation break

While Ai Chi is a stress reducing aquatic practice, some of the relaxing benefits can be experienced out of water as well. Deconstructing Ai Chi practice to focus on simple movements and breathing on land can produce physical changes, such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently I was a bit anxious on a recent visit to a new doctor, causing my blood pressure to be high. My doctor said that she would return to retake my blood pressure in a few minutes, and I took the opportunity to run through the Ai Chi breathing and motions before she returned. She was surprised at how much my blood pressure had diminished in just a few minutes. I have found that just thinking about the Ai Chi steps allows me to fall asleep at night before I get through the entire sequence. Add relaxing music and the benefits are even greater.

Even if you do not recall all of the Ai Chi steps, you can still reduce stress with body awareness and focused breathing. Ruth Sova suggests regular practice of the following quick relaxation exercise:

“The first step to relaxation is to become aware of what the body is doing. Take some time to move slowly. Experiment with simply pronating [turning palms up] and supinating [turning palms down] your hands for two minutes. More relaxation will be gained as more attention is paid to the smallest movement of the hand, wrist, or eyes. With that deep relaxation and focus, the brain will become more alert, and mental-development and self-efficacy will improve. More is discovered each time it is done.

After several practices of moving only the hands, add coordinated diaphragmatic breathing to the hand movement. Inhale slowly into the nose (with tongue behind the top front teeth) as the palms turn up (supinate) and exhale slowly out of the mouth as the palms turn down. Continue to watch and think about your hands. Do this exercise a few times everyday or every time you feel overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, or tension. Thirty seconds can make a big difference in your health.”

Excerpted from Ai Chi – Balance, Harmony and Healing by Ruth Sova. The book is available at https://squareup.com/store/ruth-sova.

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).

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:

 

 

Air and Form

As you work on steps one through five~ contemplating, floating, uplifting, enclosing and folding~ give particular focus to air intake and form, i.e. diaphragmatic breathing and posture… Through regular practice of Ai Chi, diaphragmatic breathing and maintaining good posture become automatic and you will be able to move on to a deeper Ai Chi experience.

Diaphragmatic breathing was an important part of the Lamaze classes I took as I prepared for the births of my children. As I went through labor I visualized every breath I took as traveling directly to my unborn child. It was important that I gave my baby as much life-giving oxygen as possible as he entered this world. As you perform Ai Chi, think of contracting your diaphragm with each breath as enhancing your lung capacity and breathing efficiency. That’s exactly what you’re doing with diaphragmatic breathing!

I love music, and I have sung in choirs and played musical instruments since I was a child. My childhood singing and wind instrument directors were the first to introduce me to the importance of diaphragmatic breathing to give good breath support to focus tone, sustain performance, control dynamic levels, stabilize vibrato and produce a pleasant, unstrained sound. Through music I learned that you can breath in a way that is focused, efficient, relaxed and easy by calling on your diaphragm. Like each of our muscles, the dome-shaped diaphragm muscle between the lungs and the abdomen needs exercise to stay in shape. As you conscientiously relax the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm will contract and descend, creating a vacuum and allowing air to fill the lungs. Think of creating a vertical depth as you expand your ribs out simultaneously. Aahh~ oxygen! Our cells need it, our blood needs it, our brain needs it~ and your diaphragm is the muscle to get oxygen exactly where it is needed!

For more information on breath control, I recommend Vocal Technique, A guide for Conductors, Teachers and Singers by Julia Davids and Stephen La Tour, 2012. Singing is good for the heart and soul~ and lungs!

Maintaining a stable posture during Ai Chi performance is an important aspect of strengthening core muscles~ the deep muscles that provide the structure for your body to move and function. The core muscles include the tiny muscles surrounding your spine, the deep muscles of your trunk and the muscles of your pelvic floor. These muscles are in a position to be challenged and grow strong when you hold a posture that allows them to contract and hold the rest of your body in good alignment. You can accomplish this by performing the first five steps of Ai Chi with feet shoulder width apart, with your weight evenly distributed on the balls of your feet, your knees gently bent, your pelvis tipped slightly backward (think of tucking a tail down, flattening your back a bit) and your shoulder blades pulled down and in (no hiking your shoulders!) And as I mentioned in my last post, the core muscles are challenged even more in moving water.

Air and form are the foundation of Ai Chi. That’s why I like starting and ending with steps 1-5. I have attached a schematic of these steps below:

aichi1thru5

Uplifting + breathing and how it was meant to be…

Uplifting: Lower your arms in front of you, then lift them out to the side toward the surface of the water with intent, palms up as you breathe in. Turn your palms down and lower your arms to your sides as you exhale through your mouth.

Uplifting, elevating, enriching, expanding, glorifying, inspirational, nurturing, filling, enjoying…

The sort of breathing that you choose is important in Ai Chi. Apical or chest breathing is associated with the sympathetic nervous system~ a quick and shallow flight or fright response to get air in quickly. In contrast, a deeper, diaphragmatic breathing pattern provides good oxygenation of the body and elicits calm. Gently place your hand on your stomach and allow your diaphragm to drop and your stomach to expand into your hand as you breath in through your nose. Relax and let your stomach drop away from your hand as you exhale through your mouth. This is diaphragmatic breathing and is the same type of breathing that is recommended in LaMaze childbirth classes, yoga and for singers.

One of the reasons that Ai Chi is so relaxing is because its creator has stated that however it turns out is how it was meant to be. Ai Chi relies upon an established Eastern structure, but there is a lot of room for variation as the moment demands. How many repetitions should be done? How far do you move? How many of the steps do you do during one session? Sometimes I have completed a step but I am not quite ready for the next. It is fine to step your legs together, stand tall, and reset your posture. Or extend your arms to the sides and contemplate as you turn palms up and down a few times while you breathe in and out. No worries~ however it turns out is how it was meant to be.