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.

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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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.

 

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.

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:

 

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:

 

 

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.