Sequestered Ai Chi

We are in the midst of a pandemic, and life has changed for everyone on our planet. The coronavirus is a formidable opponent in a forced game of hide-and-seek, drawing people everywhere into isolation in their own dwellings or behind masks and gloves when they venture out into the quiet outside world. While properly maintained pools are not a coronavirus hazard, the clubs and public pools where people often practice Ai Chi are now all closed because of social distancing concerns. Classes of all kinds are now limited to solo practice, perhaps with an online or pre-recorded instructor’s guidance. There are no group gatherings or conferences. These are strange times. None-the-less at a time when moving about is limited, the goals of Ai Chi practice are more important than ever. We need to maintain core strength, mobility, full breaths, balance and especially to reduce stress. While you may miss out on the benefits of socialization and a water environment during this interval, you can still reap Ai Chi benefits by practicing on land.

The first 5 steps of Ai Chi, contemplating, floating, uplifting, enclosing and enfolding, are done while standing in a “core posture.” Weight is on the forefoot, knees gently bent, low back slightly flattened by pulling in your abdominals, shoulder blades down and in, ears over shoulders. Maintaining this posture throughout these steps causes isometric contraction of the tiny muscles surrounding the spine and the trunk muscles. It’s a real workout! In the water, turbulence adds to the challenge, but if you feel like you need something more, there are ways you can up the game on land by making your base less stable. When you stand on a less firm surface while doing these first 5 steps, your core muscles must work harder, and your balance is challenged. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and try standing on a rubber mat, a pillow, an inflatable disc, a wobble board, or my favorite challenge, a pair of hard plastic balance and stability discs. These first 5 steps are a great place to start with Ai Chi on land. Two to three repetitions of a few steps may be your Ai Chi practice for a while. When you are ready for more, experiment with the other steps one at a time, first on a firm surface with a counter or stable object to hold onto. Always keep in mind that you won’t be able to move as safely and easily doing Ai Chi on land as you can in the very protective environment of water.

As you practice the Ai Chi steps on land, stretch and turn as far as you can without causing discomfort to any particular problem areas as you focus on mobility. Moving to end ranges is more difficult on land, as you cannot rely on the supportive buoyancy of water to lighten the load on your joints. Pay close attention to how you feel as you move and adjust excursion and the number of repetitions to a reasonable level. You don’t have to do the same number of repetitions for every step. Remember, however it turns out is how it was meant to be~ Ai Chi is YOUR experience, in this moment, not bound by hard and fast rules or numbers. And if you have pain lasting more than a couple of hours after your practice, you’ve gotten a signal that you’ve overdone it! Use your usual means of reducing inflammation and the next time you do Ai Chi don’t move as far or do as many repetitions.

Maintaining the strength and flexibility of your diaphragm and the tiny muscles between your ribs is more important than ever in the face of a respiratory virus. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing during Ai Chi practice and periodically throughout the day, both to maintain good lung mobility and expansion and to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring stress-relieving calm. Check out your posture to allow for full breaths. Let your tongue rest gently on the roof of your mouth as you breath in through your nose to activate your diaphragm, and concentrate on the pathway that your breath takes to the bottom of your lungs. Let your stomach poof out as your diaphragm drops to make room for your breath. Then relax and give a long exhalation through pursed lips.

And remember the other tools that enhance stress reduction during this tense time~ experience nature as you are able outdoors or virtually if you cannot. Listen to relaxing music ~music that you like that is relatively slow, with consistent volume and a small range of tones… Pray, read poetry, meditate, sing, smile, help others, share kindness… This too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever.

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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.