Mindful Responses

When we are injured, our bodies have an involuntary protective reaction. Our muscles tense and spasm around the injury site, limiting movement to stressed joints and soft tissue structures and guarding us from further physical insult. Once the trauma is over, we need to begin the path of healing and return to normal movement patterns and function. Our muscles are good first responders, but sometimes they don’t know when to stop and we enter a dysfunctional pain/spasm cycle that is hard to escape. The water provides a safe environment to find this recovery. The buoyancy of the water provides support and holds us up so that we can move more fully once again. And proactively, if we build a strong muscle core in a safe environment, we are better able to respond to potential threats and to lessen or even avoid injury.

So it is with our spirit. When we experience threats in our lives, our unconscious tendency is to guard ourselves and resist change~ we react with an involuntary protective spasm of inward focus and preservation to avoid further harm. In his book, “Before You Know It, The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do,” John Bargh sites a political psychology study where a group of liberal students first imagined a troubling personal scenario, then were surveyed on their attitudes toward social issues. Their imagined trauma resulted in an expression of a social outlook that was on par with those of conservative students who had not been biased by threat. Fear temporarily led the liberal students to react to target social issues with an atypical, involuntary protective response of preservation. They were caught in a guarded “pain/spasm” cycle of inward focus. But just as our bodies need to return to normal movement patterns in a safe environment after injury, our spirits need to regain the flexibility to be able to move from inward focus to a conscious perspective after being threatened.

Regular practice of Ai Chi provides a safe environment for the spirit to move from inward focus to mindful function in the world. The warm water, slow regular movements, relaxing music and focus on breath enhance nourishing rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system activity and stimulate parts of our brains that promote a relaxed and alert state. The stage is set to look within and understand ourselves, and then to reach out to others and see the world around us. And just as building core strength prepares us to meet physical challenges, proactive cultivation of mindfulness allows us to build inner strength to be better prepared for conscious response to potential life challenges.

You must look within for value, but must look beyond for perspective.

Denis Waitley

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.

And the beat goes on…

Music played at 60-80 beats per minute is perceived as most relaxing. Why? The answer may be in a phenomenon called entrainment, the interaction between independent rhythmic processes, such as a musical beat and unregulated heart rate or brain wave frequency.

Christiann Huygens, the 17th century Dutch physicist who invented the pendulum clock, first brought recognition of entrainment to the modern world. Huygens observed that regardless of when they started, the pendulum movement rate of free-swinging pendulum clocks on the same wall synchronized over time. Entrainment has been observed in fireflies that flicker simultaneously, the resetting of body clocks with sunlight changes (circadian rhythm) and in inanimate machine operations. It has been hypothesized that wave interactions cause entrainment synchronization. In the case of listening to music (sound waves entering our bodies through our auditory system), heart rate will move to match ongoing music tempos that we hear, over time. 60 to 80 beats per minute is a calming rate~ a resting heart rate goal for relaxation. And listening to music at this tempo can cause the heart rate move toward the rate of the music.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems control heart rate. The rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system correlates with relaxation and a slow heart rate, and the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system relates to excitation and a faster heart rate. Entraining to a slower tempo of 60 to 80 beat per minute relies on parasympathetic nervous system control and can promote relaxation.

But there is more… There are other rhythms going on in our bodies. Neurologists measure brainwaves with EEG studies, and scientists classify brain waves by their output frequency. Alpha waves are defined as waves measured at 8-13 Hz and are indicative of a relaxed mental state~ when a person is awake but relaxed with eyes closed. Alpha wave activity in the occipital lobe of the brain goes along with a relaxed mental state and low arousal. Beta waves measure 13-30 Hz and are associated with a conscious and more attentive state, with eyes open. And faster paced, more activating songs with a quick tempo produce greater beta wave amplitudes. However, some people find faster paced music more relaxing. When I shared “Ai Chi in 3” music (which varies between a moderate and fast-pace) with a class that had been working with slower music for several weeks, one participant said she found the faster paced music to be relaxing, and added the interesting comment, “but I’m Italian and we like fast music.” The personal preference factor.

Studies show that brain waves are affected by music when it is the type of music that the listener prefers. If the listener likes the music, the music tempo influences brain wave frequency, but if the listener does not care for the type of music, the tempo has less of an effect on brain wave frequency. It appears that personal preference for music turns a switch on or off for the ability of music to cause brainwave entrainment. Heart rate and brainwave entrainment may happen~ or may not, with personal preference being the wild card. As is so often the case, “more study is needed…”

And as Jun Kono reminds us, “However it turns out is how it was meant to be.”

Moving

The next steps focus on mobility~ moving to the bounds of range of motion. The limits of motion for each joint is individual, and it is important to remember that what is right for one Ai Chi practitioner may not be right for another. Fortunately, the amazing buoyancy properties of water relieve 80% of the effects of gravity while moving in shoulder depth water. That’s good for your joints, but you can relieve stress on knee joints even more by maintaining a slightly bent, soft knee position~ descriptively deemed the “loose-packed position.” As you move, a stiff-kneed position will transfer stress to the tendons and ligaments surrounding the knee, to the hip and spinal joints above and to the ankle joints below. Softly bent knees relieve stress on your entire body.

Your shoulders and spine are focus areas of the next steps, with progressive stretching to your available limits. Working in shoulder depth water allows the water to comfortably support your joints as you move. Only stretch as far as you can move without causing pain. Frequently, you will find that pain-free excursion will increase with each attempt. As with any exercise, if you experience pain lasting more than two hours, do not throw in the towel, but turn to your best means of relieving joint inflammation, and scale back the excursion or number of repetitions the next time you exercise.

The following steps are performed symmetrically, first to one side, and then to the other. Symmetry in movement helps to maintain balance in body, mind and spirit.

Soothing: With arms outstretched to each side on the water’s surface, palms down and shoulder blades pulled down and in, exhale through your mouth as you sweep your right arm across the water in front of you to your left. Inhale through your nose as you turn your right palm up and sweep your right arm back across the water to the starting position. Complete all repetitions with your right arm, and then duplicate this move with the left arm.

Gathering: Pivot your body to the left, so that your left foot is forward and the right foot is behind. This position can be made more challenging by placing the back foot directly behind the left and by pointing the toes forward, or less challenging by positioning your back foot off to the side a bit, and by turning your feet slightly outward.                                                                            

Keep your gaze forward as you breath in through your nose, turn your left palm up and move your left arm across the water surface behind as you as far as you can comfortably move. I like to turn my right palm up and reach forward with my right arm simultaneously to add a shoulder blade stretch on the right side. Blow out through your mouth as you turn your both palms down and return your left arm to the starting position in front of you, while relaxing your right shoulder blade. Complete all repetitions with your left arm, and then pivot and duplicate this move to the right side.

Seeing all life
in perfect symmetry.

Perceiving each day
with righteous clarity.

Living each moment
in purposed reality.

Believing each day
is the start of eternity.
― S. Tarr, Love, Adventure and Other Noble Quests

Contemplating Ai Chi Beginnings

Ahhhh… Ai Chi….

Contemplating: You are standing shoulder deep in comfortably warm water. Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with your arms stretched out on the surface of the water in front of you. Slowly and deliberately you breathe in through your nose, filling your lungs so deeply that your stomach pushes outward. Then, just as deliberately you relax and blow the air out, pulling your shoulder blades together, tucking your tummy, and sensing the feel of water on your body… Breathe in again, palms up; breathe out, palms down.

Contemplating… And so it begins.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ai Chi is a relaxation practice that shares some physical similarities and accomplishes some of the same goals of land-based T’ai Chi, but the addition of moving through water adds an extra dimension to this relatively new body mind practice.

Ai Chi was created just over two decades ago by Jun Konno, a former Japanese Olympic swimming coach, and is now practiced all around the world. Jun Konno was working with older adults in Japan using a two-person water relaxation program called Watsu, but he found that many older people were uncomfortable with the close holding and innate intimacy of that program. He developed Ai Chi to be a bridge to Watsu, but it quickly gained popularity as a stand-alone technique.

What does Ai Chi mean? Jun Konno named Ai Chi after his daughter Ai, which means love in both Japanese and Chinese. Chi means life energy. T’ai Chi is spelled the same way, with only a “t’” in front of it, but its meaning has a different origin. T’ai chi ch’uan” translates directly as “supreme ultimate fist” with chi representing the fusion of Yin and Yang into a single ultimate ~ the familiar circular interlocked paisley sign.

If Jun Konno is the “father of Ai Chi,” Ruth Sova would be considered the “mother.” Ruth Sova is the founder of ATRI, the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute, and as an internationally recognized aquatic fitness leader, she has espoused Ai Chi and become the English speaking spokesperson for this practice. ATRI sponsors national conferences and educational sessions for therapists and fitness specialists throughout the United States where Ai Chi practice is shared.

Ai Chi is about balance~ physical balance which comes with core strengthening and the challenges that happen as you hold yourself upright while moving through the water~ the balance between our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system and our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system~ the balance between mind and body as your focus on breathing, posture and movement becomes automatic ~ the balance between air and water.

Today I leave you to contemplate a water poem by David Whyte:

WHERE MANY RIVERS MEET

All the water below me came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains
gave it to the rivers,
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.

And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
cloud fall and stream rush, tree roots and tide bank,
leading to the rivers’ mouths
and the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back,
from the depths,
where nothing is forgotten.

— David Whyte
from “River Flow: New & Selected Poems”
©2012 Many Rivers Press