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.”

What makes music relaxing?

Ai Chi practitioners have found that relaxing music enhances the stress-reducing effects of Ai Chi~ but what makes certain music relaxing? This is a hot topic for researchers in the fields of psychology and music therapy. Across multiple studies in recent years, research subjects have identified relaxing music with a slower rhythm tempo (60-80 beats per minute), a consistent low volume, a narrow pitch range and an unpredictable melody. Most of the time. The wild card is personal music preference, which plays a major role in perception of relaxing music, as well as mediating the effects of other components. But what actually happens to make you feel relaxed when you listen to music?

When music is created, sound waves hit the eardrum and cause it to vibrate. This creates a chain reaction within the inner ear, stimulating tiny hairs inside the semicircular canal, which are arranged to respond to consecutive pitches, like a keyboard. This stimulus is transferred through the brainstem to the auditory cortex where impulses are also arranged in “keyboard” order before being dispersed to more different parts of the brain than has been found for any other human function. Information about rhythm, pitch, tone quality, melody, meter and emotional reactions to music is processed and synthesized across the brain in a few thousandths of a second.  The fact that music has such a global presence in the brain is important. Each different part of the brain that is activated by listening to music also participates in other functions such as movement, balance, emotional control and focus, which seem to interplay with the complexity of perception of music. And our bodies respond with changes in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, releasing neurochemicals and perhaps even altering brain wave activation.

That’s the broad answer. The specifics are fascinating~ the subject of upcoming blogs.

In her comprehensive book The Power of Music, Elena Mannes explores research and anecdotes about how music affects us. Her work is also featured in a recent documentary entitled “The Music Instinct.”

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).

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