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.

 

Flowing, Reflecting, Suspending and coming full circle

After the challenges of Balancing, Flowing provides gentle and artful stability. There is a lot of movement with Flowing, but your weight shifts from one leg to the other in a predictable pattern as your arms move symmetrically in an opposing pattern. If you’ve ever danced the “grapevine step” or are familiar with the “braiding,” Flowing will be familiar to you. As in all Ai Chi practice, however it turns out is how it was meant to be, and attention is given to quality of movement, rhythmic breathing and moving within the available space rather than to which arm or leg crosses in front or how many repetitions you do to each side.

Flowing: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms crossed under the water in front of you. Breathe in through your nose as you open your arms to the side and cross your left leg in front of the right. Exhale gently through pursed lips as you step to the right with your right leg and cross your arms in front of you again. Repeat these movements to the right several times, then to the left several times.

Reflecting and Suspending are very similar movements, and both should be performed gently and slowly. In reflection we look to the past for the benefit of the future. And in suspension the water momentarily holds us without firm footing on the surface beneath, before we turn in a new direction.

Reflecting: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms open at your sides, palms up. Blow out through pursed lips as you cross arms and legs in front of you, and gently pivot 180 degrees to a position with legs and arms open once again. Repeat this movement.

Suspending: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms open at your sides, palms up. Blow out through pursed lips as you gently spring up from the pool surface while crossing arms and legs in front of you. When your feet return to the pool surface, pivot 180 degrees to a position with legs and arms open once again. Repeat this movement.

You have now completed the 16 basic steps of Ai Chi. To come full circle, I like to end with Folding, Enclosing, Uplifting, Floating and Contemplating. I hope you enjoy this body mind practice on many levels as you experience it over time. Namaste.

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This is just the beginning… Future posts will explore additional facets to Ai Chi, Ai Chi in 3, Jun Konno’s extra movements, relaxing music and more…

 

Balancing

This is one of the more challenging movements. You will be maintaining a single leg stance throughout the repetitions for each side. And the more turbulent the water is, the greater the challenge. Use your arms and adjust the way you shift your weight as you move to maintain balance. That’s the thing about maintaining balance~ movement requires constant adjustment and adaptation.

We are constantly seeking balance of time and energy in our multidimensional lives. There is an old saying that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Jack has lost his work/leisure balance. We need to balance our time with family and friends to grow rich bonds, and to allow for solitary time to know ourselves. Physical fitness is important to keep our bodies healthy, but we also need to challenge our minds with reading and learning new things, and our souls with attention to spirituality.

There are times in our lives when we find ourselves out of balance by choice or circumstance. Perhaps a family member is ill and needs more of our time and attention than usual. A career may end abruptly. An aspiring Olympic athlete will need to devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to her sport to achieve her goal. Many aspects of balance shift when you become a parent~ and when your nest is suddenly empty. These universal changes challenge our equilibrium on many levels, but we can find balance even in the process of change. As you move through the challenges of this next movement, consider the challenges of balance in your life.

Balance: Blow out as you reach both arms out in front of you while lifting your left leg behind you in a “superman” pose. Stretch as far as you can comfortably, then breathe in while bringing your arms behind you with slightly bent elbows and swinging your left leg to the front, lifting it to a comfortable level. Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.

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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:

 

 

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.

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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

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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