Look at this!

The Ai Chi step Freeing is the most common spontaneously named “favorite” movement in my classes. I hear words like “I finally feel like I am moving normally!” and “It feels so good!” What is special about this step?

In freeing, you start in a grounded position and add movement. You turn as far as you can comfortably. You follow your hands as they skim across the surface of the water, creating ripples and fractal patterns. Start grounded, move comfortably and watch with eyes wide open.

The component of focused attention on gazing with intent reminds me of my horseback riding experience, where the horse was able to follow my direction simply by where I looked. The subtle weight shifts that accompanied my eye motions cued the horse to move in that direction.

I once had a physical therapy patient with severe neck pain who subconsciously turned her entire body when she needed to look to either side, rather than shifting her gaze. Our plan to re-establish neck mobility started with simply moving her eyes as far as she could comfortably from one side to the other. I associated this response with dependency on habitual patterns (as described by Moshe Feldenkreis), but maybe something else was at play… Perhaps subconscious hyper-protective responses were influencing her reluctance to move her eyes~ sending messages to inhibit weight shift at the same sensitive level that horses can perceive from riders. Restoring her ability to shift her gaze was an easy but vital step in her return to functional motion.

So what does this have to do with Ai Chi and why Freeing feels good? Freeing hits us on many levels. It brings tiny muscles surrounding your joints and the most primary levels of motion into play, which is especially appreciated by those who have movement challenges. The buoyancy of the water provides a comfortable support so that you can move to the available extremes of trunk, neck and shoulder motion~ and almost magically that “end range” keeps extending the more you move. That feels good, especially if a once painful movement doesn’t hurt. And a focused gaze allows you to give attention to the patterns in the water that your movement creates, stimulating “relaxed but alert” alpha brain waves. Ai Chi is a progression of steps and Freeing is dependent on what comes before~ the initial core activating steps and crescendo of arm and trunk movements. Combining focused gaze with movement is the icing on the cake~ and something to celebrate and feel good about when it happens.

Do you want to know more? I will be presenting “Ai Chi Boosters” as a part of Ai Chi Innovations sessions at the ATRI International Symposium, June 19-22, 2018 at the Sanibel Harbor Marriott Resort and Spa. This conference is an invaluable resource for those interested in aquatic rehab and fitness. Please follow this link for more information~ I hope to see you there! http://www.atri.org/Symposium18.htm

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Moving toward pain relief

A recent pilot study was done in Hong Kong that looks at how Ai Chi affects subjects with knee osteoarthritis, which was published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Following just five weeks of bi-weekly Ai Chi classes, subjects reported significant decreases in chronic knee pain and knee stiffness and improved daily task performance. Why would doing Ai Chi have this effect?

Just being in warm water relaxes muscles and soft tissue. Knee joint temperature receptors block the signals from pain receptors. And the hydrostatic pressure of the water improves circulation to reduce joint swelling and pain. At shoulder depth, the water’s buoyancy unloads the lower limb joints by 90%, significantly lessening the pressure on the damaged knee joint.

But when my friends who spend nearly every weekday in a warm water pool joined me in Ai Chi, they reported relief of chronic knee pain for the remainder of the day that they had not experienced before. Something more was happening…

The diaphragmatic breathing that is a part of doing Ai Chi stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, enhancing relaxation. This is the type of breathing I used during childbirth to lessen pain, as a part of a battery of Lamaze techniques. Enhancing relaxation sets the foundation for another important component of Ai Chi: movement. The researchers in the Chinese study point out that Ai Chi involves a wide range of increasingly more complex movements on a diminishing base of support and uses both closed and open chain patterns and weight shifting, which place varying demands on muscles. These are progressive movements with constantly changing variables. Movement is important to normal joint function, and the water creates a comfortable environment to move in ways that are often painful outside of the water. As one of my group participants commented, “I finally felt like I was moving normally.” While doing Ai Chi cannot repair joint damage, it can allow for pain curbing movement in the water.

This pilot study supports the pain relieving effects of Ai Chi that I have seen anecdotally, but it only provides a preliminary look. It opens the door for future studies to substantiate these early results that include more participants and a non-Ai Chi performing comparison group.

You must take the first step. The first steps will take some effort, maybe pain. But after that, everything that has to be done is real-life movement.  Ben Stein

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.

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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Rounding

Roundness is important in Ai Chi. A circle implies wholeness, enhancing internal and external harmony. There are no sharp edges or defined corners, no roughness or coarseness. The smooth quality of round movement avoids joint and soft tissue strain.

Roundness is all about us~ from the sun and the moon, to shapes in nature and beautiful things we create. Appreciate the wholeness of roundness as you experience this movement.

It is important to note that those with upper back problems should give particular attention to limits of motion during Rounding. Bending forward to extremes may restrict the space where nerve roots exit the spine or bulging discs may encroach upon irritated nerves, causing discomfort. Move slowly and pay attention to your body, avoiding ranges that bring on symptoms. As with Accepting with Grace, only lift your leg as high as you feel comfortable. If you are unstable balancing on one leg you may only be able to lift your foot an inch or two off the floor of the pool to be challenged. That’s okay~ practice at your challenge level will extend what you can do.

Rounding: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time bringing both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you shift your weight forward onto your left leg, bringing your right leg and both hands together in front of you. (*If you have upper back problems, this is the point where you need to move carefully and avoid extremes). Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.

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