Seeing red… or blue

Have you ever felt green with envy, been purple with passion, seen red, or had the blues? Color has been linked so closely with feelings and emotion that it has crept into our language.

Objects do not emanate the colors we see. When we look at something, our minds absorb light waves of differing lengths and interpret them as colors, ranging from long waves (red) to shorter waves (violet) across the visible color spectrum. Color perception begins with information received by cone cells in the retina of the eye. Sighted creatures have between one and five different types of cone cells to gather this information~ humans typically have three types, (although those who are color-blind only have two and 2-3% of women have four). The cone cells pass information on to the right visual cortex in our brains, (which also happens to be where emotion is processed) and other brain centers for filtering and interpretation as color.

Perhaps this close proximity of vision and emotional brain centers affects personal color preferences and emotion. When I was a young child, my mother often set a little blue vase filled with purple violets from our garden by my bedside when I was sick, to help me feel better. And they did. When I was twelve my parents let me choose new wallpaper for my bedroom, and the paper I picked had clusters of violets everywhere. My bedroom was a visual display of my mother’s love to wake up to every morning, and I announced that purple was my favorite color. It still is.

Culture influences our understanding of color as well. In America, red makes us think of love on Valentine’s Day, while orange and black are “Halloween colors”. The people of the remote Candoshi tribe in Peru spend considerable time making bright dyes and pigments for pottery and face paints, yet have no words for colors. Instead they might describe a particular shade of red as being “like ripe fruit.” The Himba tribe from an obscure part of Nambia have a unique system of categorizing colors, with no distinction between blue and green. They can easily identify subtle green shade differences, but struggle to pick out a blue tile as different in a grouping of identical green tiles.

While there are differences in color symbolism, language and association across cultures, there is a high degree of cross-cultural correlation for relating red and yellow with danger, fear and anger. Globally, blue-green elicits the highest number of positive responses, while green-yellow is most often viewed negatively. Some surmise that color perception may have deep historical roots for survival, with some colors implying an invitation while others signifying a warning.

Colors may not look the same to everyone, stir the same feelings and emotions or hold the same cultural significance, but they appear to have common physiological effects. Studies show that heart rate and pulse are elevated when looking at red and yellow and lower when seeing blue and green, found so often in nature. Reds and yellows can help build on excitement and energy, while blues and greens support calm and reduce stress. Perfect for Ai Chi.

 

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

Join me for a pop-up Ai Chi workshop at the Evanston Athletic Club, 1723 Benson Ave, Evanston, IL on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:30-11:30 am, June 26-July 19, 2018. Space is limited~ call 847-866-6190 to reserve a spot!

To follow this blog, please click on “Follow” in the lower right corner of your screen.

Reflections of nature

It is an amazing experience to practice Ai Chi in a pond, in the ocean or in an outdoor pool in a beautiful place. Being enveloped in a natural setting enhances the relaxing body mind effects of Ai Chi. Taking in the fullness of natural surroundings, listening to the sounds of birds and animals nearby and noticing in the smells of plants and earth all work together to lower stress. But it is not always possible to find an environment in the heart of nature to do Ai Chi. We are often restricted to practicing in aesthetically bland community pools. How can you incorporate nature in your practice when you are not in a natural place? Research has shown that even viewing pictures of nature can be relaxing, especially pictures that include water. Likewise listening to recorded sounds of nature can reduce stress.

An app called “Relax Melodies” can help bring the sounds of nature to you, even when you are not in a wilderness. While it was designed to help create a relaxing atmosphere to go to sleep, it includes a great variety of sounds of nature, simple instrumentation and chants that can be combined to create a custom Ai Chi nature mix. As with music, memories and past experiences can contribute to how relaxing sounds are perceived to be, so having a variety of options to choose from allows for the factor of personal preference. And if you’re like me, you may be drawn to different mixes at different times.

After accessing the app on your mobile device, listen to the sound choices and pick relaxing sounds that you like, remembering the components of stress-relieving music: a slower rhythm, consistent volume (thunderclaps may not be an ideal choice), narrow pitch range and lack of a consistent “melody.” Some of my favorites include ocean, forest and birds combined with one of the gentle music choices like piano, flute, Zen or Sweet Hour Prayer.

If you are doing Ai Chi in a private setting or are teaching a class in a public venue, playing music or nature sounds is likely not an issue. But what if you are in a place with sound restrictions? Look for waterproof headphones with Bluetooth pairing to your mobile device. Some headphones are especially designed for swimmers and will stay in place as you move about.

And when the opportunity arises, don’t miss the experience of doing Ai Chi in a natural setting. Reflections are beautiful representations of something even more amazing.

  • NEW~ click the follow button in the lower right corner to follow this blog!

 

Everything Is Waiting For You

One of my favorite modern poets is David Whyte. I like his works because they are mindful~ bridging universal internal wants and needs with the real world around us. Reading his words is fulfilling, but adding the sense of hearing and listening to him read his own poems adds an extra dimension to his mindful creation. His voice is mesmerizing as he repeats key lines and adapts his poem to the moment, speaking from his heart. I doubt that he ever expresses his poems in exactly the same way. As with Ai Chi, however it turns out is how it was meant to be.

There is a great opportunity during the contemplation step of Ai Chi practice. By definition, contemplating is looking at something thoughtfully for a long time. I like to begin and end my practice with this step, my arms floating on the surface of the water before me~ breathing in and bringing my palms skyward and exhaling as I bring them downward. I view “contemplation” as a “fill-in-the-blank” spot for Ai Chi. You can extend this step for as long as you like. You can contemplate about whatever you choose: empty your mind and just be; focus on the sensations of the pool floor below you, the water on your body and the air you are breathing; say a prayer; insert a meditation practice; listen to sounds of music, nature, or a mindful poem…

Today I offer a poem as shared by its author, David Whyte, a nice conclusion to Ai Chi practice: Everything is Waiting for You.

 

 

 

The calm after the storm

When a storm wreaks havoc and leaves, it is not forgotten. It changes the course of life for those it leaves behind. Some are drastically affected, some face unexpected challenges and some are inconvenienced. Those facing moderate challenges and inconvenience are likely counting their blessings that friends and loved ones are all right and are grateful that life can move on. Those who were drastically affected will walk a new life path. In any event, all with a connection to the storm likely felt a surge of stress in the face of uncertainty, sometimes over an extended time. When Hurricane Irma gathered strength and inched toward Florida, I lost several days focusing on media reports, with thoughts of friends and loved ones in her path. My sympathetic nervous system was completely “on.” That might have been helpful if I were a first responder, but I was not. I was just an armchair hurricane participant from afar.

Our “fight or flight” response is very important in emergency situations. It allows us to respond on autopilot when stress is high. But it may also come into play when we are feeling empathic, and if not controlled it can evolve to unproductive fretting, worrying or even anger. Time to reset, to re-center! This is what Ai Chi is all about.

Life changing experiences can have psychological effects, and sometimes those experiences happen to be linked with water. The decision of how we will respond to life’s experiences is ours. Ai Chi founder Jun Kono responded to the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan by adding some new Ai Chi steps to promote mindfulness. He observed the development of discomfort and a profound mistrust of the ocean following the storm. His empathy led him to share an opportunity to re-center with those who had grown fearful of water through their devastating experiences.

Following Irma’s havoc, my family was safe and they had even helped others to be safe during the storm. My safe haven escaped with only inconveniences. And I found peace as I gave thanks and recentered by doing Ai Chi in a quiet space.

 

Finding peaceful spaces

Sometimes you have to go to a peaceful space to regroup and center. I really enjoy doing Ai Chi alone in restful places with relaxing music in the background. Spas often have warm water pools where I can find shoulder depth water and generally have the right sort of background music. But even if I arrive at a non-peak time, there may be another guest who decides to do splashy laps in “my” pool. Or two friends may appear who are excited to see one another and interrupt my calming experience with their exuberance. Maybe I am alone in this perfect place, but my own thoughts and worries about a stressful day just keep intruding… How do I find my peaceful space?

Ai Chi begins with focus on breath. My Apple watch even reminds me to “breathe” throughout the day. It’s good advice. As Ai Chi becomes automatic, you may forget to think about breathing. But focus on breathing has allowed me to find a peaceful space, regardless of what is going on around me.

Set your posture to optimize diaphragmatic breathing~ weight forward over the balls of your feet, knees in a loose packed, slightly bent position, back slightly flattened, shoulder blades down and in, head tucked back… let your stomach poof out as you breathe in through your nose, and relax as you exhale through your mouth… concentrate on the whole process of the wonderful, life-giving process of breathing… Aaaah…

It’s wonderful to come across a peaceful space during a walk in the woods, in an empty church, at a spa… but even though that perfect physical calming space is not always there, don’t miss out on the opportunity to create your own peaceful space through dedicated focus. You control the ability to find your peaceful space.

 

Natural effects

As I walked my dog down a busy urban street today I took special care to attend to the patterns and features of nature around me. I noticed the curve of tree branches, the bushes covered in bright blooms and the chirping birds as we walked. It was a lovely and very interesting walk, but I was not feeling relaxed. A jogger called out that she wanted to pass me causing me to rein in my dog and step to the side. Car horns blared and an ambulance siren sounded abruptly. My cell phone alerted me to an incoming call from yet another telemarketer. It was hard to give full attention to the sensory input from nature. Florence Williams describes a similar experience in her book, The Nature Fix. One summer she decided to use a portable EEG device to find environments that produce alpha waves. Not surprisingly, she repeatedly found that places filled with excessive noise and interruptions, actively trying not to be distracted and feeling angry all inhibited alpha wave production, those brain waves that indicate an alert, relaxed state. To really benefit from being in nature we need to unplug and retreat from society’s distractions.

But even in imperfect environments, nature affects us. Frances Kuo, a psychologist who heads the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory did seminal research comparing levels of psychological aggression and violence in women in a Chicago housing project apartment building. One group had a view of an asphalt parking lot out their windows and the other group lived in apartments facing lawns and trees. Through this research and subsequent studies evidence shows that just living in a place with a view of nature correlates with better impulse control, resistance to distraction, delayed gratification and lower violence, aggression and crime.

What is it about nature that brings calm? It may boil down to the influence of viewing fractal patterns. Benoit Mandelbrot introduced the term “fractals” and the idea of fractal geometry in the 1970’s. Unlike straight-forward, predictable linear geometry, fractal geometry involves systems that change radically due to a myriad of internal and external influences~ and fractal patterns that result from this complex and chaotic system are found repeatedly in nature. The diminishing patterns of a snowflake represent fractals. A head of cauliflower with smaller repeating versions of the whole appearing at each branch exemplifies fractals. The lines of a tree trunk, its branches, its smaller limbs and the striations of its leaves are fractals~ a pattern that appears over and over in different dimensions, sometimes unpredictably inverted or altered due to some intrusion of time or force. British information engineer and internet social scientist George Dallas gives a clear and thorough explanation of fractals in his blog “What are fractals and why should I care?”

Fractals represent an aesthetic order through haphazard grouping, which has the effect of being a very pleasing and sometimes even a spiritual experience for most people. NASA recognized this and funded early work on fractals to create a relaxing environment in space stations without using images that made astronauts homesick. Their studies showed that low to mid-range fractal ratios of large to small pattern repetition increased production of frontal lobe alpha waves in viewers. Mid-range fractal patterns activated parts of the brain responsible for visual processing, for spatial long-term memory and most interestingly an area of the brain which regulates emotions and also is active when listening to music.

As you do Ai Chi, take in the fractal patterns around you- in your surroundings and as you move your arms through the water.

Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation. Charles Cook

 

 

For the 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.

Janine M. Benyus

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.

A Gift from the Sea

Ann Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the renowned pilot Charles Lindbergh, led a roller coaster life of accentuated by fame, loss, love and betrayal. She retreated to a yellow cottage on the island of Captiva, FL~ a place of calm and healing, and she penned an inspirational book of her insights entitled A Gift from the Sea. This little book has brought connection, empowerment, comfort and calm to its readers for generations since its 1955 publication. Ann Morrow Lindbergh loved being by the ocean. I think she would have appreciated the Gift of Ai Chi…

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open , choiceless as a beach- waiting for a gift from the sea.”

“I am very fond of the oyster shell. It is humble and awkward and ugly. It is slate-colored and unsymmetrical. Its form is not primarily beautiful but functional. I make fun of its knobbiness. Sometimes I resent its burdens and excrescences. But its tireless adaptability and tenacity draw my astonished admiration and sometimes even my tears. And it is comfortable in its familiarity, its homeliness, like old garden gloves which have molded themselves perfectly to the shape of a hand. I do not like to put it down. I will not want to leave it.”

“And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense—no—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channeled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.”

“I walked far down the beach, soothed by the rhythm of the waves, the sun on my bare back and legs, the wind and mist from the spray on my hair.”

“At whatever point one opens Gift from the Sea, to any chapter or page, the author’s words offer a chance to breathe and to live more slowly. The book makes it possible to quiet down and rest in the present, no matter what the circumstances may be. Just to read it—a little of it or in its entirety—is to exist for a while in a different and more peaceful tempo. Even the sway and flow of language and cadence seem to me to make reference to the easy, inevitable movements of the sea.”

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.

The wild card~ personal music preference

Studies have defined objective traits of relaxing music, but the final component that can make or break stress reduction in an individual is subjective~ whether or not the person “likes” the music.

Not surprisingly, some of the information on the area of personal preference comes from marketing research~ research done with the intent of creating a feeling or emotional connection to commercial brands or products. Whether or not individual marketing researchers follow strict scientific method which can be applied to a general population is unknown~ they are not bound by the same stringent standards as scientific researchers. These standards include assurance that the researcher seeks to be objective and neutral, that the study can be replicated, that the study participants accurately represent the target population, and that the research is done in such a way that it is considered valid by statistical analysis, using equipment that provides accurate and reliable results. Companies spend billions of dollars to reap the benefits of accurate research, but because the studies are proprietary they are not available for public interpretation.

A British marketing research company headed by a neuropsychologist called Mindlab measures responses to target areas through numerous tools and measures. They collect data on brain waves, facial muscle contraction, skin moisture, heart rate and heart rate variances to learn about attention, positive motivation, emotion, cognitive load, and sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Using this data they develop presentations that promote desired associations in most people. This is the strategy that went into developing “the world’s most relaxing song,” Weightless by Marconi Union. Listening to this music reportedly reduces anxiety by 65% and reduces physiological resting rates by 35%. A 10-hour recording of this music is available on youtube.com. I may be in the minority, but the problem for me is that I don’t like this music. Regardless of the research, it is highly unlikely that I would listen to it.

What kind of relaxing music do I turn to for Ai Chi? The first year I practiced Ai Chi I did so solely to Jun Kono’s Ai Chi Synchrony, imbedding strong relaxing associations for me. The second year I started looking for variety, and I turned to some of my old favorites. Music affects many parts of our minds, including the amygdala, which is linked to emotion and memory. I learned to play the acoustic guitar in my early teenage years and spent many hours playing both alone and with friends. Playing the guitar helped me center during this often turbulent stage of change and transition. And later as an adult when I drove between workplace sites, I found myself tuning to the Coffee House Sirius XM radio station, especially on stressful days. This music that helped me center during my formative years has continued to lift my spirits throughout my life. So my relaxing music list includes acoustic guitar music.

I love to travel and explore new places and different cultures. On a trip to South America my husband and I discovered the haunting sounds of Incan panpipes as we explored Incan ruins. And later on a family trip through the four corners area our son purchased a wooden flute. Shortly after we dispersed to explore an Indian pueblo, the unexpected soothing sounds of his flute echoed through the clay dwellings and we found him playing in a small, ancient room. These special memories put panpipe and Native American flute music on my relaxing list.

The analytical approach can only go so far~ in the end, relaxing music is personal, and stress-reduction starts with a relaxed leader. I like different music on different days. And as an Ai Chi instructor, I share a variety of relaxing music that I like with my classes, and make choices within my own library of music based on their responses. There is no “one size fits all” music.

Finding flow

While slow music tempo is identified with relaxing music, studies also show that participants perceive music with a low volume and a small range of tones as most calming~ in other words, music that is consistent, without any surprises or sudden distractions. Parents across the ages have found that a quiet lullaby has an amazingly calming affect on a crying baby. Even at a faster tempo, consistent music brings calm that can inspire the experience of flow, a concept that Katrien Lemahieu highlights in the faster paced Ai Chi in 3.

What is flow? It is becoming completely engaged in and enjoying the process of doing something in the present moment. Flow is not specific to any one type of activity~ it may be experienced by artists, writers, dancers, runners, swimmers, surgeons, rock climbers, those who play games and musicians as they focus on, perform and enjoy an appropriately challenging activity that they have mastered. It is being “in the zone” for runners and “finding pace” for swimmers. In fact, flow can be experienced in everyday activities that you feel good about~ driving a car, sweeping a floor, ironing clothes, putting away dishes… When you are in flow, what you are doing and awareness of your surroundings merge and even a sense of time may be lost with this intensely positive focus.

But flow hangs in a delicate balance. It is threatened by the intrusion of challenges that exceed your abilities and in not being challenged enough. If I am trying to do Ai Chi in the ocean where an unrelenting strong tide challenges my ability to maintain my balance, I become anxious, stressed and flow is lost. On the other hand, if I do a dozen repetitions of each Ai Chi step I may feel relaxed at first, but boredom may creep in, causing my mind to wander as I lose the anticipation of moving through the dance of Ai Chi~ again, flow is lost.

You are rewarded when you find flow~ there is a sense of balance in giving full attention to something you like, that is challenging and that you know you can do. Thoughts, feelings, desires and complex activity all come together. And studies show that finding flow in one genre can help empower an individual to deal with other potentially stressful or challenging areas of life.

I love the calm and consistency of the topically titled “River Flows In You” by Lindsey Stirling… This music opens the door to finding flow for me.

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.”

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.

Next steps: Enclosing, Folding + practice considerations

Enclosing: With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms down, shoulder blades pulled down and in, exhale through your mouth as you bring your thumbs together in front of you. Inhale through your nose as you bring your palms up and open your arms as far behind you as is comfortable. As you practice this, you may be able to reach farther.

Folding: With arms outstretched to the side on the water’s surface, palms down, exhale through your mouth as you move to cross your arms in front of you in front of your stomach under the water. Keeping your elbows at your sides, turn you hands out to the side underwater as you exhale through your mouth.

 

I begin and end each Ai Chi session with the five steps presented thus far. Concluding an Ai Chi cycle by reversing these steps takes the practice full circle and provides closure and calm. The order of the final steps in my practice are folding, enclosing, uplifting, floating and contemplating.

How many repetitions should you do? Whatever you choose is how it was meant to be. I have typically chosen between 3 and 10 repetitions per cycle, depending on how much time I have, the needs of any group participants and my mindset at the time. You may choose to do just one cycle, or to start over again after the first round. You may choose to move very slowly or to move more quickly, especially in cooler water.

The ideal water temperature for classic Ai Chi is between 88°F (31°C) and 90°F (32°C), but it is not always possible to find a pool with just the right temperature. Katrien Lemahieu from the Netherlands has created an adapted “Ai Chi in 3” for colder water pools with a faster paced version using 3/4 music~ (more on her approach in a later post). Personally I have enjoyed effective practice in cooler water temperatures, but water that is too cold inhibits relaxation and moving in water that is too hot leads to overheating and a rise in core temperature. Your best option may be to find a pool that offers an Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program, as the water temperature will be between 83°F (28°C) to 92°F (33°C).

I like to do Ai Chi whenever I can get into water. I thought that the warm Gulf of Mexico waters would be a delightful place to do Ai Chi. I found that mild to moderate tidal currents provided nice core strengthening and balance challenges during the initial steps involving a stable base of support (steps 1-5). However, the tide effects became increasingly overwhelming when trunk movement and single leg stance were added, and all hope of relaxation was lost. I have also done Ai Chi in a cruise ship pool on gentle waters, which was a more unpredictable environment than a land based pool but the water movement proved to be cathartic and enhanced core strengthening and balance benefits. You don’t have to visit the ocean or go on a cruise ship to add core and balance challenges~ try doing Ai Chi in a pool full of people moving about.

pool

 

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