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

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

Air and Form

As you work on steps one through five~ contemplating, floating, uplifting, enclosing and folding~ give particular focus to air intake and form, i.e. diaphragmatic breathing and posture… Through regular practice of Ai Chi, diaphragmatic breathing and maintaining good posture become automatic and you will be able to move on to a deeper Ai Chi experience.

Diaphragmatic breathing was an important part of the Lamaze classes I took as I prepared for the births of my children. As I went through labor I visualized every breath I took as traveling directly to my unborn child. It was important that I gave my baby as much life-giving oxygen as possible as he entered this world. As you perform Ai Chi, think of contracting your diaphragm with each breath as enhancing your lung capacity and breathing efficiency. That’s exactly what you’re doing with diaphragmatic breathing!

I love music, and I have sung in choirs and played musical instruments since I was a child. My childhood singing and wind instrument directors were the first to introduce me to the importance of diaphragmatic breathing to give good breath support to focus tone, sustain performance, control dynamic levels, stabilize vibrato and produce a pleasant, unstrained sound. Through music I learned that you can breath in a way that is focused, efficient, relaxed and easy by calling on your diaphragm. Like each of our muscles, the dome-shaped diaphragm muscle between the lungs and the abdomen needs exercise to stay in shape. As you conscientiously relax the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm will contract and descend, creating a vacuum and allowing air to fill the lungs. Think of creating a vertical depth as you expand your ribs out simultaneously. Aahh~ oxygen! Our cells need it, our blood needs it, our brain needs it~ and your diaphragm is the muscle to get oxygen exactly where it is needed!

For more information on breath control, I recommend Vocal Technique, A guide for Conductors, Teachers and Singers by Julia Davids and Stephen La Tour, 2012. Singing is good for the heart and soul~ and lungs!

Maintaining a stable posture during Ai Chi performance is an important aspect of strengthening core muscles~ the deep muscles that provide the structure for your body to move and function. The core muscles include the tiny muscles surrounding your spine, the deep muscles of your trunk and the muscles of your pelvic floor. These muscles are in a position to be challenged and grow strong when you hold a posture that allows them to contract and hold the rest of your body in good alignment. You can accomplish this by performing the first five steps of Ai Chi with feet shoulder width apart, with your weight evenly distributed on the balls of your feet, your knees gently bent, your pelvis tipped slightly backward (think of tucking a tail down, flattening your back a bit) and your shoulder blades pulled down and in (no hiking your shoulders!) And as I mentioned in my last post, the core muscles are challenged even more in moving water.

Air and form are the foundation of Ai Chi. That’s why I like starting and ending with steps 1-5. I have attached a schematic of these steps below:

aichi1thru5

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

 

Uplifting + breathing and how it was meant to be…

Uplifting: Lower your arms in front of you, then lift them out to the side toward the surface of the water with intent, palms up as you breathe in. Turn your palms down and lower your arms to your sides as you exhale through your mouth.

Uplifting, elevating, enriching, expanding, glorifying, inspirational, nurturing, filling, enjoying…

The sort of breathing that you choose is important in Ai Chi. Apical or chest breathing is associated with the sympathetic nervous system~ a quick and shallow flight or fright response to get air in quickly. In contrast, a deeper, diaphragmatic breathing pattern provides good oxygenation of the body and elicits calm. Gently place your hand on your stomach and allow your diaphragm to drop and your stomach to expand into your hand as you breath in through your nose. Relax and let your stomach drop away from your hand as you exhale through your mouth. This is diaphragmatic breathing and is the same type of breathing that is recommended in LaMaze childbirth classes, yoga and for singers.

One of the reasons that Ai Chi is so relaxing is because its creator has stated that however it turns out is how it was meant to be. Ai Chi relies upon an established Eastern structure, but there is a lot of room for variation as the moment demands. How many repetitions should be done? How far do you move? How many of the steps do you do during one session? Sometimes I have completed a step but I am not quite ready for the next. It is fine to step your legs together, stand tall, and reset your posture. Or extend your arms to the sides and contemplate as you turn palms up and down a few times while you breathe in and out. No worries~ however it turns out is how it was meant to be.

 

Floating

I love the imagery of the second Ai Chi movement, floating.

Floating: Push your arms straight down through the water in front of you with palms down as you exhale, then turn your palms up and let the buoyancy of the water lift your arms to the surface as you breathe in.

Floating reflections… My arms feel light and this action is completely effortless. Sometimes Ai Chi leaves me feeling hyper-alert and focused, but sometimes just running through the Ai Chi movements in my head helps me fall asleep. Michelle Dains shares my experience of floating so very well in her poem of the same name:

floating

lying my arms out
letting my body float out to see
this gentle current rocks me ever so slightly
i think i might be falling asleep
i feel fish nibbling my feet
it feels ever so good
as i float away with a smile on my face
i couldn’t have a care in the world
i continue my journey just drifting away
the water is warm the sun on my face
the sky is so blue not a cloud to exist
the waves keeping me rocking
the sound of the birds flying through the air
then as the night dawns upon me
everything goes silent
there, s nothing to see
i close my eyes floating away
fast asleep

by Michelle Dains, All Poetry

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