Mindful water walking offers a great opener for your Ai Chi practice. As your body acclimates to the water, walking provides the opportunity to be introspective during movement in the water. Intentionally notice your sensory experience with kindness and curiousity rather than with particular expectations or judgment. Give your attention to how the water feels against your skin, the temperature you feel, the resistance of the water at particular areas of your body, the sensation of the ground beneath your feet, what you sense in different body joints, your breath… Notice the fractal patterns of the water ripples you create as you move. Listen to the sounds you hear with interest. What do you smell? If you feel discomfort while walking, you can choose to acknowledge that feeling and accept it as a part of your experience, or you can change the way you step. There is no right or wrong way of walking~ as with Ai Chi, however it turns out is how it was meant to be.
Mindful walking is an autotelic activity~ something that is done for its own sake rather than to accomplish a particular goal or purpose. Delight and centering comes in the act of fully noticing your personal experience without judgment, in the moment. A no less pleasant experience can occur with finding flow, in which you become mindless as the activity and your sensory experience merge together and you move on autopilot (see my April 25, 2017 post). You may also attempt to walk in a purposeful way to exercise particular muscle groups and improve your overall gait, which requires focus and attention in the moment, but has the intent of achieving a particular outcome. While all of these ways of moving hold their own benefits, they rest in different realms of which we should be aware as we share Ai Chi.
A special thanks to S Nelson for demonstrating water walking in Lake Michigan.
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The sense of sound: Bringing calming sound to your practice and turning focus to it allows another opportunity to promote relaxation. I have enjoyed Ai Chi while listening to a recording of David Whyte reading of his poem “Everything is Waiting for You” with background music by Jeff Rona. I have done Ai Chi to meditations and to a “Breath prayer.” I have focused on the sounds of nature in outdoor settings~ chirping birds, calling gulls, croaking frogs, wind rustling through the trees… And of course, music is a great way to bring calm. There is an app called Relax Melodies that can combine nature sounds, chimes, flutes, meditations and music from your own library together at your fingertips.
Jun Konno gave us some wonderful Ai Chi music, and I used Ai Chi Synchrony exclusively during the first year I did Ai Chi. Then I started exploring the attributes that make music relaxing and I learned about the tendency of the heart rate and brain waves to adjust to match a musical beat~ a process called “entrainment.” Studies show that a music tempo of 60-80 bpm drives a slower heart rate and alpha brainwave frequency (which is associated with being relaxed but alert). A small pitch range, consistent low volume and music you would not tend to sing or hum along with round out the recipe for relaxing music. In fact, Weightless by Marconi Union is a musical work that was manufactured using these standards and is billed as “the most relaxing music in the world.” The wild card however is that to be relaxing, music must be something that you LIKE, which I think goes back to influence from the limbic system and your memories, experiences and emotions.
The sense of smell: Attention to the sense of smell can also enhance your Ai Chi experience and encourage relaxation. Inhaling essential oils activates the hypothalamus, engaging the immune system, affecting blood pressure and stimulating digestion~ that is, calming scents can engage the parasympathetic nervous system, our goal for relaxation. You may be in an environment where these scents are present, or you may be able to add this through an infuser and direct attention to the sense of smell if sensitivity to fragrance is not an issue. Here are some of the more relaxing fragrances:
•Lemon- concentration, calming, clarifying, boosts immune system •Lavender – calming, soothes nervous tension and depression •Jasmine-calms nerves, uplifting •Cinnamon- improves concentration and focus •Bergamot- Soothes digestive system, relieves anxiety, energizes
The sense of sight: Two areas concerned with vision that influence the nervous system are color and visual fluency. Color studies from around the world show that we do not all see colors the same way for a variety of reasons. There is variability in the number of types of cones within the retina. Most people have 3 types of cone cells, while a color-blind person generally has only 2. A few people have been found to have 4 types and can distinguish 99 million more colors than the rest of us. And while different cultures attach unique meaning to different colors, there are certain colors that have universal effects: Red is tied to excitement and activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Restaurants may choose red décor to stimulate hunger. I wear a red swimsuit for aqua-aerobic classes. Blue and green are linked with calm and relaxation and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. I get my blue swimsuit out to do Ai Chi.
The next area for mindful vision is visual fluency, or the occurrence of fractal patterns. Fractal patterns appear chaotic but are actually repeating patterns of varying sizes. They are found repeatedly in nature at a ratio of 1.3-1.5 large to fine that has a particularly relaxing affect. Today I challenge you to go outside to find them in nature yourself to experience even more mindful relaxation.
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What is Mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience, moment by moment. In other words, mindfulness is sustained attention to the present moment experience; observation of your sensory experience, or your thoughts, or your emotions with unwavering attention and disregard for whether the experience is positive or negative.
When striving for mindfulness in an experience, approach it with fresh eyes, as if you are seeing it for the very first time even if you are considering something you see or do every day. Be non-judgmental, bringing kindness and friendship to yourself and to your experience. The antidote to any judgment that might creep in is curiosity. And experience the object of your mindfulness as if you are flowing with the current down a river. Just go where it takes you, without any effort on your part. Don’t try to swim upstream, just go with the flow.
I like to experience Ai Chi with mindfulness of our basic senses, focusing on touch, sound, sight and smell. Our nervous system coordinates our actions and sensory input. The autonomic nervous system controls functions like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and respiratory rate. It consists of two components: the sympathetic, fight or flight nervous system balanced by the parasympathetic, rest and digest nervous system, which we want to activate for relaxation. We have already looked at how the type of breathing you do can call in either the sympathetic or parasympathetic system, influencing blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol production… Well, our senses can have the same sort of influence on the nervous system.
For all of the basic senses, function dependent sensory receptors transmit information to the sensory cortex of the brain. Importantly, this information is routed through the limbic system~ the amygdala (our emotion center) and the hippocampus (the active memory site). The sense of smell is particularly influenced by these centers, which is why smells often conjure memories, but sound, touch and vision can also trigger memories or emotion. The sensory information is then processed in various sites across the brain.
A good place to bring sensory awareness into Ai Chi practice is with the sense of touch or feeling through mindful movement. In our busy lives, we tend to think about movement to or from someplace… We are going “to work” or coming “from home.” In mindful movement the focus is on the sensations that arise from movement itself, right now in the present. When you move mindfully as you do Ai Chi, give attention to the sense of the feelings you experience in your muscles, joints and skin as you move. When you get into that stable position for the first 5 steps of Ai Chi, notice how that posture feels. What do you feel in the balls of your feet, your gently bent knees, your flattened back, your shoulder blades as you draw them together, your neck as you draw your ears back over your shoulders… And when you return to those postures later on, circle back to check in on how it feels. Notice how your breath feels as you breath in and let the air flow out. Pay attention to how buoyancy makes your limbs feel. What the resistance of the water feels like as you move through it. How the air feels on your face and the temperature and sensation of the water on your immersed body.
As you direct your focus on your experience during movement, there are no worries about how it looks, if it is right or correct. The experience is yours. However it turns out is how it was meant to be.
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