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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Did you realize that your resting tongue position can affect your whole body? In research published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2018, Bordoni et al found that not only is the tongue important for tasting, mastication, swallowing and talking, but it affects overall muscular function throughout the body. Positioning the tongue at rest just behind the teeth at the “palatine spot” on the roof of your mouth versus the mouth floor promotes by increased vagus nerve activity and influences general neuromuscular control. This includes activation of the diaphragm, which is not only important for breathing, but for core strength through inter-abdominal pressure regulation. Chilean physical therapist and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) expert Mariano Rocabado uses tongue clicking in his TMJ exercise regimens to locate the palatine spot.
Today, as you turn your attention to mindful breathing, focus on your breath with curiosity rather than with concern or worry. Being mindful is about noticing without judgment. If you are distracted, note the distraction and bring your attention back to the act of breathing. Let one hand rest on your belly as a cue to allow for space for your diaphragm to drop rather than restricting breath to the upper chest. Place the end of your tongue just behind your teeth on the roof of your mouth as you breathe in through your nose. What does that feel like? Where is the air going? Notice your stomach expanding outward into your hand to make space for the air.. What does it feel like as you let the air gently exit your body as it will, through pursed lips? Focus on your breathing for several cycles as you are able. A focused warm-up and contemplating are great initial steps in the water to incorporate breathing with mindfulness.
ATRI’s Ai Chi Day 2021 is now available at: https://ruth-sova-103927.square.site/product/ai-chi-day-2021/452?cs=true&cst=custom
And Ai Chi Day 2020 is now on sale: https://ruth-sova-103927.square.site/product/ai-chi-day-2020-recording/343?cs=true&cst=custom
We’ll look at focused warm-ups in our next Moment for Mindfulness in Ai Chi…
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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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We are in the midst of a pandemic, and life has changed for everyone on our planet. The coronavirus is a formidable opponent in a forced game of hide-and-seek, drawing people everywhere into isolation in their own dwellings or behind masks and gloves when they venture out into the quiet outside world. While properly maintained pools are not a coronavirus hazard, the clubs and public pools where people often practice Ai Chi are now all closed because of social distancing concerns. Classes of all kinds are now limited to solo practice, perhaps with an online or pre-recorded instructor’s guidance. There are no group gatherings or conferences. These are strange times. None-the-less at a time when moving about is limited, the goals of Ai Chi practice are more important than ever. We need to maintain core strength, mobility, full breaths, balance and especially to reduce stress. While you may miss out on the benefits of socialization and a water environment during this interval, you can still reap Ai Chi benefits by practicing on land.
The first 5 steps of Ai Chi, contemplating, floating, uplifting, enclosing and enfolding, are done while standing in a “core posture.” Weight is on the forefoot, knees gently bent, low back slightly flattened by pulling in your abdominals, shoulder blades down and in, ears over shoulders. Maintaining this posture throughout these steps causes isometric contraction of the tiny muscles surrounding the spine and the trunk muscles. It’s a real workout! In the water, turbulence adds to the challenge, but if you feel like you need something more, there are ways you can up the game on land by making your base less stable. When you stand on a less firm surface while doing these first 5 steps, your core muscles must work harder, and your balance is challenged. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and try standing on a rubber mat, a pillow, an inflatable disc, a wobble board, or my favorite challenge, a pair of hard plastic balance and stability discs. These first 5 steps are a great place to start with Ai Chi on land. Two to three repetitions of a few steps may be your Ai Chi practice for a while. When you are ready for more, experiment with the other steps one at a time, first on a firm surface with a counter or stable object to hold onto. Always keep in mind that you won’t be able to move as safely and easily doing Ai Chi on land as you can in the very protective environment of water.
As you practice the Ai Chi steps on land, stretch and turn as far as you can without causing discomfort to any particular problem areas as you focus on mobility. Moving to end ranges is more difficult on land, as you cannot rely on the supportive buoyancy of water to lighten the load on your joints. Pay close attention to how you feel as you move and adjust excursion and the number of repetitions to a reasonable level. You don’t have to do the same number of repetitions for every step. Remember, however it turns out is how it was meant to be~ Ai Chi is YOUR experience, in this moment, not bound by hard and fast rules or numbers. And if you have pain lasting more than a couple of hours after your practice, you’ve gotten a signal that you’ve overdone it! Use your usual means of reducing inflammation and the next time you do Ai Chi don’t move as far or do as many repetitions.
Maintaining the strength and flexibility of your diaphragm and the tiny muscles between your ribs is more important than ever in the face of a respiratory virus. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing during Ai Chi practice and periodically throughout the day, both to maintain good lung mobility and expansion and to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring stress-relieving calm. Check out your posture to allow for full breaths. Let your tongue rest gently on the roof of your mouth as you breath in through your nose to activate your diaphragm, and concentrate on the pathway that your breath takes to the bottom of your lungs. Let your stomach poof out as your diaphragm drops to make room for your breath. Then relax and give a long exhalation through pursed lips.
And remember the other tools that enhance stress reduction during this tense time~ experience nature as you are able outdoors or virtually if you cannot. Listen to relaxing music ~music that you like that is relatively slow, with consistent volume and a small range of tones… Pray, read poetry, meditate, sing, smile, help others, share kindness… This too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever.
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What are the triggers that get your ire up? What can shift your feelings of calm to sudden agitation? What pushes your buttons?
At some point, everyone feels threatened, disrespected or challenged on important personal core issues. We have a built in system that responds to these intrusions to the push of a button. The autonomic nervous system works subconsciously and automatically, under cover. Its two components are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system powers us to protect ourselves and those we love. It energizes us to flee when we need to. Its short neural pathways work quickly to fuel our passion by the release of hormones that make us more alert, increase our heart rate and prime our muscles for action. The parasympathetic nervous system provides a counterbalance to this, allowing rest, recuperation, calm and relaxation that we long for in our hectic lives. It operates using the longer pathways of cranial and spinal nerves that do not allow for “instant calm” in the same way that the sympathetic nervous system brings instant elevation. The parasympathetic nervous system operates on a more gradual basis, a long decrescendo in contrast to the sharp staccato notes of its opposites. The autonomic nervous system is always at work, maintaining an underlying balance between these systems so that our bodies can function optimally for whatever we encounter.
You can intentionally pump up your sympathetic nervous system by listening to fast paced music, engaging in a pep rally or participating in a thrilling sport. Likewise, an exchange of inflammatory words and trigger topics can activate a sympathetic reaction that you may later regret. We cannot stop our sympathetic nervous system from working, (nor do we want to), but we can learn to manage what sets it off at the wrong times. An important step to gaining this self control is to be aware and ready for the things that cause us to be reactionary. Recognize when others say upsetting things, take a deep breath and give yourself time to find a place of calm, rather than reacting immediately. Sometimes the answer is to avoid trigger situations and step away from encounters that are unfulfilling and promise only negative outcomes. Cultivate finding calm on a regular basis. Your solution may be listening to relaxing music, reading uplifting words and poetry, being in nature, gazing at art, meditating, praying, engaging in mindful movement (like Ai Chi) or simply breathing deeply. Smile more and intentionally show respect and appreciation for others. Studies show that smiling stimulates the release of the hormones dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which increase feelings of happiness and reduce stress. And smiling, respect and thankfulness are contagious, brightening the world for you and for all you encounter.
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Ai Chi involves carefully chosen words that have to be discovered to be fully appreciated. These words are never fully explained in training sessions, aside from the story of the name “Ai Chi” itself. We are told that “Ai” is the name of Ai Chi founder Jun Konno’s daughter, and means “love” in both Japanese and Chinese. “Chi” refers the balance and interplay of opposite forces~ the yin and yang of Taoism. It is a warm and comforting practice rather than a martial art like its land-based counterpart, Tai Chi Chuan, which literally translates as “Supreme Ultimate Boxing.”
As the year began, the names of two Ai Chi steps came to mind, contemplating and reflecting. I found myself contemplating the idea of New Year’s resolutions, I explored the idea that resolutions involve reflecting on and analyzing past unmet goals and anticipating future hopes and dreams. This employs “discrepancy-based thinking,” assessing past performance against a particular standard. As a physical therapist, assessing and goal setting is very natural for me. Therapists approach the patients they treat in a deliberate way~ gathering data through interview and examination, comparing data to an expected standard, setting goals, making a plan to achieve those goals, and implementing the plan. When applying this approach to New Year’s resolutions, the focus is on doing~ on what was done in the past or is hoped to be done in the future. Focus on what was done in the past or should be done in the future can produce high levels of guilt and stress. While this all sounds very negative, the practice of setting personal goals doesn’t need to be a stressful experience.
A few years ago a friend invited me to a New Year’s “vision board party,” where we all picked pictures that representing our hopes and dreams for the coming year and glued them on poster boards. The resulting displays were beautiful, and included everything from depictions of family gatherings to objects we would love to have and the way we would like to feel. Creating these boards and looking at them from time to time is a powerful visualization exercise that activates parts of your brain associated with action and doing. I enjoy making things and I loved sharing a group activity with a delightful group of women~ a gift in the moment. And I was surprised at how many pictures I had glued on my board became a reality in the course of a year, perhaps through the magical encouragement of visualization..
Mindful practices focus on being and experiencing in the present. Ai Chi steers us toward accepting and allowing, with no pressure of accomplishment. “However it turns out is how it was meant to be.” Rather than looking to the past or future, Ai Chi encourages us to be in the moment~ to experience what psychologist Zindel Segal calls the “full, multi-dimensional splendor” of the present. The importance lies in experiencing the journey rather than arriving at the final destination.
Setting goals and accomplishing them are important for creating a fulfilling life, but it is equally important to intersperse periods of just being and appreciating. Perhaps a decision to remember to enjoy the present is the best resolution of all.
The idea of “being mindful” conjures many different images. Perhaps you think of a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged, meditating on the top of a mountain in a distant place. Maybe the phrase reminds you of being told as a child to “mind your manners” or “mind your own business!” Someone absorbed in doing a difficult task properly may also be described as being mindful. So when considering a mindful Ai Chi practice, the first question to ask is, what is mindfulness and how does that relate to Ai Chi movements?
In his on-line course “DeMystifying Mindfulness,” Chris Goto-Jones describes the primary goal of mindful movement as being to explore the sensations experienced during a particular movement or aspect of a movement with openness and curiosity. It requires attending to the felt experience with such attentiveness that the resulting movement is generally slow, gentle and deliberate. Mindful movement is making a conscious choice to focus awareness on the sensations associated with the movement, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
So if you are dong an orderly practice like Ai Chi~ with the goal of moving through the prescribed Ai Chi steps in a set way, are you truly being mindful? Is your focus on experiencing the sensation of movement in the moment, or on doing the movement properly~ striving for a performance standard and judging yourself in your performance? If you do Ai Chi so many times that it becomes second nature and you enjoy the mesmerizing experience of “finding flow,” are you then being mindful? Or is this actually the opposite of mindful awareness~ like the “no mind” state of Zen Buddhism?
The key to finding mindfulness in Ai Chi lies in Jun Kono’s first premise, “however it turns out is how it was meant to be.” There are steps and a progression to Ai Chi that take attention~ setting a grounding posture to engage core muscles which give the basis for extremity and trunk mobility and for higher level balance and coordination activities. But it is understood that if you do the Ai Chi steps in a different order or create a new movement in the moment, that is how it was meant to be. This does not diminish the opportunity to to practice Ai Chi mindfully. You can choose to turn your focus to the sensations of how your skin, your joints and your muscles feel in the warm water as you move through it. You can choose to notice the ripples~ the relaxing fractal patterns created as your arms move in the water. Ai Chi has many benefits: to increase joint mobility, strengthen core muscles, enhance breathing, improve balance and reduce stress~ occurring concurrently during Ai Chi practice. Our wonderfully complex minds and bodies allow for us to give attention all of these.
Mindful movement does not mean being single-minded. We do not live in isolation tanks, devoid of input from the things around us. It is just the opposite. Being mindful is noticing and acknowledging everything that is happening in the present moment, with blinders off and without preconceptions. Then it is turning our attention to how our bodies are moving and feeling without being critical. It is accepting the present moment, not with resignation but with the reassurance that this is how it is meant to be.
Are you interested in learning more about GaitWay to Mobility? I will be teaching a pool workshop at the ATRI 2019 Fall National Aquatic Therapy conference in Chicago, November 7-10. For more information, visit the ATRI website.
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Mistrust. Fear. Anger. Hate. Bad behavior. Lashing out. Attacking others. This negativity is all around us, and if we are honest, sometimes even within us. It is evidenced at the broad end of the spectrum by oppression and the growing number of mass killings happening around the world~ especially in places where the tools to wound and kill are easily accessible. Record numbers of people are fleeing from their native homelands in search of peaceful havens from terror. Increasingly they are greeted with mistrust, fear, anger and hate in places they had anticipated would bring hope and freedom. Worldwide, our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous systems are working overtime.
On the other end of the continuum is what is happening within each of us. Most people strive to be good citizens and to be kind, thoughtful and respectful of others. In concept, we would always choose love over hate. But when mistrust, fear and anger are triggered by inflaming rhetoric or experience, the fight or flight response takes over. Our bad feelings can make us agitated, emotional and reactionary. And on later reflection, this can lead to feelings of defeat and shame, causing us to withdraw all together. Our sympathetic nervous systems are really important for survival and can motivate us to bring change, but can also lead to misplaced action and take us to regretful places when left unchecked. The result is that we either end up propagating bad behavior or being completely immobilized. Where is that middle ground, where we can be a force for positive change?
Turning to calm and centering helps us to think more rationally and clearly. This is why tools that help us to find balance are so important. Surround yourself in nature, listen to relaxing music, meditate, sing, get a massage, be mindful, practice Ai Chi and pray… Finding balance smooths the rough edges of our minds and allows us to move forward with good and thoughtful solutions.
Mendelssohn’s moving work “Elijah” describes a world overcome by hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and fire, an apt metaphor for the conditions we seem to build up in the world and within ourselves so often. Finally, light breaks forth as a still, small voice and that is what brings peace and hope to the world. Cultivate balance within, so that you can hear that still, small voice of peace.
Join me in November for GaitWay to Mobility at the ATRI Fall National Aquatic Therapy Conference in Chicago. Go www.atri.org to sign up!
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Despite our best preparations, life does not always go as we plan or expect. We experience wonderful serendipities and we are faced with times of catastrophe. We roller coaster through unexpected thrills of joy to moments of draining devastation. But that’s not the norm~ most of the time, life just goes on. Our approach to all we encounter affects our life experience and how we interact with those around us.
I know a woman who decided to bring unexpected surprises for her aging mother-in-law by planning regular “highlights” in her week~ little events to make her days special. One day she would bring her a bouquet of flowers from her yard, and another day she take her out for lunch or invite an old friend to stop by to share memories. As the elderly woman’s eyesight diminished and her ability to experience the world around her began to close in, her daughter-in-law lovingly assured that she could focus on enjoying life. She was opening the door to mindful moments.
Mindfulness brings calm and centering when life is overwhelming, but it also brings a fullness to life when nothing special is going on. It allows us to live in the moment~ to contemplate, experience, accept and appreciate.
A mindful approach changes the way we look at the world. With eyes wide open, we can see things in a different light… Happiness becomes joy, tragedy loses its power to defeat us, and the ordinary becomes special. And through mindful interactions, we will find ourselves bringing “highlights” to those we encounter.
From Rumi, a 13th century Iranian poet:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
And of course, through Ai Chi we know… However it turns out is how it was meant to be…
The Sanibel National Aquatic Therapy conference is almost upon us! This 4-day conference is packed with exciting classes for therapists, athletic trainers and aquatic specialists. Join me for Ai Chi Boosters class and a water-walking class entitled GaitWay to Mobility. There is still time to sign up!
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The world is a bit unsettled at the moment. I’ve noticed that people seem less likely to respect boundaries than in the past~ opening doors marked “staff only” or unapologetically soliciting personal information over the phone. “Private” seems to be an invitation for exploration. And respect, civility and kindness too often seem to be forgotten~ especially with those you don’t know. This has the result of raising general tension levels and promoting distrust of others. When I get particularly bothered by such things, I am prone to commenting to my husband, “The world needs more Ai Chi!” and his joking response is “It always comes back to Ai Chi.”
And figuratively speaking, it does. Our society is better when we are more centered, more appreciative of our God-given gifts, more aware of our surroundings and more respectful of others. We need to rely more on our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system than our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. Sharing smiles and joy is contagious. Now Ai Chi is not the only way to accomplish this, but it is a very effective way to find equilibrium. Plus Ai Chi promotes so many other good things, like core strengthening, improved mobility, deep breathing and balance. It lowers blood pressure and slows your heart rate… So many good things come from this practice…
A few years ago, one of the Ai Chi Masters was in an accident that left her traumatized and immobilized in the hospital for an extended period. She shared that doing Ai Chi in her head was a calming, healing tool that helped her through a difficult time. When my busy mind keeps me awake at night, I do the same to bring calm that allows sleep to come.
I have recently been sharing Ai Chi with a population with multiple comorbidities~ lots of health issues that make some Ai Chi steps overwhelming. I’ve had to modify or skip some of the steps, and to place a lot of emphasis on how to move, weight-shifting and breath. However it turns out is how it was meant to be, and I’ve seen amazing physical performance improvement in my participants, but the calm that comes with doing Ai Chi has been in the background~ until now. A new participant joined us whose main focus was finding centering and grounding and her enthusiasm as she experienced Ai Chi for the first time set the tone for the class. By this time the other class members were pretty adept at the steps we’d been practicing, and we hit that “sweet spot” of Ai Chi where everyone experienced the amazing calm that Ai Chi can bring~ that centering that automatically compelled us to turn to one another and say “ahhhh” and “Namaste” as the class concluded.
Yes, it always comes back to Ai Chi…
Do you want to share Ai Chi with others? Check out learning opportunities at upcoming conferences and education days through ATRI.
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Our minds are pretty amazing. We can “find flow” and function on autopilot~ as when typing, keyboarding or playing the piano without having to think about it, (once you’ve mastered the fundamentals).
But life does not always go smoothly. Sometimes we have days when we’re “at loose ends,” feeling “off,” or just hit a block. I do jumbles and sudoku puzzles nearly every day. Sometimes I get stuck and need to switch gears between the two puzzles~ or just stand up and walk around a bit. When I get back to my puzzle, more often than not the answer is right before me. I needed a break from what I was doing to clear my head so I could find the answer.
This is one of the reasons that vacations are so important. In addition providing a wonderful opportunity to spend time somewhere different or to do something out of the ordinary, it allows for a break from what normally consumes you, a chance to reset with a fresh perspective when you return.
Then there are major decisions that can monopolize your thoughts. You may have felt a need to “sleep on it” before determining what to do. What is happening in our minds to help with problem solving as we sleep? Sara Mednick and Denise Cal of the University of California, San Diego explored the different stages of sleep in creative problem solving. They found that the passage of time is sufficient for resolving problems you’ve already worked on, but for new issues, dream-rich REM sleep can stimulate another level of creative problem solving via priming~ stimulating connections to unrelated ideas within the mind. They hypothesize that this happens through changes in levels of norepinephrine and acetylcholine in various parts of the brain during REM sleep. The end result of these changes is the ability to make new connections that would otherwise be inhibited, expanding networks within our minds to solve problems creatively. “Sleeping on it” really can bring in a new way of thinking.
In this world of high emotion, Ai Chi promotes centering and relaxation~ a break from the norm, allowing a new perspective. The deep, diaphragmatic breaths we take during each Ai Chi movement trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to release of acetylcholine, bringing calm within. It is a calm that you can carry with you, even after you leave the water.
Are you in the Ft Myers, FL area?
Join me doing Ai Chi at AMAVIDA Living, 7650 Gladiolus Dr.
April 2019 classes are on Wednesdays at 10:45 am through April 17.
Cost is $10 per class for non-AMAVIDA residents.
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Doing Ai Chi affects each of us in a unique and individual way every time we do it. We come to this practice from different life experiences~ from interactions with others at home or en route to the pool, after hearing a breaking news broadcast or listening to relaxing music. We have different backgrounds, health issues, emotional experiences, support systems, coping mechanisms and internal resources. Some come to Ai Chi with a goal~ to improve balance, mobility, core strength, or breathing, to reduce stress, find pain relief or simply to feel more centered… Ai Chi can bring all of these things. It is a tool for strengthening and healing.
But there can be roadblocks to being in the frame of mind to fully enjoy Ai Chi practice in the moment. Perhaps the water temperature is not quite right or the noise level is high. Perhaps you had a distracting encounter or something is weighing on your mind. What can you do?
The structure of Ai Chi is there to help you. The introductory steps invite grounding, with a stable posture. Turn your attention away from the commotion around you to your breath, to the sensation of the buoyancy and support of the water and to the fractal patterns in the ripples as you move. Acknowledge your concerns, and leave them behind for a little while~ you can get back to them later. Accept the presence of distractions, but let them be. They may persist, but you are involved in something else for the moment. If you find yourself inhaling during an exhalation movement, know that it was because you needed it. Don’t let stress creep in if you omit a step or move left when you normally would have moved right~ the structured patterns of Ai Chi are a framework for you to build your own experience. Jun Kono reminds us through his words and through his own practice adaptations that however it turns out is how it was meant to be.
In the 1930’s, a chef at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts named Ruth Wakefield wanted to serve her guests a new variation of cookies and ice cream. As she started her baking project, she was tight on time and realized that her supply of easy-melting Baker’s sweet chocolate was depleted. The only chocolate available was a semi-sweet chocolate bar, which she chopped up and put on top of the cookie batter, hoping it would melt to create a chocolate cookie. Instead, the beloved chocolate chip cookie was born~ comfort food that was meant to be.
Ruth Sova recently shared these timely words from Henry Ford: Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.
Sometimes what we perceive as “mistakes” are really how it was meant to be.
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Sad things and bad things will happen. At some point, someone you love will be very sick. A family member or close friend will die. You won’t be able to help a dear one who is traveling a difficult road. Relationships will end. You will be treated unfairly. So you may harbor sadness, anger and resentment or long for the “good old days.”
But good things will happen too. You will be surrounded by love. You will share special times with others. You will experience the wonder of a new life coming into this world, and you will make a new friend. You will accomplish something you didn’t think was possible. A puppy will greet you with an affectionate lick. You will encounter the wonder of nature as you walk in the woods on a crisp fall day. You will make amazing discoveries, plan an adventure, watch the glorious opening of a new day with a sunrise… And gratefully remembering those special encounters is also a good thing!
Our subconscious minds take in all that surrounds us, both the negative and the positive. Without even realizing that it is happening, we pass on the effects of our experiences with those we touch. Studies have shown that when people read angry posts on Facebook, they are more likely to post something that is heated themselves. Or they may be short with others later in the day without realizing why. Likewise, goodness and kindness reach farther than we ever know.
Breathe in deeply, and contemplate joy. Float in the moment. Experience feeling uplifted by the buoyancy of water. Enclose your arms to bring in wonder. Give yourself a hug with enfolding… The steps of Ai Chi can give focus, awareness and inner balance, nourishing our souls with hope and faith that will give us strength when we need it most. The centering and the calm of Ai Chi opens the door to appreciation and sharing gratitude and love with all we touch.
Today I share quote from my father, who was a beacon of hope throughout his life, through good times and bad…
Are you in the Chicago area this summer? Join me doing Ai Chi at the Evanston Athletic Club on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30-11:30 am through July 19, 2018. Call (847) 866-6190 to reserve a spot.
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I love beachcombing. Walking the beach with eyes wide open, scanning for unusual shells is one of life’s joys. If I find a live one, I’ll take a look at it and maybe snap a picture. If the shell is empty, I may stick it in my pocket to take home to use in my latest shell project or to add to my collection. Each trip to the beach is a new adventure.
Shells come in all sizes~ some are big and easy to spot, and some are tiny. Either way, you have to look down to find shells. But eight out of every ten people experience back pain that keeps them from doing their normal activities, and shell seeking is definitely a high-risk activity for back pain. You can minimize that risk with attention to a few easy steps…
Train for shell seeking! (and general good health)
Strengthen your core. There are many ways to build a strong core~ doing Pilates, T’ai Chi, focused core exercises, and Ai Chi… Do at least one of these regularly!
Make good posture a habit. Sitting, standing and moving with your body in good alignment promotes muscle symmetry and balance that lessens strain and pain when challenges come. Bear your weight equally on both sides of your body~ or shift your weight to the other side after you’ve been in one position for a while. Stand with “soft” rather than rigid knees. Flatten your back slightly. Pull your shoulders back and your shoulder blades down and together. Avoid slumping your head forward~ keep your head over your spine.
Stretch the right way. No bouncing! Bouncing puts muscles, tendons and ligaments at risk for injury. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds to a minute allows soft tissue structures to fully relax and realize the full benefits of stretching.
On the beach~
Pay attention to your posture as you stop to look for shells. Use a wide leg stance with an inward curve in your low back. A flat back will strain soft tissues and makes disks vulnerable. You can even rest your forearms on your thighs for extra support. Try sitting down to sort through piles of shells.
Change it up! Look for shells in short stints, moving from focus on the beach to enjoying the surroundings. Take time to appreciate the fractal patterns of the tide and the patterns of the clouds above. Watch for dolphins popping up between the waves and pelicans dive-bombing for fish. Take in the sights of children building sand castles and shore birds doing their own beachcombing. Breath the sea air in deeply and notice the sounds and smells around you.
Spend part of your beach time walking for exercise. Shell seeking is a slow activity~ balance that time with a fast activity, walking at a somewhat hard to hard pace. Choose a level area of the beach to walk~ or if walking on a slant is your only option, change direction to allow equal time for slant direction.
And finally, have fun on your amazing, ever-changing beach adventure!
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.
When we are injured, our bodies have an involuntary protective reaction. Our muscles tense and spasm around the injury site, limiting movement to stressed joints and soft tissue structures and guarding us from further physical insult. Once the trauma is over, we need to begin the path of healing and return to normal movement patterns and function. Our muscles are good first responders, but sometimes they don’t know when to stop and we enter a dysfunctional pain/spasm cycle that is hard to escape. The water provides a safe environment to find this recovery. The buoyancy of the water provides support and holds us up so that we can move more fully once again. And proactively, if we build a strong muscle core in a safe environment, we are better able to respond to potential threats and to lessen or even avoid injury.
So it is with our spirit. When we experience threats in our lives, our unconscious tendency is to guard ourselves and resist change~ we react with an involuntary protective spasm of inward focus and preservation to avoid further harm. In his book, “Before You Know It, The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do,” John Bargh sites a political psychology study where a group of liberal students first imagined a troubling personal scenario, then were surveyed on their attitudes toward social issues. Their imagined trauma resulted in an expression of a social outlook that was on par with those of conservative students who had not been biased by threat. Fear temporarily led the liberal students to react to target social issues with an atypical, involuntary protective response of preservation. They were caught in a guarded “pain/spasm” cycle of inward focus. But just as our bodies need to return to normal movement patterns in a safe environment after injury, our spirits need to regain the flexibility to be able to move from inward focus to a conscious perspective after being threatened.
Regular practice of Ai Chi provides a safe environment for the spirit to move from inward focus to mindful function in the world. The warm water, slow regular movements, relaxing music and focus on breath enhance nourishing rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system activity and stimulate parts of our brains that promote a relaxed and alert state. The stage is set to look within and understand ourselves, and then to reach out to others and see the world around us. And just as building core strength prepares us to meet physical challenges, proactive cultivation of mindfulness allows us to build inner strength to be better prepared for conscious response to potential life challenges.
You must look within for value, but must look beyond for perspective.
There is a lot to think about when you do Ai Chi: how to do diaphragmatic breathing; how to move and which way to go; maintaining postures; staying balanced on a decreasing base of support… Your instructor’s demonstration and verbal cues help, but the most reassuring comment is, “however it turns out is how it was meant to be. “
After a session or two, things begin to come together. You start to feel like you know what will be coming next. Your breath is tied to your movements, and you are effortlessly moving to new bounds. Your balance is actually getting better! Then you realize that you have a “favorite move.” You notice the patterns of the ripples as your arm caresses the water. The haunting music fills you with each breath. Maybe you even find “flow-time,” losing track of time as you enjoy this experience… You are calm, centered and in the moment, equally aware of yourself and your surroundings. You are mindful.
Finding mindfulness is a very personal experience. An outside observer has no way of knowing if you are mindful or not. There is no objective way to measure it. No two people experience mindfulness in exactly the same way, and no two mindfulness experiences will be identical for you.
There are many paths to finding mindfulness. Coursera offers a free 6-week online course on “De-mystifying Mindfulness” through Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands that provides a comprehensive introduction to mindfulness and many practice techniques. This self-paced course is a good way to gain insights into this aspect of Ai Chi. And if you are in the Chicago area, please consider joining me doing Ai Chi:
Ai Chi Workshop
Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30-11:30 AM, Oct 10-Nov 3, 2017
Evanston Athletic Club, 1723 Benson Ave, Evanston, IL, 60201
CAC member: $10 per class or bundle all 8 classes for $60;
Special non-member price: $15 per class or a bundle of all 8 classes for $80.
Call (847) 866-6190 to sign up (space is limited).