Mindfulness and sensational Ai Chi! Part 2

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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Sequestered Ai Chi

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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Living in world of havoc

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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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.

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A shell seeker’s guide to pain free beachcombing

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!

 

 

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.