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.
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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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