Ai Chi Day is nearly here! Join us online on Sunday, July 23. The schedule is chocked full of a great variety of 10 minute Ai Chi presentations, with presenters from around the world.
I will be speaking about adapting your Ai Chi practice for those with persisting COVID issues- much of which pertains to those with other post-viral symptoms, myalgic encephalopathy and chronic fatigue syndrome as well.
Don’t miss this potpourri Ai Chi information! There is something for everyone!
I was well into my Ai Chi practice at our local YMCA, when I heard someone clear their throat on the deck nearby. “I’m going to use this lane in 10 minutes,” she said. “I’ve reserved it for a private swimming lesson.” I had signed up for an hour and had felt lucky to nab one of the 2 lanes that were not shared with another swimmer, (a practice established when COVID began). I sighed and moved to another lane to begin my practice again. This time I was next to a lap swimmer who did a lot of splashing. Our carefully devised plans do not always work out, and while both positive and negative life events can raise stress levels, it is the unexpected changes that are the most difficult and stressful~ the changes we didn’t count on.
As I began my practice again next to the splasher, my mind turned to a conversation I had during a Zoom meditation session a few weeks earlier. After sitting in silence with our group for 30 minutes, our leader asked about our experience. I happened to have an “ear worm” during the whole session~ a song stuck in my head that played relentlessly, over and over. I asked if the participants had any advice for getting rid of distractions like that, and the leader asked why I needed to have it gone. My immediate response was that it was too distracting to enjoy the peace of meditation, but I mulled over his reply later. There will always be distractions in our lives and we can choose to allow them to make us feel stressed, or we can accept that they are there and go with the flow. I could have made that song a part of my meditation rather than an annoyance. I could let the sound and feeling of the splashes become a positive part of my Ai Chi practice. We always have a choice.
Ai Chi is practiced all over the world. The most peaceful place that I have done Ai Chi was in an indoor hotel pool in Stockholm. The pool was dimly lit by 2 pots of fire, and only one other person (a silent Swede) was in the pool. It was easy to find calm in this beautiful space. My blog statistics show views from across the globe and I am curious about the Ai Chi experiences of practitioners in other places. Please share a snapshot of your Ai Chi practice (either a picture or a brief written summary) in the comment section.
And if you are interested in sharing your cultural experiences with the larger Ai Chi community, the Ai Chi Newsletter is interested in highlighting Ai Chi from around the world. Please contact Julie at [email protected] to share. Photos need to be in high resolution (original photo files are the best option). They also need a contributor name and email contact, plus a brief description (photo caption) of what/where the photo shares, and permission (technically from anyone recognizable in the photo) to publish.
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Will you be near Sanibel Island next week? Join me for a FREE AI CHI AQUATIC POP-UP CLASS at the Sanibel Recreation Center pool on Monday, April 24 at 10:30 am. Ai Chi brings calm and relaxation, which we all need as our islands heal post-hurricane Ian. It also enhances breathing, improves balance, strengthens core muscles, brings centering and extends mobility~ there is something for everyone! All are welcome! https://web1.myvscloud.com/images/flsanibel/wag.pdf
It’s time to pre-order Ruth Sova’s new Ai Chi book! Ai Chi for Health and Healing is a resource for those new to using Ai Chi for themselves as well as the seasoned aquatic therapist. This book details the concepts, benefits, progressions, and evolutions of this slow, breath-centered technique. Its focus is on improving biomechanics as a training program for core, physical alignment, muscle recruitment, balance, and thoracic, lumbar, and pelvic stability. In addition to physical improvements, Ai Chi is excellent for participants’ overall psychology by mitigating stress and calming anxiety. The biochemical benefits are outlined, as Ai Chi assists with blood pH, getting oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the body. Give Ai Chi a chance to improve your health or speed up your healing.
See a promotional video for the book here: https://vimeo.com/817775472
Ruth is running a limited time pre-publication promotional offer: When you purchase during the pre-publication sale you get:
1. Ai Chi for Health and Healing new book
2. One of Ruth’s videos:
Ai Chi Essentials Ai Chi Ne Ai Chi – Range of Motion Spiraling Ai Chi Ai Chi Trunk Stability Ai Chi Upper Extremity
3. One of Jun Konno’s videos:
Ai Chi Japan Ai Chi Ni Ai Chi Zen
Free Shipping in the US. Please contact [email protected] for shipping costs outside the US.
Ai Chi performance factors can be varied for different outcomes. When strength or balance is a focus, the base of support set for Ai Chi performance can be wider or narrower, to challenge balance at varying levels and to promote strengthening.
Here’s a personal case study: Almost nine years ago, someone accidentally backed an electric wheelchair over my foot. It was a little sore and swollen, but I ignored it for months before finally seeking help from an orthopedist. X-rays showed that I had a metatarsal fracture, which was declared “healed” following a couple of months of stabilization in a “moon boot.”
While my bone had knitted together, other tissues were affected that caused minor lingering issues. Over the years, my left foot has bothered me off and on with mild swelling, an occasional feeling of “giving out” when going down steps, and intermittent aching and discomfort. I’ve done some self-foot mobilization and had reflexology treatments, both of which were helpful. I found great relief through a friend’s instruction in MELT Method foot mobility exercises and by changing to more comfortable and supportive footwear. I’ve used stability discs for home exercise (see the April 11, 2020 post, Sequestered Ai Chi). The improvements I’ve made for this nagging minor malady have opened the door to a focused awareness of the persisting weakness of my left foot muscles. As I now do Ai Chi, I am mindful of how my feet feel in the “core position” as I go through the first six Ai Chi postures. Moving to Gathering and Freeing, I decrease the width between my foot positions to challenge to the muscles in my feet and ankles. In moving from a semi-tandem (one foot behind and slightly off to the side) to tandem positioning (one foot directly behind the other), my left foot and ankle muscles are getting a good workout. When I move into the one-leg stances of Accepting with Grace, Rounding and Balancing, I can adjust the stance time on the supporting leg to give a good challenge without overdoing it.
Here’s the “plus” I’ve added to my current water exercise for my foot issues: I warm up with several repetitions on both sides of slow heel lifts, holding the raised position for several seconds, then slowly lowering. I progress to doing heel lifts on one side at a time with the opposite knee raised, noticing the difference between my left and right sides. I can increase the challenges while standing on “tip toes” on one foot by moving my raised right leg forward, to the side and backwards, or by holding this position when water turbulence is present. I can also try to rely less on arm movements and more on my ankle muscles to maintain my balance. Finally, I’ve added swimming laps with a kick board and short fins to strengthen my ankles.
Every situation is unique, requiring a customized approach, but you can address particular needs by adjusting components of Ai Chi practice. Watch for more ideas about this in upcoming blogs…
Not long after I was certified as an Ai Chi Trainer, I was excited to share Ai Chi with my friend. As we ended our first session together, my friend asked me, “Am I supposed to feel something?”
Ai Chi is not magic. It is not a cure-all. And while it draws from ancient Asian roots, it is not even a time-honored tradition. It is a ritual, purposely designed to stretch our muscles, our thoughts and our mindfulness, to strengthen our core muscles, our stamina and our perseverance, to broaden breath, awareness and calm and to bring balance and stability to our bodies, our autonomic nervous system and our outlook on life.
Rituals require preparation. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo opens her book POET WARRIOR with a preface appropriately entitled “Prepare” that mirrors aspects of Ai Chi:
That first earth gift of breathing Opened your body, these lungs, this heart Gave birth to the ability to interact With dreaming You are a story fed by generations You carry stories of grief, triumph Thankfulness and joy Feel their power as they ascend Within you As you walk, run swiftly, even fly Into infinite possibility
Harjo ponders how different our perspective would be if we learned to listen to the world and the creatures around us with our whole being; listening not just with our ears, but also with our eyes, throat, abdomen, toes… Sometimes I think of seeing with eyes wide open- but it is in stretching all of our senses beyond their normal bounds that we become mindful of our world.
My preparation for Ai Chi has evolved to include giving attention to setting the scene for finding calm, as well as including a bit of personal mindfulness practice before participants arrive to put myself in the right mindset. When I share Ai Chi with others, I have grown to realize how important it is to set expectations by providing an explanation of what Ai Chi is and giving an overview of what is to come, while at the same time opening the door for serendipities that Ai Chi practice may bring. I review diaphragmatic breathing and core positioning, then begin time in the water with a mindful walking warm up.
Rituals require regular practice and dedicated attention. The paradox that exists with Ai Chi is that while practicing it in a precise manner over time enhances its benefits, however your Ai Chi practice turns out in the moment for you, is exactly how it was meant to be. We each come to Ai Chi practice with our own constantly updated life stories. You may go through the same motions you have done before, but each time you do Ai Chi is unique, unlike any time you have ever done it before or will ever do it again. And no two people share the same Ai Chi experience, even when doing Ai Chi together. Breathe, dream, listen with your whole being and be open to the infinite possibilities Ai Chi may bring.
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Pierce, MN. Ai Chi for Long COVID: Transitioning to a Post-Rehabilitation Community Program. J Aquat Phys Ther. 2022:30(3):60-64. DOI: 10.1097/PXT.0000000000000019
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact lives around the world, long COVID symptoms plague a significant number of survivors in their daily lives. Guidelines are available for individualized rehabilitation during acute and subacute phases; however, safe community options are needed for those with lingering symptoms who are transitioning away from formal rehabilitation. A lack of access or resistance to COVID-19 vaccination worldwide, and the emergence of more aggressive coronavirus variants, is predicted to result in many more positive COVID-19 cases and consequentially in more long haulers, increasing the need for community resources.
Ai Chi is a gentle aquatic body-mind practice employed worldwide by aquatic therapists and trainers to reduce stress, enhance breathing, strengthen core muscles, extend joint range of motion, improve balance, stabilize heart rate, and promote focus and centering. It can address some of the common persisting symptoms in medically stable individuals with long COVID including pain, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, and stress. While Ai Chi is a promising community aquatic intervention, exercise providers need to be aware of special considerations that may impact this population in community programming, such as postexertional malaise, cardiac impairment, oxygen desaturation, and autonomic nervous system dysfunction when providing exercise programs. Research is needed to validate the effectiveness of Ai Chi with post-rehabilitation COVID long haulers in a community setting.
This would be an ideal research area for physical therapy and occupational therapy students as an educational experience, and would help make the world a better place.
Some important factors to consider:
Participants must be medically stable COVID long haulers. Recruiting could come from Long COVID clinics, Long COVID support groups, or from social media outreach.
A warm water pool (86-93 degrees F) is needed, where participants can work at shoulder depth with slightly flexed knees. Pools that offer an Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program (AFEP) often meet these parameters.
Teaching is typically done on the pool deck for groups by a provider who has been trained in Ai Chi.
Background and practical understanding of specific issues pertinent to this population is key when providing exercise programming, including post-exertional malaise, orthostatic hypotension, cardiac impairment, oxygen desaturation and autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
Depending on the research focus areas, evidence based examination tools such as the DePaul Symptoms Questionnaire screen for post-exertional malaise (DSQ PEM), the Timed Up and Go test (TUG), the 6-minute walk test (6MWT), the Berg Balance Scale (BBS), functional surveys or cognitive tests could be utilized.
You may encounter Ai Chi participants who experience dizziness or lightheadedness while doing Ai Chi. As there are many causes for dizziness, some of which are quite serious, it is important for participants to explore the roots of their symptoms with their medical providers. Participants who are cleared for aquatic exercise but still have some issues with dizziness may need to modify their exercise routines to avoid setting off their symptoms. For example, those with vestibular involvement may experience dizziness with the turning postures of “freeing,” “reflecting” and “suspending.” Slowing down or omitting those postures may be a way to avoid triggering symptoms.
Those with orthostatic hypotension, (also known as postural hypotension) have a condition where blood pressure drops with changing body positions, such as moving from sitting to standing. This condition elicits lightheadedness, dizziness or even fainting when blood is not able to travel efficiently throughout the body’s circulatory system. A broad array of issues may cause orthostatic hypotension, but participants need proper diagnosis, treatment and to be medically stable before proceeding with Ai Chi practice.
Even those with orthostatic hypotension that is well controlled on land may experience blood pressure related symptoms as they leave the water, due to changes in hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure is the static force of water exerted on the body. The beneficial effects of hydrostatic pressure include decreasing pain and edema, which promotes joint mobility; it assists in release of air during exhalation to enhance breathing. And importantly, it helps decrease blood pooling in the extremities by providing a compression force to increase venous return. When this extra assistance for circulation is suddenly relieved upon leaving the water, blood may pool in the legs resulting in a blood pressure drop, and causing lightheadedness or other blood pressure related symptoms. A staged exit from the water can help assist in a smooth transition from water to land.
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We’ve seen it before… A brief illness, a seemingly good recovery, then unexpected symptoms that appear later~ sometimes much later. This is the road for those with long COVID, which can be an extension of symptoms after acute illness or unexpectedly appear up to 6 months after apparent recuperation from COVID. In an earlier posting I mentioned the symptoms experienced by patients I worked with in the 1980’s with post-polio syndrome, which surfaces 15 to 40 years post-acute illness. It’s widely recognized that those who have had chicken pox harbor the virus after they recuperate and are susceptible to getting shingles as adults if they have not gotten a shingles vaccine. A recent Nature Medicine review reveals that latent post-acute infection syndromes (PAIS) follow a wide range of illnesses, including Ebola, Dengue, West Nile virus, Epstein-Barr Virus, Giardia, Borrelia and Q fever, among others. Infectious agents may be viruses, bacteria or parasites. While there is often a long and varied list of complex symptoms across many different body systems, many PAIS manifest with functional limitations, exertion intolerance, severe fatigue and unrestful sleep.
So what do you need to know when you encounter aquatic clients who say they have exertion intolerance or fatigue, regardless of the etiology? Before beginning community exercise, your participants need to be medically stable~ body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and blood oxygen (SpO2) levels must all be within normal limits. A resting SpO2 level of 90% or better is recommended by the Royal Dutch Society for Physical Therapy before embarking on an exercise program.
For those who identify fatigue or brain fog as an issue, the 10-item DePaul Symptoms Questionnaire for Post-exertional malaise (DSQ-PEM) is a helpful tool. Those with post-exertional malaise (PEM) can track their own SpO2 levels with a splash-proof pool side finger monitor or a smart watch and stop exercise at 85% SpO2 to avoid reaching the tipping point where they “crash” a couple of days later. The Workwell Foundation recommends daily heart rate tracking, and slowing down when an activity results in more than 15 beats per minute of the weekly average. Laminated copies of the linear Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion are a helpful tool to have on hand to estimate heart rate based on perceived exertion while exercising. With this tool, the heart rate is approximately 10x the exertion level. Those with PEM should work at a maximum of the level that correlates with their average weekly heart rate + 15 bpm, but no more than a moderate exertion level on this scale. For a more accurate reading, breaks can be taken for heart rate tracking with digital devices.
It’s not hard to give space for participants to work with post-exertional malaise during Ai Chi sessions. Simply extend the repetitions for soothing or shifting or add a “holding pattern” of the core stance with arms extended to the sides on the water surface, turning palms up and down for the group while participants who need to check their SpO2 or heart rate do so. Being flexible is all a part of Ai Chi. However it turns out is how it was meant to be…
Check out post-exertional malaise resources available through World Physiotherapy: https://world.physio/sites/default/files/2021-06/WPTD2021-InfoSheet3-Fatigue-and-PESE-Final-A4-v1.pdf
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
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In 2020 I started looking for ways to make a difference in the midst of a frightening new pandemic. I read books about the Spanish flu of the last century that took the lives of some in my family tree, and learned that the annual flu shots we have available today stave off the evolving ancestors of that flu, saving the lives of many to this day. There have been historic global illnesses in the distant past, but it is good to remember that we have been through a pandemic just a couple of generations ago and we have learned to build tools to deal with it.
I then took an online contact tracer certification course, but soon sadly found that practicing my new skill would be difficult due to surprising responses on opposite ends of the spectrum. One place where I spend time chose not to provide any opportunities for this job which involves sharing news no one wants to hear, and another only offered full time positions, which was more than I felt I could handle.
Then came the realization that COVID did not end after a couple of weeks of illness for some of the survivors. Part of the population experiences a wild roller coaster ride of a broad array of continuous or intermittent symptoms, impacting their daily lives profoundly. This prompted me to explore the mounting research on the ill-defined phenomena that has been called long COVID, post-acute sequelae of SARS CoV-2 (PASC) or post-COVID syndrome, and I realized that Ai Chi could be helpful in addressing some of the more prominent symptoms. *Look for a manuscript I wrote about this in the December 2022 special COVID edition of the Journal of Aquatic Physical Therapy entitled “Ai Chi for Long COVID: Transitioning to a Post-Rehab Community Program.”
I then proposed a session on community Ai Chi for post-rehab COVID long haulers for an aquatic conference in early 2022, however it did not draw enough interest to hold the class. I then collaborated with an aquatic physical therapist knowledgeable in subacute rehab for long COVID and an aquatic expert in PTSD for a COVID Long Haulers Roundtable discussion at a larger aquatic conference later in the year. We were excited that it brought a high number of attendees from the United States and from around the world for the final class of the conference. They listened attentively and gave positive feedback on our presentations, but there was little discussion on behalf of the participants. Why is there such hesitancy around this topic?
I believe it comes down to a social stigma associated with COVID-19. We all want COVID to just go away, which has resulted in some minimizing its presence and others becoming hyper-vigilant, (a difficult task as best practices for dealing with this brand new virus emerged very slowly over time). The diversity of responses to COVID has made even talking about it a taboo for the majority of people who are tired of a world already filled with conflict. One person in our audience shared with me that she did not want to ask any questions or make comments because she did not want to risk upsetting anyone else.
This stigma is so strong that those who contract COVID worry about others judging them. Will people think they were socially irresponsible, without regard for other people’s health? Will they be villainized or ostracized by acquaintances, friends and family? This can lead to feelings of personal shame and a tendency to hide a positive test or illness from others, or to downplay their experience and not seek help when they need it. And because of this, we can only guess at the true prevalence of COVID or long COVID.
So what can we do in the face of these stigmas, as community aquatic exercise providers? Be aware that these stigmas exist. Set an example by being compassionate, non-judgmental and mindful in your communications with all. Use comforting, inclusive language and avoid terms which could be interpreted as marginalizing. One aquatic provider shared that she feared that her classes would shrink if they were marketed for COVID long haulers. While Long COVID is not a contagious disease that would preclude participation with others, her realization of the impact of this stigma is an important one.
COVID long haulers who want to improve breath, attention and focus, energy levels, strength and balance will find their way to Ai Chi classes, along with those with many other conditions who share these goals. Yes, we need to be aware of and support necessary adaptations for the special needs of each of our clients, but marketing and working from a goal oriented approach rather than a diagnostic one preserves personal privacy and offers protection against stigmatization. And if you find yourself in the midst of a discussion about long COVID, acknowledge the feelings your clients express, listen attentively and feel empowered to correct misconceptions with proven scientific data. Sharing Ai Chi is a gift you can give to everyone.
More information on this important topic is available from The World Health Organization (WHO) in their briefing, “Social Stigma associated with COVID-19.”
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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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Ai Chi Day 2021 is nearly upon us, and it promises many valuable presentations to expand knowledge of this practice and to spark ideas for new applications. Since Jun Konno introduced Ai Chi to the world over 2 decades ago aquatic specialists and therapists have successfully shared it with clients with many different issues and in a wide variety of settings. When the 2011 tsunami in Japan left many fearful of water, Jun developed new Ai Chi steps to reestablish comfort in the water. When an aquatic expert in the Netherlands could not find warm water pools where she could share Ai Chi, she developed a faster version that brought many of the same result through a different approach. A pediatric therapist found ways to use Ai Chi to help children with neurological deficits. Other practitioners have brought Ai Chi to wounded warriors suffering from PTSD.
Jun Konno’s gift of Ai Chi has proven to be a very useful tool that can be adapted to many situations, if we look mindfully at the possibilities and do not get caught up in performing it in one particular way. Jun often shared the Japanese proverbial saying: “Willow will not break under weight of snow.” The strong branches of trees can support the weight of snow in winter, but if too much snow accumulates, the branches will break. However, the willow tree does not need to bear as much weight. Its flexible branches are able to bend so that snow falls off, yet they are strong enough to spring back in shape.
Those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 also seem to be protected against the new variants of coronavirus, (at least for now). However the variants are more aggressive and spread more easily than the original virus, making those who are unvaccinated at a higher risk of contracting it. Even a mild case can lead to long lasting, often debilitating symptoms~ now recorded at a rate of one out of every three who have tested positive for COVID. Ai Chi holds the possibility of addressing many of the most common COVID symptoms, however mindful adaptations are needed to avoid relapses. Both the CDC and the APTA have developed guidelines for assessment and outcome measures for post-COVID syndrome for healthcare professionals, including evidence based tools for fatigue, breathlessness, exercise capacity, balance, pain, functional mobility, cognition and anxiety. The results of these measures will shape the Ai Chi practice for each individual. And a prudent model will be needed for safe and effective general community group applications for extended help once therapy services are exhausted. Once again, however it turns out is how it was meant to be.
Please register at the following link to join ATRI for a very special online Ai Chi Day on Sunday, July 25, in celebration of Jun Konno and Ai Chi: https://ruth-sova-103927.square.site/product/ai-chi-day-2021/452?cs=true&cst=custom
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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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This week marks the conclusion of my latest “pop-up” Ai Chi class. I love sharing Ai Chi with others. The physical benefits of core strengthening, extending mobility, improving balance, enhancing breathing and relieving pain along with the gift of internal calm and stress reduction are all things I want to pass on to others. But I always come away from each encounter having learned much myself as well. This series of classes was no exception.
The size of the shallow area of the warm water pool where I taught this class limited my class size, so it was easy to observe the participants and gauge the speed of progression to their needs. This particular group enjoyed new challenges, so while the movement patterns were consistent with each practice, I introduced a new concept or different type of music every time we went through the steps. And to make the experience personal, I asked participants about their class goals so that I could emphasize those aspects during practice. Because relaxing music has so much to do with personal preference, I asked them what type of music they liked and compiled a new Ai Chi Kitaro playlist based on their feedback.
I generally demonstrate from the pool deck while class members mirror my movements in the water as I give verbal directions. Landmarks have been helpful for large movements (“turn toward the wall,” “face the lap pool”) but figuring out which arm or leg to move was distracting for this group until I began specifying “right limb” or “left limb” which was opposite of what I was doing. When I noticed that space issues were restricting movement during “flowing,” we embraced the Ai Chi focus on roundness and transitioned the group to circling clockwise, then counterclockwise.
Ai Chi is considered a body mind practice~ with a primary focus on body stabilization and movement. Mindfulness is often considered to be something that “just happens” when muscle memory kicks in or when we achieve flow. I decided that I needed to know more about mindfulness, and enrolled in and completed an interesting and challenging online certificate program through the University of Leiden in the Netherlands called “Demystifying Mindfulness.” This led me to add a focused meditation to our practices, either between Ai Chi cycles or during an extended final “contemplating” step. While the goals of our group were primarily body focused, they appreciated this addition, gravitating mostly toward the breath-focused meditations that tie in so well with Ai Chi breathing. And I found that by focusing within, my eyes were opened to experience more around me.
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).
Many Ai Chi instructors begin their classes with an experiential approach, interspersing details about what they are doing and why strategically as they discover Ai Chi together. The participants start in the water and the class begins by following the cues and movements of the teacher without much ado. I can appreciate that everyone has their own Ai Chi experience and “however it comes out, is how it was meant to be.” However, I tend toward a more pragmatic approach. I’m not a particularly “touchy-feely” kind of person (although I always appreciate a sincere hug!) and as a physical therapist I find myself presenting Ai Chi from a basically clinical perspective.
I start my first Ai Chi classes with about 15 minutes on land. I introduce myself, explain what Ai Chi is and the goals of Ai Chi practice. I give a bit of information about the history of Ai Chi and the contributions of Jun Konno and Ruth Sova. And I discuss balance on many levels, including how Ai Chi affects the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Next I introduce the different types of breathing, and we practice doing diaphragmatic breathing. I explain that Ai Chi should not be a painful experience, and talk about the effects of shoulder-depth water on joints and what participants can do if do too much and experience discomfort.
Finally we talk about core muscle strengthening and practice the posture used in the first 5 Ai Chi steps. I give a general overview of the Ai Chi movements and a final reminder: Remember, one of the primary goals of Ai Chi is to relieve stress, and “However it comes out is how it was meant to be.” I will give you verbal cues and demonstrations, but whenever you breathe or whichever direction you move is okay.”
The participants then get into the water and we start with 5 to 7 repetitions of movements 1-5 then 5-1, giving special attention to form and breathing. I teach from the pool deck, cuing for performance and naming each movement as we do it. Depending on how the class responds, I will move on to another round including more steps consecutively, always concluding with 5-1.
Some of the steps can be confusing, especially when the class is mirroring me, so I use pool area landmarks or body position to explain movements, (“Pivot toward the lap pool” or “Stretch the arm on your forward leg side behind you.”) As time and circumstances allow, I will introduce adding music to our practice and go through the sequence again with Ai Chi Synchrony playing. I gauge the number of repetitions we do based on available time.
To close, I thank the participants for sharing Ai Chi with me, remind them of our upcoming schedule and provide them with a laminated sheet with the basic Ai Chi steps so that they can practice on their own.
Often new members join our group at future sessions, so I review diaphragmatic breathing and the core posture used in the first 5 steps, and provide the new arrivals with a short laminated sheet explaining the basics that they can read later. I always reiterate that Ai Chi should not be painful and however it comes out is how it was meant to be. I decrease the amount of cuing over time and change the music to give variety. I watch the expressions and form of the participants to provide extra cues, encouragement or praise.
As the class becomes comfortable, participants often share which music and movements they like the best or least, and why. If one movement is particularly confusing or difficult, I will review it and we will practice it separately. And if a movement is too difficult or continues to produce anxiety, all or some of us may do fewer repetitions or skip it altogether.
In a world where stress runs high, it is a joy to share Ai Chi.
However it comes out is, how it was meant to be… right? So why practice Ai Chi?
Practicing Ai Chi can take your experience with it to another level, as muscle memory~ or more technically, motor learning comes into play. Basically, you don’t have to occupy your conscious mind with thinking about when to breathe or which way to move, because you already know it. It’s like typing, or riding a bicycle, or playing a musical instrument. There are three phases of motor learning, with each phase integrating the “how-to” to open the door for new experiences.
When our boys were first learning to ride a bicycle, they started with training wheels so that they could get the feel of the basics without worrying about the influence of controlling lateral sway on balance. We gave them lots of verbal instruction and encouragement at the beginning. They were able to focus their attention on pumping the bicycle pedals and steering in the direction they wanted to go. They were learning how to make the bicycle work. This cognitive stage of motor learning relies on vision and figuring out the mechanical basics, or how to do it. Soon they were comfortable with the groundwork for function, and able to move on to the associative stage, learning to ride their bikes more accurately. When we removed the training wheels, we took them to a large open parking lot so that they would not have to worry about staying within the bounds of a narrow sidewalk. There they could practice on keeping their balance while moving. When they were pretty steady, they graduated to ride on the more challenging sidewalk in front of our house to focus on controlling their bikes. Soon they could ride their bikes anywhere~ they leapt onto them and raced around the neighborhood without giving the logistics of balance or bicycle control a second thought. They had reached the autonomous stage where riding a bike just happened. And those bicycle-riding skills are now deposited in their memories so they can get on a bike and ride without thinking, even if months or years have passed since they had last ridden.
Practicing Ai Chi uses these same phases of motor learning. In the cognitive stage, you will rely a lot on vision, watching your instructor and listening to her verbal cues. Not worrying about doing it wrong allows you to focus on the various aspects of the mechanical basics at this early stage of learning. The benefits of Ai Chi surface even as you start this practice~ feeling more relaxed, breathing more easily, moving farther, improving your balance, strengthening your core~ but it is all on a continuum. In the associative stage doing Ai Chi starts to come together~ you automatically notice and tweak your posture, knowing when to breath is more natural and you realize which direction to move even before the instructor cues you… Soon the movements and breathing and postures just happen and you can give your attention more fully to the way the water feels, the joy of moving, the rhythm of the music and sounds around you, and how you feel as you do Ai Chi. We are often impatient by nature, but practicing Ai Chi is like so many things we encounter in life~ accomplishment and fulfillment come by experiencing every step of the journey.
This year we have endured a very heated presidential election in the United States, with much anger and turmoil that has not subsided since the results have been finalized. Both the “winners” and the “losers” continue to lash out at one another and at the world. What can we do to bring positive? Ai Chi means “love” and “life energy” ~ the supreme ultimate positive. I have found that cultivating the positive in body, mind and spirit provides resources to share hope and inspire others.
Ai Chi is a regular practice for me, and while the quiet peace of doing Ai Chi alone is restoring, it is also something I feel compelled to share. Whenever I can find a warm pool and interested participants, I will offer others to join me. This was the motivation for my current pop-up holiday de-stresser Ai Chi class at our local health club.
Despite the club’s emails and posters, my class was as a surprise to some of the club’s warm water pool regulars. My hour long class uses the entire shallow end of the pool, where some of the regulars drop in to do water walking as they socialize. My class disrupted their expected routine, but I could feel the energy change and their initial indignation retreat as they watched the class from the deep end of the pool. Then a man who had just finished swimming in the nearby lap pool sat down in a chair near us, propped up his legs, leaned back and closed his eyes to soak in the calm of the music I had selected to accompany our class. I was amazed to see how the various components of our class had a positive effect both on those in the class and those nearby~ music, visualization, moving in warm water and experiencing the Ai Chi steps. I enjoy my personal Ai Chi practice with my headphones on in the water, but sharing Ai Chi is even more fulfilling.
Today I share Ai Chi from the perspective of the “Mother of Ai Chi,” Ruth Sova. Because of Ruth’s motivation to share, Ai Chi is now a global practice: http://www.nchpad.org/373/2078/Ai~Chi
Jun Konno has added three optional movements which may be included at any point of the Ai Chi progression. These movements represent cultivating the Chi, our vital life force, just as one would cultivate a garden.
Encircling: Gently stir, prepare, find and care for the Chi around us.Start in a stable posture with feet shoulder width apart, arms held out to the side on the surface of the water. Exhale and as you push your hands together in front of you, as if you were holding a soccer ball. Inhale as you simultaneously shift your weight over your left leg and circle the “ball” to the left, then draw it in toward you. As you shift your weight over your right leg, exhale and push the imaginary “ball” out in front of you and to the right. Repeat several times.
Surrounding: Surround your body with the power and energy of the Chi. Transition smoothly to pivot left and exhale as you carefully tip the “ball” to the left, then inhale as you sweep it to the right and pivot and tip the “ball” to the right. Repeat several times.
Nurturing: First expel all toxins, stress and tension from your body, then draw the Chi in. Pivot left and push the ball away as you exhale, then draw it in toward you as you inhale. Repeat to the right.
Jun Konno demonstrates Accepting with Grace, Rounding, Balancing, the 3 Cultivating the Chi steps, Flowing, Reflecting and Suspending:
Ai Chi is about nurturing a stable base for body, mind and spirit.
Core strength and good postural alignment are needed to develop a stable base for the body. The muscles surrounding the spine and pelvis provide the foundation for movement. These muscles grow stronger when you maintain good posture, and then challenge your position, whether it be by the length of time you hold that posture, by adding limb movement to a stable core or by external forces such as water turbulence. What happens when you don’t have a stable physical base for movement, but you move anyway? Unstable areas are vulnerable to strains and overstretching of soft tissues~ which can be painful! Holding good postural alignment and working within your own personal limits to maintain good form nurture a stable physical base for movement.
How do you nurture a stable base for the mind~ an inner calm that allows you to relax? Minimize distractions while doing Ai Chi~ auditory distractions such as conversation and noises, visual distractions that require your attention like children that are under your supervision or mental distractions like a problem you are trying to solve or emotional issues. Play calming, arrhythmic music with a slow tempo and a small dynamic range, (not something that you would hum along with). Use waterproof headphones, if needed. With inner calm as a stable base, clear thought and heightened awareness can flourish.
There is nothing more personal than your soul, and each person must find their own path to know and nurture their own spirit. Many find this through religion or spiritual practices such as prayer, spiritual traditions, Holy Scriptures, being in a natural setting, singing, walking a labyrinth or making a pilgrimage to a holy place. When you nurture a stable spiritual base, the fruits of the spirit have a place grow- love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and inner strength.
In Hebrew, the words for breath and spirit are the same word, ruach. A breath prayer is a short prayer that can be said or thought in a single phrase. To nurture your soul, consider inserting a “breath prayer” on one step or throughout your Ai Chi practice.
In Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, Thompson describes developing a breath prayer in response to the search for one’s innermost yearnings. She prompts readers to look deep inside to allow a response to emerge from a place of profound hope and prayer. This desire is combined with a comfortable name for God or for the divine, to create a breath prayer. As it is spoken or thought, the prayer takes on the shape of every breath. Examples include: “Give me strength, Oh Lord,” “Teach me patience, Holy One,” “My God and my All,” (St Francis).
After the challenges of Balancing, Flowing provides gentle and artful stability. There is a lot of movement with Flowing, but your weight shifts from one leg to the other in a predictable pattern as your arms move symmetrically in an opposing pattern. If you’ve ever danced the “grapevine step” or are familiar with the “braiding,” Flowing will be familiar to you. As in all Ai Chi practice, however it turns out is how it was meant to be, and attention is given to quality of movement, rhythmic breathing and moving within the available space rather than to which arm or leg crosses in front or how many repetitions you do to each side.
Flowing: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms crossed under the water in front of you. Breathe in through your nose as you open your arms to the side and cross your left leg in front of the right. Exhale gently through pursed lips as you step to the right with your right leg and cross your arms in front of you again. Repeat these movements to the right several times, then to the left several times.
Reflecting and Suspending are very similar movements, and both should be performed gently and slowly. In reflection we look to the past for the benefit of the future. And in suspension the water momentarily holds us without firm footing on the surface beneath, before we turn in a new direction.
Reflecting: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms open at your sides, palms up. Blow out through pursed lips as you cross arms and legs in front of you, and gently pivot 180 degrees to a position with legs and arms open once again. Repeat this movement.
Suspending: Your feet are shoulder width apart, and your knees are softly bent with arms open at your sides, palms up. Blow out through pursed lips as you gently spring up from the pool surface while crossing arms and legs in front of you. When your feet return to the pool surface, pivot 180 degrees to a position with legs and arms open once again. Repeat this movement.
You have now completed the 16 basic steps of Ai Chi. To come full circle, I like to end with Folding, Enclosing, Uplifting, Floating and Contemplating. I hope you enjoy this body mind practice on many levels as you experience it over time. Namaste.
This is just the beginning… Future posts will explore additional facets to Ai Chi, Ai Chi in 3, Jun Konno’s extra movements, relaxing music and more…
Roundness is important in Ai Chi. A circle implies wholeness, enhancing internal and external harmony. There are no sharp edges or defined corners, no roughness or coarseness. The smooth quality of round movement avoids joint and soft tissue strain.
Roundness is all about us~ from the sun and the moon, to shapes in nature and beautiful things we create. Appreciate the wholeness of roundness as you experience this movement.
It is important to note that those with upper back problems should give particular attention to limits of motion during Rounding. Bending forward to extremes may restrict the space where nerve roots exit the spine or bulging discs may encroach upon irritated nerves, causing discomfort. Move slowly and pay attention to your body, avoiding ranges that bring on symptoms. As with Accepting with Grace, only lift your leg as high as you feel comfortable. If you are unstable balancing on one leg you may only be able to lift your foot an inch or two off the floor of the pool to be challenged. That’s okay~ practice at your challenge level will extend what you can do.
Rounding: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time bringing both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you shift your weight forward onto your left leg, bringing your right leg and both hands together in front of you. (*If you have upper back problems, this is the point where you need to move carefully and avoid extremes). Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.
From Accepting we move on to Accepting with Grace.
What is grace? I googled “grace” and serendipitously the first definition seemed tailor-made for Ai Chi:
Grace: ɡrās/ noun
simple elegance or refinement of movement.
“she moved through the water with effortless grace”
synonyms: elegance, poise, gracefulness, finesse;
Accepting with Grace is challenging, but the buoyancy of the water provides the support to move with finesse. This movement is exactly like Accepting, with the addition of gently lifting your front leg as you bend backward. If your hamstrings are tight or if you are a bit unsteady standing on one leg, you may want to start out just lifting your foot a few inches off the floor of the pool and work on increasing the range of motion over time.
Soon you will be moving through the water with effortless grace… free and flowing… automatically breathing deeply, maintaining good posture without thinking about it, experiencing rather than concentrating, movement as art…
Accepting with Grace: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time lifting your left leg in front of you to a comfortable height and bringing both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you lower your left leg, shift your weight forward onto that leg and bring your hands together in front of you. Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.
Now we move to accepting. Accepting challenges balance a bit. You’re moving more~ shifting your point of stability. Accepting yourself for where you are, here and now. Feeling the gentle caress of the water around you as you move through it. Sensing the surface beneath your feet as you shift backward and forward. This is mindfulness~ giving direct attention to body and breath, focusing on the moment while calmly accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and sensations.
Accepting: Breathe in as you step back and shift your weight onto your right foot, at the same time reaching both arms behind you with slightly bent elbows. Blow out through pursed lips as you shift your weight to your left foot and bring your hands together in front of you. Complete all of the repetitions before pivoting 180 degrees and repeating to the other side.
Ai Chi founder Jun Konno demonstrates the first 10 steps in this video to the soothing sounds of Ai Chi Synchrony:
Nothing lasts forever~ change is certain to happen. My mother gave me some great parenting advice. She shared that there would be trying times as a parent, but just when you feel like you are at your wit’s end, things change. I found this to be true, and it was a very good thing! Of course all of the changes we encounter are not welcome, and whether positive or negative, change creates stress. Holmes and Rahe’s insightful 1967 life event stress scale is an evidence-based predictor of likely physical illness. While many of the stressors listed in the scale are not unexpected, some positive items may surprise you. http://www.testandcalc.com/Richard/resources/Teaching_Resource_Holmes_and_Rahe_Social.pdf
Change will happen. How we respond is up to us. Ai Chi can be a helpful tool to deal with stress and change.
I view Shifting as a regrouping or re-centering step, which is important during times of change to ease transition. The first Ai Chi steps involve a solid base of support~ feet planted firmly on the ground as your core muscles are challenged and you explore the limits of trunk and upper body range of motion. The upcoming steps present new challenges to balance of body, mind and spirit.
Jun Konno advocates round-arm movements, symbolizing wholeness and connectivity during shifting. I like the concept of expanding round-arm movements to a timeless figure eight pattern or infinity sign.
Infinity Shifting: 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, shift your body weight over your right foot while sweeping your left arm away to form the left loop of a figure eight symbol, then in toward you before moving further to the right and away to form the right loop. As your left arm passes in front of you again, shift your weight over your left foot and move your left arm further to the left and away to form the left loop, at the same time beginning a figure eight pattern with your right arm. Pause with your left arm until the right arm passes in front of you a second time to complete the figure eight. Each time your hand passes in front of you a second time to complete a figure eight pattern, begin a new figure eight with the opposite arm.
While ideally Ai Chi is performed in an environment without distractions, this does not always happen. There may be others nearby talking or laughing. A sudden noise can interrupt practice. I have even had birds and rabbits come by to watch me as I do Ai Chi~ a peaceful occurrence, but distracting nonetheless. While technically not an Ai Chi step, I have found that adding the following move can help me get back on track without disturbing the flow of movement. It can be randomly inserted whenever it is needed.
Regrouping: 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, exhale through pursed lips as you turn your palms down, and inhale through your nose as you turn your palms up.
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…
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
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!
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:
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.
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.