Ai Chi walking

Ai Chi is an amazing practice in its pure form. But Jun Konno’s mantra that “however it turns out is how it is meant to be” opens the door to infinite possibilities for variations. It may feel right to prolong doing a particular step. You may develop your own “holding pattern” step to settle and reorganize in the midst of doing Ai Chi. One Ai Chi master has developed flowing ballet steps in her Ai Chi practice, while another has doubled the tempo to adapt to colder water temperatures. There are partnered versions of Ai Chi for those who are fearful of the water, with advanced mobility issues and for children.

“Warm water walking” is commonly recommended for post-injury and post-rehab patients who are not able to participate in other exercise classes. I like to include a walking variation of Ai Chi at the conclusion of my GaitWay to Mobility water walking classes. In the class we typically begin with a mindful walking experience, then ramp up to walking activities at higher exertion levels. Ai Chi walking provides a great way to cool down from higher level exertion, as it prevents blood pooling in the legs and lessens the likelihood of post-exercise blood pressure drops, lightheadedness, fainting and cardiac arrhythmias. Plus doing Ai Chi at the end of class leaves participants feeling relaxed and refreshed!

I often refer to the first 5 steps as the “core Ai Chi steps”, because they are performed in a planted posture that challenges the core muscles of the spine and trunk. They set the foundation for mindful movement and focused attention, and I like to do them in their traditional form. But variations on the middle steps are a great way to incorporate locomotion in Ai Chi practice. The Ai Chi steps can be a bit challenging until participants have practiced enough to be able to move without cues, so look to the movement needs and degree of attention engagement of your participants as you make decisions about introducing more complex variations.

An easy foray into Ai Chi walking is with the moving steps. Flowing is already a walking variation~ it is basically “braiding” or a “grapevine step.” Reflecting and Suspending transition to Ai Chi walking by moving in a prescribed direction~ alternating between left arm and leg over right and turning 180 degrees, with right arm and leg over left and turning 180 degrees. These movements can be done straight across the pool or in a circle.

The balancing steps are also prime walking steps, but require more cuing. I’ve included diagrams below outlining these movements.

In Accepting, shift back, arms back, front toes lift as usual, but as you shift forward onto the front foot and arms come forward, take a step forward with the back leg bringing weight forward, and repeat the cycle.

Accepting with grace follows the same pattern with a front leg lift in place of front toe lift and stepping forward with the back leg as the front leg comes down, weight shifts forward and arms come forward.

In Rounding the back leg comes forward toward extending arms, then lowers straight down to a forward position as the arms move back, rather than returning to its original position. The opposite leg is now to the back, and becomes the next leg to move forward toward extending arms.

Doing Balancing as a walking exercise is a great intermediate step for those who struggle with an extended single leg stance time in traditional Ai Chi. Lean into the forward leg with arms extending forward and back leg lifting behind. Then swing the back leg forward, arms and trunk extending back before setting the moving leg down in front of you. This leg now becomes the forward, stance leg as you repeat the cycle.

Not challenging enough? Do these movements going forward across the pool for several steps, then try them in reverse, moving backwards across the pool. Not only are you challenging different muscle groups, but your mind is working in new ways as well.

Music tempo sets the pace for water walking, and this is another adaptable variable to consider in your planning. I like to use a few tracks from Katrien Lemahieu’s Ai Chi in 3 music for a 10 minute Ai Chi walking cooldown.

Are you interested in learning more about GaitWay to Mobility? I will be teaching a pool workshop at the ATRI 2019 Fall National Aquatic Therapy conference in Chicago, November 7-10. For more information, visit the ATRI website.

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Nurturing Body, Mind and Spirit

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).