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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Pushing buttons

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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It always comes back to Ai Chi

The world is a bit unsettled at the moment. I’ve noticed that people seem less likely to respect boundaries than in the past~ opening doors marked “staff only” or unapologetically soliciting personal information over the phone. “Private” seems to be an invitation for exploration. And respect, civility and kindness too often seem to be forgotten~ especially with those you don’t know. This has the result of raising general tension levels and promoting distrust of others. When I get particularly bothered by such things, I am prone to commenting to my husband, “The world needs more Ai Chi!” and his joking response is “It always comes back to Ai Chi.”

And figuratively speaking, it does. Our society is better when we are more centered, more appreciative of our God-given gifts, more aware of our surroundings and more respectful of others. We need to rely more on our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system than our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. Sharing smiles and joy is contagious. Now Ai Chi is not the only way to accomplish this, but it is a very effective way to find equilibrium. Plus Ai Chi promotes so many other good things, like core strengthening, improved mobility, deep breathing and balance. It lowers blood pressure and slows your heart rate… So many good things come from this practice…

A few years ago, one of the Ai Chi Masters was in an accident that left her traumatized and immobilized in the hospital for an extended period. She shared that doing Ai Chi in her head was a calming, healing tool that helped her through a difficult time. When my busy mind keeps me awake at night, I do the same to bring calm that allows sleep to come. 

I have recently been sharing Ai Chi with a population with multiple comorbidities~ lots of health issues that make some Ai Chi steps overwhelming. I’ve had to modify or skip some of the steps, and to place a lot of emphasis on how to move, weight-shifting and breath. However it turns out is how it was meant to be, and I’ve seen amazing physical performance improvement in my participants, but the calm that comes with doing Ai Chi has been in the background~ until now. A new participant joined us whose main focus was finding centering and grounding and her enthusiasm as she experienced Ai Chi for the first time set the tone for the class. By this time the other class members were pretty adept at the steps we’d been practicing, and we hit that “sweet spot” of Ai Chi where everyone experienced the amazing calm that Ai Chi can bring~ that centering that automatically compelled us to turn to one another and say “ahhhh” and “Namaste” as the class concluded. 

Yes, it always comes back to Ai Chi…

Do you want to share Ai Chi with others? Check out learning opportunities at upcoming conferences and education days through ATRI.

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The 30 second relaxation break

While Ai Chi is a stress reducing aquatic practice, some of the relaxing benefits can be experienced out of water as well. Deconstructing Ai Chi practice to focus on simple movements and breathing on land can produce physical changes, such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently I was a bit anxious on a recent visit to a new doctor, causing my blood pressure to be high. My doctor said that she would return to retake my blood pressure in a few minutes, and I took the opportunity to run through the Ai Chi breathing and motions before she returned. She was surprised at how much my blood pressure had diminished in just a few minutes. I have found that just thinking about the Ai Chi steps allows me to fall asleep at night before I get through the entire sequence. Add relaxing music and the benefits are even greater.

Even if you do not recall all of the Ai Chi steps, you can still reduce stress with body awareness and focused breathing. Ruth Sova suggests regular practice of the following quick relaxation exercise:

“The first step to relaxation is to become aware of what the body is doing. Take some time to move slowly. Experiment with simply pronating [turning palms up] and supinating [turning palms down] your hands for two minutes. More relaxation will be gained as more attention is paid to the smallest movement of the hand, wrist, or eyes. With that deep relaxation and focus, the brain will become more alert, and mental-development and self-efficacy will improve. More is discovered each time it is done.

After several practices of moving only the hands, add coordinated diaphragmatic breathing to the hand movement. Inhale slowly into the nose (with tongue behind the top front teeth) as the palms turn up (supinate) and exhale slowly out of the mouth as the palms turn down. Continue to watch and think about your hands. Do this exercise a few times everyday or every time you feel overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, or tension. Thirty seconds can make a big difference in your health.”

Excerpted from Ai Chi – Balance, Harmony and Healing by Ruth Sova. The book is available at https://squareup.com/store/ruth-sova.