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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Living in world of havoc

Mistrust. Fear. Anger. Hate. Bad behavior. Lashing out. Attacking others. This negativity is all around us, and if we are honest, sometimes even within us. It is evidenced at the broad end of the spectrum by oppression and the growing number of mass killings happening around the world~ especially in places where the tools to wound and kill are easily accessible. Record numbers of people are fleeing from their native homelands in search of peaceful havens from terror. Increasingly they are greeted with mistrust, fear, anger and hate in places they had anticipated would bring hope and freedom. Worldwide, our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous systems are working overtime.

On the other end of the continuum is what is happening within each of us. Most people strive to be good citizens and to be kind, thoughtful and respectful of others. In concept, we would always choose love over hate. But when mistrust, fear and anger are triggered by inflaming rhetoric or experience, the fight or flight response takes over. Our bad feelings can make us agitated, emotional and reactionary. And on later reflection, this can lead to feelings of defeat and shame, causing us to withdraw all together. Our sympathetic nervous systems are really important for survival and can motivate us to bring change, but can also lead to misplaced action and take us to regretful places when left unchecked. The result is that we either end up propagating bad behavior or being completely immobilized. Where is that middle ground, where we can be a force for positive change?

Turning to calm and centering helps us to think more rationally and clearly. This is why tools that help us to find balance are so important. Surround yourself in nature, listen to relaxing music, meditate, sing, get a massage,  be mindful, practice Ai Chi and pray… Finding balance smooths the rough edges of our minds and allows us to move forward with good and thoughtful solutions.

Mendelssohn’s moving work “Elijah” describes a world overcome by hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and fire, an apt metaphor for the conditions we seem to build up in the world and within ourselves so often. Finally, light breaks forth as a still, small voice and that is what brings peace and hope to the world. Cultivate balance within, so that you can hear that still, small voice of peace.

Join me in November for GaitWay to Mobility at the ATRI Fall National Aquatic Therapy Conference in Chicago. Go www.atri.org to sign up!

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The calm after the storm

When a storm wreaks havoc and leaves, it is not forgotten. It changes the course of life for those it leaves behind. Some are drastically affected, some face unexpected challenges and some are inconvenienced. Those facing moderate challenges and inconvenience are likely counting their blessings that friends and loved ones are all right and are grateful that life can move on. Those who were drastically affected will walk a new life path. In any event, all with a connection to the storm likely felt a surge of stress in the face of uncertainty, sometimes over an extended time. When Hurricane Irma gathered strength and inched toward Florida, I lost several days focusing on media reports, with thoughts of friends and loved ones in her path. My sympathetic nervous system was completely “on.” That might have been helpful if I were a first responder, but I was not. I was just an armchair hurricane participant from afar.

Our “fight or flight” response is very important in emergency situations. It allows us to respond on autopilot when stress is high. But it may also come into play when we are feeling empathic, and if not controlled it can evolve to unproductive fretting, worrying or even anger. Time to reset, to re-center! This is what Ai Chi is all about.

Life changing experiences can have psychological effects, and sometimes those experiences happen to be linked with water. The decision of how we will respond to life’s experiences is ours. Ai Chi founder Jun Kono responded to the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan by adding some new Ai Chi steps to promote mindfulness. He observed the development of discomfort and a profound mistrust of the ocean following the storm. His empathy led him to share an opportunity to re-center with those who had grown fearful of water through their devastating experiences.

Following Irma’s havoc, my family was safe and they had even helped others to be safe during the storm. My safe haven escaped with only inconveniences. And I found peace as I gave thanks and recentered by doing Ai Chi in a quiet space.