A popular mind-body aquatics program cultivates life force energy worldwide.
“Ai Chi is the sigh we give when we’re at peace,” says Jun Konno, founder of Ai Chi and president of Aqua Dynamics Institute in Japan. Inspired by the popularity of Watsu®, a form of water-based massage therapy created by Harold Dull, Konno created Ai Chi to serve a need for a gentle, relaxing water movement practice. Although several other mind-body
aquatics programs have been introduced, Ai Chi has developed a particularly strong and loyal worldwide following as instructors spread their enthusiasm.
What underlies Ai Chi’s success, and how does the program serve the needs of its participants? Let’s look at the birth and growth of this pioneering aquatics program to understand its quintessential elements and how it has evolved to reach a global market.
In the mid-1980s, Konno saw a need for a group exercise program in warm, shallow water. He wanted to create something that would provide the same relaxing benefits experienced during water massage but without the intimacy of touch. He originally named his program “Water Breathing,” and the focus was on cultivating life force energy, or chi. While Ai Chi isn’t derived from tai chi moves per se, it is influenced by the flowing, continuous and graceful movements that typify many East Asian physical disciplines.
Eastern medicine takes a holistic approach to health that accounts for mind, body, spirit and the quality of life itself. Health is not viewed merely as the absence of disease. For example, a traditional Eastern healthcare practitioner looks not only at the body but also at emotional health and what is going on in an individual’s life. “Spirit” is not a religious concept; rather, it refers to the spirit of life and all of nature. Spirit is closely tied to chi, which is found in all living things and courses throughout the human body. This viewpoint is based on the belief that the healthy flow of life energy reflects a balanced mind, body and spirit and is part of optimal health.
Konno’s program embraces these qualities of traditional East Asian movement practices. With the strong emphasis on cultivating chi, he changed the program’s name from “Water Breathing” to “Ai Chi.” Ai comes from the Japanese word aisuru, which means “to love.” Putting both terms together to name the program seemed natural to Konno. Initially, he didn’t trademark the name because he wanted to support Ai Chi’s free growth. In 2004, however, he formally started the trademarking process in order to preserve the program’s integrity and to ensure that only people who practice Ai Chi use the name. Unlike for many other trademarked programs, however, no licensing fees are involved.
In the mid-1990s, Konno asked Ruth Sova, MS, president of the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute and founder of the Aquatic Exercise Association, to help popularize Ai Chi. As soon as she saw the program, Sova knew its value.
“Ai Chi entered my life at a perfect time,” Sova says. “I’ve always been busy ‘moving’ and couldn’t take time for stillness. Had Ai Chi been a ‘stillness’ program, I wouldn’t have become involved. I learned Ai Chi . . . and worked hard using the program as a physical way to relaxation.”
Together with Konno, Sova undertook the project of spreading word about the program globally. They published Ai Chi: Balance, Harmony & Healing in 1999 and developed a certification program.
According to Sova, who is currently president of Ai Chi International, approximately 8,000 instructors teach Ai Chi throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and Latin America. At the time of this article’s publication, 500 instructors had been certified. “The reason so many uncertified instructors are teaching the program,” says Sova, “is that Jun believes anyone can teach Ai Chi, even if they only learn it from a book. Over time usually one of two things happens. The instructor becomes bored and stops teaching, or Ai Chi takes the instructor to another level where she continues to learn and grow.”
Those interested in discovering Ai Chi can learn from other instructors, the book, the video series or the certification program. (See Resources on page 49.)
Participants practice Ai Chi in warm, shallow, chest-deep water. Exercisers stand with knees bent, body immersed to the neck. The program combines deep breathing with slow, broad movements. The arms, legs and torso flow in continual patterns characterized by “softness” and “roundness.” Ai Chi’s constant circular movements create a feeling of harmony that, with repetition, becomes internal and fosters relaxation. Like other East Asian disciplines, Ai Chi encourages movement in tune with nature.
Ai Chi includes a series of 16 postures. The exerciser begins with breathing and progresses by first performing upper-extremity movements; next adding trunk stability; then doing lower-extremity moves; and concluding with totally coordinated body movements. Three optional postures, which were a later addition to the program, can also be incorporated into the sequence. Each posture has a name that describes both the physical action and the mental association. For example, the first breathing posture is named “contemplating,” and the next posture, which incorporates arm movements, is called “floating.”
The three most important aspects of the program are (1) the significance of the breath and the autonomic nervous system, (2) the mind-body relationship and (3) the Eastern concept that “how it turns out is the way it’s meant to be.”
Breath and the Autonomic Nervous System. Attention to breathing patterns is characteristic of all ancient East Asian movement practices. Drawing on this tradition, Ai Chi emphasizes deep diaphragmatic breathing, which improves blood oxygenation. “In Western medicine we traditionally believe that we don’t have any control over the autonomic nervous system, . . . but we do,” says Sova.
The Mind-Body Relationship. Ai Chi exemplifies all the characteristic qualities identified by IDEA’s mind-body committee: The exercises include attention to a mental component, proprioceptive awareness, breath centering and proper physical form; and they are energy-centric.
“You [the instructor] really need to understand the ‘bodymind,’ ” Sova points out. “You are never working with just the body, but with the entire being. Understanding that whole concept is really important.”
However It Turns Out Is the Way It’s Meant to Be. “There is no right or wrong in the movement performance or sequence,” says Konno. He believes that everyone should learn the Ai Chi moves in the original manner, but since each person has a different need, each person will use the program differently.
“This concept is hard for Westerners to understand because we are so judgmental,” says Sova. “If we can accept the concept [that how it turns out is the way it’s meant to be] in Ai Chi, we can get on the road to accepting it in the rest of our lives.” Applying this concept of acceptance to Ai Chi practice means that instructors can reorder the moves, if appropriate, to serve the particular mind, body or spirit needs of their clientele.
Ai Chi provides all the benefits associated with any mind-body practice, including improved physical health, better sleep, effective stress and anger management, and reduced responsiveness to stress hormones. In addition, water’s hydrostatic pressure offers improved circulation and oxygen consumption. People who have limiting physical conditions enjoy the access to exercise that Ai Chi provides.
“I have had several patients in the past with chronic pain disorders, anxiety, depression and low quality of life blossom after experiencing Ai Chi,” says Donna Mooneyham, MEd, recreational therapist, special education teacher and instructor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. “I had one participant with obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fibromyalgia, arthritis and many other health problems tell me, ‘If I had only 1 hour a day to myself, I would spend it doing Ai Chi.’ “
One of Ai Chi’s strengths is that it is suitable for people of all ages and levels who simply need to relax. Due to its gentle and soothing nature, many older adults and people with chronic conditions are attracted to regular practice, but Ai Chi is equally valuable for healthy adults. The program as it was originally designed is ideally suited for warm-water pools (88–96 degrees Fahrenheit or 26–27 degrees Celsius). While Ai Chi can be adapted to cooler pools, some of the relaxing aspects may be lost if the movements are performed too rapidly. “The people who seem to benefit most from the program are those who have had some physical problems for a while and can’t get on top of [them],” says Sova. “These people are really ready and have the motivation to make [the program] work for them. While Ai Chi works for people who are healthier, they don’t seem to need the program in the same way as those with special conditions.”
Older Adults. Many instructors who teach frail elderly adults report that, after taking regular Ai Chi classes, participants experience improvements in balance and movement confidence, in addition to feelings of well-being. “The average age in my class is about 85,” says Elyse Baclar, wellness coordinator at The Mayflower, a retirement community in Winter Park, Florida. “The class appeals to those who can’t participate in the higher-energy water aerobics. It’s a good balance for those who are also more active. The residents love the gentle exercise.”
People With Chronic Conditions. Gentle, warm-water exercise seems particularly inviting to those who need a little extra help for their specific conditions. Bill Macy, director of the Waterford Health and Fitness Club in Medford, Oregon, says, “Most of my attendees have significant medical issues they are working to resolve or improve: poststroke [challenges], severe pain due to traumatic injury, arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, or surgery recovery. Many have . . . moved into our more ‘traditional’ aquatic exercise classes, but they tell me their Ai Chi foundation has given them the core skills and confidence to progress and is a primary reason for their success. Balance, awareness and body control have greatly improved among all participants.”
Children With Special Needs. Instructors also report great success in using the program with children to create a sense of calm and peacefulness. Connie Walker, health and fitness instructor, aquatics specialist, special education teacher and licensed massage therapist in Lancaster, Ohio, has found that Ai Chi is an excellent program for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Formerly I worked at a neurological center that had a school affiliated with it,” Walker says. “Each Friday I had a group of 16 children. The program was a wonderful way to introduce quiet and stillness to them. I used it to [help them] turn their focus to self rather than worrying about others around them. We worked on breathing, increasing oxygen consumption and creating a sense of ‘remembered wellness’ to help increase their ability to focus when distracted.
“I can still picture one little girl who would get an impish grin while doing Ai Chi. She would start to talk and I would put a finger to my lips saying that we were going to be quiet, and she would smile and continue [participating]. Her mother often told me that after the sessions, the girl slept better and was much calmer.”
As Ai Chi’s popularity spread throughout the world, Konno developed an additional series of stretches that extends the program to include partner work. The partner stretches involve nine movements that can be added to the Ai Chi sequence or used separately, as appropriate. Konno also created three series moves focusing on “cultivating the chi” that can be added to the progression. These poses find and gather the chi surrounding the practitioner’s body and then draw the energy within to provide nurturance and support.
Since accepting Eastern concepts can be challenging for some, Sova recommends that Ai Chi be experienced on whatever level is appropriate. The first level involves a completely physical focus. The second level focuses on the breath and how it coordinates with the various movement patterns. The third level, described as the “visualization journey,” concentrates on the moves’ meditative aspects and more spiritual elements. Ai Chi allows each practitioner to experience the program in the manner that is most helpful. This is the program’s essence and the heart of its message—love and support for all.
Ai Chi brings all the benefits of a mind-body exercise practice to the water, where people of all physical abilities can participate. By cultivating the mind-body connection, Ai Chi delivers its gifts to all who are willing and ready to accept them.
The fitness industry continues to expand to accommodate a breadth of programs that serve the needs of diverse audiences. Ai Chi is one creative way to Inspire the World to Fitness®.
By Shirley Archer, JD, MA
Facing left, with weight evenly balanced between both legs, abduct both arms back horizontally. Shift weight back onto the right leg. Abduct arms forward, bringing them together, and shift weight forward onto the left leg. Pivot both feet to center and face front. Pivot 90 degrees to the right and repeat in the other direction.
Alternately move one arm horizontally across the body and back through abduction and adduction while shifting body weight from side to side.
Cross both arms over the midline at the navel with legs in a wide stance, and open the arms across the body with elbows in as legs cross.
* These are partial exercise descriptions. More complete instructions can be found in Ai Chi: Balance, Harmony and Healing by Ruth Sova and Jun Konno (see Resources).
Do you want to try out some Ai Chi moves? Shirley Archer, JD, MA, will present “Liquid Magic” from 5:10 to 6:40 pm on Wednesday, July 6, at the 2005 IDEA World Fitness Convention®. To register go to www.ideafit.com or call (800) 999-4332, ext. 7, or (858) 535-8979, ext. 7.
www.atri.org/aichicert.htm (certification information)
Dull, Harold. 1993. Watsu: Freeing the Body in Water. Harbin Hot Springs, CA: Harbin Hot Springs Publishing.
Sova, Ruth, & Konno, Jun. 1999. Ai Chi: Balance, Harmony & Healing. Port Washington, WI: DSL Ltd.
“Ai Chi—Flowing Aquatic Energy” (VHS)
“Ai Chi—Cultivating the Chi” (VHS)
“Ai Chi—The Visualization Journey” (VHS)
“Ai Chi Physical Focus” (audiocassette)
“Ai Chi Visualization Journey” (audiocassette)
What attributes are needed to teach Ai Chi? Ruth Sova, who has trained and counseled thousands of instructors, offers the following insights.
1. An Understanding of Meditation and Relaxation. Ai Chi is finite; there are a limited number of moves. Relaxation is achieved through repetition, which creates a feeling of comfort, as if something is second nature. “You need to be able to accept that you are going to do the same postures and never have any other postures, and . . . go with it,” Sova explains. “If you feel that you always have to change, you will drop [the program].”
2. Excellent Teaching Skills. You must be able to teach alignment, breathing and relaxation. In addition, you must be able to lead people beyond the physical to reach the mind-body connection, and you must be comfortable with using silence as a teaching skill.
3. Acceptance. A core principle of Ai Chi practice is that however it turns out is the way it’s meant to be. To be successful, you need to embrace this concept.