Ai Chi is an aquatic exercise that strengthens and relaxes the entire body through a sequence of sixteen different postures, slow, concentrated movements and deep breathing. The basis for the exercise stems from Tai-Chi and Qi Gong ideals combined with techniques used in a water-based massage therapy called Watsu. The exercise is a progression by which participants begin practicing deep breaths in shoulder-depth warm water first. Movement of the upper extremities is then added, trunk stability is engaged, and finally movement of the lower extremities until the whole body is gradually incorporated. The continual pattern of flowing movement among the arms, legs, and torso is characterized by a circular motion, which is intended to create a feeling of harmony and integrate mental, physical, and spiritual energy. By practicing proper form and positioning in the water, those who partake in Ai Chi can increase their oxygen and caloric consumption, improve their range of motion and mobility, promote flexibility and strength, and minimize problems like muscle weakness, joint stiffness, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
Ai Chi began in the mid-1980s when Jun Konno, president of Aqua Dynamics Institute in Japan, acknowledged a demand for a group aquatic exercise program. Inspired by Harold Dull’s Watsu therapy, Konno desired a similar experience of relaxation but without the inclusion of touch. He called his original program “Water Breathing,” which aimed to harness life force energy, or chi, by including the flowing, continuous, and graceful movements used in many East Asian physical practices. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), chi keeps you integral and healthy by moving through your body. As you might guess, disease is linked to issues with the flow of chi, leading TCM practitioners to believe that restoring proper flow will improve one’s health. As Konno continued to emphasize chi in his program, he changed its name to Ai Chi – Ai deriving from the Japanese word aisuru, which means “to love.” Konno says, “Ai Chi is the sigh we give when we’re at peace.”
In the mid-1990s Konno called upon Ruth Sova, president of the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute and founder of the Aquatic Exercise Association, to help popularize his program. Sova gladly accepted the request to spread the word globally, and together she and Konno developed a certification program and published Ai Chi: Balance, Harmony & Healing in 1999. Ai Chi quickly bridged Eastern and Western philosophies as it grew to reach nearly 8,000 instructors who now teach the exercise throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Although only 500 instructors have been certified, Konno believes anyone can teach Ai Chi, even if they’ve only learned it from a book because through the exercise, they are taken to another level where they continue to learn and grow.
Konno identifies three components of the program as the most significant. First, by drawing attention to breathing patterns through deep diaphragmatic breaths, Ai Chi makes it a point that we have control over our autonomic nervous system. Second, the movements are both energy-centric and focus on mental awareness, unifying the mind and the body. Lastly, according to Konno, “There is no right or wrong in the movement performance or sequence,” which allows each person to use the program differently and underlies the Eastern principle that “how it turns out is how it’s meant to be.”
Don’t miss out on the celebration of 20 Years of Ai Chi at this month’s National Aquatic Therapy Conference in Sanibel FL! June 23rd through the 26th Nekdoodle® and many more will be celebrating this amazing program for your body, mind and soul!