In the warm, shallow pool, a dozen women stand with their arms extended.|
As they sweep their palms underwater, gentle ripples rise to the surface and crisscross hypnotically. You could almost mistake the routine for a synchronized swimming rehearsal, except no one dips her head beneath the surface of the water. What they are practicing is ai chi.
A simple water exercise and relaxation program, ai chi uses a combination of deep breathing and slow, broad movements of the arms, legs and torso in flowing, continual patterns, performed in shoulder-height water at a temperature of 88 to 90 degrees.
Ai chi instructor Jane Kropp at the Two Rivers YMCA in Moline signed up for her first ai chi class at the Y during a period when yoga wasn't offered and really enjoyed it from the start. After taking classes for a while, Kropp was asked to fill in for an instructor. Her students thought she did such a great job that Kropp kept at it.
As someone who's been physically active nearly her entire life, Kropp finds ai chi to be different from other water classes. "I love it," she said. "It gives my body time to relax and reap the benefits."
The Y's ai chi class description promises "you will improve your range of motion and overall mobility, deepen your relaxation and reduce stress."
In her classes, Kropp gently guides students through various movements of the arms, legs and torso, also while concentrating on deep breathing. There are 19 poses in all, and Kropp reminds her students not to move too quickly.
Jun Konno, one of Japan's top swimming and fitness authorities, developed ai chi in the early '90s as a water relaxation exercise. Ai chi, which means "love" and "life force energy," is influenced by the flowing and graceful movements that typify many Eastern physical disciplines, including tai chi and qi gong.
Kunno asked Ruth Sova, founder of the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute, to help him spread this new form of exercise. In 1999 they published the book "Ai Chi: Balance, Harmony & Healing" and developed an optional certification program.
Like other relaxation techniques or forms of meditation, at first it may not appear as though much is happening. But ai chi provides many benefits associated with mind-body practices, such as effective stress management and better sleep. People of all ages, skill levels and physical abilities can participate, and you don't have to know how to swim.
Due to its gentle and soothing technique, many older adults and those with chronic physical conditions particularly will benefit from ai chi. But virtually anyone can derive benefits from its mind-body-spirit results.
Kathleen Farrell, 64, has taken ai chi classes for at least 10 years. She said when she started, she focused on the movements and positions. But now, "You turn everything off, except for what's going on at the moment," she said.
While she's in the water, Ferrell said, "I let it work. I don't do anything except accept the movements."
As for benefits, she said, "My energy level is up, and I have better balance, strength and flexibility."
One reason Ferrell likes the class and Kropp's instruction so much is that "it's never boring because it can be approached differently each week."
Two Rivers YMCA offers two ai chi classes. A current winter/spring schedule can be found online at tworiversymca.org.