Ai Chi – What It Is


Ai Chi is a water movement and relaxation program that has been created to help aquatic practitioners and clients enjoy the water in a flowing yet powerful progression.  It is an efficient exercise program that increases oxygen and caloric consumption simply with correct form and positioning in the water, it is a perfect relaxation technique for highly stressed, over-challenged clients, and it is ideal for creating improved range of motion, balance and mobility.


Ai Chi, created by combining Tai-Chi concepts with Shiatsu and QiGong techniques, is performed standing in shoulder depth water using a combination of deep breathing and slow, broad movements of the arms, legs, and torso.


It is an aquatic technique that can be used with groups or one-on-one and will expand the practitioners’ range.  While some protocols can be used with only a specific population group, Ai Chi has been successfully used with pain management, arthritis, fibromyalgia, COPD, diabetes, MS, amputee, paraplegic, etc. and with neurological and orthopedic diagnoses and balance deficits.


Participants are introduced to basic concepts of “Eastern Thought” such as circular movement, breath control, tranquility and moving with nature as they experience the upper extremity trunk stability and lower extremity movements and learn proper pelvic mechanics.


History of Ai Chi by creator Jun Konno


I was one of the youngest Olympic swim coaches on the national team around 1980, and watching slow-motion films of sea snakes swimming was part of my daily routine.  This was because I thought I could find some sort of inspiration for a new kind of crawl from the snake’s movement.  I had some particularly excellent crawl swimmers cool-down after every workout where they slither through the water laterally.  It resembled a snake’s movement, so for lack of a better word, I called this “snaking”.  They really like “snaking” and said that “if you do it, you aren’t as tired the next day.”


Then one day, a breast-stroker from England named D. Wilkie, who had set an astonishing world record at that time, came to Japan.  He was a fervent lover of yoga, and was famous, or perhaps notorious, for taking a lot of time before and after each workout to do yoga, and was regarded as a “strange athlete”.  He told me, “I know what kind of condition I am in on any given day, by the softness of the long axis of my body”.  I thought that perhaps snaking has the same sort of effect.  I subsequently resigned as a swimming coach, and forgot all about swimming including snaking. 


Ten years or so rolled by, and in the fall of 1991 I witnessed Watsu™ for the first time at the Aquatic Therapy Symposium held in Northglenn, Colorado. 


What I then witnessed was something entirely different from what I had imagined, which was “shiatsu performed in water.”  I was also very surprised to see the way they were holding other people in the water.  The movements were 3-dimensional and very creative.  I recalled the snaking that I had forgotten for all these years, and thought, “this might be the real McCoy!”


Watsu™ is normally performed in pairs.  The receiver floats horizontally in the water, and the giver stands upright while holding the receiver in the water.  There is bound to be some number of Japanese people, particularly among the elderly, who feel somewhat uncomfortable or awkward with this Watsu position. 


The advantage of the Ai Chi program that I introduced is that it can be done alone, without feeling uncomfortable or awkward. Participants can stand alone and achieve excellent benefits.  We work on the Meridian Stretch which extends the long axis of the body.  By heightening the flexibility in the long axis of the body, one can improve one’s posture, and assist in maintaining health because it puts the body and mind into a desirable balance.   Also, the Meridian Stretch is far more effective in water, under weightless conditions created by the buoyancy, than on land where the full forces of gravity are present.



The purpose of Ai Chi is relaxation.  In our hectic but sedentary world we found that we needed to exercise so we set aside time to exercise.  Now we find we have cumulative stress symptoms and diseases, and we have to set aside time to relax.


Since Ai Chi began we have found anecdotal support for the following responses to the program.


Flexibility, range of motion, balance, coordination and general mobility increase.  There are increases in metabolism, caloric consumption and blood circulation.  The yogic breathing massages vital organs and therefore improves liver efficiency.  The water and music are used to locate and free the body of stress and to encourage a state of relaxed awareness which in turn decreases stress, insomnia, depression, anger, fatigue, anxiety and confusion.  Increased mental alertness is another by-product of relaxed awareness.  Finally, the slow, flowing movement creates design sense (a feeling that you’re doing what the body was designed to do) and therefore, improves kinesthetic sense. Breathing creates most of the benefits.



The core of Ai Chi is breathing but it’s difficult to convince clients to simply breathe.  It doesn’t seem effective to them.  It’s easier, however, to ask them to breathe while moving.  That’s what Ai Chi does.  The basis of the breathing techniques is to bring balance to the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.


The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches, the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems.  The parasympathetic system involves resting activities, which slow the heart rate, speed digestion, and activate the cleansing processes of the body.  The sympathetic system involves activity ranging from responding to emergency to normal physical exercise where the heart rate increases and blood is shunted away from the digestive and excretory organs.  For good health the sympathetic and parasympathetic should be in balance.


Balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic strengthens the immune system.  Unfortunately, our stressful lifestyles elicit a sympathetic response and keep us chronically out of balance.


The balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is reciprocal and determines the overall state of the autonomic nervous system at a given moment.  Chronic chest breathing can perpetuate or cause a state of sympathetic nervous system arousal.  (Rama)


Chest breathing elicits a sympathetic system response which, if continued decreases the strength of the immune system.  Diaphragmatic breathing elicits a parasympathetic system response which assists in balance and increases the effectiveness of the immune system.  (Chopra)


Ai Chi’s deep diaphragmatic breathing can strengthen the parasympathetic system and bring balance to the autonomic nervous system.  We Westerners were taught that the autonomic nervous system portion of our functioning lies outside our awareness and runs entirely unconsciously.  In accepting Eastern thought we find we actually can affect and control the autonomic nervous system with the one portion of it which is both voluntary and involuntary, the breath.


Physical Movement Principles

  • Roundness, continuity, naturalness and slowness.  Slowness allows reflection and self-observation.  It is an excellent approach to teaching movement - especially if a person is fearful of changing movement patterns.  Clients need to challenge habitual movement patterns through continual self-assessment.  There is a Japanese proverb that says “Willow does not break under weight of snow.”  Stiff or inflexible branches, bones, and psyches will break.  The pliant willow doesn’t break.  Pliant bones, connective tissues and psyches won’t break.  Ai Chi will make us pliant.

  • Movements must flow (not forceful in the beginning of a move but of equal force throughout the move).  Work towards continuity with a continual flow between exercise movements.  Flowing movements integrate mental, physical, and spiritual energy.  Ai Chi is flowing, soft, round movements executed with a profound inwardly-directed focus.  It requires a non-judgmental attention to self.

  • Move with the water (muscles and joints will relax and eyes become partly closed).  Move naturally until the motions flow easily, with no straining. Ai Chi should be done slowly, gently, and quietly.  By eliminating all other thoughts you’ll achieve a unity of movement and consciousness.  Awareness of the mind’s presence in the various parts of the body is taught through the techniques of Ai Chi. With that training we can acquire greater degrees of health, fitness and longevity than through physical training alone.

  • Pelvic mechanics and alignment.  Correct alignment is crucial.  Twists created by the trunk stability movements are neutralizing, cleansing and organic.   They improve digestion and remove sluggishness.  They are effective in relieving backaches, headaches and stiffness in shoulders and neck.  After Ai Chi positioning is taught, natural, continual movement and slowness are taught, and then breathing is incorporated.

Advancing Ai Chi

Rather than add new or more moves we progress with Ai Chi by changing the focus.  We progress from “soma” to “psyche”, through relaxation, breath-control, meditation and unity.  Relaxation, the primary step, combines comfortable physical postures and proprioceptive awareness to create the ability for focus on breathing.  The breathing techniques, using “breath centering” while developing calm, serene and even breathing, lead to a meditative state.  In the meditative state, we attempt to control the conscious mind, and to calm and steady the mind.  The meditative state, after incredible practice controlling the involuntary system and the unconscious mind, can eventually lead to unity, the means for experiencing the deeper levels of being.


“Not only do our physical organs contain receptor sites for neuro-chemicals of thought and emotion, our organs and immune system can themselves manufacture these same chemicals.  What this means is that our entire body feels and expresses emotion - all parts of us “think” and “feel”.  White blood cells for instance can produce morphine-like pain relieving substances, and they in turn contain receptor sites for the same substances.  So if the ovaries, bowels and heart, make the same chemicals as the brain makes when it thinks, where in the body is the mind?  The mind is located throughout the body.”       Christine Northrup, MD


Health and medical professionals are now recognizing that the integration of mind, body, and spirit is what allows us to best cope with life’s problems.  (Moyers)  This integration is based on the notion that body, mind and spirit are inseparable.  It views the person from a quantum perspective in which the energy flowing through us is more important than our bodies.  Integration sees the body as a series of energy channels, the blockage of which is a fundamental cause of disease.  (Chopra)


Optimal health, then, is the integration and harmony of mind, body, spirit and emotions.  (Moyers)  Yet for many health professionals virtually all attention is placed on the physical well-being because it is the most tangible aspect of health.   Disease originates at the most subtle level of our mind and spirit and progresses until it reaches the physical.  Pain and disease are messengers of information not just of our physical being but of our overall being.  Too often we depend on external forces to “fix” our bodies and minds because we’re unaware of our own innate ability to achieve health.  We simply need to attain and sustain balance to achieve health.


In bodymind healing, a level of total, deep relaxation is the most important precondition for curing any disorder.  The underlying concept is that the body knows how to maintain balance unless thrown off by disease; therefore, if one wants to restore the body’s own healing ability, everything should be done to bring it back into balance.


Appropriate Patient Populations

Ai Chi has been successfully used with pain management, scoliosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, hypertension, CVA, fatigue, eating behaviors, weight control, breast cancer patients, balance deficits, type II diabetes, back pain, cardiac and pulmonary rehab, COPD, cancer therapy, arthritis, fibromyalgia, congestive heart failure, fall prevention, prenatal, menopause therapy, immunodeficiency disorders, orthopedic problems, mastectomy, RSD, MS, migraine headaches, anxiety and depressive disorders, and anger management.


Pelvic Mechanics and Ai Chi Positioning

The human body is designed for movement and with proper mechanics, it is not likely to break down with use.  When the body is in good mechanical alignment, all the forces acting upon it, both internal and external are balanced.  When a deviation from good postural alignment exists in one area, there is always a reactive deviation in another area.  Balance, in all aspects, is a goal of Ai Chi.


Proper body alignment or pelvic mechanics is extremely important in all bodymind and exercise programs but especially in this one.  Proper posture allows the weight of the body to be balanced.  When body segments are aligned, there is less likelihood of strain in the muscles and ligaments.


Begin with your feet in a wide stance.  Point your knees and toes somewhat out and keep your back straight.  Both arms are forward, palms down with thumbs touching each other.  Bend your knees until the water is at shoulder level and your arms are resting easily at the water surface.  Chin is relaxed and slightly down.  This is the beginning position.


Here are five hints to help with clients maintain good pelvic mechanics:

  • Think about lifting your rib cage

  • Think about lifting your pubic bone up toward your navel, but allow your natural back curves to remain in place.  Do not try to move with a completely flat back.

  •  Imagine a helium balloon holding your head up and lifting the weight of your head for you.

  • Think about your head moving up, not forward.

Facility requirements


Water temperature recommended for Ai Chi is 88-92 degrees F.  Lower water temperatures can be used after an adequate warmup or with varied breathing patterns such as in the ashtanga yogic technique. If clients become chilled, stop the program.  Blood and oxygen must be moving to the extremities to allow for full ROM.  If the client is chilled, blood will be shunted to the vital organs (not the extremities) and muscles will tense.  This is not conducive to relaxation and the full ROM Ai Chi movements.


Space requirements are about 25 square feet per person in water that is 12 to 18 inches lower than the person’s height.


Practitioner Education

Because of the different levels and depths of Ai Chi, any practitioner can use the program.  The best practitioners will be those who understand the bodymind … both the body and its disease processes and the mind as it connects with the body.


When Jun Konno showed me Ai Chi I told him it was wonderful and needed to be offered in the US.  He kindly asked me to write a book and make a video.  As I got into the Ai Chi project I had many questions for him.  One of them was “who can teach this program?” and another was “who can use the Ai Chi name?”  I needed to know what training he would require for practitioners to teach it to their clients.  I also needed to know if Mr. Konno wanted to trademark or license the Ai Chi name or program.


His response showed his depth and commitment to all human beings.  He wanted anyone, regardless of the depth of training, background or type of training to be able to teach Ai Chi. He did not want extensive training to be necessary (although it would have made him wealthy).  He felt the basic movements and breathing concepts always turned out the “way they were meant to be” and that teachers of Ai Chi would eventually “evolve” into excellence through their own desire to grow.


“Ai Chi precision is something to work toward but only in a non-judgmental way.  While we’re reconnecting our body to our mind (and breathing) we’ll go through a lengthy learning process.  We accept the learning and evolution as a kind and friendly path to follow.”


The courses offered in the Ai Chi evolution include a 4-hour Ai Chi Basic which gets a person started on the path.  Ai Chi Intermediate is another 4-hour progression that includes Ai Chi Ne (partner stretching) but, more importantly, teaches us how to take ourselves and our clients to the next level.  This improves the Ai Chi benefits.  The Ai Chi Certification is an 8-hour program that opens new Ai Chi direction and opportunities.


Whether we learn Ai Chi from a book, video, or in-person workshop we are accepted as teachers with the understanding that we will continue to grow and search.


Secondly, Mr. Konno wanted everyone to be able to use the Ai Chi name.  By licensing or trademarking the Ai Chi name and logo he would again have gained incredible wealth.  Instead he chose to allow all people to use the name Ai Chi unencumbered.


His grace comes through not only in the Ai Chi program but also in the “business” of Ai Chi.


Since Jun Konno’s decision not to trademark the Ai Chi name I have had to insist on it.  Anyone who teaches Jun Konno’s Ai Chi can call the program Ai Chi just as Mr. Konno requested.  The name cannot be used by people who make up their own program and call it Ai Chi just to capitalize on the Ai Chi name.


Enjoy It

No two Ai Chi sessions will be the same and that’s as it should be.  Every movement will have variations according to what you, your body and your psyche want that day.  It’s fine to eliminate movements, put them in a different order, and change the tempo or the number of repetitions.  Because we’re all different and Ai Chi serves each of us differently, we will all perform Ai Chi differently.  Experiment with Ai Chi, be free and non-judgmental with yourself, and remember that “however your progression turns out is exactly how it was meant to be”.




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© Ruth Sova 2005


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