Soldiers in the Fort Belvoir SRU program practice ai chi, a water-based version of tai chi, in the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital therapeutic pool. (U.S. Army courtesy image)
Soldiers in the Fort Belvoir SRU program practice ai chi, a water-based version of tai chi, in the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital therapeutic pool. (U.S. Army courtesy image) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Army Recovery Care Program

This past March, Soldiers assigned to the Soldier Recovery Unit, Fort Belvoir, Virginia practiced an adaption of a centuries-old martial art inside a pool. Ai chi is a water-based version of the Chinese martial art tai chi, which has origins dating back hundreds of years and is typically practiced on dry land.

The class is offered through the SRU’s Adaptive Reconditioning Program for Soldiers in the Army Recovery Care Program. Ai chi had a following from the outset and grew quickly.

“New classes can take a while to gain momentum, but that was not the case with ai chi,” Recreational Therapist Joby Lefever said. “From the start, ai chi always had participants and it grew in the first few weeks, which is why another class was added.”

Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Catherine Powers and Lefever instruct the ai chi classes in Fort Belvoir Community Hospital’s heated therapeutic pool.

“The warm water allows for slow, relaxed movement and increased blood flow to joints, tendons, muscles and ligaments, which helps reduce muscle weakness and joint stiffness,” said Adaptive Reconditioning Support Specialist Philip Rackham.

Ai chi consists of 19 movements that, according to Powers, are modified during the practice to ensure water stays at chest level. Slow movements are incorporated to work on range of motion and balance with a mindfulness component.

“Total body mindfulness takes place when the participant is incorporating everything and encouraging the whole body to be in the moment, instead of just the brain,” Powers said.

In addition to the movements, ai chi also focuses on breathing to help participants achieve total body mindfulness.

“During ai chi practice, breathing is matched with movements,” Lefever said. “Everything is slowed down and focus is placed on the movements and breath, which should come from the diaphragm and be taken in through the nose and breathed out through the mouth.”

Lefever explained that Soldiers are not used to breathing this way, so they focus on learning the new breathing technique. This brings them into the present moment and creates an opportunity to experience an organic introduction to total body mindfulness.

Powers has found ai chi to be beneficial for participants with conditions like muscle issues, Parkinson’s disease, pain and back issues. She also provided a word of caution. “Soldiers who are pregnant or who experience uncontrolled seizures would want clearance from the hospital or a doctor for safety.”

Sgt. 1st Class Berdi Cekic has served for 37 years as a drill instructor, observer and trainer. He taught driver’s training for mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicles. Twice a week, he attends the SRU’s ai chi classes.

“Ai chi helps with relaxation,” he said. “Some of the movements take a little coordination, but the instructors are pretty motivating.”

Ai chi can be challenging, which may lend to its appeal. Lefever described a particular posture that is like doing a lunge while balancing on a tightrope in the water.

“The challenging aspects allow participants to see improvements,” Lefever said. “There is always something new to learn about your body every time you get into the water.”

The ai chi class has an education component that goes beyond simply learning the movements.

“People don’t always realize the benefits of slowing down, so I educate them about how ai chi can help with their recoveries,” Lefever said. “Ai chi is a workout and the balance aspect of it transfers to a lot of other things they want to do in life.”

Lefever encourages everyone to try ai chi or tai chi. “My suggestion would be to incorporate your mind and your body, even if it’s just for ten minutes a day,” she said.

Sgt. 1st Class Cekic is a proponent as well. “The program is very good,” he said. “I know it helped me and I’m pretty sure that it helps other Soldiers too.”