As I write this we are already well into January and I wonder how many of us are sticking to those pesky resolutions we made a week ago; the old adage that things are much easier said than done seems very true. For while we may have set ourselves well meaning targets such as going running every day, joining a gym or abstaining from some food/beverage/tobacco product we like it is usually by the end of January we have given up our resolutions or have at least become fed up with trying to maintain them. The kind of New Year’s resolutions we normally set ourselves typically require fairly drastic changes in our lifestyle. Change is as good as a rest as they say and in this post I would like to suggest that it is actually small and simple day-to-day changes that can make real, long term differences to our lives rather than unmanageable upheavals. So here are two suggestions of little things we can gradually work on this year that are free of charge and can greatly improve our quality of life.
Number one: Walking.
In terms of exercise something just as simple and achievable as walking more can make a huge difference to our physical and mental health almost immediately. For the majority of us walking requires little effort (although waterproofs may be required!) it is free of charge and gets you out and about in the fresh air. The natural movement that walking demands requires whole body movement and coordination, though we often take for granted how easy it is. As we stroll along we tend to notice our external surroundings much more; the breeze on our face, the ambient birdsong or perhaps most importantly the feeling of the ground under our feet. In this way our perceptive faculties are stimulated and minds soothed as the nervous system becomes more balanced as a natural consequence of actively engaging our senses; very beneficial and manageable all round. Better still is that if we slow down a little and specifically pay attention to how we walk and what is happening around us as we do so then these benefits can be greatly augmented. A bit like a casual Tai Chi practise I suppose.
Number two: Breathing.
You don’t need me to tell you that breathing is vital for our existence; if we stop breathing for just a few minutes we’re in serious trouble. The funny thing is that many people are quite unaware of their breath and habitually take shallow breaths for the most part. Shallow breathing comes mainly from the upper portion of the torso. It hardly engages the diaphragm as is required for an optimum breath that is both full and relaxed. It is suggested that such partial breathing only uses around 40% of our lung capacity and is detrimental to all the key systems of the body and thus the mind. Often we stop breathing altogether, albeit for short periods, without realising it and usually it is when we experience stress we are much more likely to shallow breathe or hold our breath periodically. By developing better breathing habits not only can we gradually reduce levels of stress but also enjoy a wide range of sustainable health benefits.
Our breath is largely unconscious; it is regulated quietly in the background via the autonomic nervous system and usually we pay it no attention. It can also be a conscious activity allowing us to influence the way we breathe through awareness. The amazing thing is that we can affect our autonomic nervous system and the regulation of stress by being conscious of our breath. Concious slow, rhythmical and comfortable breathing can gradually soothe and bring down elevated levels of stress. The good thing is that over time and through practise such wholesome breathing becomes simply a natural trait rather than merely a stress relief tool.
The single most important principle of breathing is to simply become aware. It sounds almost too basic to be true but being able to clearly observe and recognise the sensation of breath and feel the bodily mechanisms involved brings into consciousness what it largely unconscious and starts to allow us the psychological and physiological space necessary to calm down and relax. Try it out for yourself. Usually by casually observing ones breath and focusing upon the natural sensations involved people find they naturally take deeper more relaxed breaths. This is ideal because we do not want to ‘control’ our breath (a popular misconception!) but instead merely let go of that which inhibits this natural process. As we relax and observe we might discover that breathing is a motion that actually permeates the whole body in the most fundamental way.
From my perspective as a Tai Chi teacher everything we do is in fact exercise of some kind or another for the human body and mind mould to how they are most often used. The amazing thing is that this moulding process is never ending throughout our lives. Just by being aware are we able to augment what happens naturally. With this in mind we might start to see that simple day to day changes in our general activity levels can have a big impact on how our bodies and minds develop over the years. So there we go, walking and breathing, two simple things to experiment with this year and here’s something to mull over until next time. There are many curious and wise sayings that come from classic Tai Chi texts regarding how we might look after our health. Two of my favourites are as follows. Firstly, that looking after ones health is like saving money in the bank i.e. small deposits should be made both little and often, and secondly, that it is best to tackle the difficult things while they are easy!
Sam Moor is senior instructor for Sussex Tai Chi and runs regular Tai Chi classes and workshops in Chichester, Lavant, Arundel and Midhurst. For details of classes, seminars and 1:1 tuition see website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk