Tai chi breathing for health, peace and comfort – a simple practice

Tai chi breathing for health, peace and comfort – a simple practice

It’s been a strange summer – the Olympics and Brexit, long sunny days and driving rain. With even more change around us than usual, it’s time for some deep, comfortable breathing!

Actually, it’s nearly always time for some deep comfortable breathing. We are a culture of chronic shallow breathing and holding our breath. Once you start to pay attention to your own breathing, you might notice you’re holding your breath more than you realised.

Many people, for example, hold their breath when they’re thinking hard, or when something unexpected happens, when they get up from a deep chair, turn over in bed and so on…

Does it matter?

Well, yes. For one thing, you have more reserves of strength and stamina than you probably realise, and breathing fully can help you access them when you need them – climbing a steep hill, getting through a busy day, or dealing with a sudden emergency.

Deep rhythmic breathing oxygenates your blood better, so that even if your circulation isn’t great, your tissues get more of the oxygen they need for operation, growth and repair.

It opens your lungs. (Did you know that the bottoms of your lungs can actually get ‘stagnant’ if badly underused? That makes disease and damage more likely, and who wants to have lungs like a pond anyway?)

It massages your abdominal organs, rhythmically pressing and releasing (you see your belly pushing out and in), helping them in their work, and keeping everything easy and free-moving. Great for the digestion!

Best of all, perhaps, deep comfortable breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the opposite of the stress-response, flight or fight system. This is where the feelings of peace and comfort come from. As your mind calms and relaxes, your body can get on with resting, digesting, healing and repair.

So I hope you’re convinced enough to do some easy, enjoyable practice! I’d suggest spending 2-5 minutes a day on the simple process below to start with.

As you settle into it, try extending your time, or doing a couple of short sessions. It’s a lovely way to start and end your day, particularly if combined with some gentle tai chi movements.

As ever with these tai chi-related things, taking it easy and staying well within your comfort zone will give you great benefits.
A Simple Breathing Practice

Think of a baby lying on its back fast asleep.

As you watch from the side, its belly rises and falls a surprising amount, in a gentle natural rhythm – that’s what we’re aiming for for ourselves.

If you have time and inclination, you can do what is now being done in some primary schools – the children lie down and put a stuffed toy on their tummies. Then they simply breathe so that Teddy moves up and down comfortably. Schools doing this for a few minutes a day report that the children are calmer and happier – and the teachers probably are too!

Our basic tai chi breathing practice is simply an adult version of this – although no lying on the floor or teddy is required.

The Tripod

Sit towards the front of a firm chair, with your knees apart and centred over your feet. Check that you can feel your ‘sitting bones’ resting comfortably against the chair seat. (Which means that your buttocks are mostly behind you rather than under you – much better for your back!)

Let your spine ‘grow’ comfortably up towards the sky – feel a very gentle stretch as the golden cord from heaven attaches to the crown of your head and suspends it. The tops of your ears are now reaching up gently to heaven, while your shoulders are comfortably heavy, descending towards the earth.

This is the ‘tripod’ position, which makes an excellent foundation for breathing practices, seated tai chi and sitting generally.

If your lower back is currently weak, you may find that it is tiring to do after a short time. Keep practising (with the breathing) in odd moments, and you’ll find your back strengthening too. This makes everything – standing, sitting, bending – easier!

Breathe:

1. Let yourself become aware of your breathing. Don’t change anything, just breathe and notice how you’re breathing, and how it feels.
2. Continue breathing, letting yourself start to slow down, relaxing your lower ribs and belly, and feeling how that changes things. (You might find yourself sighing or yawning. This is fine whenever it happens.)
3. Continue breathing, relaxing more and more, letting the relaxation spread to your whole body. It’s common for your hands, feet and face to feel heavy and ‘quiet’ – it’s all good.
4. Let yourself enjoy ‘feeling into’ your body. We spend a lot of time dealing with what’s outside us. This is a time to enjoy simply being a quiet relaxing body, breathing gently and increasingly slowly and deeply.
5. When you’re ready, open your eyes, and take a moment to re-orient yourself before leaping up and getting on with your day!

Frequently-asked questions

Should my eyes be open or closed?         Either is fine. Just check that the little muscles around them and your mouth and jaw are soft and relaxed.

My mind keeps racing.         That’s absolutely normal. No need to worry or berate yourself. (Some people do!). Just gently bring your thoughts back to what you are actually feeling, now, in your body. It can help to say, inside, “in…” and “out…” or somesuch as you breathe – as long as you say it in a warm, relaxed, sleepy sort of internal voice.

Like many good things, this skill takes a little practice – but it’s worth it. After a while, you can find your peaceful breath even under stressful circumstances.

Start with a little, and feel free to do it as often as you feel like it. Noticing and simply deepening your breathing can be done anytime and anywhere – but taking time a couple of times a day to deliberately notice, slow and deepen your breath is a great refresher and stress reliever.

Let me know how you get on!

Autumn Tai Chi

The autumn probably means less barefoot walking on the lawn (though if it’s sunny and safe, go for it!)  but it’s a wonderful time to be doing tai chi.

As is often said, tai chi is about harmony with yourself and with nature.

In our busy, over-stimulated world it can seem as if the seasons change in a flash – one moment it’s full summer, and the next, the leaves have already changed colour and started to fall… That sense that things are changing almost behind our backs – and going much too fast – is disquieting.

Tai chi can slow us down to an awareness of what actually exists at this particular moment. In our own kitchens or living rooms, it can help us recognise what we are actually feeling and experiencing – that slight soreness in a joint, the headache we’ve been ignoring for a while, a small sadness… As we relax our bodies and minds and feel our experience – rather than our plans, fears, anticipations –  we can loosen our discomforts and let them ease away, at least a little.

In our gardens, in a park or under a tree, tai chi can tune us in to what is happening in the natural environment around us, and let us tune ourselves in body at the same time.

Try finding a quiet spot and slowly and gently doing a few postures – whatever you remember is perfect, and it doesn’t need to be ‘right’ or complete. Relaxation, awareness, smooth slow motion are all that is needed.

(By now, I’ve got over the embarrassment of doing tai chi in public places – but when I started a few years ago, I felt extraordinarily conspicuous. However, tai chi out of doors is a different experience and one you owe yourself. And no-one ever complains – people smile, ask questions, or simply pay no attention.)

It’s normal to begin with your head full of chatter, self-consciousness, to feel physically awkward and stiff.

Keep going, and as you move, let your gaze slowly soften. Let yourself gradually become more and more aware of what is around you – trees, perhaps, bird and animal sounds, distant traffic, the sky, the texture of the ground beneath your feet.

Internally, allow yourself to become quieter and quieter… Mind and body relax together as you become part of everything happening around you.

And if you’re not sure about actually moving in public yet, try standing or sitting quietly, and doing some tai chi in your head. Maybe just one arm to start with – relax it, feel its weight, and gently let it lift in your mind… When you’re ready, bring in the other arm…

Some people find this easy, others take more time to fall into the way of it. It’s a skill worth developing.

Enjoy your autumn tai chi out of doors as much as possible!

The 5 minute daily tai chi practice – a new course

This post formed part of the 10 June email to students of River Dragon Tai Chi:

4    The 5 min daily practice – a new course is on its way

Doing tai chi/qigong daily is a good thing! Some people find it easy to make it a habit, others find it harder. (I am one of the latter.)

I’ve been chatting with a few people who like the idea of having a little help with ensuring they do something every day. It’s particularly important for the over-stressed among us, since stress actually makes it harder for us to set up habits.

I’m currently developing a little course to help with this.  In its current form, it would run over 6-8 weeks. Each week, you would receive 2 or 3 short audios.

Starting with a first 5 minute audio, you simply decide when you want to do your practice (after brushing your teeth? after breakfast? after your 11 o’clock coffee?)

Press play, and follow the instructions. You don’t need anything but a square metre or so of space, maybe even less.

Over the weeks, the audios build from just 5 minutes up to around 20 or 30. You’re talked through aligning yourself physically, feeling your body, sinking the qi, running through the Foundation Practice (the “warm up”) and possibly other things, depending on demand and feedback. Emphasis is on using the movements not only to improve body coordination and health, but de-stressing too.

I am designing the audios so that you can pick and mix – according to what you most like, but also what you feel you need at any particular time. For example, on a busy day, you might choose to do 10 minutes mostly focusing on de-stressing, calming and aligning body and mind. That evening though, you might prefer to run through the whole Foundation Practice, and follow it with a quiet sinking the qi session before bed…

So, bit by bit you both build up your practice time (and reap the benefits), and build yourself a little library of easy to use audios that you can adjust to suit yourself.

What do you think? Might this be useful to people? I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback! Just hit reply…

Don’t worry if this doesn’t sound like you, you absolutely don’t need it to continue to come to class – it’s intended for people who can’t get to one of the classes (I’ll be making it available online), and people who want a bit more practice.

(However, if you think you might be interested in joining in, do let me know as soon as possible – I’d love a few more beta testers!)

Peonies, summer feet and monkeys… June 10 email

This is the 10 June email to past, present and prospective students of River Dragon Tai Chi. To add yourself to the mailing list, email Anne(at)RiverDragon.org

 

Pink peony

 

Hallo tai chi friend

I hope you’re enjoying this warm weather.

This is a favourite time of year for me, partly because I can bring home an armful of gorgeous pink peonies with my shopping!

The peony is probably China’s favourite flower, and has great symbolic significance. It generally represents prosperity, happiness and peace, and is a favourite in Chinese flower painting and wood carving. You might find it along with pine branches and a jagged rock, where together they stand for something like riches, reputation and longlife.

Peonies also often appear, along with lotus flowers, chrysanthemums and plum blossom in sets of 4 paintings or panels. These are the flowers associated with the seasons. There are somewhat varying views of which belong to which season, perhaps because China is such a big place that the flowers come out at different times. However, the order is the same – the peony is the spring/early summer flower, lotus is summer, chrysanthemum for autumn, and plum blossom for winter or early spring.

The peony plant in my courtyard has a single fat bud – the first since it was repotted several years ago. Every day I visit it, remove any aphids and whisper sweet nothings. I can’t wait for the flower to emerge!

 

1    This week at Wasperton (Wed 3-4) and Kineton (Thu 6.30 – 8): more repulsive monkeys!

2    The Yang Repulse Monkey – a few points for practising

3    The walking of summer feet on summer lawns – an effortless way to improve balance

4    The 5 min daily practice – a new course is on its way

 

1    This week at Wasperton (Wed 3-4) and Kineton (Thu 6.30 – 8): more repulsive monkeys!

Really excellent work last week in both venues starting to learn this complex and beautiful movement. We’ll continue this week, taking it gently and putting together the torso, arm and leg movements and beginning to let the rhythm emerge.

Last week’s Deepening Your Practice session at Kineton explored some of the issues of walking with your head up, not looking at the ground… more this week, along with sinking the qi practice…

 

2    The Yang Repulse Monkey – a few points for practising

Give yourself time to build up this movement gently. Learn the separate parts and practise enough that they begin to become natural and smooth. Then start to put them together.

Coordinating the movements is the hardest part. It takes a while to settle down, and you may – like me – find yourself revisiting the coordination for a long time to come. It’s a fascinating movement though, and all your effort will repay you. Over time, you’ll not only develop an elegant comfortable shape to it, which will be unique to you, but you’ll also be awakening additional brain plasticity – the holy grail of anti-ageing for brains!

We’ve divided the movement into 3 main parts:

First practise turning torso from side to side – as with all tai chi movements, this comes from the pelvis, not the shoulders, and is worth practising by itself. If you have a mirror handy, use that to check yourself. Your whole torso is smoothly and gently turning from facing straight forward to about 45 degrees right, and then coming back to face front. Then turning equally smoothly and gently left. Keep this movement to this size for the time being.

As you become comfortable with it, check that you’re relaxing throughout the move and that your eyes are (for now) tracking with your torso. (The eye movement is slightly more complex than this, but this is a great start.)

The second part is our arm movement – more on this in the next email…

And the third is the backwards stepping.

The main thing to remember is to keep your feet comfortably separated – if they come close together, it’s harder to keep your balance.

A good way is to imagine a brightly coloured wide ribbon stretching from between your feet and away behind you. Make the width about the length of your foot, so your feet are about shoulder width apart. As you step back, place your leading foot on its side of the ribbon. The following foot will actually touch down on the ribbon on its toes, but the ribbon won’t mind. Use it to keep the overall movement wide and stable – and demanding.

This is fantastic for your balance, but it takes practice. Make your steps small and comfortably within reach to start with. You will naturally make them larger over time, and there’s no need to rush.

 

3    The walking of summer feet on summer lawns – an effortless way to improve balance

This section also appears as an individual post in the blog.

Many, perhaps most, people feel that their balance deteriorates as they get older. (Though it’s clearly not a necessary part of ageing, as the many people dancing, running and climbing into their 80s, 90s and beyond demonstrate.)

Every specialist will explain that the roots of increasing balance problems lie in their specialism – brain specialists point to changes in brain maps for sensory nerves, others talk about changes in the vestibular system in our inner ears, joint specialists show us arthritic changes and bone damage, physiotherapists and body workers tend to talk about muscles and motor skills… Some fascinating recent work I’ve been looking at discusses the relationship between the way we use our eyes and our balance and motor skills. (I hope to share more of this soon; it looks very promising.)

Part of our trouble is that we want one thing, one system to be responsible for each ‘problem’. Then we’ll know what to do about it.

But they’re probably all right in at least some respects, don’t you think? We are joined-up, integrated organisms, not collections of isolated parts or even isolated systems.

Which is great news for us – exactly because everything is connected, everything we do has a wider effect. Train your muscles and you can’t help but affect your nerves, and therefore your brain, and your vestibular system… Train your sensory nerves, and the brain maps get bigger and more discriminating… Whatever you do, as long as you’re doing plenty of them (and preferably introducing new things all the time), you’re training the whole.

So here’s a simple summer recommendation:

At every opportunity, walk barefoot (or in thin socks or stockings) on grass. Free your feet from their shoe-prisons, let them flex and move naturally. Give the soles of your feet the chance to feel what the ground is like (rather than an insole).

Pay attention to the feelings and enjoy them – sun-warmed grass is very different from shadowed; longer grass from tightly shorn lawns, undulating surfaces from croquet and bowling greens… some turf is springy and deep, some hard and unyielding… Even that bit of twig that startles you is doing you and your deadened foot nerves a favour!

People studying the brain have found that the brain maps (the areas in the brain corresponding to particular groups of sensory nerves) for our feet are small and impoverished, compared with people who habitually go barefoot.

They put this down to the lack of stimulation our feet get, locked as they are into shoes most of the time.  The inside of your shoe is not a very interesting place! Your weight tends to be distributed evenly and to stay that way. There is little change in texture, temperature and pressure… so the nerves don’t need to send complex information to the brain, and the brain doesn’t need to make much room for the signals to be processed.

Worse, many shoes, particularly women’s, compress the feet into unnatural shapes, and force peculiar weight distribution, squashing nerves further, and accustoming us to a kind of numbness and unawareness of our feet – apart from the pain we may feel at blisters, corns, bunions and so on.

The trouble is, that our feet are our major link to the ground when we’re upright. Impoverished signals from them mean we are less alert to changes in the texture and layout of the ground – hence, it’s easier to trip.

As you know, in our tai chi classes, we spend time feeling our feet, becoming aware of the weight distribution across our soles, grounding ourselves… but in summer, you can add immeasurably to this by walking barefoot wherever possible and safe. And it feels wonderful!

Of course… safety is important too. Choose good places, look out for sharp objects, step gently, and check your feet when you get back inside, especially if you’re diabetic or have poor circulation. Make sure that any cuts or grazes are attended to. (If bending to see your feet is a bit harder these days, share the work with a good friend! And perhaps accompany it with a gentle foot massage…. also a wonderful awakener of feet and supporter of good balance.)

 

4    The 5 min daily practice – a new course is on its way

This section also appears as an individual post in the blog.

Doing tai chi/qigong daily is a good thing! Some people find it easy to make it a habit, others find it harder. (I am one of the latter.)

I’ve been chatting with a few people who like the idea of having a little help with ensuring they do something every day. It’s particularly important for the over-stressed among us, since stress actually makes it harder for us to set up habits.

I’m currently developing a little course to help with this.  In its current form, it would run over 6-8 weeks. Each week, you would receive 2 or 3 short audios.

Starting with a first 5 minute audio, you simply decide when you want to do your practice (after brushing your teeth? after breakfast? after your 11 o’clock coffee?)

Press play, and follow the instructions. You don’t need anything but a square metre or so of space, maybe even less.

Over the weeks, the audios build from just 5 minutes up to around 20 or 30. You’re talked through aligning yourself physically, feeling your body, sinking the qi, running through the Foundation Practice (the “warm up”) and possibly other things, depending on demand and feedback. Emphasis is on using the movements not only to improve body coordination and health, but de-stressing too.

I am designing the audios so that you can pick and mix – according to what you most like, but also what you feel you need at any particular time. For example, on a busy day, you might choose to do 10 minutes mostly focusing on de-stressing, calming and aligning body and mind. That evening though, you might prefer to run through the whole Foundation Practice, and follow it with a quiet sinking the qi session before bed…

So, bit by bit you both build up your practice time (and reap the benefits), and build yourself a little library of easy to use audios that you can adjust to suit yourself.

What do you think? Might this be useful to people? I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback! Just hit reply…

Don’t worry if this doesn’t sound like you, you absolutely don’t need it to continue to come to class – it’s intended for people who can’t get to one of the classes (I’ll be making it available online), and people who want a bit more practice.

(However, if you think you might be interested in joining in, do let me know as soon as possible – I’d love a few more beta testers!)

See you in class,

Warmest wishes

Anne x

 

 

Learning the Yang style Brush Knee movement

27 May 2014 – This post was first sent as part of the weekly newsletter to past and present class members. The Brush Knee movement referred to is taught as part of the Tai Chi for Osteoporosis form put together by Dr Paul Lam and his colleagues.

 

Last week in both classes, we worked very hard on the brush knee movement. This is related to the brush knee twist step that many of you know better from Tai Chi for Arthritis, but there a couple of differences.

First, there’s no twist – instead of turning left or right through 90 degrees, we move straight forward.

Second, we join these movements together with the Yang weight shift.

The weight shift is strange at first. We move our weight deliberately forward from back foot to front with a powerful action of the arms. But then, instead of following up, we shift our weight backwards. The forward toe turns out a little and we step the back foot up to start the move on the opposite side.

This ‘rocking’ movement is characteristic of Yang, and takes a bit of getting used to.

Initially it can feel as though we keep interrupting ourselves just as we’re getting going. But that’s just what’s important about it – it asks us to pay attention to the detail of our movement, to know where our weight is at any time.

After a while, this interrupted, shifting, movement becomes ‘addictive’. You might find yourself doing it at odd moments, enjoying the feelings of control, balance and poise. This is when it starts to become naturally a part of you – and you become comfortable and graceful at this more demanding level.

The arm movements – particularly where the non-brushing arm does a graceful arc up and to one side before passing by your ear and then pressing forward – become smooth and relaxed.

Give yourself plenty of time to learn it, and be kind to yourself when your own capability comes and goes. You get it, and then it seems you haven’t… and then it’s there again.

This is simply a normal part of learning. Tricky, demanding skills don’t come all at once. You work at it, concentrating, trying to get it right. Then you seem to have grasped it – it all goes perfectly several times in a row. You start to relax, and then, disaster! you find yourself continually on the wrong foot.

What’s happened here is that you have got it – at the global level. You have a sense of the overall shape and rhythm. But there’s more to it. Of course.

At this point, you’re working to develop the details, and as these sort themselves out, it’s natural to make mistakes, lose the rhythm – and get a little frustrated.

Time, plus practice, persistence and patience will see you master the movement, better and more deeply than before.

As you develop more and more depth in your tai chi, this will happen over and over again. Something you thought you knew will become problematic. You’ll be uncertain about the exact shape, the  rhythm, the direction… it will seem awkward, where before you thought you knew it, or perhaps it had gone so smoothly you had never even thought about it.

Recognise this as a reassuring sign that you are learning! Give yourself time, practice, persistence and patience, and your skill will return, only deeper and better than before.

Enjoy your practice!

Any questions? Was this useful to you?

Tai chi results in 5 daily minutes

13 May 2014 – This post was first sent as part of the weekly newsletter for past and present class members.

 

Many of you have told me that doing the class once a week, with no other practice at all, has excellent results. I’ve heard about better sleep, less back pain, better posture and body comfort, more energy…

And yet, if you do even 5 minutes a day, steadily, every day, you can expect even better and more results.

The reason is this: when you do your tai chi (or anything physical or mental), two things are happening.

First you get the results from the moment – in tai chi, your circulation improves for a while. Your breathing deepens and the extra oxygen helps growth and repair speed up in your body. Your mind calms, and that changes your nervous system from a stress response to a relaxation response – which feels great, and lets your body work as it is intended to.

This is pretty useful, isn’t it? But there’s more.

The second thing happening is that you’re training your body and mind. You’re training them to do these things – improve circulation, breathing and calm – and to do them more easily and more deeply. Every time you go through these experiences, you ‘groove’ them a little more into your brain and your body, into your neurology.

That means, every time you do your practice, you get a little bit of extra benefit on top.

How much extra benefit you get depends on how frequently you practice. Your mind and body like to learn fast – if I show you a new tai chi movement one month, and again the next month, and again 2 months later, you’ll probably find it hard to remember the details. If I show it to you one morning, and again that evening, and then twice more the next day, and again the next,… you’ll soon have it by heart, even if you never formally ‘learn’ it.

Practising your tai chi every day, even for a short while, gives your mind and body a real chance to groove the benefits in. And that means that the benefits get stronger and deeper. After a while, even thinking of your practice will set off a wonderful chain reaction. At this point, think of doing tai chi, and your circulation will be boosted, your breathing and mind will calm, you’ll be energised and ready for anything. Even in the middle of the most stressful day.

To start to reap these benefits, doing your tai chi for 5 minutes once a day is a good beginning. If you can do 5 minutes twice a day, you’ll see the difference. If you can find 20 minutes, so much the better.

And you probably can’t do too much. There are many stories from China in which people have recovered from terrible accidents, dangerous diseases and deep misfortune and unhappiness by doing tai chi and qigong for 2 – 6 hours a day.

When will you do your next practice?

The Owl Gaze – some notes and ideas for practising

28 April 2014 – This post was first sent as part of the weekly email for past and present class members.

People who have been doing tai chi for a while know that the direction and quality of your gaze is important. It’s just as important a part of the tai chi movements as the positioning of your limbs.

Really they’re all part of the same thing: your mind is learning to direct your body and your energy, and of course this has to include the way you use your eyes.

The eyes are special, though, because information is going both ways. They are part of how you direct your attention out into the world, and how you take in information about that world.

(Actually, it would be true to say that all of you is doing both, but it’s very easy to understand this about the eyes.)

Now, it’s tricky to learn the eye directions when you’re following along with me or with your classmates. The direction of your eyes is not entirely your own! I’ll say more about this another time.

But the other crucially important aspect is the quality of your gaze. This you can practise anywhere.

The tai chi gaze is soft, open and aware of everything in your environment. It’s a practice used in many different areas – martial arts, learning, meditation, woodsmanship… Let’s call it the Owl Gaze.

Try this for a moment – stare hard for 10 seconds at something roughly 6 – 10 feet away, narrowing your eyes a bit and really looking for as much detail as you can.

Then, carry on looking at whatever it was, while you soften and relax your gaze. Soften your attention and feel the muscles round your eyes relax, as you continue to look.

Notice that you can now choose to be aware of a widening volume of the space around you. From an intent stare at a small area, you open up to something approaching half a sphere in front of you – you can be aware of the space in front and above, below and to each side. If you hold your arms out to each side you can establish how wide your view is – just move your arms forward a little until you can pick up their movement.

So you have created a really large field of awareness. (Most people seem rarely to do this. We use our intent (foveal) gaze such a lot of the time.)

Keeping the Owl Gaze means continuing to be aware of this large field, noticing whatever happens within it, while remaining calm-minded, peaceful and unengaged. It’s fine to be interested, but your emotions are not involved.

Try the focused stare again, and then relax slowly into the Owl Gaze. This time, as you soften your gaze, notice how it affects the way you feel internally. Most people find that their whole body tends to relax, their mind and emotions tend to settle and calm, and there may be a general feeling of the mind brightening and the energy sinking at the same time.

This is perfect for tai chi – and, of course, for learning new things, for surviving in wild places, and for fighting off attacking ninja hordes!

If you’ve enjoyed doing this, then try the exercise of moving from highly focused to the Owl Gaze a few times each day, and then staying with the Owl for longer and longer periods.

This will transform your tai chi, and it’s very good for calming and de-stressing yourself. It’s also great for driving, especially at speed on motorways – a wide calm field of view that takes everything in – perfect. In fact, it’s a good way of doing many things (including writing this email).

And next time you’re in a coffee shop or at a party, when you’re not required to pay deep attention for a moment – just go into owl gaze and notice how much you can see, without focusing on anything in particular. You can often tell a lot about people’s mood and intentions, just by becoming gently aware of them against the backdrop of the whole scene. It’s an interesting exercise. Try it at your next tai chi lesson, too!

I would love your questions and feedback on these emails. Please let me know what you think!

4 Reasons to Improve Your Posture Now – Part 2

 

 

People with forward-leaning posture
When your head leans forwards, it pulls your shoulders forward too. We call it a stoop.

 

The position of your head matters

Your head is heavy! All 6 to 8 pounds of it.

Think of yourself standing up. If that head weight sits comfortably over the middle of your body, it’s supported from underneath by your spine. Which is itself supported by your pelvis and then by your legs and eventually by the earth. The weight ‘runs through’ you to earth – which makes it easy to deal with.

What goes wrong when you hold your head forward

On the other hand, if your head is hanging forward (the most common position – just look around you on any city street), your body has to work to stop it pulling you over. So your neck, shoulder and back muscles tense to keep your head in place. This tends to round and hunch your shoulders forward, a tightening of the muscles which gets worse when you’re stressed. which is where the tension headaches and stiff shoulders often come from.

Try it for yourself. Sit or stand straight(ish), and move your head gently forwards and back. Notice how the pull on the back of your neck changes with your head position.

(It can be hard to feel from the ‘inside’ at first – we’re usually not used to paying attention. Try putting your fingers gently on the muscles running on each side of your spine and moving your head slowly forward and back. Feel how they tense and relax?)

A little thought experiment

People are often so used to the pull of their downward leaning heads that they don’t notice it any more. So try this as a thought experiment to make it more obvious. Imagine strapping a kilo bag of say, sugar, to your forehead with something, a soft belt, perhaps. Now, in your mind, lean a little forward with the sugar on your head and feel how your body responds. Notice the lifting and tightening of the shoulders and the back of the neck, the shortening of the neck as your chin drops backwards, perhaps some tension round the mouth?

(The mouth is not directly involved in carrying the extra load, but often tenses as if in sympathy with the muscles that are. This is wrinkle territory, and makes you look more miserable!)

This is basically what you’re doing when you carry your head forward. It’s not a good look, and it’s not good for you.

The Golden Cord From Heaven – an easy way of getting your head into the right place

Here’s one way of improving it.

Imagine a golden cord hanging from heaven (as the Chinese say). It’s attached to the very top of your head – where the fontanelle closed when you were a baby.

Your head is suspended perfectly from the cord so you don’t need to worry about its weight anymore.

You’ll find your chin tends to drop a little (if you let it – we generally carry them raised and poked forward a bit), your face and scalp will be able to relax, your eyes look straight forward (a level gaze – very powerful).

In this position your neck can lengthen and loosen, your shoulders open and drop. Your circulation improves automatically, along with your digestion. Your mind clears… in seconds you’re more peaceful…

Congratulations – you’ve improved your appearance, your health and your mood in moments!

4 Reasons to Improve Your Posture Now – Part 1

Look around you – how are people using their bodies?

I’m fascinated by posture.

I ignore the arguments of politicians on the tv to gaze thoughtfully at the way they sit and imagine how it could improve. Someone shows me an old photo, and I look to see how people are standing – how would it feel to stand or sit like that? Sitting in a coffee shop, I look round, trying to correlate body position with faces. I’m wondering whether slumping physically makes you a little more dismal, at least to look at.

 

People with forward-leaning posture
We get used to leaning forwards – it becomes a way of life.

 

Once you start noticing, it’s clear that your posture affects you enormously. And it affects the way others see you.

4 Reasons to Improve Your Posture

1.  Your body position affects your mind. A good body position helps you to a good mood.

2.   Your body position affects other people’s minds! When your posture is good, you look more competent, more confident and more attractive to others. When your posture is poor, however…

3.   Your body position affects your health. When you let your body work the way it’s designed, you breathe well, your organs work, your muscles do what’s needed but no more. Get it wrong, and you restrict breathing and circulation, your muscles tense…

4.   Your body position now affects your future health. Your habits in the present determine much of your future. Carry your head forward and down now, and the extra work for your spine and musculature makes that ‘old person’ stoop more likely later.

Makes sense?

So what’s good posture then?

Think of good posture this way – it’s the way of holding your body that creates the least unnecessary work.

Good posture = no unneeded muscle work

When you’re using your body really well, only the muscles required to carry out the actions are working. All the others are relaxed. (Sounds easy enough, but in practice we’re used to tensing all over – just watch a class of six year olds having a writing lesson to see how early we learn this.)

Carrying your head forward (or back, for that matter) requires extra effort, even if we no longer notice.

See Part 2… for a way to explore your own posture, plus a quick way of improving it.

 

‘Mindreading’, other people and a cat

 

Sleeping Cats
Girlcat and brother, blissfully asleep. (I’m not singing.)

 

I sing sometimes.

Well, alright, singing is actually one of the most important things in my life. When things are flowing, it can be a perfect mix of the physical and the emotional. (Perhaps because when you’re breathing that deeply, you literally get a rush of oxygen to the brain.)

However, I don’t sing particularly well, which has its problems.

Like lots of people, I learned somewhere along the line that there wasn’t really any point in doing things like singing or dancing or acting unless you could do them really well. Those of us who weren’t pretty good from the start began to watch other people’s faces for mockery, contempt, embarrassment… and we generally found it. Maybe it was genuinely there, maybe it was a reflection of our own fears. Either way it was tough to continue putting ourselves out there. Lots of us stopped singing, dancing, acting – which is odd, because these things seem to be fundamental human behaviours. (Though being willing to go on the X Factor must require something extra!)

A few years ago, after a 30 year break, I started singing again – that is, I started to have lessons. (I had done a fair amount of humming in the interim.) I think I was pretty much inaudible to start with, and I was very happy to hide behind the piano accompaniment.

I have gradually got noisier and more opinionated. (Well, I suppose I was always opinionated, I just didn’t say what my opinions were). When the piano stops sometimes and you have to go on singing, all by yourself, I now don’t feel quite so intimidated, and I am a bit more willing to let people see that the music means something to me.

However, I am still  vulnerable to other people’s opinions – or rather what I think they are.

Even the cat’s.

Our female cat, excitingly named Girlcat, showed great musical promise as a kitten, promenading up and down the piano, apparently enjoying the sounds she made. However, like many young prodigies, she gave up, and at the age of 14, hasn’t played for years.

She retains her keen ear, however, and leaves the room as soon as I start practising. She is polite about it, though, stopping after jumping off the sofa to stretch and then leave slowly, as if it had nothing to do with me screeching.

Prolonged experiment makes me pretty certain that it really is my singing that annoys the cat. (Her brother is either unbothered or too lazy to move.) It took some time to check that out, though.

Which is why I’m always intrigued when a client ‘mindreads’ on the flimsiest of evidence. It happens when people can’t ask what’s really happening…

“They don’t like me/aren’t interested/hate me…” when an email goes unanswered for a day.

“She thinks I’m stupid!” “How do you know?” “You should have seen the look she gave me!”

“I must have upset them.” (They didn’t smile at me in the corridor.)

“My boss hates me.” (She hasn’t said anything nice for a while.)

Perhaps they’re right, and their boss does hate them, their application went straight on the reject pile, the person they fancied doesn’t fancy them back, the strange look they got was because they’d made some social error. And then again, maybe not.

We all ‘mindread’ – that is, make up stories about what’s in other people’s heads. Interestingly, though, many of us choose to make up the worst possible stories, the ones that we most wish not to be true.

Hmm. So we see some behaviour out there in the world, make up the story that will make us most miserable – and then choose to believe it. Sensible, huh?

When this comes up in a coaching session, I often force my client to make up 5 or 6 stories, as different from each other as possible.

This is truly difficult at first. It seems so obvious that their interpretation is the right and only one.

But as they start to think of other possibilities, it becomes easier. And because we tend to have already thought the worst, all the new versions feel nicer. You can see them brighten up.

Then I ask, “Which of these are you going to choose to believe now?” and watch them think about it.

I think there are several things going on here – the process loosens the hold of the nasty story you originally told yourself. Multiplying the possibilities gives you a sense of space in the face of never really knowing exactly what is going on in someone else. And having a choice at the end puts you in a position of power and strength in your own life.

As I say, this starts out as really hard work. But after a few goes, clients start generating multiple stories automatically. If you can’t know what the other person in the situation is really thinking or feeling, you might as well mindread something that pleases you!

Try it for yourself.