Shiatsu is a versatile full body treatment from Japan using hand pressure, acupressure points and stretches. It gives relaxation and pleasure while drawing on the ancient wisdom and remedies offered by Traditional Chinese Medicine . Here are some reasons why it is beneficial in pregnancy.
CALMING & ENJOYABLE Treatments create a soothing space where body and mind can relax and let go. Shiatsu improves the quality of breathing, loosen tight muscles and aching joints such as hips and lower back which are often problem areas in pregnancy. There is now a big body of evidence showing that the deep relaxation provided by complementary therapies such as Shiatsu results in fewer admissions to hospital, obstetric complications and C-sections. Being relaxed also reduces the heart rate of the baby and increases the birth weight. A 2016 study conducted in two hospitals in Australia found acupressure and stretching, techniques used in Shiatsu, reduced the risk of Caesarian and need for epidurals.
COMFY POSITIONS – The baby bump means lying on the back or front is often uncomfortable. Shiatsu offers alternative positions – without losing the satisfaction of a full body treatment with stretches and rotations for the spine, arms, legs, hips, fingers and toes. Expectant mums can choose choose to lie on their side, stay seated or even go onto all fours position supported by an exercise ball – this helps the baby go into the optimum head-down position for an easy birth.
IMPROVE THE CHANCE OF SPONTANEOUS LABOUR – Women having regular Shiatsu are more likely to go into labour spontaneously, according to research by midwifes in Bristol involving 66 pregnant women in 2005.
HELP MORNING SICKNESS & NAUSEA – A study involving 66 pregnant women in Korea found that use of acupressure point – Pericardium 6 – on the inside of the wrist soothes the queasy feeling that makes life miserable for expectant mums.
REDUCE PAIN & DELIVERY TIME – The acupressure point – Spleen 6 – on the inside lower leg is an effective tool in the delivery suite, according to a Korean study.
REDUCE RISK OF CAESARIAN – Use of acupressure point – Spleen 6 – on the inside lower leg can be effective tool for reducing the need for Caesarian births according to a study involving 200 pregnant women in Korea in 2004.
FERTILITY BOOST Shiatsu is increasingly popular with people wanting to improve fertility. It is not a miracle cure for infertility – but helps by improving general wellbeing and health. It is particularly good for relieving stress and unhappiness couples experience when they are struggling to conceive. Shiatsu practitioners specialising in fertility provide therapy for both man and women.
BREECH BIRTHS Acupressure points in the feet can help turn the baby as demonstrated by this short video
The Outer Hebrides has been ranked the happiest place in Britain in a new survey. But what is so special about a remote archipelago where a 70mph wind is a breeze and no one escapes the menace of the midge?
The answer lies in a curious but happy paradox. The Outer Hebrides satisfies the deep and conflicting human need for solitude, space and freedom – and a longing for meaningful connections and friendship. It is a place where you can experience emptiness – and profound fulfilment. The Gaelic name Eilean nan Gall or Islands of Strangers aptly describes a land where so many outsiders return because they feel at home.
A collection of holiday snaps I took during a cycle tour in September 2016, attempts to capture the unique qualities of Europe’s remote Atlantic edge.
Sea Travel – It begins with the simple pleasure of getting on a boat. Being buffeted by the wind and rain and dictated to by the whims of weather, cannot fail to bring a change of perspective. Ditch the illusion you are in control. Look at this world through the eyes of the famous Viking seafarers, who conquered the islands in the 8th century – and dominated it for 500 years. Incredibly, the expanse of untouched coastline, has changed little since the days of the Norsemen.
Gorgeous beaches – With the exception of Stornaway, the largest settlements are a sparse collection of houses with a few shops, a ferry terminal and a public toilet. With so few manmade distractions, it is easy to lose yourself in white sands, big skies and the rhythm of the tides.
Phone boxes – These antique, weather beaten structures retain their value in a world where mobile phone signals are often non-existent. They are emblems of peace – a reminder that it is possible to escape the all pervasive reach of mobile communication.
Wild camping – forget the mod cons and discover your inner resources with a simpler lifestyle. The islands are full of beautiful, accessible places to pitch a tent. Beware – you may need to use rocks as reinforcements when the wind blows.
Gatliff Hostels – when you’ve had your fill of emptiness, head to the friendly charity-run hostels in stunning locations on Harris, Bernaray or Uist for the solace of company. They are based in charming traditional buildings and are run with a generous, open-minded, easy going ethos – offering shelter at all hours. There are few pubs or evening activities on the islands, so they fulfill an important social function for Hebrideans and travellers alike, attracting people from all walks of life and ages. A welcoming open fire, no phone signal or WiFi, and accommodation which obliges you to sit round a table with strangers, fosters a special ambiance. You may find yourself swept up in the birthday celebrations of girls from Barra, a boozy night out for fishermen from Stornaway or an art class from Lochboisedale. The place attracts extraordinary characters, and, you’ll be guaranteed soulful conversations and whisky fuelled hilarity. Few things can beat listening to the howling wind from within.
Gaelic Chanting – The soft, throaty sounds of Gaelic continue to flourish on the Outer Hebrides despite attempts to ban it. It remains an everyday language used by more than 50% of locals. Astonishing traditional singing can still be heard in Church on Sunday. You don’t have to be religious or speak the lingo to be touched by the depth of emotion in these vocals.
The Machair – A barefoot walk through lush, fertile coastal land, feeling the flowers between your toes, is a particularly delicious Hebridean pleasure. More than 40 different species flourish in soil which is composed of 90% shell. These include Orchids and quaintly named Mountain Everlasting, Spring Squill, Thrift and Eyebright.
Flight of Oyster Catchers – The thrilling aerial stunts performed by these black black and white coastal birds will make your heart flutter. They look their best against dull skies. The islands are a bird watcher’s paradise, you’ll be able to gaze at Gannets, Terns, Shags to your heart’s content. Watch out for the tiny but industrious sanderlings which dash back and forth across the beach, dodging the waves to pursue their prey.
Blessed Bus Shelters – I’m far from holy and never catch a bus, but I came to revere these simple structures. They give protection from the wind and rain and have an uncanny habit of turning up when you’re miles from nowhere in a gale and things are about to get desperate. It was a miracle when a big bag of unopened bag of Fruit Pastilles appeared on the floor of one shelter. It was Manna from Heaven reviving me when my spirits and blood sugar had reached a low point.
Lichen conquests – Nothing escapes the bearded fingers of this mysterious life form, which gives everyday things a magical appearance, such as this astonishing graveyard on Bernaray.
Stornaway Black Pudding – It is no wonder it is hailed a superfood, it is hard to match the warm feeling of being buoyed up by barley, blood and oats in a gale.
Standing Stones – Spend time in the company of the ancient megaliths that are icons for the islands and have been standing since 3000BC. It is good to see these dignified structures exist in their simplicity, without the excessive interference, ugly signage and barricades from the heritage sector.
Signposts – Names such as Seilebost, Losgaintir, Horgabost, Sgarista – come from Old Norse. They look and sound lovely and make interesting shapes in your mouth when you pronounce them. They are reminder of the cosmopolitan influences on the islands, which give them a distinctly different culture from mainland Scotland.
Shopping – The Outer Hebrides offers a alternative retail therapy due to the unique charm and scarcity of shops. Many are community run – which gives them a sense they are serving local interests – often providing a collection of important services on site – a cafe, heritage centre, public toilet, charity shop section, fuel. They always offer something to lift the experience out of mundane – a stunning view, a quirky jumble of goods in a small space, somewhere to practice your Gaelic or a herd of cattle passing the door.
With rare exceptions shops are closed on Sunday, an “inconvenience” which enhances their value because the absence of shopping is precious in the modern world ruled by retail. It obliges you to make arrangements that are out of the ordinary. Finding myself short of food one Sunday, I explained my predicament to staff at a local cafe thinking I could purchase a few items from their stock. Benny from the Temple Cafe on Harris, gave me his own groceries and refused to take a penny for them, a kindness I shall never forget.
A recent conversation with the Scottish-based artist Freya Payne, has helped me explore the similarities between the artist and Shiatsu therapist. I’ve often heard Shiatsu described as a healing art and art is commonly called therapy – but what exactly does this mean? Freya’s latest project strengthens the connections between the two disciplines. Monuments to Love is a series of commissioned projects marking major life events such as the passing of a loved one. In times of loss, discomfort and change it is common for people to turn to therapy to help them adapt and reconfigure. Freya’s latest work steps squarely into the territory of the therapist – with an artistic process that is as much about grounding, healing and repair as art production. Conscientious to this goal, she began a three year counselling training to prepare for the project.
“I wanted to create work that is the result of a shared conversation; art work that is potentially healing, grounding, affirming. I see a growing need for beautiful ritual objects that can mark the big events in our lives, can talk to us about love and loss, can accompany us and accumulate meaning,” she said.
The artistic process, like the therapeutic process, begins by listening to the stories, thoughts, needs of the families, communities and individual she works with. During this process precious relics are gathered – scraps of a favourite poem, an old earring, a beloved heirloom, a birth date – which are later integrated into the body of the art work. The tenderly crafted objects that emerge have the quality of an intricate puzzle – that are repositories of memory.
Shiatsu also begins in conversation. This is the space where we sift through myriad apparently unconnected details, words, memories, a favourite food and colour, the hour of sleep and waking, points of pleasure and pain. From these fragments we build our sense of the person, the body and its discomfort. At first the fragments or symptoms may appear disjointed and confusing – so we touch and hold them, soften the sharp edges, smooth the surrounding tissue to reintegrate them into the body. In this way Shiatsu is as hands-on as Freya’s artistic practice – with equal respect for craft, intricate detail and the frailty and shadows of the human condition.
The oriental physician works like an artist, writes Ted J Kaptchuk in The Web That Has No Weaver which explains the practices of Chinese Medicine.Shiatsu, which shares this tradition, looks at the whole psychological and physiological make-up of a person. The purpose is not to find a specific disease but to “render an almost poetic yet workable description of that person,” says Kaptchuk.
“The logic of Chinese medicine is organismic or synthetic, attempting to organise signs and symptoms into understandable configurations. The total configurations provide the framework for the treatment. All the relevant information including the symptom is gathered and woven together until if forms a pattern of disharmony. The therapy then attempts to bring the configuration into balance to restore harmony to the individual.”
Shiatsu is essentially based on intuition and creative feelings, according to Matt Woods, Shiatsu college tutor and practitioner for more than 20-years. “The role of therapist as artist is often overlooked, particularly in our culture where clinical outcomes, evidence based treatment and rationalist thought holds sway. It is easy to forget that Shiatsu is rooted in a healing art tradition and although it must involve technique to some degree and a theoretical structure these should never outweigh the intuitive and creative feeling based approach,” he said.
It is this process of listening, observing, gathering and weaving together of fragments and subtle details to reconfigure, to restore harmony, to find beauty and, above all, to feel pleasure – these are shared practices and goals in art and Shiatsu.
I was so touched and chuffed to receive this lovely testimonial from one of my Shiatsu clients that I decided to include here. Feedback like this makes it all worthwhile. Thank you Ali it has been a pleasure.
I have been fortunate enough to have had quite a lot of shiatsu over the years but the treatments I have enjoyed and benefited from health-wise the most, have been the ones with Heidi. She has an extraordinary capacity to work sensitively and at the same time, firmly if I have needed it. She seems to have an uncanny knack of tuning in to what is needed. I really look forward to my treatments with Heidi and I have felt in such good hands with her.
MS sufferers say a little known complementary therapy from Japan is boosting their quality of life.
Shiatsu massage, which combines movement, stretches and acupressure points, is so popular some MS treatment centres across the UK have three or four therapists on site to meet demand.
MS is a neurological condition which causes severe fatigue, difficulty walking, muscle stiffness, painful spasms, headaches and vision problems. It affects 100,000 people in the UK with around 5,000 new diagnoses a year.
Sufferers say Shiatsu relieves pain and fatigue, boosts mobility and mood and makes it easier to cope with the hardships of life with an incurable illness.
Treatments last one hour and work the body from head to toe. Sessions are booked months in advance according to MS Treatment Centres in Bedford, Northamptonshire, Sussex and Cumbria.
Brighton mum Zia Rehma says life has transformed for the better since she discovered Shiatsu four years ago. “Treatments have been effective for addressing my MS symptoms on two levels, emotionally and physically. After a treatment I find my general mood has improved and on a physical level I have much more energy, my spasms are calmer and I have less stiffness in my legs,” she said.
Gary Menicou was a keen sportsman before his MS diagnosis 15 years ago – now he relies on a wheelchair to get around. The father of two from Brighton, said: “I must admit I was very cynical about the benefits of shiatsu but Wow after only a couple of weeks the difference was amazing. The treatment reduced my headaches and stiffness in legs and neck and altered my general mood positively. I really looked forward to my weekly session and my wife Dee will also agree how much nicer I was when I got home.”
Lisa Edmonde is conducting ground breaking research into the efficacy of Shiatsu for MS sufferers at Teeside University. The study, which is part funded by MS Society and Shiatsu Society research grants, follows ten therapists working with two patients each over six sessions. It monitors quality of touch, acupressure points and therapist technique. It is too early to report the results.
Lisa, who has been a Shiatsu therapist for 15 years, said: “Past experience suggests Shiatsu may have a lot to offer chronic, degenerative neuromuscular conditions such as MS. This ailment is myriad in its manifestations and Shiatsu appears to be a therapy that can respond to that because it is so versatile.
“Shiatsu elevates mood which may sound spurious and unscientific but it should not be underestimated how life changing that can be.”
Shiatsu’s adaptability and varied techniques may explain why it is a favourite with MS sufferers. It can be performed through clothes on a bed or in a wheelchair and incorporates the invigorating stretches recommended by the government health body NICE in its guidance notes for MS.
Until now there has been no research looking specifically at Shiatsu and MS. However, studies exploring the benefits of acupressure and massage have had encouraging results. In 2013 Researchers in Iran found that Swedish massage reduced pain, improved balance and walking speed for MS. In the same year a Canadian study discovered patient wellbeing improved significantly after massage. “Improvement in the quality of life experienced by an individual with MS is of great importance and therefore further research is warranted, the study concluded.
Shiatsu practitioner Trish Dent from Halesworth in Suffolk has watched patients regain independence after treatments. She said: “I found working on the legs helped reduce the severity of spasm, enabling one client to manage to go to the toilet for herself, rather than getting her carer to take her.”
Melita O’Byrne is one of four Shiatsu practitioners at the MS Therapy Centre in Bedfordshire. She has been treating MS for 16 years and sees over 20 clients a week. She said: “We are always fully booked. Shiatsu gives pain relief and makes people aware of what is going on in the body. It provides a very safe environment to release their feelings. It can also help mobility and headaches, improve flexibility and lift mood.”
When Alan Taylor, former manager of Sussex MS Treatment Centre, introduced Shiatsu to members in 1998 he monitored the benefits using the NHS approved methods MYMOP. “Without exception we found Shiatsu had benefits for people who tried it. Rigidity and muscle spasm mean lack of mobility so most MS sufferers like the movement they get from Shiatsu treatment.”
“Shiatsu makes people feel more alive,” says George Strino who treats MS patients in four different clinics, including Penrith Community Hospital and Westmorland General Hospital in Cumbria. One project sees nearly 50 MS patients per day.
“It mobilises the body with lots of stretches, which opens things up. This improves posture and helps people walk better. It also works on a more subtle level, releasing tension. It is no cure but it helps people manage their condition,” said George.
Clients are usually advised to come for fortnightly sessions. Treatments cost around £15 within subsidised clinics. Private practitioners charge at least £40 per hour.
There is growing interest in exploring the benefits of touch therapy for MS. In 2016 researchers at Shepherd Centre in the US began a new study examining the efficacy of massage for pain, spasticity and overall quality of life. A team of 10 researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University are currently investigating the benefits of abdominal massage after receiving a £740,000 research grant to investigate the link between MS and bowel dysfunction which affects 60% of MS patients. If the results are positive, this could further boost Shiatsu’s popularity because it has powerful techniques which can soothe bowel problems.
Love knows no uniformity. It is colourful and diverse – and stirs up turbulent emotions in the lover, the beloved and the world beyond. This trail strings together art, letters, books, literature and natural beauty in celebration of our extraordinary passions.
The Scandalous – Rodin’s provocative sculpture The Kiss outraged Sussex residents when it was displayed in Lewes Town Hall in 1914. It was commissioned by Lewes-based collector Edward Perry Warren who, after declaring himself a pagan, made a special point of asking for the genitals to be prominently displayed rather than modestly hidden. Local headmistress, aptly named Miss Tutt, feared it would dangerously inflame the passions of soldiers billeted in the town and put public morals at risk. She successfully campaigned to remove it from view. The sculpture was hidden away until 1929 when it was loaned to The Tate where it has a permanent home.
The Chaste – Love blossoms at a railway station when a passing steam train blows grit into the eyes of a beautiful woman and a dishy doctor comes to her rescue. Brief Encounter stirs up strong emotions, but rather than carry on a steamy affair the pair dutifully repress their feelings. It is all in impeccably good taste, with minimal fuss, but nonetheless tugs, unbearably, at the heart strings. Carnforth Station in Lancashire has lovingly restored the platforms and tea room where David Lean filmed the classic British tale of thwarted love . It’s a great nostalgic hang out. But you don’t get grit in your eye like you used to.
The Surreal – The mesmerising grace of an eight-limbed embrace is captured by French filmmaker Jean Painlevé. He documents the amorous underwater adventures in The Love life of the Octopus in 1967. This cinematic gem has an amazing soundtrack and gives a macabre and fascinating insight into the often creepy insistence of human desire.
The Scarlet Woman – The sexy red nightie of the “brazen” American divorcee who stole the heart of the Edward III, leading him to abdicate from the throne in 1936, is displayed at All Hallows Museum of Lace in Honition. Wallis Simpson was famously chic and fashion collectors will pay hundreds of pounds to get their hands on items from her lingerie drawer. Critics say she used fashion as a weapon – to win the King of England. It is said that she was determined to be the best dressed woman in the world, although perhaps not the most beautiful. This slinky relic is a testament to her taste. It also brings to mind the high price the lovers paid for their affair. They changed the course of British history, were forced into exile and shunned by society.
Sex, censorship and smuggling – Britain was morally outraged by Lady Chatterley’s Lover when it was published in 1928 – and it was at the centre of an obscenity trial in 1960. DH Lawrence’s infamous love story was filled with the swear words F*** and C***. It gave meticulous descriptions of romps between a society lady and her gamekeeper. It is hard to tell which was the greater transgression – sex, swearing or the open cavorting between the upper and lower classes. Nonetheless the book was a big hit. Fascinating relics held at Merseyside Maritime Museum are a testament to this. Deep in the vaults are old editions of the love story along with customs ledgers revealing that 120 copies of the “obscene publication” were seized from ladies on foreign tours and high ranking military men on board cross channel ferries during the early 1930s. Love and sex were major themes in his writing, but visitors to Lawrence’s birthplace will search in vain for clues of this. This drab working class home in Nottinghamshire is a reminder that great passions lurk beneath modest exteriors.
The Bitter End? The heartbroken are fatally attracted to Beachy Head. Sadly, Britain’s highest cliff top in the South Downs National Park is one of the world’s most notorious suicide spots. But it is also an exhilarating place which, for the most part, lifts the spirits of the love lorn. The blustery winds and stunning views expand horizons and help put the past behind.
The Love Letter – The British postal service delivered around 2 billion letters during World War One, thousands of these are love letters held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Touching humdrum details, old fashioned expressions, ornate copper plate handwriting and repeated instructions not to worry are the common themes. It is inspiring to read the unceasing and abundant expressions of tenderness and care in the face of uncertainty, death and horror.
Devotion – When you have had a gutfull of earthly love, why not look towards heaven to express yourself? Saintly relics held at the British Museum were said to bridge the divide between man, woman and the divine. They helped people express their passions in a more rarefied way. This calm maiden is made from painted oak and has a secret trap door in the crown of her head which once held the skull of a female saint. She is far from a sex goddess. Her discreet beatific smile is supposed to transform turbulent human feelings into a soothing meditation on spirituality and the heavenly realm.
The ever changing face of love – is the subject of Love is All, a film that captures 100 years of love and courtship. The cinema montage ranges from the first screen kiss in a railway tunnel in 1899 to the first hugely controversial gay snog in My Beautiful Launderette in 1986. A Richard Hawley soundtrack without narrative or words make this a great anthropological study of smooching, shy smiles and the sweet, silly state of being love struck.
Valentines Day is looming – it is the season when worried looking men wander the streets clutching over-blown bouquets and schmaltzy greeting cards. The ostentatious show of romance can be hard to stomach if you are lonely and down at heart or if your relationship is far from the Disney ideal. The writer Oscar Wilde said the heart was made to be broken. Sadly, it is true that many of us carry emotional wounds. Shiatsu, which shares the same theoretical framework as acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has a wonderfully practical approach to heartache. But first we need to identify when the heart is out of kilter – it is not always obvious. Hurt can be buried so deep we do not even realise we feel bad, we only sense something is wrong. The following mental, physical and emotional symptoms, indicate a heart imbalance.
Joylessness – Joy is the dominant emotion of the heart. When out of balance we can feel listless, restless, sad, jumpy and worried. These emotions deplete our energy or Qi. Excess joy, such as the manic highs of bi-polar disorder, also suggest a heart imbalance
Memory loss, insomnia, dream disturbed sleep. The heart is home to the mind and consciousness or Shen, according to TCM. When the heart is out of balance the mind can scatter, making it difficult to focus or recall information. Peaceful sleep can also be disrupted.
Speech problems – excessive talking, stammering, being unable to talk. When the heart is disturbed it cannot express its truth through speech.
Choking, feeling something stuck in the throat, pulling sensation on the tongue. A heart imbalance can cause physical tightness and stiffness around chest and throat, which creates the feeling of an obstruction. There is a sense that something cannot be swallowed.
Palpitations, shortness of breath, panic attacks – are heart related symptoms often caused by anxiety rather than the objective heart rate.
Shiatsu techniques when the Heart is out of kilter
Set the scene with a soothing environment. It is important to make a person feel relaxed and supported in the treatment – before doing further work. Everyone has different needs. I always check if temperature, light, pressure is ok and have cushions, blankets, essential oils, music on hand to adapt the environment.
Send energy and awareness down the body. When the heart is out of balance a person often becomes top heavy – with focus and tension in chest and shoulders. The first thing I usually do in a treatment is to bring their awareness to the lower body, perhaps holding the feet or giving firm pressure on the legs. For example, working Stomach 36, below the knee, can be an effective way to dissipate tension in the chest, while supporting and strengthening their foundations.
Working on and around the heart. Heartache is not an abstract idea, it usually comes with physical sensations such as tightness in the chest. It is good to work on the on the breastbone itself, where there are powerful acupressure points such as Conception Vessel 17, also called the Sea of Tranquility because it calms the emotions. Encourage the client to do this for themselves at home.
Work the arms to release tension in the chest. Heart Protector 6, above the wrist crease, is good for this. Think of the arms as draining tightness and tension away from the heart. Points around the elbow, Lung 7 near the wrist, and stimulating the finger tips can also energy in the chest and get things moving.
Backache Heartache often causes aching between the shoulder blades where Heart and Heart protector points are located. It is common for there to be collapsed chest and shoulders. This puts pressure on the vertebrae and muscles so it feels good to reinvigorate the spine around this area.
Stretch the heart by opening the chest – it can be great to raise the arms above the head while lying in supine – and encourage your client to do the same at at home.
Stimulate the breath. Heartache is often accompanied by shallow breath which sends stress messages to the nervous system. It is useful to work the lung and kidney points in the chest, along the collar bone to help inspiration. Or simply hold the abdominal area – Hara – for a few minutes while concentrating on your own breath. With one hand under the back and the other on the belly, the breath will soon flow more smoothly and deeply.
Shiatsu is not a miracle cure – but these simple techniques can have a profound effect. They gently awaken people to what is going on in their heart, mind and body.
I’m at home today trying in vain to do my tax return. A scruffy hand-written note among the papers on my desk is distracting me from the task. The words tug, almost unbearably, on my heartstrings. And so I am forced to put away the sums and spreadsheet for the moment. Sod HMRC, I need to figure out why this matters and what it says about the much maligned business of growing old. The note reads –
For Heidi, So that she can Pick what she needs or wants, from her aged Parents. Have a Peaceful Break X X
This little inscription will, no doubt, appear unremarkable to many people. To me it is incredibly potent. It was written by my father Peter Dore, a shy man from the stiff upper lip tradition, short on niceties, terms of endearment, kisses and cuddles.
He presented the note to me at Christmas with some Debenhams gift vouchers. An additional message was scrawled on the voucher. “Treat Yourself”
Both the note and voucher are indelible proof of the dramatic transformation in my father in his later years. There is no doubt about it – he is sweetening and softening with age.
All his life, he valued things in terms of whether or not they were useful or functional. Treating yourself was an anathema to him. Now he is funding me to do it – what an amazing turn around.
I’m also astonished that Peter has dedicated an entire piece of virgin paper to me. Messages from him in the past would be on scraps such as the back of an old envelope. It is deeply touching to note that this deeply reserved man has added not just one but TWO kisses.
This is the latest in a series of changes I’ve witnessed in my father as he approaches 80. I’m sad to see his hair white, his legs doddery, to find him asleep on the sofa in the afternoon – but I cannot deny that huge compensations come with this.
As his physical body weakens, he becomes emotionally stronger and bolder. He has begun to send me text messages for no reason other than to say he is thinking of me. Two years’ ago he paid me my first compliment, calling me a “sylph-like Peter Pan” without any disapproving undertones. When a dodgy ankle stopped him getting about, he bought a Brompton bike, and now bombs across town to see me. These things I cherish.
All this is, unequivocally, an expression of my father’s love for me. Finally, he is free to express it. I have growing old to thank for this miraculous transformation.
When I took up yoga it was the “no frills” variety, free from props, rituals, whale music and mantra. The focus was on external movement – big joyful stretches and crazy balancing stunts to test my strength and endurance.
These days my yogic interests have expanded to include the inward activities of my body. Now I am in the territory of the breath, inner voices and subtle energetics that underpin everything we do.
Mantra is the tool I use to explore this world. I am surprised by this because, in the past, mantra made me feel a fraud. The strange, repetitive, deadly serious, so-called “spiritual” sounds meant nothing to me. I once told a yoga teacher I would never chant Om in my class.
Then I remembered I love to sing – and it was the innocent pleasure of childhood that opened the door to Mantra. I enjoyed making repetitive sounds and feeling them roll down my throat and vibrate through my chest and arms.
It dawned on me that chanting does not have to be turgid and tuneless. I found a beautiful version of Om Mani Padme Hum meaning the Jewel of the Lotus is inside you. I practised it on long solitary walks on the Sussex Downs and Scottish hilltops. The sheep didn’t seem to mind. I lost my inhibitions – and it felt good.
Mantra means that which protects the mind. I experimented with this idea of protection, using the mantra – So Humm meaning I am that – when cycling in the stress of rush hour traffic. Far from distracting me it gave me a steely focus that helped me anticipate danger. It made me unusually controlled and calm.
I’m a naturally shy person, with a small voice and a long-standing terror of public speaking. I dreaded being asked to speak up, because I did not have the lung capacity. Mantra helped me make more of my vocal powers. Roaming woods and hillsides with Green Tara Mantra, I was comfortable to experiment. I cranked the volume up. My lungs felt bigger, stronger. The sheep were ok about it. I felt free.
Later the hypnotherapist Marisa Peer showed me mantra could also be a tool for retraining the mind and building self-esteem. Studies have shown that harsh hurtful critical words you say to yourself over and over again are a major cause of depression. She inspired me to counter my inner demons with the simple mantra – I am enough.
I was sceptical at first. But when the banshees woke me at the crack of dawn, wailing over my deficiencies and failures, I gave it a go. I repeated I am enough over and over. It was remarkable how quickly I noticed a physiological change, my nervous system shifted down a gear, muscles relaxed, anxiety dissipated and I lost that wired feeling. By the time the sun was up I was comforted. Within a few weeks the practice became ingrained. The banshees still disturb me, but now I can drown them out. Mantra self soothes.
It was reassuring to read a scientific study published in the journal Brain and Behaviourin 2015, validating this experience. Researchers looked at brain blood flow patterns when people repeated a single word. When mantra was used, they found widespread reduction in activity in the area of the brain responsible for self-judgement. The study concluded that repetition helps silence internal thoughts. It also found words repeated silently got the same result – which is good news for shy folk who would not dream of chanting out loud.
The weird, Mantra sounds that once made me wary and suspicious, have won me over. They gave me good vibrations, made my lungs robust and my voice free. They helped me turn up my volume – and also showed me how to turn down the volume of the wailing banshees that have haunted me. And now there is some good science to back me up in my discoveries.
For my latest yogic experiment, I am turning to mantra for creative inspiration. I have discovered – Ong Namo Guru Dayv Namo meaning bow to the creator within. It is much revered by the Kundalini yoga tradition, which believes the deep, ancient wisdom coded in the words helps you tune into inner creativity and wisdom.
Teacher Haridev Kaur says the mantra gives you the support and wisdom of generations of yogis, but it also reinforces the depth of your own wisdom. Start by tuning into the precise quality and vibrations of your voice, she says.
This is an astonishing possibility. I do not know what to think about this, but I am determined to give it a go. What have I got to lose? I’ve spent a lifetime listening to other people’s wisdom. Now is the time to tune into my own power.
The murky depths of a compost bin may not be everyone’s idea of a feast for the eyes – but it is food for my soul.
In bleak midwinter when little else is happening in the garden I watch worms squirming and chomping through gunk and gloop to transform it into rich black soil. This means I get raspberries and roses in abundance in my tiny back yard in Brighton in summer.
The tangible benefits of composting are well known: it conditions the soil, reduces landfill and greenhouse gas. Shovelling the stuff makes you huff and puff which is a great workout.
It is also a beautifully simple, miniature model of the life cycle of decay and renewal. Compost gives me indisputable proof that lovely and delicious things can grow from unwanted revolting stuff. When I’m wading through life’s crap I get solace from this thought.
Compost is Yin Yang in action. The Taoist symbol reminds us that nothing is in opposition because all things are connected. Life and death hold the seed of the “other” imbedded in their core. I see this in my compost pile, where rhubarb flourishes next to the rotting materials.
Forget the philosophy books, all you need is food scraps, curiosity and time for contemplation to see the profound truth of Yin Yang of in decay and renewal.
Fascination with waste materials is important in Buddhism too. The ancient and venerated Satipatthana Suttais the founding text of the mindfulness tradition. It describes the “foulness” of sweat, fat, tears, spittle and snot to give a full picture of what it means to be a mortal body. A gruesome description of a corpse devoured by various kinds of worms and human bones piled high, rotting and crumpling to dust, demonstrates the principle of impermanence. Contemplation of the compost pile can give you the same insight without Satipatthana’s scary visions.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh puts a more cheerful spin on putrefaction. True Love: A practice for awakening the heart uses compost as a metaphor for processing of difficult emotions. Consciousness is something organic in nature, he says. “Sadness, anger and the unwanted materials of the mind can be transformed into flowers of compassion, love peace.”
Han argues that the waste materials of the mind are precious and vital for our survival and development. “The gardener is always on the look out for scraps so he can grow flowers. The waste materials of the mind – fear and pain – are not to be thrown away. A little bit of practice is all you need to transform garbage into compost and compost into flowers. Suffering nurtures understanding, compassion and happiness.”
The principle of non-duality – Yin Yang – is clearly visible in compost according to Han. “If you look deeply at the compost with the eye of a meditator you can see lettuce and tomatoes. If you look deeply at a flower with the eye of a mediator you can see compost.”
You don’t need to belong to a religious creed to get inspiration from rotting materials. Shakespeare harvested many dramatic and artistic riches from the cycle of decay and renewal. He makes fun of the process in the comedy As You Like It. “And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.”
Spirituality, philosophy and art are often pretentious but compost is mucky and basic. Hanging out with the potato peelings, apple cores and worms is simply – being in nature – and this dissolves many of life’s questions and problems peacefully. This is how to reach the heart of the world.