It’s been a long, locked-down winter, and a month ago I was feeling crappy: slow, sluggish and permanently overtired. I’m doing a hell of a lot better now than I was, and I wanted to talk a bit about why.
There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about ‘self-care’. As a concept it’s not without its problems: not everyone has the time, energy, headspace or resources to devote to the various things it’s now recommended we all do to look after ourselves. As the idea takes firmer root people end up feeling as though they’re being blamed for their own difficulties because they’re not taking enough baths or buying the right sort of scented candle. In the USA there are health insurance companies who actually offer money off some policies if you can demonstrate your participation in certain ‘self-care practices’ - which of course aren’t accessible to disabled people, overworked people, people living in poverty, people with inadequate childcare, or people with any number of other physical and environmental limitations. Holy ableism, Batman.
There’s something horribly dishonest about the idea that one must “feel good” all the time - and that those good feelings are entirely within our own personal control. Sometimes things are just shitty, and the best thing we can do is accept that we're gonna feel shitty about them. Sometimes it’s not even close to being your fault, and shit is being dropped on you from a great height.
But... sometimes there are things we can do. You might, like me, be a relatively privileged, relatively able-bodied person with an adequate support system. Perhaps you feel crappy because you have needs that aren’t being met, and perhaps you can do something to meet some of those needs. Yes, even in the midst of pandemic chaos.
I hate feeling bad. I much prefer to feel good, if at all possible. So I launched myself on a quest to figure out what that ‘something’ might be. Did I need to work less? We arranged some COVID-secure childcare so my partner and I could spend a whole day together. No work, no toddler - just us. Was that what I was missing? It was lovely - but it brought home to me how depleted I’d become. It took six hours of cuddling, talking, massage and snacks before I felt like I wanted a spanking.
Amidst numerous complaints about how crappy I felt, I shared that I'd heard a podcast the other day where both guests agreed that if they could only do one thing every day for their wellbeing, it would be exercise. I couldn't remember when I'd last done any. "I think that half an hour of Tai Chi a day would do you a lot of good," Felix agreed.
I’ve been doing Tai Chi for three and a half years, more off than on since we all got stuck at home. I was taking classes on Zoom for a while, but not since we moved house.
So Felix offered to take the munchkin first thing before breakfast, to give me a bit of time when I got up in the morning. Why not try it for a week and see?
And what do you know? After a week, the difference was remarkable. After a month, I never want to stop.
I wake up, get dressed in joggers and a hoodie, drink a glass of water, and go out to our chilly conservatory where there's a bit of space. I do ten minutes of qi gong, then the 18-step Chen bare hand form three times, and ten minutes of weapons practice. I've been relearning Cheng Man-Ch'ing narrow sword from my notes, and have just started brushing up my fan form.
Doing the same thing every morning makes it easy to start. I don't have to feel energetic or make decisions - I can go through the motions at first. My mind is usually busy when I start, but by the time I'm doing the form I'm able to focus internally. That's when I really notice the benefits: when I bring my attention to my breath, and to my centre. I focus on making my movements smooth and flowing, strong and explosive, or soft and subtle. When my attention is focused on my internal experience rather than on racing thoughts, the practice is emotionally calming and mentally enlivening.
I knew Tai Chi was awesome, but I was literally stunned by how quickly I noticed the benefits from doing it every morning. I'm stronger and more flexible; my body simply works better. I have more energy and I feel more alert. I’ve become calmer and less reactive, even after a broken night, and I’m finding it easier to self-regulate strong emotions. My concentration and mental clarity have improved, I’m more cheerful and contented than I was, and my stress levels have fallen dramatically. I’m even sleeping better - in-between interruptions from the toddler, of course.
This is all amazing, of course, but the most startling benefit has been one I have no idea to expect: it’s totally transformed my relationship with my body.
I wrote recently about my thoughts after listening to Sonya Renee Taylor, author of Your Body Is Not An Apology. Since then I've been regularly reminding myself that “comparison is the ladder”. It’s proved a tough nut to crack - I still caught myself making judgements and comparisons about my body. But after a couple of weeks of doing Tai Chi once a day, I suddenly noticed I hadn't thought those things at all. I caught sight of myself in the mirror one day and realised I couldn't remember the last time I'd cast an assessing or evaluating gaze on my own figure. Maybe I look different and maybe I don’t - I actually haven't noticed. For the first time in my life, the only thing I notice about my body is what it feels like, and what it's capable of.
This is... revelatory. I’m blown away. It might sound like a small thing, but for someone who has struggled with body image over the years - it’s a huge shift, all the more delightful for being unexpected.
I’m not really trying to say that you should all rush out and start learning Tai Chi, not least because it might be tricky while there's a pandemic on. But if you're feeling crappy and there is some kind of exercise and movement you enjoy doing, and you’re not currently doing it, might that be a sort of low-hanging fruit?
There are three main factors, I think, that make this work for me:
- My routine starts gently, so I can begin no matter how tired I’m feeling.
- It’s mentally engaging enough to hold my attention. I get bored easily, so I benefit from something that uses my brain as much as my body. Studying the forms, paying attention to my breath, where my weight is, the quality of my movement - it's interesting. And far more beneficial than just waving my arms around while thinking about work.
- By the end the physical intensity has ramped up enough that my heart is beating faster - which is energising and enlivening.
This won’t work for everyone, of course. Maybe you need something more or less physically demanding to feel good afterwards. But that’s what works for me.
So rather than dispensing advice, I'm curious: What have you found that helps you stay sane in the midst of this pandemic? Does regular movement like this keep you steady, or do you need something different? Please share your thoughts and experiences below - you never know, your One Weird Trick might help someone else as much as this helped me.
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