It’s February 2014. The New Year is already distant. The overcrowded yoga studio is thinning out as the New Year’s resolutions fade. I like more space but I don’t like what it means in terms of women letting go of their resolve to take better care of themselves this year.
Sometimes I draw a Wheel of Life with clients and ask them to place descriptors on the spokes for the different roles in their lives. They generally easily combine their professional and personal selves: executive, mother, spouse, member of professional body, MBA student, extended family member, board director, church committee and so on. I ask them to rate, from one to 10, how important each role is – marking the spoke with a colored pen. Using a second color, they rate the effort they dedicate to each role. With the third colored pen they rate their level of satisfaction. Together we consider the alignment and discord, and the changes that are needed.
There’s often one role missing. My clients stare at their wheel, puzzled. “What about the role of self-care?” I ask rhetorically. Without self-care every other role may be jeopardized. It is extraordinary how many people relegate and neglect self-care. Steven Covey’s concept of being “properly selfish” needs more advocacy. I admire the women I’ve had the privilege to work with for over a decade but I often fear for them. They are outstanding achievers but at what cost to their long-term selves?
Whilst this column was named Headspace, I aspire to work with clients on the connectivity between our headspace, emotions, body fitness and energy. I’m increasingly respectful of the power of breath. It seems like the simplest thing – breathing. We’ve done it since the day we were born. Yet breathing consciously can contribute to our ability to create different choices and outcomes for ourselves.
As CEO of the Land Bank my medical check-up revealed high blood pressure and the blood analysis indicated high levels of cortisol – another indicator of stress. I spent 10 years on chronic medication. Then I read that one of the beneficial effects of meditation is improved blood pressure. My meditation breathing has been one of my best investments and I’ve had four drug-free years.
“So how have things gone since our last session?” The client gives me an update and the very recall of the events spark a panic attack. I’m able to draw on my training on breathing for relaxation to assist my client to recalibrate and regain their equilibrium. Another client is battling with insomnia – again certain breathing exercises can induce sleep and act as an effective alternative to slipping pills and their possible side effects.
My favorite easy breathing tool is one that I often teach clients, both individuals and teams, to use when they need to interrupt a burst of anger that might otherwise lead to behavior they will later regret. It’s aptly named S.T.O.P.
Imagine the traffic light. STOP. On red, take a breath – breathe in for the count of four. On amber, observe and hold your breath for the count of four. Then proceed to green, breathe out for the count of four and repeat. Focusing on the breathing breaks the anger burst in the way that a fuse breaks the electrical circuit when there’s danger of overload.
Another conscious breathing practice includes movement. Perhaps you’ve seen people doing Tai Chi, which resembles slow-motion ballet. Chi or Qi (Mandarin for breath) embodies the concept of vitality and life-force. While western medicine works with two body networks: blood veins and the nervous system, the Chinese work with a third network, that of meridians. When meridian flows are blocked people experience fatigue in spite of clocking up hours of sleep or cardio training. It’s worth considering learning the body-breathing exercises that stimulate Qi.
I hope I’ve made you curious on two counts. Firstly, to consider what your wheel of life look likes. And secondly, the role that breathing plays in an expanded concept of fitness. Remember that leadership roles are stressful and self-care is paramount.