What is the best form of exercise?

As a therapist, clients often ask me what exercise should they do? The higher order answer is one that is fun, because if it isn’t enjoyable, it will only be a matter of time before it is abandoned. If it is fun, one will want to go; having fun is being in the moment, a place where whatever worries and problems we have are temporarily forgotten about and that’s a space we all seeking. So doing something beneficial whilst in that space is a great combination. Now whilst being fun is crucial, it also needs to be appropriate for where we are currently at in life and I’ll talk more about that later.

An underlying principle of oriental philosophy is the concept of balance, an ideal place where everything operates in harmony with all the other parts of our being. The human organism is a dynamic ever-moving entity, breathing in and breathing out, the movement of the organs, the fascia the muscles. Balance implies a static state where two sides are even, so as humans we are eternally seeking a point we will never achieve. I often say “balance is something we pass by every now and again”, and what we need to work towards instead is staying in as narrow a band or zone around that point.



In order find and live in that ‘balanced zone’ there are many levels of self-care that we need to address; We need to nurture our physical health and wellbeing, we need to be addressing our mental and emotional health, our relationships with ourself and others, and also some form of spiritual practice that connects us to a higher purpose for our existence. Exercises crosses over a number of those areas; primarily we are seeking to create a strong and efficient body. Yet in doing so, we ‘feel good’ about ourselves, we get in touch with the subtle message our body gives on our life processes, and we gain some connection and clarity as to who we are and how we express ourself in the world. When we have a good regime of attending to our physical wellbeing we are more likely to choose better foods as fuel to an efficient system so we get into a ‘positive spiral’, one that connects upward to that higher purpose.

Within the realm of exercise, there is also a concept of balance, and in my mind there are five components to that; Strength exercise, Flexibility exercise, Cardiovascular exercise, Resting time and finally Meditative exercise. So in a place of good health and balance we will seek to undertake equal amounts of each of those as a balanced ‘exercise’ component of a self-care program.

Strength exercise creates toned and strong muscles that have the power to fully undertake daily tasks and perhaps most importantly resist the forces of gravity to hold us up straight and upright in the best possible place to face the world ahead. People can become obsessed with building muscle, often to the detriment of the other elements.

Flexibility exercises create a soft elastic connection for the most efficient use of the power of the muscle. It gives us the ability to feel free and easy in our body, an ability to change direction in the most efficient and effective manner.

Cardiovascular exercise is creating the most efficient system to provide the muscles with the ‘fuel’ they need for their power; like a high performance engine. Much has been written and researched into the benefits of both elements of cardiovascular exercise; aerobic and anaerobic.

Rest time is not often considered as important in the exercise question, yet it is as equally as important as the other components. Resting is akin to keeping your car serviced; ensuring everything is regularly checked over for any signs of wear and tear that can be addressed before they break in action. During rest, the nervous system ‘switches’ from the external ‘fight-flight’ sympathetic nervous system to the internal parasympathetic nervous system. The energy is diverted into the internal organs to resolve the build up of stress that has accumulated from the time being in action. We need to ensure that we are getting quality rest; often we take this for granted.

constructive resting position

Sleep is our primary means and in the Chinese clock (each energy and organ governs a two-hour time band throughout the 24 hours) we ideally are asleep by 9.30pm and waking at 5am to exercise and ‘let go’ of the stresses of the day before we start the new one. Often in a device driven world, people are staying up too late and into the zone of ‘planning and decision making’ from 11pm-1am where the mind gets active, making it hard to sleep but great for getting things done! Over time this means our resting time is cut short putting the system under stress. We do infinitely better by taking our problems to bed to wake up with the solutions, which invariably come in our morning exercise practice.

Meditative practice is in many ways part of the resting in that it ‘switches’ the nervous system, yet it differs in that it is connecting us to ourselves and to our higher purpose or meaning in life. In order to move forward, we need to know where we are going otherwise we can just go around and around in circles. Many of us already meditate without knowing we are doing it! Often we have the construct of meditation in our mind of sitting crossed legged on the floor in silence. Yet for me meditation is about disconnecting from the thoughts that constantly stream through our mind; they cannot be stopped, but we can acknowledge they are there and become an observer. Often we all have those times of quiet we seek where we find that place; for me it is walking the dog in the forest. Others have their favourite place to go and sit, some find it in doing the dishes or listening to music.

So we have five areas that need attention, and I believe that we don’t need an equal amount of time for all the components, rather an appropriate amount of attention or focus. Ideally we seek to incorporate larger amounts of time into resting and meditative practices in our normal daily (and nightly) routines, whereas we need to set aside more structured time for strength, flexibility and cardiovascular exercise. In our world we often ‘buy’ those skills from a gym, a personal trainer, classes and workshops. This is the first step to developing and taking charge of your own program; ultimately you will have the skills and empowerment to choose what, when and how much, as ultimately your body talks to you, not anyone else. You need to take charge.

The reality of being human is that we are on a wonderful rollercoaster of life that throws up a multitude of challenges over its course. Our ki (energy) has a cyclical nature as we move through the different stages of life – we need different things in different phases and we generally we need to focus much more, if not exclusively, upon one area in order to get us back to place where we can start to incorporate the others.

A common problem that is a consequence of our modern lifestyle, is adrenal exhaustion; people are overstimulated by longer working hours and computer/device time and unable to deeply switch off. In fact many people nowadays cannot switch their phones off at night and have them right next to themselves which is an interesting analogy of our modern world. Given this scenario, rest and mediation exercises are the first steps to take; strength and cardiovascular exercise often uses energy that they simply don’t have, further exacerbating the problem. In my experience it is a common scenario and people don’t understand why the gym isn’t giving them the zest and energy they are seeking.

As I have indicated, we have to start by creating a solid energetic foundation; more produced than we expend – a simple equation. Exercise such as Tai chi and Qigong  and some forms of yoga (like yin yoga) work on building the energetic strength and are applicable through any life phase; adolescence, adulthood and old age. For women there are other distinctions along the way primarily around child-birth and the menopause, which are pre-birth, post-birth, peri-menopause and post menopause that make their needs more refined depending when they are at on the continuum. There are resting poses in yoga and other modalities that are about switching the nervous system into the rest and recharge mode. Once we have a good energetic foundation, then incorporating strength, cardiovascular and flexibility exercises enable us to reach closer for that point of balance in creating a strong and vibrant physical body.

The last factor is our constitution; there are challenges we bring into this world and for some there may always be a need to focus say more on cardiovascular exercise to keep the lungs and circulation at an optimum. For others they may need more flexibility exercises for instance.

Si in summary we need to seek a balance in the types of exercise we undertake to ensure all aspects of our physical body are operating at its best; we need to adjust that according to our life stage, our current condition and to constitutional challenges.

Lastly rest and time ‘switched off’ is perhaps the most important part, the foundational aspect from which all else can build. Good complementary therapists will help you determine where you sit on the scale and support you in finding exactly what is right for you.


Where is Balance?

Balance is a word we see used a huge amount when it comes to anything to do with health and wellbeing as the ‘thing’ to aspire to achieving. It is used by a lot of therapists who often claim to have the way to helping us achieve ‘balance’. As such, it has become something we would all love to have and often spend a lot of time and energy focused upon, yet what are we really chasing? Do we even really have an idea what it means to us? And is it something so narrow we should be aiming for anyhow?

Firstly, I don’t believe one can truly have ‘balance’ if they are not connected to their inner world of emotions and feelings. We need to be able to experience sensations on a visceral level first to embody the experience, then to make sense of it on a conscious level; we cannot gain it externally without having a conscious connection back to the internal world.

Secondly, we can never actually achieve that point of perfect balance, as by my understanding it describes a static point, and as human beings, we are never static from birth till death. All the body rhythms, the blood, lymphatic fluids, the movement in the cerebral spinal fluids to name but are few all ebb and flow constantly like the tide, continuously moving and changing by day, by month, by season – we breath in and out right down to the cellular level and these rhythms are always in a state of movement or at a momentary point before movement starts again.

So rather than ‘looking’ for a specific point to focus upon, I prefer to look at it in terms of a ‘zone’, a place where we experience the energy we take in meeting the energy we give out, where all the organs and bodily functions are operating within their optimum ‘zone’. That zone is the place where we can move forward in our daily life with minimal effort, we are clear and focused upon our purpose and our actions to meet that are relatively unhindered by our psychological and ancestral patterning. Yet every moment or phase in life is ephemeral, so as we move onto the next moment, so we need to continue to be mindful of what it is that is pulling us one way or another.

So how do we know where that zone is and how can you find it? Every experience we have in life helps us gain a clearer idea of where that theoretical place is for ourselves. So therefore, to truly know where that may be, then we need to live and experience life, to explore where the extremes are, where the edge of our conscious world lies. When we know where the extremes are then we can gain a greater insight as to where our optimum or ‘balanced’ zone lies so long as we are doing all this with a conscious awareness.

We need to reflect on how good our entire being is when we are in a great place experiencing all the joys of life, and then we also need to embrace the dark moments, the times of despair, of deep sadness, of rage etc as it is often in those moments that the greatest insights into who we are and what drives us become apparent.

On a workshop many years ago the following saying was shared which perhaps best sums this up:

Whatever is happening is exactly what needs to be happening for you to learn what you are here to learn, so take notice what is happening.

So, rather than bury our head in the sand or suppress the feeling, the emotion, the ache or pain, ask yourself why you are at that point, what is your learning? When one can truly embrace both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, then one will start to understand where the place of peace between those is and what resources they can draw upon to maintain themselves in that zone.

Yin and yang stones
Yin and yang stones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To operate within the ‘zone’, we need to create a healthy routine to nurture the body and mind that includes appropriate exercise, good quality food and have some

form of mindfulness practice. However, integral to maintaining a routine that supports one to operate within their optimum zone is having time out from those routines. This is the cycle between Yin and Yang, just as day becomes night and day again; we need focused action followed by rest before embarking upon the focused action again. Understanding the importance of this cyclical movement allows us to reflect and experience what the differences between the two are.

So we need on occasion to let go of the focus and have an all night party, sleep all day and do nothing – let it all go and just be in the moment. Yet if we spend all our lives out on the extremities we tax and strain our body – It consumes more energy. If one works or approaches being ‘balanced’ in an intense and overly focused way, then even though they may be eating the right foods and doing the ‘right’ things, something is not right. The body mind is tight and unyielding.

So in summary, balance is something we pass by occasionally, however if we live with a mindful awareness of what is going on in our life, are proactive in our health and wellbeing including receiving some external input or reflection from trusted therapists, then we will minimise the extreme ups and downs and maximise the time within our own optimum zone.

Kyo and Jitsu: casuse and effect

One of the core concepts in the Zen Shiatsu theory as developed by Shizuto Masunaga in the mid-twentieth century, is that of ‘kyo and jitsu’. The theory explains a dynamic within the functioning of the human being; from an idealistic state of perfect harmony, a kyo need arises. In order for the system to move back towards that state of harmony, there needs to be a jitsu action, with the sole purpose to assist the organism to meet its need. They are two parts of the same dynamic; one does not exist without the other. If there is no need, there is no need for action. No human is free of this dynamic; it is the essence of our life. Our needs are many, from the, simple unconscious activities we undertake for day-to-day survival, to the deep ancestral patterns we need to work with our whole life.

These deep ancestral patterns, or constitutional imbalances are what are referred to as genetic predispositions in the western model of understanding. I prefer to see it in the terms of the evolution of the human race; we model our parents who modelled their parents etc. This is the essence of the old saying, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”. In those early years children are infinitely more experiencing the world via their instincts, which are highly attuned to energetics. They watch and observe and learn from their parents how to operate in the world. It becomes the foundation of their being; it is the synergy of nature and nurture. Generally, once they reach seven years of age, they start (or in most countries now, they have already started) schooling, which in most systems involves rigorous training of their brain to operate mainly out of the rational, logical centre, which is the foundation of our modern western life. In those first seven years they have ‘soaked’ up the essence of their parents into the fabric of their being.

If we are aware of and consciously engage with the process of kyo and jitsu, then we can evolve through those deep patterns, to make a step closer towards that place of perfect harmony. This inbuilt cycle is an integral part of what drives an organism forwards, an unconscious purpose for it’s existence.

What is important here in terms of working with a person in a therapeutic context is the point, that if there is no need, there is no need for an action. In practice we might see the need, or kyo, as an inability to draw the energy it requires to function normally. The bodily response will be for the resultant action, or jitsu, to be overworking or drawing too much energy in its efforts to harmonise the system.

In terms of bodywork, where there is an inability to draw what is needed within the system, we may find the area cold and lifeless, or in a more extreme state, tight and protected without any give or resilience. Pushing or mobilising may create a deepening of that contraction or protection. It may cause a sharp pain that goes on beyond the physical to the core of the persons being. It cannot be beaten into submission. What it requires is holding, patience and trust in order for the body to feel safe, to start ‘breathing’ again, to bring the life of energy back to the element or area. It is the key part to work with in order to allow evolution of the individual. It is the place of the deep learning and a place they may need to be with for quite some time before they have the resources to move forward from.

On the other hand, the body’s own action to meet the need is overactive in its manifestation. It yells, it screams, it is noticed and it consumes our immediate attention. It niggles constantly until we are driven to do something about it. Yet it is only the messenger, the bearer of news that there is a far more pressing part of the body mind that needs attention. By focusing on dealing with the overactive, we gain instant gratification, a temporary relief, yet we do not meet the deep need. It remains hidden and we do not move along the continuum to the nirvana of perfect harmony, but we find ourselves back at the same point one week, one month, one year later with the messenger or jitsu action needing to yell louder. All great for keeping clients co-dependent upon your ability to take away the pain in the moment, but not in facilitating the deep growth of the individual and perhaps even the collective human race?

In my opinion, this approach is a fundamental flaw in the traditional western approach to medicine which works solely, in most cases, on dealing with eliminating or suppressing the surface symptoms. It often does not give the time or space to explore the underlying need. I am heartened however by a trend away from that approach to ones which are seeking to look for the kyo need.

So look beyond the surface to the depths to the key to health and healing.

The quality of touch

Afer just coming back from a treatment from another bodywork modality, I have reflected on what makes a really good shiatsu treatment unique, and that for me is its focus on the quality of touch and connection with the receiver.

Inherent in touch is trust; I push too hard and the client resists or protects – it is an instinctive reaction. Touching and holding in a way that is supportive and nurturing creates a safe space, a possibility to explore moving away from where one currently is to somewhere more open and aligned with ones true essence. What comes to mind is the story of the elephant whisper in South Africa who had to first gain the trust of abused elephants in order to show them another way of being and ultimately save them from probable death.

Whilst our logical mind can justify ‘no pain, no gain’, deep inside something does not quite feel right when we are being pushed into a state of ‘alignment’. The right-brained, scientific approach to dealing with the body has a very sound basis from which to work and has moved our understanding of the human body forward in huge leaps and bounds, however harmony is the ultimate balance and I believe that the application of that knowledge with respect and trust of the receiver is that balance.

In my opinion, what one of the most important elements that every shiatsu practitioner needs to master is touching one’s client from their centre, or the hara as it is known in Japanese. When we think about it, we might ask what is so hard about touching someone? However, to really touch from our hara we have to ensure our body is in exactly the right place, which then means as a giver you can be 100% relaxed in the physical body to allow your self to breath deeply and connect with your deep essence. Only then are you in a place to be truly open to allow your receiver to trust and open to the connection between the two people. From a givers perspective it requires a constant feedback loop to ensure you are always in that place no matter where you are working. This is why shiatsu is mostly done on the floor, as it is easier to find that place when closer to the ground on ‘all fours’ in a crawling position. It is the realm of the pure essence of a baby, when a human is at the point in its life when it is in the moment 100% of the time (much to the great challenge to parents).

This is perhaps what defines part of the essence of shiatsu; it is not a therapy that is ‘practitioner doing work on a client’, it is two people working together to create a level of awareness. The practitioner more on the conscious, the receiver more on the unconscious yet ultimately it has to be the receiver who is calling the shots as it is their body. The saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is one I use often with students. This is operating out of respect for the receiver’s innate healing ability and something that we as a human beings all need to learn and embrace in our life – self empowerment. We all have all the resources we need within – bloody hard to find the damn things though!!

Feedback Flower
Feedback Flower (Photo credit: jonathanpberger)

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