So, how can we walk more mindfully on our everyday excursions? (Not during a formal walking meditation: that’s a different kettle of fish.) And what can we copy from the best young walkers? And what else makes a walk through town a delicious adventure?
These are tips to myself, and some may appeal to you. Some are not possible if you’re very old, or if you have certain disabilities. But if something I suggest resonates with you, why not experiment a little? Strange to say, some of these tips can be followed even in a wheelchair or a walker.
Walk fast, Rachel, at least some of the time.
Bounce along. Lift your feet up.
Raise your breastbone a smidgen. This will automatically improve your posture with no other effort. You will be taller!
Lift up your eyes. Elevate your personal horizon a few degrees.
Look around. Look at sky, trees, traffic lights, graffiti, bicycles, children, lapdogs, posters, gorillas and fuschia buds.
Trust yourself. Be aware of trip hazards in your peripheral vision, but don’t walk along looking at the footpath or your feet. That’s no fun and can upset your balance.
Don’t jaywalk, Rachel. Stop it right now! You know that’s dangerous, especially if you trip over your ball gown or a wheel comes off your shopping trolley. You know you are setting a bad example to your grandchildren. (Trying to retrain myself on this one.)
Enjoy your body, Rachel. Be aware of one part of your body as you move along. One day, feel what’s happening in your arms. Another day, your thighs. Another time, the way your arms swing. Enjoy the warm sun on your face: what a glow! Enjoy the cold wind on your face: you’re alive!
And smile at strangers. Deliberately. Often. With eye contact. This is extremely interesting, not to mention fun. Count the number of smiles you get back in return. (Ed. I know, you don’t have to tell me that.)
Image from “History of the Ninth and Tenth Regiments Rhode Island Volunteers, and the Tenth Rhode Island Battery, in the Union Army in 1862” (1892) Spicer, Wm Arnold. Public domain. Painting by Lesley Evans of four little girls CC BY-NC 3.0. Lesley is my sister! https://www.facebook.com/LesleyEvansArtist/
What blocks you from really enjoying the act of writing? I can think of at least a dozen things that stop the joy in its tracks, and one is a sense of entitlement. It’s a killer.
I encountered this phenomenon very early in my writing life. Barely had my first book of poetry been published than I was befriended by a bunch of poets, nice people, some brilliant, all kindly disposed and helpful to this newbie writer.
But there was an under-current to our friendship that deeply puzzled me. Whenever literary awards and prizes were discussed, a grumbling and a mumbling surged up. And I found that some of these nice people were making themselves sick with envy and resentment.
After forty years of observing the processes and culture around book prizes and fellowships and scholarships and what-nots, I understand something. So hear me, all ye unhappy writers.
Prizes are awarded by judges. Judges have strong personal opinions. Judges may not agree. That’s the norm.
No prize is yours by right.
You slave away year after year over your books. Don’t do it in the hope of prizes. Prizes may come your way. Or not.
If you assume that you deserve a literary award and therefore you ought to get one, you will make yourself miserable, and nobody else will care.
There. Go forth and have a good time with your marvellous gift!
Walking. I’ve been doing it for 74 years but I never want to take this miraculous skill for granted. Many of my friends have crook knees or ankles. Some have cranky hips or ceramic hips or bad backs. Some have MS or asthma or bronchiectasis. I’m humbled by their courage and ingenuity as they continue to get around, one way or the other.
Walking is tangled up with independence and free will as well as health and fun.
Walking style provides cues about health
Walking is also linked to youthfulness. Not-walking is a fear associated with old age.
This obvious fact hit me like a ton of bricks when a friend came to stay recently. A whole bunch of odd problems had me worried. At pedestrian crossings, I had to restrain her from rushing across when the red man said Stop, because her automatic impulse was to jaywalk. She was confused about distances and directions and buses and taxis. She rushed ahead, leaning forwards at an angle, then stopped often to take a breath. I’m pretty slow on the uptake, but after a couple of days, I finally got the message: she was ill.
A few months later we learned that she had a form of motor neuron disease. A year later, she was dead.
Join the non-existent leg-appreciation society
But this blog post is not about the larger topic of my friend’s devastating illness and death. It’s about walking.
Walking is simple, natural, automatic, free, always available day or night—no trainer, gym or special equipment required. And this precious skill can be eroded by illness or accident.
After my friend’s visit, I love my legs more than ever. I plan to love them and use them and learn from them for many more years. In fact I may start an international leg-appreciation society. When my own legs stop working quite so well one day. I will still appreciate what they used to do, decade after decade, without a job description or vision statement or instruction manual.
They have done so much more than walk. They have negotiated footpaths and steps and mountain trails and forests and beaches and farms. They have carried me up and down hills and cliffs and over ice and snow and sand. They have kept me afloat through surf and rivers and lagoons. They have crawled and skipped and skied and marched and run and kicked and danced and squatted and pranced and lunged and planked. They have raised me safely out of chairs and baths and pot-holes.
Thank you legs!
Phone apps for walking
Breeze used to be my favourite phone app. Its daily cheerleading made me aware of how far I was walking each day. I wiped the app one day when my phone was overloaded with data. Now I want Breeze back again, but my phone tells me I have to get it through the Romanian app store. Romania? I dunno. Beats me.
With a compatible app, walking becomes a substantial component of the exercise regime instead of a means of getting from A. to B. If at first you take only 400 steps on a typical day, that’s not a tragedy, it’s an opportunity. Such satisfaction lies ahead as you notch up the steps, little by little, day by day.
P.S. I think my daily steps are usually around 7000. I think They want me to buy a Fitbit.
Mechanical toy via Internet Archive Book Images, from Scientific American March 1903. Shadow legs a selfie by Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 3.0
Imperfect but full of joy—that’s us, the Crows Feet Dance Collective. Forty women, average age 55, range 39–76, skilled and unskilled.
Last weekend we performed at the Tempo Dance Fest at Q Theatre in Auckland. If you are a New Zealander, you’ll understand that performing in our biggest city was rather an intimidating prospect for a community collective —and thrilling. But the organisation was excellent, the theatre a friendly space, and the audiences warm and enthusiastic. We had a marvellous time.
And go find a chance to dance if you can. Trust me, it’s never too late; for example, I joined the Crows at 66, ten years ago, and while I’m no star and I often stumble, I manage very well indeed. Enough to get the joy of dancing, and that magic performance buzz, and a cluster of truly remarkable friends.
Dancing is a language, another way of writing into life
A language is a method of conveying complex ideas and emotions. It has representations of information, and rules for how the representations can be combined. As a means of conveying ideas and emotions, with or without recourse to sound, dance language draws upon similar places and thought processes in the brain as verbal language. Dance, like verbal language, has vocabulary (locomotion and gestures in dance), grammar or syntax (rules for putting the vocabulary together and justifying how one movement can follow another), and semantics (meaning). Verbal language strings together sequences of words, and dance strings together sequences of movement to make phrases and sentences. Meaning may be story-telling or abstract, playing with form or chance.
Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, is the author of “Learning to Dance: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement” Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD.
Obviously, a good exercise programme was always going to be high on my boot camp list of challenges. To prepare for a happy retirement without built-in exercise would just be ridiculous, a denial of all scientific evidence on the subject of aging.
A funny thing happens every time a new research project confirms the power of exercise to improve cognition, physical health, mental health and happiness: lifestyle journalists tend to interpret the results in terms of minimum dosage.
If you just get off your bum now and then, they say, it’ll save your life. Just get on an exercycle for 15 minutes a week. Just walk for 10 minutes a month. Just roll over in bed. They’re assuming that weall want to know how little exercise we can get away with.
Of course, they may be right about our extremely low ambitions. And it’s true that any exercise, even a few steps per day, is exponentially better than no exercise at all.
However, aiming at the minimum implies that exercise is a tedious chore or a virtual vitamin pill. “Let’s get this over and done with as fast as possible so we can get into the tasty part of the day.”
Don’t take exercise like a pill
If you take exercise like a pill, it’s no fun. And if it’s no fun, the habit is not likely to stick. I should know: I’ve been there, done that.
For about five years, an exercycle sat in a corner of my living room. Perfectly positioned for watching TV. Grudgingly, cynically, I intended to use it for just 15 minutes once or twice a week in the evenings. I figured that would not be hard. But it was. The ugly beast was as good as new when I sold it on Trademe.
Similarly, a set of weights is lurking amongst my gardening tools. For a couple of months I used them twice a week … then once a week … for just 10 minutes or so each time. They’re getting rusty now.
When it comes to exercise, less is not more: less is less. And before you know it, less becomes nothing.
So in my boot camp I decided to shoot for a happy-making programme. It’s only a small jump from exercise as a duty to exercise for pleasure. I need to be rewarded by more than a sense of righteousness: like most people I need immediate gratification too.
Your pleasure is my drudgery and vice versa
Everyone’s different! Isn’t that great? So don’t imagine I’m telling you what sort of exercise programme you should be following.
I never got any joy from a brief session by myself on the exercycle: it was not an end in itself for me—but some people get a buzz out of that. Working the dumb bells all alone in my lounge seemed pointless—but you might just love it.
The thing is for each of us to find a programme that suits us personally, something that brings its own rewards so that we are eager to achieve.
Exercise as a pleasure
Exercise as a pill is unnatural and I suspect, counter-productive. If you enjoy tennis or golf, for example, you don’t set out to do the minimum. You don’t say to your friends, let’s just have one serve each, or let’s just play two holes. Where’s the fun in that? You play as much as you can, not as little as you can, because you are playing for pleasure.
The pleasure of companionship or at least company. The pleasure of muscles squidging, joints loosening, skin glowing, heart pumping, chest expanding, feet steadying, a good shot. The pleasure of increasing mastery. The concomitant pleasures of better sleep, better mood, better brain.
No matter what your age, the best exercise brings a quiet sense of power and freedom and satisfaction. On so many levels, it feels good!
Image from “Cycling art, energy and locomotion: a series of remarks on the development of bicycles, tricycles, and man-motor carriages” (1889) by Scott, Robert Pittis. Internet Archive Book Images. Photo of me cycling in Tonga by Jamie Bull.
So, the next boot camp task was to practise slow breathing, using the diaphram instead of chest and shoulders. Breathing like a baby. Breathing the way my poor body yearns to breathe. The schedule: breathe in to two counts, breathe out to five. Just for five minutes before sleep. How hard could that be?
Even lying down, it was a struggle to fit my breathing to this pattern. The more I tried, the more I failed. Managing my breathing was like steering a hot air balloon: a little more heat, a bit less puff, go up, now go down, left hand down a bit and hey mind the Eiffel Tower!
Breathing just happens, unless you have a physical problem such as asthma. It’s regulated by the autonomic nervous system and requires no conscious input. Interfering with my breathing was like trying to change my digestion speed or heart rate or blood pressure just by an effort of will. Those things are easy for yogi, I suppose. But for mere mortals, repeated exercises are needed.
That’s what I had faith in: the plasticity of the human brain. Practice makes perfect. Repetition, repetition, repetition.
Changing an old breathing pattern: not easy
But first, get it right. My first attempt to breathe the new way stressed me out, and I rather foolishly announced the fact on Facebook:
“I have just noticed that I am stressed. But who can I tell? My friends will all just say, serve you right!”
Bless them, my friends did not say “serve you right” but offered helpful advice. Sensible, kind, caring advice. And naturally this included the number one classic, authentic tip for stress reduction: deep breathing. Alas, deep breathing cannot be the cure on this occasion because it’s the problem.
I was stressed but not downhearted, because I reckoned I had overcome a comparable breathing challenge not so long ago. Now you mustn’t laugh at this: I know it seems ridiculous, but here goes.
Swim and breathe at the same time? A miracle of coordination!
Until a couple of years ago, I hardly ever swam freestyle. Breast-stroke and back-stroke were a breeze because I could always keep my head above water. Anyway, I mainly swam in the sea, where freestyle seemed somehow inappropriate — too earnest, too intense, too pretentious. And between you and me, in my heart of hearts, I believed that if I swam freestyle, I would drown.
Then I began lane swimming at the Freyberg pool and decided to tackle the breathing problem once and for all. It was a psychic struggle—me against my urge to breathe when my nose was still underwater. It was a challenge of coordination and timing and control. A fight for domination. A fight for life. No approach could be less appropriate for the gentle art of breathing, and yet little by little, week by week, I got over myself. Now I’m comfortable doing freestyle, in my own good time.
So I know I can do this breathing thing! Babies can do it and I will too.
Feldenkrais on breathing: upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber
My next ploy was to attend a workshop on breathing and voice run by Elke Dunlop, the uncrowned queen of Feldenkrais in Wellington. This was perfect timing.
I’ve been a fan of Feldenkrais practice for some years now but it is extraordinarily hard to describe to other people. In fact, I only began attending in the first place because a friend kept nagging and niggling at me. She couldn’t describe it coherently either:
“Most of the time you’re lying on the floor but it’s quite hard work sometimes. You learn to use your body in unexpected strange movements. The idea is to let go of unnatural habits of moving that take too much effort, and to relearn the natural, effortless way of moving, the way we moved as babies. I think you might like it.”
Well! That wasn’t a great pitch, was it? And my friend is a communications professional! I can’t describe it any better, either. All I know is that Feldenkrais practice is a physical game-changer and most of the time, it makes sense.
So I spent a day lying on the floor moving my chest and diaphram and belly and other bits in strange unfamiliar contradictory ways while breathing in and out in equally strange unfamiliar contradictory ways. This experience succeeded in disrupting my bad breathing habits so profoundly that I’m now doing the exercise that Peter prescribed without stress.
Oh, and I got a breathing app for my iPhone. It’s called Breathe & Relax, and it helps.
Image from “Airships past and present, together with chapters on the use of balloons in connection with meteorology, photography and the carrier pigeon” (1908) Hildebrandt, A. Public domain. Photo of underwater swimmer by Rachel McAlpine. CC BY 2.0