Taking a Breathing Space

Morello Cherry in bloom, May 2021

Why wait to be happy? When you walk it is possible to walk in such a way that every step becomes nourishing and healing. This is not difficult. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Springing into bloom

ALTHOUGH it is pouring with rain here in Leeds, as we go into the merry month of May, spring is still doing its thing, with foliage leaping from every branch in my garden, buds bursting on the peonies and mountain cornflower – and the beautiful blossom of the Morello Cherry presiding, with a pure white majesty, over the whole terrain.

When the weather is fine, I love stepping into the garden in the early morning, to practise some T’ai Chi or Chi Kung. Just me and the blackbirds. The Covid Pandemic has meant that I have mainly been walking solo through the gentle steps of this practise. But one of the unexpected bonuses of lockdown has been the discovery of Zoom, and the ability to share the work with people from all over the country – and from Germany and Hungary, on occasion, too.

There are advantages to moving quietly in your own space – but in the (virtual) company of others. For the shy or unconfident mover, it can be unexpectedly liberating. So on I go, running several Zoom classes each month, on a Tuesday evening and a Thursday morning, and they continue to nourish and sustain me – and those I teach – in these hard lockdown times.

Stepping outside, treading gently

Still, it will be a great pleasure to finally come face to face with other people again, all moving together in what is such a quiet and contemplative way: a meditation in movement. So, there are outside get togethers coming up too, and a tentative plan to meet indoors in July. You can check out any of the dates and details on my Breathing Space page. And if you are curious about my own – very particular – approach to movement, then the Dancing page goes into my history a little bit too.

For me, the movements of the T’ai Chi and Chi Kung are deeply embedded in nature – and they take their inspiration from the four elements, from Taoist philosophy, from birds and from animals. Beautiful images like Big Bird Spreads its Wings and Wild Goose Flying serve to inspire, both in their names and in the movement they describe. And its been a deep joy to spend the past 30 years of my life, exploring the deep layers of vitality that these ancient practises contain.

Do join me, this spring, if you fancy a Breathing Space from the considerable challenges we are all facing right now. Take a simple step… As the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, why wait to be happy?!

Details of how to book a class, or to be in touch for more information, are all included on my Breathing Space page.

New Yellow Raincoat

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, October 2020

“The quality of being: When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself.”

(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind/Shunryu Suzuki)

LEONARD COHEN’S was – famously – famous and blue. But my new raincoat is canary yellow, and known, chiefly, just to me. It is my totem for this autumn and winter, an article of faith that, come rain or shine, I shall open my door and go walking. (As the picture above shows: today it was definitely rain.) Yorkshire is well known for its wet and windy weather. But I have lived in Leeds since 1996 and have never – until this week – owned a proper raincoat. Now that we are in a second lockdown, with a wave of virus washing over the city this September, it became clear to me that the only way out of this mess is through it. Through the woods, through the wild and the cold, and out the other side. Somehow. And the new yellow raincoat was the result.

World tilted off its axis

Early autumn sent my head into a spin. Indeed, the whole world was tilted off its axis, once again, just as we took our first tentative steps into a more social, connected, “normal” physical reality. Being pushed back behind the walls of our houses, behind the muted microphone madness of Zoom, and the mushrooming of email and internet traffic, felt bleak. There was no hot and sunny and exceptional spring to uplift us this time round. Just the encroaching darkness, the inevitable fall – of leaves, of energy – into autumn and winter.

The kicking of chairs

Since I had spent most of August nursing a recurrent tooth infection, followed by a dental extraction of almost medieval ferocity, this wake up to a new shutdown, felt mean and unfair. I was ready to play out now, damn it! A massive dose of self pity left me cross and unpleasant in mood. So restless. Chairs were kicked. Water got spilled over keyboards. There was shouting: at no one, at the world, at myself. Counting my blessings – I didn’t have Covid, I hadn’t lost anyone to the virus – didn’t seem to help.

Go take a walk

To the rescue came the raincoat. In the nick of time. Such a simple, obvious choice: to see things as they are, not as I would like them to be. And to do something about it. Throughout the whole of the Covid 19 crisis, my appetite for reading and for writing has been vanishingly small. Some of the very things that have sustained me thus far in my life have felt difficult and out of reach. I have turned instead to small, practical tasks. Sorting out the cupboards under the sink (for the first time since we moved in, in 2006). Making tomato chutney. Getting back to the garden. Taking a simple walk outside.

I love to walk (Walking the Hill Road) but have always been a fair weather rambler. I am easily beaten back by the darkness and the cold. But the weather in this world of ours is no longer fair. So what choice is left? Walk anyway. Feel the rain. See the beauty in the grey clouds as well as the blue sky. Seek sustenance from the one constant in all our fractured lives: the earth beneath our feet, the sky above us.

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, late September 2020

Everything is going to be alright

The Irish poet Derek Mahon died this week.  His wonderful poem ‘Everything is going to be alright’, was quoted regularly at the start of lockdown. “There will be dying, there will be dying…” He acknowledges the dark here, certainly, but he celebrates the light more, writing his words in a “riot of sunlight”, and giving us a warm glow on the gloomiest of days. For he knows this: “The sun rises in spite of everything/and the far cities are beautiful and bright.” Although my own city basked in sunshine earlier this week – today, the brightest object in my world is that new yellow raincoat. But that’s enough. It’s more than enough. Walk on.

‘Everything is going to be alright’ is published in Faber’s New and Selected Poems by Derek Mahon. 

He reads the poem himself here: