Cultivating positivity

How with a little extra effort, one may restore balance and harmony to their lives

In a modern world where rewards are granted for extra effort and hard work, we can often be excused for thinking we need to put 110 per cent effort into what we do. We take the mind and body to the extreme – believing we must always go beyond our limits to push the boundaries and excel.

But the downside is clear – our mind and body can only go so far before the cracks start to appear in the form of stress, high-blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, and other emotional and physical problems which will eventually decrease work efficiency and negatively impact our lives in a number of other ways.

So isn’t it important that we learn to relax and bring some balance to bear in our lives? To give ourselves the option to turn up the heat when we need to, but also be able to turn it down again when it’s unnecessary, or damaging to our health.

Tai Chi Chuan has been the focus of a host of studies that have verified its efficacy in reducing stress and improving health. In the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) view of the body, mental or physical tension in the body causes the blood and ‘qi’ (or ‘energy’) to stagnate, leading to physical damage. By smoothing out the qi and blood flow, not only can we prevent physical illness, we can also normalise our thought processes – leading to clarity of mind and strength of body.

Central to this is learning the most basic principle of Tai Chi Chuan practise – and one that can be the most difficult for many to grasp – which is called Song in Chinese, or relaxation/softness. In Tai Chi Chuan training, we believe that the will or intention leads the energy, with actions or strength following – so it is crucial to learn how to relax and focus the mind first, since from this will follow all else.

In Western physiology, when we relax, we turn down the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘flight-or-fight’ actions or stress-related effects in the body, and give the parasympathetic nervous system a chance to kick into action, giving the body a chance to regenerate and rebuild its resources.

By relaxing the mind and the body, and coordinating our breath with our actions, the qi channels or meridians open, and both blood and qi flow are enhanced. If you imagine a qi channel as being like a pipe, you will realise that both need a good source of energy and a free path. For if there is excessive tension in the ‘pipe’, then the pipe will be squeezed and inhibit flow.

So by learning to relax and gently opening the body out, as is taught in Tai Chi Chuan, the qi channels are opened. By coordinating the mind’s intention, with the breath and body’s actions in a relaxed and natural way, the body’s energy and physical strength are cultivated– which can be used both for health enhancement as well as self-defence.

This applies to all ages and states of fitness, making it just as suitable for the young over-worked executive needing to de-stress as for a frail older person needing to gently build up the body’s resources.

Stephanie Fowler first began learning martial arts in 1992 at the age of 17. Her training in Tai Chi Chuan began a year later. She has trained with many top masters from all over the world, including the current Chen-style lineage holder Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. She has also practised Qigong and another internal martial art, Bagua Zhang.
Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge