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The Fresh Air Fridays self-development community has sprung up in pockets across south Wales and extended into south west England. The initiative is based on mindfulness and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) practices that teach simple tools and techniques to support you create a happier, healthier life.
I’d stumbled across the concept online several months ago and been keen to discover more to share ideas around using nature and movement to facilitate learning. One autumnal Wednesday morning I headed for the historic Victorian Belle Vue Park which offers a green oasis in the midst of Newport in South Wales. I’d coerced Emma, my University friend, to share the experience with the added bonus of being able to compare our understandings afterwards.
Stood collectively under a covered trellised walkway surrounded by swathes of autumnal colours; fiery oranges, crimson reds and deep yellows the bland beige office walls where I’d worked for the majority of the previous week faded into distant memory. Melanie Faulks, the Fresh Air Friday’s facilitator gently guided us through a series of segments over the course of a three-hour period.
We eased into the session through 7/11 breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulate the body’s natural relaxation mechanism.
Breathing in = Excited state which quickens the heart rate, increases breathing rate and increases adrenaline production
Breathing out = Relaxed state which slows the heart rate, reduces breathing rate and decreases adrenaline production
“Deep breathing calms you down because brain cells spy on your breathe”
Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph
Dialling into breath-work lies at the centre of yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Martial Arts…I would also add running and any other rhythmic sport-like activity to the list. The practice is based on deeper breaths from the diaphragm; as opposed to shallow chest breaths. Further research from the Stanford University School of Medicine and University of California has identified 175 critical neurons that link breathing to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety located in the brain stem.
ENGAGING THE SENSES
Calm and centred we slowly meandered along pathways that criss-cross the parks twenty-six acres; ambling over wooden bridges, strolling past the wide girths of mahogany coniferous tree trunks all the while dodging dog walkers, buggies and bikes. One-by-one we sequentially engaged our senses:
This dominant sense generally hijacks our full attention consigning our other four senses into oblivion. We tend to glance across our environment; mentally filling the gaps and creating reality without really “seeing” what’s actual staring us in the face. The luxury of time to savour the intricate delicate design of individual wafer thin petals, the undulating, rippling “mackerel sky” with fish-scale like patterns of cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds and a flash of brilliant yellow set deep against a sea of green foliage; all usually bypassed as we walk blind and preoccupied with our thoughts or worse, on our phones.
Listening with deliberate intent, the everyday cacophony of sounds which usually blur and resides beyond our consciousness unfolded. Time stood still as human generated noise jostled for our attention; a nearby whirr of the hospital heating system, the endless humdrum of vehicles and faint vibration of a plane passing overhead. Straining my ears and catching my breath to encourage further stillness and silence as the bird sounds broke through; initially nearby, then from a distance as my ears became accustomed to the musical melody.
Starting from an external physical perception I concentrate on the light breeze against my cheek, then shift my focus downwards as my individual muscles flex within my boots as my feet connect with the earth. Moving inwards a quick body check-in reveals a dull ache at my temples from the residues of a persistent six-day stinking head cold, then moving down a slight tightness in my upper back the result of a 1.5-hour drive.
A faint hint of autumn moist, damp earth and pine wood infiltrates my partially blocked nose and the cold air produces a slight breathlessness.
And…nothing. This sense simply eludes me and lies beyond the realms of my physical and mental comprehension at this moment in time.
We fall into a series of pair-based conversations around a chosen monthly theme “How to Plan”. I’ll be honest; this invoked an immediate revulsion based on my current professional and personal situation where I’ve completed a couple of major business projects and ultra-running goals over the last couple of months. I’m purposely pressing pause on any active future planning for a brief interlude to rest, recover and recharge. I believe this is a natural part of the life/work cycle to return re-energised to tackle new projects with vigour and vitality.
My mind wandered to search beyond my initial assumption and grasped the chance to contemplate the balance between micro and macro worlds. This broader strategic approach resides above the obvious “project-management” planning framework with associated to-do lists, timelines, resource allocation etc.
A natural break in our conversations set mental contemplations aside for drinking tea accompanied by healthy cake; served within a miniature standing stone circle on a bed of crunchy bed of leaves.
The symbolic act of physically writing down unwanted and unhelpful thoughts; then burning the paper can facilitate a mental acceptance, release of limiting beliefs and support change moving forwards. The words “Judgement” and “Don’t need to prove myself” sprang to mind; the sharp visual contrast of black ink against stark white paper as the words defiantly screamed their message. This was quickly followed by the primal pleasure of scrunching the paper into a ball, tossing it into a metal mess tin, hiss of the match; golden flicker as flames sprang to life and devoured the paper before being replaced by grey ashes. A metaphorical closure; ashes to ashes, dust to dust as my mentally created negative thoughts are captured, destroyed and returned to the earth.
Time almost complete, a final period of relaxation connects body, mind and spirit followed by a moment of gratitude before returning us back to our separate realities. Myself to set up office over a coffee in the park café for a couple of hours sat amongst families enjoying the half term break, elderly couples soaking up the late autumnal sun and a mother comforting her new born baby.
Fresh Air Fridays is a welcome part of the #GetOutside movement that has emerged over the last few years across the UK and further afield as individuals sense a disconnect within themselves, their aspirations, their work, their relationships, their choices and ultimately their lives as the speed of everyday existence increases day by day. This three-hour block provides an opportune interlude to inject a brief window of self-care and sanity into your day.
Find out more: www.freshairfridays.co.uk