Myself and I

At first, this blog entry about body image was just going to be a few self-deprecating fat jokes and a little about how I perceive myself in this job. I then remembered a book Ross had loaned me ages ago, that I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, it’s called, “The Body Image Workbook An Eight Step Programme For Learning To Like Your Looks”. Given as I had this book I thought I should at least delve a little more in depth into a subject that affects so many people on a variety of levels, so one morning I settled myself down in the local coffee shop and started to work my way through it. After only working through a few of the exercises and answering the questions it slowly dawned on me that my body and I needed some serious relationship counselling.

You may recall me mentioning that I was bullied at school, I also moved schools quite a lot and as time went on I developed a, “fake it till you make it” attitude to confidence that just carried on as I got older. Trying to ignore the taunts floating from my past about my big nose, dumbo ears or the fact that puberty had raised it’s raging hormonal head and covered my face in spots (and never stopped). Moving on past school there are so many other body issues out there. I remember looking at magazine pictures of models and sniffing, “they’re so thin don’t they eat anything?!” whilst inside desperately wishing that I looked like that.

I could go on with different examples, but what really saddened me as I was completing these tests were all of my self-loathing habits that I had incorporated into my life to such a degree that I didn’t even notice they existed any more; the constant trying to hold my stomach in making me feel really uncomfortable because I wasn’t breathing properly, the unflattering clothes that actually make me feel worse over time because they cover everything up, comforting myself with unhealthy foods whilst mentally berating myself for being a “fat pig”, only allowing myself to focus on what I hate when I look at myself in the mirror (particularly since I had Beth) and transferring that particular habit to making sure I NEVER stand in front of the full length mirror in any of the sessions in our work gym.

Working as a Kung Fu instructor has in some ways been beneficial and detrimental to my body image issues. On the one hand I am more aware of how to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle, how to exercise more mindfully and effectively to achieve healthy goals, how to create more nutritious meals and can now look at the stick thin body types I used to aspire to and happily tell myself that it is not a healthy goal to want. Through my training I need to find a place that’s best for me and my body.

What I used to aspire to.

Beautiful Badass

My latest healthy girl crush, Nia Shanks!

On the other hand I am especially aware that whilst advocating a healthy lifestyle to the children I teach, I am the unhealthiest full time member of staff in the Cambridge Kung Fu office (not helped by my aptitude for baking full fat, full sugar, imminent diabetic coma cakey treats!). While running or jumping around with the Tiny Tigers my attention is dragged to the feeling of my spare tyre wobbling around. The fact that after only a few minutes of running around a room I am out of breath and that in comparison to a lot of our other kids instructors who train with us regularly I have no muscle strength or cardiovascular fitness AT ALL!

But that’s the thing, I am so busy comparing myself to other people that I don’t see what I have that is truly brilliant. For one thing I have pretty damn good proprioception (check me out and my big words!), i.e. I find it incredibly easy to copy someone’s movements and recreate them accurately which comes in very useful when learning and teaching the children the forms they will be doing. In turn this gives me the ability to think of lots of different ways to explain different movements, take any movement in our forms and I probably have at least 3 or 4 different explanations stored away for potential use. I have a good recovery time. Yes I may not have long endurance for running, but give me a minute and my heart rate will be back down to normal and I’m good to go! I have really good storytelling skills which comes in incredibly useful when getting kids involved and excited about a game. Now, none of these are related to my body image. But listing all of them can bring a more positive frame of mind, which in turn makes me view my body and how I look in a more positive frame of mind.

Having adopted this attitude for the past few months, my confidence has grown, I can see more and more things about my body that I like and my attitude to my training has done nothing but improved. To the extent that I voluntarily went to an Escrima Concepts Seminar a few weeks ago and enjoyed it!! Five years ago (when I started working for Cambridge Kung Fu) if you had told me I would do that I would have outright laughed in your face, politeness be damned.

Now imagine if I had been able to develop this positive attitude to an extent where I didn’t need to fake confidence as a child. In CKF classes our aim is not just to help children develop physical fitness and awareness of their environments, it’s also to help develop their confidence in their abilities and in themselves. We have a lot of children who come to our classes and don’t join in any of the games where they perceive that there might be a possibility of “losing” and others who lose any enjoyment from the classes if they think that more than one person is focusing on what they’re doing at any one time. Rather than trying to make one big change all at once, we work on smaller changes to break the overall goal into easier steps.

If we want a child to gain in confidence, we work on getting them to interact more positively within the class environment. Tackling an activity that was an issue to them before and providing positive reinforcement when they do so. Showing them that they don’t need to prove that they’re better than anyone else, they just have to work as hard as they can and let their efforts speak for themselves.

I believe in this so strongly that as soon as Beth was old enough she started training with us. I want her exposed to this attitude, I don’t want her resilience to tough situations to derive from, “fake it ’till you make it”. I want her to be able to stand tall and proudly say, “I did my best” and know that’s enough. There is so much negative media surrounding children these days about how to look, how to act, what’s ‘cool’ and what’s ‘wrong’. They are so vulnerable to these suggestions as they forge their path through life, they need to develop the resilience to say to themselves, “I am fine, the way I am”. The knowledge to enable them to chose the healthier path, to recognise unhealthy behaviours when they rear their ugly heads and the confidence to stand by their decisions. Every child deserves that.


The Importance of Stories

Those of you who are familiar with our club will know that we run a summer camp for the kids every year when the summer holidays start (this year we have some kids coming all the way from Hong Kong…how AMAZING is that?!). When I first started working for Cambridge Kung Fu we ran the summer camp to work on our kung fu values, but not at the expense of having fun.  We taught a form created specially for the summer camp, played games for much longer than we normally got a chance to in the lessons and did some crafting activities that sometimes involved challenges and sometimes just because they were silly. It was loads of fun and the kids and instructors got a chance to bust out some truly spectacular moves that normally would never see the light of day in our regular classes. So, this is what we’d do every year….until one day (almost a year ago actually) I saw this video:

Now the title alone appealed to me, I’m a bit of a nerd and yes I like to play games (Munchkin anyone?). Being told how my sitting around playing games with my mates could help me improve the world was instantly going to grab my attention. So I grabbed my earphones and settled down to watch her at work. What I heard completely changed how I viewed our classes and eventually led to us approaching the Summercamp in a new and exciting way!

What Jane tells us is that rather than viewing online roleplaying games as something negative, they can actually inspire positive, world altering values and attitudes in the people who play them. People who play online multiplayer games (such as World of Warcraft) are used to cooperating with a massive number of people in order to achieve their goals, they receive constant feedback about how they are doing in regards to achieiving their goals and (now pay attention here’s the REALLY important part) they are constantly challenged to the edge of their ability, and no further. They are never given a world saving quest that is completely impossible for them to do, tantrum inducingly difficult (ahem), but not impossible. It is simply not possible for them to be given a quest that is beyond their characters level to complete. This constant feedback/validation of their progress and always being appropriately challenged, as well as being able to see the changes that occur in their environment due to their actions engage the player in the game and they experience “flow“. Being so engaged in the game makes its reality much more appealing than actual reality, the world they create with their character belongs to them in a more real sense than the life they create outside of the game.

It was this concept of engagement that completely changed how I looked at our kids classes. It was so OBVIOUS! Yes we have lots of fun playing the games and making the form practice funny and interesting, but we didn’t really have anything that meant the kids could claim the classes as their own. Nothing to completely engage them and allow them to experience flow on a regular basis. We needed stories, we needed a quest, what we needed, was an underlying purpose for everything that we were doing. Enter the summercamp and our willing guinea pigs students.

Together my fellow instructors and I created Zhe-Xian (pronounced chuh-zien) a former Cambridge Kung Fu student who had been thrown out of the summercamp many years ago for being lazy, dishonest and generally not a nice person. He had stolen all of the certificates and badges that the children would receive at the end of the week because he felt that if he (the most talented, amazing and disciplined student of all din’tchaknow) didn’t deserve a reward for his hard work then no one did. Via an angry SiJi Rin (SiJi is the title for a female instructor meaning older kung fu sister and teacher) demanding to know who had played this extremely unfunny joke on everyone, downloaded “security footage” a written ransom note and an e-mailed video we set the scene for the children.

Zhe-Xian had taken the certificates and badges and the children would only have three days to prove that they actually deserved to receive them at the end of the Summercamp. The children were provided with two chests (one for the older class, one for the younger class) made by Kung-Fu masters in the neutral dimension, these chests would judge each day whether the children had put in enough effort and focus and shown the Cambridge Kung Fu work ethic worthy of certificates and badges. If the children had demonstrated this then the chests would form a portal and give them a clue as to where Zhe-Xian had hidden the certificates and badges.

Throughout the week we did certain activities related to this storyline such as creating guardians for their badge and certificate once we found them and designing our own bracers to protect ourselves from Zhe-Xian’s mind control gauntlets (fat lot of good it did our instructors though!)

At the end of the week we put together all of the clues and had a treasure hunt around the school we were using. The children had to logically work out what the clues (little riddles about locations around the school) were telling us and help the instructors find whatever was hidden in that location. What we all found were not the expected certificates and bages, but a map! A map that finally showed the children where the prize was, but alas! Our instructors had been brainwashed and it was up to the children not only to recover the stolen goods and rescue the instructors, but also to reclaim their bracers that Zhe-Xian had sneakily stolen.

Needless to say the Cambridge Kung Fu children were victorious! The badges and certificates were recovered in time for the ceremony the next day, the instructors were saved and Zhe-Xian was shipped off to China to get some proper instruction.

The children got so involved with this story! From the start during their breaks they were hunting for Zhe-Xian to see if he was still hanging around, they were giving us ideas on what we could do to catch Zhe-Xian, every day when we got a clue they were talking to each other and the instructors about what it could mean, parents were coming in asking about who it was that had stolen from us (one of our instructors in particular had to console his daughter for the whole of the first night….I was not very popular with him), and to this day nearly a year later we have children asking us about Zhe-Xian.

They were engaged in the summercamp, they worked together. The older kids helped the younger kids, all the kids helped the instructors, they came up with their own versions of why Zhe-Xian was doing this and (most telling of all) I managed to hold 40 children enthralled in an activity for nearly half an hour without them noticing the other instructors sneaking off one by one because they had been “kidnapped”. But my point is this, none of this would have been possible without the underlying quest for them to complete. The “bad guy” to unite them together in achieving one purpose. At no point did they believe they couldn’t do it, we gave them a challenge and they smashed it beyond our wildest dreams!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the importance of stories. How else are you going to convince children that they can defeat an ego maniacal bad guy? How else are you going to encourage them to willingly use their logic and puzzle solving skills to achieve an outcome? How else are you going to encourage them to stand by a fellow child and help them unbrainwash a teacher? Without the story all of the activities the children did had no purpose other than giving them something to do, with a story they had a purpose, they had a goal and with that they were truly unstoppable.

Pushing Boundries

Dear readers, I have been neglecting you I know and this blog has not been updating as it should. Please accept my deepest apologies but be secure in the knowledge that there are more entries to come lovingly crafted by my own fair typing fingers! Anyway, read on for hijinks with my daughter and buses!

A few months ago I took Beth on the Park and Ride into Cambridge. She was in her pushchair so we took up occupancy in the space by the door, much to her delight there was a button at just the right level for her to push. Her eyes light up and her finger immediately stretches out towards it. Almost as if I have suddenly become Cassandra I see the future spreading out before me, a future filled with bus button pushing and irritated drivers and an extremely annoyed Beth at having the fun prematurely curtailed by her evil mother. But I am not Cassandra, and I can put a stop to it right now. “Beth” I warn, her finger millimetres away from the button, “No.” and I shake my head to make sure my meaning is clear. She stops, her mouth forming a little “oh” and eyebrows raised in innocent surprise, slowly her finger is withdrawn and she goes back to babbling and waving at the people across the aisle from us. However, the siren call of the button is too strong for her to resist and once again it draws her in. Her little hand reaches out once more, but as I open my mouth to tell her again it comes to rest underneath the button and she looks at me with a little grin. Now the cynic in me says that she’s being cheeky and deliberately going near the button, reminiscent of a certain game that children play. As I breathe in to tell her again the realisation suddenly hits me that I didn’t actually tell her what she wasn’t allowed to do. She wasn’t being cheeky she was trying to define what she could and could not do. As far as she was concerned I could have been telling her not to touch the entire side of the bus, not just the button. Quickly I revise my warning and smile saying “That’s okay, you can touch the wall just not the button” and elaborate whenever she goes to push the offending article saying “Not the button” instead of just “No.” By defining these boundaries for her we both have an enjoyable bus trip composing an impromptu musical number with the side of the bus doubling as a makeshift drum for our combined lalalas. Personally I found this a much better use of my time than constantly saying no and leaving her to figure out the rest on her own.

As her mother I am naturally biased towards thinking Beth is a) adorable beyond all reason and b) a GENIUS. Therefore whenever she starts showing that she has developed more awareness and understanding of the world around her I have to fight the inclination to over praise her for something that is actually completely ordinary and well within the bounds of natural development. Her development amazes me because every step is just as new to me as it is to her, however this is just the natural progression that most children show. As they grow older it is natural for them to question and not accept things at face value just because that’s what we tell them. Testing limits and pushing boundaries is a good thing (within reason), it teaches a child how far they can go, what is and is not acceptable at certain times and can improve their relationship with the authority figures in their life.

Many parents would say that arguing with their teenage children is a source of stress and they feel it means that their relationship is not as strong as it could be. Look at it from the teenager’s point of view and you could see quite a different perspective. Arguing with their parents (particularly when it comes to rules about curfews and parties) shows them that their parents are willing to listen to them and their opinions about a certain issue. They respect the teenager for the person that they are becoming and allow them the possibility of bending the rules or even changing them e.g. they are allowed to come home later because they are going out for a special event or can now walk home from school on their own because they are older. Even if they lose a few arguments the possibility for change in the future is still there for the teenagers to attempt again later (check out Nurture Shock for more elaboration on this).

It has been shown that taking a more authoritarian approach (the rules are set and not subject to change) leads children to be more likely to secretly rebel against the rules. They come to realise that no matter what they say the parents won’t change their opinion and so they hide their behaviour, rationalising that what their parents don’t know can’t hurt them. Even should their behaviour be discovered and punished this does not deter them, rather than stopping they simply take better precautions to ensure that their parents do not find out again. By taking an authoritative approach (the rules are clearly defined, but can be changed later on) the relationship can stay more open. The child is aware which rules are unbendable and which are open to the occasional breaking. But most importantly they know why the rules can or can not be changed, it isn’t merely because that is what they have been told and that is what they will do.

As Beth gets older I’m trying my best to make sure that everything I ask her to do, or tell her not to do (playing with laptop cables, leading innocent toys into a life of crime) has a reason behind it. Getting into reasons right now will overcomplicate things for her understanding, but by keeping this in mind and being specific (and flexible) about my expectations it will not only help me to develop a good relationship with my daughter but hopefully will transfer into the classes I teach.

In a bout of solidarity my parents sent me a book on toddler taming, apparently it kept them sane when I was a Satan spawn (which was all the time). Now Beth is by no means a difficult child, but is rapidly approaching the time of independence (terrible two’s) which is going to involve lots of frustration for her as she tries to do more and more things for herself without help from either one of her parents. What has helped me in leading up to these times of potential strife is following what Dr Green has written; really paying attention to what Beth is doing, being present there with her (as in physically and mentally), acknowledging that she is feeling frustrated and rather than taking over and doing the task for her enabling her to complete it with a minimum of aid (NOT an easy task for a control freak like me). So far we’ve managed to cope with a fairly harmonious household and a minimum of timeouts (the same can not be said for certain trouble causing toys…..mouse I’m looking at you), but these guidelines can be applied to much older children as well. Children can tell when you’re not really paying attention to them or their needs, it’s too easy to get distracted and try to focus on the bigger picture rather than taking the time to zoom in and pay attention to one part of a multi-layered activity. That’s where I think our instructors are amazing! They each have the skill to stop what they’re doing and really listen to what a child is trying to tell them, by utilising this skill they are able to take an authoratative approach and allow the child to question why we do things in a certain way and explain what we need from them without the child feeling the need to negatively draw attention to themselves, or try to break the rules and hope that we don’t find out.

In our classes we work on the principle that respect is earned, not given. By expecting the children to do something just because their instructors have told them to is not earning their respect, it’s commanding it.

Articles of Interest

Mothers’ and fathers’ parenting styles and associations with toddlers’ externalizing, internalizing and adaptive behaviours – Christina M. Rinaldi, Nina Howe

Personality and parenting style in parents of adolescents – Rose M.E. Huver, Roy Otten, Hein de Vries, Rutger C.M.E. Engels

The Relationship Between Parental Perfectionism And Parenting Styles – Kooroosh Azizi, Mohammad Ali Besharat

Living with fear, and facing it down.

*WARNING! Some of the links in this post are not for the faint hearted and may cause distress*

Fear. It’s such a difficult subject to talk about. Not only because it’s hard to face your fears, but also because it’s different for everyone. Each person has their own comfort zones and levels that they are willing to go beyond, each person has their own way of dealing with their fear. Some find taking a deep breath helps (particularly useful just before performing or taking an exam), others take solace in some kind of mantra (meditation in your pocket), lucky charms, diversions, there are numerous coping methods for whatever ails you.

Now, I have a small secret to share with you. Ready? Come closer…..I’m scared all the damn time. It’s tiny fears that afflict me, how much money do I have (not much!), he’s running late is Tom going to get home safe, am I failure as a mother because Beth won’t eat/talk/walk/do ANYTHING I ask her to do, will I forget the form moves, if I let the kids just run around are they going to get hurt, will my ideas work, will I forget the certificates and badges (yes, many times, to be reclaimed at the last minute), am I lost, is that noise just the house settling or is someone in here with me, I’m so tired if I shut the doors will I hear Beth in the night. As you can see the list goes on and on. This inner monologue of fears and anxieties carries on throughout the day and I can more or less dismiss them immediately by creating extensive lists, researching where I’m going exhaustively or recognising the voice of my inner drama queen (heads up she’s a bit of a diva). All is fine, that is until the day ends and it starts to get dark. For you see ladies and gentlemen I suffer from Nyctophobia, which is a fancy way of saying scared of monsters under the bed. When it comes to the dark I curse my vivid imagination and the fact that, although knowing it was a hideously bad idea, I used to stay up to watch horror movies when I was supposed to be sleeping (sorry Mum!). I can’t go anywhere in the house without a light source. Every morning I have to screw up my courage to go down the stairs (if I turn on the landing light Beth will wake up before her breakfast is ready and that girl is most definitely NOT a morning person) because I’m half convinced that this is what will be waiting for me at the bottom. Our garage has a huge gaping hole in the roof leading to a loft space which of course is perfect for something to be lurking ready for me to walk underneath. As through the garage is the easiest way to get Beth and all her guff into the house, when winter is here home time always involves a mad dash to the light switch at the OTHER END of the garage before unloading can commence. I won’t even go into why no limb can ever hang over the side of the bed, all doors have to be closed never ajar and a light HAS to be within easy distance of the bed.

Looking back, I’ve had this fear as long as I can remember. My parents have informed me that it originated from an exhibition of stuffed animals and their glass eyes (thank you very much Norwich Castle). I can’t remember these original nightmares, but it affected me enough to need to have all my toys taken out of the bedroom and a light on in my room to be able to sleep. That then progressed to the landing light being left on and the door open, at the age of 14 I decided I was too old for that and so substituted the landing light for plastering my walls and ceiling with glow in the dark stars. At university it was falling asleep with the TV on or a DVD playing on my laptop. Now, however, there is nothing to distract me. Fortunately our bedroom is near a street light, so long as I allow myself to get over the initial “oh my god DARK!” reaction it’s actually light enough for me to see around.

Now that Beth is here I’m very conscious of the fact that when she gets older I can pass this fear on to her just by letting her see and perceive it. Obviously I need to find better coping techniques than the perceived safety found in a light switch! To some extent I’ve succeeded. Although when Beth first went through to her own room I was a mess. Not from the separation, I actually slept better without all of her little noises in the room with us, but from the fact that there was a dark corridor to walk down, a huge gaping black pit of a staircase perfect for something to crawl up and lets not forget the loft hatch right outside her bedroom door (many thanks to my university colleagues for that one!)! Night feedings were the worst, I would lose my night vision as I needed to turn on the light a small amount to see what I was doing thus making the walk back to my own bedroom fraught with unseen peril. Enter the night light! Making the corridor slightly less terrifying as I’d at least be able to see the bastards coming! Now I’m happy to say I can walk through to her bedroom and give her a cuddle in the dark and then go back to bed with only a small twinge (probably not after finishing this post however). Although if we’re being completely honest, 5 minutes of her screaming and pointing at thin air is my limit before I’m stamping on the floor lamp like my life depends on it.

As you might have guessed I get to face this fear every night (yippee!) and some nights are better than others (halloween is a particularly bad time). But I am not the only one who has to encounter a deep seated fear on a regular basis. Many of the children we teach have their own fears, some are shy, some are scared of forgetting the form moves (right there with ya guys!), some are scared of the fast moving games with gym balls bouncing all over the place, others of being in a situation where they will be singled out. Where we adults go wrong, I feel, is sometimes thinking that these kids need to just get on and deal with it. That if they only got stuck in they’d realise it’s not as bad as it seems and they’re just being a bit silly by allowing something so small to get in their way. But actually they’re not, and by trying to buoy them up and jolly them along we little realise that we could actually be making the problem worse and entrenching the fear even deeper. I’ve been reading a book called “How to talk so kids will learn, at home and in school.” while most of the book is written in a fairly patronising way (in my opinion at least) there was one thing that really struck a chord with me. To help a child move past a problem, you need to acknowledge their feelings about the problem. As an adult I find I tend to try and fast track the child around the problem and getting to they part where they’re having fun. I talk to them about how they’ll be fine practicing the moves we’re learning they just have to try their best, once they get involved it won’t be so scary because everyone will help them in the lesson, it’s okay the balls aren’t very hard so if they hit you they won’t hurt etc. By talking to the children like this I was hoping to shore up their confidence enough for them to join in and to start having fun and forget the fear in the first place. What I didn’t realise I was doing was actually dismissing how they were feeling, by trying to jump straight into cheering them up I was subconsciously telling them that how they felt didn’t matter. Which pretty much has the opposite effect to what I’m trying to do, by doing this I’m telling them I don’t understand and they don’t want to listen to any advice that they are given by someone like that. By acknowledging what they are feeling, they can see you understand and see why they are scared and can then accept any advice you have for them.

To illustrate I have two personal examples that happened in the same lesson. It was the final games week before we finished for Christmas, as there weren’t very many children we combined the classes together and took the Tiny Tigers (our youngest students) up to join in with the Little Dragons (our second oldest students). I had to quickly go and pick up some stuff from the office before the lesson finished and so was in a hurry to get everything sorted before I left. One of the Tiny Tigers turned to me as we were lining up and told me that they didn’t like going upstairs to which I immediately replied “It’ll be okay, we’re going to run around and play games and have loads of fun!”, do you see what I did there? While trying to reassure them so they could join in more rapidly I effectively dismissed how they were feeling. What would have been better is if I had recognised that they were a bit intimidated about going upstairs and joining in with a lot of older children playing games and vocalised this realisation with them. They would then (hopefully) have felt more reassured that I understood why they didn’t like the thought of going upstairs and would have felt more reassured by me telling them that it was going to be okay. They did join in later and were having loads of fun when I returned, but how much quicker would they have joined in if I had taken that short amount of time to help them vocalise that trepidation?

Later on towards the end of the lesson in the final game there was another Tiny Tiger who didn’t want to join in. I sat there fruitlessly trying to encourage them to join in until I remembered what I had read. I looked at the swarm of children surrounding Rob (one of our instructors) and suddenly realised that although it was a fairly quite game (Terracotta Warriors which is played by sneaking up on someone and standing very still in a designated pose if that person turns around for the curious among you) it could still be very intimidating with a large crowd of children playing it, especially if a lot of them were bigger than you and you didn’t know many of them. I turned to the Tiny Tiger and just asked “Is it because there’s lots of people?”, a small nod of the head, “How about we go up together really slowly?” a hand held out and a very cautious creep up to take a cone from Rob showed how effective vocalising this one fear was for that child.

Now I am in no way suggesting that dwelling on a fear is a great idea, but by not acknowledging it at all, we risk repressing it further and it growing without awareness. My automatic responses to the dark are now so ingrained that I am often unaware I’m doing them….that is until the lights don’t work. By listening to a child’s fear we allow them to express themselves and we can then respond in a way that is useful to them and gives them tools to help deal with that fear. When we don’t really listen we are not aware and so it is impossible to help the child, or ourselves, find an intelligent way of conquering our fears!

And just so you all know. Acknowledging and facing my fears writing this post has not only made me stronger, but now means that I won’t be sleeping again…..ever.

Sweet dreams.

Finding the eye of the storm

It always happens doesn’t it? One day you can handle everything that life throws at you, you’re calm, you’re organised there is no problem too big or too small for you and your super duper efficient approach to everything.

Then the next day rolls around. Everything is sent to try you, nothing works right, everything is piling on top of you, there are jobs and chores left right and centre that need doing right nownowNOW and you feel like you’re drowning while everyone else calmly moves on past you getting on with everything in a way that makes you want to claw out their eyes for being so calm when OBVIOUSLY the world is ending all around you (or is that just me?).

Now I will fully admit to being of an excitable nature, usually I need a moment to have a quick rant about how horrible and awful the situation is now and then I calm down and get on with it. It’s not the most efficient way of dealing with things but over the years I have found that if I don’t vent straight away I repress the feelings and they bubble underneath the surface for DAYS afterwards. This is extremely trying for my poor partner Tom as it then comes out in little bursts constantly until I’ve finally expressed everything I felt, this happens regardless of how big or small the situation was. I’ve found this to be especially the case now that I’m a mum and back working full time. I’m sure other parents can agree with me that when there’s a small child in your life there is never enough time for everything you need to do, let alone all the other things that you want to do. You often find that you’re so busy getting everything else ready for the house, for the child, for everyday life that you neglect yourself. For example I often try to be efficient and make my lunch the night before, but am so busy in the morning that I leave it at home, d’oh! Any tales of rushed around absentmindedness to share from anyone?

But back to my excitable nature! Recently I drove up to Coventry for a childcare expo, they were doing sessions about games on a budget and some seminars which looked pretty relevant to my job (more to come on that in another entry). Now I am an okay driver over long distances, even by myself. What gets me wound up and anxious though is going somewhere I do not know, specifically in big cities. I learnt to drive in Norwich so I became intimately familiar with it’s one way system and which lanes were best for which direction. I fully remember the frustration caused by people who didn’t know where they were going and would often switch lanes at the last minute or proceed at a snails pace trying to figure out which way to go. When I drive in a city I am unfamiliar with, I remember this frustration and I cringe every time I go wrong knowing that the driver behind me is undoubtedly rolling their eyes, heaving a deep sigh or even cursing the very day I was ever awarded a drivers licence. Add in the the fact that I’m often trying to get somewhere for a certain time and am convinced that I will be lost forever and therefore late, and there’s some major anxiety going on in my little Tallulah (what? Everyone names their cars don’t they?). So given all this you can imagine how calm and serene I was whilst on the work placement for my Social Work degree, which involved navigating the back roads of Norfolk at times, and then in my first job in Cambridge as a Gymboree instructor, which involved finding nurseries in places I had never even heard of let alone know vaguely where they were! My old house mate Rob has my eternal gratitude for letting me have his SatNav on permanent loan until I could save enough money for one of my own (code for steal my boyfriend’s!).

So how do I calm myself down? First things first, know thyself. I know for a fact that if I’m running late then that will wind me up before I even start heading anywhere, so I make sure I leave in plenty of time. Even if leaving at that time means I’ll be early, it gives me a buffer for if I do get lost and need to find my way again. I also make sure that if it’s somewhere I’ve never been before I’ve looked up the route on google maps, written down directions/addresses and also have a satnav to prevent me from having to slow down too much in order to read street names etc. I recognise that these are all props but they help me from descending into a whirlwind of “ARGH” . The second step is to recognise when I’m becoming stressed out and to talk myself down, to carry on with this example, if I miss the exit on a roundabout just go around again. If I miss a turning it’s not a big deal just find a safe place to turn around and go back. So what if it takes a little bit of extra time, that’s why I left early. The final step occurs when I reach my destination, I take a minute to just breathe. Particularly if it’s been quite a stressful journey, a few minutes just to myself are enough to ground me again and I’m ready to go ahead with whatever I need to do.

In our classes you may have noticed we regularly do an exercise with the children called Silent Masters. We use this as a way to calm them down after a high activity class and game, it’s also another way for them to learn how to control their bodies. As those of you with young children will know, getting them to stay still is just as hard as getting them to perform certain movements. With this exercise they are learning how to keep their bodies still and under their control. It’s a good opportunity for them to destress, particularly if they’ve found some of the new form moves that week quite difficult. When I run silent masters I like to encourage the children to imagine they are breathing in their favourite colour and breathing out their least favourite colour. When they breathe in they are breathing in positive feelings like happiness, being relaxed, feeling energised etc. When they are breathing out they are getting rid of any negative emotions they might have like being upset, frustrated or angry so that they can experience the rest of the day without having those feelings weighing them down.

However sometimes a situation is too much for a child in class and it needs to be dealt with before Silent Masters. In these instances our instructors give them some one to one attention so the child can tell us what is wrong e.g. they’re scared to join in the game, someone keeps pushing them on skyscraper or they’re having a lot of trouble with a particular move, and we do our best to help them resolve the problem so they can join back in with the lesson. Sometimes however that is not enough and they need what I need occasionally: some time away from the situation. If this is the case we give the child the option to sit out and observe the class and to join back in when they feel ready.

All of these techniques that we use are nothing special, but we hope that they make the classes feel like a safer space for the children while they are with us. They are also easily transferable to everyday life and can be used by anyone not just children. You don’t need to lie down to do silent masters, just sit back in your chair now, close your eyes and take a deep breath imagining that everything is relaxing and all of the tension is leaving your body. Bad day at work? Don’t sit there and stew in the toxic environment, take a walk and get away, when you come back you’ll have a clearer head and will be able to approach the situation much more calmly.

If you would like to do Silent Masters at home with your child here are some tips that I have personally found useful that you may want to include in your practice:

  • If you are only just introducing Silent Masters at home don’t expect your child to naturally fall into it. Allow them to find their own way to be comfortable rather than insisting they sit or lie in a particular position. You will find they start focussing much quicker that way!
  • Try not to go too fast through each step. Allow your child some time to get used to one idea before progressing onto the next. For example, allow them to focus on their deep breathing first of all for a few minutes (which naturally relaxes the body) before then asking them to visualise something. Moving too quickly means they can’t get used to one thing before having to move on.
  • Meditating is a hard skill to master. You need to show the same patience you are expecting of your child. I have often found trying to push them into one aspect of silent masters then sabotages everything else you try to do. Rather than getting irritated that they are not listening or focussing for the length of time you think they should be, shorten it down and increase it gradually. Like any skill, meditation will become easier the more it is practiced.

Now if you don’t mind I’m off to do some relaxing of my own. The deep relaxation that can only be brought around by a box of chocolates and the developing love of a Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy and a Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Poor Mr Darcy condemned forever to look like Colin Firth….although in my opinion I don’t really see that as too great a hardship.

Exercise can be fun…, really!

It never fails to amaze me watching the children I teach just how much energy they have! They run around like maniacs before we start our classes then they do an hour with us where we run around warming up, doing our forms and playing games. Afterwards some even head to more activities; tennis lessons, dance classes, football the list goes on and on!

I vaguely remember being able to maintain that high level of energy. Now my exercise consists of weight lifting (carrying Beth around counts right?), kung fu classes, yoga, pilates and Tai Chi (not really known for their high cardiovascular effect) and my (almost non-existent) marathon training. Until I started working for Cambridge Kung Fu I never really analysed my attitude to exercise, I proudly viewed myself as one of the ‘sane’ people. 6am for a run? No thank you! Killing yourself on gym machines and continuous cardio and strength classes? Well I’ll dabble every now and then but heaven forbid it should interfere with…well, let’s be honest, anything else that didn’t involve getting sweaty, disgusting and tired in a room full of 20 people with an endlessly energetic perky instructor!

With this job has come the realisation that the most important factor for me when it comes to exercise, is fun. It seems like such an obvious factor yet it is one that is constantly  overlooked in people’s efforts to combat the indulgent coffees (guilty), cakes (also guilty), chocolate bars (yup) and the desire to get our children into the best habits possible to avoid becoming part of the obesity epidemic (I’m pretty sure my future self is guilty).

So where has this attitude of mine come from? Funnily enough, childhood. I am a forces brat and having opted out of going to boarding school ended up changing schools every 3-4 years. I suffered quite badly from being bullied and so withdrew from anything that would draw quite a lot of attention to myself, this included getting involved in school sports besides the required P.E lessons. The only exercise I truly enjoyed was (and still is along with my Tai Chi) dancing, the great thing being it didn’t feel like exercise. It was fun, it was something I could laugh at while I was doing it and it constantly changed. The advantage being the better I got the less time I had for other sports at school. It’s now gotten to the point that if I can’t laugh while I’m doing the exercise, or if I’m out of breath cackle maniacally in my head, then I can’t stick with it long-term.

The commonly accepted explanation for why exercise makes people feel good is “endorphins”.  Research has shown that endogenous opioids (“peptides that have biochemical properties similar to exogenous opiates such as heroin and morphine”*, otherwise known as endorphins) are increased by exercising, this increase also coincided with an improvement in mood after acute exercise. However studies that then blocked the opioid receptors showed that this did not stop the mood improvement after exercise from occurring. So endorphins on their own can not fully account for the “feel good” factor when we exercise, what else can? There is also a psychological aspect to exercise, who hasn’t vowed that this year will be different and started a whole new exercise regime only to slowly drop it over the next few months (I know I have!)? It takes dedication and determination to stick with something new to the point of it becoming a habit, especially when it’s not always pleasureable (helloooooo red puffy face, breathlessness, sweat and aches and pains). The level of intensity at which you exercise can have an effect on your mood levels, low intensity can improve mood and high intensity can actually increase negative mood states**. However it has also been shown to have no effect at all, this could be attributed to the fact that we all have our own comfort zones when it comes to exercise. Some people take pleasure from high intensity levels of exercise (like my nutter of a Spartan neighbour!), and others find this highly uncomfortable and prefer lower levels of intensity (like yours truly). It seems that people experience more pleasure from exercise when they are allowed to choose the intensity each time, some days you feel capable of tackling a 5 mile run, other days you can barely get down the road.

In order to achieve a “pleasureable state of consciousness” (Yeung) during exercise you need to enter into the flow. This is achieved by challenging yourself at “the very edge of your skill level”***, too hard and you become frustrated and angry, too easy and you become bored. The effects are the same however, you soon stop. Jane McGonigal tells us that being in a state of flow is so engaging that even if we do stumble while attempting the challenge we immediately want to get up and try again. We are “optimistically engaged” (McGonigall) within the task and so are more inclined to think positively about our abilities within it rather than negatively.

So combining a state of flow and the release of endorphins can then create a state of mind which helps us to maintain a new exercise regime and to stick with something we find challenging because it is fun for us. This is the type of environment we try to create within our classes every week, if it’s not fun what’s the point? But combining this state of mind with laughter makes the effect even more powerful, did you know that the act of laughing releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into our brains? Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward, by laughing while attempting and succeeding at a task you are setting yourself up to be more prepared for any increased effort required to succeed in the future (however should you stumble remember kung fu means success achieved through hard work and that this can apply to anything, not just martial arts).

This need for laughter and fun is what drives us here at Cambridge Kung Fu when we teach or talk about developing the children’s’ classes. The classes were already amazing when I got hired at Cambridge Kung Fu, my job (and my desire) is to support our Programme Coordinators to take them from amazing to spectacular! You may have noticed, if your child does classes with us, that we play quite a few games in the classes, even with the older children. Well why not? Yes they are games rather than kung fu drills designed to discipline and strengthen, but guess what. Our games help to encourage the same values as these drills. If you watch closely all of the games we play require some level of teamwork (dragon’s lair, stealth, Eskimo island), body control and awareness (skyscraper, terracotta warriors), a degree of physical fitness(Indiana Jones and the temple of cones, ladder legs, pad tag, circle of doom) and some self-defence (defend the base, el presidente, shaolin crossing). The best thing about these is that the children are having too much fun to realise they are actually being taught these things.

Our main motto is: “It’s about who you are, not what you’ve got that matters.” Children are still discovering who they are, why should we control and dominate how they see themselves by making them do endless drills and exercises? Why not give them an opportunity to shine in the ever-changing environment that is a game? Some of the best suggestions I have had for game alterations and class activities have come from the children I teach. Our main motto may be focussing on our own integral resources, but the one I always try to keep in mind is that children are not little adults, so why should we make them train like one?

* Lessons in Exercise Neurobiology: The Case of Endorphins Rod K. Dishman, Patrick J. O’Connor

** The Acute Effects of Exercise on Mood State Robert R. Yeung

***Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World Jane McGonigall

Ta Daaa!

Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello! How exciting a very first proper entry! Not just the one telling you that I will (eventually) get around to writing something here!

Welcome to “Workings of Rin”! Allow me to introduce myself, I am Rin (yes really!) and I am the Programme Administrator for Cambridge Kung Fu. Cambridge Kung Fu is an awesome martial arts company based in Cambridge (UK not America) where we teach Wing Chun, Escrima Weapons Concepts and Tai Chi Chuan to adults. Give children from the age of 4 – 11 the opportunity to experience a whole range of different martial arts so that they can see what’s out there waiting for them. 11 – 16 yr olds are taught a more condensed version of the adults’ Wing Chun in our Youth Kung Fu classes. Our company motto is: “It’s about who you are, not what you’ve got that matters!”

However the point of this blog is not to brag about how amazingly, stupendously and spiffingly awesome Cambridge Kung Fu is (although I could gush all day). This blog is to help people who may or may not have children that attend our classes understand what our aim is in not running our kids classes like a traditional martial arts class and how we go about achieving these aims.

At Cambridge Kung Fu we believe in giving children the opportunity to develop their confidence, inherent feelings of self-worth, self-awareness and many other skills that they can take away with them to help them lead a happy, healthy and successful life. We do this by structuring our classes so that the children are constantly challenged (at an appropriate level) to coordinate their bodies, build self-awareness, problem solve and adapt to change positively! By teaching the children different martial art forms and playing fun and interesting games we give them different experiences that support them in their journey of walking the path of a Kung Fu Master (a concept that runs through our classes with the aim of inspiring the children to live great lives!)

My job is to support all of our Programme Coordinators (Adult, Youth and Children) so that we can provide the best experience for the people that attend our classes. I also research how children develop (I did an undergraduate degree in Psychology at Bangor University) and work with my colleagues to find the best way to apply what I have learnt to make the classes more beneficial and engaging for the children, we aim for continuous improvement. The information that I find and what I learn from it is what I shall be sharing with all of you wonderful people on this blog. However, please bear in mind that this blog will be sharing my opinions on what I find and these are not necessarily held by all of the staff at Cambridge Kung Fu.

I hope you will join me as I learn more and more about these fascinating little people we call children (it’s particularly enlightening for me as my not so little girl is rapidly reaching that stage!) and please feel free to share any interesting links or information that you may stumble across. Hopefully we can work together to help make Cambridge Kung Fu Kids Classes the best environment for any child that enters the world of Martial Arts.