The art of good health

(image © David Shrigley)

Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious […] Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane.
Grayson Perry

While a large proportion of my physical and mental health is sustained through time spent running, swimming, practicing yoga and going to the gym, there is another element of my general wellbeing that is nourished through the arts. Whether it is in the hours spent wandering around an art gallery or lost in a book, at a life drawing class or choir practice, the moments when I engage with the art world bring me a sense of total peace, joy, presence and fulfilment.

Over the past year I have found myself thinking more and more about the positive role that the arts can play in our mental and physical health. To this end, last summer I set up a life drawing course at work. With funding support from our staff Wellbeing Committee, the group was established with the primary goal of taking colleagues away from their desks and into a creative space where they could engage in the moment through a practice distinct in pace and style from their everyday job. In these classes the process of drawing – being creative and present, looking, seeing and recreating shapes and forms – served as a meditative and mindful process, with the success of the class being measured as much by the feelings and reflections of the participants, as by the results of charcoal on paper.

This class is, of course, only a tiny fraction of a much wider and ever-growing movement from within the the arts and cultural heritage sector to consider the role that the sector can play within the field of health and wellbeing.

the arts can reconstruct you
© David Shrigley

In 2014 an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was launched to discuss developments and policy in the field of arts and health. Two years later, the group published an almost 200 page report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing in which they assert that:

More and more people now appreciate that arts and culture can play a valuable part in helping tackle some of the most challenging social and health conditions. Active participation in the visual and performing arts, music and dance can help people facing a lonely old age, depression, or mental illness; it can maintain levels of independence and curiosity and […] it can bring great joy and so improve the quality of life for those engaged.

This paper offers a formal acknowledgement of a shift within the sector surrounding the question of who arts and heritage spaces are for and how they can serve audiences beyond the traditional academic and curatorial visitors. Within the gallery world there are signs that institutions are increasingly keen to schedule health and wellbeing initiatives into their programming. Manchester Art Gallery, for example, have a whole of section of their programme dedicated to wellness, with events to encourage visitors to engage with arts mindfully and wellbeing tours of their galleries.

These, and other initiatives hosted within both arts, care and clinical settings, are designed to be expressive, restorative, educational and therapeutic, working preventively, to enhance recovery, or to improve the quality of life for people with long-term or terminal conditions. Here the arts can play an important role in giving patients a greater sense of self; as Eva Okwonga notes in Creative Health:

Artistic self expression gives participants an identity beyond illness.

Programming around dementia is also increasing, as Nicci Gerrard highlighted in her Guardian article last year, pointing to projects including the Wellcome Foundation’s Dementia Research projectManchester Camerata’s Music in Mind, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Music for a While and the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain. As Gerrard observes:

Dementia is an area where the arts can radically enhance quality of life by finding a common language and by focusing on everyday, in-the-moment creativity.

This is a sentiment shared by Lord Howarth of Newport, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group, who stated that:

The arts have a vital role to play for people with dementia. Research demonstrates that visual arts, music, dance, digital creativity and other cultural activities can help to delay the onset of dementia and diminish its severity.

the arts can help you see
© David Shrigley

Meanwhile, organisations such as the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing and London Arts in Health Forum, have been brought to the fore in recent years, at their hearts the belief that:

By supplementing medicine and care, the arts can improve the health of people who experience mental or physical health problems. Engaging in the arts can promote prevention of disease and build wellbeing.

Working in the arts and cultural heritage sector myself, with a passion for art and an interest in health and wellness, this movement fills me with so much hope and excitement. The growing possibility that through the arts – be they visual, practical, musical, theatrical or literary – we can work together to promote health, happiness and wellbeing and that we can help people through times of distress, illness and trauma, has to be a positive thing.

I want to finish with this quote from Nicci Gerrard:

Art can be medicine, for body and soul.



Why ‘me time’ matters

Try to do one thing each day that nourishes you.

This was the takeaway message from a yoga event I attended this week at the Shard in London. The event, sponsored by California Walnuts, saw me and my good friend Sophie getting up at 5:30am to join a group of yogis for a 7am yoga session with Mandy Jhamat from Yogasphere, a wellness talk by Julie Montagu and delicious breakfast, hosted high above the city on the 69th floor of the Shard. It was the perfect start to the day: a relaxing vinyasa flow class suspended above the hubbub of the city below, followed by a feast of smoothies, mini pots of overnight oats, fruit kebabs and vegan flapjacks, all enjoyed from a room with a spectacular view.

Image with thanks to California Walnuts

The event finished at 9:30am and we left with a free yoga mat, a bag full of goodies (including a big jar of delicious California Walnuts!) and that warm fuzzy feeling that I can only describe as the post-yoga glow.

While I’ll admit that I found myself reaching for the coffee by 3pm (I’m a morning person but even I concede that 5:30am is that bit too early) the feel-good factor from going to the class and spending some time with Sophie stayed with me until bedtime.

Image with thanks to California Walnuts

While this was an exceptional day, the message from the speaker, Julie Montagu, was that you don’t need a special event to feed your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Instead, we should find a little space every day for those acts that make us feel more like ourselves and contribute to our overall sense of wellness. Whether it be a 15 minute yoga practice, a short walk or lunchtime run, curling up with a good book, wandering around an art gallery, taking a hot bath, going for a cup of tea with a friend, calling your mum, listening to a podcast or baking a cake, it’s amazing how just a little act can quickly change your mood and the course of your day.

While (as regular readers may have gathered!) I find my greatest sense of self through exercise, another very different area in which I have found nourishment is while drawing. It’s amazing how taking the time to really look at figures and forms and then attempt to replicate them in graphite on paper, can be so meditative. To this end, a friend and I recently established a life drawing class as part of a wellness initiative. It is amazing how quickly the two hours of the class pass as we work on a series of 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses, working in silence, looking, sketching and being present in the moment. While I’m not the greatest artist, I’ve learnt to use the lessons from my yoga practice of leaving my ego at the door, focusing on my easel and working within my own parameters. When I began drawing I found the process more frustrating than therapeutic, but now I have evolved my practice, making it a much calmer space for engagement and self development.

Image with thanks to California Walnuts

It is so easy to forget to spend that little bit of time feeding your mind, body and soul and to find that you’ve spent a day racing around with little to show for it. I’m now taking the message of this week’s yoga event and aiming to dedicate a portion of each day to self-nourishing acts as I know that by feeding my own soul I feel stronger, richer, fuller and more able to give back to those around me.


Has green become the new black?

Green is the new black. Photograph: Perou for the Guardian
Green is the new black. Photograph: Perou for the Guardian

Anyone who has glimpsed the book charts recently, picked up a lifestyle magazine, ventured into the healthy-living area of the blogosphere or encountered an Instagram account using the hashtag ‘eatclean’, will probably have noticed that ‘wellness’ is the movement of the moment.

Whether it’s channelled through yoga retreats, or regular trips to juice bars, detox cleanses or spiralised vegetables, wellness is as endemic in middle-class England as hummus and Waitrose.

This weekend I was reading an article by Hadley Freeman about the wellness phenomenon, in which she pitched it as the new ‘luxury status symbol’, where a Sweaty Betty hoodie and a green juice has taken the place of a Channel handbag and a pair of Louboutin’s as the trappings of the ultimate lifestyle. Indeed, Calgary Avansino, one of the bloggers she interviewed observed (in all seriousness) that it’s not even the type of juice you get any more, but where you get it from.

Freeman suggests that wellness sits at the point on the Venn diagram where ‘aspiration, self-love and slimness’ collide. It’s more holistic (and socially acceptable) than dieting (everyone would rather say ‘detox’ or ‘juice cleanse’ than ‘SlimFast’) and more effeminate than pumping iron in the gym (wellness gurus are more likely to be realigning their chakras than dripping with sweat with their hair plastered to their face at the end of a long run).

Key proponents of ‘wellness’ include bloggers Ella Woodward (of ‘Deliciously Ella‘ fame) and the Hemsley sisters; and the underlying message from these twenty-something, lean beauties? Eat like me, look like me.

It’s easy to mock this phenomenon, as well as its spokespeople and followers, but wellness is a lucrative business, (yoga pants don’t come cheap you know), and when it is encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables and less sugar, while extolling the virtues of a daily downward dog, surely it has to be a good thing.

But, as Freeman points out, food bloggers and nutritionists, unlike dieticians, are not regulated, and their ‘training’ and ‘qualifications’, when they even have them, are not always as credible as readers might be led to suppose. Moreover, there have been cases when wellness bloggers have taken advantage of the lack of scientific knowledge of their followers and promote, in the best case, ineffective and in the worst case, dangerous, claims about food, nutrition, health and disease.

While I believe that the promotion of a healthy lifestyle is undoubtedly a good thing, (as I hope my own blog demonstrates), I think articles like the one from Freeman inject the necessary degree of cynicism into the picture. As I hope some of my previous posts have shown, I don’t believe in taking everything you read at face value and I think a line has to be drawn between well-meaning advice and gospel.

Luckily for me, if I even mention phrases like ‘energy flow’ or ‘prana’, R will bully me for at least a week, and I won’t even try to explain the look I got this morning when he caught me in a three minute ‘cleansing’ shoulder stand (needless to say it wasn’t supportive).

There is no harm in gathering good recipes and taking inspiration from wellness bloggers – I certainly do – but it’s also important to accept that at times some of the advice or guidance may be based more on trend than truth. Most importantly, no blog is a substitute for professional advice; if you have a serious medical issue, you need to see a qualified professional, be it doctor or dietician, and not just rely on a green juice and quinoa salad, no matter how tasty and full of goodness that may be.

Heads or tails? The flipside of health

TEDx Mindfulness and Healing
Click the image to watch the talk (opens in a new window)

While I write a lot about health and conditioning, as well as fuelling the body to optimise vitality, I rarely touch on the flipside of the health coin: the issue of illness.

When trying to keep your body fit and healthy forms an integral part of your being, and when you like to be able to control all aspects of your life, ill health becomes not only a physical, but also a psychological drain.

I hate the feeling that I have no control of the cells replicating in my body and that a medical examination is like a test I can’t revise for.

And our tendency as a society, particularly in the UK, to ignore, bury or fail to discuss illness makes suffering all the more isolating and anxious-making.

With this in mind, I recently watched this TEDx talk, shared with me by my friend Ruth. There is something about someone else verbalising the thoughts and feelings that you might have that can alleviate an aspect of anxiety related to a negative diagnosis.

In this talk, as for me, exercise forms part of the solution to that feeling of being disconnected from your body. When you feel that your cells, hormones, glands or neurones are replicating, firing, excreting or degenerating in a way that is outside of your control it can make you feel alien in your own skin. In these circumstances, exercise offers a way to ground and reclaim your corporeal self.

Whereas illness causes resentment towards the body and a feeling that it is conspiring against you, exercise helps to give you back respect for your body and a sense of being at one with it.

When I run, swim, dance, climb or do yoga, it’s not me versus my body, but me and my body, working together and figuring it out.

When our bodies are made up of so many cells and so many complex systems it seems unsurprising that at times things go wrong. I try not to think of illness in terms of ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’, words which are emotive and unhelpful, but in terms of statistics and probability. And while we can do all that we can to weigh the odds in our favour, when you flip the coin you still may get the face you don’t expect.

Watch ‘Mindfulness and Healing’ here

Mind games

I watched this TED talk this morning and it really moved me and got me thinking.

I don’t want to paraphrase or summarise in this instance, I just urge you to watch.


(Opens in a new window)