The art of finding balance

All work and no play? Or looking after everyone else, but not yourself? It’s time to bring some balance to your life.

It’s 6.30am and the sun is rising over Auckland. The city’s motorways are already moving but beyond the urban sprawl the sky flushes orange and the blue of the sea beckons; it’s a siren call Tanya Carlson finds hard to resist. The fashion designer could go in to her workroom to collaborate with her cutters, seamstresses or fabric merchants.

But life is not all about work, so instead she grabs her board and heads for the black sands of Piha. At 48, the founder of fashion brand Carlson is enjoying a huge amount of success as a designer; her garments are worn by some of New Zealand’s most well-loved names and celebrities.

Yet one of her favourite pieces is her wetsuit, because when she’s in that, it means she’s going to be out on the water and at peace. Surfing has given Carlson a sense of balance.

John Strowger, 53, is a partner in a well-known national law firm. He deals day-to-day with company mergers and acquisitions and was last year named New Zealand Deal Maker of the Year at the Australasian Law Awards. When he was in his thirties he reached a point where he could no longer continue at the pace he had been and was forced to take stock.

Strowger now finds sanctuary in meditation and long-distance running.

John Strowger

Earlier this year physiotherapist Natalie Gray, 28, set up a clinic, Refocus, which teaches science-based strategies on how to ‘rewire’ the brain to a state of balance, away from stress, chronic pain, anxiety and depression. She had seen a lack of awareness of the value of mental and emotional self-care in her clients.

“We understand that we need to give attention to brushing our teeth otherwise plaque will build up. What we need is the same attention given to our nervous system.”

While Gray uses and teaches the practices of taking pauses and belly breathing to maintain calm in everyday life, it’s painting that she turns to when it comes to losing herself in something. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to finding balance, but we all need something that can help us to unwind and achieve a sense of equilibrium.

It seems that we often come to this realisation when we’re in the midst of building careers, growing young families and managing more responsibility and financial commitment, and there’s a good reason for this: we’re pushing ourselves so hard.

Says Carlson, “In my mid-thirties I was getting really bad headaches and I wasn’t sleeping well. I had 18 staff and a lot of responsibility. My doctor said I needed more exercise so I started walking and going to the gym, but it wasn’t until I lost my best friend [to breast cancer] that I started surfing. She had always wanted to learn… and so on the anniversary of our birthdays in November (they are three days apart), I got my dad to take me surfing.”

Psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings offers, “When people get off balance it tends to be because they’re working all the time. They might stop seeing their friends, they don’t have any time to put into their most significant relationships, [or] sport, reading, doing the things they love. So the first step to having balance is probably in finding the things you enjoy doing. I’ve always played sport and even when I had my kids in car seats on the side of the court, I still played basketball.

“The idea of having perfect balance is a myth. At certain times in your life it’s going to be much harder than at other times and then you just do your best. But it’s important to have a lot of different areas in your life, psychologists call this ‘having different self concepts’. For example, I have a sense of myself as a wife, mum, daughter, friend, basketball player, worker… As long as you actively work at making sure your life is multi-faceted – and for that you need a willingness to try new things – you can achieve balance.”

Carlson wasn’t an instant surfer. “I went most days and was reduced to behaving like a petulant child with my dad, getting so frustrated because I just couldn’t get it. Then one day, around a month after I had started, I was at Waikouaiti Beach (East Otago) and I stood up. It was just a little white-water wave but it was the most amazing feeling. At the same time, I saw a dolphin jump out of the water. I have never seen one since and I had never seen one before that, but I know I didn’t imagine it.”

Natalie Grey

After mastering how to stand up, Carlson met other women who surfed and they began surfing regularly together – even through a Dunedin winter. Their theory was that no one else was out there to see them fall off and make fools of themselves, but their shared experiences also gave them a sense of camaraderie.

“You see the excitement of surfers every time they go out. They run towards the waves, you never see people ambling towards a wave.

“For that moment [when you catch a wave] everything is gone; it’s just you and the water. It’s almost like there’s an explosion of adrenalin and nothing else matters. As soon as you’ve done it you want to do it again.”

When we take time out to do the things we love we’re able to re-set our mindset to one that’s happier and more positive. The ripple effect of this enhances our lives, our relationships with others and with ourselves; there is even a positive spin-off in the workplace, writes Harvard University’s Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage – The Seven Principles that Fuels Success and Performance at Work:

“Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centres of our brains to higher levels. They help us organise new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allow us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things. We even quite literally see more of what’s around us when we’re feeling happy.”

The big question is: how do you find time for balance, when essentially it means adding more activity into what feels like an already busy life? “It’s not about complicating your life,” Dr Jillings says. “It’s about choosing a few things and making an effort to fit them in.”

Carlson says, “There has been a guilt associated with having time out, while sitting out there in the water just waiting for a wave to come. But really, while it made no difference to my workload, it made a great difference for my head.” In fact, the designer says she often comes up with ideas for designs while out surfing, “…especially while looking out at the horizon, at the landscape and colours”.

Strowger adds, “You could say that it’s another pressure on your time but if you go and do something for an hour, work’s still there. What you perceive to be urgent often isn’t – at a certain point you’ve got to start investing in yourself.”

Like Carlson, Strowger got to a point in his thirties where life just felt frenetic. “It was pretty obvious I couldn’t continue the way I had been so I looked for balance by trying to get more of an exercise regime. I started getting to the gym, and just having that commitment to going two to three times a week.”

But it was a course in transcendental meditation, coupled with his childhood love of running that gave him the zen he was looking for. “I usually do meditation in the context of yoga, with yoga postures and sessions.

But I also use it at times when I’m having difficulty sleeping. You can just lie there and slow everything down. You can achieve a real stillness – your heart rate slows, your mind calms and you’re in a deeper resting state when you sleep. “With a long run by yourself you get into a slightly meditative state, I don’t listen to music, I’d rather zone out.”

Good wellness columnist, marathon runner and yoga teacher, Rachel Grunwell, 40, is another to admit she used to work herself to exhaustion. “I had always been so driven.” Yet now she shares many of Strowger’s philosophies about having life balance. She credits yoga with teaching her how to “put the brakes on, have more presence where it’s important and say no when I need to.”

Gardening, baking, book club and playing the alto saxophone (which she’s done since age 11) give her a sense of respite and she embraces ‘me time’ for running – a discipline she only took up four years ago.

Rachel Grunwell

“Actually, I think I’m a bit addicted to running. I’m about to run my 15th marathon in October. My ritual in the morning is that I get up early to either run or do yoga/mindfulness. It’s dark and I see the sun come up. I run all over Auckland; it’s quiet and such a beautiful, still and magical time of day. Absolute bliss is running up to the top of Mt Eden, looking over the city and out to sea. It feels incredible to be fit, healthy and happy and I never take this for granted. Actually, running is my moving meditation. I feel free, it’s my thinking time.”

Natalie Gray says that when she paints she doesn’t have to think. “I just do what feels good and that’s the feeling of relaxation for me. I love painting landscapes with interesting colour tones and textures. I love the way different colours and textures create different feelings. I’m an active relaxer so painting is a nice way to go with the flow while still doing something.”

Gray’s training has taught her that you can achieve moments of instant calm and balance in your day by using simple breathing techniques. “Incredibly, just focusing on your breathing for 10 seconds can change the state of your nervous system.”

She explains that we have two branches to our nervous system: the sympathetic (stressed and wired) side, which stimulates the body into fight-or-flight mode, and the parasympathetic side (rest and digest).

You need both systems because one helps you achieve while the other helps you relax. But these systems need to be in balance; you can’t operate feeling wired all the time, nor is it optimal to be constantly chilled, because we’d never get anything done.

“I’m yet to come across someone who comes in for refocus work who has a perfectly balanced system,” says Gray. “It’s common for clients to have their sympathetic nervous system turned up in volume too much. What we need is to do an exercise or activity daily which helps us to ‘mop up’ our nervous system clutter.”

She suggests introducing 10-second pauses, or belly breathing, taking time to re-charge your batteries, trying something new, following a passion, connecting with others and with who you are.

What one person finds relaxing, another won’t enjoy at all, and the key is to find what works for you. Dr Jillings says, “Some people are blessed and just know what they love. Some people take a long time to figure it out. You need to not be afraid to explore, be prepared to have a bash and fail. It’s a process of elimination.”

For Carlson, “Surfing is my time. I don’t do it for the competitive side, I just love being out there in the water. It’s also my ode to my best friend. It’s something she couldn’t do, but I can.”

Tanya Carlson

The Simple Things

Little things you can do in daily life to achieve a sense of balance and calm

  • Breathe calmly
  • Watch a comedy
  • Listen to music
  • Be spontaneous
  • Smell flowers
  • Colour in
  • Bake
  • Sew
  • Craft
  • Play
  • Exercise
  • Knit

Try a simple yoga movement

A ‘tree pose’ can de-stress and calm your nervous system after a tough day at work.

For this, anchor one foot to the earth, while balancing the other on your inner-leg, reach your hands up to the sky while breathing in, grow taller and lengthen your spine, and then lower your hands into prayer position by your heart while exhaling.

This is an exquisite, graceful balance pose that has a calming effect.

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