In this month’s Pianodao reflection, I consider the onset of winter, seasonal illness, and Studio Policies …
As Autumn turns to winter, dead leaves wither on our pathways, migrating birds have headed off in search of warmer climes, insects are crawling into holes, and many animals are settling down to hibernate until the spring thaw.
In Chinese medicine and Qigong theory, the human metabolism also slows down in the Winter, and our energy can become dormant. We need to eat good, wholesome, nutritional food, get plenty of rest, and be sure to keep ourselves warm.
But we humans seem to largely ignore the challenges of the season. Instead, we work and play even more frenetically than usual as we head towards the Christmas season at breakneck speed.
For those of us involved in music teaching, student exams are imminent, and will be swiftly followed by Christmas concerts and shows, end of term parties, and tax return deadlines in January. At this time of the year, more than any other, we seem bent on fighting the natural order!
Is it any wonder, then, if sickness abounds?
There is a real danger that our over-exertion in the early winter leaves us physically depleted, mentally and emotionally exhausted, and more susceptible to infection, illness and a general sense of feeling “run down”.
Over the past couple of weeks, the tissue box in my studio has needed replacing with alarming frequency, due to the head-colds, coughs and other illness that students bring with them. Although December is still a couple of weeks away, younger children are already quite hyper, teens are stressed with school pressures and added commitments, and adults are already starting to appear somewhat frazzled.
In search of solutions to these issues, once again I will turn to the wisdom of the old Daoist thinkers …
Ancient Wisdom for the Coming Winter
An ancient Chinese text, Huangdi (translated and quoted here by Deng Ming-Dao, from his excellent The Lunar Tao) advises:
“In the three moons of winter,
all nature stores and conserves.
Water Freezes, the earth cracks.
Nothing moves; there is little power.
Go to sleep early, wake up late,
Wait for daylight.
Keep your will hidden and restrained.
In hiding, stay solitary.
In hiding, reach near-cessation.
Keep you skin covered.
Once winter passes, warmth will come again.”
It is obviously not practical (or desirable!) for most of us to follow these instructions in full, but among the strands of common-sense advice here, there are several take-away points to consider:
Get a good night’s sleep as regularly as possible.
At the approach of the Winter Solstice it is dark in the UK from around 4 pm until nearly 8 am the next day. Sleeping for 16 hours daily isn’t generally an option, but most of us will benefit from earlier nights through the winter months.
And sleeping in at the weekend, switching off the alarm and letting our bodies wake when ready, can help redress the balance, giving us a chance to conserve energy and revitalise.
“It isn’t even daylight yet..!” says Bella Bardóg …
Reflect on your plans inwardly, avoiding drama.
Again, most of us aren’t in a position to choose solitude for three months, even in the unlikely event that we might want to!
But we can choose to use the tail end of the year as a time to be rather more circumspect, postponing major new projects until the new year, instead focusing on doing what is essential.
And it’s surprising how much conflict can erupt during the “season of goodwill”; the wise person will find the right opportunity to withdraw…
Find moments for yourself.
… making an extra effort to draw our focus inward.
Amidst the exuberance and hyperactivity of the coming season, time spent alone, given over to stillness, reflection, mindfulness practice, and Qigong will surely give us more strength, patience and insight as we deal with our daily challenges.
There is an ancient folk tale in which a Qigong master is left out in the freezing cold overnight by a harsh overlord, with the assumption that he will be dead come the morning. Instead he is just as he was left, glowing with energy, sat patiently in the same spot!
Our warmth, the story suggests, is not simply kept inside by wearing woolly jumpers, but maintained through cultivating our Qi energy through healthy stretching and breathing exercises.
For pianists, I have provided a simple video explaining how to warm the hands and fingers based on these old practises. You can check it out here.
Putting it all together…
None of this advice should really come as a shock revelation. So long as we are in touch with ourselves and our surroundings, we will know that Huangdi is simply underlining common sense observations.
The problem is, we often lose touch with ourselves and our surroundings; I know that I find it frustrating how easily I forget life’s basics when I get wrapped up in the “stuff” that each day fills up with.
Theres a very simple message underpinning all of these points: look after yourself, and stay well!
I would add one other plea here:
Let’s also do ALL that we can this winter to look out for the needs of those less fortunate than us, those less able to apply this good advice and care for themselves.
When empathy and knowledge come together, great things are possible.
A few words about Studio Policies
Most clients will prefer a teacher who organises their studio on a professional and sound financial footing. I always try to explain to students how having some simple policies protects their interests as well as mine.
Teachers around the world operate using a wide variety of charging plans, cancellation policies and general terms and conditions. This is absolutely fine, but remember:
- if you are a teacher it’s important to apply your policies confidently, fairly and with both authority and compassion;
- if you are a student, don’t ever expect special exemption from studio policies, as this shows disrespect for your teacher.
Studio policies need to protect the interests of the studio (the teacher’s income and other students’ needs) and the client (offering consistency for students along with as much flexibility as is feasible).
Where this doesn’t happen, it quickly creates a breach in the teacher/student relationship, which sometimes can’t be repaired.
Respect really is the key-word here, and it really must be mutual. An effective studio policy is one which carefully balances the interests of both teacher and students, and allows good relationships to be fostered.
And a final point about hygiene…
With so many germs around at this time of the year, I have found it really does pay to have hand sanitising gel in the studio.
All my students are given a squirt on arrival (unless there is a medical reason to not use the gel, which is occasionally the case). And if there is any coughing, sneezing or facial rubbing or wiping, another squirt is quickly administered!
Since implementing this policy a few years ago, I have found that I have caught far fewer germs, and hopefully my students have also similarly benefitted from the simple precaution. I recommend it!
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