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Breathe, smile, heal

Teacher demonstrates simple exercises that can produce extensive health benefits. 

He’s an academic, researcher, clown doctor, teacher of tai chi and qigong – Bernie Warren is teaching people the world over to “breathe and smile”.

Warren recently visited Victoria-based Emmy Monash, where he ran his program of sessions. The techniques used are adapted from his training in traditional martial arts – particularly Chinese martial arts and qigong.

His upcoming book, Stand, Breathe, Smile: Simple standing exercises and approaches to reduce stress and promote good health, provides an overview of the history and value of the exercises.

“The first point is breathe and smile – and [it means just that],” Warren says. “It is simple co-ordination of breathing with easy-to-learn movement patterns while seated and smiling.”

Warren, who has studied the use of qigong and other Eastern practices to promote physical and emotional wellbeing, taught the Emmy Monash group simple breathe-and-smile exercises he has been doing in various facilities, hospice care centres and seniors homes around the world.

“[They are easy exercises that can be done anywhere, any time. There’s no need for equipment or expensive gym memberships,” he said. “[It has a] positive effect on the body, wellbeing and quality of life.

“Simply by … synchronising your breathing with the movement patterns, the exercises have a profound physiological effect on the body.”

Warren, who works at The University of Windsor in the School of Dramatic Art, has seen these benefits time and time again over his last 20 years of research.

He has studied the effects of seated exercise on people with cardiac problems, as well as those dealing and living with cancer, people with joint problems, Parkinson’s and many other conditions. Reduction in agitation, better situational awareness, strengthened immune function and reduction in medication use for people with heart conditions are just some of the documented benefits of this type of activity.

In addition, “Stress reduction leads to less anxiety and clearer thinking. [People] are able to remember better and it often leads to less use of agitation, anti-anxiety, anti-depressant and pain medications,” Warren said. “[These exercises] are simple, accessible but incredibly health promoting. Because the effects are profound, the costs are absolutely minimal – there is no kick back in terms of side effects or contrary indications – it’s an easy thing you can do.”

Warren, who has trained people all over the world including Australia, Canada, South Africa and England, hopes to see a launch of this type of work across the globe.

“Implementing the program provides a complementary medicine approach that benefits not only participants but also is highly likely to reduce costs associated with medication and physical therapies and staff absenteeism due to stress,” he said. “Overall, my goal is to give participants (irrespective of their age or state of health) gifts of simple exercises that can help them reduce their stress, improve their quality of life and enjoy good health.”

Pamela Bruder, lifestyle co-ordinator at Emmy Monash Aged Care, said the staff and residents were thrilled to find out more about the benefits of seated qigong for people with complex health needs.

Bruder, who had met Warren several years ago at a conference, said the impact of the training was evident straight away – for residents, volunteers and staff alike.

“[The training] is of benefit for staff members – they can do it at home and make it part of their everyday practice,” Bruder said. “I saw how excited everyone was about it and the residents were so responsive.”

She would like to start seeing elements of the breathe-and-smile program introduced every day, as opposed to being a once a week thing.

“In fact, in the next three months, we hope to have mastered enough qigong movements that we can implement groups on a daily basis in all areas of the home,” Bruder said. “Across low care, memory support and the high-care units.”

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