“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.” — Zen proverb
I’m so thrilled to share my exchange with Toby Maguire, a health and wellness consultant. His simple techniques have had a significant effect on my wellbeing in a short period of time. Here, he discusses his tips and tools for healthy living. The connection between our breathing and immunity has been especially valuable to understand.
Toby’s work on managing stress has been featured in the Sunday Times, Forbes magazine and Huffington Post, among other publications. He’s worked at wellness resorts around the world, and his clients include Olympic athletes, Premier League football players, as well as British and Hollywood actors.
He was born and raised in Windsor, in the United Kingdom. He has an MA in Holistic Wellness, as well as Diplomas in Hypnotherapy, Auricular Acupuncture, Thai Massage, Chi Nei Tsang Therapy, Meditation and Qi Gong.
He is the CEO and founder of Living in Balance Ltd, which runs workshops on stress management for company executives and upper management. He has been practising Eastern healing therapies for almost 20 years.
The early years
How did you become interested in Asian philosophy and healing?
I moved for work to Thailand in 1998. While there, I went for a Thai massage and was so impressed by the various techniques the therapist was using, and how I felt afterwards, that I decided to study it. After learning how it helped the body to heal, I wanted to learn more so went on to study Chi Nei Tsang (abdominal massage) and acupuncture.
As I learned how our mind affects what happens in our body, it led me to study meditation, hypnotherapy and Asian philosophy on how to live a happy and peaceful life.
What specifically interested you in meditation?
I suffered from depression and anxiety when I was in my late teens. One day I happened to pick up a book called How To Meditate [author forgotten] in a bookshop. It promised peace of mind, confidence, reduced anxiety and everything that I was trying to experience in my life at the time. So, I promised myself I would practise whatever was taught in the book until I could get over this dark period of my life.
Within three months of learning to meditate, the anxiety and depression completely disappeared. It also gave me a clear understanding of why I had had it in the first place – how I was the one who had created it and what I had to do to eradicate it permanently. I have never had anxiety or depression since.
What did it take for you to make the switch from your day job to doing this full-time?
It took some soul searching to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My first career move was to leave my career as a stage manager in the theatre in 1998 to follow my heart and go to Thailand. I took a great risk by buying a one-way ticket with a four-week Teaching English certificate and about $1,000 in my back pocket. But everything worked out 10 times better than I could have expected.
After about eight years, I realised exactly what I wanted to do: help heal people. To change from my career as an English teacher to a holistic therapist took about two more years of part-time study until I was confident enough to take up a full-time position at Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Thailand.
There are so many interesting facets to your teachings. I’d like to start with the breath. Could you please explain why it’s so important, and the benefits of proper breathing?
The breath has a huge impact on what is called the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
The breath changes when we experience stress or anxiety. We breathe more shallowly from the upper chest, the heart rate increases, while our muscles around the abdomen tense up to protect our internal organs. Blood and oxygen are drawn away from the digestive tract to supply energy to the arms and legs so we can run away faster.
As a result, long-term stress and anxiety can cause digestive disorders, an imbalance in the hormonal system and the internal organs, as the functioning of major internal organs becomes impaired, which results in a weaker immune system.
In contrast, when we breathe deeply and slowly into the abdomen, we restore blood and oxygen to the internal organs. Our heart rate slows down, reducing blood pressure. And stability is restored to the hormonal system – this is not only responsible for all the communication in the body but also for our emotions.
Therefore, deep abdominal breathing not only improves our physical health and boosts our immune system, but it also brings our moods and emotions back into balance.
Amazing. Do you have any tips for what someone can do when s/he is stressed – at a work meeting, say, or feeling helpless like so many of us are now?
There are a couple of techniques that you can implement at any time to calm the mind and improve your focus and mental clarity. As mentioned, deep abdominal breathing will calm the mind by breathing in and out as deeply as possible into the abdomen at six breaths per minute. This means five seconds inhale and five seconds exhale. This will also keep what we call the internal chatter in the back of the mind occupied, so you can listen and think more clearly.
I loved this. I hadn’t realised something so simple could have such a speedy and profound effect.
Taking deep breaths can help focus your body into relaxing. As you relax the body, then your mind switches from what is known as the animalistic, emotional brain over to the frontal lobe where logical and rational thinking takes place. This helps give you better perspective on the situation at hand.
Meditation can feel really daunting though. How do you like to introduce people to it?
The biggest obstacle people have with meditation is that they completely misunderstand what it is, and so they think they can’t do it.
The first point to establish is that meditation is not about trying to stop your thoughts. Any attempt to stop yourself thinking will just lead to frustration as the nature of the mind is to think.
The aim of meditation is to be aware of your thoughts, which is completely different; to be able to almost stand back and observe what you are thinking – without jumping into the story and letting your thoughts take over your mind.
When people understand this, they realise that they can meditate and it isn’t so difficult at all. It is also important to explain to people the benefits of meditation and how it improves productivity. When they understand a regular meditation practice will save them time and help them to work more efficiently, they are more likely to continue practising it.
What would be a good meditation habit for us to adopt?
Most people tell me that they don’t have time to meditate. In this case, I would encourage them to start with 10 minutes per day, but to make sure they practise every day. This way, it becomes a simple habit very quickly. Once a meditation habit is established, then the benefits become obvious. It’s then easier to lengthen the amount of practice time.
What is your view of the human body through Chinese medicine?
The major difference between the Western and Chinese approach to medicine is the meridian – or energy – lines that flow throughout the body. These meridian lines are connected to the internal organs, so, for example, you have your heart line that flows down both arms, and your kidney line that flows down both legs. The organs and meridians must work in synchronicity with one another to experience optimum health and wellbeing. But often due to injury, poor diet, lack of exercise or excessive emotional states, the organs and energy lines can become unbalanced, which can lead to long term pain, illness and disease.
Could you give an example of the interconnectedness of our bodies with a patient case study?
I had a client who was a nurse who suffered from something called Stapedius Myoclonus Tinnitus, a frustrating tapping sound that would occur in her ear and often prevent her from sleeping.
Her husband was a medical GP and, for the previous three years, she had been through every test and treatment available on the National Health Service to resolve the issue, but without success. She was very sceptical about Chinese medicine but came to me as a last resort.
I used a Korean form of acupuncture called Sujok which involved using the acupuncture points in her foot. This made her even more sceptical, but after just two sessions, the treatment resolved the issue and it never returned.
Is it a constant process to bring the body into balance, or can we actually stay there if we’re diligent and dedicated?
With the correct knowledge, diet and exercise, the body is far more likely to remain in balance. However, few people have the willpower to exercise regularly and eat well; as a result, they are likely to require treatments in the forms of massage and acupuncture.
Even the healthiest of people may need to be treated sometimes, especially as they get older, as the overall energy starts to deplete, which weakens the immune system.
What do each of our organs signify?
Each of our organs can become excessive or deficient in energy, which then affects our emotions. The negative emotions affected with each of the organs are:
kidneys and bladder: fear
digestive organs: anxiety
lungs and large intestine: grief and sadness
liver and gall bladder: anger
heart and small intestine: excessive joy, and lack of empathy
Could you talk a little about using sound as therapy? I found that fascinating!
Each of our organs can be strengthened by cultivating positive emotions, visualising specific colours, and also through specific sounds.
Sound is a vibration, and different sounds generate different vibrational frequencies. Each organ has a different density and vibration, so by using a specific sound that resonates with that organ will cause it to vibrate, stimulating the cells within it. This is a key aspect of Qi Gong.
I feel we have become so disconnected from nature that we have overridden our body’s innate wisdom with processed food, chronic stress or insufficient rest. But this has sadly become the norm. What do you say to patients who find it tough to change their ways?
Don’t try and change all of your habits overnight; be realistic about what you can achieve. For example, if you never exercise and are overweight, start with a 15-minute walk every day. If you are stressed, spend 10 to15 minutes a day meditating.
If you and your partner drink a bottle of wine every evening, then try to drink just a glass a day or every other day, and a bottle only at the weekend. If you set yourself simple goals to achieve that you really think are achievable, you are more likely to succeed in making those lifestyle changes. But if you try to do too much, you may have one bad day, then think you can’t achieve your goals and give up.
Because you have so many methods to treat a patient – acupuncture, nutrition, hypnotherapy, and more – how do you choose the right one?
It depends on the client and the reason they have come to see me. If they are in some sort of physical pain, I usually use a combination of massage and acupuncture, and perhaps some Qi Gong exercises for rehabilitation.
If they want to lose weight, I would use either hypnotherapy or acupuncture, or both. Also, depending on their knowledge about nutrition, I may offer them some dietary advice too. For something like stress, I would usually treat them with hypnotherapy, and teach them some meditation and breathing techniques to help them cope with stressful situations in the future.
But I also base my treatments on what I feel is right for the client. For example, there is no use doing hypnotherapy for a client if we’re not fluent in each other’s languages.
Any resources you recommend?
I like earthclinic.com. If you go to the menu, click on “Old Version”. This the best website for natural cures for almost any symptom or illness.
There’s also an app called Insight Timer. It’s free and there are thousands of meditations on it.
Living your life
You live the way I lived for so long: out of a suitcase and roaming the world! What is it about living this way that appeals to you?
I love the feeling that every day is a new adventure, every day is different, and that every day I get to meet and work with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. As a result, I am always learning new things.
I also love that exciting feeling of being in a new place and experiencing new sights, sounds, smells and feelings I have never experienced before. And I have learnt that no matter what country or culture I experience, they always respond positively to the same thing: kindness.
What does a good day look like to you? Which daily practices do you ensure you do for your own health and wellbeing?
A good day is waking up in a nice hotel room, practising Qi Gong for an hour and maybe 30 minutes of meditation. This is followed by a nice breakfast in the hotel restaurant and seeing about four clients throughout the day. Finishing work around 6pm and having time to go for a swim in the sea as the sun sets. A light dinner followed by a bit of reading or listening to a podcast on spirituality or Traditional Chinese Medicine. It may sound strange, but my work is my passion and I love learning new things to improve myself and the treatments that I provide for others.
What has been your toughest lesson?
The realisation that everything comes to an end, and to accept it when it does. This has given me the ability to appreciate what I have today and to let go of things when their time has come. Nothing is permanent; it all appears from nothing, reaches its peak, then declines and disappears to the same place. It is the nature of the universe, and everything follows this same path.
When were you most happy?
I can quite honestly put my hand on my heart and say I have been very happy for the last 21 years since the day I abandoned my former career, and started to follow my heart to live life as an adventure.
But there are two situations when I am the happiest. The first is when I am on a sailing yacht in the middle of the ocean; there’s something magical about this. The second is having Sunday dinner with my mum at the family home. She is 72 and won’t be around forever, and knowing this makes these moments very special to me.
Toby’s favourite motto: “Be kind, to everyone, all of the time.”
The film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Ben Stiller (also the director) plays Walter Mitty, an office worker who constantly daydreams about living his life as an adventure, and eventually, he does. So inspiring!
The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. I read this book in my early 20s and didn’t understand a word of it. But in my 30s and 40s, it became my bible, so full of wisdom.
How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is the best book I ever read. When you learn how people think, you can gain their trust, confidence and deepen your relationships with everyone.
Thank you so very much, Toby!
You can find out more about Toby Maguire and Living in Balance Ltd at zenmindcoach.com.
All images (except for the top) are copyrighted and courtesy of Zen Mind Coach.