Our “Live Simply” series profiles experts in their fields who are helping people save themselves from their complicated, overscheduled, exhausting lives. Although the approaches are diverse, the end goal is the same: Less stress, more joy. Today, meet a doctor who specializes in integrative wellness at Miraval Spa, and find out why simple daily rituals are much more effective than complex approaches to health.
Dr. Jim Nicolai thinks that a lot of today’s ideas about health are out of whack.
“Medicine is focused on what’s wrong with you and not what’s right or how to get back into balance,” he says. The thoughtful doctor grew up wanting to be a coach. “As I looked into areas where I could guide people, health seemed like it gave me a lot of opportunities,” he says. “When you think of medicine as just treating disease, then it’s just drugs and surgical approaches. But if you think of medicine as a way to be and stay healthy, then sky’s the limit in terms of coaching people on how to get there and stay there.”
As the medical director of the Andrew Weil, M.D. Integrative Wellness Program at famed spa Miraval, Dr. Nicolai is all about simplifying our approach to health and wellness. “Health does not have to be complex or difficult to manage,” he says. “When we complicate our routines, we either chase our tails to get things done or we become so overwhelmed that we do nothing.” Sound familiar?
Dr. Nicolai’s new book, Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living, focuses on what he calls “quick and dirty health tools”—everything from small ideas like tongue scraping, to larger efforts like more nutritious eating. “There are simple, doable, effective changes you can make that you can pop into your daily routine,” he says.
His most profound health discovery? Breathwalking. “I have a hard time meditating, even though I know it’s beneficial,” he admits. “Getting into that state of calm and logistically managing it just doesn’t come easy to me.” Dr. Nicolai realized that the only thing that quieted his mind was exercise, but he had to block off specific time for it and it didn’t quite get him into the “flow state” that meditation is known for. “I wanted to find a way to access that feeling of flow in real time so that I could use it immediately when I felt stressed,” he says. He knew that breathing and walking were two things he did regularly throughout the day. And both are key components of health. Combining them felt natural.
Dr. Nicolai concentrates on a breath rhythm of four in and four out. “You’re counting with steps—one, two, three, four—almost like you’re walking up stairs,” he says. “And you can do that anywhere, without anybody knowing.” As you synchronize your stride with your breath, the breathing becomes more like a wave. “Concentrating this way gets you out of your head, which is the simplest form of meditation,” says Dr. Nicolai. “We always beat ourselves up and say ‘I’m a bad meditator—I can’t clear my mind,’ but the true strength is to catch yourself losing focus and bring it back to your breath. This is even simpler when you’re walking.”
The four-in, four-out breathing also ensures that your breath isn’t shallow—it’s fuller, deeper and more even than our regular breathing, and that helps the nervous system enter a state of active calm. “You can access this state at any time during the day,” says Dr. Nicolai. Did someone make you angry in a meeting? Take a lap around the office, bring it back to the breathing and settle your body’s reaction to that stress.
Breathwalking is just one example of how Dr. Nicolai is finding simpler ways to bring good health into our everyday. “You may not have time for a 45-minute meditation practice,” he says, “but you’ve gotta walk and you’ve gotta breathe.”
Note that Dr. Nicolai didn’t say the changes are easy—but rather simple, meaning they can integrate into your day if you commit to them. He recommends seeking out people who are talking about these small changes (there are hundreds of them) and finding the ones that sound appealing. Try those. If something doesn’t work for you? “Drop it,” says Dr. Nicolai. “If there’s a component that doesn’t fit, it doesn’t get to be part of your life.” He notes that the key is to choose changes that are simple enough that you can say, “This is who I am and what I do.” Anything that doesn't fall into that category will be too complex—and too stressful—to maintain long term.
The rituals of our life propel us in a certain direction. Most of us have habits—ice cream after dinner, anyone?—that we didn’t necessarily choose mindfully but that are now deeply ingrained in our everyday. “When you choose to integrate a healthy habit or ritual into your life, that guides the momentum of your whole being towards health,” says Dr. Nicolai. So who’s up for some breathwalking?
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