Exercise for a healthier Parliament?

2014-08-31 15:00

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Deputy Speaker wants to use exercise to release trauma in the National Assembly

I’m lying curled in the foetal position, only with arms and hands extended like a praying mantis, on the floor of Lechesa Tsenoli’s corner office at Parliament. It is lunchtime on Thursday.

Tsenoli (59), deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, is standing in mohair socks near my head, speaking slowly, telling me to breathe in, then out.

Somewhere behind me are his discarded leather shoes. Raindrops are pelting the windows and just down the corridor in the Marks Building, Economic Freedom Fighters commander in chief Julius Malema is about to address journalists on his party’s mooted suspension by Speaker Baleka Mbete.

Right now all that feels very, very far away.

Lying with my right cheek pressed against the brown carpet – eyes shut – I feel wonderfully heavy. The urge to stay right there on the parliamentary floor is compelling. It feels good and safe.

“I suggest you roll over on to your stomach now,” says Tsenoli. After a few moments, he tells me to get up on my knees and open my eyes.

My smile covers half my face.

Even as matters in Parliament reached boiling point during the past week, softly spoken Tsenoli sacrificed a lunch break to show City Press what his beloved TRE – Trauma Releasing Exercises – is about.

After two years of training, Tsenoli is a qualified level 2 TRE practitioner. He is passionate about the technique and does the exercises up to three times a week – often also on his office floor.

He hopes to include them in Parliament’s broader wellness programme. He also says it’s just the thing for the rest of us in South Africa.

“TRE deals with accumulated trauma and tension, lowering it over the long term. The impact can be fantastic and healing,” he says.

Back when he was the deputy rural development minister, Tsenoli taught the exercises to his department’s leadership, with outstanding results, he says.

TRE is just a part of Tsenoli’s broader vision for a healthier Parliament. “It is the Speaker and deputy Speaker’s jobs to look after Members of Parliament and staff, to improve their health for optimal productivity,” he says.

Since Tsenoli became the deputy Speaker in May, Parliament’s five restaurants have been fitted with organic vegetable juice presses and their chefs briefed by health-food experts Rawlicious. Professor Tim Noakes has also addressed staff on his controversial Banting diet.

In Tsenoli’s own office, tea and coffee machines made way for a juicer. Kilos of beetroot, carrots, apples, ginger and mint are juiced and sipped daily.

When we arrive, Tsenoli’s head of office, Paul Davids, hands us glasses of beetroot juice. He’s lost 4kg since giving up steak masala gatsbys for lunch.

Tsenoli says ginger is helpful for overcoming jet lag.

Tsenoli has breathed new life into Parliament’s wellness programme and he’s encouraging MPs and staff to get involved in the rugby team, t’ai chi class, squash games and walks. He’s now added TRE and ping-pong.

The man from Bultfontein, Free State, may face an uphill battle, but he’s optimistic.

His personal epiphany happened about 20 years ago.

“As I grew older, I realised that my health habits wouldn’t sustain me. I changed my nutrition; I quit drinking and smoking. Besides, I found that alcohol was distracting me from my love of reading.”

He quit cigarettes on the eve of South Africa’s first democratic anniversary, on April 26 1995, with the help of acupuncture.

“I had sessions with needles in my back for two days. Since then, I have never craved a cigarette.”

TRE was developed by Dr David Berceli, who based it on his conflict experience in countries including Israel/Palestine, Sudan and Lebanon. He demonstrated the technique in South Africa in 2010, when it was adopted by Dr Melanie Salmon of Somerset West, who Tsenoli met through a mutual friend.

TRE uses basic stretches to cause tension-releasing muscular tremors comparable to what animals have in nature. An example is the way an antelope quivers after outrunning a lion. This is the body’s way of processing the trauma and “resetting” itself.

The exercise routine culminates in the patient lying flat in the “butterfly position” with knees drawn up for 10 to 15 minutes. I could feel the quivers in my legs through to my finger tips.

“After a few sessions, people really start noticing the difference,” says Tsenoli. “It takes away the triggers of anger and previous hurts.”

Should he ever leave Parliament, Tsenoli may just open his own practice.

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