Sunday 25 February 2018

Why folding paper is the new mindfulness

The delicate Japanese art of origami is set to be this year's trend for busy grown-ups looking to relax. Chrissie Russell gets some tips from the pros

Origami artist and counsellor Michaela Bertsch teaches the art to children and adults. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Origami artist and counsellor Michaela Bertsch teaches the art to children and adults. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Michaela's origami design.
Another of Michaela's origami work.
Michaela creating an origami design.

Clear out the colouring-in books and unravel your cross-stitch, there's a new zen in town. If you're looking to de-stress and get creative in 2016, then you need to arm yourself with some squares of paper and get ready to fold - this is the year of origami.

A quick glance at Amazon reveals a multitude of paper-folding titles in the pipeline. Next month sees the release of Zen Doodle Origami while April will bring us Colour-Gami: Colour and Fold Your Way to Calm. There are kids' titles, jewellery-making manuals and even Star Wars-themed guides to creating geometric, paper Yodas. Some of the titles even come with origami paper that can be coloured in before being folded into a flower or crane - cannily combining last season's trend with this year's craze.

Those looking for something a little more provocative in theme might like to tune into Master Sugoi's YouTube channel. Branded 'pornogami', the step-by-step videos offer a somewhat erotic take on the ancient art, teaching workshops where enthusiasts can take a break from the traditional folded swans and geometric boxes and try their hand at creating tiny angular figures in flagrante or folding pointy paper breasts.

Online, a TED talk by origamist Robert Lang, 'The Math and Magic of Origami', has been viewed nearly two million times. And the Japanese paper craft is even influencing fashion, with critics fawning over the fold-away Le Pilage bag by Longchamp, inspired by origami and beloved by Kate Middleton and Alexa Chung.

Naomi Fleury has been running origami workshops in Donegal since 1998, when she moved to Ireland from Japan. She believes the internet has played a big part in bringing origami into the spotlight.

"When I first started teaching Japanese language and culture in primary schools in Ireland and showed them origami, people would ask 'what is it?' and I would have to explain. But now, they know already," she says.

"Through the internet and apps, you can get information on origami easily and you can buy paper online. From the reaction I get now, I can see that origami is more familiar and I think it will be even more popular in the future."

As a custom, origami originated in the East in the 17th century as a way to make wrapped offerings to the gods more attractive.

The word comes from ori, "to fold" and Kami (gami) "paper" and the principle is simple: folding paper to make two- or three-dimensional shapes without the aid of scissors or glue.

"People associate it with Japan but origami also has roots in Europe," reveals Michaela Bertsch. "Friedrich Frobel was the founder of the first kindergardens in 1840 and he recognised the important role origami could play in children's development, helping with their dexterity, creativity and problem-solving."

Origami is now part of every German kindergarden teacher's training, which is where Michaela learned it, both from her mum, a kindergarden teacher, and through her own teacher training. She has been living in Ireland for the past 15 years, where she runs Micha's Origami and Arklow Origami Kids Class, teaching origami to children and adults.

"I'm also a stress counsellor and offer 'origami therapy' working with hyperactive children, adults with brain injuries and elderly people with Alzheimer's and arthritis," she adds.

She is passionate about the therapeutic benefits of origami as a way to improve mobility in people suffering Parkinson's or arthritis, to help concentration and patience in kids with ADHD, confidence-building in autistic children, improving short-term memory and the calming and relaxing effects of following a simple step-by-step process.

In Japan it has long been used in rehabilitation hospitals as a finger exercise.

"I think people are always looking for new ways to de-stress and a lot of them are discovering origami, so it's in fashion now," she says. "But for people like me, who have been doing it for years, it never went out of fashion."

On a most basic level, the absorbing nature of origami offers a chance to unwind and live in the moment. As a buzz word, it's been around for a while, but it seems that our longing for 'mindfulness' just isn't going away.

Dr John Hillery, consultant psychiatrist and director of communication and education at the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, reckons it's all to do with our need for undemanding time out.

"Involvement in an activity that is absorbing and challenging is good for one's mental health," he explains.

"We spend much of our day worrying about issues out of our control, so an activity like origami, which requires total concentration and action, but with achievable challenges leading to a product, absorbs our mind and gives us a feeling of mastery and achievement.

"That in turn helps shut out the negative noises, both internal and external, and builds self-esteem - both keys to positive mental health."

Perhaps where origami might have the edge on the colouring trend is that it is debatably more gender-neutral in its appeal. In fact, one of the more famous Irish faces associated with the craft is UFC star Conor McGregor, who starred in a recent Heineken ad campaign revealing origami as his 'hidden talent'.

Tom Cuffe is part of the Irish Origami Association and for the past four years has taught origami in schools around Galway, where he has seen both male and female pupils keen to engage with paper-folding. He uses the art form to help teach maths and science, but as a hobby his speciality area is modular origami, creating complex geometric designs by repeating the same pattern.

"Give me a glass of wine, an open fire and a box of paper and I'm happy," he laughs. "My wife calls it my knitting." He reckons he's spent about €1,000 on his hobby over the years (some speciality origami paper costs €11 a sheet) and has amassed around 15 boxes full of his creations.

"There's just something very calming about it," says Tom, who also works in the building trade.

"And when working with children, it's great to see their enthusiasm for creating something.

"It won't suit everyone," he adds. "I've done workshops and there are definitely people who just don't get it and lose patience. I had one young lady who got so frustrated she started crying, but that would be very rare!"

Yorkshire man Nick Robinson is delighted that origami is finally in vogue. After nearly 30 years working as a professional origamist, and penning some 40-odd books on the subject, it's nice to finally be 'cool', even if his kids disagree.

"If I could get anyone involved in origami, it would be them, they still think my job is pretty geeky," he laughs. But he's positive that anyone can get enthusiastic about the art form and has these top tips for getting started.

"Start simple," he advises. "Lots of people think that more complex is better but it's a good idea to start with a design that is under 12 steps and avoids too many 'narrow points', like legs, as this raises the difficulty level."

He recommends folding slowly and carefully and unfolding your finished piece once it's made, to remake it and really understand how it works. It's also helpful to join a class, rather than struggle on your own.

"And slow down," he adds. "Origami isn't a race or a competition. The best folders work slowly and neatly."

Other than that, there's nothing holding you back.

"You don't need any skills really," says Nick. "Anyone can do it if they have a little patience."

Irish Independent

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