[W]e want to relax, but there’s unfinished paperwork at the office, monthly bills to pay, and clothes ready for the cleaners. So taking a break isn’t easy. And forget mustering the energy to try new things. But, we got one word for you: Ikebana. Surprisingly, this Japanese art of flower arrangement can help put more balance and harmony into our lives.

From altars to art form

Ikebana does not fall short of its lengthy history. For more than seven centuries, these works of art have reflected Japan’s rich culture. You can trace the tradition back to the Buddhist’s ritual of placing flowers on alters of worship – often presented in containers. Gradually it evolved into a pastime for the wealthy. And as the trend grew in popularity, it became widely used in all levels of society.

One of the oldest school’s of Ikebana is the Ikenobo School. There the formal Rikka style was developed. These arrangements were characterized with symbolism, space and asymmetry. But as more schools were founded, other styles were promoted, including the Shoka style (a simpler version of Rikka). This new form worked with a triangular three-branch asymmetrical structure. While schools taught different variations of this style, the use of three branches — commonly known as Ten (heaven), Chi (earth), and Jin (human being) — is still the basis of many Ikebana arrangements.

Surprisingly, Ikebana wasn’t always considered a female practice, says Chief Executive Wakako Ohara from the Ohara School of Ikebana. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became a woman’s education tool. “It use to be an important step women needed to take if they wanted to be considered good wives and mothers,” Ohara says.

But Ikebana has evolved, and is now more about self-discovery.

An interest blooms

Self-discovery is exactly what 34-year-old Cynthia Leiko got after giving Ikebana a try.

Coming from a bi-racial family, Leiko is use to diversity. Her Japanese mother and Caucasian father’s distinct cultures fused together, whether it was eating a bowl of Udon (Japanese noodles made out of wheat flour) instead of hamburgers on Fourth of July or skipping ballet lessons to learn the Japanese alphabet. But while Leiko was use to going back and forth between the two cultures, she didn’t know what Ikebana was about or how beneficial it could be.

It wasn’t until four years ago that she got her first real taste of Ikebana at an Asian-American festival. She remembers walking down the rows of booths showcasing piping hot dishes and poster board presentations, when a beautiful flower arrangement caught her attention. Looking to get a closer look, she approached the booth. There she met Keiko Nakamura, a petite elderly woman dressed simple, but elegant. After a lengthy discussion on the art of Ikebana, Nakamura suggested Leiko come visit her home studio to watch her beginners Ikebana class. The offer was too tempting for Leiko to refuse.

After observing several classes, it wasn’t long before Leiko began to participate. Ikebana spoke to Leiko. Its simple, uncluttered space gave her the chance to balance her work and personal life. “I was at a point where I felt the long hours at work getting me to that point with no return,” she says. “When Ikebana came in the picture, it saved me from having to shell out large sums for a therapist or bulk up on self-help books.” The sense of harmony, she says, gave her the chance to reevaluate her life in a whole new light.

Mind, body and soul

Ikebana isn’t just about placing flowers decoratively in a container. It can be a useful spiritual tool to take us away from the loud, clutter of the city and connect us with nature. By doing so, we learn to refocus our minds and eliminate some of the stress.

Silence is a big part of Ikebana. In order to stay focused on each element going into our containers, we need to remain silent as we do so. This gives our minds the chance to really think about the task at hand. By doing so, we get a one-to-one connection with the arrangement in front of us — taking us away from the office desks and responsibilities. What is important about this is that as we invest ourselves in our creation, we’re able to take a step back and look at the progress we’ve made. We decide what remains and what needs to change.

But that’s not all.

Flowers can be great additions to our lives. Often their beauty can even change our “personal” space, whether it’s the vase with lilies at our favorite restaurant or the dozen red roses in our office.

If adding a few flowers can brighten up your workspace, home décor or even your mood, imagine creating your very own arrangement — slowly pouring in a little of you as you cut, align and layer piece by piece. When Fay Charlesworth, an Ikebana instructor of the Chicago Chapter, sees her arrangements throughout her home, she gets a great sense of accomplishment. “I see each day, the small buds on my arrangements open up a bit more,” Charlesworth says. “It’s very beautiful that feeling of seeing something you put the energy into and see it change every day.”

But before we can even experience that sense of “I did it”, we need to step outside our comfort zone a bit. Unlike traditional arrangements we see at the florist shops, Ikebana is based on simplicity. So instead of seeing many flowers, you’ll find there’s a balance between the number of flowers, plant material and empty space in the container.

We’ve gotten used to seeing bouquets cluttered and perfectly symmetrical. But we’re going to have to wrap our heads around the fact that space is good.

Repeat: Space is good.

Space is as important in Ikebana as the materials themselves. The empty space is there for a reason. It gets us to stop adding elements that we don’t need. And when we finally do get more comfortable with using fewer branches, leaves and flowers, the more harmony we will create in our arrangements. But, why is harmony a good thing? Well, the more harmony there is, the more positive energies we will get.

Now if you’re finding this a challenge, you’re not the only one. “Space can be difficult to incorporate because our lives are so full,” says Brooke Pohl, an instructor of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana. “But soon it becomes a sort of relief to have that space.”

She’s not the only one who thinks so. Hiromi Willingham, a psychotherapist and Ikebana instructor at the Center for Wellness and Healing in Texas, encourages others to try Ikebana to relieve some of the stress in their daily lives. “The beauty of the flower and branch disengages you from everything,” Willingham explains. “You have a clearer mind at the end.” She’s noticed that as her students completely immerse themselves in their creations, they feel more balanced and less stressed out after finishing their arrangement.

Ikebana is not about overwhelming us, but creating a sanctuary for us to leave the stress of work and countless responsibilities away for 30 minutes, or even a few hours.

Say hello to Ikebana

Now you might be wondering how Ikebana can fit your busy schedule? Well the answer is simple. You set the time.

No, this does not mean you should dedicate an hour each day to snipping and arranging flowers. It just means that you can create works of art without putting down a sweat. Oh wait, we don’t sweat, we glisten.

Even 10 minutes can yield something fantastic. Most of her beginners, Charlesworth says, finish their first arrangements in about five to 10 minutes. “These aren’t always perfect-looking, but the sense of accomplishment can be achieved very quickly in those 10 minutes,” she says. Of course, as beginners, we might need to dedicate more time to tweaking our arrangements here and there, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pat ourselves in the back.

But before we start arranging, there are a few rules to learn.

Rules, rules, rules

While there are five main styles to choose from, the more popular one is Moribana, a modern take on the traditional form using flat containers to emphasize more space and depth. It also happens to be the most basic arrangement. But while Moribana is the simplest, there are rules that should be followed, including how long stems should be and how to place the material at specific angles.

And yes, there’s even a rule for containers.

The vases and containers are very important. They can come in different shapes and colors, but they must complement the material we’re using. “You need to make sure the container goes with the rest of the arrangement,” says Kazuko Ernst, president of the Chicago chapter. “Balance is very important here.”

Seems complicated right?

Leiko admits she almost gave up after her first lesson. “You assume something so simple as a flower, leaves and a container are easy to work with,” she says. “But there’s things you have to consider before using the material.” But with words of encouragement from her Ikebana instructor and much trial and error, Leiko got a better sense of Ikebana. “As you sit there aligning the branches, making sure they’re in the right angle, you can’t help but feel inspired,” she says.

Learning when and how to apply these rules might take some time, but they’re not meant to take away your style. You’re free to be as innovative as you want to be. And with “any material goes”, this should not be a problem.

The truth is that we all have our way of rejuvenating ourselves, whether it’s traveling to exotic places, visiting spas or simply curling up in bed with a new book. Or if you’re like Leiko, an empty container, several plant materials and a pair of scissors can do just the trick. Who knew arranging flowers could be so beneficial?