Why ‘me time’ matters

Try to do one thing each day that nourishes you.

This was the takeaway message from a yoga event I attended this week at the Shard in London. The event, sponsored by California Walnuts, saw me and my good friend Sophie getting up at 5:30am to join a group of yogis for a 7am yoga session with Mandy Jhamat from Yogasphere, a wellness talk by Julie Montagu and delicious breakfast, hosted high above the city on the 69th floor of the Shard. It was the perfect start to the day: a relaxing vinyasa flow class suspended above the hubbub of the city below, followed by a feast of smoothies, mini pots of overnight oats, fruit kebabs and vegan flapjacks, all enjoyed from a room with a spectacular view.

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Image with thanks to California Walnuts

The event finished at 9:30am and we left with a free yoga mat, a bag full of goodies (including a big jar of delicious California Walnuts!) and that warm fuzzy feeling that I can only describe as the post-yoga glow.

While I’ll admit that I found myself reaching for the coffee by 3pm (I’m a morning person but even I concede that 5:30am is that bit too early) the feel-good factor from going to the class and spending some time with Sophie stayed with me until bedtime.

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Image with thanks to California Walnuts

While this was an exceptional day, the message from the speaker, Julie Montagu, was that you don’t need a special event to feed your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Instead, we should find a little space every day for those acts that make us feel more like ourselves and contribute to our overall sense of wellness. Whether it be a 15 minute yoga practice, a short walk or lunchtime run, curling up with a good book, wandering around an art gallery, taking a hot bath, going for a cup of tea with a friend, calling your mum, listening to a podcast or baking a cake, it’s amazing how just a little act can quickly change your mood and the course of your day.

While (as regular readers may have gathered!) I find my greatest sense of self through exercise, another very different area in which I have found nourishment is while drawing. It’s amazing how taking the time to really look at figures and forms and then attempt to replicate them in graphite on paper, can be so meditative. To this end, a friend and I recently established a life drawing class as part of a wellness initiative. It is amazing how quickly the two hours of the class pass as we work on a series of 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses, working in silence, looking, sketching and being present in the moment. While I’m not the greatest artist, I’ve learnt to use the lessons from my yoga practice of leaving my ego at the door, focusing on my easel and working within my own parameters. When I began drawing I found the process more frustrating than therapeutic, but now I have evolved my practice, making it a much calmer space for engagement and self development.

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Image with thanks to California Walnuts

It is so easy to forget to spend that little bit of time feeding your mind, body and soul and to find that you’ve spent a day racing around with little to show for it. I’m now taking the message of this week’s yoga event and aiming to dedicate a portion of each day to self-nourishing acts as I know that by feeding my own soul I feel stronger, richer, fuller and more able to give back to those around me.

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Step up to 2017

While inspirational quotes and motivational sound bites seem to be endemic on social media, there are the odd occasions when one of these really strikes a chord. I recently had such an experience on seeing an image emblazoned with the words ‘surround yourself with people who get it’. After a really positive start to 2017 – a blissful New Year’s Eve gathering with wonderful friends, a yoga retreat with my sister-in-law, some lovely runs with my fabulous running pals, lots of luxurious time with my husband, and plenty of good books and inspiring podcasts – these words really resonated with me.

It’s amazing how the process of surrounding yourself with inspiring people and good influences can penetrate into your everyday ways of being and feeling. While there is so much going on in the world at the moment that is far from ideal, being around people who ‘get it’ can help to remind you that, even when it appears that your are at odds with the status quo, there are people close at hand who are on the same wavelength as you. That isn’t to say we should encase ourselves in an echo chamber of consensus that leaves our views unchallenged, but rather, by pulling together with similarly-minded people, we can create positive ripples across our spheres of influence, and the more we are, the bigger the initial splash and the greater and more impactful the waves that follow.

So what does this mean in practical terms? How can we reach out to, connect with and be inspired and lifted by those people who get it?

Start with an escape

After the amazing weekend away at The Orange Tree yoga retreat in January last year, my sister-in-law and I immediately booked in for another new year’s escape. Returning to The Orange Tree for the first weekend in January was the best possible way I could have started my year. The retreat reinforced many of the good habits that I had cultivated on my first trip – meditation and mindfulness, regular yoga practice, syncing my movement and by breath – as well providing the perfect opportunity to meet and spend quality time with the most wonderful people.

It was so enriching and nourishing spending quality time with interesting and inspiring people – enjoying rich conversations free from our mobile phones, TVs or other digital distractions – as well as devoting plenty of time to our own headspaces during meditation practices. When we weren’t practicing yoga or meditation we enjoyed lounging in the hot tub, which overlooked the Yorkshire countryside, reading our books by the fire, chatting over delicious vegan food, and enjoying massages and other indulgent treatments. Having the time and space to really engage with the inner workings of your mind is incredibly enlightening and while meditation isn’t the easiest of practices, it is certainly one of the most rewarding.

More details about visiting The Orange Tree are available on their website and to get inside your own head try out the Headspace meditation app.

Move away from materialism

If you have read my recent post on minimalism you will know how much this movement appeals to me. This week my devotion to living with less sunk a little deeper as I finally got round to watching two documentary films that had been on my radar for a while: Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, which looks at a variety of takes on minimalism, from tiny houses to the stripped back 333 wardrobe, and The True Cost, which examines the fashion industry and its impact on the environment and the workers who make the clothes that we wear every day.

If you haven’t watched these films then you really must take the time to do so; they will change the way that you look at your possessions and, in particular, your clothes, for good. The way that garment makers in developing countries are treated is truly abominable and the impact that the now-52 season fashion industry has on the environment is devastating. Watching these two films in relatively quick succession really fed into my desire to move away from a consumerist way of being and forced me to look at the possessions I have (and where they were made).

One of the interesting takeaways from these films was that while in some ways we are more materialistic than ever, at the same time we have no interest or respect of material objects at all. We buy things to fill other voids in our lives and engage in a fast-fashion culture, which sees us wearing a piece of clothing one day and casting it aside the next.

My sister-in-law and I are toying with the idea of playing the minimalist game, but our biggest concern is, if we are disposing of our things, where will they go? I’ve signed up to free-cycling to pass on domestic appliances that we no longer use to those who need them and we are planning a clothes swap party to recycle fashion among friends. If you have more ideas, websites or companies that can help to recycle or re-use sustainably I’d be really interested to hear more and hope to have a post on sustainable living in the not too distant future.

For some more upcycling inspiration see the beautiful Upcyclist website and move away from fast fashion and be inspired to make your own clothes (or commission a friend to do so!) with Thumblenina.

Listen up for inspiration

I’ve been enjoyed a feast of inspirational podcasts lately and wanted to share a couple of the best with you here.

If you want something to feed your soul listen to Rich Roll’s interview with Guru Singh. I enjoyed listening to this over a series of runs and came back from each feeling so enriched and warm inside. To boost your body confidence, Tina Muir’s interview with Lanni Marchant is amazing. Marchant is such an incredible athlete and inspiring spokesperson and really makes you think about how you connect with your body and appreciate what it can achieve. Similarly, Rich Roll’s interview with Kerri Walsh Jennings, Olympic beach volleyball champion, is so uplifting I found myself smiling all of the way through. If you need a boost then this ‘six feet of sunshine’ is exactly what you are looking for.

Finally, for training inspiration listen to Josh Trent on the Run to the Top podcast. One of the key takeaways from this episode for me was having an overarching reason ‘why’ behind your training programme. Are you aiming to get faster, go further, lose weight or improve your cardiovascular health? While each training session will have its own purpose, it is important to know what your overall objective is so that you feel motivated to stay on course. I was listening to this episode while running in the cold and rain and took a moment to pause for thought on this. I realised that I run to really connect with my body – it is one of the few times I feel like my mind and body are totally in sync and it forces me to listen to, engage with and respect my physical self. It was an enlightening process really examining the question of the why and I really think it is something worth taking the time to do.

Get on your mat

Starting on 1 January Adrienne (of Yoga with Adrienne fame) launched a new free online yoga series called Yoga Revolution. The series consists of 31 yoga session of approximately 30 minutes, which work to help you engage, gain balance, tone, relax, strengthen and sculpt. If you’ve not encountered Adrienne before you can jump straight in with this, or else start with her 30 Days of Yoga series, which I equally loved. The best thing about the series is it’s easy to fit in sessions before work or in the evening before bed and all you need is a yoga mat and something comfy to wear. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes having the opportunity to get onto my mat every day and just take the time to breath and engage. So join the revolution and check this out today!

Write about how happy you are

For Christmas I received a ‘Happiness Planner‘ from my sister-in-law. Each day there is a space to write down what you are excited about, what your main focus is, your to do list, what you are grateful for, the good things that have happened and what you hope for tomorrow. Each section only has space for couple of lines so it’s not a daunting task to complete, but it does really make you think about all of the little things that bring a smile each day. Whether it is meeting friends for a cup of tea and a chat, going on a run in the winter sun, lazing in a bubble bath, getting lost in a good book, or indulging in a glass of red wine after a busy week at work, just taking the time to reflect on these things makes you appreciate them all the more and definitely adds a bit of additional happiness and contentment to your day.

I hope that this all leaves you feeling inspired and ready to take on 2017.

Until my next,

Namaste

5 Little changes that could just make your life that little bit better

I often find myself naively drawn in by articles promising the secret of an infinitely better life: 5 steps to total mindfulness, 3 intense fat burning workouts, 10 steps to the perfect relationship, that sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, what I regularly find is that these articles just offer a series of commonsensical points, which often align with the things I’m already doing, and I’m left a little disappointed that I’m no closer to secret of perfection in mind, body and spirit.

So rather than promising 5 revolutionary hacks that will give you the ultimate life, I’m offering a series of little adjustments and lifestyle tweaks that I’ve found work for me, and which have made my life just that little bit better everyday.

1. Morning yoga

IMG_3576I’m not really sure how I got into my morning yoga routine, but now I can’t imagine starting my day without it. It’s amazing how getting up and showered and then spending between 15 and 30 minutes on my mat can transform my mood and the way I approach the day. I’m certainly no bona fide yogi, but spending some time stretching out my limbs, syncing my movement and my breath, doing a bit of core and arm work and playing around with headstands, bridges or shoulder stands wakes me up (even if I’ve had a glass of something I shouldn’t the night before) and puts me in the right headspace for the day.

Some days I’ll listen to classical music and follow my own yoga flow routine, other days I’ll watch Yoga with Adriene on YouTube and follow her, but either way, no matter what my day holds, I try to corner off at least 15 minutes of my morning to dedicate to my practice.

2. Lunchtime exercise

IMG_5074The realisation that I could kick the 3:30pm slump by just going out and doing something physical at lunchtime was a revelation. My lunch run often negates my need for that dangerous afternoon coffee, which I know will play havoc with my sleeping patterns, or for the 4pm mindless snacking, often undertaken out of boredom or a need for a distraction rather than real hunger.

I know that I’m really lucky in this regard – that my boss and colleagues are very understanding of my need to get out in the fresh air and run off any stresses – but I also know that getting the oxygen circulating around my system makes me so much more productive in the afternoon and in a better mental place to respond to those emails that require a bit more thought or diplomacy.

Moreover, on the days I get to meet my running pal Lou for a quick dash around Kensington Gardens it’s a great opportunity for a catch-up or a space to vent and, come 6pm I’ve already done 5 miles and I can take the evening off guilt-free if I fancy.

While I know running isn’t for everyone, taking a lunchtime walk, or making the most of the summer sunshine and doing some yoga outside are also great alternatives. If you have a work gym you might even sneak a quick HIIT session between meetings.

3. Walking or running part of my commute

IMG_4349About a year ago I made the decision to add 4,000 steps to my day by walking to and from the tube station, rather than jumping straight on the train that leaves from practically outside my house. A year on and I’m still doing it, now less for the extra steps and more for the pleasure. In the morning getting just ten minutes of fresh(ish) air (this is London after all!), natural light and, in recent weeks, a vitamin D hit in the sunshine, really sets me up for the day. In the evening, having chance to decompress after a day at my desk is invaluable and strolling back the long way through the park rather than cramming myself into a train is definitely the best way to do this.

On the days I want to sneak some extra exercise, especially while the weather is good, I’ll walk the full 4 miles home, or, if I’ve not had chance for a lunch run, I’ll jog home, either directly or via Regent’s Park to add an extra 3 or 4 miles to my route. It’s not just the exercise but the benefit of being outside in the world that never fails to boost my mood and allows me to arrive either at work or at home smiling.

Living in the city where we are set up for walking and cycling a commute I know this is easier, but even elsewhere you could consider parking your car a little further from your house or office, or using public transport for part of the trip and walking or running the rest. Making exercise a functional part of your day – i.e. a means of getting from a to b – makes you more likely to do it on a regular basis and it also means that you have plenty of free time to spend with friends and family rather than squirrelling yourself off to the gym.

4. Tuning into my appetite

IMG_1619Like many people, I’ve been through phases of eating too much, not eating enough, eating through stress, through boredom and through sadness. However, recent GI issues have forced me to take a more careful approach to eating and there have been many benefits to this.

Slowing down my eating, selecting foods mindfully, with an eye to what will nourish me without causing stomach upset, pain or sluggishness, and eating in line with my hunger, rather than unconsciously nibbling throughout the day, has vastly improved my approach to and enjoyment of food. I now focus on three meals a day, or two on a Sunday/my long run day, without snacking in between (if I can help it!). If I’m doing a double workout – a lunchtime run followed by an evening swim for example –  I might add a banana or nectarine in the  late afternoon to keep me going until I get home, but otherwise I hold on until supper.

Following this routine I’ve found that I will naturally feel hungry at around 7:30am once I’ve finished my yoga, and again between 1 and 2pm in the afternoon. Evening hunger usually strikes around 6:30–7pm so I know if I’m going out for supper later than this and don’t want to over-eat because I’m famished I’ll have a more substantial lunch or eat a little later. I also make sure I stay well hydrated throughout the day so I don’t confuse thirst and hunger. I have moments of weakness of course – on weekends I could keep on munching through oats, granola with berries, avo on toast, smoothies and coffee indefinitely if I don’t make a conscious decision to stop and in the evenings if there are nibblies in the house, like grapes or cashews, I am often tempted to them. But knowing when these moments of weakness come I’m learning to avoid, resist or keep them at bay.

5. Accepting I’m not a night owl

IMG_3388I’ve spent years in denial and harboured a lot of guilt around this point, but the fact is, I like my sleep, and I like it at night. I tend to rise early regardless of my time to bed, which means late nights leave me exhausted and grumpy.

Accepting that I’m not going to be the last man standing on a night out, or that I’d rather head home than out to a night club without feeling guilty has been a long time in coming, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become increasingly at peace with this fact. I’ve started scheduling breakfast dates and lunches over late-night drinks and I try to arrive early to longer events so that if I duck out before last orders I’ve still had plenty of time to catch up with my pals. Just like not everyone gets up at 6 to fit in a pre-work yoga workout, breakfast and blog writing session, not everyone can keep their eyes open and enthusiasm up past 11pm. And that’s ok.

Accepting yourself doesn’t have to just relate to sleeping habits and I’m sure we all have traits that we try to fight against. Just take a moment to reflect on how good or bad these elements of your personality really are and if they are essentially harmless maybe it’s time to embrace them.

A good influence?

Like many health and wellness bloggers I try to surround myself with positive and inspirational people and media, not only to stay abreast of the latest fitness and diet trends to report back on here, but also to keep me motivated, optimistic and to try to help mould me into the best version of myself (or a slightly better version at least!).

Occasionally I find that something I read, hear in a podcast, or glimpse on social media resonates with me in a much more profound way than the usual interesting, but less effecting, information. While so often the latter type of nuggets will have an instant impact, their effects are, more often than not, only short-lived – a magazine article that pushes me out of the door do a workout, or an Instagram picture that drives me to make a healthier meal choice. However, on the occasions that I read or hear something which has a deeper influence, I find it seeps into my subconscious in a way that goes on to shape the way I think, behave and interact with others well beyond the initial point of impact.

This was of course the case when I switched from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle some ten years ago now after learning more about the dairy industry and realising the effects that dairy products had on my body. Once I was equipped with this knowledge the fact of veganism seemed an obvious conclusion.

In recent weeks I had my eyes opened again in this regard as I listened to an interview with Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, makers of the documentary film Cowspiracy. While this documentary had been on my radar, I hadn’t prioritised watching it as I had thought it would just be a case of preaching to the converted. However, what the interview revealed was how little I actually knew about the detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment and why grass-fed meat is not the often vaunted ‘sustainable’ solution that many meat eaters claim. Again, equipped with the knowledge that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for more of the ‘human-produced’ greenhouse gasses than all means of transport combined, or that whole ecosystems are disrupted by the land requirements for grazing cattle, and that this is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling, reaffirmed in my mind my lifestyle choices and made me want to share the message with others (with almost evangelical zeal!).

My attitude to exercise has also taken a positive turn in recent months and this was further solidified by a excerpt in Adharanand Finn’s new book,The Way of the Runner, which I read this week.

After a series of hip issues and my decision not to run the marathon this year I had felt my relationship with running sour somewhat. However, once the pressure of training for an event was removed, and I was able to let my body recover without the anxiety of missed training sessions, I found that I was able to reconnect with the real reason I go out running: just because.

Finn voiced these sentiments perfectly in his book:

I know some people run to loose weight, to get fit, or maybe they’re running to raise money for a charity. But for me…these are just by-products. Running itself has its own raison d’être…[W]e run to connect with something in ourselves, something buried deep down beneath all the worldly layers of identity and responsibility. Running, in its simplicity, its pure brutality, peels away these layers, revealing the raw human underneath…[I]f we push on, running harder, further deeper into the wildness of it all, away from the world and the structure of our lives…we begin to float…Our minds begin to clear and we begin to feel strangely detached, and yet at the same time connected, connected to ourselves…

In this modern world we need excuses…The world is set up to cater for the rational, logical mind, which needs to see tangible reasons and benefits behind any effort. We need to dangle the carrot of marathons and best times in front of ourselves to justify this strange habit of getting up, running around outside, coming back having not actually gone anywhere…And this, on some superficial level motivates me to run. But really, deep down, I know it’s just a front. What I really want to do is get away from all of the structure, the complexity and chaos of my constructed life, and to connect with the simple human that lies buried under everything else.

I don’t doubt that this is a message that will resonate with many other runners.

Finally, with my daily practice of yoga and discovery of the wider mindfulness and meditation movement, I can feel another shift taking place. Partly responsible for this greater sense of connectedness and peace with myself is my recent discovery of Rich Roll. Roll’s podcast is full of interviews with inspirational ‘paradigm breakers’ in different fields from business, music, fitness, meditation, sleep and nutrition, and his unapologetic approach to health, wellness and veganism (the tagline to his bio is ‘a life transformed by plants’), have all served to motivate me to feel more at peace and proud of my lifestyle choices, while also compelling me to strive for more in work, exercise, wellness and diet.

You need only to listen to his interviews with Ariana Huffington, John Joseph, Light Watkins, Jedidiah Jenkins, Mishka Shubaly, or indeed any of the other motivational interviewees he has had on the show to realise what an incredible resource this is.

There are some really powerful lessons to be learned: Roll is a recovering alcoholic turned ultra-athlete and he is pretty frank that to make a change in any element of your life you already know what to do:

There is no secret bullet or life-hack that is going to help you to accomplish what you want to do, it’s simply a case of stopping what you doing and switching to take the actions that will move you closer to your goal. It’s tough to hear because people want to hear that there is an easier, softer way. The short-cut is to make that goal your absolute one priority and do anything you can to achieve it.

The podcast makes me think about life in a holistic sense: in an interview with Jason Garner, Garner highlighted the problem of compartmentalising different aspects of our lives and how ‘we talk about work life balance as if work isn’t part of our life’, something which really struck a chord with me. In another episode our engagement with social media was brought into question and the focus was placed on the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘appearing to be’, a shift that would serve many of us.

At it’s essence is the message that life, success and happiness is all about perspective – two people can have the same experience and perceive it totally differently, so what you have to ask is how much responsibility are you prepared to take for your mindset and approach to life?

I will finish with a Viktor Frankl quote that I particularly like, which Roll cited in an episode I was listening to this week:

Between stillness and response there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Happy inspiring.

 

 

One of the world’s best yoga retreats is hiding in the North Yorkshire hills

This weekend I went on a detox yoga retreat at The Orange Tree Relaxation Centre in North Yorkshire with my friend and sister-in-law-to-be, Ruth, and two of her lovely pals, Sophie and Laura.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the itinerary promised plenty of time dedicated to yoga and relaxation, delicious ayurvedic, vegan food, a lounge with a log fire, and a jacuzzi-hot-tub overlooking the Yorkshire Moors; what more could a girl want?

The preceding week we had been told to go meat, alcohol, sugar and caffeine free. The first three of these things I found relatively painless – I’ve been vegetarian for 22 years and vegan for eight of those, making box one an easy one to tick. Moreover, R and I had already decided on a ‘dry January’, not least as after the excesses of Christmas I’m still struggling to look at a glass of Prosecco without feeling slightly amiss, so box two, tick! Luckily, with the exception of the odd date or Nakd bar, I don’t have a massively sweet tooth, which made taking the majority of sugars (I still ate fruit) away from my diet reasonably ok too, tick. However, giving up my 4-5 coffees and countless cups of tea a day was a little trickier, to say the least. I struggled with some serious headaches, haziness and an awful fit of the grumps on Monday and Tuesday (sorry work team!), had to battle the 4pm work slump without a shot of coffee to see me through, and promptly fell asleep on the sofa at 9:30pm (my rock and roll lifestyle knows no bounds!).

However, by Wednesday I had turned a (little) corner, and although still sleepy and with a dull headache, the grumpiness of not having my caffeine had subsided, and I actually felt pretty energised on my run that day, clocking 13km in my lunch break. By Thursday the need for caffeine was less acute and I found that supplementing my herbal tea and hot water and lemon with some decaf Yorkshire tea took the edge off a bit too!

By Friday I was feeling confident about a caffeine-free weekend and wasn’t even tempted by a post-run Starbucks at Kings Cross station on my way to meet the others.

Herbal infusions at Filmore and Union to start our detox weekend
Herbal infusions at Filmore and Union to start our detox weekend

I arrived at a very chilly York station not long before 4pm, where I met Sophie and Laura, and we enjoyed a turmeric, lemon, ginger and agave infusion at Filmore and Union in York, before heading to meet Ruth from work. The four of us piled into Ruth’s Mini with all of our bags and we headed off into the dark, snowy countryside in search of the retreat.

We arrived just before 7pm and were immediately welcomed by the lovely, smiling face of the owner, Edward. He helped us with our bags, showed us to our rooms and gave us a quick tour. The fire in the lounge was roaring and there were lots of smiling, welcoming faces awaiting us. It felt like such a warm, safe space, filled with so many kind-hearted people. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but entering The Orange Tree felt a lot like coming home and being welcomed by old friends.

Supper was served not long after our arrival and we had a chance to chat properly with the others. It soon transpired that we were the only ones at the table who hadn’t been to the retreat at least once before; some of others had been countless times over the years, for detox, relaxation and silent retreats.

The food was as delicious as promised and we never went hungry. Every meal was so flavourful and hearty; I’ve eaten my fair share of vegan food and this was truly some of the best I’ve tasted. It was also blissful to be cooked for and to be served such good, wholesome food. I liked having any decision or anxiety over what to eat totally taken away, reassured in the knowledge it was all lovingly-home-cooked healthy, vegan fare.

The view from our bedroom window at The Orange Tree
The view from our bedroom window at The Orange Tree

Over post-supper herbal teas Claire talked us through the itinerary for the weekend and took our bookings for our treatments for the next day. There was a wide array of choices from reiki and reflexology to massages and manicures. Everyone had time for two 30-minute treatments and I booked in for reflexology and a back and shoulder massage.

That evening we had a meditation and relaxation session in the attic yoga studio. During the session we were asked to set an intention for our practice – an objective to work towards over the weekend and one that we could take forward with us into our lives post-retreat. This was a really useful process for me as it gave me a focus and something to come back to during each practice.

I was new to both meditation and mindfulness, which played an integral role in the weekend, but I came to them both with an openness and desire to learn more. I took a lot from using both alongside my yoga – converting my yoga practice from a primarily aerobic routine, to a calming, healing and nurturing space to really re-connect with my body. I also found that for the first time I was really letting my breath act as the metronome for my practice; letting my inhale and exhale sync with and fuel my movements.

I had been listening to a Runners Connect podcast interview with the yogi Cara Gilman during the week before the retreat, in which she talked about taking the ego out of your practice and making the most of restorative and more gentle types of yoga. At The Orange Tress I found that for the first time was really able to implement this theory in the new physical and mental space I found myself in.

When it came to meditation, Edward suggested a really helpful technique. He advised that when various thoughts or emotions enter our minds that, rather than getting annoyed with ourselves for getting distracted, we label them, acknowledge them and then gently let them go. So, for example, if you find your mind drifting to your to-do list, you recognise it as ‘thinking’ and then just let it drift away as you come back to your focus.

Mindfulness is a term that is banded around a lot and has gained various connotations over recent years, but over the weekend I put aside any preconceptions and began learning the value of coming back to the present and absorbing the value of the now. I learned a lot about myself in this regard and how I spend a lot of time in my head, lost in my thoughts. I learned how I can work towards being more grounded in my physical self and more present in the moment. While I recognise that this is something that I will have to practice and will probably struggle with for some time, I have become more conscious of my mind wandering and feel more able to nudge it back on course.

In terms of the day-to-day running of the retreat, wake-up calls, yoga classes and meals were indicated by series of gongs, making life incredibly easy and decision free. We practiced from 7:30-9am each morning before breakfast and then from around 10:45am-1:30pm until lunch. After lunch on Saturday we had our treatments and time in the hot tub and sauna, as well as snuggled by the fire with our books, fresh detox juices and vegan cashew nut cookies, baked by Claire.

I not only learned a lot from Edward, our teacher on the retreat, but also from the other people there. Two of the ladies had met over 30 years previously while on a yoga retreat, and had been firm friends ever since. It was interesting speaking to them and listening to their thoughts on all of the latest fads and crazes in yoga. They made me recognise how commercial yoga has become in some areas and how important it is to be able to distinguish the true essence and teaching of the practice from all of the extreme positions and expensive kit that pervade the modern idea of the yogi. They also made me realise that yoga is a lifelong practice and that I have plenty of time to develop and grow, both in the way I practice and in my mind, body and breath connection, and can afford to be more gentle and kinder to myself in this regard.

I have taken so much from my weekend at The Orange Tree and still have a lot of thoughts and information to process after the weekend. The most marked immediate benefit is that I feel so much calmer in myself and so much happier in my own skin. I am filled with a warm glow and an inner peace that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.

I only hope that this feeling can last now I’m back in the hectic city!

Until my next, namaste.

 War and Peace 

I started writing this post on Tuesday on my way back from work and it began something like this:

‘Now I’m back to work and the weather has taken a turn for the chillier, following an unseasonably warm Christmas, it now really feels like January and that the New Year is truly here.

And 2016 has started pretty well.

New Year’s Day saw us enjoying a late breakfast with an Ella recipe of baked apple and cinnamon oats (totally delish and like eating pudding for breakfast – recipe below) and a NutriBulletted kale, strawberry, blueberry and chia juice, before heading out for a 6 mile stroll across Hampstead Health. Although it was pretty grey and drizzly, that only made the cup of tea and browse of the books in Waterstones at the end of the walk all the more pleasurable, and that evening we especially enjoyed our sofa-for-two at the Hampstead cinema, where we curled up and watched the latest Star Wars movie.

Saturday saw us at Park Run first thing (although I admit to putting in a shocking performance, hampered by a very runny nose!) and in the afternoon, while R went to watch the football, I booked into a Vinyasa Flow class at a yoga centre near our house in north London. This was just what I needed to reset post-Christmas and I finally feel like this year I’m making peace with my body, accepting it and working with it (rather than against it) to get stronger.

On the way home I picked up the ingredients for my favourite winter butternut squash, parsnip, chilli and ginger soup, a vat of which I had ready for R’s return from the rather cold and wet Bradford match.

On Sunday I…’

The post stopped there, rather abruptly, as this was the point at which I was mugged, and my phone, where I draft many of my blogs, was stolen.

And so from an (almost nauseatingly) idyllic start to 2016 to a really rather horrid turn of events.

It was quite a surreal experience: one minute I was hot-footing it down the road, racing back from work to get ready for running club, the next, a motorcyclist had mounted the pavement alongside me and snatched my phone from my hand.

He was accompanied by two other helmeted figures on bikes and the three of them revved away, glancing back at me on the pavement. My immediate instinct was to run after them (not easy in heels and with a handbag), yelling at them to come back. I don’t know what I thought I’d achieve, but I wasn’t prepared to just let it go. They even circled back round the roundabout, causing the cars around to beep, and for a moment I thought they were coming back towards me; that they would give my phone back; that it was all some awful prank; but they sped off seconds later.

I was only moments from my front door and luckily R was home. He calmed me down as by that point I was shaking and crying in disbelief and rage, panic and shock.

Someone had seen the incident and had called the police, so when I called them they were already in the area. When they arrived they were so kind, patient and generous with their time and really helped to put me at ease (a massive thank you Met Police!).

I won’t go into the details of all the subsequent time spent changing passwords and trying to protect my data, as although I immediately alerted my phone company that my phone had been stolen, they said it could take up to 24 hours before the phone and sim were blocked. Needless to say it was not the Tuesday evening I had planned.

I didn’t sleep well and kept replaying the incident in my mind, thinking of all of the things I could have done differently – what if I’d left work a little later, or not decided to add to my step count by walking from Highbury and just got on a second train? What if I’d simply not taken my phone out of my pocket at that moment? I wondered if, in my wedge-heels and with a handbag, as opposed to my usual pumps and rucksack, I looked like an easy target. I even searched online for advice on ‘how to avoid being mugged’ so I could see if I’d left myself too open to attack. I also looked up self defence classes in the area, not because realistically in that situation I could have done anything, but because right now I feel like a victim and I want to feel re-empowered.

I didn’t want to leave home on Wednesday morning, but I was determined not to let the incident phase me and I took my usual walk to the station. Heading out in the light was ok but the walk back in the evening wasn’t great; I was jumpy and my ears pricked up at the sound of every motorbike.

Over the past few days my emotions have fluctuated between feeling incredibly angry, particularly whenever I see a motorbike, suspicious that it is them again, stomach-sink-ingly frightened, and horribly vulnerable and helpless, expressed in spontaneous moments of crying.

I know that I’m incredibly lucky that it was just an opportunistic mugging, that I wasn’t hurt and that it was only my phone that was taken, but that doesn’t detract from the sadness I feel that there are three people out there in such a bad situation, and with so little compassion, that they would steal from someone on their way home from work, leaving them feeling victimised. I suppose my overriding feeling is a sadness at a loss of faith other people and, that from a perhaps rather naïve optimism in the inherent goodness of others, I suddenly feel suspicious and defensive.

I’m sure these feelings will pass, and the year will get back on track soon.

Until then, stay safe.

Working out on work trips: Finding balance in Chicago

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Looking along the river

Last week I was in Chicago for a conference with work. Work trips such as this are so useful for building relationships with our colleagues across the pond. It’s so nice to add a human element to all of those emails that shoot between us during the remainder of the year and to be able to meet the wider team in the Chicago offices. I love catching up with colleague over suppers and have the opportunity to have those interesting and innovative brainstorming sessions, which are infinitely more productive as a result of face-to-face interactions.

The Chicago trip also means pushing myself out of my comfort zone and presenting to a room of people, something which I often dread but which practice seems to be making increasingly easier.

While the days of my trip were dedicated to meetings, presentations and keeping on top of my emails from London, I was also able to squeeze in some sightseeing, eat deliciously healthy food and keep on top of my exercise schedule.

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Sun through the skyscrapers

Chicago is one of my favourite cities and I know I’m incredibly lucky that I get to spend time there for work. In the winter Chicago comes alive with festive cheer; it is so beautiful with the lake reflecting the blue of the sky and the winter sun making all of the skyscrapers glisten.

One of the benefits of work trips to the States is that the jet lag usually means that I wake up between 5 and 5:30am, giving me plenty of time to run, enjoy the sunrise over breakfast, catch up on my work emails from the UK and get in a morning walk, all before heading to the office.

I also find myself crashing at about 9:30pm, which meant that I got some 8 hours of sleep a night – certainly more than I get at home (when I’m lucky to scrape 7 hours) and something which meant that I hardly touched a cup of coffee for the whole trip.

My workout routine took on a new shape during my time away too, and I let myself enjoy a focus on lower intensity exercise with walking taking centre stage as I averaged around 17km (or 10.5 miles) a day.

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Reflected in the Bean

I enjoyed striding up Michigan Avenue from the lake to the Art Institute and the ‘Bean’.

I could spend forever walking around the Art Institute of Chicago, overwhelmed by the incredible collection there, which houses many of my favourite Impressionist and Modernist pieces, as well as an impressive collection from the Dutch Golden Age and of course, the iconic ‘American Gothic’.

On Friday evening I walked to the Bean for a carol concert, which made me feel very Christmassy. I tunelessly joined in with renditions of Jingle Bells and the Twelve Days of Christmas, not remembering the last time I’d belted out some carols.

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Admiring the Picasso collection at the Art Institute

I also spent time walking along the lake, making a trip to the Planetarium (I’d visited the aquarium and Field Museum, which are on the same site, on a previous visit) and walking from there to Navy Pier, some 6km away.

On Saturday night I walked along the lake to the zoo in Lincoln Park for ‘zoo lights’, a free event where the zoo is lit up with Christmas lights formed into animals, snow flakes, snow men and Santa Clauses, while Christmas music fills the air.

Before my trip I’d also researched a yoga studio, called the Yoga Loft, and I booked in for an ‘all levels’ Ashtanga class for one evening. I’m not sure how ‘all levels’ it really was, as the girls all around me were bending like pretzels and at one point the instructor told us to just ‘throw our leg over our shoulder like a rucksack’, which is definitely easier said than done! Still, I really enjoyed the class and felt totally relaxed afterwards and very glad I’d gone.

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Architectural boat trip

I mentioned the class to one of my colleagues at the conference and she told me that she had booked in for a hot yoga workshop for that Saturday afternoon at 105F Hot Yoga Centre in the South Loop, and asked if I’d like to join her. Although I’d never done hot yoga before but I was keen to give it a try, and nothing says ‘team bonding’ like some serious sweating on a yoga mat!

It was a Yin yoga class, where you are encouraged to hold poses for 4 to 5 minutes at a time, a total contrast to my usual flow classes. I was pretty nervous, but the heat was more bearable that I’d feared (although I did get pretty sweaty!) and it actually helped me to ease more deeply into the positions, more so as the minutes ticked by.

It was such a relaxing class and I felt almost like I’d been to a spa for a deep tissue massage by the time I came out!

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Penguins at ‘Zoo Lights’

As the weather was mild for the time of year I also managed to book in for an architectural boat tour along the river, which usually doesn’t run into the winter months. This had been recommended to me by a colleague at the conference as the architecture in Chicago is so stunning an so varied it really warrants a proper tour. It was really interesting a definitely worthwhile, not least to see the city from a whole new vantage point.

Finally, I was keen that my diet do didn’t go totally off-piste as a result of my travels. On arrival I kept myself awake with a trip to Whole Foods, where I stocked up on oats, vanilla soya milk (it was really tricky getting hold of just regular soya so I indulged for the week, and despite initially finding it too super-sweet at first, by the end of the week I’d become rather accustomed to its rich deliciousness!), apples and grapes, baby carrots, hummus, olives and (as a treat as you can no longer get them in the UK) a selection of Lara Bars.

We had a conference supper one evening where I had a delicious vegan dish with black beans, sweet potato and a yummy spicy salsa. I also discovered Lyfe Kitchen on North Clark Street where they had separate vegan and gluten free menus and I treated myself to a festive sprout, cranberry and sweet potato dish followed by a banana and chia seed pudding.

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Carols and the Bean

After my hot yoga session indulged in a quinoa, avocado and tofu salad from The Protein Bar on Michigan, which was really tasty and very filling – a perfect post-exercise treat!

I also enjoyed a long lazy breakfast with my friend Carrie at Eggsperience Cafe, a good American diner. Not ideally set up for vegans (eggs clearly dominated the menu and the oatmeal was pre-made with milk), however I was still able to get rye toast with avocado, lots of coffee and, most importantly, a chance to catch up with my wonderful friend, who was serendipitously in town from LA for a wedding in Chicago.

All in all, a wonderful week of work, working out and working off some delicious food!