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

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.

 

 

Train your mind, fuel your body and start getting stronger

Last week the flu epidemic that seems to have been sweeping our office finally caught up with me. From feeling unusually achy and slightly sub-par while doing my yoga on Wednesday morning, I found myself a shivering, sweating, aching, snotty mess by Wednesday evening.

While my training dwindled into non-existence and I had to miss a race on Sunday, what I lacked in movement I made up for in sleep. Unable to get out of bed for a couple of days I also had plenty of time to listen to lots of health and fitness podcasts and I used the time to listen, learn and be inspired.

Rich Roll PodcastI began with a good dose of the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast and it was through him that I discovered the Rich Roll podcast, a new revelation in my wellness listening (Greenfield’s interview with Rich Roll can be found here and is well worth a listen).

Roll is a vegan ultra-endurance athlete and health and wellness advocate, and his wife, Julie Piatt, is a vegan chef and a mindfulness and meditation guru. Roll leads on the podcast, but he and Julie have written a book together – The Plantpower Way – a cookbook-come-lifestyle guide, and in the initial edition of the podcast I listened to, they discussed the book together.

This episode also looked at the emotional drivers behind diet and behaviour. In particular it focused on the importance of taking a holistic approach to your health and well being, as well as on the value of meditation in nurturing your emotional and spiritual sides. Roll described it as ‘going beyond the kale‘, emphasising the point that diet alone is not enough for complete wellness. While you may choose to adopt a plant-based diet, rather than simply letting that be an end it itself, you should go beyond the green juices and lentils and take the increased vitality afforded by your diet to fuel other elements of your life.

9781583335871_The-Plantpower-Way-1024x943Similarly, while exercise has its place and values, alone is not enough for total health. As Roll points out, you can be out running, which is ostensibly a positive act, but in that space you might also find that you are being very hard on yourself and running becomes ‘its own repression machine’. Of course running can also be incredibly liberating, it all comes down to the perspective that you bring to it, but if you are using running as an escape or ‘if you’re stuck in running and you get super compulsive about it, ask yourself, is that any better than any other addictive behaviour pattern?’

I found this perspective particularly helpful, as I know from my own experience that while sometimes I find running very calming and restorative, at others, (particularly at the moment when pain and injury are combining with the feeling that I need oomph up my fitness), running becomes its own source of stress and anxiety. Having someone else verbalise this has helped me to think about the role that running plays in my life and has allowed me to take a step back to reflect on where it is bringing me positive energy and where it is becoming an emotional and energy drain.

Piatt also stressed that running does not offer enough of a meditative space to allow you to fully enjoy all of the positive benefits of meditation. While it can offer a transformative and very positive space, it is no substitute for seated meditation, which provides a more complete opportunity for self-enquiry and self-discovery. It allows you to quieten the mind and create a reflective space between the goings on of the world and your responses to them. It also opens up a healing space for you to reflect on your character and priorities, as well as to re-balance the energetic mind and body.

HeadspaceWhile Piatt directed listeners to a guided meditation on her website, Roll promoted the Headspace meditation app. I have to admit to having the app but, at the time of listening to this podcast, to only being a few sessions in to the Take 10 series. So, with all of this positive talk of meditation, I used my bed-bound time to re-engage with the app and feel like I’ve really started to make some progress.

I have been trying to get into meditation since the yoga retreat in January, and have toyed with sessions on and off, but I know that to really ‘crack it’ I need to make meditating as much of a habit as my morning yoga sessions or lunchtime runs.

In a later podcast episode, but still on the theme of meditation, Roll interviewed meditation guru Light Watkins. Here the discussion touched on this idea of making meditation a habit. Watkins noted that the difficult thing is to break your bad habits, in this case, the habit of not meditating, rather than to adopt positive new ones. He used the example of a man who had re-engineered his bike so that the handlebars were backwards, meaning that when he turned left he would go right and when he turned right he would go left. It took him eight months of practising for five minutes every morning before he finally cracked being able to ride the bike down his drive. In this instance, as with meditating, it is not about the knowledge of how something is done or why it works, or even the processes that you need to go through to get the desired end result, rather it is about consistent behaviour and being consistent enough that your body eventually habituates towards meditating (or riding a backwards bicycle).

In Roll’s conversation with Light, again there was an emphasis on holistic health, giving the example of a Rubik’s cube, where every side of the cube has to be balanced. In this example meditation offers the tool to unlock the problem of the Rubik’s cube and restore overall balance.

I found this a really useful way of thinking about meditation and the body as a whole and it certainly gave me food for thought with regard to how I treat my mind and body.

My other valuable takeaway from Watkins and Piatt was the idea that we shouldn’t regard events or circumstances as wholly good or bad. Rather than polarising our experiences we should try to see the nuances and reflect on what can be learned from them. Piatt noted that ‘there is no human life that does not have any darkness in it…in order to be a fully integrated human being you have to have embraced both the light and the dark, it is what has made you what you are today. You can’t cut off a part of your existence and pretend it never happened’.

While this is a sentiment we may have heard many times before, I found it incredibly comforting and reassuring, particularly during a week of illness, which I had been regarding as entirely negative.

As this post has perhaps shown, taking time out, even when unable to get out of bed, can be positive and constructive. For me, it was a chance to listen to podcasts and to my body, to encounter new inspirational speakers, to meditate (unhampered by the feeling I should be doing something more ‘active’) and to reflect on the health of my body as a whole unit.

Here is where we start getting stronger.

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.