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

Tuscan adventures and new beginnings

I realise that it has been quite a while since my last post, for which I have the (fairly reasonable?) excuse of a wedding and honeymoon. Twelve months almost to the day that we got engaged, R and I tied the knot in Tuscany last month, surrounded by our closest friends and family, on what was genuinely the happiest and most fantastically fun day of my life.

img_6216From swimming laps with my bridesmaids before breakfast and racing across the pool on inflatable pizza slices with my pals (I had to burn off the nervous energy somehow!), to exchanging our vows in a beautiful hill-top town hall and dancing the night away in a Tuscan castle, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day.

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I can’t tell you how grateful we both felt to have so many of our wonderful friends and family members fly out to Italy to share the day with us. While I have always acknowledged how amazing the people in our lives are, having them all there together – and seeing new friendships form between our respective friends and relatives – filled me with so much happiness and gratitude; I really do feel so amazingly privileged that we are able to share our lives with such incredible people.

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After the wedding – and following a few days de-compressing with our families – R and I spent two weeks travelling around Italy. It’s amazing how taking a step out of your everyday routine really shifts your perception and allows you the time and headspace to reflect on where you are in your life, and to appreciate all that you have. It was so wonderful taking time to talk about everything and nothing – discussing our life plans, politics, art, our future together and our career goals – rather than simply worrying about what meetings or deadlines we had coming up at work or who was cooking dinner that evening (the usual topics of conversation in our everyday lives!).

Our lifestyle took on a whole different pattern too: we were getting plenty of sleep, spending all of our waking hours outside, walking, cycling and swimming – in the sea, in pools and in lakes – dining out on good food and eating when we were hungry, rather than when we were bored or tired. We read book after book, appreciated amazing art works  and architecture and took the time to pause and notice the little things in the world around us.

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And after what felt like a terribly indulgent couple of weeks I returned to the UK feeling healthier and better than I have done for a long while.

As you can imagine, coming back to London has been quite the fall back to earth, and despite an active holiday, rising early for my pre-work yoga and getting back into my running routine has taken a bit of a push. No matter how much you love it, London life is not serene by any stretch of the imagination and it is amazing how exhausting just commuting while surrounded by hundreds of people can be!

While we are falling back into many elements of our pre-wedding day-to-day routine, there are some habits from the holiday that I’m trying to maintain and some feelings that were stirred up from the trip that I don’t want to let go.

Post-wedding I’m taking the time to pay attention to the little things in the world around me – the way the light passes through the clouds, the autumnal freshness to the air, the changing colour of the leaves, the shapes and colours of the city, the little alleyways and interesting architectural features high-up on buildings that are so easily missed.

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I’ve continued to read fervently, burying my head in a book on my commute and in little cafes during those lunch breaks when I don’t go running.

Having allowed myself to eat freely and mindfully during the honeymoon – enjoying good and nutritious food, including a lot of bread and pasta (something I would have considered sacrilege pre-wedding!) and resultantly eating to satiety rather than over-eating – I’ve adjusted my eating habits since I’ve returned home. I’ve taken to eating slightly more at breakfast, as we did on our honeymoon, and to keeping an afternoon snack on hand to stop me from getting over-hungry come 7pm and devouring too much at dinner.

Finally having had the time for my mind to wander and whirr, to be filled with history and art, political ideas and literature, I’m looking at opportunities for further study. Be it via an ever increasing reading list that I’m creating for myself, evenings in the British Library or lengthy conversations with my academic friends, I’m starting, once again, to feed that little intellectual sprite that sits on my shoulder and makes noises about a PhD.

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So as one chapter of my life has come to an end, and as I ride out the inevitable dip that comes post-wedding-and-wonderful-honeymoon, a whole new and exciting chapter is beginning, and I’m embarking on it as a Mrs with the best man in the world at my side.

More soon.

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10 reasons I love London

It’s really easy to take various elements of your life for granted. Whether it’s your home, job, friends or even the city you live in, you can get so bogged down in day-to-day life that you stop seeing the wood for the trees. You may see the beauty in other places but overlook all of the amazing things right on your doorstep. You may praise the art, architecture, cafe culture or music scene in another city but then fail to acknowledge how great all of those things are in the place that you live.

So over  the bank holiday weekend I took some time to slow down and really enjoy my city.

Whether you are a fellow Londoner or just thinking of coming for a visit, I wanted to share some of my favourite elements of London with you (and I’ll admit to cheating and squishing lots in to keep to just ten points!)

1. The art galleries and museums

IMG_4295The National Gallery, the NPG, the Royal Academy, the Courtauld, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, The British Library, The British Museum, the V&A, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Foundlings Museum, the Design Museum, Museum of London…the list goes on, and on.

London has some of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries, with blockbuster exhibitions and incredible permanent collections, many of which can be accessed for free.

Being able to mooch around the permanent collections and the National Gallery or NPG, seeing a show with my dad at the RA, or enjoying a Friday late at the V&A with my pals is such bliss and something I feel so lucky to be able to do.

2. The river and the canal

IMG_5574A run or stroll along the Thames is still one of my absolute favourite things and 9 years after moving to London I’m still totally in love with the view of London from the river.

Whether it’s the approach to St Paul’s while crossing Millennium Bridge, the skyline of the city from Tower Bridge, gazing across at Parliament and Big Ben from the South Bank at Westminster, or the bright bridge at Chelsea viewed from Battersea park, there are so many beautiful and ever-changing vista across London from the banks of the Thames. I still love the hectic south bank and packed pavements from the Royal Festival Hall at Waterloo, past the Globe and into Bermondsey. I love St Catherine’s dock and Wapping to the north and the quieter stretches out at and Putney and Richmond to the south; no trip to London is complete without a stroll along the river!

A close second to the Thames is the canal, with beautiful stretches from Regents Park to Camden Town, around lazy Little Venice, and from Angel to the Olympic Park at Stratford, all worth exploring. I’ve spent so many Sundays running along the tow paths, dipping in and out of the parks, admiring the boats and soaking up the blissfully serene canal-life atmosphere.

3.  The transport

airlineThe tube, bus and over ground system in London is so efficient you can easily travel from one end of the city to the other without even thinking about getting into a car (which suits me very well!).

From Brixton to Walthamstow on the Victoria line takes little more than 30 minutes and this stretch can now be navigated 24 hours a day with the new night tube. The over ground means that from Highbury to Peckham is only 35 minutes and from home I can be at the Olympic Pool in Stratford in little over 20 minutes! If you want a more scenic view of the city river buses run from Hampton Court out west to Woolwich Arsenal in the east and the Emirates Airline provides the most stunning views over Greenwich. Who needs a car?!

4. The parks

IMG_5037Whether you are looking for sculpted flower gardens, parks with play areas for children, open heaths, swimming ponds or just a little green space to lounge in the sun with a picnic or barbeque, London is rich in areas of green space. Londoners treat the parks as an extension of their own gardens (normally as so few of us actually have gardens!) and in the summer they are packed with people enjoying the sun in their lunch breaks, out running, cycling or enjoying a glass of Prosecco after work.

I’m so lucky that my office in situated in Green Park, with St James’s Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens only minutes away. A run along the river can quickly see me in Battersea Park, while my running route home allows me to pass through Regent’s Park and onto the tow path past London zoo. From home I can wander down to Clissold Park, where there is a children’s play area, petting zoo, cafe and plenty of green space to lounge and run around, and just beyond is the newly opened Woodberry Wetlands nature reserve. Highbury Fields is only a couple of minutes’ jog away, where there are tennis courts, as well as a weekly Park Run, which R and I attend, and Finsbury Park is not much further away. Perfect park life.

5. The theatres and cinemas

Whether you are looking for a musical or comedy show, a blockbuster-play or small independent production there is no shortage of theatres in London. From the West End to smaller venues in all boroughs of the city, there is so much choice and diversity for live shows and performances.

If it is a movie you are looking for options range from summertime outdoor screenings to secret cinema productions, and from independent cinemas such as the Picture House and Everyman, where you can enjoy a glass of wine in your seat, to the mainstream VUE, Odeon and Cineworld centres.

6. The pools and lidos

olympic poolFrom Hampstead ponds to Brockwell Lido and from the Olympic Pool in Stratford to the Serpentine in Kensington, there are plenty of options available for indoor and outdoor swimming.

The ‘Better’ gym company, who manage many of the council pools in London, make sure that access to most of the pools in the city is affordable on a ‘drop in’ basis, meaning that you don’t have to be a member of an expensive gym to have access to a 50m pool.

7. The architecture

IMG_4294 (1)From the Shard to the Globe and from Tate Modern to the Tower of London, London’s architecture is diverse and beautiful. Combining new buildings such as the Millennium Dome, the ‘Gherkin’ and the ‘Walky-talky’ with historic structures including Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Banqueting House at Whitehall, and rich in palaces from Buckingham Palace and St James’s, to Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, London offers a beautiful and rich array of architectural structures.

This is city with so much history, but also so much innovation and vibrancy, all of which can be read through its architecture.

8. The cafes, restaurants and markets

IMG_1553Once you’ve exhausted yourself running in the parks or along the river, seen every exhibition, been to the theatre, caught a movie and strolled through the streets taking in all of the architecture you might fancy a bite to eat. London is replete with restaurants and cafes, with cuisine from all over the world, serving everything from early morning breakfasts, lazy Sunday brunches, quick working or leisurely lunches and intimate suppers. Whether you want cocktails and small plates, afternoon tea and cake, or just a coffee and a place to sit with the paper or a good book, I honestly think you could eat and drink at a different venue every day and never run out of options.

And if it’s food to go you are looking for, the market culture is also rich and delicious, from the now well-trodden slabs of Borough Market, to the crowded stalls of Camden lock and Covent Garden, and from the real food market at Waterloo to the stands at Old Spitalfields (where you can also pick-up clothes, crafts and antiques) or just off Brick Lane.

9. The diversity of the people

You can go out in London wearing a bin bag and wellies, with bright purple hair and a hundred piercings and no one will bat an eyelid. The city is so diverse that nothing seems to shock, and even the most bizarre ensemble is met with nonchalant acceptance.

This sense of diversity isn’t limited to fashion; every country seems to be represented through the people, shops and cuisine in London. You rarely get on a tube without hearing another language spoken or visit a restaurant without reaping the benefits of the cultural diversity of the city. My friends come from all over the world and I feel that my life, and the life of the city, is richer as a result.

10. My pals

IMG_5023All of these amazing elements are made all the better by having my pals around to share them with me.

Whether we are wandering around an exhibition together, watching a rubbish movie with popcorn, lingering over brunch well into lunchtime, buying over-priced vintage clothes, running along the canal, picnicking in the park with cans of g’n’t from M&S, or watching the sun set over the river from a rooftop bar or balcony, I can’t imagine London without all of my wonderful pals around for fun and nonsense.

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.

Buying your way to happiness?

Blogging with Rubens
Blogging with Rubens

Apologies for the silence of late. This is certainly not on account of having nothing to write about – far from it, since I seem to be stockpiling articles that I’ve earmarked for review – but rather due to the distractions offered by plentiful amounts of running (with the start of the cross country season), reading (since my holiday I’ve got back into the habit of consuming books much in the way that I consume cups of tea), and the return of my kitty Rubens.

However, an article I tore out of The Guardian a week or so ago has been sitting on my kitchen table, looking at me rather expectantly for a while now, and since the corners are starting to look rather worn and it’s had more than a spot of tea spilt on it, with Rubens on my knee I’ve resolved to get writing again.

The article, by Oliver Burkeman, looks at the so-called ‘Diderot effect’. Originating from Diderot’s 1769 essay ‘Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown’ (with the rather telling subtitle ‘or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune’), this describes the phenomenon whereby you buy something new and then this new item makes your other possessions look time-worn by comparison. The result is that you end up feeling the need to replace everything else surrounding that new object, whether you have the financial means to do so or not (something which I find myself guilty of a lot of the time).

Diderot’s essay (which you can read in full here), centres on his new, luxurious robe, which sits at odds with all of his other belongings:

‘My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me. A straw chair, a wooden table, a rug from Bergamo, a wood plank that held up a few books, a few smoky prints without frames, hung by its corners on that tapestry. Between these prints three or four suspended plasters formed, along with my old robe, the most harmonious indigence.

All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.’

It is this dis-harmony between the new and old objects that is problematic for Diderot; an inconsistency of ones possessions, which causes mixed messages about their owner.

As Burkeman observes:

‘We use possessions to help construct our identities and we need these identities to be consistent. A consistently shabbily dressed person might be signalling that her mind is on higher matters; a consistently smart one that she values good taste. But someone who’s a random mixture of both just seems weird.’

Anthropologist Grant McCracken notes that this consistency is so subconsciously important to us that products are marketed as ‘Diderot unities’ – groups whereby once you’ve purchased one you feel that you need the others.

The Diderot effect works because we invest possessions with symbolic power – we want possessions that say something about the person we are or at least about the person we want to be. And once we have one item in the ‘set’ of that aspired to person, we want the rest. You know the juicer and the Lululemon leggings you needed to buy not long after you bought that new yoga mat? Or the running spikes and gel belt that you had to have just after you bought that new wind-proof top? That is what we are talking about here.

The economist Juliet Schor sums this up quite perfectly:

 ‘If there’s something you really want but don’t actually need, there’s a good chance that a recurring symbolic fantasy is attached to it. A faster computer? The dream of getting more work done. A remodelled kitchen? The hope of eating proper family dinners…Laying bare the fantasy illuminates the often tenuous link between the product and the dream.’

As anyone who knows me will attest, I often get lost in the idea, or dream, of a lifestyle or event, triggered by the smallest of things from a new water bottle to a pair of climbing boots. My mind creates the lifestyle surrounding each object and to solidify the vision I find myself buying all of the tropes associated with that aspiration.

Burkemen started his article with the note that ‘sometimes it’s nice to learn that a psychological phenomenon has a name, if only so I no longer have to think of it as Me Being Uniquely Irrational And Self Defeating’ and I will finish mine by saying much the same, but acknowledging that maybe I should try to hold back from buying the vision and instead try to live it.

Ways of Seeing: How a book on art criticism led me to mindfulness

This week I’ve been reading John Berger’s 1972 publication Ways of Seeing. This seminal work on how we perceive images and how artworks are created and ‘read’ with an eye to the cultural context of the viewer, remains relevant and insightful today – not only when thinking about art, but more broadly, in relation to the ways in which we see and portray ourselves, and the way that we are seen by those around us.

In this blog I have touched on the idea of body image, as well as our perceptions, attitudes and treatment of our physical form, and it with a nod to this that I wanted to pull out a couple of quotes that I found particularly thought provoking and relevant in this context.

I’ve reflected on these a little below, but I would be really interested to hear how others respond to Berger’s words.

This quote comes from his essay on the female form:

‘A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping…she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman…One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’

In the contemporary world, with social media pervading all aspects of our lives, this act of creating a vision of oneself is more ubiquitous than ever, and, I would argue, is no longer simply the preserve of women.

We are constantly creating and recreating images of ourselves, with photographs filtered and tweaked to offer an idealised picture. We often use this vision as the means by which we interact with those around us, and it is this version of ourselves that dictates how we want to be approached and treated by others.

This quote made me realise how hyper-aware I am of the way that I am perceived, and how curated the version of myself I portray to the world is. My accent, the way I dress, the conversations I conduct, the books I read, are often consciously or unconsciously adjusted with an eye to my ‘audience’. And this is something that I think many of us are guilty of to a greater or lesser extent. This made me wonder how liberating it would be not to be constrained by an internal ‘surveyor’; to live and act without concern for any audience.

The second essay that I found compelling was Berger’s work on publicity and it’s role in creating both desire and dissatisfaction.

‘Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour…

The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product…

I find this idea of being compelled to ‘buy’ your future ‘better’ self is at the same time both horrifying and enlightening. We are surrounded by images which push us to think of how to augment our future selves, often at the expense of engaging with our current experiences. We mentally buy into the lifestyle offered by the acquisition of a product and in doing so may take for granted, or even dismiss, the many advantages and wonders of our present circumstances.

Again this idea of appraising your lifestyle by the measure of outside perceptions is something that many of us are guilty of and which is destructive to our happiness and our relationship with others.

For me Berger’s words have highlighted the importance of living with integrity, mindfulness and appreciation of the present and aspiration dictated by ones own ambitions, unmitigated by fears or concerns over the perceptions of others.