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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Festivals and the fashioning of identity

This August, in a bid to finally overcome my festival virginity, I packed up my tent, hand sanitiser, wellies and dry shampoo and headed off to Wilderness. It was the most fabulous few days, camping out in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside with my lovely pals and so many fun activities on tap. I knew it would be my kind of festival when our itinerary included archery and wild swimming alongside quaffing champagne and dancing, and when I spotted not one but two tea and crumpet stands. Our days were filled with everything from comedy and cricket to political debates and yoga, all topped off with a heady mix of delicious food and drinks, lots of glitter and of course, plenty of amazing music.

While I had such a fun few days, something struck me as I mooched amongst girls dressed in little more than sequinned-leggings and glitter: in my denim dungarees and wellies I suddenly felt incredibly conservative and strait-laced, a feeling at odds with the person I believe myself to be.
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While much of my identity is tied up in my liberal left-wing views, my veganism, an interest in the environment and sustainability and my love of the outdoors – running, yoga, hiking and climbing, swimming in lakes and sitting by campfires – the realisation dawned on me that my outer appearance isn’t necessarily reflective of these elements of my personality. I started to see that my tendency to err on the side of caution in my clothing choices has meant that while I’m pretty hippy on the inside, I’m definitely more preppy on the outside.

As a result, I started to examine the question of whether our inner- and outer-selves necessarily have to match up; are our personalities and sartorial decisions intertwined, or can they be mutually exclusive? Does a sensible polo-neck sweater and a pleated skirt preclude skinny dipping and a love of tofu and preempt quiet evenings in with a book and hot chocolate? Do I really need to don the festival uniform of a sequinned leotard and little else to prove to the outside world that I’m a fun-loving tree-hugging, left-leaning yogi?

There is definitely something about dressing in a certain way that makes you feel part of a tribe and gives you a firm sense of both self and community. There are times when this draw towards the ‘uniform’ of a tribe is particularly heightened, and a festival is one such occasion. I have to admit, having never before considered adding anything with sequins to my wardrobe, suddenly at Wilderness I found myself coveting them. But using dress to align yourself with a certain lifestyle or political outlook isn’t just about frivolously opting for a one style of shirt over another, it can also act as a creative means by which you can construct a visual representation of who you are.

This week in a BBC Radio 4 programme about identity, the speakers emphasised the role that coherence and consistency plays in establishing a firm sense of personal identity, and I suppose coordinating your inner and outer selves adds to this sense of coherence. Yet while for some people their look is part of a unified package, for others, like me, it’s slightly more scatter-gun and perhaps not as considered as it might be.

All of this got me thinking about my identity, both from the point of view of how people perceive me, and from the perspective of how I want to be seen. Would a more careful curation of my wardrobe give me, as well as those around me, a stronger sense of who I am?
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During my run on Thursday I was listening to a podcast interview with the skier Lynsey Dyer and something she said really threw all of these thoughts into focus. She observed that, as a teenager, she had fallen in love with the idea of surfing having seen the Roxy girls in various surfer magazines. However, later, when she realised that the women she had admired were just models who couldn’t surf it made her see that what really mattered wasn’t so much looking the part but living the experience.

In another podcast episode, Rich Roll explored the concept of authenticity and truth to oneself. He asked the question, who am I at my core, and do my actions align with this authentic sense of purpose and self? This drilling down to our core values and living in a way true to them is also something examined in Greg McKeown’s book ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less‘.

For me, these speakers highlighted a more important element of identity, that of asserting and living in a way true to your core values. In this way, the focus is on substance, not just style and it becomes more than just about veneering yourself in the tropes of how you feel certain values should look, or slavishly imitating those around you, without imbuing that aesthetic with an authentic piece of yourself.

So while I am reviewing my outward appearance and considering more carefully the messages that my choice of clothing may send out, I’m also auditing my inner self, digging deeper to establish what truly matters to me and how my behaviours in all elements of my life convey this message.

I want to finish with a quote from Rich Roll on the question of dress and aligning yourself with a particular look or brand:

If it’s authentic to who you are; if it’s a natural expression of what you would be doing or wearing ordinarily, then it’s ok. It’s when it becomes artifice and there’s some other agenda that’s built into that, where it become something else entirely, that’s where it becomes problematic.

Until my next, namaste.

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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.

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!

Penguins at Zoo Lights, Chicago
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!

Festive treats: Perfect presents for sporty types

It seems like every paper and magazine you pick up at the moment is offering ‘best gift guides for Christmas’, so in the (sort of) festive spirit I’ve decided to jump on to the gift list bandwagon.

I’ve picked out some sporty treats that I hope will help inspire you in your Christmas shopping. Hopefully some of these might make it onto your list, either as gifts for others, or perhaps as sneaky little treats to yourself.

Gifts for runners

1. Cold weather accessories

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Nike dri-fit headband, £10 from John Lewis
Breathable running headbands, hats and gloves are all very welcome gifts as winter running necessitates wrapping up warm before venturing out on those chilly mornings and evenings.

I love my Nike headband, which keeps my hair back and my ears warm and I don’t know what I’d do without my More Miles running gloves, which I need to keep my fingers nice and snuggly on icy cold days.

2. Running rucksack

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Osprey Tempest 9, £64.99 from Runners Need
R bought me my Osprey running backpack last year and it’s had plenty of use since then, not only when I run my commute, but also at races, when going to yoga and generally when carting my gym kit around with me.

It’s the perfect size for fitting everything in but not too big that it hampers my runs.

It has a waist and chest strap and it’s breathable so your back doesn’t get too sweaty when you run!

3. Bright, long-sleeved tops

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Ron Hill Vizion Running Top (also available in pink), £28 from John Lewis
When winter hits you suddenly realise that all of your runs are in the dark and bright attire becomes crucial.

Wearing something bright and reflective at night, especially if you are running near roads is really important and the long sleeves keep you warm on chilly evenings.

I’ve got a couple of these Ron Hill high vis running tops and they serve me well either layered up over vests or on their own over a sports bra.

4. Running socks

No one wants to buy them for themselves, but when you are padding along in a new pair of fluffy running socks you are infinitely grateful for they squishy, soft newness! This makes new running socks the perfect stocking fillers for any runner.

5. Foam roller

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Foam rollers, available on Amazon from £20
Slightly awkward to wrap and known mainly for the agony it brings, a foam roller is a must-have for any regular runner.

Yes it hurts like hell, but after a foam rolling session your muscles will thank you for it (but maybe not until the next day).

Gifts for yogis

1. Yoga mat

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Manuka yoga mat, £38 from Manukalife.com
Another one that’s a bit tricky to wrap, but I can’t tell you how nice it is to have your own yoga mat.

Home practice becomes so much easier and there is really no excuse not to get into your downward dog every morning.

I’ve got a Manuka Yoga Bunny mat from John Lewis which I love. It’s really grippy even when my hands start to get sweaty during an energetic practice and it has an inbuilt tie so it’s easy to store.

2. Yoga socks

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Gaiam Toe Sox, a full range of colour and styles available from Gaiam.com
Starting to do yoga regularly has opened up my eyes to a whole new range of useful and stylish sporting accessories, of which yoga socks are one.

While I don’t yet own a pair, these grippy socks help if you find yourself slipping on your yoga mat, or if you want to do yoga while away from home and would rather not take your mat with you.

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Yoga socks, £8 from Tesco
You can splash out on a snazzy toe-less pair from the stylish range at Gaiam.com, or try a more low-key pair from Tesco for just £8.

3. Chalk

A revelation to my yoga practice came when I started using the liquid chalk from my climbing during my yoga practice.

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Liquid Chalk, £6.50 from bananafingers.co.uk
Often when venturing off my own yoga mat and onto one of the well-used ones at my yoga studio I find my hands slipping and sliding all over the place, particularly during a fast flow class.

Using chalk helps to counter the sweaty palms making holding my downward dog infinitely easier. This liquid chalk tends not to come off too much on the mat either, so you don’t leave a chalk imprint of your mits behind!

Gifts for fit foodies

1. Spiraliser

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Kitchen Craft Spiraliser, £14.99 from Currys
Eighteen months ago I don’t think I had any idea what a spiraliser was, let alone corgetti, but now no self-respecting foodie is without one.

From butternut squash noodles to courgetti spaghetti, our spiraliser has revolutionised supper time for the better.

Mine was a birthday present from my pal Sophie, but this Kitchen Craft spiraliser looks similar, with the same array of blade options.

2. NutriBullet

Still on my wishlist, the NutriBullet is the king among blenders. From nuts, avos and even carrots, apples and chunks of ginger, you can pop everything in, whizz it up a within seconds you’ve got your dream juice. 

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Original NutriBullet blender, £89.99 from http://www.buynutribullet.co.uk
3. Deliciously Ella
I think I’m probably the only person on the planet not in possession of this book, but I’ve sampled many recipes made by friends, both at the dinner parties and snacking lunches and it’s at the top of my wish lists!
From breakfast crumbles, to date and cacao balls, and from delicious salads to heart warming stews, Ella offers an array of easy to make, vegan recipes, which don’t have the ominous ingredients list of an Ottalenghi dish. 

4. Graze subscription

My sister bought me a Graze subscription a couple of years back and it was such a deliciously tasty treat! Regular snaking boxes, with treats selected according to your dietary preferences and delivered to your door, what more could you want? 

Media fitness gifts

1. Jawbone Up / Fitbit
jawboneThis is a dangerous choice, as R will attest.

The recipient may be infinitely grateful, but that gratitude may be expressed as the desire to walk everywhere and in an obsession with number of steps per day.

You have been warned.

2. Fitness magazine subscription

Packed with lots of exercise, diet and well-being advice, these are a staple indulgence for many fitties.

I love treating myself to Women’s Health, Women’s Fitness or Runners World, but at around £4 a copy they often feel like a decadent purchase. However,  subscriptions come in as low as £21.99 for 10 copies and there are plenty of festive subscription sales around so it’s worth shopping around.

3.  GPS watch

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Garmin
If you want to spend a bit more a GPS watch makes a useful and thoughtful present. Garmin’s are a good place to start for trusty stats and reliable mapping.

4. Strava premium

If a GPS watch seems a bit too pricey, you could treat someone to an upgrade on their running tracker app. Strava Premium is available for just £4.49 a month or £44.99 for a year and offers pace and progress analysis, target setting functionality and training videos.

5. Running books

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Natural Born Heroes, Chris McDougall, £16.99 hb from Waterstones
Books are possibly my favourite kind of present, both thoughtful and thought provoking. 

I really love running and sports related books and some favourites include Running with the Kenyans, What I talk about when I talk about running, Eat and Run and Natural Born Heroes. Nothing beats a well-chosen book with a thoughtful note on the inside jacket.