Thoughtful Tips for Challenging Times

who coronavirus tips
who coronavirus tips

There’s definitely a lot of information and advice being fired out from all places right now to help people during this tricky time with COVID.

But the best advice I’ve read so far comes from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is not coincidentally, the best place we should be turning to for scientifically-backed, expert advice for how to manage and deal with the situation anyway.

I thought I’d summarise and share their latest notes in case anyone had missed them in the media as they are genuinely useful.

The tips cover basic nutrition (eat a health and nutritious diet, don’t smoke and limit your consumption of alcohol) as well as a few more interesting ones on exercise, working environment, mental health and relationships, which I’ve shared here.

  • During this difficult time it’s important to continue looking after your physical and mental health. This will not only help you in the long term; it will also help you fight COVID if you get it.
  • Exercise. If your local or national guidelines allow it go outside for a walk, a run or a ride and keep a safe distance from others. If you can’t leave the house find an exercise video online, dance to music, do some yoga or walk up and down the stairs.
  • If you’re working at home make sure you don’t sit in the same position for long periods; get up and take a three-minute break every 30 minutes. We will be providing more advice on how to stay healthy at home in the coming days and weeks.
  • Look after your mental health. It’s normal to feel stressed, confused and scared during a crisis. Talking to people you know and trust can help. Supporting other people in your community can help you as much as it does them.
  • Check on neighbours, family and friends. Compassion is a medicine.
  • Listen to music, read a book or play a game and try not to read or watch too much news if it makes you anxious.
  • Get your information from reliable sources once or twice a day.
  • Keep in touch with health alerts via the WHO

4 more tips to help you deal with the cocktail of intensity

A somatic therapist friend of mine, who specialises in treating trauma, has also just shared a few of her own tips, based on Trauma First Aid and the yogic practice of restraint.

Yoga Tara is founder of Isha Institute in Nepal, a centre that promotes personal growth and transformation through holistic counselling (follow on @isha_inspired). I hope you find them as valuable as I did. Please feel free to share with others.

Limit your exposure to information

  • Look at the news or collect information one or two times a day, eg, morning and late afternoon.
  • Avoid looking up information before you go to sleep. This is stimulating and triggering. Give yourself one or two hours quiet time before you go to bed.
  • Limit the amount of time you’re getting your info: 15-30min. Not two hours!

Select your sources of information carefully

  • Choose two or three trustworthy news sources for your updates, such as the WHO, CDC.
  • Avoid spending time on social media. It’s a fascinating study on mass panic/fear response, but not the healthiest place to spend time if you want to stay sane!

Choose with whom you are going to talk to about the situation

  • When it comes to discussing your real concerns, beliefs and decisions in relation to the situation, choose one, two or three people with whom you can share and to whom you can listen. 
  • Not everyone is a steady resource at this time. People you may have thought as calm or even keel, might not be. And vice versa.  
  • How do you know who is right for you? You would feel relatively calm and stable (operative word: relatively) with them.

Simplify your to-do list

  • When we feel under threat or under sustained stress, our brain and body go into life-preserving mode and work in different ways than normal.
  • Functions that tend to get compromised are our ability to think clearly, make decisions, analyse and execute (ie get things done). Our ability to manage emotions can also be compromised. We are not under normal conditions, so we cannot expect ourselves to act perfectly ‘normal’.
  • If you’re working from home, if you have children for home / online schooling, let yourself off the hook and reduce your output or to-do list by 25-30% (at least!).
  • Give yourself and others some extra space and time to get things done. Our brains and bodies are working harder than usual so take the expectation off from ‘normal productivity’.
  • If you or others around you feel fuzzy headed, irritable, tired, please know this is normal.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. 

Super Easy Breathing Exercise to Help Stress, Anxiety and Sleep

I wrote this post a while ago, long before Coronavirus kicked in, but it’s been sitting in my drafts until now, when suddenly it seemed more relevant than ever to post it.

More than a few friends recently have talked about their stress and anxiety, with levels ranging from I can’t get dressed in the morning without crying, to I feel so overwhelmed at work I can’t sleep properly at night.

So I thought I’d write a few words about a very simple breathing exercise that’s not only helped me drift off more peacefully at night, but has been scientifically proven to help increase relaxation and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

How does it work? Deep, slow and controlled breathing has been shown to activate the body’s relaxation response, leading to changes in the autonomic, parasympathetic and central nervous system.  

I’ve been doing versions of this simple breathwork exercise almost every night for many years as it’s so unbelievably simple but incredibly effective. Once you build a habit, you won’t let this one go.

The best thing is, you don’t need to carve out any extra time in the day to do it – you just do it lying in bed when you’re ready to sleep, so there’s no excuses for not having time. There’s literally nothing else to do apart from try to relax into sleep.

It’s typically the time when thoughts start racing and and stress potentially building, so have this breathing exercise ready in times of need.

Ready? It’s super simple…

  • Start by gently placing the hands on the lower abdomen to help connect with your breath.
  • You might feel your hands rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation.
  • Breathe in and out through the nose (mouth gently closed) for a few counts of breath.
  • Start to follow each breath as it moves in and out of the body, wherever it might be – it could be in your belly, throat, chest or elsewhere.
  • After following your breath for a few rounds, start counting your in-breath.
  • Breath in: one, two, three
  • Breathe out: one, two, three
  • After a few rounds you want to start making your out-breath longer than your in breath. Do this by consciously but gently slowing down each exhalation.

So the breathwork pattern will look like:

  • Breath in: one, two, three (an in-breath comfortable for you)
  • Breath out: one, two, three, four, five

Regardless of how long your inhalation is, your can promote the relaxation response by slowing down and making the exhalation longer.

Repeat this cycle of counting a longer out-breath to in-breath four of five times. Sometimes I keep doing this until I physically feel my body untangle and unwind and quite often I’m asleep before I reach ten rounds.

An extra note…

Once you get used to extending the exhalation, you can start experimenting with a gentle hold in between the inhalation and exhalation. This is more like an internal pause rather than a forced hold of breath. It should be totally effortless.

This type of breathing workout helps to slow down your heart rate which reduces the effects of stress on the body. As a result your thoughts may calm and eventually bring the body into a quiet stillness.

Once the physical body settles, the mind follows.

Do this breath exercise whenever you feel you’re getting tense, stressed or locked in a whirl of thoughts-on-loop. Not just in bed, but any time.

A word on meditation…

If you’ve tried meditation or keen to try it but not sure where to start, start here, with the breath.

Learn how to find the breath, follow it, listen to it and watch it. This is a form of meditation in itself as there is just one point of focus, the breath. So whenever your mind begins to wander, you just bring it back to the breath.

This is one of the simplest ways to start meditating as the breath is a physical, tangible, active point of focus. Listening and watching the breath is also a great tool if you are easily distracted or find sitting in silence (trying to meditate!) too challenging.

So give it a go. Commit to just a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing every night for a few days or a week and see how it feels.

The Lowdown On Yoga Nidra – Yogic Sleep

Photo by Alice Moore on Unsplash

Yoga nidra is an old yogic practice that takes you to a deeply relaxed state between waking, sleeping and dreaming, and can be quite transformative. I’ve been doing yoga nidra as part of my yoga practice for over ten years now and as more of today’s teachers and studios are talking about and offering it, it seems fitting to share the benefits of yoga nidra and how it’s helped me.  

Translated from Sanskirt, yoga nidra means yogic sleep. It’s a guided relaxation technique that leads to a light withdrawal of external senses while connecting to internal awareness and still maintaining full consciousness. Through a systematic sequence of verbal instructions, it helps to release physical and mental tension, relieve stress as well as help with issues such as insomnia and anxiety. 

My teacher, Swami Pragyamurti at the Satyananda Yoga Centre in London treats the advanced classes to a monthly session and beginner classes to one a week, so I’ve experienced firsthand how amazing the practice is.  Now that I’m teacher training and learning to deliver yoga nidra myself, I can share its incredible benefits and see how much people really do love it. 

A tonic for tiredness – and more

You know the feeling after a really hard day when you body is heavy with tiredness and your mind is full of fog. That’s when I reach for a yoga nidra recording. However exhausted I might be, I know it will recalibrate and recharge me. 

A full yoga nidra is 30 mins but even a short versions (around 20 mins) will be effective at settling the body, mind and emotions. I always wake up feeling refreshed, reenergised, and with eyes and mind bright and alert. Over the years it’s helped me feel calmer in mind and has helped to ease physical tiredness. It’s honestly quite magical.

The practice can also work on a deeper level to help heal and transform, making it a tool for some yoga therapists in the treatment of trauma, stress and anxiety. The use of the resolve / sankulpa is also thought to help initiate change in a person’s life as that intension is mentally repeated in a subconscious state.

Studies have shown it can calm the nervous system, increase the relaxation response and act as a powerful tool for coping with stress.

What happens during yoga nidra? 

During the practice of yoga nidra you lie on the floor (it can also be done seated) with back and legs flat against the floor in shavasana (relaxation pose). Something to cover the body  may be helpful as body temperature drops when lying still so it’s important to have appropriate cover so the body can remain warm and comfortable. 

If it’s a full yoga nidra, and one that follows the traditional sequence, the teacher would go through eight stages. Shorter versions, or versions for beginners, might be cut down to three or four. The stages are:

  1. Settling the body – one of the most important stages – by connecting to the physical body and becoming aware of the different senses, such as touch and sound, it’s an effective route to relaxation 
  2. Breath awareness – connecting to the sound, touch and flow of breath through the body 
  3. Resolve – a positive intention or change you’d like to see in your self or life (in Sanskrit this is called the Sankulpa) 
  4. Rotation of awareness – a systematic sequence of verbal cues through the body, starting on the right side. The teacher will go call out each body part and you follow, visualising or repeating each one mentally  
  5. Pairs and opposites visualisation – describing sensory opposites, such as cold and hot to facilitate deep imagination and visualisation  
  6. Visualisation story – a creative journey that might have some symbolic meaning 
  7. Resolve – returning to your resolve, mentally repeated three times again – this is like sowing the seeds of transformation
  8. Externalisation – the teacher will externalise your senses and bring awareness back to the physical body so you awake safely and comfortably 

All you have do is listen and follow mentally. Each stage sends you deeper and deeper into a relaxed state and if your teacher has the right tone, pace and intonation, you might fall quickly into sleep or drift in and out of sleep. This is completely normal! Staying awake and aware is the aim but a good yoga nidra often ends up with a few snoring heads. 

How to do yoga nidra 

Yoga nidra is always delivered and guided by a teacher so if you read descriptions online about how to do yoga nidra yourself (I’ve read a few, worryingly high up on google searches) these are incorrect and seem to be describing relaxation in shavasana (corpse pose), which can be done on your own but is a totally different practice.

To do yoga nidra you need a teacher to deliver it or a recording. Online recordings (there are many now on YouTube) can be a bit hit or miss so I have a few good ones from teachers I like bookmarked on my iTunes and on CDs. A classical version for beginners can be purchased and downloaded here and another traditional version on YouTube here.   

There are several schools and traditions offering yoga nidra sessions (as well as teacher training) now but the Satyananda tradition is the most well known for bringing this ancient practice into the modern day over the last 40-50 years. You can read more about this in the well known text Yoga Nidra from the Bihar School of Yoga. 

So, if you’re struggling to find ways to deeply relax, you want to feel well-rested, and release physical and mental fatigue, try yoga nidra. Would love to hear what you think.

 

Introducing Fjaka – the Mediterranean way of mindful living

saint-iris-adriatica-skincare

Saint Iris Adriatica, a luxury green beauty brand, takes its inspiration from the Adriatic sea, mountains, thermal spas and wild spaces.

Founder Sanela Lazic says the brand is all about channelling fjaka [pronounced: fyak.ka], which is a relaxed state that embodies the spirit and wellbeing of Croatian life.

Sanela has taken traditional Adriatic folk remedies and combined them with natural ingredients to create products that help to strengthen skin against the stresses of modern life and encourage a more balanced state of body and mind.

I asked Sanela to talk more about fjaka….

Saint Iris Adriatica instagram
@saintirisadriatica

What is fjaka and how can you create the Fjaka feeling?

‘Fjaka is a way of life from Croatia but also practised in Italy, Spain and Latin America (with different spellings across these regions).

‘Fjaka is about being relaxed yet powerfully alive with a sense of mindfulness. It’s a blissful Adriatic state of mind that comes from simply feeling great in your own body and doing what you love.

‘Fjaka is taking time for yourself, which shouldn’t be seen as lazy or selfish; in Croatia and Italy this is seen as an essential part of self-love. Only by investing in yourself can you give back to others.

‘Often, in Croatia, you’ll hear people saying “pomalo” or “polako”, which means “bit by bit” or “slowly” and we’re now returning to some of these slower lifestyle qualities: slow-cooked food, slow fashion, self-care time – this is all fjaka in action.

How can we create fjaka?

Saint Iris Adriatica

‘Start by asking yourself, what brings you joy? What makes you feel good in body and mind? Think long-term and tune into your needs and energy.

‘The world today is skewed towards a masculine, fast-paced energy that can drain us, bring stress and self-doubt, chase the ideal, compete or fight rather than slow down or flow. Fjaka helps to create a balance of energies.’

Saint Iris Adriatica is a natural and cruelty-free brand and contains no parabens, sulphates, propylene glycol or synthetic fragrances.

7 reasons why I gave up freelance life for a full-time role

hustling for work freelance vs fulltime

After ten years of freelance life as a writer and online editor for national press I decided to go in-house, full time and permanent. A big move. But it was a decision I’d been contemplating for perhaps 18 months or so, and finally the right job came along, as commercial editor at Hearst.

People usually do it the other way around – they’ll spend years grinding away at the 9-5 and finally release themselves to new and more flexibility ways of working through a freelance role. For me it was the opposite.

I’d spent years carving an amazing freelance career that worked with my passions in health, beauty, fitness and wellness. I’d worked my way up from beauty writer/assistant to web editor and digital director and eventually set up my own digital consultancy advising small to medium brands on digital and social media projects.

I had freedom, flexibility, fun, countless perks and great contacts but I knew it was time to switch. Here’s why…..

✨I wanted a new challenge

After years of establishing myself within health, beauty and wellness I didn’t want my next move to be too far away from these subjects that I loved. But I needed an environment that would open up new learning opportunities.

That’s one of my rules of thumb on deciding whether to stay or move on: is there more to learn or have I reached a plateau? I definitely felt like I’d reached a plateau with the type of work and contract roles I was getting.

I’ve always been good at forging new paths or diversifying my skills but this time I knew the next role wouldn’t be wildly different or teach me anything significantly new. There was nothing wrong with those roles but it wasn’t a path that would help me grow personally or professionally.

📈I wanted to future-proof my career

Over the course of a decade I became quite adept at reflecting on where I was professionally and find ways to keep opportunities flowing. Branching out and diversifying into digital and commercial work (I originally started out on print editorial) definitely helped make freelance life more successful as I had my fingers in lots of different pies, but this time I needed a bigger change.

I took a mental snapshot five years into the future and knew I had to future-proof my career. One option was to grow my freelance business into a bigger brand but I knew this wasn’t a direction I was interested in. The other option was to fill in gaps in my CV to ensure I had a whole spectrum of professional experience to take me into the future. I had plenty of experience working with start-ups (mainly in the beauty industry) but I had no work history with larger corporates so I kind of knew what I had to do.

✋🏽I wanted to stop hustling for work

This point was part of my five-year vision into the future. Did I still want to be looking for contract work every 12-18 months? No. And how did I feel about doing more editorial, which I loved, but with rates so low they can barely pay a mortgage? Definitely wasn’t keen on that. So I no longer wanted to hustle.

💵I wanted HR and payroll

I’d had my fair share of chasing invoices big and small. Late payments or at worse, no pay, was definitely something I was happy to leave behind in return for a guaranteed drop of money into my account each month, no pleading needed.

🤓 I wanted processes and systems

Seems like an odd thing to want but after years of free, fluid and organic ways of working I actually just wanted a good process to follow. At the time I loved the ad-hoc working style adopted by small organisations and start-ups and for a long time this work culture really suited me, but eventually I started craving structure and organisation. I simply wanted to learn more organised and more efficient ways of doing things.

👫I wanted to work with more senior people

I was often the most senior person on a team, sharing my digital skills and experiences with others and for several years I loved doing this. I enjoyed training up junior staff and writing strategy documents and toolkits for brands and PRs but I reached a point where I knew I had to learn more myself.

I wanted to be in an environment where there were people more senior than me to learn from. I’m slightly obsessed with learning so this was a big pull.

💥I wanted to work on bigger projects

Small organisations usually means small budgets. I had plenty of ideas and creative solutions but the issue of limited resources would always hold us back. For years this didn’t bother me but eventually I wanted to work on bigger brands and bigger budgets, not just for the kudos and clout but to challenge my thinking and ways of working.


Essentially what all of these points boil down to is a need to keep learning, growing and evolving, as a person and in my career, which is pretty much essential for work survival (and in general life!).

I wouldn’t change a single thing from my years as a freelancer – even the trials and struggles, especially in the beginning years, all lead to an accumulation of valuable experience.

Eight months in, I’m still super happy in my role at Hearst – I’m commercial editor for Women’s Health, Runner’s World and other titles – as I take on all the amazing health and fitness branded campaigns, from Nike and New Balance to Imodium and Deep Freeze. It brings together all my interests and professional skills and gives me the large scale experience I was so keen to find.

I’m not as restricted as I imagined I would be either, as our projects and campaigns change so regularly and each one is entirely different; plus we have the capacity to be as creative as we want. A dream set up.

So it was totally worth holding out for the right role in the end!

 

Alternative Ways of Being #8: Empowering Self-Talk

sarah powell international womens day
‘That inner critic voice you hear that tells you you’re rubbish, that you’re never as good as so and so, or you’ll never be good enough to do blah, is talking bollocks. It’s lying and you should never listen to it.’ 
– Sarah Powell
Fantastic words of wisdom dished out by Sarah Powell @thisissarahpowell at our Hearst offices on International Women’s Day this year. We regularly have guest speakers and Sarah was on point!

sarah powell international womens day
@thisissarahpowell

The concept of the inner critic is very familiar to me thanks to quite a few years of therapy. I started therapy after a difficult breakup but stuck with it because it’s so valuable and you learn so much about yourself, people, relationships and psychology in general. I now see it as an ongoing investment into mental wellness.

My therapist does a psycho-dynamic and classic psychotherapy style that helps to analyse behavioural patterns, and the inner critic and the self critical voice is something we cover a lot. So it was brilliant to hear Sarah reference this, especially as recognising your critical voice is the first step to actually being free of it and living a happier life.

Sarah called it the mean voice, my therapist calls it the ‘old brain’ but what ever you call it, it is often destructive and rarely helpful.
Sarah called it the mean voice, my therapist calls it the ‘old brain’, but what ever you call it, it is often destructive and rarely helpful. It’s usually connected to past experiences – perhaps formative years, childhood or teenage years. Understanding this has helped to soften it so it has less hold and control.


A regular therapy session might involve recognising when the old brain has reared its ugly head – it might be a confrontation at work or with a friend or an argument with a sibling or parent – and digging around to hopefully identify its roots. Then I may know why I reacted so irrationally or over-emotionally and cut myself some slack. So therapy has been a great place to learn to be kinder to myself too.


From what I understand the inner critic isn’t the rational adult brain talking – that’s why Sarah says it’s talking bollocks – but it comes from an old part of you that’s triggered when confidence, ego or self-esteem, for example, has been threatened and then it jumps in to say, ‘Ha! I told you were rubbish and no good and that nobody likes you!’


I’m now pretty good at recognising the awful inner critic – usually comparing me to the other girl in the room – so when it does pipe up, I just give it a nod but then push it firmly away and try to replace it with something more positive and helpful. I really have very little time for it these days and that’s testament to the therapy work.

 

My sessions are fortnightly now and still, after several years, walk away from nearly every appointment (they are 50 mins long) having learnt a little bit more about myself and better ways of dealing with things.

 

Sarah had a whole heap of other stuff to share about self-empowerment, confidence and just managing life in general when it feels overwhelming AF. So check her out on IG where she spills more of her inspiration for positive self-talk.

7 reasons how yoga can improve mental health

yoga-for-peace-lebanon-project.jpg

Yoga is one of the cheapest and most effective means of releasing trauma, stress and emotions from the body.

Symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD) include anxiety, nightmares, sleep disturbance, withdrawal, loss of concentration, stress-related physical ailments, anger and aggression. These issues can easily impact a person’s ability to function in society.

Here’s why simple techniques from classical yoga are powerfully therapeutic.

  1. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma psychiatrist, advocates yoga as one of the foremost means to quiet the brain and regulate emotional and physiological states. ‘Ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to medication or to any other treatment.’
  2. Experts have in recent years shown how traumatic stress rearranges the brain’s wiring, and sets it on high alert. A key to the treatment of psychological trauma is soothing the nervous system and inducing the relaxation response.
  3. For traumatised people, strengthening the relaxation response allows them to reengage in the present.
  4. Through regular practice of simple yoga techniques, developing awareness of body and breath, the nervous system’s relaxation response gets stronger and the body’s stress responses calm down.
  5. Bessel van der Kolk has spent three decades trying to understand how people recover from traumatic stress. He views awareness as the first step toward healing in his book, The Body Keeps the Score.
  6. He says: ‘Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience’ – because yoga is fundamentally about developing awareness, research has proven it can help improve mental health.
  7. Yoga develops awareness, first of the body and the breath, and then of our thought processes, emotions and behaviours. Through developing self-awareness, we can access our feelings, observe them, and eventually release them.

bessel van der kolk the body keeps the score book

 

Read more about how we’re using yoga to help the refugee community recover from PTSD and other mental health issues on tools4innerpeace.org.

Is yoga an exercise?

Is yoga an exercise blog

Is yoga an exercise blog

It’s a common misconception that yoga is an exercise. When people hear or talk about yoga it’s almost always referred to and understood as a form of exercise. But is it? Well, not really. So what is the difference between yoga and exercise?

While exercise and yogic postures (asana) share similarities in that they both involve movement, (most) exercise works on the sympathetic system and yoga (when done correctly) works on the parasympathetic system which is why it can be useful for people suffering from stress and anxiety. Both contribute to physical health but yoga relates to so much more than the physical. 

Evolving slowly by ancient sages all over the world, yoga has it roots in early civilisation as people developed an awareness of spiritual capabilities. Its origins are also found in the Vedas, the oldest collection of Indian spiritual scriptures for personal and spiritual development.

This ancient discipline works on all aspects of the person: the physical, mental, vital, emotional, psychic and spiritual self. This is done through a practice of asana (posture or pose), pranayama (control of breath), mudra (hand gestures), bandha (energy locks), shatkarma (cleansing and purification of the body) and meditation. These are a few of the Eight Limbs of Yoga written in the scriptures that help to remove mental and physical obstacles.

Today, mainly in western cultures, yoga classes tend to embrace asana more than any other aspect of traditional yoga which may result in a one-sided development. Engaging with all ‘limbs’, can help to expand our connection and understanding of inner ourselves and outside world.  

Physical asanas are usually people’s first experience with yoga. Not just movement though, asanas tap into energy points in the body with the potential to release energy blocks from wherever energy flow is suppressed, which is why people can feel good after a yoga class.

Moving on from the physical, yogic practices can help develop an awareness of connection between emotional, mental and physical body and how an imbalance in one of these can affect the others.

We are a combination of body, emotions, intellect and psyche and through the practices and experience of yoga – by actually living it, not just reading about it – we can develop and balance all of these, to become a happier and more integrated person.

 

Yoga for refugees – volunteering in Lebanon

lebanon refugee camps volunteering bekaa valley
Last year I spent a week in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camps on a yoga for refugees project with Tools for Inner Peace, a new charity which I’m now a trustee on, in collaboration with a local charity, Salam LADC 

Tools for Inner Peace is a long term project set up by Minna Järvenpää to enhance mental health and well-being among refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley through simple, gentle yoga and relaxation techniques. I became involved as one of the charity’s trustees in 2016 and visited Lebanon in April 2017 to see some of the projects in action.

There are over 800,000 refugees in this part of Lebanon and a quarter of the country’s entire population are refugees. Salam charity was founded in Lebanon in 2006 and aims to improve the lives of refugee communities and helping them connect with their host country. Read more about the ethos and founding story of Salam here.

We believe in the necessity of inner peace in every human being (salamladc.org)

Tools for Inner Peace partnered with Salam to provide yoga and relaxation classes to women and children in the camps – although they are officially referred to as settlements.

Life in the settlements (refugee camps)

lebanon refugee camps volunteering salam ladc charity

I spent ten days working with Salam charity on activities ranging from food and materials distribution to setting up a mini cinema for refugee children. See gallery below for pics.

 

In the Bekaa Valley, private farm land has been used to house informal settlements for Syrian families, many of whom have been here between five and seven years now with little sign of any end in sight.

The settlements I visited or drove by were of varying sizes, some housing just a few families others are up to three or four hundred people, mainly Syrian refugees, with new families still arriving (our location in Bekaa Valley was less than 20km from the Syrian border).

Life for families is hard with no formal refugee status to obtain and no certainty over their future. Refugees are easily exploited by farm landlords who can charge high rents for living on their land. It’s also not uncommon for families to work 14-hour days on the farms for $4 a day or sometimes nothing.

Schools might be far to travel to so many children may receive little or no education with few job prospects for adults. This is coupled with an anti-refugee atmosphere as locals often feel Syrians are ‘taking their jobs’, a rhetoric echoed across the world, which hampers chances for integration.

The settlements I visited had lots little children running around, all under the ages of five or six looking slightly dishevelled. Many would have been born in their new host country and know no other way of life. While the slightly older ones would have left their country during school years so are likely to have memories of their past life and possibly even missed out on some years of education.

A few will be taken under the wings of UNCHR to another host country but according to one woman I spoke to this only happens to about five out of a hundred families. She said she hoped one day they can leave the camp by boat or plane and set up life somewhere else.

Yoga for refugees

taking a yoga for refugees in lebanon tools for inner peace

Minna and I joined Salam’s roster of weekly activities such as educational play sessions and food and supplies distribution, as well as organising our own yoga sessions in and around the camps. By the end of last year Minna was running weekly yoga classes in three refugee settlements and two centres that provide services to refugees.

The yoga is so simple but so effective. Simple techniques work on the nervous system to bring about deep relaxation. Through gentle poses and breath work the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated which calms the body and strengthens the relaxation response, while the sympathetic nervous system with its stress response calms down.

One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

The need here is profound. As many as half of refugees are experiencing psychological distress or mental illness. One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and up to 60% in adults. The result of this is tension and anxiety, played out by nightmares, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, loss of concentration, anger and aggression. A key to the treatment of psychological trauma is soothing the nervous system and inducing the relaxation response which is what the yoga does.

Minna set up Tools for Inner Peace has she experienced firsthand the stress and anxiety caused by war while she worked as an international diplomat in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. She discovered yoga and meditation as a means of maintaining balance under stressful and occasionally dangerous circumstances and is now committed to sharing those healing practices with others in need.

 

Tools for Inner Peace also runs yoga classes for refugee groups in London and around the UK thanks to funding from Sport England so if you know of a refugee centre who might benefit from classes please get in touch.
Find out more about our work with Tools for Inner Peace here and the latest crowd-funding campaign, Yoga for Peace here

6 Best Natural Sleep Products 

Viridian Cherry Night best natural sleep products

If you’re stressed out by sleepless nights you’re not alone. Apparently 56% of adults say lack of sleep is stressing them out*. April was Stress Awareness Month so here are my favourite natural sleep and relaxation products from supplements to sprays that I use, recommend and often write about.Wishing you a calmer and more peaceful night…

1. A.Vogel Dormeasan

When I’ve struggled to sleep in the past, this has been my favourite way to nod. Made from organically grown valerian root and hops. Simply add 30 drops to a dash of water, 30 minutes before bedtime and swig it back. You may not like the taste but it’s short and sharp, works beautifully and worth the restful night. avogel.co.uk  

A.Vogel Dormeasan

2. Viridian Cherry Night

A powder mix of magnesium, red date, cherry extracts and the amino acid glycine. Add one teaspoon to water or juice and drink half an hour before bed. A friend of mine swears by this and was surprised how quickly it brought on sleep and how deep that sleep was. Viridian.co.uk

Viridian Cherry Night

3. Potter’s Nodoff Plus Mixture

This has the consistency of a cough syrup which makes it super convenient to take. You can easily reach for a teaspoon and jump into bed. Contains passionflower, hops, valerian and skullcap, all clinically proven to aid sleep. pottersherbals.co.uk

Potter’s Nodoff Plus Mixture.jpg

 

4. Pukka Night Time

If you prefer popping a capsule pill then try Pukka Night Time. Containing valerian too but also the ancient Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha root which aids relaxation. The outer capsule shell is vegetable based / vegan and all the herbs are harvested from highly fertile organic soils via Pukka’s fairtrade programmes.  Contains no dairy, wheat, gluten, added sugar or soya and no GMO ingredients. pukkaherbs.com

pukka herbs nighttime.jpeg

5. This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray

I was sceptical about a pillow spray at first but after diligent testing night after night, I became a total convert and dare I say a bit of an addict. I loved spritzing my pillow and duvet edges with this and letting the aromatherapeutic scents drift around and work their magic. You don’t need to suffer from sleepless nights to experience this product – if you’re prone to endless thoughts before falling asleep this gently relaxes and unwinds. thisworks.com

best natural sleep products This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray

6. Fushi Passion Seed Oil

For an alternative to tinctures, supplements and sprays I’ve also tried a calming natural body oil. This maracuja oil by herbal health and beauty brand Fushi is obtained from the the passion flower, known for its calming and stress relieving properties. Harvested from Uganda and supporting over 200 families via a women’s cooperative. I recommend adding a few drops to your bath or applying it as a body oil before bed. I also found an impressive array of Fushi night time tinctures here – can’t wait to try them!

Fushi Passion Seed Oil

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that since adopting a regular breathing practice before bed I’m now able to nod off fairly calmly without help from herbal remedies. This has been a transformative habit and highly recommend it as a way to de-stress the body and mind. You can read more about my bedtime breathing practices here.

Let me know if there’s a product or practice that works for you!

*Research conducted by the Henry Potter Advisory Committee on behalf of Potter’s Herbals.

In the kitchen: 4 best non-dairy and vegan protein powders

I’m on a mission to get stronger and if you read my column on Healthista.com you’ll see I’ve taken up Crossfit. To build more lean muscle only protein will help. As I don’t eat dairy I need an alternative to whey powder so I’ve been trying a variety of non-dairy shakes and powders suitable for vegans. These are my favourite, ie. the tastiest and best I’ve tried so far. 

1. Neat Nutrition Vegan Protein, £34

A combo of hemp and pea powder for 25gm protein per serving. Try the chocolate or vanilla for a delicious milkshake-style drink. I think the touches of xylitol and stevia are the secret to the great taste so even without milk, just water, and without having to add any other powder or ingredients, it’s lip-lickingly tasty. If it’s too rich however, just add more liquid. www.neat-nutrition.com 

Neat Nutrition Best Vegan_Protein

 

2. The Protein Works Natural Sunflower Protein

Made from 100% organic sunflower seeds, high in fibre, minerals and nine amino acids and the taste is surprisingly nice – I thought it would be bland but it’s mild, nutty and a bit creamy. While it doesn’t really need mixing with any other powder I’ve been adding Neal’s Yard Organic Berry Complex to give it a lift – a powdered berry complex high in vitamin C so it’s a great antioxidant and immune boost especially after working out so hard when oxidation is at its peak. Best bit about Protein Works Sunflower Protein is the price – not everyone can afford the super luxurious protein shakes out there so if you’re on a budget, look no further. www.theproteinworks.com

 

best vegan dairy free protein shakes

 

3. The Super Elixir Nourishing Protein Powder, £48

I’m so pleased I’ve discovered this one from Elle Macpherson’s WelleCo brand and was lucky enough to hear all about it from Elle herself at the press launch of her 4-Week Body programme this week. The Protein Powder contains all high quality, organic and vegan ingredients as a superior alternative to whey: pea, brown rice, all nine essential amino acids, B vitamins, cacao powder and a plethora of antioxidant richness from acai, pomegranate, dandelion, grapeseed, rosehip and so much more!  This is a truly intelligent supplement drink. The tasty is mild and chocolatey and works perfectly well alone which I love. The sweetness and chocolate taste are both low so if you want a more intensive experience on your taste buds add one and a half or two scoops. www.welleco.co.uk 

elle macpherson super elixir protein powder event
Meeting Elle Macpherson and Dr. Simone Laubscher at the launch of 4-Week Body ReBoot in London

elle macpherson super elixir protein review

 

4. Nutriseed Hemp Protein Powder, £11.49

This is from a new superfood retailer Nutriseed and I just love the style and packaging – simple, bold and gutsy. Hemp powder is green in colour but doesn’t taste as green as you might imagine (it’s not as terrible as spirulina) but it doesn taste better with another ingredient so I’ve been using this with the same Neal’s Yard Organic Berry Complex featured above. I’ve also been adding this hemp powder to supplement other shakes. While hemp is not a complete protein (as it’s lower in a few of the amino acids) the bonus is the omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and fibre it contains. www.nutriseed.co.uk

hemp protein nutriseed review best non dairy and vegan

 

I have a protein shake after every single Crossfit workout (I do three a week at Royal Docks in East London). The protein fuels muscle growth and aids recovery and the liquid forms means it’s broken down and digested quicker then solid food. I ALWAYS follow with a proper breakfast or lunch though as these are not meal replacements, but food supplements.

Doing more weight-bearing exercises as I speed through my 30s is important to help maintain bone health, keep metabolism high (which starts to drop the older you get), keep limbs nimble and skin toned. Basically to help fight all the signs of ageing!

Not heard of Crossfit? Now’s the time to check it out! It’s an intense workout that uses functional training, weightlifting and gymnastic exercises in interval style drills. It’s fast, furious and fun and a great way to build all-round fitness and strength but to really make a difference it’s also down to nutrition.

If you’ve tried a good protein shake recently sans the whey and dairy then let me know! Or maybe you’re a dairy-free Crossfitter with some good tips? Tell me more!  x

 

An Experiment: The Benefits of Meditation

keep calm and breath...

I didn’t mean to put meditation to the test but last January I signed up to an eight-month meditation course and thought I’d better get a head start with some practise. I’d already done a Vipassana (10-day silent meditation retreat) a few years ago but I thought the lessons were quite unsustainable, extreme and far removed from the realities of the everyday. This new meditation course promised to touch on different techniques so I was looking forward to it.

Also, at the start of the year I remember feeling utterly frazzled from too much work, strung out from a relationship breakup and tired of not getting enough rest.

So I decided to make a change and change my ways.

I decided to commit to a few minutes of meditation every night to get into the swing of things for the course, but also to help my strung out mind. I’d picked up a few basics from my yoga lessons, which are very slow and meditative with a lot of breathing work, so I started with a few basics.

Every night I committed to a very simple breathing exercise where I’d slow my breath down and follow it up and down the spinal pathway for a few minutes. Nothing fancy, just watching my breath from belly to the throat and back down again. I tried to get each breath to be long and slow and my focus was solely on the movement of the breath, nothing else.

To be absolutely honest, I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. But I made a decision to commit so I stuck to it.

I did this simple breathing work for just a few minutes every night, just before lying down to go to sleep (so I’d be in my PJs) sat crossed legged on my bed, lights down low. Choosing to do it then meant I had fewer distractions or excuses.

A few weeks later…

The first thing I noticed, a few weeks later was I going to bed calmer and having a solid night’s sleep. For years, I’d gone to bed with 1001 thoughts, worries, to-do lists and anxieties racing around my head. Suddenly, I was able to fall asleep without replaying my problems over and over, and it was quite frankly, absolute bliss.

So I kept it up…

After about four weeks, I realised that I was waking up a little earlier and fresher (not like I’d been hit round the head), which generally meant I was less grumpy. But more importantly it meant I could get odd jobs done in the morning before work and tick things of my to-do list. This really helped me feel more organised and in control of things. I’ve always been the one running around like a headless chicken but now, for the first time ever, I genuinely didn’t feel like this.

I was adamant to stick to it, mainly as an experiment to see where it would take me, and how else I would feel, but also because I found myself getting addicted to the calmness I’d experience just before falling asleep. I didn’t want to go to sleep without my meditation-fix anymore – I had to have it and even looked forward to going to bed so I could doze off like a baby.

Within a few months I felt like life was running a little more smoothly. Looming deadlines and workload building up no longer filled me with horror, panic or dread. I just got on with things and got them done with far less drama.

What happened next… 

I started to mix up my breathing exercise with another (very simple) breathing exercise, mainly for a bit of variety. This one I could do lying down in bed.

I lie horizontal in bed, as though ready for sleep – but not fall asleep – and do a three-part breathing exercise. It starts with a slow, deep inhalation from the belly, where the belly expands and rises. Then move the breath moves up towards the rib cage and lungs. There, I expand the rib cage and lungs before finally moving the breath up towards the throat or collar bone where I feel a slight pressure in the throat area from the passing breath. Then I move the breath, carefully and mindfully back down to the belly area and start over again.

I would do this three or four times, with the aim of doing ten but always fall asleep before. This breathing exercise, called the complete yogic breath, is so calming and relaxing it’s the best way to nod off, EVER.

It’s so deeply restorative and dare I say, has saved my sanity over the last year or so.

Getting the body into a truly relaxed state just before sleep seems to be the key for a good night’s rest. Sometimes I’m up late working, glued to my phone, iPad or computer (like now!) so tumbling into bed alert and awake with adrenalin is far from ideal.

Since learning and using the yogic breath, I fall asleep within a few minutes, if not in a flash, almost every night without fail.

One year one… 

I can’t quite believe I kept it up but I’m so pleased I did because I can now say the benefits of meditation ( or at least regular deep breathing) really do exist. It’s not just talk. I still feel the same calming, restorative effects on the physical body and mind as before but now I feel more balanced in other aspects of my life too.

I don’t spend my days in a hectic flap, I don’t worry about trivial things as much and I definitely don’t get stressed as easily as I used to. I also think it’s had a impact on my positivity; I feel like I’m more tolerant, perhaps a bit more understanding, even a little bit nicer (although I’ve always been perfectly pleasant!) but I don’t snap as quickly or get as frustrated. Everything feels more manageable.

Of course, there have been times when I really can’t be bothered to meditate but I just think of the benefits and persuade myself to do just one or two minutes at least. Now that it’s past midnight, it’s time I wrapped up this mega post. I’m looking forward to my few minutes of rest before sleep where I can switch off from the world and just watch my breath until it’s slowed right down and I’m ready to nod off.

Night all.

I love toast

Tiana Fairtrade and Organic Coconut Oil

I’m on a mission to stop bread, from being bad-mouthed and rejected. It’s time to stop the bread-hating and the guilt. This wonderful food that’s been a staple in our diet for hundreds of years seems to be the bane of so many eaters and experts, not to mention dieters who can’t even say the word without shuddering (or salivating). The columnist Eva Wiseman once wrote a love letter to bread which was very endearing (apart from the ending where she grew apart from it).

Many nutritional therapists and naturopathic experts have tried to convince me to banish bread from my diet, scaring me with stories of gut irritation, intolerance and inflammation, but of all the health and food concerns I’m passionate about, bread is the one thing I’m the least interested in giving up or scaring people away from.

Why? Because I love it, and I think it’s modern day processes that have caused bread to irritate guts – the additives, fillers, bulking agents, preservatives and other ingredients that manufacturers use to produce bread as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible. That’s what’s hurting people’s tummies.

If you select your bread carefully, from traditionally-made sources, using natural and organic ingredients with no added nasties then I don’t see a problem with it. It’s a delicious food! Granted, some people may have a specific intolerance to gluten which I can’t argue with but for the rest of us, we should be able to enjoy good food in moderation.

I also don’t have any of the tell-tell signs of a gluten intolerance (severe bloating, IBS, chronic pain) there’s no reason for me to say bye-bye to bread. It’s also not a problem for my weight – I eat it only a few times a week, I don’t have sandwiches for lunch and I always buy fresh bread that’s made well, probably once every ten days or more.

My favourites are a sourdough or dark, dense fresh rye. The darker and richer, with more interesting ingredients such as seeds, nuts and different grains, the better. I recently discovered Able & Cole deliver bread too – a Rye and Spelt loaf is coming in my next box to try. Can’t wait!

As a vegan however, people wonder what I spread on toast – obviously I don’t smother it with butter so if you’re stuck on what non-diary options to have on toast my recommendations are here.

Coconut oil – this is my bread’s daily ‘butter’ – I use it almost every time I have bread or toast, whatever ingredients I add on top. I have a tub in my cupboard on the go at all times! Currently I’m loving Tiana Fairtrade and Organic Coconut Oil (they have a plethora of interesting coconut oil products so click the link and check them out).

Tiana Fairtrade and Organic Coconut Oil

Avocado – another staple in my diet – without avocados I think I’d be a very hungry (and sad) person. If I have time, usually at the weekends, I add complimentary ingredients such as chilli flakes, fresh chilli, lime juice, red onion or salad onion. All other times I just smash and spread. A grilled or fresh tomato on top really does the trick too.

Sesame Seed Oil / Tahini – I discovered how amazing this is as a spread when I did my Vipassana 10-day silent meditation. I watched people eat it with honey drizzled on top and I instantly fell in love.  The dense, rich nutty taste of the sesame seed and the sweetness of honey to lift it is an utterly divine combo. I don’t have this all the time, but it’s great when you fancy something sweet.

Olive oil – cold-pressed and organic, for dipping at the dinner table. Looks nicer and neater than a big tub of coconut oil!

So there you have it, a health-geek who loves bread. I’m off to have my breakfast now – avocado on toast, of course, what else? x

Quote

Born to move…

Born to move

“Immobility is to the human body what rust is to the classic car. Stop moving long enough and your muscles will atrophy. Bones will weaken. Blood will clot. You will find it harder to concentrate and solve problems. Immobility is not merely a state closer to death: it hastens it.” 

–  Charles Montgomery author of Happy City, The Guardian Weekend, 2 November 2013.

How to cure a cold

How to cure a cold

Colds, flu, coughs, sneezes, headaches, sore throats, germs, illness – there’s something in the air at this time of year. A new season, a new start. But if your immune system is buckling under the pressure of seasonal change then you need to get your hands on some effective winter health care. I’ve discovered, tried and tested three easy, natural ways to prevent and cure a cold. Notepads at the ready:

1. Elderberry tincture If you’re suffering with a full, heavy cold like I was a few weeks ago then I highly recommend popping to your health food shop and asking for some elderberry tincture. Avoid the syrup version (sweet and thick and loaded with sugars) but find the concentrated oral liquid version which is just distilled herbs. Most come with alcohol (minimal amounts) and there are some without, which are slightly more expensive.

Elderberry Tincture - How to cure a cold

What does it do? Just 20 or so drops in a shot of water 2-3 times a day basically reduces the severity of your cold or flu symptoms. I was back on my feet in miracle time and back to work the next day. I can’t recommend it enough! I paid £4.99 from Haelan Centre in Crouch End, North London. I found one from Nature’s Answer online here.

2. A Vogel Echinaforce Sore Throat Spray

Another health-ranger but for prevention more than cure is Echinaforce Sore Throat Spray with extracts of echinacea and sage. Whenever you feel any symptoms such as a tingling, scratchy or sore throat then spritz a few pumps of this to the back of the throat to stop things from getting worse.

The brilliant team over at A.Vogel including the resident nutritional therapist Ali Cullen, who is a wealth of knowledge, introduced me to a pile of winter-care products and this is one of my favourites. I now carry it with me almost everywhere I go and especially on a flight where germs are rife and illness is waiting to happen. A quick spritz before getting on the plane, one during and one after seems to stop germs their tracks.

Echinacea Throat Spray - How to cure a cold

What does it do? The echinacea extract is from the fresh leaves and root, thought to be the most potent parts in supporting the immune system. The sage is antiseptic so if you already have a sore throat, it’s great at helping to relieve symptoms and clear it up. Buy it here, £8.99, avogel.co.uk.

3. A Vogel Bronchoforce Chesty Cough  Another tincture – yes I love a tincture! This oral liquid contains ivy, thyme and liquorice root to help get rid of a chesty cough, mucus and catarrh. All those pesky ailments that never quite leave your system after having a cold/flu. My yukky, hacking cough remained for a at least a week after I kicked the cold away.

Chesty Cough Spray - how to cure a cold

What does it do? I took about 30-40 drops in a shot of water when my cough felt bad and sore. I kid you not, my cough was gone in less than 24 hours. It was another miracle cure that I had to share! It doesn’t taste great (but most tinctures don’t) and totally worth it. Buy it here, £9.15, avogel.co.uk.

Would love to hear how you fight off a cold and flu and any other natural remedy suggestions..!

 

Juicy Notes: Why lemon water is good for you

Hot-lemon-water lifeholistically brightershadeofgreen

Hot-lemon-water lifeholistically brightershadeofgreen

“Start your day with a hot water and lemon” – it’s an age-old health tip that most of us have heard a thousand times but experts rarely explain what it does in our bodies that makes it so good. My younger cousin asked me about this the other day, which got me thinking – we’re always told it will help detox and cleanse etc etc but it wasn’t until I spoke to founder of Honestly Healthy, Natasha Corrett, that it really clicked. She explained exactly why, in very simple terms, and now I drink this almost every day as well as squeeze lemon onto almost everything I eat to aid digestion. Here’s what she said:

The body digests and detoxes over night (that’s why we sometimes feel windy in the morning) and by the time we wake up our stomach is in an acidic state (acid = not good) which needs to be re-balanced. Lemon, as we know, is an acidic food but once it hits the stomach it’s metabolised and becomes alkaline (alkaline = good), which then rebalances the gut to a state it can digest food more effectively, absorb more nutrients and fight off illness.

If you’ve read my Glow Girl column on Healthista.com you will have heard me talking about the benefits of an alkaline-rich diet: alkaline-forming foods will over time help stimulate essential digestive enzymes essential for weight loss, improve absorption of nutrients, keep everything moving (very good), maintain and balance energy levels and keep sugar cravings down. All good reasons to drink lemon water through out the day too, which is why I want one of these: A Citrus Zinger!
citrus_zinger_brightershadeofgreenToo many acid-forming foods (not just alcohol, fizzy drinks and sugary foods, but meat, dairy and cereals too) are not only difficult to digest but the body has to draw essential minerals and nutrients from elsewhere to break down the excess acid. Then it dumps the excess acid into body tissue as fat. Aaargh.

So now it makes sense, get squeezing and start to feel the difference. And let me know if you already have one of these nifty bottles in your life…

Cooking as Therapy

Veggiestan Brighter shade of green

Slaving over a hot pot is often the ideal way to survive emotional woe. For me, cooking calms, relaxes and nourishes the soul, and there’s (usually) something delicious to eat at the end too.

Today was one of those days so I was pleased I could reach for a new vegetarian cook book I recently received as a birthday present: Veggiestan by Sally Butcher.

Veggiestan Brighter shade of green

For me this is a fabulous book – not only am I vegetarian (well, practically vegan) but I also was born in the middle east and many of my favourite foods and dishes are from there – okra with tomatoes, aubergine with onions and tomato, hummus, babaghanoush, etc etc. So this book with its inspiration of veggie dishes from across the region was an absolute delight; thank you Steve Pill.

Cooking as therapy

Cooking as therapy brighter shade of green

Tonight it was me, the book and Mung Bean Casserole (pg.116), although it was more like a curry really which was perfect comfort food. It was delicious and, essentially, heart-warming. I made a few tweaks: I swapped spinach for chard – organically grown via the brilliant Food From The Sky community on the roof garden of my local Budgens. I’m always in awe of how beautiful chard is with its a striking purple, pink and green hues on bouncy, curly leaves. Plus I had purple potatoes to use instead of normal ones – another wonderful looking ingredient.

Definitely a success and a comforting dish for the change of temperatures and season…So thank you Veggiestan for being my comfort blanket on a day of white noise.

Glow Girl – My new column on Healthista.com

Healthista.com Yanar Alkayat Glow Girl

Healthista.com alkaline diet yanar alkayat

Healthista.com is the brand new website for women’s health and every fortnight I’ll be writing a column under the name of Glow Girl. My first post was on the alkaline diet i.e. eating your greens, and why this no-diet diet is so good for health and glowing skin. Expect an honest story of bloated tummies and belchy bellies and new found ways to turn a new, greener leaf. Read it here.

As well as talking about how I coerced myself away from daily glasses of red wine and the foods that I personally keep on and off the menu, I also spoke to Natasha Corrett, founder of Honestly Healthy, a fantastic recipe book and food delivery service that celebrates alkaline eating.

Healthista.com is the brainchild of health journalist and author Anna Magee who I’ve been lucky to work with on and off for the past several years. We first met when I assisted her on Red magazine where she was Health Director and I was just beginning my career in editorial. We’ve kept in touch ever since and it’s fantastic that our paths have continued to cross and I’m now contributing to this impressive new site, which is right up my street.

Healthista.com offers a wealth of knowledge for women (and men!) who want to feel empowered by deeper health knowledge – whether it’s mind, body, beauty, nutrition, sex, fertility or surgery – this site has it covered. There’s also a huge list of health experts involved so you’ll never be short of renowned expertise on these essential topics.

Join me on the Glow Girl column each week as I unveil the must-have health and beauty secrets and my quest for inner health and outer beauty – and don’t hesitate to let me know what you think! You can follow the Healthista team on Twitter too – @HealthistaTV and myself on @YanarBeauty.

 

How to perfect the art of green juices and smoothies

green smoothie recipe tips

It’s not always easy practising what I preach when it comes to health and nutrition – although I try to buy organic, I avoid dairy and I’ve been a vegetarian nearly all my life (since I was nine) – it’s taken a while to get on board the green juice/smoothie movement. Now that I have though I’m really quite into it – but how do you make them taste good?

First, I found this great list of four easy recipes for green juices and smoothies – I think it’s one of the better collections I’ve seen. I passed it round my non-hippy friends and to my surprise they were guzzling down green concoctions before I’d even had a chance to take a proper look myself. I finally dusted off my blender (a brilliant Kenwood Compact Jug Blender) and now perfecting the art of blending green…

I started experimenting with big bunches of green veg – whatever organic variety I could get at the shops: spinach, kale, lettuce leaves, celery, cucumber, parsley and mint as well as lemons and fruit for taste and added vits.

After a few attempts I’ve arrived at a few top tips on how to blend green and enjoy it.

– Use a whole (or half) lemon – yes, including the rind! – Buy organic, unwaxed lemons and add to the mix. Not only will it  balance the earthy taste of the greens but the vitamin C will help your body absorb the iron more effectively.

I’ve also just read in Neal’s Yard Remedies new book ‘Healing Foods‘ a lemon’s skin contains the highest concentration of antioxidants and citrus liminoids (which studies have shown can help control blood sugar levels).

So instead of just squeezing the lemon juice, use the whole (or half) lemon – chop up it up small (so the blender can handle it easily) and pop it in first. It gives the blend a fantastic kick.

– Balance any sour from lemon with low-sugar fruits – pears, kiwi (use the whole kiwi including the skin), blackberries, strawberries or melon will give the recipe a palatable lift and add more antioxidants and vitamin C.

Experiment with different raw green veg – fresh, organic, uncooked spinach is great because we usually eat spinach cooked which means a massive loss of nutrients. Use half a bag (if you’re using baby leaf)  or a whole bunch if using large leaf, fresh. The darker the greens, the greater the goodness so try different varieties of kale and/or parsley.

Add liquids and high-water veg to thin it down – as with most smoothies, too little juice leaves things sludgy so thin it down with ice, apple juice, coconut juice or rice milk and you’ll get a better consistency and taste. High-water veg includes cucumber and celery.

 Add a superfood powders – one of the reasons I’ve turned to greens is to eat a more alkaline-rich diet. I’m hoping this will mean fewer health problems and a cleaner, healthier gut in the long run. When the gut is functioning properly it absorbs more nutrients and this can lead to better health and better skin too. I love Pukka Herbs Organic Clean Greens (includes sprirulina, kale sprouts and wheat grass juice).

 

pukkaherbs clean-greens Aduna Baobab Fruit Pulp Powderorganic_burst_maca powder

 

Other super-food powders currently doing the rounds on the health-fanatics’s shopping list are Aduna Baobab Fruit Pulp Powder  for a super-strength dose of immune-boosting vitamin C or Organic Burst Maca Powder for a natural way to boost energy levels – great if you’re a busy mum or do a lot of sport.

– Don’t forget it’s trial and error – the more you blend and experiment with quantities and combinations the better it gets. The first few times I did it I wasn’t so impressed but now I’m loving it – it’s great with mint and cucumber too so make sure you have plenty of those as make everything taste great.

Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

 

Treatment of the month: Mindful Massage

Treatment of the month - Mindful Massage

I reviewed a very interesting massage treatment for Natural Health  magazine recently which puts a totally new spin on a traditional massage. Instead of switching off, therapist Belinda Freeman encourages you to tune in and turn the mind on. The Mindful Massage (at Third Space, London) may sound like it defeats the object of having a massage but it’s actually quite clever and totally unique.

Belinda talks through the massage in a quiet, soft and soothing voice to keep you focussed on your body and breath. It’s totally guided so there’s little opportunity or space to let the mind wander, working in a similar way to some meditation where  you just focus on your breath. As the mind starts to drift off, she brings you back to the present and to the sensations of her touch.

She’s cleverly combined elements from yoga nidra (yoga sleep where you stay consciously focussed but your body is in deep relaxation) with the concept of mindfulness (being aware of thoughts, actions and emotions) as well as drawing on her 25 years of experience in Tai Chi, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, hypnotherapy, counselling and more.

Recommended? Yes, definitely. Try this massage if you’re having problems relaxing and need to de-stress and settle the mind. Not only do you get an excellent massage, worth the session in itself, but may discover a new way to increase focus, clarity and emotional stability. It’s great if you have experience of yoga nidra too as there are several similarities to relate to.

Available at Third Space gym in London. Check out Belinda’s profile on Third Space or her website Mindful Mind for more info. Let me know if you’ve tried anything like this before?

 

Stress-busting aromatherapy and massage

NYR aromatherapy massage course emma robertson

NYR massage aromatherapy course

Did you know the quality of an aromatherapy oil is affected by the quality of the soil and where/how the plant is sourced? Did you also know rose oil was once used as a hangover cure as well as a way to heal a broken heart? And, in addition to relaxation and sleep, essential oil of lavender can also soothe and heal cuts, bites and burns.

I soaked up these fantastic facts and more at the Neal’s Yard Remedies Introduction to Massage course which I was lucky enough to attend last weekend. With it being National Stress Awareness Day last week, alleviating stress was the focus of the day.

I highly recommend this one day course that runs twice a year, especially if you’re excited by the therapeutic benefits of essential oils and wish you could get more massage into your life. Led by Neal’s Yard Remedies Head of Massage, Elaine Tomkins, it’s relaxed and informative with oil blending in the morning and basic hand, neck, back and head massage techniques in the afternoon. Take a partner you like or love and you’ll have a giggle too.

Here I am with beauty freelancer Emma Robertson attempting to give a relaxing head massage but judging by the look on her face I could be causing more pain than pleasure!

NYR aromatherapy massage course emma robertson

How to cure stress with essential oils and aromatherapy:

Rose – it’s one of the most healing (for skin) and anxiety-relieving oils you can choose. Just a few drops with water in an oil burner can calm the mind and prepare it for sleep. My rose oil is burning now as I write…

NYR aromatherapy rose oil burner

It takes 60-100 rose petals to make just one drop of rose essential oil – this fact always makes me wonder how sustainable it is to produce natural rose oil, which is why it’s important to buy from brands that grow organically and show a commitment to the livelihood of growers and farm workers.

Neal’s Yard Remedies has a history of building impressive relationships with its raw materials suppliers and works with a cooperative in southern Turkey for its rose extracts, using organic farming methods and ensuring fair living wages.

Bergamot –  this oil is extracted from the rind of a small (inedible) pear-shaped fruit from a tiny citrus tree (commercially grown in Italy). Bergamot is apparently great with gin (I’ll be trying this) as well as being the distinctive flavour in Earl Grey tea. The scent is uplifting and refreshing with a subtle spikiness.  Blend it with rose in a burner to help soothe nervous anxiety, create a harmonising massage oil or mix it with two drops of lavender for an uplifting bath oil. Along with rose, this was one of my favourites we sniffed.

Frankincense – this ancient oil has been used for religious ceremonies for thousands of years and might remind you of wintery, festive seasons. Its earthy, warm aura feels slightly uplifting and if you blend it with black pepper or citrus oils feels even more powerful. Interestingly, it enhances deep breathing making it great for meditation.

Clary Sage – from these five essential oils we smelled this was my least favourite. The strong muskiness didn’t agree with me at all, however, once blended with bergamot and rose it was far more attractive. This oil is said to help lighten a heavy state of mind, sadness, fatigue or fear. That’s sold it to me.

Holeaf – tipped by our trainer, Elaine as the next oil-to-watch, she predicts more beauty and fragrance brands will be using holeaf to lift their products to life over the next five years. Extracted from a Chinese evergreen tree (the wood of this same tree produces Camphor oil), it can enliven a low mood and low libido. Also good as a post-exercise massage oil to relieve fatigued muscles. Or add to your bath to help with flu, coughs or colds – perfect for this time of year.

If like me you’re fascinated by essential oils and desperate to get some of this vapour energy into your heart, body and mind then here are a few ways Elaine described to drip, pour, mix and burn oils for emotional and physical wellbeing…

1. Burn a few drops with water – inhaling the vapours can have a great effect on mood and emotions.

2. Use as a bath oil – apparently best mixed with full-fat milk to disperse into water more easily or mix with Epsom salts.

3. Apply neat to skin  – please note, not all oils are safe to do this with.

4. Blend with a carrier oil – such as almond or jojoba for a therapeutic massage/body oil.

5. Add to floral water – try orange flower or rose water to make a refreshing facial toner.

6. Combine with unperfumed moisturiser – to nourish and enhance skin.

7. Add a few drops to hot or cold water – to make a healing compress.

…and a few I found searching online which I might try too:

8. Mix 3-5 drops of essential oil to unscented clothes detergent.

9. Mix two teaspoons of tea tree oil with two cups of water in a spray bottle for an oil-purpose household cleaner. (I love this one as I absolutely loathe all the chemical cleaning sprays everyone buys).

10. Soak a cotton ball with patchouli and/or lavender and place in closets to keep moths away from clothes – I’m definitely going to be trying this one as I’m so paranoid about moths eating my clothes.

So there we have it, a very long post about amazing essential oils! I’m off to buy a life-enhancing wardrobe of essential oils, so please pass on any tips you might have too, would love to hear them…

Find out more about Neal’s Yard Remedies courses here. 

What is a Vipassana – and how I got through 10 days of silent meditation

vipassana-meditation

vipassana-meditationI’m back! Having just landed back to earth after TEN days of silent meditation in Hereford, I’m eager to spill the beans. Yes, I was on a Vipassana meditation course and my, my, was it tough but with mindfulness, consciousness and awareness being such hot topics right now, it’s more relevant than ever to learn what we can learn from these ancient practices.

If you’re not familiar with a Vipassana, it’s an ancient form of meditation (thousands of years old) which aims to ‘purify and quiet a chattering mind’ and by doing so, you can learn to become resilient to the ups and downs of every day life.

It’s only been a popular practise in the west for the last 20-30 years through the teachings of an Indian-Burmese man named S.N. Goenka and in recent years, centres all around the world have cropped up thanks to his desire to spread the word…

The meditation is guided through Goenka’s audio and video recordings. The teaching is about sharpening the mind’s awareness with the ultimate aim of remaining ‘equanimous’ – in balance – to both negative and positive experiences.

It’s not about suppressing emotions, it’s about observing them, watching thoughts come and go, and not being affected by them.

This meditation practice teaches us to be mindful that positive and negative experiences come and go so craving the positive and feeling averse to the negative can only lead to unhappiness. Best to stay neutral and feel balance in mind at all times. A tall order I know!

I’d heard it was hard, but how hard can hard be? I quickly discovered it was no walk in the park – or a bundle of laughs for that matter – it was like a long-distance mental endurance test, every single day. It was even harder than the marathons I’ve run.

Apologies in advance if revealing my experiences spoils it for anyone. I know one of the key reasons the week is spent in silence is so that no one discusses and compares their experiences. What each person goes through is very personal and unique so please bear in mind this was my personal experience and not necessarily what others went through.

The RULES: The ten days of no talking, gestures or touching. No books, pens, phones, music, gadgets, cameras or exercise (including yoga) and no religious practices, rites or rituals. Men and women are separated to also avoid distraction.

The gruelling timetable featured a grand total of THIRTEEN hours of meditation a day. We were also governed by the gong, with the first dreaded gong waking us at 4am and the last one that signals bed time goes at 9pm. Every night I was out like a light by 9:30pm.

Apart from the lunch hour and breakfast hour, there was no other activity scheduled apart from meditation, simply because continuous practice is thought to be the route to success. So we meditated, hour after hour, after hour, after hour.

I don’t want to spoil it too much for people who want to do the course so I won’t divulge too much about the technique or the experiences during meditation.

We were looked after so so well. I think people imagine a Vipassana is a cold and lonely experience where you’re thrown into a dark room to contemplate life for ten days. That couldn’t be further from the truth!

We were fed amazing veggie/vegan food and the accommodation was clean and comfortable and always heated up to the max, especially comforting when it’s November and blowing a gale outside.

Staff include past students and volunteers, all AMAZING and the meditation hall is so warm and cosy and decked out with all the cushions, blocks and blankets you could need.

There will be many moments and days of despair but these comforts really really do help so well done team Vipassana.

A few of my notes and observations from each day…
DAYS ONE – TWO: it didn’t take long to start asking myself why on earth I was here. How was I going to get through these stupendously long and boring hours and days?  A shell-shocked glaze had rapidly fallen on everyone’s faces as the full extent of the never-ending timetable was sinking in.

People were falling asleep left, right and centre during meditation – heads rolling, bodies jerking and the sound of snoring drifting across the main meditation hall. We were all so unaccustomed to this!

DAY THREE: we’ve been observing our breath going through our nostrils for three days now so everyone was slightly confused. The aim: to quiet a chattering mind. That’s enough reason for me so I kept going. But at one point I sneaked a peak to look around the room and saw strained faces with eyes shut tight, searching for the meaning of life. It almost felt like some kind of gigantic joke!

DAY FOUR: the routine slowly started growing on me and faces around the hall seemed lighter. For the first time I felt like a small weight had lifted and I smiled inside as a new twist to the technique was taught. For the first time also, my mind stopped resisting to the regime and it did in fact quieten down a little. Nice.

DAY FIVE: the new technique hurts! For three hours of each day we spent in ‘Strong Determination’ which means no moving and full concentration on resisting any pain or sensation. No craving to the pleasant sensations and no aversion to the negative sensations – this is the key concept to Vipassana which we’re meant to apply to real life.

DAY SIX: I’m certain athletes, triathletes, marathon runners and ironman competitors would benefit from this practice. Mentally, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do but provides great mental endurance training. It was like running an marathon every day! Occasionally tears flooded my eyes from the pain of sitting in Strong Determination but obviously I was determined to get through it.

DAY SEVEN: I felt like I’d turned a corner and my emotions (in and out of meditation) starting balancing, finally! I looked around again and people looked so cosy in their meditation spots. Some had built huge sofa-like constructions,  with multiple layers of block, cushions and blankets. It was hilarious to watch.

DAY EIGHT: uh oh, boredom kicked in! Having felt like I’d sorted my life out, found a new career, fixed my relationship and balanced my mind, I felt ready to go home. What? I have to stay another THREE days? Cripes!!

DAY NINE: I felt like I was climbing the walls with frustration as minutes felt like hours and the hours felt like days. Everything was annoying me and I had no ‘equanimity’, patience or compassion left in me. I was desperate to go home. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that Noble Silence would be lifted at ten am the following day, hoorah!

DAY TEN: I woke up ecstatic! I even hummed in the shower with a cheery glow inside and counted down the minutes until we could talk again. I’d been dreaming of this day all week!

I know I’m painting a picture of resistance, difficulty and pain (because it was a bit like that at times) but there are also MANY rays of light throughout the week:

The teachings of S.N. Goenka are hugely positive and inspiring. Each video and audio recording left everyone with a rosy, warm glow and a new, more harmonious perspective on how to live life.

When ‘Noble Silence’ was lifted, everyone hugged and cried – it was an emotional week and the (silent) bond you create with people is strangely strong. There were also two pregnant girls there who were a massive inspiration to us all. Could this be a new trend for expecting mothers?

Anyway, I’ve gone on too much and so sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone wishing to go. If you’d like to know any other details please pop your comments below – or read more at the Dhamma Dipa Vipassana site – and would be great to hear from anyone who’s also done it.  Thanks for reading. xx

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