Food Glorious Food!

June 13, 2016

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There’s more to life than just food, but if you ask me, food is an especially wonderful part of life.

I enjoy eating and always have.  My travel itineraries often focus on discovering exciting food, markets and restaurants (a pleasurable eating experience must happen on any trip or I will probably be disappointed – just ask my boyfriend).  Food adventures are no doubt what led me to and kept me in Europe where, based in London, I enjoy perusing the recipe section of the Guardian Weekend magazine and can’t get enough of Rick Stein’s and, before that, Jamie Oliver’s travel and cookery shows.  When I first started learning French, I was neutral about grammar, but fascinated by how the French ate (according to my high school textbook, a bar of chocolate on a baguette was considered a nutritious snack – c’est magnifique!) and the films that have made the biggest impression on me over time all seem to have taught me something about social interaction and food:  Babette’s Feast, The Secret of the Grain, Chef, Chocolat, The Trip, I am Love, Julie and Julia, Waitress, Like Water for Chocolate, to name some obvious foodie favorites.  Likewise, when I taught English in France to young school children I found the fastest way to get kids interested in cultures from abroad was to give them a taste of them, and so I served up American specialities of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, blueberry pancakes and chocolate chip cookies (instantaneous if not lazy crowd-pleasers).

Food is an endless topic to learn about, a pathway to understanding different cultures, and cooking is by far one of my favourite creative outlets.  But I didn’t always have such a positive relationship with food.  I grew up on a starchy, bland, diet.  I was, what you would call, a picky eater.  I was afraid of powerful tastes, shy about strange textures and unsure of anything that wasn’t cereal, bread, pizza or a hamburger.  I got a little more adventurous during my years at American college (University) when, away from the comfort’s of mom’s kitchen, I tasted my first Japanese food (tempura only please) and Indian food (naan and mango lassis….yum!), but I was still a comfort-eater, reaching for the starchiest, greasiest, most sugary foods while applauding myself for avoiding meat because of the mad cow scare.

But something changed during my junior year abroad when for the first time of my life I lived in Italy and France and was confronted with some major cultural differences in the way Europeans and Americans eat.  At the time, I was still vegetarian, which confounded my French host family.  Being on my best behaviour as a guest (and less stubborn than I would be with my own family), I agreed to eat mostly everything that was placed in front of me and started developing a taste for new kinds of food.  I was unaccustomed to eating late dinners so would buy crackers from the ‘aperitifs’ aisle to snack on, which also confounded my host family.  I remember the day my host mom caught me snacking on said crackers in my room and said, ‘Kate – c’est ca qui fait grossir’ – she was right, snacking was indeed what was feeding my poor relationship with food and leading to weight gain (and not snacking was clearly what was keeping them skinny and satisfied in spite of rich, buttery meals).  A lightbulb went off.  How could I be reaching for processed snacks in a home that was serving me some of the most delicious, lovingly made and balanced meals?  Could delicious, nutrient dense meals be what kept them looking and feeling great?  I slowly started enjoying the taste of vegetables more, appreciating the flavours of good quality produce and learning the importance of sauces, dressing and spices to bring life to every meal.

When I returned to the States to complete my final year of University, however, the bad habits came back.  After a senior year living off pizza, cereal, and whatever else was served to us in the campus food hall (the stress/partying was helping to keep the pounds off but I also fell ill quite frequently), I moved to New York City and started gaining weight again.  I went to see a nutritionist and I finally learned how to eat a balanced diet that was low in carbohydrates and sugar to keep my figure lean.  I was eating out at all the amazing Thai and Japanese restaurants choosing low-carb dishes (swapping the tempura for sashimi, papaya salad instead of pad thai), and my social life revolved around going to the gym.  My tastebuds were evolving and my health awareness was too as I started to practice yoga.  But I was still only cooking the plainest of meals (egg whites and orange for breakfast) at home and ‘treating’ myself with Taste-D-Lite ‘ice cream’ in the evenings.  I didn’t know how to make foods that excited me in my own kitchen.

Let’s fast forward 12 years to now where I cook everyday in my London apartment, keep a healthy balanced diet (with carbs) and have endless food inspiration not only from cookbooks and food cookery shows, but also blogs, Instagram accounts and Apps.  I find it impossible to be bored at home and am often so overwhelmed by cooking inspiration that I’ve collected over the week that I’ll find myself preparing one too many dishes at once on a Sunday.  It’s very hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t know what to do with myself in front of a cutting board but reflecting back I am reminded that cooking and meal-planning wasn’t always this natural.  So despite the choices we have today, I can understand why a lot of people still come up to me and say they have no ideas for dinner or don’t know how to cook healthy.  Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean we know how to put our best intentions into practice. One of my favourite food authors, Michael Pollan, writes about this in his latest book ‘Cooked’ on the history of cooking in relationship to the evolution of modern man/woman and points out how we seem to be watching more cooking programmes than ever on TV, but not necessarily getting better ourselves at cooking or healthier.  To top it all off, ‘healthy’ eating and cooking are becoming more popular and everyone has a different theory on how/what to eat to feel and look your best.  It’s a minefield of advice.  So how does one get started?

From a food phobic turned food enthusiast, here’s my simple advice.  Learn how to cook but start simple.  If there is anything I learned during my time in France and italy, it’s that those cultures that cook everyday and teach their kids how to cook with whole foods ingredients, seem to have a much healthier way of eating, not to mention a joyful life.  If you didn’t grow up learning how to cook or if you rely heavily on ready meals or restaurant meals, switch your mindset and make food preparation your responsibility (like brushing your teeth – no one else should do that for you).

Think of just one dish you love or one ingredient that gets you excited and search for a recipe for that you can try by typing it into a google search.   Oftentimes I’ll look at what ingredients I have left in the fridge and cupboard and google them together: tahini, carrots, brown rice.  These days, you’re likely to find a recipe online that fits the bill precisely.  Or go to the cookbook section of any bookstore and have a browse.  Whichever book sings to you the most and feels the most accessible, grab it and make it your friend for a month.  Think of a part of the world you love for its cuisine – look up some recipes from that area and embed yourself in learning about it.  If you’re lacking food curiosity (like ten-year-old me stuck on cereal and bagels), maybe you need to find a way to get out of your routine, away from your comfort zone and in a new culture to start exploring new tastes.  If you’re lucky to live in London, you can take a short flight anywhere or even hop on a train to France.  But there are so many foodie events these days, markets and restaurants, chances are there is inspiration around the corner.  What about a local market?  Where you can talk to someone who sells only tomatoes and ask them directly what their favourite dishes are?

You know what really got me cooking?  Signing up to an organic delivery box from Riverford.  Every two weeks, I get a fresh box of organic veg delivered to me (with recipes) and in order to make the most of the money spent, I gotta get in the kitchen and make some dishes.  I also have to carve time out of my schedule to do so and it’s become therapy time now – away from my phone, in the moment, doing something great for my health.

If you never cook, can you take one day a week and try to cook?  If you have ‘no time’ to cook, can you have a look at your schedule and see where you might be able to carve out some time to get your hands dirty? Potentially entertaining yourself with a podcast instead of TV?  Follow the mantra of cook once, eat twice.  You can batch cook on one day of the week and freeze items.

Chances are that once you have one successful cooking experience, it will lead to many others. And you know what?  Learning about 5 meals that you can make at home and love is often enough.  You don’t need millions of ingredients or an elaborate spice cabinet to begin – you can grow this over time (and it will grow).  Start simple and see where it takes you.

I want people to feel the same joy I do when opening their cupboards and thinking about the next meal.  That being said, it’s important to also feed yourself in other ways.  I have a few days of the week where I eat very simple (but never boring) meals with very few ingredients.   If I were to spend every day creating elaborate meals I would probably burn myself out.  So I will batch-cook or even throw in a day of fasting to balance things out and on those days I’ll get deeply into my yoga practice or prioritize another hobby of mine.  But in order to stay alive, to keep our bodies functioning, we need to eat and we need to make the best food choices we can.  Food is a glorious thing.  And we appreciate it more when we cook for ourselves.  And I truly believe that healthy eating is NOT about depriving yourself or getting unexcited about food.  It’s quite the opposite.  So grow your passion for food and find other things in life to be passionate about too to keep it balanced.

Here are a few healthy eating blogs that I have visited over the years that have got me excited about my meals to get you started:

101 Cookbooks

My New Roots

Green Kitchen Stories

I want to know – what you are your major road-blocks when it comes to cooking?  Where do you derive inspiration from?  What are your current beliefs about healthy eating and food?

I’ll follow up soon with my five favourite simple meals to make at home (the ones I revisit all the time because I can make them in my sleep) and offer you advice on how to make them work for you.  Until then, happy exploring!

 

Liquorice and Lava – 3 nights in Iceland

April 29, 2016

 

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I like planning special things for my birthday and this year was no different.  When my boyfriend asked if there was something I wanted, the answer was a short get-away to a destination that’s been on my wish-list ever since seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Iceland.  Our ‘mini-break’ was so successful that I wanted to share all the details with you in case you’re thinking of a short stay there yourself.

I had been thinking about a healthy Nordic trip for a while, but we were dissuaded by the cold weather, dark skies and potentially outrageous expenses.  We get enough of all those things in London.  However, after reading an article in Elle UK by Susan Ward called Into the Wild (which I can’t seem to locate online) that waxed lyrical about scenic drives, breathtaking sites, and delicious food, we booked plane tickets from London for a 3-night stay (all we had time for) in the land of fire and ice.

I got straight down to some research to ensure not a minute was wasted or an icelandic delicacy untasted during our short stay.  Not surprisingly, there weren’t many suggestions online for trips to Iceland of less than 10 days duration, and with good reason.  There’s A LOT to see in Iceland, ideally at a relaxed pace.  It’s a photographer’s (and geologist’s) dream.  Nevertheless, I was determined to get a good taste of what the country has to offer on a condensed schedule with a view of making my carbon footprint more validated on a longer trip in the future.

The Elle UK article (mentioned before) was helpful and served as a great guide to layout the overall itinerary.  It described two ways to venture away from the capital of Reykjavik for some nature – SouthEast towards Vik or NorthWest towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Beyond that we talked to two couples we knew who had been there, one of which had stayed in the Elle-recommended Hótel Búðir, which doubly convinced us to head in the direction of the aforementioned peninsula (a 2.5 hour drive from the capital).  Our other friends put us in touch with local mates who confirmed that my hotel and restaurant choices were sound and provided some useful links to locate thermal pools and check weather.  I had a quick browse of a few blogs and then got booking based on the final criteria: must bathe in thermal waters, must eat well, must see some stunning scenery and must stay in a hotel with a nice view.  We purposely didn’t get our hopes up about seeing the Northern Lights.  As luck would have it, there was a spectacular display the evening before we arrived (April 14th), which was unusual given the peak times of the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.

One thing that was certain was that we were going to have a great time. I heard not one negative comment about Iceland from all those approached, except to be careful when opening car doors because the wind can be so fierce it will blow your car door off (yup – it’s the first bullet in the guide to driving in Iceland that we received from the car rental company and makes you think twice about spending that extra bit on car insurance…)  We met lovely people, ate well, relaxed, felt adventuresome and drank pure Icelandic water everyday.  What more could you ask for?

I always travel with a view of getting a good taste of the local culture and learning more about the healthy habits of those who live there.  I learned a lot about healthy eating during my time living in France and Italy and I’m always reminded that travel is a great way to broaden your perspective about diet.  I recall watching a Channel 4 documentary on the World’s Best Diet and Iceland topping the list for its fresh and high quality fish, meat and dairy products.  I mention liquorice in the title of this post simply because the candy version of it is found everywhere as in most Nordic countries (perhaps the bittersweet taste is appreciated in the cold weather?), but in more abundance was nutrient-dense, healthy food that made me feel great. A lot of the food, such as their famous steamed rye bread (rugbrauð), is also cooked underground using geo-thermal energy, which is an incredible concept.  I have provided a list below of healthy Icelandic foods with links to learn more about them. There is also a plethora of local delicacies for the more adventuresome that I didn’t feel the need to sample such as fermented shark, puffin and stinky skate, rumours of which have no doubt put many people off the idea of Icelandic cuisine, but don’t be discouraged, I tasted some of the best food of my life here.  Sadly, Rick Stein’s special episode on his weekend break to Iceland on BBC2 debuted after our return, but has certainly helped me create a wish-list for next time and has got me even more interested to read up on the history of Icelandic cooking.

Here’s our itinerary:

Day One (Friday)  – Blue Lagoon and Hveragerði

Departed London Heathrow on the 8:15Am BA flight to arrive in Keflavik airport by 10:15AM (3-hour flight).  Picked up rental car (a 5-minute walk outside of the airport if you book with Go Iceland – we had to ask where to find them at the information desk).  Drove 20 minutes to the Blue Lagoon (FYI – the sign is not blue) where we pre-booked (this is a MUST) for 12 PM entry.  We booked the cheapest entry tickets (40 Euros) to the lagoon (this option does NOT include towels so we brought our own and you still have to queue up when you get there next to a lot of Americans).  We spent three hours at the lagoon and I opted for a 30-minute (65 Euros) in water massage, which was very soothing but not the world’s deepest massage (still I was thankful to shut my eyes for 30 minutes – the sun was BRIGHT – bring sunglasses and sunscreen).  This was a total highlight of our trip and a great way to relax after our flight and before journeying on.  We loved the mud mask bar (you get this as part of the basic entry, but you don’t get the algae mask unless you pay 15 Euros more.  Worth it? Probably not).  If you go with a member of the opposite sex, arrange to meet on the other side of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon together.  Once you lock up your stuff, shower naked, and slather your hair with loads of conditioner, they don’t like you to exit through the entrance.  Exit lagoon side – there’s a cafe area there where you can hang your towels (or your robe if you get the slightly more expensive package or book a treatment) and buy some overpriced food (I had the sushi) if you’re peckish.  If you’re not getting a treatment, 2 hours is probably enough time to relax in the mineral-rich water, but there’s also space to lounge indoors and read for a bit.  We left by 3:30PM feeling full of minerals, squeaky clean and thirsty (you must hydrate while here).  As far as I was concerned, my birthday mission to swim in thermal water was accomplished, but there was more to come.

We got in our KIA c’eed rental car (we chose the cheapest model, knowing we wouldn’t be driving anywhere too extreme and the weather forecast was good but I’m sure a 4×4 would be more fun) and drove 40 minutes to Hveragerði where I had booked us in to the Frost and Fire hotel (rate was 137 GBP per night on hotels.com).  I read a lovely review of the hotel in this great summary by Guide to Iceland  – they had me at ‘boil your breakfast egg in a hot spring.’  The smell of sulphur pervaded as we got out of the car, but I didn’t mind.  We loved our room with a view of the river and managed to get a 6:30PM dinner reservation at their onsite slow-food Restaurant Varma, which was our best meal of the whole trip.  I had the starter of liquorice lamb with rye croutons and anise sauce, followed by arctic char with butternut squash as a main (fish of the day).  The crowd-pleaser was the decadent dessert of hot spring cooked chocolate cake with whiskey salted caramel mousse and salted caramel ice cream.  Thanks to our 5AM start and our long soak in geothermal waters, we fell asleep (in daylight) by 9PM.  The bed was comfy.

Day Two (Saturday) – Hveragerði, The Golden Circle, and Reykjavik

We woke up around 6AM, put on our bathrobes and immediately made our way to the heated geothermal swimming pool.  It was raining outside, but the pool was oh-so-warm.  Then we had a soak in each of the two hot tubs surrounded by hot springs and misty mountains.  After showering we made our way to brunch by 8AM and spent an hour feasting on home-made sourdough fruit bread, steamed rye bread, skyr (the local yogurt) with home-made preserves, home-made muesli and many other treats.  And yes – I boiled my morning egg in a hot spring outside.  This was the best free breakfast I have ever had.  A real birthday treat.  Before checking out, we asked the hotel staff for some advice and they told us about a brisk 30-minute walk around the hotel grounds and gave us very easy to follow driving directions to make our way around the key sites of the Golden Circle and on to our final destination for the evening in Reykjavik.  This is the day we were thankful to have rainproof gear and warm layers.

We visited the Kerið Volcanic Crater, the Skálholt Church, then to Geysir to see Strokkur, and finally to Gullfoss waterfall (very impressive) – it was like a treasure hunt interspersed with scenic driving.  Before leaving we got into the wrong rental car (luckily we realized before buckling up), found our actual rental car, and prepared for the final 30-minute drive to the capital where our Air B’n’B awaited us.  We had some great tunes for the car ride and listened to a fair bit of Icelandic radio (favourite moment = when Solid as a Rock came on – it became our trip anthem).  The best part was stopping for tomato soup at Friðheimar in Reykholt (after the church and before Geysir) – a total gem of a place that we would not have discovered if it wasn’t for the recommendation from the receptionist at Frost and Fire hotel.  It’s a big greenhouse (farm, really) that specializes in all things tomato and was the most tasty lunch experience I’ve had in a long time.  It’s not to be missed (make sure you try the olive  bread).

Driving into Reykjavik and finding our Air B’n’B was so simple.  There were several parking lots nearby and I recognized the house from the photos on the website immediately.  It took no time to feel at home.  The other people staying at the property were warm and friendly and we were so impressed with how charming and clean the place was for such a reasonable rate (85 GBP per night).  We had a little nap and then made our way to the nearby Harpa Concert Hall for my pre-booked birthday dinner at Kolbrautin, which has affiliations with the River Cafe in London and does Icelandic food with a Mediterranean flare.  We went for the 5-course tasting menu, which was delicious, but we found that the restaurant itself felt a bit to stiff and cold (it was literally cold – we were needing our layers).  It’s a shame, because the view was spectacular but in retrospect I should have gone with the Elle-recommended Kopar, which was my gut instinct, or the highly recommended Grillmarket.  We passed out by 11PM, bellies full of scallops, burrata, lamb and more delicious sourdough bread.

Day Three – Rekyjavik, Stykkishólmur, and Hotel Búðir

After a quick internet search in bed, I mapped out a nearby venue to get some breakfast at Bergsson Mathús.  We splurged on their complete breakfast, which included a boiled egg, sourdough bread, hummus, skyr with muesli and preserves, prosciutto and fruit.  After all, we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us.  All was sublime.  I also noted how every breakfast we had and cafe we visited offered cod liver oil with little shot glasses – the two most common brands were Lysi and Dropi (a bottle of which will set you back 35 GBP because it’s that pure).  If you’re not familiar with the health benefits of taking cod liver oil daily, then look into this, especially if you suffer from joint pain, depression or lack of sunshine – cod liver oil offers Vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids.  We strolled around the capital for an hour and visited two key sites: Hallgrímskirkja church and Reykjavík Roasters for the best cup of coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…)  We found Reykjavik to be charming and cheerful but our minds were on getting into the countryside.  After a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to get a new map and make sure we had planned the best driving route, we were on our way to hopefully drive up to Stykkishólmur (town where scenes from Walter Mitty were shot), go for a swim in one of many outdoor thermal swimming pools along our route, do a bit of seal-watching and then end up at the long-awaited Hotel Búðir.  The drive out of the capital was simple enough but we weren’t expecting the long stretch of road that was an underwater tunnel or the drastic change in weather as we went from sunny and blue skies on one side to wind and hail on the other.  However, as everyone told us, the weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can literally change from one minute to the next.  Luckily this happened several times for the better.  There was about one minute of driving through wind that created a snowstorm where we got very nervous, but before we knew it, it was calm again.  When we finally arrived at Stykkishólmur, the winds were so strong that we could barely get out of the car.  Luckily I had done some research into hotels on the peninsula and recognized Hotel Egilsen (known for its storytelling hour and cocomat beds) as we pulled in.  Despite the stormy weather outside, folks indoors were calm and cool and the hotel receptionist pointed to the only place open for lunch that late right across the street at Narfeyrarstofa where we served by the charming Gudrun who advised us on a shorter route to our final destination and looked up the wind forecast for us to assure us we would be safe.  Needless to say, more thermal pool swims and our plan to drive around the entire peninsula sadly went out the window – we had just enough time to get to where we needed to be before a snowstorm started.  Our lunch was delicious – I chose the creamy seafood soup (more like a bisque) while my boyfriend had one of five creative burger choices (apparently the ‘mafia’ burger – containing sun dried tomatoes – is the best one, but he went for their classic).  A local family next to us ordered the dessert of chocolate pots and hot chocolates, which smelled heavenly, but we were too full and ready to get on the road.  We skipped out on the library of water there but had a quick look through the window of the embroidery shop which was transformed into a pub for the scene from the Walter Mitty movie.

After a somewhat tense 1-hour journey – the landscape is both mesmerizing and intimidating to city drivers – we arrived at Hotel Búðir and it was everything we had anticipated.  Completely isolated and wonderfully cozy on the interior, with impressive views all around, this hotel is special.  Sadly the snow created a view that was more blurry than breathtaking but we didn’t let that keep us from a short wander around the grounds.  We were told the kitchen would close at 8PM so, still full up from lunch, we ordered just two small plates off the menu – the salmon tartare starter and the chocolate fondant dessert – both were a treat for the eyes and the tongue.  And there was more sourdough bread with garlic butter – impossible to resist. We stayed up late reading and watching films, hoping we might see the Northern Lights, but it didn’t happen.

Day Four – Hotel Búðir, Reykjavik and back to the airport 

We woke up early on our last day for breakfast at 8AM (another nice selection of bread, smoked salmon, skyr and of course cod liver oil) to full on sunshine and breathtaking views.  We had one more quick walk around the property and we were wishing we had more time to spend on walking and staying in this isolated corner of the world.  The friendly receptionist told us that she enjoys being at this hotel so much because she can feel a special energy coming from the nearby glacier that’s on the border of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (on a really clear day, you can see it from reception).  It’s no wonder that the hotel hosts many weddings and special events – it’s a beautiful and powerful place.  The weather was perfect for our 3-hour drive back to the capital where we were determined to have one more quick walk around and a much lauded hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – a tiny little stand by the harbor that would be easy to miss.  Our journey was smooth and easy and left us with an hour to find a dog.  I normally avoid pork, but I had a nibble.  They were so good my boyfriend went for seconds (with all the toppings).  We then got back in the car for our final 40-minute drive to the airport to catch our 3:25PM flight to Gatwick airport  (we flew Wow! on the way back because BA only has two flights per week).  Things got a little hairy when we realized we had driven by the last petrol station and needed to back-track to fill up the rental car, but things went smoothly (minus getting charged for an extra carry-on by Wow! – n.b. you can literally have ONE bag only – no extra laptop case or purse!) from there.

All in all, it was a great trip and will help to make the next one more special.  Next time I will be guided by less touristy natural lagoons and hot springs since bathing was my favourite thing and perhaps work in a bit more out-door adventure.  There are tons of tours and outings to choose from if you don’t mind group excursions, such as glacier hiking, scuba diving and helicopter rides over volcanoes, but we kept it simple.  I will also be guided by any opportunity to learn more about Icelandic cooking and food since, in my (and Rick Stein’s) opinion, Icelandic chefs have got it right!

Summary of key suggestions:

  • Rent a car.  At least get gravel insurance (the handsome man at the car rental place said that 4/10 people return cars damaged.  And yes – sometimes doors get blown off cars because of the wind…)  You don’t need a GPS – a map will do
  • Check the weather – it changes constantly and you need to be mindful of how strong the wind is before you get on the road – cars do get blown off the road in some conditions/areas.  This website was recommend to us: http://en.vedur.is
  • Book ahead for the Blue Lagoon and watch the little video on their website about the experience so there are no surprises.  Some people are surprised to find out it’s man-made.  I didn’t care – it was still a wonderful experience but next time a visit to a natural volcanic lagoon is a must
  • Bring sunglasses and a towel to the Blue Lagoon if you get the cheapest entry option
  • Don’t get your heart set on the Northern Lights – they are elusive – let it be a pleasant surprise if it happens
  • Bring a water bottle to refill continuously – the water from the tap is pure and wonderful!
  • Eat Out- the food is wonderful in Iceland, but be prepared to splurge (pretty much London prices)
  • Create a good music playlist for the car journey (maybe a little Sigur Ros?)
  • Pack for all weather conditions (especially rain) and buy one of their wonderful jumpers (regret that I didn’t!)
  • Go for 5 days minimum if you can and fly BA both ways if you can – our flight over was much nicer than the one back!

Hotels

  • Frost and Fire Hotel – our favourite (best brunch and hot tubs!) just 30 minutes outside the capital
  • Air B’n’B – a nice selection in the capital and a good alternative to corporate looking hotels…
  • Hotel Egilsen – we didn’t stay here but it’s on my list for the next time we go to Stykkisholmur – they have coco-mats, storytelling and brownies in the afternoon
  • Hotel Búðir – truly unique and wonderful hotel if you want to feel what it’s like to be at the edge of the world (2.5 hours from capital)
  • ION Luxury Hotel – we didn’t stay here but it was recommended in Elle – views and spa look amazing, but reviews suggest it’s a little stuffy
  • Reykjavik Marina Hotel – Rick Stein stayed here – lovely views of the harbor

Restaurants

  • Restaurant Varma – our best culinary experience at the Frost and Fire hotel
  • Kolbrautin – fancy and delicious but a little stuffy at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
  • Grillmarket – everyone recommends the tasting menu here (prepare to spend a lot) in Reykjavik
  • Kopar – Elle-recommended and looks great (wish we went here!) in Reykjavik
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – the best hot-dogs in Reykjavik
  • Narfeyrarstofa – delicious wholesome food served by lovely Gudrun  in Stykkisholmur
  • Reykjavík Roasters – best coffee in Reykjavik
  • Friðheimar – tomato soup heaven in Rekyholt
  • Bergsson Mathus – best brunch in in Reykjavik
  • The Laundromat Cafe – another great brunch place in Reykjavik that we didn’t have time to try
  • Dill Restaurant – one of Rick Stein’s visits – looks amazing!
  • Maturg Og Drykkur – Rick Stein learned about cooking with butter and whey here (wish we had known about it!)
  • The Sea Baron – If you want to try some of the local (smelly) specialities or fish kebabs – on our list for next time!
  • Fjorubordid Restaurant – Rick Stein had a delicious langoustine soup here (although I bet the one I had in Styykisholmur was just as good!)

Sites We Saw

  • Blue Lagoon
  • Hallgrímskirkja
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park
  • Snæfellsnes Peninsula
  • Harpa Concert Hall
  • Kerið Volcanic Crater
  • Gullfoss waterfall
  • Skálholt
  • Strokkur
  • Library of Water

Health Food

Morning Pancake Meditation

February 9, 2016

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This year I am devoting myself to keeping record of a few of my favourite, revisited, tried and tested healthy recipes on my blog so I can make them easy to share with more lovely people.

No doubt, many recipes I share will be inspired by my good friend and healthy cooking inspiration Christopher James Clark, author of Nutritional Grail.  I met Chris (who would find it very funny that I initially spelled that Christ) way back when he lived in Crete and was the chef on a yoga retreat I was attending.  His healthy, macrobiotic meals were revolutionary for me.  They proved that healthy, whole-food cooking is delicious, satisfying and very accessible!  I returned home with a collection of his recipes and spent the next few months tackling each and every one one of them from his lemony-dill chickpea dish to his chocolate chip banana cookies (yes – I will soon post about those).  In recent years, Chris has focused more on paleo-inspired meals (adding high quality meat dishes to the mix) and you can follow his blog and Instagram account for daily, mouth-watering inspiration.

Today I am sharing his recipe for Basic Buckwheat Pancakes from Nutritional Grail.  This recipe is killer and I revisit it time and again especially when I’m taking a break from gluten and craving something ‘bread-like’ to bite into!  It’s also slightly fermented making this very easy to digest.  My preferred way to eat these is with tahini and a bit of honey OR a bit of avocado and tomato if I’m going for savoury.  My boyfriend slathers his with cream cheese and jam (not approved by me) – but the point is you can take some artistic liberty here.  I like to add a little lemon zest and some of my favourite spices (such as cinnamon and cardamom to the batter) to give them some extra zing!  I heat organic, cold-pressed coconut oil in the pan and enjoy the slow process of creating my stack.

I find pancake-making quite meditative and often practice Tadasana and steady breathing whilst waiting to flip each cake.  Chris estimates 2 minutes to let each side cook although for me it’s more like 2-3 minutes one side and 30 seconds the second side to ensure the pancake doesn’t fall apart upon flipping!  You can’t rush the process so turn it into a practice of being present – enjoy the sizzling sound of the batter hitting the pan, marvel at the little bubbles that form as the pancake cooks, enjoy the fragrance and satisfaction of creating a pretty stack.  Of course if that sounds a little too peaceful for your mornings, you could also do a sun salutation while waiting for one side to cook.

You can eat them nice and warm on the spot or save them for later to accompany a nice soup or ‘saucy’ meal – they’re great for soaking up juices or rolling up with nut butter for later consumption!

Please note that you’ll need to plan ahead roughly two nights ahead so you can soak the buckwheat one night and then allow for some fermenting the second night.

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups buckwheat, soaked overnight

2 tablespoons full-fat yogurt (I use Rachel’s organic greek-style yoghurt)

1 tablespoon molasses or barley syrup (optional)

1 teaspoon baking powder (optional)

2 eggs

Salt (I use pink himalayan or sea salt)

Butter

Cooking Instructions

Strain buckwheat and discard the soaking water.  Put buckwheat into the blender.  Add just enough water to make it thick, yet homogenous puree. Pour this puree into a nonreactive bowl and stir in yogurt and sweetener.  Cover and ferment 8 to 24 hours. Stir in all remaining ingredients.  Bring a nonstick pan to medium-low heat with a little butter.  Ladle 1/2 cup batter onto the pan and cook 2 mins per side.

My Yoga is Not For Show

January 29, 2016

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I love visuals. I love sharing and celebrating moments in my life with photographs. I love films, colourful books and artwork, well-illustrated magazines and cookbooks. I love anatomy drawings and the diagram I have of a skeleton from an old French schoolroom that is mounted on my wall. I love to see things explained and stories told pictorially.

But not everything can be seen.

I love my iphone camera and Instagram, just as I loved my old point-and-shoot cameras, the first battery-operated Kodak camera that preceded them, and the old photo albums and scrapbooks I used to keep. I love capturing beauty, light, life and landscapes through the lens to share with others in real time (or to keep for myself for later viewing on a rainy day).

But not everything can be shown.

I love watching dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, the Olympics and all the movement arts that display the limitless abilities of our majestic bodies. I love gasping in awe when a body defies gravity, sighing with relief when someone lands on their feet, yearning from every cell in my body to dance and move my hips, and feel the spring of foot against floor the way those who have trained their bodies through relentless practice do with grace and ease. I can imagine how it would feel in my own body because yoga has connected me with my movement centre, the inner dancer who has always been there.

But not everything is meant to be performed.

And because I have no interest in harming myself to achieve something my limbs are not ready for (and may not ever have been designed to do) in an attempt to emulate what has come before or imitate what might appear on the cover of a yoga magazine, I have to remind myself to keep my practice inside.  This is and has been my yoga philosophy since injuring myself during practice over seven years ago: Focus on the feeling, not the display. Go for the subtle, not the intense. Use yoga to heal, not to harm. Listen, don’t look. Practice for me and no one else. Because yoga is not for show.

The above is a little ‘matifesto’ (I believe this term was coined by the clever Alexandra Franzen) I wrote to myself last year following an experience doing yoga in a display window for a popular yoga clothing brand (more on that below). It is something I have to revisit from time to time to keep my practice safe and to keep my teaching sincere. While the physical practice of yoga asana can challenge our bodies as it invites our fascial matrix (connective tissue) to bend, fold, twist, turn, and lengthen in the way a dancer’s body does effortlessly, the ability to practice difficult poses is NOT criteria for being a ‘yogi.’ And while becoming more flexible and bouncy in our bodies can inspire us to be more expressive and more daring with our movement, there is a fine line to cross before pushing it too far to the extreme. What is essential to practice yoga is the abandonment of any kind of perfectionism, the self-discipline to go only so deep into a pose to trigger subtle sensations, a willingness to listen, a commitment to being patient, and a certain amount of humility or humbleness to keep at one with the true aim of yoga practice, which has little to do with what you look like.

I once read an article somewhere that said the sign of a good yoga teacher is someone who shares, doesn’t show. It rang so true but I also thought, what a challenge! Could I explain movement to someone without demonstration or synchronization of my movement with theirs?

Yes. And perhaps more profoundly so.

I’ve been teaching large, flow-style studio yoga classes for almost four solid years now and over this time I have slowly developed my yoga teaching voice – its cadence, its clarity, and its connection with ‘the moves.’ I have also developed an awareness of the vast variety of people who come to practice yoga, their physical limitations, hang-ups and insecurities. They are mostly shy, like I was, but a little voice has told them yoga may hold an answer they’ve been seeking, may bring relief to an aching body that just wants to dance, and so they have braved the first step of walking into the classroom. And would my way of encouraging them be to lift myself up into a challenging arm balance or flip myself upside down in an inversion? To show off rock-hard abs and a Lycra clad body? No. Why? Because while that may motivate some, it would probably scare off others who can’t even imagine reaching their toes with their fingertips. I like to ease my students into their practice. I love teaching beginners (who naturally have the essential ‘beginners mind’) because they are willing to take it slow. My number one goal in teaching is to have everyone leave the classroom feeling good, feeling calmer, warmer and more alive in their bodies, not deflated, achy, or worried they may have hurt themselves. I’ve been there. Many times. And it’s a discouraging place.

I’ve probably led you to think I teach in a cloak curled up in a ball in the middle of the classroom, but in fact I do wear figure fitting yoga clothes and demonstrate some of the postures because, in the beginning, it does help to see. During my training my teachers explained to me the different levels or ‘limbs’ of yoga – they start with the physical and evolve into the deeper, yet more subtle practice of meditation. The physical is the entry point into the less tangible world of eliminating one’s inner chatter to find inner peace. We have to start with what we can see and then we can move on to address those things we can’t.

So, in teaching, I keep to occasional demonstrations and soft adjustments. I look at each person as an individual. I encourage everyone to make yoga work for them, not the other way around. I don’t try to be a model for my students, instead I am a facilitator and guide. I admit my limitations in arm binds, inversions, and other asanas that my body has not found yet and remind students that the prep work for advanced poses is where it’s at. I don’t look for perfect bodies, flat stomachs, or long limbs. I look for soft smiles, uncreased brows, lifted hearts, relaxed shoulders, focused gazes and all the true physical manifestations of a body that has found its home on the mat.

Do I think all of the yoga images we see today are bad? Of course not – they are simply images. It’s all down to how you interpret them and how they are used to market yoga. The human body is a remarkable thing and it’s lovely to see it expressed in different ways. Yoga poses and mudras make for great expressions. Clothing is also a fun way to externally express your inner colour so if you feel beautiful in a certain outfit and in a certain pose and you want to capture that moment, then why not? I’ve had rare moments where I have simultaneously felt beautiful and in the mood for some self-portraiture and done just this. I’ve had more moments sitting in meditation in my pjs with bed-head where I’ve felt equally gorgeous, but not necessarily camera ready. What has never felt and never will feel right is practicing yoga or posing for yoga with a large, scrutinizing audience waiting for my next trick.

Occasionally I get lured back into the ego space of wanting to look a certain way. Last year I was asked to do ‘yoga in the window’ for a popular clothing brand. I agreed on the condition that I would not allow myself to ‘perform’ for the passersby, that instead I would take on the task of representing the less lean ‘yoga body’ that is excluded from most yoga marketing and would demonstrate a softer practice. Maybe I would even just sit there and meditate. But when I arrived on the scene and observed the preceding model (a trained dancer like most of those chosen) bobbing her head up and down to the beats of a live DJ whilst holding her right leg up in Paschimotonasa, I started feeling inferior and completely not up for the job. I wanted to run; I wanted to hide, but there was a voice that said – follow through with this Kate, there is a lesson here. So, heart racing, insecurities abounding, I chose an outfit to model and got in the window display. I took three deep breaths and tried hard to centre myself but the thumping music and amassing crowd of pedestrians gathering around the window had my nervous system in overdrive. I was worried about the sweat dripping off my face, but did everything I could to keep my cool and stick to the plan. Did I stay true to my intention?

No. How could I? I was completely disconnected from me. I was clothed in brand new yoga bottoms and top but I felt naked. My senses were heightened so much as a means of protection that I couldn’t find my breath. I ignored but could feel impatient eyes upon me. One gentleman even decided to come into the shop and stand behind me as he stared at my bottom in a forward fold so his mates outside could take a picture. And why wouldn’t he? I was a moving mannequin advertising an outfit in public. I ended my 1- hour window (which felt like an eternity) ten minutes early. They allowed me to keep the free outfit, which I have since given away. For the next day, no the next week, my body got back at me with stiffness and pain. My nerves were so revved up that I hardly slept a wink that night. I woke up and journaled for an hour. I didn’t regret the experience, instead I felt immense gratitude to the Universe for showing me that my approach was right all along. That cemented it for me.  True yoga practice requires deep connection with your breath, full immersion in your being and humbleness.  The rest is just for show.

Memory and Time

January 26, 2016

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Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did. – Penelope Lively

Every winter for the past ten years, I have returned to my hometown near Boston to spend Christmas with my family.  While the house my parents live in is not my childhood home (they moved to a bigger home when I went off to University), I am nevertheless confronted by an accumulation of relics from my past.  No matter how far I’ve traveled or how many life-changing experiences I’ve had since moving to Europe, the objects I’ve saved in my parents’ home trigger crystal clear memories of an earlier Kate and the American life that I left behind.

And while for the past few years I’ve been completely absorbed in the process of de-cluttering and reducing the amount of physical objects in my possession, I have found that there are certain objects so infused with memory that they deserve some kind of formal farewell or testimonial before sending them off to a new home.  It’s true that the memories mean more than the actual things and I do hope that my memory stays strong and clear until I die, but just in case it doesn’t or just in case future generations want to know a little about the lives that preceded them, I thought I would write a story for each object I came across that seemed to play an important role in shaping who I am today.

I don’t mean to dwell on the past.  Quite the contrary – I’m good at closing doors and moving on.  But I’ve always loved learning about people and their pasts and reading memoirs, and I thought this could be a stepping stone to a potentially larger project.  I also realized that the most valuable relics from my past that I came across were hand-written letters, poems, post-cards – things that oozed the nature and character of the person behind the pen.  Words are a powerful means of conveying a life and a time lost and I want to continue in that tradition, even if I must do so digitally.  Some of these relics I will save, but others I can write about and then let go.

I might also add that I’ve always been intrigued by how we human beings unconsciously or quite consciously document our lives.  This was the topic of my Master’s dissertation for my Media Studies course, completed just ten years ago at a time when social media and digital photography were just starting to eclipse less public forms of documentation.  Instagram didn’t exist then and neither did iPhones.  I predicted, based on ethnographic research, that people would not entirely abandon traditional self-documentation via traditional media like scrapbooks, photo albums, SLR cameras and diaries, but would continue to combine them with digital forms of self-documentation.  I was somewhat right, but I didn’t realize just how much things would change over the next decade.  I didn’t realize that nearly every photograph I took would be on my phone and shared in ‘real’ time and that photo albums would become a thing of my past.

Part of me really loves this reduction in the need to keep physical reminders of my past (so long DVDs, farewell CDs, goodbye to boxes of photo ‘doubles’ that will never be looked at) – I feel lighter and more free with every possession I shred or release back into the world for someone else to explore.  But another part of me relishes the smell of old photographs and the connection I feel to my former self when turning the pages of an old coloring book or reading poems I wrote as a confused teenager.  It is perhaps my parents’ keepsakes that are the most meaningful and precious – an anniversary card my mom wrote to my father back in the seventies when they were younger than me, a signed copy of a book of poetry by Robert Frost, black-and-white photos of my dad and his brother dressed in cowboy costumes in the late forties that my now deceased grandfather took with his cherished camera.  They give a tangible sense of a life well-lived, a journey and consistent change.

So let this be the beginning of a series of posts on the topic of memory and the past and celebrating a life well-lived (so far).  I’ll theme them ‘Objects from my Life.’  And I’ll decide what items will stay and which can go.

And before I close this post, I have provided a passage below from a book by Penelope Lively called ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time’, which found me at the new Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road one day as I was having a wander around after teaching.  I didn’t purchase the book at that moment because I was trying to reduce the number of books I own.  I nearly bought it as a Christmas gift for my parents (the book is described as a ‘view from old age’ rather than a memoir) but I didn’t want them to think I was hinting at their growing old or unknowingly gift them a depressing read.  So the book sat in my Amazon shopping cart so I wouldn’t forget the title.  Until one day (New Year’s Eve – my first day back in London), I was pulled into one of the charity shops on the way to the train station in Twickenham and low and behold, there it was sitting on the shelf in sparking new condition for 2 quid.  So I bought it.  I was meant to read it.  And I just finished reading the section on Memory and must share these brilliant words:

“The past can be conjured up by the appropriate aroma, much as supermarkets seek to induce a spending appetite with the smell of newly baked bread, and house agents urge us to woo prospective buyers with a waft of fresh coffee.

But it is not that memory is scented, rather – if the Proust phenomenon exists – that smells evoke a time, a place.  That moment has not gone, can be recovered, because an experience in the present brings it back; my London garden is tenuously linked to what was in 1942 a Palestinian hillside.  This is the sense in which memory is the mind’s triumph over time.  The same has been said of history, and I relish both concepts; it is as though individually and collectively, we succeed  in seizing hold of what is no longer there, that which should be unavailable, and making it miraculously permanent and accessible because it matters so much, because we need it.

We are robust about time, linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it.  Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.  Time is of the essence, or it is quality, or time will tell.  We talk about it…all the time, I find myself writing.  There.  But when I think about time, I am awed.  I am more afraid of time than of death – its inexorability, its infinitude.  It is unthinkable as space – another word we tame by making every use of it.  And in old age I am time made manifest; sitting here, writing this on a summer afternoon, twelve minutes past three, the watch hand moving relentlessly round, my weathered body is the physical demonstration of passing time, of the fact that eighty years have had their way with it, that I ain’t what I used to be.  I have lived with time, in time, in this particular stretch of time, but before too long time will dump me; it has far to go, and we don’t keep up with it.  None of us, ever.

Fifteen minutes past three.

Impersonal, indifferent; it neither knowns nor cares .  It sweeps us along, the ever-rolling stream and all that, nothing to be done about it, but we do have this one, majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time – memory.  We know where we have been in time, and not only do we know, but we can go back, revisit.  When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hill-side, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).  Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.”

(pp. 157-158, ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,’ by Penelope Lively).

Clearing Out

December 31, 2015

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As much as I adore the old photos I have of my parents and the smell of old books, I love how my current life documentation doesn’t infringe upon my limited living space.

At the beginning of every new year, I set intentions as a way to celebrate a blank canvas and build upon the foundations I set the year prior.  In the past I set resolutions that were more like punishments for what I didn’t achieve in the preceding year – usually some kind of unnecessary weight loss or exercise regimen or list of books to read that I had bought and not touched.  Of course those were never very fun or motivating so I stopped that tradition and turned it around by allowing myself to truly hit the reset button and ask for meaningful change in my life.  An intention should come from a clear space in your mind, from a humming in your heart, from a fresh new perspective that feels exciting and unknown.  It should thrill you and challenge you but also feel right and doable.  It should guide all your actions and inspire new paths.  Does ‘lose five kilos’ do that for you? Probably not.

I don’t have to think hard about intentions – visions for new ventures start to percolate in my head throughout the preceding year.  In the past I would try to act upon them immediately or stress if I didn’t have time to manage them all, but over time I’ve learned that some ideas that come to you are just seeds that need time to grow or pieces of fruit that need to ripen and thus I’ve learned to save them for a later date or more appropriate timing when they are ready to be birthed.  That’s why every new year is like a gift – sometimes it gives the green light to that thing that’s been whispering to you for a while and still feels meaningful.  Sometimes it’s just the vibe of those days between Christmas and New Years that allow you to step back and have a clearer vision of what needs to happen to create positive change ahead.  While getting ideas for intentions isn’t a challenge to me, what can be hard is harnessing all those ideas and finding the common ground – why are these ideas coming to me?  What are they ultimately guiding me towards? Why bother?

Therefore, to assist in the process of giving thanks to the past year (I don’t like goodbyes) and greeting the new year with welcome arms (sources tell me 2016 is going to need a hug), I also choose a word to define each year and what I sense it will be/desire it to be about and that helps me to create an action plan.  For 2015, my word was CLEARING.

Perhaps it was my boyfriend moving in with me in a flat with no storage space or the threat of possibly having to move flat completely, or maybe my life was just feeling heavy, but I had this overwhelming desire to shed the items I own and to do another massive de-clutter.  I had already started the process when moving flats in 2013 but I was craving more space and a simpler life and I knew that physical matter was getting in the way.  So I set an intention to confront what was clogging not only my flat but my life to create more flow.  Verdict?  Pretty successful.

Not only did I commit myself to culling items, but my friends caught wind and also started packing irrelevant objects and passing them on to friends, charity shops, etc.  It’s probably no coincidence that the best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, came into my life around February and has been making its rounds in my social circle.  Marie’s one critical piece of advice to only keep items that ‘bring you joy’ has been the fog horn in my head every time I nearly lapse back into a hoarder’s mindset of what if this will be useful in the future? or what if ‘so-and-so’ would be upset if I gave away this gift they gave to me that I hate and never use?  KATE – but WILL IT BRING YOU JOY???? I could imagine Marie asking.  Usually the answer is no.  And the action?  It goes!

Obviously ‘joy’ may not apply to practical items like utensils – that being said, I only have four butter knives and four forks from a fancy set I found on sale that I LOVE and use repeatedly to eat delicious food that I make so actually I am getting joy from silverware and crockery.  But it absolutely works when considering items that have more emotional weight or aesthetic appeal.  And it works when it relates to objects from the distant past, which feel more like relics from a lost time that will never repeat itself.  What resonated for me from Marie’s philosophy was that it wasn’t about getting rid of everything extraneous to live a minimalist life.  It allowed you to keep objects that create a little glow inside you (that’s what joy feels like to me).

I just returned from my family home near Boston after a week there away from my real home in London.  I still have a room there and two closets and lots of belongings from my former life as an American child/teenager/college student trying to find her identity and her passions and alternately failing/succeeding in doing so.  I also come from a gift-giving family.  That’s how we show love, even to the detriment of our wallets.  Every time I return to Boston to visit my parents (usually about twice a year), I go through old items (New Kids on the Block paraphernalia, dolphin-inspired jewelry, dinosaur books, Brad Pitt posters, course notebooks from all my studies, prom dresses, etc.) and separate them into bags for either ‘shredding’, sending to ‘charity’ or passing on to my nieces. Every year the process becomes more refined.  In the beginning, there was a lot of junk to go through, but the items that remain are now mostly glow-worthy or sell on Ebay-worthy.

I wasn’t sure what my energy would be like when I was visiting my parents or how much time I wanted to spend with dusty boxes and old memories, but it turns out I was primed for a productive week of weeding out.  I was like a machine – once I got stuck in, I was on a mission to leave for London knowing I left my parents home ‘clearer’ than it was before.  I am finally feeling that the end is in sight but I still have a little ways further to go.  Even all the items that bring me joy are unlikely to follow me through an itinerant life.  At the end of the day, possessions are a burden.

Ironically, one of the boxes I had to clear out was the one containing notes and rough drafts of my Master’s dissertation on the topic of how people store memories and their lives using traditional and virtual media (this was 10 years ago when Facebook and online photography was just getting more popular and I had returned to my parents home for the summer from London to finish up my degree work).  Let’s just say as an avid photographer, collector and scrapbooker as a kid, I have amassed a mighty collection of keepsakes in tangible form but later years have seen me move most of my memories into the digital realm (big fan of Instagram).  As much as I adore the old photos I have of my parents and the smell of old books, I love how my current life documentation doesn’t infringe upon my limited living space.

If I could change the prediction I made about the future of self-documentation I made while studying Media (which was that most people will maintain tangible and virtual forms of documentation instead of new replacing the old), I would say that, for someone like me, the first 25 years of his/her life will be reflected in physical items but the later half is likely to be contained significantly online – not simply because we’re not paying attention to how digital activity is taking over our lives but perhaps it’s even a concerted effort to lighten up life and not hoard, to never have to de-clutter ever again in the future – because it’s TIRING and TIME CONSUMING and probably a lot worse when it’s not your stuff.  So when going through relics of my past, I asked the question – is this something that will help future generations learn something meaningful about me?  Is it really a special item that is unique to me and my background?  Are my softball trophies bringing me joyful memories of my childhood?  No.  I never even liked playing softball.  I wasn’t good at it either – my mom confessed that she convinced the coach to give us all trophies one year because she thought it was unfair the same kids got the same ones every year (um, probably because they were good at sports and I wasn’t?).  Thanks Mom.  And no thanks all at once.  I love you.  I’ve kept one of the four trophies I earned 🙂 For now.

So here I am at the end of 2015 and I’m looking back proudly about how much I LET GO OF.  And this went beyond just physical clutter.  I realized I was really tired and that an early morning yoga class I was teaching wasn’t working with my schedule so I let go of that – the lack of sleep was over-powering the joy the class brought to me teaching it for the first three years.  I also let go of over-planning for a year and passed the torch to my boyfriend to plan a holiday for us in Thailand.  This was a beautiful experience – both seeing a new country and also allowing someone else to hold the reigns.  Did everything go the way I would have wanted it to?  Mostly yes.  Some things no.  But it didn’t matter – I let go of control.  I let go of trying to please everyone and do everything and had two working ‘holidays’ teaching abroad to grow my experience as a yoga teacher.  I let go of ‘needing’ to have a piano in my flat (for now) and embraced a smaller shruti box instrument to keep my musical side going.

So what does this mean for 2016?  Well, there’s a reason why ‘de-clutter’ or ‘clean’ weren’t my words for 2015, I chose ‘clearing’ because it needed to go somewhere and I really feel that I have cleared abundant space and a path towards more creativity in the year up ahead.  I want to write more, share more, teach more, build more, collaborate more – I want to stamp my nice new logo on more things that I hope will bring joy into others’ lives (and not take up room in their closets).  And I wouldn’t be feeling this way if I hadn’t committed to my word for 2015 – if I had forgotten this guiding force as I chose how to spend my time, where to focus my energy and what to let go of in my life.

So for 2016 I encourage you to think of a word that will be your foghorn.  What will ring LOUD AND CLEAR and keep you from slipping into old habits.  What needs to define your actions?  What will set the foundation for 2017?

If you think Clearing is a good word for you (or you just need to get rid of crap), then you might want to read on for a short summary of my de-cluttering experience:

  • Get a copy of Marie Kondo’s book to inspire you (better yet, download it to your Kindle).  Wish I had written it myself.  In fact, that was an ‘idea’ I had a long time ago, but I’m glad Marie manifested it.  I can tick that off my list and I’m not sure I would have hit the nail on the head with the ‘joy’ thing – very helpful.
  • One area where I disagree with Marie Kondo is in her philosophy that all de-cluttering must be done at once.  I say de-clutter in sections and allow for breaks.  I agree that you have to be 100% into it and stay focused but I also think you need to break it down by room or object and give yourself a good span of time because it’s DRAINING to go through old shit – especially if you’re doing it mindfully.  It can be emotional.
  • Which leads me to this one – de-clutter MINDFULLY.  That doesn’t mean you should spend 5 minutes deliberating over every item.  No way – don’t over-think it.  If something brings you joy, you should feel it instantly.  But then don’t just chuck things you don’t want in the rubbish.  Landfills don’t need your clutter either.  Who could turn your redundant object into something wonderful? Who could breathe life back into it?  Who might really NEED this item?  For example, sleeping bags, old coats, gloves etc. – there are a lot of homeless people approaching a cold winter.  Maybe you could even lend out items that you aren’t using but might want to use one day when you have the space/time?  Why let it sit there dormant?
  • What brought the most joy to me when going through old items?  Pieces of WRITING.  Honestly – write out your life if you want to hold on to memories.  My journal entries from third grade are a goldmine of insight into my younger self and also HILARIOUS.  I was a funny kid.  Other things?  My parents’ old photos and items they saved from a much less itinerant but no less interesting life than mine.  And most of it fits into one box. But especially anything with their handwriting on it.  I mean penmanship was a different thing back then and and even my third grade handwriting is superior to my present handwriting.  Most priceless item?  A romantic anniversary card my mom wrote to my dad with a real ‘seventies’ style photo on the front of it on the occasion of their first anniversary.  I also had to laugh when I came across this ‘About Me’ page I found in an old journal (to think how it compares to the one on my website now!  and I was totally lying – I did not like playing softball!)

‘I love animals.  I would like to be a arciologest when I grow up.  I love chocolate.  My favorite food is ice cream.  I love science.  I like to play softball.  I like to play games on the computer.  I like to color.  I was born in Boston.’

 

 

 

Big Magic

November 27, 2015

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This week I was lucky enough to go see Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favourite authors, speak live in London at an event through the How To Academy. Elizabeth was here to promote her latest book, Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear, which has received a lot of media attention.  I’ve had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth speak live in London before several years ago after she had written the ‘sequel’ to Eat, Pray, Love called Committed.  I remembered fishing feverishly around in my purse for a piece of scrap paper to record the exuberantly and graciously delivered pearls of wisdom that flowed effortlessly from her lips.   It was the same experience for me reading Eat, Pray, Love – endless underlining and highlighting, savouring quotable passage after passage written by someone who seemed to speak the language of my soul.  When another opportunity arose to listen to her live, there was no doubt in my mind it would be time and money well spent.  I was right.

As part of my ticket purchase, I received a free copy of Big Magic, which I have had to try very hard not to buy another copy of before the event so I could sneak a peek.  The book in all its colourful glory is waiting for me to delve in (perhaps this evening),  but before I even get started on it, I thought I would share some of the insight Elizabeth gave at this talk that already has me beaming with excitement for the year up head and ready to fully embrace my word for the year – Creativity.  This means that I will be giving more energy to the part of my life that gets my creative juices flowing, the part of my life that is about fulfilling my unique purpose and birthing projects that come from the heart.  Currently my creative calling is coming from yoga teaching, photography, writing, music and cooking but I want to hone in one special project and take things to the next level.  I have a feeling that ‘creativity’ will be high on the agenda for many of us in 2016.  There seems to be a real buzz of inspiration in the air, so here are a few nuggets of wisdom I took home from Elizabeth’s talk, which have reminded me why it’s important to focus on this area of our lives:

Ideas find us, we don’t find them – ‘have one foot in the real world and one foot with the faeries’ to find your calling

While I haven’t read the book yet, the title (and cover) lends one to think that it’s going to be fun.  It’s likely going to be an imaginative read rather than a how-to on writing your first book or starting a creative project.  This is precisely why it interests me.  Elizabeth had me at the get-go when she spoke of how several book critics have tried to downplay the lightness of her approach (for example, the way she personifies ideas, suggesting they have souls of their own and choose us) and referring to her illustrations as ‘metaphors.’  There’s no doubt that Elizabeth is a serious writer, but she is also a believer with a deep connection to the mystical.  She knows how to put her finger on those moments in life that defy logical explanation and press the pause button so we can delve deeper.  Believing that ideas have lives of their own and choose through whom they will be manifested makes the process of creation (not to mention life!) so much more inspiring, exciting, and yes – magical.  It reminds us to abandon projects that ‘lose their pulse’ quickly and respond to the ones that beg for our attention.  Don’t let anyone suck the magic out of your passion or your interpretation of how creativity works – let the faeries in.

Screw perfection and embrace the fact that ‘I’m just doing what I can with what I have’

After posting a question on Facebook asking her fans what stands in the way of the pursuit of creative projects, Elizabeth found that two major things came up: Fear and Lack of Time.  We fear criticism and judgement or we think we’re not ‘good enough’ to do the creative things we’re drawn to (probably because someone told us that once) so we abandon them.  I know that I felt this way for a long time about writing and sometimes even feel this way about teaching.  I was a good student at school, but often it only takes one teacher to criticize your work and deflate your passion balloon.  I had a real interest in minerals and gems and collected them as a kid but my 5th grade geology teacher managed to squash that curiosity by testing me in front of the class on rock formations in a mathematical fashion I didn’t understand.   My 30th birthday, however, was a real turning point in my life and is precisely when I decided that I could be ‘good enough’ at something to make a difference.  Could I use an editor for my writing?  Absolutely – and that’s what authors do.  But what if I just started writing again, from my heart, and see what happens? Could I be more advanced at yoga postures?  Absolutely – but I’ve got a handle on the essentials and ten years of personal experience and training that make me a great teacher so why not start spreading the joy of the practice?  And who better than a best-selling author who still gets harshly criticized to drive this point in even further? Thank you Liz for the reminder to not abandon ideas because we’re afraid we can’t be ‘the best’ or when we think we could offer more – you probably already have a lot to share and bring into the world hiding behind your fear.  Just get started.

Sometimes making time for creativity means saying no to the things you want to do, not just the things you don’t want to do

So that other issue to do with time?  It’s about setting boundaries and carving out space to prioritize your creative projects.  But setting boundaries comes with a cost.  A lot of us have trouble saying ‘no’ full stop but I have found that saying no to some (but not all!) fun social engagements and putting down a few of my beloved hobbies like piano to focus on others (maybe just temporarily), has been the only way to stay focused.  And when you feed a part of your life that has been asking for water, fully and with passion, you are so rewarded that you often forget about all the other stuff you’re not doing.

You know you’ve found your calling when you’re prepared to eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it

This wasn’t the first time I heard Liz speak about the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with the decision to pursue your creative passion as a kind of test of your dedication.  If you want to write but can’t handle the ‘shit sandwich’ of criticism or endless editing or long days spent at the computer screen, etc. that comes with it, then you might not get very far.  If you really want something, you’ll eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it and sometimes that’s saying no to things that will eat into the time you need spend on that creative idea begging for your attention (which will probably feed your soul more than anything else).  So ask yourself, ‘how are you going to navigate the part that is not satisfying?’

It’s OK to indulge yourself – your creative pursuits are not FOR anyone

You don’t need to make money from your creative project or justify it.  You don’t need to refer to it as a guilty pleasure.  It’s OK to take time to do the creative things that bring you joy simply because they bring you joy.  Indulge yourself.  It’s really OK.  And it will probably make you a better person to all those around you.

Your creativity might come from a dark place – it’s not all roses

When asked about her experience of depression (described beautifully in Eat, Pray, Love) and how that has shaped her life, Elizabeth reminded us of the blessings in life that often come in disguise and the need to be thankful for the good and the bad.  She said that her ‘journey’ out of depression was ‘creative, spiritual and psychological’ and required her to become a ‘scientist of her own experience’ because ‘anxiety and depression BEG you to think creatively.’  She reminded us of the importance of ‘looking for cells of light within the darkness’ and ‘turning your own life into a work of art.’

Your parents can give you something, but they can’t give you everything 

Just a few weeks prior to this event, I completed a teacher training for pregnancy yoga, a form of yoga that celebrates the female body, embraces a softer approach to movement and honours the absolutely magical qualities of the womb not only to create life but also to symbolize and bring awareness to the energetic home of our creative centers.  I kept thinking – it must be the most magical experience to bring life into the world and to then nurture that life, but then what?  Liz talked about how her parents gave her a beautiful childhood.  Not every child in the world gets that.  But if we managed to survive and grow into adults, that’s already something pretty special.  Because, as Liz said, our parents can’t give us the whole picture.  They can give us a lot, but then we have to fill in the missing parts, which is what makes us unique individuals.  This is exactly what she did (and what I did) by traveling and seeking out teachers.  Don’t give up on life – even if you’ve had a rough start.  Things can change and we change.  I too had loving parents whose passion for their careers no doubt encouraged me to pursue a job I love, but who I am today is not only because of them, it’s because of all the experiences I subjected myself to and all those teachers I attracted to feed my curiosity about the world beyond my hometown and beyond this planet.

Oprah really is amazing

Elizabeth gets to work with Oprah a lot so the interviewer asked her – what’s she like? I have been a big fan of Oprah ever since I was little so I was bemused.  When Oprah was on TV, she had our undivided attention and often our hearts.  She provided real topics to discuss at the dinner table.  She allowed us to get emotional. Turns out she’s as cool as she appears on her show, with a unique ability to shine the light on the creative souls that others may not see and to give them hope and encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Thanks for sharing your stories and your beautiful wisdom Liz.  I can’t wait to read your book.

Oh – and how do you know when you’ve found your creative outlet?  Elizabeth explained ‘big magic’ as ‘the happiness that comes when your genius is working well for you,’ when you are ‘in the zone.’  For me, that’s teaching yoga, that’s writing, that’s photography, that’s engaging with music – I can’t wait to keep playing and creating.  If you haven’t found yours yet, don’t give up.  Look for the things that bring you alive and maybe get a copy of this book…I have a feeling it’s going to be great.

 

Letting Go

November 13, 2015

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Here we are again it seems at the beginning of another cold season, nearing the beginning of another new year. I’m getting ready to start over and I’m writing this blog about that.

At the beginning of 2015 I decided that my word for the year would be CLEARING. It dawned upon me that it’s because ‘clearing’ is a natural precursor to next year’s word…CREATING. And then it occurred to me that I always will be (and want to be) in a cycle of clearing and creating because the two concepts are symbiotic. I have slowly adopted a clutter-free maintenance system of one item in/one item out when acquiring new things, and the same should go for projects. I can only spin so many plates at once, and some projects might be best shelved really. We simply cannot carry an entire past of unfinished or outdated projects with us through life – it gets too heavy – and I am sure that weight is not good for creating something new.

I got thinking about this on one of those days teaching abroad in Mallorca that was supposed to be a writing day but insisted on being a beach day. I was sitting by the water watching the waves roll in and out. At the same time, there was a small boy working hard to build a sandcastle. He was 100% focused; nothing was going to distract him from his methodical construction. Until a big, angry wave did just that and wiped away his entire creation.

Was he upset? Oh you better believe it. Inconsolable, hysterical and furious would describe what he was. He lashed out at his parents; he kicked the remnants of his fortress down; he could not believe how unfair the ocean was, especially when he was so close to finishing. Well, clearly this boy needs a good lesson in non-attachment I smugly thought, as if being a yoga teacher (and master de-clutterer in the making) makes me an expert in this field. Not true. Not yet at least. I felt his pain – it was such a nice castle he had built.

I had a similar experience the next day, however this time it wasn’t a sandcastle getting washed to sea, it was nearly myself, in a non-yogic panic, failing to swim stronger than the mounting waves which had seductively carried me a bit too far away from the shore. I’m pretty sure I was a mermaid in a past life, but still, my breast stroke has never inspired confidence. I managed to get back to the beach, but it was enough of a taste of the power of nature and the vulnerability of being alive to remind me that I’ve got some control over how my life pans out, but I have clearly not got control over everything.

So where am I going with this? Well, we’re approaching American Thanksgiving at the end of the month and it’s always a great occasion to be thankful for the things we normally take for granted, and this year after my incident in the ocean and a rocky flight following that, I am especially happy to have more time to write and play on this planet. But before that I want to note that we are also at a good time of year for letting go as Autumn helps us transition from summer to winter by turning the leaves miraculous colours and then helping them to let go to decompose and make room for new leaves for next year (and pretty pictures for my Instagram).

During what has now effectively been about three years of de-cluttering and simplifying my surroundings, it’s the letting go bit that gets in the way of clearing out thoroughly. Not letting go is also something that can make us quite miserable. Holding on to resentment, harbouring ill feelings, regretting past mistakes – these are obviously toxic ways of holding on. But I also hold on to things I spent money on and feel bad I haven’t used/worn enough and projects I started that I want to complete but just haven’t found the time for – and these things can also disrupt our flow. And so I have to constantly remind myself that when I get rid of something old (and that can be an obsolete possession or a negative thought), I am actually making space for something new, something unknown, a surprise. And I am embracing the present moment.

To add to this, I promise myself that there will always be new things to acquire, to inspire, to fill my days (and I avoid watching any films or TV series with post-Apocalyptic themes to convince me otherwise). Because the day after I nearly got washed away by a wave, I went back out into the ocean and kept swimming. And on that same day the little boy got his shovel and pail (‘bucket and spade’) back out and started digging up new sand. And my friend who lost all her digital photos on her phone from the past three years? Well, she started taking new ones (and now her storage is maxed out again). So I am asking you to ask yourself these questions this month – what are my most meaningful projects, possessions, and passions? How can I make more room for them and get rid of the things that simply aren’t serving me anymore/in this moment/now? Who might actually really use/benefit from/enjoy these things? What might I be blocking from entering into my life by clinging to the past?

Chances are that when you put less on your plate, less on your schedule, and less in your closet, you will make the most of those things you have and will be more focused, so you will also waste less over time and feel more grateful for what you’ve got. This is what is really driving me to let go. This weekend I tackled under the bed where I was storing a perfectly good duvet, pillows, towels and sheets (for what? my future mansion in London?!) when I know there are people collecting such items for people without homes this winter. Those are getting donated. I put a battery in an old watch I haven’t worn for two years and brought it to a second-hand shop who sold it to a person delighted to find an affordable birthday gift for someone (I imagine). I have shredded old diaries (the kind that are just calendars), passed on books I haven’t read that I know are more relevant to someone else’s current situation than my own and I cut half my hair off to remind myself that change is good (it’s grown back better and faster than ever before). I am accepting that I don’t have to drag my past through my life with me to validate my existence and things are starting to flow.

I appreciate that I am not the first person to discover the joy and peace that can come from letting go (or the catchiness of that phrase). It’s been written about a lot (before Frozen), and perhaps no where more beautifully than in texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali so here’s a quote to keep you thinking:

All life is a passing show. If we want to hold it, even for a minute, we feel tension. Nature will try to run away; we will try to pull it back and keep it. When we want to keep it, we put up barriers which ultimately cause us pain. Even with our own bodies, if we don’t want them to change, trouble will come. We will buy all kinds of make-up, creams and wigs to retain our “youth.” If only we learn to enjoy each change, we can recognize the beauty even in aging. A ripe fruit has its own beautiful taste. When we just allow things to pass, we are free. Things will just come and go while we retain our peace. – p.106, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda

Mangonana smoothie

June 12, 2015

IMG_3282Let’s get one thing straight here – I’m not a natural chef, nor would I ever boast any hidden culinary talent.  I do, however, absolutely love playing in the kitchen.  I do remarkably well when I follow a recipe, but sadly, I don’t have the same luck when improvising.  The same goes for my piano playing skills – stick a piece of sheet music in front of me (preferably Chopin) and I’ll get to work.  After days of practicing, I’ll perform something pleasant to the ear.  Ask me to let my hair down and free-style a jazz solo, and cover your ears – it won’t be pretty!  I like having a little guidance.

So I almost fell over the other day when I quickly dumped a few random ingredients from the fridge and cupboard into my blender and came up with…ONE OF THE MOST DELICIOUS SMOOTHIES I HAVE EVER TASTED.  Really – that’s how excited I was.  A fast breakfast fix on a rushed morning made both me and my boyfriend (willing to try anything) stop, savour and sigh with delight.  And then of course I had to get my iPhone out to photograph it because it was a shade of yellow I would happily paint my walls.

I’m not even a huge smoothie fan.  It’s not that I don’t think they are delicious and fun to make, it’s just that my constitution calls for warm meals and cooked foods, and cold mornings in London simply don’t leave me wanting non-local fruit and an icy belly.  It goes against everything I’ve learned studying Ayurveda and a bit of Chinese medicine through my visits to the acupuncturist to support my weak digestion.  Damp conditions in the body do not a smoothie-lover make 🙂  I normally steer clear.

But it’s officially summer now in London and in May I was abroad in Singapore and Thailand where it was actually HOT.  With the heat comes a higher tolerance and craving for cold, cooling food and fruit.  In Asia, the abundance of fresh coconuts made coconut water my jet lag fighting hydration of choice ($1 compared to £4 in London for a fresh one) and juices and smoothies from the local market (hawker centers in Singapore) had me only too overzealous to try soursop, dragon fruit and guava concoctions made fresh from local produce.  So when my boyfriend and I walked by a local green grocer in our London neighbourhood selling crates of nearly too-ripe-to-sell mangoes for £2.50 the lot, we took them straight home to wash, peel, chop and freeze for when we decided to put our new Thai cooking skills to the test.

Well ahead of a Thai cooking fest (still yet to come), there was this slightly warm, slightly rushed June morning and that’s when I accidentally created the tastiest mango-nana smoothie ever, which has become a new obsession.  And I am starting to think that it’s little accidents like this that are the catalyst for a whole lot of creativity in the kitchen.  In the past I’ve found motivation to cook healthy meals after meeting a chef during travel or falling in love with a particular cookbook/recipe I came across.   But now that I’ve created something on my very own without any guidance (but lots of indirect inspiration from travel, and other taste adventures), I have more faith in myself.  And these days full of administrative tasks, if I can do anything without being online or staring at print, I’m all over it.  Hell, I’m even thinking I’ll dust the piano off and start writing some music…

So you probably want the recipe now, right?  Ok.  Only thing is I’m going to be a little vague here because I didn’t measure out each of the ingredients and, actually, I think that’s part of the fun in making a signature smoothie to fit your tastes – there’s a lot of alchemy involved.  And I never used to think one little ingredient could make a vast difference, but this recipe proves that to be untrue.  There is one key ingredient for ME, that makes this heavenly and adds to the fragrance, which is also an element of cooking that should not be overlooked.  I didn’t want to mention any particular brand names to keep it simple but will share my favourite coconut water for this in a later post.

Firstly, this smoothie needs to be COLD.  So you’ve got to use frozen mango and ideally frozen banana (but if just one is frozen, then you are good to go).

As far as the cacao nibs go, that’s essential to me, but my boyfriend (who likens the smoothie to the creamiest vanilla ice cream…but healthy…) feels they are superfluous.  I love the combination of the sweet smoothie taste (really it should be a dessert or a treat rather than a breakfast) with the bitter nibs.

Ingredients:

1 frozen banana

1 handful of frozen mango

1 cup coconut water (preferred brand below)

1 cup almond milk

1 large spoonful of cashew butter

1 spoonful (or several of if you like bitter like me) of cacao nibs sprinkled on top

Whiz it up in a blender and maybe add more milk, mango, whatever you want to make it just right for you.  It should be nice, cold and creamy and the nibs should sit on top as in the photo.  Yum Yum Yum.

I have quite a few other inspired recipes that I’ve tweaked and will get up on my new blog (exciting!) soon but this one is really my baby.  And I’m proud of it.  There are so many incredibly talented and inspirational food bloggers out there, and I won’t ever keep up with them, but every time I repeat a recipe and find that it’s part of a healthy repertoire, I will share it on my new site as a special food post and I hope you enjoy!

*Okay so now that this post has been up for a while I am announcing my preferred coconut water brand for this recipe – it’s Go Coco.  I was slightly concerned at first because even though it won a Taste Award, there were two extra ingredients in there that I wasn’t sure of: natural flavorings and citric acid.  I wrote to them and they immediately got back to me to assure me that citric acid was lemon juice added to preserve it and that the natural flavorings were part of their secret recipe (I assume to give it that extra coconutty taste and vanilla-like fragrance) but definitely 100% natural and nothing artificial.  So I am happy to keep using this in my smoothie recipe, because it really does enhance the taste and flavour. Thanks Go Coco!

Change of Screenery

May 20, 2015

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Nearly two months have gone by since my last newsletter, which goes against the one-newsletter-a-month mantra I try to keep, but I needed a spring break from the computer screen so I packed my bags and took one (to Southeast Asia) and the change of ‘screenery’ worked wonders for me.

It takes quite a lot of discipline these days to avoid digital overload.  Like anything, first it takes awareness.  You need to be aware of your mechanical e-mail checking, aware of how much time you spend looking down at your smart phone, aware of how your mood is affected by staring at a monitor (perhaps most notably one displaying an array of Facebook statuses).  I’m well aware that these things, done in excess, don’t make me feel great, steal my focus and clutter my mind.  And so I endeavor to spend as little time as possible dwelling in the digital world and more time doing things that help to clear my mind (the same way those lovely bank holidays do). Do you feel the same?

The problem is I like writing and rely on my computer for it because my hand-writing is illegible and my hands move too slow for my thoughts when clutching a pen.  I also like sharing my writing and so my newsletter and blog provide a ready-to-share canvas.  I love photography and editing my photos, therefore my iPhone can be a true and convenient companion.  And all of this is why my intention to have a totally disconnected holiday didn’t really happen, despite staying in an eco-hotel that wasn’t supposed to have Wifi (hmph!).

But I’ve decided that spending time on my computer and iPhone isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just needs to be moderated strictly.  On a beach holiday, I found it quite easy to forget about my phone and the Internet.  Sun and screens don’t mix (unless we’re talking about sunscreen of course – ha!) so the phone stayed in the hotel room ignored until the late evening before I was ready to go to bed.  I spent about 15 minutes every evening having a quick check for any important emails, flagging thoughtful ones to read later, and quickly deleting all the spam.  I uploaded a few photos to Instagram, and shared them with my mom in the U.S. so she could experience the kind of distant travel she may never get to (or want to really in that intense heat!) do.  The rest of the time I was reading a physical book, jotting down thoughts and notes for my newsletter and blog in a real notebook and focusing my gaze on the ocean.  I managed to choose one book and read the whole thing, which was just the soul food I craved.  In short, I felt fantastic and wondered how much this digital technology was actually adding to my life and detracting from my mental wellbeing.

The other day I shared these sentiments with a close friend who found her computer time was also getting her down and we decided on these three moderation guidelines to help keep us happy and healthy:

1) No smart phones in bed (because this should be a place where you rest your mind)

2) Limit Facebook sessions to 5 minutes tops (because beyond that you’re just wasting time and probably starting to think negatively about how far you’ve come in life compared to others based on images and updates you wouldn’t otherwise know about)

3) Only have one window/tab open at a time (because even though the Internet gives us access to more information, more music, more things to buy, we shouldn’t be greedy)

Generally, every opportunity I have NOT to be on my computer, I’m taking it.  And when I feel the urge to write, I set aside time for that (with plenty of breaks for yoga, moving, breathing, stretching, etc.)  I know it’s tempting to click on every appealing link, to check email every day but I find myself asking, how much do we really gain by having access to more information than we have the time/capacity to consume?

So this month I am asking you to ask the question – how happy is being connected making me?  Which aspects can I keep and which can I limit?  What fulfilling activities can I do without my phone/computer? How did I used to fill my time before Wifi existed?  I bet you anything those activities probably made you happy and you’re not doing them so much anymore.  Am I right?

So I came back from my holiday with these thoughts and also to a lot of media about a recent advertising campaign in the UK by Protein World that poses the question: ‘Are you beach body ready?’ in order to sell products in its Weight Loss Collection.  The posters feature an unhappy woman in her bikini standing in such a way that makes her look both self conscious AND like she is scrutinizing your body.  Oh man, not this again…

The campaign, needless to say, has made women (most of us feminists) furious.  While they argue they are trying to promote the benefits of a healthy body, what they are doing is perpetuating the myth that one has to look a certain way to be accepted in places where tighter, more revealing clothing may show off more of your body.   They are very likely encouraging women and girls to not even bother seeing the sun this summer, to obsess over and feel bad about how they look and possibly to even succumb to their marketing angle and purchase these short-term solutions to weight loss that don’t get to the core of the issue.

I was, however, not shocked to see a campaign ask this question.  Growing up in the States in a beach town with a seashell mobile in my bedroom like the one in the image above, I was asked this question every June when the weather started turning hot.  I have a very petite older sister to whom I was always comparing my belly, my hips, my legs and arms, and always discovering I was bigger.  I remember at the innocent age of 11 I was wearing t-shirts over my bathing suit in shame of my rounder tummy.  Despite being a country with a large amount of obesity, the America I know is a nation obsessed with appearance and fixated on staying skinny – there’s a lot of pressure to look ‘perfect’.  What I loved about moving to Britain was that there seemed to be less judgement and more acceptance for all shapes and sizes, until I met a few people who proclaimed themselves ‘fattists’ (people against overweight people basically) and I had to scratch my head. Excuse me, what?

It may seem strange that someone who has dedicated her life and her career to staying healthy and fit and helping others do the same feels so appalled by an ad promoting weight loss. And that’s because a skinny body or ‘beach ready’ body does not make it a healthy one (especially if said weight loss is achieved by taking pills).  I had to laugh when I read an article in Stylist that basically said: if you’ve got sunscreen, a book and some ice cream, THAT is beach body ready.  And boy are they right!  Here in the UK, we associate the beach with holiday time.  This is a time to break away from your normal routine of curling up on the sofa and eating in front of the TV on cold rainy weekends, hopefully a time to break away from negative thought patterns that may have had you reaching for not-so-heathy food during stressful times and then feeling too sluggish to exercise.  Getting somewhere hot, being in the fresh air, moving more, reading more (away from your computer), living more – these are the things that make you feel great and as a result, can also change your appearance on the outside.  But there is no perfect body because we are are naturally built differently. So I say don’t stress about looking good in a bikini, your beach holiday will help you feel better inside and out and hopefully make you care less about what other people think!

This ad reminded me of a lot of the ads we see for yoga, which is why I wanted to highlight it.  It’s the same kind of marketing that keeps people outside of the studio – bendy, skinny types contorting themselves into pretzel shapes or doing handstands on the beach in their two-piece.  Being trim and flexible is NOT a prerequisite to practicing yoga but it may be a very pleasant side-effect.

As a yoga teacher who began practicing with a bad back and very tight hamstrings,  I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone feels welcome in the yoga environment.  That’s why I am leading a workshop next weekend on Women’s Yoga.  I’ve been wanting to do this for some time in order to share what I have learned about modifying one’s yoga practice to help heal ourselves and lessen the symptoms of PMT (for example), but most importantly to be accepting of how you feel and look at anytime. Yoga is not about standing on your head and looking good in Lycra – who wants to do that when they’re menstruating?  Certainly not me and you know what?  That makes total sense.  Yoga is an art you can learn to heal your body and mind.  For women, it can be so powerful as to help balance your hormones, regulate your menstrual cycle and increase your fertility.  And it can even be there for you during those times when you want to wear comfy bottoms and hug a hot water bottle on the sofa.  I’m going to show you how.

So let me know what you discover about taking screen breaks – I wonder too if I can keep to those guidelines I set.

Happy digital detoxing!

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