Natural Beauty (Glow)

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

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.

I am an Autumn

November 11, 2013

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Two years ago a close friend of mine told me about a friend of hers Annie whose profession is to help women define their style so they know the best clothes to wear to suit their personality, shape and lifestyle.  If there was one area of my life where I was feeling I could use some help, it was in the fashion department.  So I was very excited I could hire a professional for some guidance in order to de-clutter my wardrobe.  What I never could have anticipated was how taking this step would dramatically shift my perspective on buying and wearing clothes in the most spectacular way.

I had no problem finding clothes that I adored (and a good eye for high quality and tasteful design I liked to think), but my issue with fashion was that I was spending significant amounts of money on random articles of beautiful clothing from favourite British chains like Jigsaw, TOAST, and Whistles, and then watching them sit in my wardrobe collecting dust and making nice homes for a substantial moth population.  In other words, I was amassing a nice clothing art collection that hardly ever got to be exhibited.

I was also getting stressed about getting dressed! For most women I know preparing what to wear and primping are the key activities of a typical morning routine, but I was continuously saving it to the very last minute.  I would do the things I felt confident about first (let’s call this my inner beauty routine): a gentle yoga and meditation practice, sipping hot water and lemon, preparing a warm meal to take to work, exfoliating in the shower and moisturizing and then whoops! – 10 minutes to go for make-up and outfit choice – eek!  I would rush upstairs only to stand frozen in front of hangers adorned with pretty fabrics and textiles fretting about which direction to take my outfit in only to end up pulling out the same pair of jeans I wore yesterday and a baggy jumper that left my entire silhouette to the imagination.

No matter how much time I had spent making sure I felt good from the inside out, the lack of icing on the cake was putting it all to waste.  Luckily, I have pretty low-maintenance wash-and-go hair and a very simple make-up routine, but a poorly thought-out outfit for the day and lack of coordination do not make a confident woman, no matter what else you’ve got going on.

As a yoga teacher and health coach, I am pretty creative when it comes to finding solutions for all sorts of psychological, physiological, and nutritional health dilemmas, but for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t wearing most of my clothes.  At first, I put it down to being a body image issue (not as trim as I was when I bought the item or something to that effect), but I hadn’t outgrown these clothes nor, after years of studying health and the human body (and finally entering into my don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-think thirties), was I hung up on having the perfect figure and a flat stomach anymore.  HOWEVER, deep down I knew that I still wanted to look good.  If not for others, for myself.  And I knew that the right clothing (in terms of fit and style) can make a huge difference to how you feel.

To me, a woman who puts effort into her appearance is showing the world a clear sign of self-respect and saying: I am friendly, approachable and part of this world.  As someone who loves her job teaching yoga and health coaching, loves life and loves getting to know people, I wanted to make sure I was coming across that way – lively and loving – even when on a boring, lifeless commute to work on public transport.  But choosing an outfit was taking up a lot of time and energy and making me feel unhappy and regretful about my purchases.  Did getting dressed have to be so stressful?  Wasn’t it supposed to be fun?  

Stress, Unhappiness, and Regret are three things I have worked very hard to get out of my life, which meant cleaning out my closet once and for all!  So I picked up the phone to call Annie and the conversation went like this :

AnnieHello?

Me: Oh hi, is that Annie?

Annie: Yes it is.  

Me: Hi! My friend referred me to you as someone who can help me sort out my wardrobe (and then I started babbling…)...every morning  I wake up dreading the moment I have to choose what to wear and am pretty sure that more than 50% of my wardrobe never gets touched.  I want to love my clothes and love getting dressed, but at the moment it’s my least favourite time of the day (and a rushed one at that).  Could I sign up for a consultation with you to sort that out?  I just want someone to come to my place and tell me what to keep and what to get rid of and help me feel more confident about my choices.  This is one area of my life where I am really helpless! Can you help?

Annie replied with a friendly tone of complete confidence and competence:  Yes I can help you.  BUT, she insisted, first we need to ‘do your colours.’  

MeMy what?

AnnieYour colours.  Everyone has certain colours they should and shouldn’t wear that pertain to a colour wheel broken down by season.  You’d be surprised that the majority of what you own is probably the wrong colour for you.

I politely declined the offer:  Oh no that’s okay – I know which colours look good on me and which ones are my favourites and I really just need help with style more than anything – things that will suit my figure, sorting out how to get the most out of clothes for my different jobs, activities and making it all work…(babble babble)

But Annie wouldn’t go any further: Kate, we need to know what colours suit you first before we can do anything else.  It’s the most important thing.

This is not what I had bargained for.  Growing up, I remember that a friend of mine’s mother had her make-up done and was defined as ‘a Spring.’  She told me I was ‘a Spring’ too and would suit her lipstick shade.  I liked the idea of being a Spring (I was born in April after all) and started buying lots of pastels  and floral prints but soon forgot about the colour concept and simply went along with any colour or style trend to blend in with everyone else, keeping it simple and preppy (and often baggy and comfortable).  As far as colours were concerned, I chose muted tones or hues that appealed to my mood, but most of my wardobe was navy, blue or black.  And ‘being’ a season was just an eighties trend that no longer had relevance.

Were navy, blue and black accurate reflections of how I was feeling?  What happened to the little girl in me proud of her pastel birthday colours?  I hadn’t really thought about it until Annie mentioned colours and then recalled that wearing certain shades of green always got me the most attention and that everyone always stopped to complement me when I was wearing my red coat.  So I was beginning to think that Annie had a point…had I become colour-blind?

Despite my initial resistance, it didn’t take long for Annie to convince me of the necessity of a colour session.  I may not have become colour blind but my colour consciousness had certainly faded.  She had me intrigued when she mentioned that wearing the wrong colours can actually make you look older, tired and generally clash with your complexion and your spirit.  So, embracing ‘beginner’s mind,’  I set out to learn my colours from scratch and could never have imagined how life-altering (not just wardrobe-altering) the experience would be.

First of all, upon meeting Annie, you discover she is a canvas of colour herself.  She has a rainbow-like aura and now I know it’s because she’s got her colours right.  You see, as city dwellers whose main objective is to blend in with our drab scenery, Londoners tend to wear a whole lot of grey and black.   The next time you stand on a train platform in London, take a look around and you will find yourself in a sea of depressing colours – none that lift your spirit, none that stand out, hardly any that suit those wearing them.  I recall it being the same in New York City.

But Annie is not shy about wearing an array of uplifting colours and because of this, she looks damn good.  The confidence and radiance she exuded when I first met her already had me convinced I would be getting my money’s worth.  Now, you’ve probably got a picture in your head that resembles Rainbow Brite or a shiny, baubly Christmas tree.  But this is exactly where our concept of wearing colours goes wrong.  We forget colours that lie between the bold primary colours, the many shades of blue, green, orange, the predominantly yellow versus blue-based colours and the endless choices we have when looking beyond grey and black.  We don’t realise that when you put the right colours together, there is nothing gaudy or flashy or intimidating about them.  When you find the colours that suit you and each other best, everything blends beautifully and people will notice your inner radiance and spirit more, not necessarily what you are wearing.

A colour session with Annie lasts up to three hours and involves being draped in different coloured scarves with enough daylight for Annie to be able to discern the colours that make your eyes pop, make your complexion glow and most surprising of all, make you FEEL better!

I won’t lie – it wasn’t instantly obvious to me.  I found myself squinting to see shadows that Annie immediately proclaimed blue-based colours brought out on my face.  I initially shunned colours like caramel that I would never choose for myself.  But as the session progressed, so did my understanding of how colours can work for or against us.  As Annie explained, all colours are mixed with blue and yellow – the amount of blue or yellow will make them warmer (more yellow) and thus softer or colder (more blue).  The same is true of our skin so we must find colours with the right tones for our skin otherwise there is disharmony.  It’s an intellectual process at first but over times it becomes instinctive and delightfully artistic.

Certain scarves immediately felt like home around my neck, made something deep inside me glow outwards.  And this was all without make-up.  The amazing thing is that when you wear colours that are suited to your complexion, you need less colour on your face!  Not only did I feel enlightened but I felt lighter and happier because the process, while long, is tremendously fun and uplifting.  The delight of playing with a box of crayons as a child suddenly brought to the present moment with my wardrobe as my construction paper!  I felt like a kid again!

My consultation with Annie proved that Peacock Blue (my new favourite colour), Golden Orange, Pistachio Green and Chocolate Brown are my wonder colours.  They all belong to the Autumn palette, and thus I am ‘an Autumn.’

What does that mean?  Well, it means I must avoid wearing black or white (but I can wear cream white and certain very dark greens) and that Autumn is my best time of year to shop (because that’s when most Autumn colours appear in stores).  At first, I found this potentially very limiting and a little upsetting.  Most of my wardrobe was not the right colour and I was worried shopping would become even more challenging.  NOT TRUE – I was pleasantly surprised to discover just the opposite.  The more I wore the clothes in my wardrobe that belonged to the Autumn palette, the better I started to feel.  And the Autumn palette has colours that don’t scream AUTUMN so there are shades to wear year-round.

Annie gave me a little leather booklet with colour fabric swatches to carry with me when I shop.  She explained that as long as the colours are of the Autumn variety, they can be mixed together – so rusty orange with brown is great (but not rusty orange with black!) and peacock blue with pistachio green is wondrous but join those up with sterile white pants and you’ve taken warm and mixed it with cold – no good.  My shopping became more targeted and intelligent.  It became more personal.  I had newfound confidence to select items I knew would make me shine and shun items that might look amazing on ‘a Spring’ but better off as a piece of art in my wardrobe.

Like Annie said, it took me years to get my wardrobe wrong, so it will take a few more to get it right.   Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Nevertheless, I did a massive and dramatic clean-out of my wardrobe – ruthlessly getting rid of anything that wasn’t an Autumn colour or didn’t fit my style archetype (determined in a later session).  I saved one small box of clothes that didn’t apply to the new rules as a security blanket (I didn’t have the funds to start completely from scratch) but have since found more suitable replacements in sales over time.  Now I open my wardrobe doors and just look at the beauty of a collection of clothes whose colours are so harmonious they nearly leap off the hangers ready to be mixed and matched and worn together!

Since my consultation, I have introduced others to the process, including my mother.  Not everyone has embraced Annie’s advice as quickly as I did because sometimes old habits die hard.  My mom still insists on needing black items, but she’s just bought an orange winter coat that is perfect for her (she’s an Autumn too!) and is loving how she feels in it.  Likewise, a friend of mine who works in finance did a colours session to discover she’s a Spring and suits a lovely shade of pink.  She still struggles to stand out in an office of grey suits but has certainly brought more colours into her wardrobe following the session and has become more aware of her tendency to want to blend in.  Sometimes it takes baby steps, but I went for it 100% and all I can say is I don’t miss my old clothes (or the way I felt) a bit!

Habits and societal pressures put aside, it’s my feeling that the earlier we are educated about our colours (like the earlier we are educated about nutrition), the less we’ll have to suffer in life from doing things that don’t suit our unique body types or natural constitutions.  Because like with yoga and food, when it comes to fashion, there is NO ONE WAY.

The best thing of ALL?  Discovering my colours shifted the focus off of changing something about my body or my look and on to keeping things as they are but complementing them better.  Annie says that’s how it should work with make-up too.  It’s not about covering up or transforming, but rather emphasizing the beauty that is already there.  And honouring your unique features and personality.  Beyond colours, you can learn about your style archetypes with Annie (mine is Princess/Adventurer), which empowers you even more to wear outfits that are uniquely you and blend with your lifestyle so you feel completely at home in your clothes.  Selecting shapes and styles that are harmonious with your look is the next step after colours, empowering you even more to be a discerning shopper.   I never knew how much I loved a ‘princess shaped’ skirt and ballet flats until I put them on and started skipping!  But likewise, throw a pair of rugged boots on me with skinny jeans and I feel my sexiest.

Here is a list of some of the BEST things about finding your colours:

  • You will SAVE money on your clothes (although you might end up spending more during ‘your’ season when those colours abound)
  • You won’t be seduced by sale items (you’ll be more targeted about your spending when you find jewels that fit your palette)
  • You will GLOW when you wear your right colours (and people will comment)
  • You will discover colours you never knew existed (and bond with colours in a new way)
  • Your wardrobe becomes a work of art rather than a collection of art  (if you have all the colours of one season together, it looks amazing!)
  • You will know more than the shop assistants!  (I can’t tell you how many have now seen my colour booklet and had to know what it was!)
  • You will feel more beautiful and confident (even without make-up on – Annie says you only need a good lipstick and the right colours)
  • You will de-clutter your wardrobe and own less clothing to organize (by far the best outcome for me – especially when I moved house)
  • You won’t miss black if you have to get rid of it (it actually makes me feel depressed to wear black and grey now)
  • You can swap clothes with a friend more easily once you realise things don’t suit you (especially if you are different seasons – jackpot!)

The one down-side for me?  I struggle to find yoga clothing that isn’t black and neon colours but there are some brands out there rocking the natural tones.

Learning one’s colours is really a science and it takes practice and guidance from someone skilled and motivational like Annie.  I highly recommend a colour and style consultation with her to bring not only more colour but more happiness and joy into your life.  Red Leopard is located in Battersea.

As it’s November, I’m off now to go roll in a pile of Autumn leaves so I can bathe in my colours – ha – colour therapy!  I once passed a shop window with Annie that had a peacock blue couch. You should drape yourself over that thing! she laughed.  But she was right – I would feel right at home!  Just like I do in all my clothes now.  Phew!  Problem solved.

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