Saturday, 18 April 2015

Fasting for a liv(er)ing - plus what I pack for retreat

So, by the time you read this, I will most likely either be whizzing above the clouds in a metal tube or in Portugal.  Or, who knows, somewhere else entirely (because, after all, who knows anything?)
I'm off to test out a ten-day detox (this one is a juice-only cleanse, with added yoga). Nice.
I know it only seems like two minutes since I was in Austria, testing out the new VIVAMAYR clinic, undergoing the 'Cure' but, hey, this is what I do - I fast for a living. Can't be bad, huh?
This time I'm checking out Moinhos Velhos for Queen of Retreats.  I review a lot of lovely places for this great site - read my reports by clicking on this link.

Anyhow.  Right now (as in, a couple of days ago), I am (was) packing.  What does one pack for a juice fast with added yoga in Portugal?  Well, not so much really.  I don't like lots of luggage - I'm a firm believer in the art of smart packing (roll, roll, always roll) and the beauty of yoga and juice retreats in moderate climates is that you really don't need a lot.  If I can avoid hold luggage, I always do.

My essentials for yoga/fasting retreats

Manuka Mehndi leggings
* Yoga leggings x2.  I treated myself to a new pair in the Sweaty Betty sale and they're pretty good. But I'm also trialling some from Manuka which look and feel fabulous.  The beauty of nice yoga leggings is that they double up as bottoms for hiking, sight-seeing and evening wear.
* T-shirts x4.  
* FitFlops.  Have had a love affair with these ever since the fabulous Victoria Health sent me some to trial way back.  My current pair are shiny black so they still look reasonably smart for going out or evenings (doesn't often happen on this kind of retreat but you never know). Also they're uber-light.  I usually travel in a pair of Fitflop Mukluks which then double up as slippers on retreat.
* Hoodie.  Handy for chilly evenings or post-yoga coverup.
* Trail running shoes.  Heck no, I don't do trail running!  But they're great for hillwalking and rocks scrambling (should one need to rock scramble).  My current ones are ASICS from
* Two swimsuits and one bikini.  Nothing worse than a soggy swimsuit.
* One kaftan.  This time I'm testing out the Seafolly one below from Coco Bay for Queen of Retreats.
* Two long black tops.
* One pair of shorts - rocking a rather fab Paisley pair at the moment from Zara.  Think they're meant to be men's swimming trunks but what the hell?
* One cardigan.
* Sunglasses and sun-hat.
* iPod (with new addiction, BassBuds headphones), iPhone (no need for camera) and fully loaded Kindle. Travelplug adaptors (x2).
* Notebook and many pens (stored in plastic pouch). Used to swear by Moleskine but have switched allegiance to Muji (fraction of the price and weight).
* Lightweight waterproof jacket (you never know).
* Stretchy black jeans (uber comfortable in case a spot of impromptu horse-riding occurs - I live in hope).  If not, handy for evenings.
* Light cotton bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, comb and trial size cosmetics.  At the moment I'm loving Balance Me.
* Tazeka Aromatherapy Travel Companion - I sniff it religiously throughout flights to ward off bugs.
* SF50 suncream.  Still looking for a totally natural one that really performs (and comes in 100ml sizes or less).  Suggestions welcome.
* Underwear, obviously.  Tend to take five pairs and wash while away.
* Cosy socks.  Even in a hot climate feet can get cold in savasana - particularly when fasting.
* Small lightweight rucksack.
* Passport, boarding pass, credit card, bit of local dosh (doh).  Plastic pouch for security check-in liquids.

Actually, now I've written it all down it looks like a heck of a lot.  But truly, it all fits into a small carry-on with room to spare.  Did I miss anything?  :-)

Friday, 17 April 2015

Make your own natural beauty products

'Do you have any recipes for natural cosmetics in your books?' asked Frankie Sachs on Twitter.
The short answer is yes.  The longer answer is, yes but not really enough to merit buying them purely on the basis of unguent recipes.
So I said I'd post a few here.

Why make your own stuff?  Well, some people like that artisanal approach.  When I was in my early twenties I used to spend hours buying raw ingredients from Neal's Yard (back when it was just a tiny little shop off the side streets of Covent Garden).  It was good fun but the real beauty of home-made products is that you know exactly what is going into them.  No chemical nasties.  Because, as I'm sure you know, even products which promise, hand on heart, that they're 'natural', 'organic', 'pure' - often aren't.

They won’t keep as long as shop-bought products though so keep them in the fridge and use swiftly.

Here are some ideas from the Beauty Weekend from The Weekend Healer (available in Kindle version - click the cover).  See how you get on.

LIGHT MOISTURISER (suitable for most skins)
10ml melted beeswax
45 ml wheatgerm oil
20ml boiled water, mineral water or rosewater
6 drops geranium essential oil (if your skin is very oily use bergamot instead)

1. Put the beeswax and oil into a small heat-resistant bowl and place in a bain-marie containing boiling water.
2. Stir thoroughly and remove the bowl from the pot.
3. Now slowly add the water into the warm oils, stirring all the time until the cream thickens and cools.
4. Add the essential oil.
5. Pour into a clean (boiled) jar and refrigerate.

15ml beeswax
20ml almond oil
20ml grapeseed oil
5ml wheatgerm oil
20 ml rosewater or mineral water with 5 drops of cider vinegar added
6 drops essential oil (your choice from cypress, fennel, juniper, mandarin, neroli)

1. Melt the beeswax and pour into a small, heat-resistant bowl.
2. Add the grapeseed and wheatgerm oils, and place the bowl in a pot of simmering water until the oils are blended and warm.
3. Remove the bowl from the pot and slowly add the water, stirring thoroughly all the time until the cream thickens and cools.
4. Add your choice of essential oils.  Pour the cream into a clean (boiled) jar.  Store in the fridge and use within a month.

Feet often get neglected.  Soak your feet for 15-20 minutes in a large bowl of warm water containing the following:  15ml sea salt, 3 drops almond oil, 2-6 drops peppermint or patchouli oil.

While you’re soaking, give your hands a treat.  Soak them in warm water for about five minutes. Then massage them with a mixture of 10ml of wheatgerm germ oil,  5ml of wild honey and five drops of lavender oil.  Use small circling movements.  Push back your cuticles and massage your nails with the mixture.
Image: Andrea Hübner
Give your face, hair and body a soothing treat.

1.  Mix up a luxurious hair treatment.
Mix together two egg yolks, one tablespoon of almond oil and a drop of tangerine essential oil.
Moisten your hair slightly and then massage the mixture into your scalp and hair.
Wrap your head in a plastic bag and then a towel over the top (to add some heat).  Keep this on throughout the following steam and bath.

2.  Steam.  Add two or three drops of geranium oil to a bowl of just boiled water.  Put a large towel over your entire head and over the bowl, keeping your face about eighteen inches away from the water.  This steam will open the pores for deep cleansing.  Stay under for about ten minutes if you can – but don’t become uncomfortable.

NOTE:  do not steam if you have thread veins, if you are asthmatic or suffer from a heart condition.

3.  Make a cherry mask with fresh cherries (if available).  Crush them into a slushy paste and put all over your neck and face.

4.  Next pour a hot bath.  Add four drops of fennel oils to a cup of milk and agitate to mix.  Now add to the bath. Soak for about twenty minutes.  Drink a cup of green tea while in the bath.

5.  Pat off the cherry mask.  Finally unwrap your hair and wash.

Have an early night.  Beautiful dreams!

Let me know if you try these and find they work (or not)?  And let me know if you want me to post up some recipes from my ayurvedic book, Live Well.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Bear Grylls The Island (plus Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and Geordie Shore) - yes, I've been watching telly

James has been studying hard for his GCSEs. I've been keeping my nose pressed to the screen of my PC trying to work. So, come evening, we like to veg out in front of something on the box. Okay, so we should probably be doing something more meaningful, like creating mosaics or meditating but hey...

I'm not mad on zombies but he lured me into watching The Walking Dead and we spent many happy evenings huddled under the snuggly throw.  Little rituals... shouting 'Away with you!' over the opening credits; singing along with the theme tune at the end waving our hands in suitable zombie fashion; seeing who could make the other jump at some unspecified moment in the middle of the show; muttering 'He's so dead'.  You know the kind of thing.

Now we have Game of Thrones of course, which is totally excellent.  One of those cases where the TV series is actually better than the books.  I'm waiting for Arya (my favourite) to start her assassin training (as you do).  James doesn't see the attraction - he just goes very quiet when Daenerys sulks onto the screen.

We part company on Geordie Shore.  I've tried but I just sit there slack-jawed.   So, last night, when he said he was looking forward to the TV slot, I winced.  'I'm not watching Geordie Shore,' I said. 'My eyes can't take it.'
'Noo,' he said.  'It's The Island.'
Have you seen this?  They (the proverbial They) dump two bunches of people (one group is all-women, the other all-men) onto remote Pacific islands and let them get on with it.  It sounds great in principle except these islands don't just have white sands and turquoise ocean, they also have dangerous rip-tides, tropical storms and a lot of poisonous wildlife.  It's not just the snakes and scorpions, the stone-fish and the stingrays - even the vegetation is out to get them.  Have you ever heard of the Death Apple?  The clue's in the name, right?

Anyhow, we watched it and already they're getting on my nerves.  This isn't like 10,000 BC (yes, we really do watch a lot of crap!) where they dumped people in Bulgaria in winter without even a knife between them.
This island is teeming with food - and yet they're all lying around limply starving.  I harumph and mutter darkly.
'What's the matter with them?'
'Come on, Mum. Would you do any better?'
'Well, yes actually, I think I would.'
We launch into a debate about survival skills.  James rolls his eyes.  He knows what was coming. And, yes, I spent a large part of my teens building shelters in forests or pitching tents on the sides of mountains.  I learnt how to track and trap, how to light a fire from nothing, how to keep (relatively) warm and dry.
'Be fair, Mum.  They haven't had any training in that stuff.'  Subtext: they weren't weirdo teenagers who skulked around the woods in their spare time.
But really, if you had even the faintest inkling, the slightest possibility that you were going to be left on an island to fend for yourself, wouldn't you at least learn how to fish?  And if you were a resourceful vegetarian wouldn't you figure out which plants were edible?  They've got yams, for pity's sake!  And coconuts!  And they're sharing out a roasted scorpion the size of a finger?  Pitiful!

Of course, the biggest problem they have is not battling the elements or the animals, but each other. Some guy left the island purely because another guy pissed him off.  Wha?  Then the other one left. Humans, eh?

Anyhow, I'm wondering if the women will do any better.  James says not - that they're in even worse shape than the guys.  Which is enormously annoying really.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Web-savvy help needed for hapless numpty

So, there's the thing.  Meeting Sasha Wilkins (see previous post) really made me feel like a right numpty.  It opened my eyes to what I should have been doing for the longest of times, gave me a kick up the arse and, yes (let's be honest), made me madly envious.  It's not that I want to race around doing everything Sasha does (I'm way too lazy) or (don't laugh) be a digital media guru but I'd like to be a bit...tidier.
My website is so ancient, it would probably merit a place in the museum of website-building.  My blog is about as basic as it's possible to get.  I did get as far as buying a new template for my WordPress blog but then flailed around helplessly and made it look even worse than before.

What?  You want to see my shame?  Well, you're already here but, trust me, this is the best bit.
My WordPress blog is here:  Jane Alexander
And - *wince* - here's my website:  Jane Alexander
Now you've finished slapping your thighs in mirth, let's get down to business.  I really need to pull it all together, don't I?  Have one decent on-line presence.  I have shedloads of content - literally thousands of features and book excerpts that I could put out there.  But how? Biggest problem is that I just don't have a lot of dosh to spend on a fancy web design.  Come to that, I don't really want a fancy web design - I want something that I can update myself easily, quickly, efficiently.  But I also want it to look good.  No, scratch that, I want it to look great.

WordPress is the way to go, right?  A magazine format that looks clean and clear and can pull together all my features, (hopefully) sell my books, and have a nice corner for my blog ramblings too. If it could make a bit of money via affiliate links or advertising, so much the better.  I'd also love to feature some great photography so if any of your snappers out there would be up for my sharing your images (suitably labelled and linked of course), do get in touch.

Your thoughts?  Any brilliant WordPress fixers you know who have a strong philanthropic bent?  My brother has been nagging me about this and I have promised I will get a bit more savvy.  Find people, he said.  Ask them how much they charge and ask to see samples of their work, he said.  In fact, he said, send me samples of their work (see, he knows how web-rubbish I am!)

I also need a name for it - something that pulls together my interest in natural health, manic fitness, yoga, psychology, spirituality, travel, books, music, nature, mythology, dodgy humour, crap TV, love, friendship and pseudo beagles.  Something that would sound good before 'dot com' cos being an org of one is a bit embarrassing.  Help me out?  Best answer gets a prophecy from the Beagle Oracle (remember that?)  :-)

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

On kindness, L'Ombre Dans L'Eau, care parcels and the sublime LibertyLondonGirl

Kindness.  I like kindness.  Simple kindnesses smack me in the heart, bowl me over, make me cry.
I came back home from a funeral at the weekend.  I'd crashed face first into my past and it had brought me up short.  I also crashed, quite literally, into the closing doors of a tube train and consequently now have two bruises running the lengths of both arms and a freshly re-torn rotator cuff.  I hurt.

'There's a parcel on your desk,' Adrian said.  And so there was.  A long white box with tissue paper hiding lots of little boxes and bags.  I fell on it like a small child at Christmas and uncovered the most deliciously divine care package of gorgeous things.  Perricone foundation (I’ll report back); the perfect nude lipstick (Clinique Matte Suede, if you’re wondering) and the perfect nail varnish to give a subtle shimmer to stress-bitten nails (Estee Lauder Blushing Lilac).  It didn’t end there.  As I snuffled down the parcel, all other kinds of lovelies tumbled out, including some of my very favourite natural brands (Dr Hauschka, Annee de Mamiel).  And ooooooh… But wait…let me backtrack and explain how I became the recipient of such a cornucopia of cosmetic riches.

Back in Austria, at VIVAMAYR I met Sasha Wilkins, aka Liberty London Girl.  She introduced herself as a blogger but that's somewhat like Mo Farah saying, 'I run a bit'.  Sasha is a Queen of Dragons who commands legions of Unsullied (oops, sorry, bit over-excited about Game of Thrones starting again).  I mean she’s a digital journalist, ex- Wall Street Journal, ex-Vogue (and many others) and a full-on TV bod but, since 2009, she has been running her own digital seven kingdoms of LLG Media.
Way cuter than Daenerys, dontcha think?  
This woman doesn’t just do digital, she IS digital – she rocks social media with her blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest (click on the links - you can lose yourself in recipes, nice things and legions of dogs for hours).  She has a digital media consultancy business LLG Consults, Wilkins & Ross, a digital film production company, and…and…and…and…so on it goes.  But what you really need to know is that she loves sausage dogs and she is a damn nice person.  Kind.

I’d asked her about foundation (as you do when trying to take your mind off chewing an endless spelt roll) and she’d recommended Perricone No Foundation Foundation.  I’d said how rubbish I was at make-up and that I really needed to up my game.  We talked a bit about various brands and then someone wandered past and sniffed the air and asked who was wearing that absolutely gorgeous scent.  I naturally assumed it would be Sasha but no, it was me – squeezing the last gasp out of a sample bottle of Diptyque’s L’Ombre Dans l’Eau. Seriously, how could anyone resist a scent called the Shadow in the Water?  It’s gorgeous, utterly gorgeous – warm and yet crisp at the same time. Like the grown-up sophisticated sister of another old favourite, Jo Malone’s Lime Basil Mandarin.

Anyhow, back to my parcel.  Yes, she’d sent it.  Not just enough face and body stuff to make me look almost presentable, but also…a whole coffret of Diptyque samples.

I was quite overcome and, yes, I found myself snuffling a bit (rather like a sausage dog actually). Because it wasn’t so much that this was a box of serious loveliness but that everything had been picked out with such care and thought.  It was kind, damn kind.  And, like I say, that makes me cry.
How gorgeous is Lettice? Pic (c) Sasha Wilkins

Anyhow.  If you haven’t already made the acquaintance of LLG - you really should. I have huge admiration for her because she made the decision to wave goodbye to the corporate nonsense of mainstream media in which advertising and editorial are so incestuous they need therapy and a social worker.  She now writes about the things she loves, the things that interest her, on her own terms – so that includes a lot of fashion and beauty but also flowers and food.  Not to mention sausage dogs.  Just check out the pics of Lovely Lettice, a dog with a great line in photogenic stares and her own ramp onto the bed.  She’s also extremely ethical and very honest. That’s Sasha, btw, not Lettice (although, who knows, maybe she’s an honest and ethical dachshund – why not?).  My second dog was a dachshund, btw, but that's another story.

Oh, and she (Sasha, not Lettice - I really shouldn't have started confusing things with Lettice) has recently published her first cookbook, Friends, Food, Family – so if you like uncomplicated recipes, bursting with flavour and served with flare, check it out.  Click on the pic below for more details.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Wandering around Wigry - travels in Poland with my teenage son

So, my piece on Poland finally appeared in the Mail, nine months after I wrote it.  A good gestation, eh?  Take a look here.

These things always tend to get cut and spliced, squashed and squished into the available space - much like most things really. So, in case you're interested, here's a longer version.

'Evening diving in the ancient glacial waters of Wigry lake.  It's the third biggest lake in Poland, but it has the longest and most winding shoreline.  Actually, 'wigry' means 'winding' in the language of the Yotvingian tribes, who used to live here thousands of years ago.  The depths of the lake exceed 70 metres.  Its abyss is like a universe.  So is the inside of a quark.  Vast, empty space flashed across with impulses travelling at the speed of light in all possible (and impossible) directions.  Many at a time.  Electric lake eels...'

A passage from Symphonic Bridgesa book I first read almost five years ago, the one that launched me on my meditation/fasting/spiritual rejuvenation malarkey.  Wigry Lake wound through the book and it intrigued me.  So then last year its author, Marek and muse/soul-mate Malgosia invited us all out to visit.  Adrian couldn't come so it ended up as just James and I.  And it was magic.  It really was.  
The Wigry National Park (Wigierski Park Narodowy), nestles right up against the Lithuanian border. It’s the furthest outreach of the Masurian Lakes (Poland’s Lake District) and the most sparsely populated.  We fly into Kaunas, in Lithuania and, as we drive south-west, my heart sinks.  The countryside is flat and boring, the road straight and monotonous.  Yet, almost the moment we cross the border into Poland, everything changes.  The roads shrink and start wriggling around perky hills and Fuzzy Felt farms and woods.   Then the trees become denser and, every so often, we spot a glint of water.   We’ve reached the lake.

Our base is an unassuming but pristinely clean hotel right on the Wigry lakeshore.  The National Park snuggles all around, primeval forest and waterways that are home to otter and beaver, wolf and elk.  It may be unspoiled but it’s exceedingly well set-up for outdoorsy pursuits.  The hotel rents out mountain bikes and Nordic walking poles and you could cycle or hike for days around the well-marked and maintained trails.  Or you can take to the water.   Whichever way you turn there’s another beach, another jetty, another twisting corner of Wigry: the name means ‘winding’ in the language of the tribes who lived here thousands of years ago and it has the longest and most winding shoreline of all Poland’s lakes (yes, I nicked that bit).  The water is so inviting it sits up and begs.

I’ve never been big on wild swimming but the water here almost cuddles you.  ‘Are there sharks?’ James asks, as we float, our faces turned to the sun, the mildest current swaying us back towards the reeds.  ‘Only cold water ones,’ Marek jokes and we all laugh as James scythes through the water back to shore.  But as we peruse the menu on the wall of U Jawora, a lakeshore restaurant, monster pike with dagger teeth glare down from over the bar.   I try to divert his attention with a debate over whether he should have pierogi (large ravioli) or fish.  ‘I’m not eating one of those,’ he says firmly, glancing upwards.  You can’t con a teen.

The food here is solid, verging on stolid, big piles of comfort stacked high and priced low, way down low.  Kartacze (potato dumplings stuffed with meat) or pierogi stuffed with potato and cottage cheese each weigh in at a lightweight £3.  A thick bowl of creamy beetroot soup served with a hearty side of potatoes (rather than bread) strains to reach £2.

We need the calories with the amount of exercise we’re notching up.  We cycle through the forest, keeping a hopeful eye out for wildlife but we’re too noisy, what with our clanking gears and my muffled grunts as I hit yet another tree root.  For the umpteenth time, I wish I were wearing padded cycle shorts like Malgosia.
The area has a time-slip rustic feel – it’s hard to pin it down but I’m put in mind of 1950s Americana, Yogi Bear style.  In fact it’s all so darn wholesome that, as we sit by yet another pristine lake, watching the sun dip down to the water, I find myself singing old girl guide campfire songs as James takes another swim (thoughts of killer pike clearly forgotten). The place has somehow transported me back to my own teens, to a time when holidays didn’t need to be sophisticated or expensive; when fun came from the simplest of pleasures.

And yes, I got to hear this - an all-time favourite song - live, by the campfire.

‘You know what?  I’ve loved this holiday,’ says James, as we sit for the last time on the hotel jetty, sharing a bar of chocolate and watching the stars.  He looks slightly bemused but I can’t argue.
 'Me too,’ I reply.  ‘Me too.’

See the Mail piece for details of where we stayed.
And, if you click on the cover below, you can buy the book and read the rest of the M&M story.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Raw vegan hot cross buns? Happy Easter Bunday

So.  Sometimes when I feel low, lost, alone, I take myself back in mind to places where I felt secure and serene.  I know, I know - one should be able to feel secure and serene anywhere - for, really, it makes no difference where one is, does it?  But still...

Yobaba Lounge was such a place.  I'd love to take you there.  It might not suit, of course - we are all different, we all have varying tastes, inclinations, desires.  But, for me, it was a refuge for the mind; a temple of the body; a sanctuary for the soul.   I knew, from the moment I got into Gertrud's campervan at the airport and she started driving to Chalabre, that here was a kindred spirit.  One of my 'tribe'.

Anyhow.  Today I am thinking of Yobaba.  I am wandering its corridors in my mind, trailing my fingers over the wooden bannisters, stretching out on that fabulous bed and snuggling into the zebra-alike throw.  I am curling up in a hammock, with a cat purring under my fingers.  I am giving myself up to the floorboards in savasana surrender in the yoga shala up under the eaves, in the Kether of the chateau.  I am floating, a pale starfish, primordial, on the lake.
If I were there now I might even be walking the labyrinth Gertud has sliced into the lawn...
Are my tastebuds tingling?  Well, I don't usually get too exhilarated about food but for Gertrud's raw alchemy I make an exception.  Can you really make a raw vegan sugar-free hot cross bun?  More to the point, one that tastes good?  Gertrud did.  Follow this link for her recipe.
And, if you want to read more about her house in France and its range of retreats, I wrote a full report for Queen of Retreats - read it here.

Oh, and if you fancy finding out more about my thoughts on the issue of 'home', you could always read my book Spirit of the Home.  Click on the cover for more.