Friday 31 August 2012

What kills us...

You know that phrase - you are what you eat?  Well, actually, yeah - your body takes what you put into it and uses it to make you - from the inside out. 
During the summer holidays, a friend had a heart attack.  He’s okay but he’s got to have a bypass.  Could he have prevented it?  Well, I’m no doctor but I can’t help but wonder if eating like it were an Olympian sport, drinking like the proverbial fish and not exercising allied with a big dollop of stress probably had something to do with it.  And y’know, heart disease kills someone every 39 seconds – howzat for a depressing fact for a Friday afternoon?  
I can’t remember quite why, but the other day I looked up the statistics for what causes the most deaths.  It varies a little, depending on where you live but, if you look at the world as a whole, heart disease is the #1  killer.  Road traffic accidents come in at #10 if you were wondering (just five people per year are killed by sharks, one less than those who exit this mortal coil courtesy of rollercoasters).  
Actually the stats make really interesting reading.  For example, cancer only makes a top ten appearance in high-income countries.  Makes you wonder, huh?

But anyhow.  I have  no right to come over all holier than thou and, let’s be honest, most of us do pretty similar stuff, albeit maybe not quite so extreme.  We eat stuff that is crap for us because…we like the taste. We don’t want to be deprived.  Or maybe it is even more perverse than that.  I don’t particularly adore food but lately I’ve been punishing myself with it.  I know it’s stupid, really stupid but hey, sometimes you stop caring about yourself, huh?  So I’ve been sloshing down wine (and feeling like absolute shite) and necking back cheese (makes me snotty and mucusy) and chomping on bread (churns my guts and makes me fart something rotten). Jesus, this is too painfully honest, even for me.  I know, I know, I know. I kicked the crap - for a long time.  And, for pity's sake, I write self-help books; I’m supposedly a health writer – I know this stuff.  I can feel all too well what works for my body and what doesn’t. 

But here’s the really interesting thing.  Since pursuing my recent anti-health cum death-wish food regime I’ve been clobbered by a really shitty attack of auto-immune related rheumatism…something I’ve been pretty well clear of for…well…ages.  And all self-inflicted, eh? How freaking stupid is that? 

So, enough already.  I’ve done the dirty and I’ve paid the price so now it’s back to being kind to my body - foodwise.  Cos, really, is it worth feeling shite and risking your health just for the sake of how a bit of grub feels in your mouth for a few minutes? 

I truly believe that food plays a part in the harm or heal equation. It's not the only thing, of course (the mind is the major player), but it does make a big difference.  If you want to feel good (and to kick one helluva lot of health issues into touch) maybe start by looking at what you put in your mouth.  It’s not a one size fits all thingy – you have to play around a bit and find out what works for you.  But, hate to break it to you guys, it’s not likely to be cupcakes, steak butties and gin. 

Wednesday 29 August 2012

The Pretender...

Last night I dreamed I was at an old funfair.  Adrian said, 'This way' and I realised we were climbing up the wooden tracks of the runaway train ride. 'Is this a good idea?' I thought, but didn't say. 'The bends are blind and what if a train comes down?'  But the tracks were old and worn.  And no train came and we came to a break in the track, an opening out, and people looked at us as if we were mad and someone said, 'And why on earth would you do that?' And I shook my head and shrugged and silently agreed.

And the last few weeks, I have had this song running through my head which I can't stop. In fact, I got up even earlier than usual this morning to steal James' headphones so I could listen to it, to see if it is how I remember. But seems even his headphones don't work in my PC now. You gotta laugh, huh?  You gotta laugh.

Anyhow, you can hear it even if I can't. Can't you?  :-)

Tuesday 28 August 2012


Woke this morning to the sound of rain, relentless rain...again.  And this poem, which I always loved, since having to learn it by rote at school, inevitably rode through my mind.  Funny thing, memory - when I looked it up (to save typing it all out), it was different from how I remembered.  
Rain by Edward Thomas
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint. 

Friday 24 August 2012

I've had enough...of journalism

Ah, sod it.  Three rants in three hours?  Why not?

I had an email from a magazine yesterday.  I’d pitched an idea to them. The editor loved it. They wanted the piece. Could they have X words by X date?  Yes, yes, yip, yip.  Except…right at the end…as a breezy afterthought… ‘Of course, we can’t pay you for it.’  As if it were the funniest thing in the world.  As if I didn't need their money; as if writing were just a hobby, a bit of fun.

It’s happening more and more.  Now everyone is a writer, magazines and papers (yes, even national newspapers in some instances) no longer feel the need to pay for content.  Why should they, when people are willing to write for nothing?  Just as they no longer need to pay for staff when they can get interns to do the work – for nothing.

Robyn's stuff... I love this girl.  :-)  
I talked to my friend Zoe about it. Her daughter is trying to get a job in journalism.  ‘Please tell her not even to go there,’ I’d said (having seen the writing on the wall years back) but Robyn was determined, focused, driven, talented (all qualities that, in the old days, would have seen her fly to the top).  She’s good, really good (and, trust me, I’m well picky).  So good, in fact, that she gets published all over the place – big glossy magazines. (check her out - click here)

‘Has it earned her a single quid?’ said Zoe with a deep sigh. ‘Has it fuck? She works part-time doing whatever paid grunt work she can get her hands on and interns the rest of the time – free, gratis, mugged.’ She paused and shook her head. ‘Your industry is evil.’

She’s damn right. It is.

And then she said this and, really, I couldn’t put it better myself.  So, if you don't mind, I’ll just let her rant on my behalf. 

‘Your whole industry has changed,’ she said. ‘And it’s still in a state of flux. Anyone can be a writer now, can’t they?  Just as anyone can be famous. It doesn't take talent any more. Look at the idiots they have presenting popular TV these days. Read any tabloid (if you can stomach it). And what about all those celeb mags (from Hello downwards)? They’re just full of salacious crap. A five year old could have written most of it. Gossip is all people seem interested in.

‘They said religion was the opiate of the masses. Not anymore. Gossip, tittle tattle and the 'Public Interest' (what a sick joke that is most the time given the way it’s used to justify the most appalling invasions of people’s private lives, phone hacking and so on) are the new religion. We don’t get the news reported any more, not facts, we get some idiot’s interpretation of those facts, Speculation, and sensationalism sells and it’s all about the bottom line. Sod quality and standards. Even Aunty Beeb is guilty. The lowest common dominator prevails.’

Go Zoe.  She’s right. I’ve talked about this before and, honestly, it’s not sour grapes. I’ve had a damn good run in journalism. I made a heck of a decent living out of it in the past and it’s taken me to amazing places and let me meet amazing people (and a fair few scumbags too, but hey).  But now? 
It’s coming to the point where you need to have a private income if you want to be a journalist.  Rates (where they are paid at all) have plummeted and expenses are non-existent.  So, if you’re asked to go and interview someone in, say, Manchester, you will have to stump up the train fare out of your (already meagre) fee. 

Does it matter?  Shouldn’t everyone have a voice in the media?  Shouldn’t it be open to all? Shouldn’t it allow in new blood?  Well, yes. But in some fields experience really does count for a lot and professional journalists have learned (often the hard way by getting their hypothetical balls crushed by some scathing editor) to check facts, to check sources, to get balanced opinions, to look all around the issue and put in the caveats.  And, see, here’s the interesting thing.  In the past, the newspaper industry was one of the few truly egalitarian workplaces.  Many editors worked their way up from the very bottom, from being the post boy.  Nowadays that simply can’t happen. 
A new career? 

Virtually all the good journalists I used to know have thrown in the towel and retrained.  Because they’re sick – sick of the dumbing down of the press; sick of being shunted aside for some celebrity whose copy will have been written by an unpaid ripped off intern; sick of jumping through hoops for less and less money (I now earn on average 60 percent less per feature than I did 20 years ago – yes, you read that right).

So really…I’ve had enough.  Time to find a new way to bring home the bacon. 

Yeah, I'll shut up now...and go chill.  *smile*  

Tesco saves my school bacon...

Can I quietly scream? Will you mind? Nothing major; just a small strangled ‘aaaghhhhhh’.  Three small words, six meagre syllables that drive me demented. School freaking uniform.  
Get that hair on the left...

The return to school is looming into view and I keep gazing gloomily at the list.  Okay, so I get why schools feel the need to do the uniform thingy. I get that it’s all about ‘TEAM US’ (that’s ‘us’ as in ‘we’, not US as in the USA). I get the argument that it’s a leveler – that it stops arsey little brats coming in and doing the whole ‘I’m wearing Abercrombie/Superdry/Jack Wills/Versace/whatever and you, poor trailer trash scumbag, are wearing ‘George by Asda’ one-upmanship malarkey.  I get that it makes it easier to find and apportion blame when they torch a car or barge past people onto the bus or whatever.  I get it although, to be honest, I’m not entirely convinced.  But, hey, it is what it is and so on and so forth but, but, but…
…really, why do they have to make it so…arcane?  Why can’t they just say – ‘Look, chuck ‘em in grey trousers/skirts; white shirts; grey jumpers and let’s call it a day, guys.’?  Yeah?  No.

It’s always got to be the ‘right kind’ of grey.  The navy jumper has to have the blasted logo on it, doesn’t it?  And then…I shouldn’t have started, should I? Get this… For the last two years (years 7 and 8) James’ school hasn’t prescribed a blazer.  There was some kind of weird optional coat that they all point-blank refused to wear (didn’t remotely blame them, it was seriously minging), so he ended up getting on the school bus each day, even in the depths of winter, even in driving rain, wearing just a skimpy jersey. Mad.  This year (to compensate maybe?) it appears they require TWO blazers. One for everyday wear and one for ‘smart stuff’.  What smart stuff?  Come to think of it, let’s not think about it cos it’s bound to involve more cash.  Oh just…aaaghhh. 

And they’ve changed the sports kit – again.  WHY?  What was wrong with the old one? They’re a school, for heaven’s sake, not a football club. 

It could be worse – some boy we used to know had to wear flipping lederhosen to school – in London.  And again, I ask you…why?  Character-building? 

I suppose nothing has really changed.  When I was at school – in an uber-strict state grammar, we had to wear freaking tartan skirts (yup, kilts - feel free to laugh) and a particular blue open-necked shirt that could only be bought from one particular shop in, of all places, Twickenham. I can remember the look of horror on my poor mother’s face even now as she scanned the seemingly endless list. A boater?  A BOATER?  Thank feck I didn’t get one – only two girls wore them on the first day and they both managed to slide them quietly into a ditch by 9am.

Anyhow. Thank heavens for the kind PRs at Tesco Back to School who must have been reading my anguished mind as they sent an email asking if I’d like some school kit for James.  Er…YESSSS!  For freak’s sake, send it over and send it over fast.  Before my credit card reports me to CreditLine for severe emotional abuse. So they did, bless them.

Tesco Back to School gear...
I used to buy James’ school stuff (the generic trousers and shirts and all – the bits that don’t have to have badges and stripes and logos) from Marks and Spencer but, really, these are every bit as good (if not better actually - cos, I don't know about you but strikes me Marks ain't what it used to be - the last few pairs of pants I've had have just sort of collapsed - and, no, they weren't put under any particular strain) and a fair bit cheaper.  I thought he might go all teenage sniffy on me over the shoes (which are a SERIOUS bargain).  
The last couple of years he has refused to go the usual Clark’s children’s route and has resolutely bought from the men’s department.  But, to my total surprise, he deemed the lace-ups ‘fine’.  The coat met with a curl of the lip but that was just fine and dandy as I simply nabbed it for myself.  Socks, pants, trousers, shirts and really nice bright red polo shirts all met with teenage approval – the polo shirts so much that he’s already wearing them – yeah, by choice, in the holidays, in public.  And at least these won’t fall apart the way the rip-off Ralph Lauren ones from Turkey did. 

So. Seriously. Take a look.  And thank you, Tesco.  And…School...just don’t talk to me, alright? 

I just don't get it... (GMO reprised)

‘I just don’t get it,’ I said to Becky as we slung kettlebells around down by the river.
‘Huh?’ she said.  I think the grunt was in reference to my utterance (but you can never be sure when you're doing kettlebells).
‘Well,’ I said. How come the Co-op say on their website that they have banned GM foods yet their goat’s cheese says it was made using genetically modified pseudo-rennet?’
‘Huh?’ That was definitely in reference to me as she turned and frowned (though, then again, that’s a common facial expression during clean and press.
‘Yup,’ I said.
‘Did you ask them about it?’ she said.
‘I sure did,’ I said. And I had. And this chap, Richard Carroll, had emailed me back and said

"Dear Jane, 
Thanks for your email. We have banned Genetically Modified (GM) crops, ingredients or additives in Co-operative brand food products since 1999…

With regard to the goats' cheese you bought… although a GM rennet has been used, there is no actual GM in the final cheese..."

Hmm. Is it just me, or is that a bit disingenuous?  So they can claim the high ground cos there’s no GM actually left in the final product, even though it was used in the making thereof?  And look at that statement again – carefully.  They have banned GM in their own-brand products – ergo, not in all the products they stock.
Am I being too picky here?  I guess their statement is literally factually correct, but surely it goes against the spirit of the thing?  Google Co-operative and GM and the results make them sound like the saints of the marketplace. But it's not entirely true that they're white knights on gleaming white chargers, is it?  They're kinda a bit muddy.

So I emailed him back and he emailed me back again pointing out that they ‘go further than most retailers with the information we provide so I don’t feel this is disingenuous.’  And then (was he gritting his teeth? It’s always so hard to tell with emails) he said, ‘This information is provided with our customers’ interest in mind and we are not obliged to provide it.’
Yup, I hear you – you’re the white knights, right?    The knights who say, 'Er...
‘The product does not contain GM ingredients so labelling it as such would be incorrect. As previously explained, we have banned genetically modified crops, ingredients or additives in Co-operative band food products since 1999.’ 

Yes, yes, I heard you the first time.  But, y’know, I’m still frowning over this. 

As you probably know, I don’t like GM.  It may be totally safe for us to eat (I have absolutely no idea – I don’t think anyone really has any idea longterm – how can they?  But just bear in mind that people used to think smoking was good for people with asthma).  What does seem pretty clear to me is that it isn’t remotely safe for our environment.  But hey, it's our children and grandchildren who'll have to worry about that, right? :( 

I’m not a food fascist.  I figure everyone has the right to eat and drink exactly what they choose.  Sure, it saddens me when James drinks Coke and other fizzy drinks (and particularly if he drinks the ones that come stuffed with aspartame – cos, truly, they haven’t got a CLUE what that particular  baby does to your brain).  Sure I kinda wince when I see people ladle saturated fat into their bodies but hey…what can I do?  As far as James is concerned, all I can do is inform him and not keep the stuff in the house.  What he does when he’s out has to be his business.

But I do think food and drink should be clearly labelled so we can make informed choices.  Personally I’d like to see a clear label (not some tiny small print on the back of a label) saying if any GMO has been implicated in the making of the foodstuff.  But that ain’t gonna happen, is it?  Cos there are too many vested interests at stake. 

Sadly this is a spoof but...
It’s not just the Co-op of course – but I guess I expected a bit more from this particular operation, given they tout their ethics so much. 
Anyhow.  By the time I’d stopped discussing this with Becky, the class was almost over.
‘The world’s crazy,’ she said, shaking her head sadly.  'Crazy.' 

And we manoeuvred into Plank as the first drops of rain started falling.   

Thursday 16 August 2012

Right now

Sometimes life seems hard.  Damn hard. You know the beauty is out there/in here but you just can’t see/hear/smell/touch/taste it. You can still feel but it hurts.  Everything turns to ash. 
And, no matter how much you sleep, you are simply tired, bone tired – physically, emotionally, spiritually.  And you know it’s only you that can change how you feel, even if you cannot change the physical essence of it.

In the past I would probably have drunk or eaten myself to oblivion, or lost myself in TV or trashy books or cried me a river. Now I just meditate.  Nothing fancy.  Just following the breath.  You know – inhale, exhale. Or rather, inhale – pause – exhale – pause. Sometimes longer; sometimes shorter – just quietly observing where it wants to go; not forcing it; just letting it be. Sometimes for hours and hours. And it’s…beautiful.

Am I suggesting you try it if you’re feeling crap; if life is playing dodgeball with you?  Only if you want.  ‘Oh, I would but I can’t meditate…’  I can hear you, y’know.  *smile*  

Then all I can say is maybe try taking it moment by moment.  Once, years back, when I was in Italy, visiting my dear old friend the Contessa, I was consumed, eaten, gnawed at, by anxiety. It was so overwhelming I thought I would die – every minute.  And she said: ‘Take each moment and ask yourself: “Am I alright now? Am I alright this very second?”’ This very second. And, weirdly, I found I was.  And, if you're really honest, you usually are – sort of.

And if you string each okay moment onto the next okay moment, like links on a chain, you…kinda meditate actually. 

Anyhow, there you go. And there you are. Alright?  

Tuesday 7 August 2012

I assume so...don't you think?

Assumptions.  We all make them and I’m as guilty as any – if not more so.  But really, how can you ever know what someone is thinking, what someone is experiencing?  Even if it seems oh so certain?  

Adrian came in the other day from the pub (nothing unusual there, you might assume, and you'd be right). But then he said – ‘I was talking to X and, y’know, he’s really struggling.’  And he looked incredibly puzzled. ‘I’d got it all totally wrong,’ he said.  'I had just assumed...'

What had he assumed?  That this guy, maybe because of his accent, his bearing, his attire, whatever, was moneyed; that he had family dosh lurking in the background to bail him out. Wrong.  Very wrong.  I had a similar thing at university. Because I went to a northern college and had a Surrey accent, people assumed I was wealthy. Ditto at City Limits – I was allegedly the ‘rich bitch’ who’d been bought a flat by her parents.  Er, wrong.  I scraped together a deposit for a flat by subsisting on crackers for a year and camping on my grandmother’s floor.  If I recall, at that particular time my “uber-rich” daddy was in Pentonville because he couldn't afford to pay his tax.

And that's just another assumption.
But it’s not just about money; it’s everything. And I'm not simply talking about lazy stereotyping, about the whole judging a book by its cover thing. I'm thinking about people we know; people we think (assume) we know (though how can you know anyone, really?). We think people are thinking about us; we think people aren’t thinking about us.  We assume they like us or don’t like us; we assume they are disapproving of us; we assume they’re having a hissy fit and so on and so forth.  A lot of the time, of course, we’re projecting our own feelings onto them so it’s always worth turning it around.  Whatever you’re thinking, does it really apply to you?  You think people don’t like you?  Maybe you don’t like them; or maybe you don’t like yourself? 

But generally we turn ourselves into mind-readers.  All in all, we just think way way too much.  

Sometimes it's just plain funny.
'You're angry with me,' said James.
'I am?'
'What makes you think that?'
'You look angry.' 
'How do I look?'
'Well, you're sort of frowning and your eyes are crinkled up.'
'Maybe I'm just suppressing a fart.' 
'Oh. So you're not angry with me?'
'Er, no.'

So, maybe try asking yourself: how do you know it’s true?  Cos, really, you can’t know. You can’t possibly.  Not unless you ask.  And that comes back to that other old bugbear, communication.  And we don’t like that, not one little bit. Not really, not truly, not honestly. 

But then again, is there any point?  Because, of course, you can ask but someone can lie, or dodge the question, or simply not answer.  And then, of course, we make a whole fresh pile of new assumptions. 

And then again again, we can all change our minds in the blink of an eye, so really…when is anything ever true? When is anything ever certain? Hanging onto certainty is like catching raindrops.  So why worry?  And there's certainly no point in assuming because, even if your assumption was right a moment ago, maybe it isn’t now.

Funny old world, innit? 

Am I assuming too much? :-)
Then again, this is just personal stuff, right?  Like individual interactions.  Sometimes, I think (ho ho) that we don't think enough (or open our minds wide enough) when it comes to other stuff - but I'm not even going to get into the assumptions we make on a wider, social scale - how we jam our brains shut when it comes to politics, religion, economics, science etc.  Sometimes things seem so black and white, don't they?  But, hey...try paddling in grey.  Challenge every assumption.  About everything.  Always.  

Monday 6 August 2012

Wu wei (reprised), cosmic ordering and winning the lottery (possibly)

So, I’ve been pondering.   About how you make things happen; about whether you should make things happen, come to that.  Recently a lot of people have been talking (or not talking) about determination; about force of will; about how you have to have total utter single-minded determination if you want to achieve something. 

‘You can achieve anything,’ one of the somebodys said. ‘You just have to be totally determined.’   Which is fine – to a point.  I mean, I was watching a snippet on TV about sports psychology and how athletes have to focus entirely on themselves as that is the only part they can possibly influence.  It goes back to that ‘what is your business?’ question, right?

‘And if you’re up against something much, much bigger than yourself?’ I said. ‘What about if you’re up against something vast and complicated?’
‘You have to figure out the important players,’ she said firmly. ‘And then work out precisely how to influence them.’
And that, of course, is how politics works.

Which brings one into the consideration of ethics.  What if what you want conflicts with other people’s needs and desires?  Then what?  Is it ethical, is it right to push your determination out there?  To barrage your will?  Personally I don’t think so. 
And often, you know, it can backfire.  I may have told you this story before but it bears repeating.  My mother, many years ago, wanted a house.  She really really really wanted it.  So much.  It was her dream – a beautiful peaceful place in the countryside. 

So she fought, tooth and nail.  She coerced, she influenced, she schemed, she plotted, she cajoled.  At one point, when it wasn’t going well and it looked like all her plans might fall to dust, she cast the I Ching (we were that kind of family).  The hexagram talked of the concept of wu wei.  ‘It means I shouldn’t push so hard, I guess,’ she said.  Then she sighed, shrugged and started pushing a bit harder. 
Do we ever listen to oracles?  *smile*

She got the house. It was beautiful. She loved it and was very happy there. But…  to cut a long and depressing story short, that place ended up wrecking my parents’ business and bankrupting my father.  They lost the house. They lost everything, in fact, and fetched up in a rented flat above a shop.
And Mum turned to me one day and said, ‘You remember when I did the I Ching? I should have listened to it, shouldn’t I?  Wu wei, eh?’

Consequences.  It’s why the whole ‘cosmic ordering’ thingy bothers me.  As if you can just turn up your eyes to the universe and say, ‘I want this. I deserve this. I choose this. Gimme!’ and sod everything else that might have to readjust itself for you to get your way.  It’s kinda childlike in a bit of a greedy grasping way somehow.  And do we ever really know what is best for us?  We may think we know but hey, be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes.

But.  Then again, I do believe thought is creative.  I do feel that we influence our world (yes, even the physical world) by our thoughts and beliefs.  But that maybe it calls, not for bloody-minded determination but rather for a sort of quiet inner conviction, an alignment of oneself with what should be.  For if one is totally congruent, completely sure and certain (in a quiet inner way) then maybe things just change, all of their own accord.

Is it wu wei?  Sort of.  Wu wei is commonly translated as lack of action, non-action, not doing.  But I don’t feel total passivity is quite right.  Cos, let’s face it, you won’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.  And you won’t write a bestseller if you don’t start typing. Yes, you can meander around the 'If it's meant, it will happen' cycle of thought patterns but, well, I still think you need to get off your butt a bit.  So I prefer the alternative translation of ‘effortless action’ – so you do act, but in a natural, fluid, organic way.  It’s an inner alchemy maybe…

Or...‘It’s dancing,’ I said to the somebody, trying to explain my feeling and failing dismally. ‘It’s not barging; it’s not pushing and bludgeoning.  It’s… surfing, maybe.  Finding the right wave and riding it, rather than swimming against the current.’  Or not getting on the surf board in the first place.
She looked doubtful.

Ach, I dunno. I can feel it but words fail when describing it.  What do you feel?

Saturday 4 August 2012

I love yoga but...just...owwwwww.

Ow, ow, ow, ow, owwwwww.  I swear to God there is not one single muscle in my entire body which is not aching today.  Back, arms, legs, bum, shoulders, calves, neck…yup, they all hurt like hell.  Yesterday I went back to yoga after a long long break and hellfire I can feel it.

I do a lot of stretching and incorporate plenty of yoga postures (asanas) into my fitness regime but seriously, it’s nothing like doing a proper class.  Paul Cartwright is, quite simply, a great teacher and so when I was asked if I’d like to join a private 90 minute vinyasa class he runs here in Dulverton, I jumped at the chance.  But really…owww.  I’d figured I’d shake it all out at Zumba last night but when I pitched up at the hall, there was no thumping music; just a whole pile of vegetables.  Bloody flower and produce show.

Anyhow. By pure coincidence, I got an email yesterday from a friend who has decided she wants to take up yoga. What type should she do? What did she need to know?  So, let’s have a think. 
Yoga is one of the oldest organized systems of exercise known to humankind – at least 3,000 years old and possibly even older.  Yet it’s a system that seems tailor-made for modern times.  

On a purely physical level, yoga puts pressure on all the different organs and muscles of the body very systematically.  As well as toning the outer body (which it does exceedingly, nay, fabulously well) it tones the whole inner body too.   The precise postures of yoga work deep into the body, causing blood to circulate profoundly rather than just around the outside edge of the body, nourishing every organ and softening the muscle and ligament tissue.  The deep stretching is said to bring both bones and muscles gently back into their optimum alignment while lubricating the joints. 

Yoga can improve the oxygenation of your blood and boost your circulation.  It also helps your body to detoxify, as it encourages lymphatic flow (the “waste removal” system of the body).  Not only does your body detox when you perform yoga:  your mind does too.  The specific yogic breathing techniques (called pranayama) directly affect the nervous system, eliciting the “relaxation response” so you feel calm, cool and in control.  Allegedly.

If you practice yoga regularly you will almost automatically balance your weight and develop a leaner body.  Many yoga teachers also say that yoga can help improve will power:  people often find it easier to stop smoking or lose weight when they start yoga.  Concentration improves and most people report a deep sense of inner peace.

Yoga is totally safe - providing you find the right teacher and the right class.  However it is a powerful system and should be treated with respect.   One over-enthusiastic Iyengar teacher once pushed me way too far and I ended with a trapped nerve in my shoulder.  Another teacher was so bloody wafty and ‘new age’ she used to forget what she was doing in the middle of a series of asanas.  Go by word of mouth if you can and be prepared to try out a few classes and “shop around”.

If you have any health problems (particularly heart conditions, back problems, or if you have had any kind of surgery) you should find a very experienced yoga teacher or a yoga therapist.  Yoga is wonderful for pregnancy (I did classes with the lovely Sebastian Pole – founder of Pukka Herbs) but you will need to avoid certain postures.  Ideally, find a class specifically designed for pregnant women or have individual sessions with a yoga teacher or yoga therapist.

Yes, I can...
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter.  I’d be more inclined to go by the teacher, rather than the type. Hatha yoga is the general name for the physical practice of yoga.  The majority of classes will simply call themselves by this name – or simply “yoga”.  However over the years many different approaches have sprung up.  Whichever type you pick, always start with a beginner’s class.  Yoga postures (known as asanas) are very precise and to begin with you will need a lot of individual attention. 

Here’s a brief guide to the most popular types of yoga and their approaches.

Hatha yoga:  expect relaxation, warm-up, postures, breathing and deep relaxation.  Many teachers will also include meditation.  Ideal for everyone and the most commonly available class.

Vini yoga:  puts emphasis on individual tuition and individual needs.  Safe, gentle and ideal for beginners.  Often taught on a one-to-one basis. A good introduction for anyone nervous about yoga.

No, I can't...
Iyengar yoga:  a very focused, precise form of yoga.  Teachers use “props” such as blocks and belts to help you into position.  Good if you want the benefits without too much “weird stuff”.  Not my game but is very popular.

Yoga therapy:  therapeutic form of yoga with a medical background.  Will usually offer classes for specific problems and conditions, ie back pain, arthritis, asthma, pregnancy.  Individual tuition usually available.  The best choice if you have a medical condition.

Sivananda yoga:  gentle yet pure form of yoga based around 12 key postures.  Has a strong spiritual element (often includes chanting and meditation). 

Dru yoga:  a very gentle, holistic approach which uses graceful flowing movement sequences.  Said to release negative thought patterns, energy blocks and deep-seated trauma.   

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga:  so-called “power yoga” which uses a specific breathing technique and sequences of postures carried out at far greater speed than other forms.  It’s an intense workout and not suitable for beginners. Paul does a variation of this called vinyasa flow (and also incorporates other types of yoga – many teachers blend their own fusions).

Bikram yoga:  intense and highly athletic, the yoga studio is heated to temperatures of 100 degrees to allow students to stretch that bit further.  Again, not ideal for beginners.

The British Wheel of Yoga:

Needless to say, I rave about yoga in most of my health books.  Many are now available in e-format for Kindle (at a fraction of the hardback or paperback price). Check out my author page at Amazon here. 

Thursday 2 August 2012

Do you really have to exercise? Of course not.

I’m pretty sure that, if I didn’t exercise, I would go crazy. Cos when you’re working out hard, you simply don’t have the capacity to churn stuff over in your head.  Yes, I do a lot of exercise already but I’d love to do more. Why?  Because it not only cuts out the mental crap but it makes me feel good, really good. I love the way muscles appear out of fat; and I love the sheer endorphin high I get when I'm in the 'zone'.  I can be feeling as miserable as sin, as low as low can go and getting up and going out to exercise can feel like the last thing I want to do. But it's much easier just to slump on the sofa, right? Or stick your paw in the cookie jar to blunt your feelings. So really, I push myself out there because I know damn well that exercise will sort me out - for a little while at least. :-)

And there's a good reason why.  We weren't meant to be couch potatoes.  We weren’t designed to sit for ten hours a day behind a computer screen and then slump for the evening in front of a television.   Our bodies were designed to move, to work, to be fit and active.  In the past most of us would have relied on the earth for our livelihood and our daily bread - days would have been spent in the open, working physically very hard.   Nowadays our daily bread tends to come from the supermarket (and is full of crap but let's not go there for the moment) and so we need to find other, more artificial ways, to keep active and fit. 

kettlebells really tone muscle
Do you really have to exercise? Of course not.  You don't have to do anything. But if you want to live longer and in better health, it's not a bad idea to give it a whirl. Exercising regularly allegedly reduces your risk of early death by a pretty impressive seventy per cent.   It keeps your lungs and heart working at optimum levels and prevents the dangers of heart disease.  Stress levels drop when you exercise and your mood naturally elevates.  Regular exercise can even help you sleep and perk up your sex life.  
On a more prosaic note it can control your blood pressure and boost your immune system.  Some physiologists even reckon it can increase your creativity.  On the other hand, if you don't exercise you will be putting yourself in danger of heart and artery disease; your muscles and bones could develop problems; you could find yourself prone to gastrointestinal problems and you will be more likely to suffer nervous or emotional upsets and illnesses. 

But - and it's a big but - it has to be enjoyable.  Enjoyable exercise sound like an oxymoron?  Nah. It doesn't have to be. The good news is that you don't have to live down the gym or run for hours every day. But it’s worth doing some form of exercise regularly.

weights do NOT bulk you out. 
The main problem is that people take up forms of exercise they don't enjoy, they aren't naturally good at or that they feel they should do and so they get bored, disillusioned and give up.  The key to making exercise work for you is to find something you actually enjoy - not what you feel you should do but what you would really like to do.  

So you don't have to race out and buy on-line skates when you have absolutely no sense of balance and are terrified of speed.  And you don't have to do Zumba because all your friends do or play squash because your husband wants some practice.  People fork out a small fortune on gym memberships only to find they hate pumping iron and they loathe spinning.  Before you join a club test it out for a while - any club worth its salt will offer trial memberships for a month or so. 

Throughout my book The Natural Year I give ideas on how to incorporate exercise into your life and suggestions on different things to try.  But for now, just try something...anything.

Take a look at your local sports centre – where I used to live the local one offered  everything from trampolining to five-a-side football, from ballroom dancing to table tennis (and it was only a small rural centre).  Think about the sports you enjoyed in school - are there any you'd like to take up again?  Netball can be good fun, or volleyball or softball - if you like team games.  Or get back into badminton or squash or tennis.  Many adults take up gymnastics or ballet again and love it without the peer pressure of youth - or learn something new like (ye gods) golf.   The key issue is fun.  You don't have to be brilliant or the best - you just need to do it and enjoy it.  A friend of mine has taken up belly-dancing and adores it.  She reckons she's the worst belly-dancer ever but doesn't give a toss. And if one thing doesn't work out, try something else. Sometimes you have to ferret around a bit to find what works for you. You might have the right sport but the wrong class, the wrong teacher - it's a real case of horses for courses. Just don't give up, okay? 

Physically unable to exercise? Try qigong (chi kung) – you can even do it sitting in a chair – and it still gives great results.  Broke?  Walking, running, wild swimming don’t cost a penny. 

In order to keep exercising you have to keep your motivation high.

* Be realistic about your size shape and body shape.  Hordes of exercisers lose heart because however hard they work they don't end up looking like supermodels.  Dump unrealistic role models ‑ these people spend hours, and a small fortune in personal trainer bills, to look that way.  Plus your body type might be against you (I discuss this more in the book and will try to put up a blog post on it soon). 
* Start slowly.  You shouldn't try to change your exercise habits overnight or you will become demotivated because you don't see changes happening immediately.  Make gradual changes to your lifestyle and they will become a permanent way of life without any special effort.
* Break through the one week barrier.  Yup, just one week. Sports psychologists promise that if you can get past the first week, you've passed the period in which half the drop-outs occur. Needless to say, this means exercising more than once a week. :-)  If you manage to work out regularly for six months, you're likely to have created a longlasting habit.
* Try to get a friend involved.  Exercising with someone else is the supreme motivator.  Sportsmen and women have coaches, most super‑fit actresses and models have their own personal trainers and if you've got the funds, a personal trainer will undoubtedly get you moving. However a good mate will often do as well. It is much easier to stick to a regular exercise schedule if you know that someone else is waiting for you in the park, the gym or the pool. 

    Adapted from my book The Natural Year – a seasonal guideto holistic health and beauty, in which I talk about my belief that we can all live more balanced lives if we work with the forces of nature, rather than pitting ourselves against them.  Now updated and available for Kindle at and  

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Lose weight and get healthy this August

Want to lose weight? Want to give your health a kickstart?  August is the perfect month to start a new healthy regime. 
In my book The Natural Year I give suggestions (nothing more) about how you might adjust your diet and lifestyle to live a little more in tune with the seasons.  Generally this is pure common sense – making use of seasonal foods; adapting the amount and type of food you eat according to the weather.

So, how about August?  Well, this is a time to eat light and cool. Soft fruits are plentiful now so make the most of them (but aim for organic if you can – pesticide use is heavy on soft fruits). Think about super salads and check the recipes from Exmoor House for summer barbecues and picnics.  Middle Eastern food is adapted for hot weather – I am still missing the heavenly vegetarian food of Israel from my trip last year.
If you want to lose weight, this is an ideal time of year to do it gently, naturally and easily.  Your body doesn’t need so many calories to keep warm and you naturally feel less hungry when it’s hot.  If you really want to kickstart weight loss, try juicing. 

I’ve talked about juicing before but, if you haven’t already discovered the wonder of fresh juicing, August is a good month to begin. Not only are they delicious but they are a great way to get lots of vitamins (particularly those essential anti-oxidants) without having to chomp your way through pounds of steamed veg.  They also have individual health-giving properties of their own.

Many naturopaths say that a day a week on a diet of vegetable juices will be beneficial to anyone.  They usually recommend you have between 500-700 ml up to a litre.  Take the juice in sips throughout the day, don't just gulp it down.  Make sure in addition you drink plenty of water - you could also supplement the juice with weak rose hip tea to help elimination through the kidneys.

So why is vegetable juice so wonderful?  In general vegetables are highly alkaline in their nature and have the ability to bind acids and eliminate them through the kidneys and urine.  So it's not surprising that alkaline vegetable juice can be so useful for people who suffer from rheumatism and arthritis.

As far as weight loss goes, a few days on a juice fast will shrink your stomach and make it much easier to carry on with a light diet.  Obviously, if you have any health issues then check with a health practitioner before any kind of fast.

Anyhow, a quick run-down of some super-juices to try…


CARROT:   The essential oils in carrots have an effect on the mucous membranes of the body and stimulate the circulation of blood in the stomach and intestinal tissues.  Because of this balancing action carrot juice is also good for constipation and diarrhoea and all sorts of digestive problems. 
Often when the digestion is sorted out, other problems disappear - many people find their headaches, eczema and bad skin all vanish when the digestion is functioning properly. If you suffer from frequent coughs and colds remember carrot juice - it is refreshing and soothing and helps battle against infectious diseases. 
Packed full of anti-oxidant vitamins it is a feisty fighter against the free radicals that cause disease and ageing.  And its rich supplies of carotene (provitamin A) improves the eyesight and stimulates the production of rhodopsin (visual purple) the lack of which causes night-blindness. 
As if all that were not enough, carrot juice is said to help balance your weight and to give a beautiful complexion - certainly worth trying. 

BEETROOT:  This dark purple juice is my absolute favourite (and now you can get beetroot in all shades - including white). Beetroot contains betaine which stimulates the function of the liver cells, protecting the liver and bile ducts.  100mg of beetroot juice contains 5mg of iron in addition to trace elements which encourage the absorption of iron in the blood.  Everyone can benefit from beetroot juice but it is particularly recommended in the first two years of life, during puberty, during pregnancy, when breast-feeding and during menopause.    Children from six months to two years need only a teaspoon of juice before meals.

CELERY:  Celery is alkaline and encourages elimination and so it is recommended for any diseases or problems connected with an accumulation of wastes and toxins - ie rheumatic and arthritic ailments.  It also regulates the water balance in our bodies and is superb for elderly people.  Personally I don't like it solo -  so mix it in with other juices (but it's a question of taste).  

TOMATO:  Tomato juice is highly acidic so not recommended for arthritic or rheumatic conditions.  In addition, quite a large number of people find they are intolerant of tomato.  However it has interesting properties.  The old herbals say it can help with overtiredness and combat unpleasant body odour.  They also suggest it is a protection against premature ageing.  It is a lovely refreshing juice which cleanses the body. Bloody Mary?  Hmm, not quite the mix I had in mind. :-)

Of course, you can experiment with a wide variety of juices.  Naturopaths will often recommend particular combinations and Polarity Therapy, a therapy that combines elements of naturopathy, ayurveda and other Eastern influences strongly advocates the use of fresh natural fruit and vegetable juices to aid healing and general health.  The following are recommended by the founder of Polarity Therapy, Randolph Stone:

FOR CONSTIPATION:  cabbage, spinach, celery and lemon juice.
FOR SKIN CONDITIONS:  carrot, beetroot and celery juice.
FOR ARTHRITIS:  carrot, celery and cabbage juice.
FOR HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE:  celery, beetroot and carrot juice.
FOR LOW BLOOD PRESSURE:  carrot, beetroot and dandelion juice.
FOR ASTHMA AND CATARRHAL CONDITIONS:  carrot and radish juice.
TO OPEN UP SINUSES AND AIR PASSAGES - horseradish and lemon juice (4oz of horseradish and 2oz of lemon juice, combined with one teaspoon of garlic juice and a tablespoon of honey - take a teaspoon four times daily.)
TO HELP YOU SLEEP:  celery juice.
TO SOOTHE THE NERVES: lemon and lime juice.
FOR SORE THROATS AND COLDS:  lemon, lime and pineapple juice.

Adapted from my book The Natural Year – a seasonal guideto holistic health and beauty, in which I talk about my belief that we can all live more balanced, healthier lives if we work with the forces of nature, rather than pitting ourselves against them.  Now updated and available for Kindle at and