Recipes for sporting success

Flapjacks and energy balls

Food is your fuel and your friend on any endurance challenge.

That bite of a tasty sweet snack is a much-needed boost, physically and emotionally, up a mountain – whatever your mode of transport.

And if you have a foodie friend on hand, then you’re already a winner!

I was lucky to have such a friend supply the energy snacks for my challenge to climb the UK’s three highest peaks in 24 hours.

Here my recipe writer friend Lucy Battersby, who trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine, shares her recipes for successful summiting. I’d highly recommend them – yum!

Power boost bars

140g light soft brown sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
140g butter
250g rolled oats
85g raisins
85g walnuts, chopped
50g pumpkin seeds
25g dried cranberries
50g dates, finely chopped

1. Heat oven to 160C/fan 140C/Gas 3. Put the sugar, syrup and butter in a pan over a low heat until the sugar and butter and both melted. Stir in the oats, raisins, walnuts, seeds and cranberries.

2. Spoon half the mix into a baking tin (about 20 x 20cm). Scatter over the dates then top with the remaining oaty mix. Pack down the mixture well (rolling a tin over works well for this – just whatever you have in the cupboard). Bake for 35 mins or until dark golden.

3. Leave to cool completely before cutting into bars.

Lucy and recipes

Energy balls

100g pecans
75g raisins
2 tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp ground almonds
1tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp runny honey
30g desiccated coconut

1. Put the pecans in a food processor and blitz to crumbs. Add the raisins, peanut butter, ground almonds, cocoa powder and honey, and pulse to combine.

2. Shape the mixture into small balls and roll in the desiccated coconut. Put in the fridge to firm for 20 minutes.

Follow Lucy on Twitter @foodielucy or Instagram

Why teens (+ all) still need yoga in a mindful world

Teen yoga - boy and girl

Mindfulness has eased its way into modern life, from cleaning your teeth before work to strolling along a beach on holiday.

Children can learn to mindfully eat a raisin (or even a chunk of chocolate – ssh!) for their mental wellbeing.

Stressed out execs have an excuse to return to their childhood crayons to mindfully colour-in a drawing.

Even MPs are minding themselves in Parliament, though you may think ‘more work is needed’ on seeing Prime Minister’s questions.

So if mindfulness is so great (and it is), then why do yoga? And why introduce the practice into schools where mindfulness is spreading further?

Experts debated this at the Instill 2016 conference on education, yoga and wellbeing held in London this month.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and yoga?

Mindfulness came to prominence in 1979 when US emeritus professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme.

He says: ‘Mindfulness practice means we commit fully in each moment to be present.’

Yoga’s exact age is less clear but it is widely thought to date back 5,000 years. It includes posture practice, breath work, meditation and personal guidance/observances relating to qualities such as non-competitiveness and non-violence.

The sage Patanjali, who wrote the formative Yoga Sutras, said:

‘Yoga is a stilling of the fluctuations of the mind’ (or in Sanskrit: Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah).

Teenyoga arms

But they still sound kind of similar?

Sat Bir Khalsa thinks so too. Dr Khalsa is assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a leading researcher in yoga therapy. He says traditional yoga, without a doubt, incorporates mindfulness.

He told the Instill conference, organised by the Teen Yoga Foundation, that the techniques of meditation are almost identical to mindfulness. ‘You focus your attention in a relaxed manner and mind wandering goes,’ he said.

Why bother with yoga at all?

Because people who just practice mindfulness have missed a trick – to engage the body. Dr Khalsa says the body contributes to cognitive functioning.

This view is supported by many including US leading neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Dan Siegel who believes the focus involved in mindful movement – or yoga – helps to integrate the brain and enable reasoned decision making.

While Dr Khalsa says the benefits of yoga include –

• improved respiratory function, coordination and balance
• ability to self-regulate emotions
• mindfulness or awareness
• Giving life purpose.

Teen yoga wheels

But can’t schoolchildren just do gymnastics?

It’s not the same, says Heather Mason, founder of the Minded Institute. She is leading a call to get yoga on the school curriculum – with over 400 letters sent to MPs urging them to support an early day motion on this. She has presented on this issue to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Indian Traditional Sciences.

The yoga therapist told Instill that mindfulness is an inherent part of yoga, as otherwise postures are just stretching (or gymnastics). She added that controlled breathing and movement helps students to sit in meditation. This allows more prefrontal cortex activation (the reasoning part of the brain).

So, mindfulness or yoga?

Both have their place. Yoga covers mindfulness too though. Or as Ingunn Hagen, a professor of psychology in Norway, offered to the debate: ‘Why focus on just our head? We are doing enough of that in our universities.’

Take mindful action

Write a letter to your MP supporting the call to get yoga in the school curriculum and the NHS.

Interested in teen yoga? I am an accredited teen yoga teacher – email me via ‘connect’ below for class details. Or find a teen yoga teacher via Teen Yoga, the UK’s fully accredited teen yoga and mindfulness training course.

Find out more about the Teen Yoga Foundation.

With thanks to Teen Yoga for the images.

Top tips for a perfect time in Pondicherry

Pondicherry prom

When I was looking at visiting Pondicherry I couldn’t find a bad word about the place.

Seriously, I tried (I like to be prepared).

But Google and fellow travellers – eastern and western – would only deliver kind words about the former French colony, affectionately known as Pondy.

Now I know why. And better still, I have memories to cherish forever.

But I did struggle with some small practical details that would have helped to make life easier and allay the fears of a lone traveller.

So, here is my guide to make your trip to Pondicherry just perfect.

Matrimandir and me

Travelling to Pondicherry

Most people travel to Pondicherry from Chennai, which is about 170km away and also in the state of Tamil Nadu. I booked a bus, through Rathimeena Travels, to Pondy for about 450 rupees (£4ish). I found it difficult to work out where the nearest stop was as many are simply under a tree on a roadside. I opted for Koyambedu bus station (about 30 minutes cab or rickshaw ride from where I was staying near Anna Salai).

Top tip – Don’t listen to the bus website about printing your ticket and id, you only need the booking reference number.

Check your bus has aircon when booking as quite a few don’t have it. Also factor in delays (especially if you want to arrive before sunset which is safer) – my bus was supposed to take 3.5 hours but actually took 4.5 hours. The aircon bus is very comfortable – the only downer is the loud films they play from the screen at the front of the bus.

A tuk tuk from Pondicherry bus stand (there’s only one but you can ask to be dropped off earlier, for example in Auroville) to the French colonial area is around 400 rupees (£4ish).

Travelling back to Chennai? Taxis this way are often less expensive than traveling to Pondicherry, about 3,000 rupees (around £30). If you’re going to the airport this the best option. Try Pondicherry Car.

Palais de Mahe

Where to stay

I stayed at Palais de Mahe in the French quarter, also known as White Town.

The beds are incredibly comfy (they are worth commenting on!). The bathroom also has a range of gorgeous smelling and great for the skin/hair Ayurvedic products. The staff are very helpful and knowledgable and the food, particularly dinner, is delicious. My favourite is cinnamon prawns, lentil encrusted catch of the day and a bee’s knees cocktail (gin, lemon and honey – hey, it’s practically medicinal!).

Oh, and the hotel has an amazing pool.

This isn’t the cheapest option but is worth it and TripAdvisor and Booking.com have good deals on this hotel.

Poor point – the wifi dips in and out.

Getting around Pondicherry

Go by two wheels! Many hotels, including the Palais de Mahe, offer free bike hire. Ok, the bikes have no gears and so can be hard work but you still get a breeze which in a very hot April (temperatures in late 30c) is to be welcomed.

One of my best memories is cycling along the Promenade before sunset with the sea breeze gently blowing through my hair – and ok sweat running down me – and smiling away.

The bikes have an easy self-bolt so no need to chain it to something.

Sights and experiences

Auroville

Auroville

Ok, this township isn’t technically in Pondicherry. It is about a 30-minute rickshaw ride away (costing around 600 rupees – £6 – for a round-trip in which the driver waits for you).

Auroville is awesome and inspirational and is a must-see.

Its aim is to be a ‘universal town’ where people of all sexes, races and nationalities live in harmony. It was set up by a French spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa, known as ‘the Mother’, in 1958.

Auroville has a strong ecological ethos with a number of sustainability projects including the reforestation of its land. It also supports gender empowerment through schemes finding work for women in textiles, and less traditional feminine employment.

The glistening jewel at the heart of Auroville is the Matrimandir. Behind its space age-style gold exterior are 12 meditation chambers in the ‘petals’ which each correspondent to a flower representing qualities such as gratitude. Within the inner meditation is a crystal ball through which a line of sunlight beams – what a focal point for meditation!

Auroville gratitude

Top tip – Choose the day and time you visit carefully. It is free to enter Auroville. Just show up at the visitor centre and get a pass and visit the Matrimandir viewing point. But gaining entry inside the Matrimandir is a bit more complicated. You must ask for a pass in person for the Matrimandir between 10-11am or 2-3pm. Your pass will be for a day or two after visiting Auroville. It is closed on Sunday afternoons and passes can’t be issued on Tuesdays.

I missed out on meditating inside the Matrimandir due to these timings, which I was gutted about.

Aurobindo ashram

Sri Aurobindo Ashram

The ashram was founded by Indian Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in 1926 and doesn’t teach a particular type of yoga or meditation rather allows students to find their own way. It isn’t a quiet place as it’s located in a busy part of Pondicherry and is open to visitors. But it is worth visiting to attend the evening self-practice meditation session in the courtyard and the bookshop where hundreds of the ashram’s publications are available to buy in many different languages for very cheap prices. There are also guided tours available.

Top tip – arrive by 4pm to take part in the evening meditation and bring a towel or cushion to sit on as the ground is concrete. Also be aware that you’ll need to use your meditative powers to zone out the scampering squirrels in the courtyard!

Pondy prom nighttime

The promenade

It may seem strange to suggest a stretch of pavement as an attraction but a stroll along here after 6pm (when it’s traffic free) is great. It is also busy though. You will see hundreds of people – way more than you ever see there in the day. It is also the most hassle-free time and very relaxing.

Eating out

Cafe des artes

Cafe des arts

This is a cool vintage-styled cafe in the French quarter serving nice sandwiches, crepes, salads, juices and coffee. They also have strong wifi and a nice garden and a vintage clothes shop.

Top tip – opt for the banana and lemon crepe – yum!

Villa Shanti

Villa Shanti

This is a boutique hotel with a restaurant downstairs. The food and service are excellent. It’s a mixture of ‘contemporary cuisine’ – fish dishes and vegetarian – and classic Indian food.

Top tip – try the aubergine confit for dessert. It sounds strange but is delicious! The fish dishes are very tasty but the fish is a bit overcooked.

Shopping

La Maison Rose

La Maison Rose

Like Cafe des arts, this is another two in one cafe – an eatery and a shop. The food is good as are the clothes but they are expensive by Indian (and even western standards) – about 6,000 rupees (£60) for a pair of silk trousers. They also sell beautiful cotton and jewellery.

Hidesign

This an international Pondicherry-based leather goods retailer. They sell good quality bags, purses and shoes at reasonable prices. Bags start from around 3900 rupees (£39), for a mixed material bag, and about 5000 rupees (£50) for a leather handbag.

These products are made using eco-friendly vegetable tanning processes. Hidesign also support sustainability projects in India.

Top tip – tourists get 10% discount in store. There is also a Hidesign factory shop up the road.

Hidesign bag

Kalki

This is a great shop for gifts unfortunately I found some of the staff quite snooty on my visit to their Pondicherry store (and the way they follow you everywhere at close range is very annoying).

But Kalki does sell some great Ayurveda massages oils, perfumes and cosmetics. They also have a huge incense stick range and stock some nice cotton clothes.

Mira boutique at Auroville

This boutique near the Auroville visitor centre sells a great range of women’s cotton and silk clothing, and also candles and much homeware. You will struggle not to find a gift for most women you know as there is so much choice from the patterned to the plain. I bought about five items of clothing (not all for me!) and had change from £50.

Again, this is an ethical store with, for example, the blouse prints are produced by local women’s projects.

Check out more information on Pondicherry via Pondy Tourism or visit the official tourist information office on the Promenade.

Ayurveda diary: schoolgirl giggles, horrors and healing

Ayurveda

‘You will be lubricated, scrubbed and sweated,’ says the grinning Ayurvedic doctor.

Sounds scary? Yep, I was a little apprehensive, especially when he causally mentioned the possibility of far more daunting cleanses. Block your ears (no, that’s not a treatment), I told myself.

But I was intrigued. A fascination to find out more about this centuries-old practice is what brought me to this retreat in the village of Pangode, Kerala – the devoted land of Ayurveda.

Pool

What’s Ayurveda?

Ayurveda or ‘life science/knowledge’ is a thousands years old healing system. It sees the body and mind as being based on three energies or doshas – vata, pitta and kapha – each associated with a particular element such as fire, air or earth. Most people are a combination of two and, as the doshas move in and out of balance, they can affect your health, mood and overall energy.

What’s my dosha?

After a brief medical history, weigh-in, blood pressure and pulse check, I was declared vata pitta. Briefly, vata means you’re lively and energetic person with a lean body but, if out of balance, you can be anxious and suffer insomnia and digestive problems. Pittas are athletic and have a strong appetite for food and life but can overdo things.

Amrutham

What’s the treatment?

Step 1 – the oiling

Lots of herbal (cocoa smelling) oils are poured over me as my body is given a deep tissue massage. There was so much oil that when I got off the table to be led to shower, I looked at my dewy honey-coloured skin and thought ‘wow, my tan is coming on’. Erm, no.

The massage pressure is strong in places. My therapist got into my tight calf, quad and shoulder muscles – you are kind of on a knife edge at times, unsure if it’s pleasurable or painful. I was also given massages on my side with strokes to stimulate the circulation system.

Next up, a tasty face mask treatment made of cucumber, papaya and banana (mixed with Ayurvedic medicines) to make your skin soft. Softening that dry vata skin is what this stage is about.

Amrutham outside

Step 2 – the scrubbing

On entering the massage hut today, I have a paper mask placed on my face. I thought this was part of the treatment but it turns out it’s simply to protect the throat from the powder being scrubbed into me. It’s also good to disguise my schoolgirl giggles as two women therapists energetically sand down a buttock each. This is the urdvartana (udwarthanam) treatment, which is good for reducing fat and softening skin.

I am then treated to a sirodhara in which warm herbal oil is poured over my forehead for around 30 minutes. This relaxes the nervous system and is good for insomnia and stress – and I slept through most of the treatment.

On the second and third days of scrubbing, I hear a crackling of oil heating in a pan behind me. Eek! But this is actually the start of the enjoyable elakizhi treatment. Herbal leaves are made into a ball in a cloth bag which is used to pummel the body. It is good for improving blood circulation, skin complexion and body stiffness. It’s pretty invigorating stuff.

Final step – the sweating

Another oily massage with emphasis on the spinal column, and area around the navel. Then hot towels were waved over me and patted on my body. The face mask as before – and I slept, again. This is a toxin releasing treatment.

Throughout the six-day treatment, Ayurvedic powdered medicines are rubbed into points on the body including the scalp.

This treatment, overall, isn’t for the bashful. You really do start to wonder what is the point of the ever-shifting paper pants. My therapist got to know me so well that we started discussing new mosquito bites at the top of my thigh.

Ayurveda lake

What else happens (besides the treatment)?

Yoga and meditation

Two hours of yoga and an hour of meditation each day. I was the only student so got extra special tuition – or rather I was pushed beyond my comfort zone. It’s ashtanga based with an emphasis on backbends and twists. I felt absolutely no strains from this intense practice (heat/sweat included), so something was clearly working.
My only lowlight was being coerced into singing a song solo – way harder than chanting, my teacher later admitted. There won’t be a repeat performance.

Ayurveda food

Food

It is an activity as much time is spent consuming it. Curry made out of everything: pineapple, sea gourd, eggs, chickpeas, and fish (it’s a vegetarian retreat but they cook fish for the pescetarians). There is even post-meditation snack of either homemade peanut bar, sesame seed ball or a gooey mixture of ghee, bananas and grapes (tastes way nicer than it sounds!). Clear coriander water is served with every meal. Apparently people lose weight here but I think they must be on a different diet plan.

Did it work?

Initially I felt so tired with heavy legs but I was told this was natural. My sleep was interrupted but I think this was due to the nearby temple festival (starting at 4am!).
But as the week went on, I felt more energised in my yoga practice and my digestive system was more ‘UK normal’. My skin feels very soft and smooth and the hard ‘saddle sore’ skin I’ve had for a few years has gone – yay!
And I didn’t enjoy a much anticipated beer (and chocolate mousse) later in Chennai. Am I reformed? No. Relaxed? Yes.

Lotus flower

My treatment was at Amrutham Gamaya Ayurvedic Village Resort

Find out more about Ayurveda in Kerala

It’s not all peachy – or is it?

Kerala: Kovalam

I crashed in Kovalam. Physically. Mentally. Guiltily. Ridiculously.

My travel plans for this Kerala leg did not go to plan. I’m not even sure what the plan was but it didn’t meet my expectations.

I split my dress, broke my bag, bruised my leg – and my pride.

It was very hot (heat index of +40c). I didn’t know where I was going, neither did anyone else. I was supposed to be staying somewhere then had to shift elsewhere, the yoga place wasn’t as I’d imagined (neither did I give it a chance). There were tourists everywhere (fancy that in such a seaside resort?!). I was alone.

Normally, I’d tell myself to suspend my judgment and go on to discover it’s perfect, or at least fine. But instead I lay down and just let myself wallow in my first world problems in the most modest and friendliest country in the world.

Kerala: lighthouse beach

I have been pretty much lying down ever since, spending hours watching the waves crash on the shore, earphones in listening to music so no one bothers me. Watching the sun go down with the beach dogs. Such a hard life, I have. Not doing yoga yet feeling guilty every time the manager of my digs asks ‘off to yoga?’, ‘back from yoga?’.

India: Kovalam dog sunset

Then in response to a late night stressy email from me, my sister says: ‘maybe you’re just tired’, and she sorts me out with an alternative plan. A friend tells me ‘no one wants to read it’s peachy all the time’. They are both right. So here we are.

I’ve realised I’m being completely ridiculous and also in feeling guilty about not being always full of gratitude. So, I’m just letting myself crash out and not care.

Oh and I’ve checked myself into an ayurvedic retreat. Lucky me! Watch this (head) space, if you can bear it.

5 things I’ve learned about South Indian food

Kerala thali

The food you eat and its effect on the body is a popular topic of conversation among westerners in India.

You’ll find you know more about the digestive systems of newly found friends than people you’ve known for years, with stocks of Imodium undergoing regular audits.

But toilet talk aside, food and drink does provide a great source of happiness, and also healing (post initiation stage).

Here are a few things I’ve learned and loved along the way, generally via two wheels:

Kerala: fruit

Appreciate your food source and say thanks Keralan style

I get a veg box at home yet I’ve far greater appreciation for food where you can actually see its source. Breakfast mangoes from a tree you’ve spotted, fresh fish from the sea before your eyes. A single cashew nut coming from one cashew apple – hey, this is why they are so expensive in the UK. Tip: in Kerala show your gratitude with the banana leaf you’ve eaten off. Once you’ve finished your beautiful platter of relishes, nuts, fruit and curries, fold that leaf downwards to show you like it.

India: fish

Variety is the spice of life

There are around 15 varieties of banana in Kerala ranging from the teeny finger-sized ones which decompose fast in your pocket to the pinky flat – and frankly huge – types, and the conjoined twins. There is no EU straight banana edict here.
Bread is also vast in its varieties. Parathas are my favourite – they are far softer and pull apart more easily than I’ve ever experienced elsewhere.

Kerala: Maria cookery

Less is best

This definitely applies to eating rich curries but Maria of Maria’s Cookery in Kochi (Cochin) explains that this is also so in spicing a curry in the kitchen. When doubling a recipe meant for two, don’t double the quantity of spice – just add a touch extra to get the same flavour, she says. I’d highly recommend checking out Maria’s classes. She is incredibly knowledgable with an emphasis on what’s good for you (ginger, lime juice, honey and water is a refreshing drink, recommended by Maria). You also get to eat the yum food afterwards!

India: watermelon

Rehydrate as nature intended

Drinking fresh coconut juice (from the coconut, not an over-priced organic carton) is a great healer for the belly and generally to rehydrate. Similarly, a lime soda (fresh lime juice, soda water, salt and sugar) is perfect to rejuvenate yourself with after many hot hours on the bike. This is nature’s electrolyte drink and served widely across India. Also, just accept that watermelon tastes of onion. This is not some new variety of the fruit, rather everywhere seems to use the same knife to chop up both watermelon and onion. You get surprisingly used to it.

Indian tuck shop

Long live and love the tuck shop!

The range of snacks you can buy at small roadside cafes is mindblowing. From the sweet shop style jars of cookies (spicy, of course, and sweet) to cabinets of fried bananas and vegetable samosas, there is pretty much something for everyone (including expiring kit-kats if desperate for a western sweet fix). Go for masala tea and accept that coffee will generally be instant, though it will take time to serve as they do make an effort with frothing the condensed milk. Yum, erm?

Kerala: curry

With very special thanks to talented (often while two-wheeling) photographer Sarah Michaux for most of the images used here.

These experiences were gained on a two-week cycle trip we shared, organised by Exodus travels with local guides.

India trails: The killer elephant who came for a midnight feast

India: figure car park

Cycling along the Bangalore Nilgiri road through the centre of Mysore city is a hairy experience.

In the midst of the tooting and honking tuk-tuks, cars and motorbikes careering towards each other (and you), there are cattle grazing in the kerbside dust and suicidal dogs on a mission to nowhere.

‘This is worse than cycling down the Euston Road!’ jokes a fellow London cyclist in our group of travellers riding around 550 km (340 miles) from Mysore down to the southern coast of India.

India: Ganges of south

There is a method to the Mysore traffic madness – just keep on going with the grit and determination of a city commuter.

This city stops for no man, woman, child or indeed sacred animal.

Yet it is a really fun experience – even if roundabouts do make Paris’s Champs-Elysees circle look like a Sunday stroll.

‘Selfie, please!’

The cityscape soon gives way to calmer highways which then ease into quieter villages where you are treated to the kind of welcome worthy of a Tour de France champion on a victory lap. Grinning children shout ‘hi, hi!’ as they race to the roadside, and men and women working in the rice fields wave enthusiastically. We have now passed through dozens of villages and nothing but joy greets us – and the obligatory ‘selfie – please!’ photo request.

India: Mysore palace and Flavia

There are so many sights to behold on this journey from the 96,000 bulbs that light up Mysore Palace powered by hydroelectricity for just 30 minutes once a week (on a Sunday at 7pm), to the luscious hillside tea plantations and the elegant saris worn by women everywhere doing everything.

India: cycle view

‘There’s a tiger within metres’

There are also plenty of tales to tell here, and in the jungle environment they need no embellishment. A day after tigers had failed to come to tea – or early breakfast – in Bandipur ‘Tiger’ Reserve, we are walking through jungle land when our guide casually says ‘There’s a tiger within 300 metres of us’. The accompanying dogs had heard it roar. So what did we do? Run? No, we had a game of shot-put with a boulder and then retired to local man Kumar’s home for a nice cup of tea and cake (which incidentally was once visited by a leopard who snarled his dog on the doorstep, he tells me with his toothy grin). Our drama is their matter of fact.

India: elephant crossing

So, back to the safety of our safari lodge for the evening? Not exactly. After dinner a wild elephant with three-human kills to its name pops by for a midnight feast. Standing the other side of the electric fence to him, I asked a guide from another group what would happen if there is a power cut. He says the elephants know their boundaries adding ‘of course, there was the time, the elephant disabled the fence by throwing a boot over it. Do not underestimate their intelligence’. I didn’t sleep too well that night.

India: safi

But seriously, we are safe in the expert hands of our wonderful guide Safi, supported by Vipin and Michael, who are all incredibly knowledgable, friendly, and, crucially, love a laugh – largely at our faces when they tell us of the next schedule of hills. The first two are professional cyclists but don’t let that put you off – they don’t make you go fast, but are road-safe.

India: pin bends

One of most challenging rides so far was up Ooty hill, which is around 13k with an average gradient of about 12 per cent [cycle geek talk for v steep] and a mere 36 hairpin bends. En route a Buddhist monk and motorcyclist stopped to give me words of motivation. Where else do you experience this? I smiled through the pain and at the passing traffic – and summited.

This two-week trip is organised by Exodus travels

India trails: the place where time is forgotten

India: Goa, shala view New

I am struggling to put pen to paper – or rather greasy sun-lotioned finger to smudgy iPad.

This is not because I am uninspired by Little Cove Yoga Retreat, Goa (first stop on my travels around southern India). Quite the opposite.

I am incapacitated by relaxation.

This is the place where time is forgotten, everything is done for you and nothing is asked of you.

 

Goa cottage

There is a ‘schedule’ but it is voluntary. Yet no one here needs a watch to partake. Awoken by a cacophony of nature (But in a good way! Think: waves crashing over rocks and buzzing birds). Then, the delivery of a fresh mint tea – or hot beverage of your choice – to your varandah with a gentle call of ‘good morning’. But no need to rush … there’s plenty of time before morning yoga.

India: Goa, brunch

Lazy sunny days

The day is then left to your (generally lazy) whim. Yet time is marked with a series of events – an amazing brunch in the yoga shala/hut looking out to sea, and arrivals of huge plates of fresh fruit salad, delivered to whichever end of the beach you have chosen to pitch up. Then a gong is sounded for pre-dinner meditation, which is often taken on the rocks of the cliff edge looking out to sea. Oh and the dinner, like all food here, is delicious – my favourite is the butter paneer curry. Yum!

For those who want quiet time, it is available. Despite the numbers (more than I have encountered before on a retreat), there is plenty of room in this secluded private cove in south Goa. For those who want to chat, everyone is very friendly – both staff and ‘retreaters’ (who are a mixture of single travelers, couples and twosomes of friends).

There are around 25 people from all over the world (with a predominance of English or German speakers) on this retreat, and most spend around 5-14 days here. Initially, it seemed like a lot of people when I arrived to see them finishing morning practice in the main shala but since then classes have been separated between beginner and advanced and the two open huts.

 

Goa cove scene

‘It’s just yoga’

I’d recommend both classes – there are always different asana (posture) options! Ravi, one of the wonderful teachers, opened the beginner class by pointing out that asana means to hold a posture in the way that’s comfortable for you. A philosophy that rings true here.

 

Goa shala

The advanced class is challenging but is suitable to all as Pardeshi, who runs this class and the retreat as a whole, offers variations according to ability. Both have a strong emphasis on pranayama (breathing practices) with up to six breathing practices at the start of class – all fully explained and demonstrated – and lots of interesting warm-ups. Great effort is made to explain everything including the health benefits of poses. Your energy levels really do increase after a few days here – and after the exhausted post-travel start.

By western standards, the yoga is a mixture of dynamic hatha and ashtanga styles but Pardeshi says ‘it’s just yoga, all yoga is yoga’, which is true. There are also plenty of opportunities to relax after a challenging sequence. One of my favourite moments here has been lying in savasana (corpse pose) after a round of energetic postures and listening to the sound of Pardeshi singing in Sanskrit, the beat of my heart and the waves rolling on the sea shore.

As I sign off, sat on the beach, I am thinking it will be a struggle not to return to Little Cove. Time will tell.

Little Cove Yoga Retreat offers stays for single travellers from 6,200 rupees per day (around £65), or 4,200 rupees (about £44) per person based on two people sharing. It is open from November to April inclusive.

How to look at a painting with patience

Some time ago, I read a book called How to Look at a Painting.

I imagine I thought I looked artistically intellectual reading it on the tube, though it was actually rather interesting and totally unpretentious.

The book by New Zealand curator and art writer Justin Paton came flooding back to me when I was stood – or rather squeezed – in the Royal Academy of Arts to see the exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse.

Like many of these ‘big ticket’ London shows, you try to pick the right day (a week day) and time (first thing in the morning or after lunch) only to find your viewing thwarted – or often obscured – by a bus load of school kids or clubs of pensioners. Yes, we’re all individual numbers, I know!

On this particular instance, I dug deep (with the breath) and resisted the urge to tut or say ‘thank you’ when someone fails to do so when you let them pass (the British gallery-going equivalent of telling someone to … off), and fully worked the mindfulness.

So, here’s how to cope with the crowds and look at a painting with patience (and enjoy it!) … tips that are applicable to many other busy or stressful situations:

1) Ground your feet – not so you stubbornly refuse to let Ms Pushy of Pinner anywhere near Monet’s water lilies but so you stay calm among the bustle (rooting through the feet is a widely used public speaking tip). It also keeps you steady to enjoy the moment – and maintains your energy to move on, not sagging into one hip giving yourself bottom/backache!

2) And exhale … At length … It’s the out breath that stimulates the restful/calming part of our nervous systems (and also aids digestion), so making the exhale longer than the inhale helps us relax in stressful situations (good for pre job interview jitters). In a gallery it’s nice to inhale and view a painting, exhale and see ‘what’s your reaction/feeling about it?’

3) Take in a new perspective – when the crowds are thronging take a step back. What do you see (size of picture and rabble dependent)? You literally do get a different impression of the impressionists, and then step back in when there’s space and note what you see on closer inspection.The giant crescent canvas of Monet’s latter life water lilies at the end of the exhibition are best viewed from varying angles.

4) Drink in the colours/shapes/outlines – be fully present and aware of what is before you. These are amazing artists and we’re privileged to be able to see them (ok at almost £20 a head we’re the more privileged paying for the privilege). Immerse yourself in the colours of Henri Matisse, and notice the twilight bathing the houses within Henri Le Sidaner’s gardens and how it seems to change before the eyes.

5) Silence is golden but it’s also good to talk – the room hosting the exhibition’s Gardens of Silence – those without human presence – is suitably dark and chatter among viewers tends to naturally quieten there. Everyone’s experience of art is unique and best consumed by yourself first, and then you can share and compare it with a friend afterwards (just not too loudly into a stranger’s ear!).

So, mind the crowds with mindfulness and hopefully you’ll gain the best possible impression of a painting. Book tickets for Painting the Modern Garden

Letting go of judgement

Gabrielle Bernstein bounds onto the stage bursting with Friday night enthusiasm, her energy as palpable as one of her pulse-touching meditations.

‘Hello, London!’, she exclaims in a New York accent to actual shrieks among the huge audience at a packed Friends House. ‘Y…You are all so giddy… I’m going to love you…!!’, she continues.

Oh I’m really not going to love you – You are so … American, I say to myself in my seat way too close to the stage to escape unnoticed, or easily.

And why are you wearing those impossibly high black heels when you have to stand up and talk for two hours?! (Says me who a wore a similar pair to a recent party that gave me footache for days and a sore hip – and yes, I’ll wear them again.)

And what are those super skinny jeans about? Call yourself a yoga teacher, huh? No chance of any deep breathing in those without a serious rupture … but damn you look better than me in mine over here!

Judgement: check! Jealousy: check! Guilt: check, check, check!!

We all do it: the snap judgement of the ‘boisterous looking’ stranger on the tube who ends up helping us, the new colleague who ‘is so unlike me’ but who a few weeks in is your new best friend, and the person we judge by their cover, literally.

We also feel bad for our judgement of others and beat ourselves up over it . This is my ‘favourite’ habit especially since I qualified as a yoga teacher and my attitudes should be whiter than a Kundalini yoga uniform. They are not. We’re all human.

Pondering girl by beach Flickr creative commons by Paul Longinidis

Bernstein, the tag-lined ‘new role model for New York’s former Carrie Bradshaws’ sans cocktails as she is 10 years sober, addresses all of this in her talk and her many books (she’s a New York Times best-selling author). She outlines a 5-step plan:

1) Happiness is a choice you make – Forgive your judgments and laugh at your crazy thoughts. As I recall Samantha saying to Charlotte in Sex and the City ‘if you listen to every crazy thought in your head, you will drive yourself mad’

2) Recognise the other person is you – see everyone in the same light or for the first time. Remember everyone has their own, often quiet, battles

3) Practice forgiveness – ‘would you rather be right or happy?’ In the Q&A, an audience member says ‘but being right makes me happy!’. Bernstein gently suggests she write down how she feels when proven right, and also wrong, and see why she feels this way – is it insecurity?

4) Be compassionate – be willing to see your part in situations. Are you too caught up in your own drama/chaos to see the good in the other person. Bernstein offers up a moving example of how they got over a long fallout with her father by seeing him through other people’s eyes and seeing her own role in ‘judging him’

5) In my defencelessness my safety lies – let people say what they need, but let it resolve. A fervent pro-gun control American, Bernstein has been attacked on social media for her views, even by her own #spiritjunkies, but now when she posts on this issue she tells her followers to write what they like ‘just be kind to each other’.

So what were my takeaway messages:

1) Keep an open mind and heart – I told myself this when I judged Bernstein at the start and soon enough I was laughing along with her and nodding my head in agreement

2) Accept yourself – even your green-eyed ‘monster’ – and acknowledge other people’s success. Bernstein told the story of judging what a fellow Instagram-ing yogi was doing, before checking in with herself and going back to post ‘go for it’. Sound advice for coping with ‘FaceBoast’

3) Let go of unhelpful ‘stories‘ – those bad memories that keep coming back to haunt us. Meditation is a huge help here and continues to serve me in moving forward not back.

So thanks Gabby, my new found friend. Let’s get giddy next time you’re in town … heels included.

Note: this is my interpretation of a talk given by Gabrielle Bernstein on 22 January 2016 at Friends House, London. If I’ve misjudged 🙂 any messages – apologies. For the real deal catch her over on gabbyb.tv

 

Feature image by Paul Longinidis Flickr creative commons.