Teen yoga: how it benefits your brain

If I had done yoga as a teen all my issues would have been sorted, right?

Hmmm. Possibly not.

What I do know is that it would have given me the tools to cope better with the pressures.

For me it was over-thinking things, revisiting past ‘failures’ and daydreaming of the future when all would be perfect.

And I was actually a pretty happy teenager!

Now it’s easy to see why adolescence, which stretches up to aged 24, is such an emotional rollercoaster.

This I know from personal experience but also from my training – and experiences – in teaching yoga to teens.

Right, brace yourself – some brain science coming up … (Time-pressed? Scroll down to ‘Benefits of doing yoga as a teen’).

Reactive and rational brain

There is a reason why as a teen emotions seem to play such a leading role in your life.

And that same reason is why as a parent your adolescent can seem impulsive and even reckless at times.

Meet the amygdala.

This almond-shaped part of the brain is its emotional centre. It is the place that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response to events.

This part dominates how information is processed in the teen years over its wiser sister, the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC (the bit behind the forehead) is the reasoning part that filters information coming from the amygdala and makes a rational response.

So, if you have a disagreement with someone this is how these two may respond –

Amygdala: triggers you to fly into a rage and storm off and sulk. This is the fast reaction route.

PFC: filters the information from the amygdala and makes a measured response based on experience. Slow route.

The PFC doesn’t fully develop until after adolescence (remember it lasts up to our mid 20s).

That’s a long wait, hey?

Ah, but this – and many other reasons – is why we have yoga for teens.

Teen yoga student

Positive pathways

Yoga can help develop the (neural) connections between these two parts of the brain, improving focus and decision-making.

How? Through a process called myelination (the fat sheathing of the neurons) which helps the flow and speed of information in the brain.

Learning activities like yoga help to create new – and positive – pathways in the brain.

And what you do in adolescence and just before can become ‘hard-wired’ into the brain as it prunes unused circuits and strengthens those it uses.

Think how people can become fluent in a foreign language or musical instrument when they learn it before and during adolescence.

Dan Siegel, a leading psychiatrist and author looking at teen brains, believes yoga is beneficial in creating new brain pathways.

He says this is because yoga requires focus. The brain is especially flexible at this age too.

So, what are the brain or mind benefits of doing yoga as a teen?

Benefits of doing yoga as a teen

Mindful awareness

Yoga teaches us how to be in the present moment without judgement. For example, by being aware of your feet in a pose or watching your thoughts without getting caught up in them. This helps with the brain integration discussed above.

Calmness

An obvious but a crucial one. I offer many tips for teenage anxiety in my classes. These include extending the out-breath to stay calm (the exhale stimulates the calming side of the nervous system). And guess what? This also helps the brain’s flow of information (as above).

Focus

You have mastered focusing your mind on learning a tricky posture or anchoring your attention to the body or breath. Then these skills can help your concentration off the yoga mat. You can use this in many scenarios including schoolwork and free up time for stuff you enjoy (but some enjoy assignments, apparently!).

Body confidence

The body also goes through so many changes in adolescence. Yoga helps to bring a sense of self acceptance. It helps us develop our proprioception skills. This means knowing where the body is in space (eg. how we can walk in the dark). Proprioception helps us to trust our body and be confident in our skin.

Flexible fun!

Yoga improves flexibility and you can have fun along the way. I probably would have been a bit sniffy about partner yoga as a teen but many I teach love it. It develops trust too. Also, learning to laugh at yourself falling out of a posture is a great skill for life, I think!

Yet don’t just take my words for it. Listen to a teen yoga student:

Teen yoga student

Teen yoga student: ‘I appreciate myself and others now’

Yoga helped me to find myself and meet like-minded people. After I was ill with autoimmune encephalitis, a lot people would close the doors to me from opportunities because they were scared of what would happen.

I went into the yoga world and people welcomed me with open arms. They taught me how to appreciate myself and others … The biggest lesson yoga has taught me is to be present in the moment.

Rebecca, London, aged 18

Take a teen class in London

Thanks to the Teen Yoga Foundation for the top image and Rebecca for the others. Learn about the charity’s ongoing research into the benefits of yoga to teens.

End of year reflection: 3 ways to go with the flow

It’s not very British to write an end of year reflection, especially on going with the flow.

The last time I did something similar a friend from the US said I sounded very American.

I think she meant positive – beyond all British possibilities. Haha!

But I still have that healthy dose of scepticism – it’s kind of essential for the journalist job.

I also just deleted an exclamation mark which is a definite sign of Brit norm.

What I have succeeded most at this year is going with the flow.

I know as a yoga teacher you probably should be going with the flow all the time. All while eating raw food and hugging trees, to use a few more cliches.

My issue has been that I focus too much on how something turns out, daydreaming of how it will be perfect in the future.

But the past year I feel I’ve made big shifts in my life by going with the flow and being more carefree.

Stuff I dreamed of actually happened because I stopped holding on to those expectations.

This ‘method’ is based on traditional yoga techniques, which I teach in my classes.

For me it’s very much a work in progress, as ever.


This is how I’m learning to go with the flow more –

Being aware – watch your thoughts about how you’re not doing well enough at this or that. Notice feelings or expectations that arise and let them go. Observing thoughts and feelings as a witness – not getting involved with them – takes the heat or sting out of them. This is something I teach in my teen yoga classes.

Being mindful – practise mindfulness of breath. This releases habitual ways of thinking and keeps you rooted in the present instead of craving certain outcomes. The breath reflects what is going on in the mind and body, so when the breath calms so do you as a whole. I can honestly say that this technique is mind-changing (in a good way!). Find out more about the courses I and other Traditional Yoga teachers offer.

Sending metta (loving kindness) – a lot of our expectations are based on our comparison with others, peers or even strangers on social media. Practice a meditation in which you send loving kindness to yourself, then a loved-one, a neutral person (someone you see on the street but don’t know) and a person who have a difficulty with. Then widen this out to the world. Research shows this has positive results.

These are just three simple techniques. There are many more.

The main thing is being more relaxed about what happens. This may come very easy to some but to others (me!) it’s hard.

This practice has truly led to great things happening in my life. Work opportunities, connections, relationships and generally being a lot more free in my mind. Life flows when you’re not het up on the result.

Yes, bad stuff happens but you’re more able to deal with it.

I am an optimistic American now? I don’t care.

My imperfect yoga practice

What does your yoga practice look like?

Bathed in sunlight, sat on the mat in your best gear, all peace and light?

Me too. Yeah right …

My yoga practice can actually be more like this experience.

Recently, I was sat on my mat meditating when a strange mixture of drilling and whistling began next door.

Bear with me, there’s an important yoga message here – honestly!

I breathed through it for a while, and it worked … Then, the drilling took over the whistling.

My practice continued, witnessing the inhale and exhale.

I noticed my feelings come and go – the heat of annoyance rise and then fall away.

‘Brilliant’, a thought popped up, ‘I’m so calm amidst the frenzy of DIY’.

‘Nee-nah, nee-nah!’ The sound of the police. The sirens got closer and then faded.

My practice continued … then the doorbell rang.

The thing is there are always distractions.

They may be external such as neighbours doing early morning home renovations.

Or internal like the ‘monkey mind’ jumping from thought to thought – even if it is, ironically, about your yoga practice.

Your best yoga work

I’m not saying you should torture yourself with noise to make yourself more mindful. That would just be cruel, and not practising one of the yoga principles, ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence.

What I am saying is that the yoga practice (‘yoga’ includes meditation) I do when there are distractions is often my best work.

This is because anchoring yourself to the breath grounds and calms you. It stops you from getting your freak on.

Some simple breath meditation

To start with, simply watch the natural breath come and go in or around the nostrils.

Or you can silently say ‘so’ on the (uncontrolled) in-breath and ‘hum’ on the out-breath.

In the longer-term, these mindful meditation practices will work on the deeper stuff.

This means you can change how you react to events. You might not even notice you’re doing it at first.

For me, these shifts in how I now react mean –

Being more patient – not wanting everything to happen now or getting frustrated when transport is delayed or someone has just cut me up on my bicycle. Now I sternly shake my head and say ‘unbelievable’ (they quake!) instead of ‘for eeffs sake…’ Ha!

Being present – not ruminating about past events or fearing future ‘failures’. This is a massive success for me because I used to think way too much. The more you train the mind to be in the present, the less it slips into its habit of beating itself up.

Being cool – I don’t mean cool trendy. Teaching yoga to teenagers, I would never even pretend. I mean accepting things as they are right now, even if they’re actually a bit crap. I just had one of those days. I’m tired and so that’s what I’ve put my mood down to (self awareness comes with this practice too).

So, remember, the best yoga practice you do is often when it’s a bit imperfect. A bit like DIY.

Find out more about the meditation I teach as a Traditional Yoga teacher.

Or find a course in your area.

Why you should do the yoga postures you ‘hate’

yoga postures

The yoga postures we most dislike are actually the best for us.

Really? Is this just another thing that teachers say, along with flowering your buttocks (no, I don’t say this!)?

I couldn’t bear this posture called crow, crane or bakasana – or more can’t-be-asana.

I still spent years trying to ‘perfect’ the posture, which is the Instagram image of yogis everywhere.

But I learnt a lot more along the way than simply to improve my upper body strength.

What I learnt is true yoga. But at the time I didn’t know it.

Students, like me, can benefit from these tips, which are the basis of yoga philosophy:

Be challenged but don’t compete – Yoga isn’t a competition. Take your focus off the person on the next mat. Your body is different to theirs. Losing the ego also helps you to get into those yoga postures because you’re more relaxed.

Be kind to yourself – It’s only yoga! The way you approach yoga postures can say a lot about your mind. Why must you be able to do a handstand right now? Will getting frustrated and cross with yourself help?

Be patient – Yoga students would traditionally practice under a master for years but now we want everything to happen in an instant – or a yoga class. Give it time and practice the prep yoga postures. If it doesn’t happen – well, who cares? Maybe you had fun trying?

Recently, I’ve been unable to lift up into the crow posture for some reason.

But now I now laugh as I fall out of it. This definitely makes it one of the best yoga postures for me.

What is yoga posture that you dislike the most? Arm balances in general are my nemesis.

Share your experiences in the comments below.

And finally, find out more about my classes

Finding some inspiration (rather than irritation) in your inbox

Back to work blues? Greeted by a mass of emails and retreating to the kitchen/toilet/cafe at every opportunity?

Emails can be a poke in the face at work – yet another thing to do, someone complaining or a ‘who stole my yoghurt?!’ call-out.

But there is a way to keep some cheer in your inbox.

Quite a few years ago, I started keeping a ‘thanks’ folder.

I put all emails with any compliments (about work, not my hair – but whatever works for you!) into a folder in my inbox.

Then whenever I was having a stressful time, I’d take a look in there and get an instant uplift.

Ok, you’re still going to have to deal with those troubling emails but it keeps things in perspective.

I was telling a friend about this recently and she suggested taking screengrabs of positive feedback on social media – great idea! (Thanks Sarah Blinco of Travel Live Learn!)

Oh, and these emails will come in useful come appraisal time.

Now I ‘appraise’ myself as a freelancer (ha!) but I still have a thanks folder.

This gem dropped in this week from someone who featured in an article about health conditions in medics: ‘Thanks very much, this is excellent. So many of my colleagues have said good things about your piece. They really liked your article!’

A great start to the first week of the year – and an addition to the thanks folder, of course!

With the best intentions, let’s start this year

‘You don’t want to reflect on the past year or make new year resolutions. Just keep going – or you’ll drive yourself crazy!’

This is what a wise and hilariously frank friend said to me on New Year’s Eve.

She’s not wrong. Well, not entirely … 🙂 I don’t do new year resolutions but I do intentions.

‘What’s the difference?’ My friend asked.

I see intentions as positive long-term plans, or a journey towards something.

I see resolutions as negative short-term, punitive plans – banning something and then chastising yourself for ‘failing’.

To be honest, on New Year’s Eve I was feeling a bit down for various (crazy – yes!) reasons.

So, I decided to write down all the good things that happened to me in 2016 – and I got to 18!

It really was a great year overall as I went travelling, left my job and started working as a freelance writer and yoga teacher.

But still you can dwell on the negatives and the unknowns, those nagging uncertainties.

I like to plan so, with the help of a New Year’s Day yoga workshop, I’m writing a few intentions (or Sankalpas as they’re known in yoga/Sanskrit).

These are plans for the year, such as making contacts for work and building new connections, friendships or relationships.

Here’s what I do:

1) Write down the good things that happened to you in the past year – it can be a good holiday, a small success at work, a new friend made, a great new coffee haunt. Two of mine included listing my top times with friends and family.

2) Set some small intentions – little things that are achievable, perhaps not winning the lottery or taking on the US presidency (though anything is up for grabs these days!). Some of mine are around networking for new work opportunities and working on social media promotion.

3) Do a regular condition check – see how things are going in a month or two, and then in 6 months. Refine plans if needed. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed but perhaps a new approach is needed. I found this with some yoga work last year and so joined organisations to gain support, which led to new work.

4) Keep the faith, release the fear – this is probably the most important one for me. Whatever obstacles come along, keep believing in yourself and going, small step by small step.

5) Have fun – this goes back to the resolution issue. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re probably not going to keep it up. Make sure whatever you’re doing, you believe in it (the process and the result).

And remember your best support is from those who you already know. Those funny friends who keep you laughing and support you to the hilt.

They have the best intentions at heart – and sometimes some good advice!

No sleep till Christmas?! How to find your sleepy (s)elf

img_1384

Just a few sleeps till Christmas … though I feel like I’m not getting much shut-eye at all.

I can’t say it’s the excitement of festivities (freelancers have few/no parties – boohoo), or worry that I’ve forgotten something (pretty sorted on gifts/travel plans).

But it is a mixture of these butterfly belly feelings.

My mind is excitedly buzzing with creative ideas or to-do-lists, to the point where I start writing emails, blogs, social posts in my head in the middle of night. Not good!

Or … I am in a state of anxiety, fearing financial and career Armageddon that will only be eased by doing complex sums (any for me) at 3am.
This is the kind of fear you only get in the dead of night.

But this time of year, in particular, does tend to invoke a ‘monkey mind’ as our thoughts jump about from one task to another that must be done before the holidays. Or for some it can be the dread of Christmas.

Here are a few things I do to curb middle-of-the-night madness (one of them normally works for me):

img_0387

+ Breathe – always a good idea. I mean focus your attention on the breath either at the nostrils or within the body as a whole. Sometimes, I go to sleep with my hands on my belly, feeling the breath there.

+ Relax the body – yeah, easier said than done when you’re tossing and turning. But doing a body scan, relaxing each part of the body in turn can be really effective (find a yoga nidra recording online). If that doesn’t work I find the next one often does …

+ Release tension in the face – This is within a yoga nidra but I sometimes do this separately as it works for me. Basically, with the eyes softly closed, remove any expression from your face, slightly part the lips and breathe.

+ Duvet/pillow between the legs – if you’re really uncomfortable, then lying on your side with the knees tucked into the chest (foetal position) can help. Tuck the duvet or a pillow between the thighs to stack the hips which helps to relax you.

+ Pillow/blanket rolled up under knees – lie on your back and place a pillow/blanket under the knees. This is good for lower back problems and allows the legs to release and relax.

If these don’t work, maybe just count your breath or how many sleeps till Christmas – if that’s not too much for you.

Or sign up for a meditation course to boost your middle-of-the-night mindfulness. I’ll be running some more courses soon.

Meditation: how your breath can reap benefits

Meditation pose

Do you want to remove negative thought patterns and be calm, mindful and able to stay in the present?

You’re not alone. It sounds pretty ideal, hey?

The meditation technique Prana Samyama, which involves focusing on the natural breath, offers all of this.

Our natural breath reflects our emotional, mental and physical state at any given moment. For example, have you ever noticed how your breath becomes short and fast when anxious? 

The breath is connected to the body and to the conscious and unconscious minds. The unconscious mind is where the ego, our reactions/habits reside.

By observing the uncontrolled breath at the entrance of the nostrils, you can learn to live in the present moment and experience a state of harmony.

This method was taught by Buddha, and in the present time by yoga and meditation master Dr ALV Kumar in India.

It also has the potential to remove stored stress or negative thought patterns. This happens by the conscious mind neutrally observing the fluctuations in the unconscious mind. These reactions are reflected in the breath.  Doing this in a state of calm, objective awareness results in profound and permanent long-term changes.

neeta-meditating

Neeta Madahar is a senior meditation teacher with Traditional Yoga, a voluntary organisation which trains teachers and runs courses to teach this technique.

Here she explains its impact.

Why should people practise Prana Samyama?

There are lots of meditations available which work with the conscious mind, giving people the ability to develop concentration, reduce stress and become more relaxed.

This technique does all of these things. But it goes further by working with the unconscious mind, as well as the conscious mind.

Prana Samyama meditation also does not condition the mind to become attracted and therefore attached to a meditation object, like a mantra. With its focus on awareness of the natural breath, there is no liking or disliking created. There is only a choiceless awareness of the present changing reality, as manifested by each unique breath.

This objective meditation strengthens the conscious mind at the same time as deconditioning the unconscious mind.

How did you discover this technique?

I have been meditating on mantras from a young age thanks to my mother and religious upbringing as a Hindu.

Although I found that I was getting the relaxation, problem-solving and concentration benefits of these devotional meditations, my negative habits and thought patterns weren’t changing. 

In 2009, I met Anna Bhushan, an illustrator and senior teacher and volunteer with Traditional Yoga, at an art exhibition in London where we were both exhibiting. Anna and I felt an immediate connection.

Two years later, we met up again, talking more deeply about meditation and Anna’s teacher Dr Kumar, who was coming to London to run a two-day yoga workshop.

drkumar_smiling

I attended the workshop and was so impressed by Dr Kumar’s wealth of knowledge and his genuine humility that I enrolled onto a silent meditation retreat with him in India in December 2011. There, I learnt and practised the Prana Samyama technique, and continued on my return home.

Describe your personal practice?

It has changed over the course of the last five years. For the first three years, I meditated for one hour in the morning and another hour later in the day. This pattern eventually shifted to one daily two-hour session.  

I also attend Dr Kumar’s meditation retreats twice a year to strengthen and deepen my practice.

What have been the benefits to you of practising this method?

I have seen an evolution in my behaviour and personality. For example, I used to get angry and irritated about lots of things, even though I could keep these feelings under wraps most of the time.

Now the intensity and frequency of getting annoyed has dramatically decreased. I also get over things more quickly because the triggers for my anger having substantially weakened. 

I’ve also become more compassionate, have a greater awareness about things and see situations from different perspectives so don’t jump to conclusions as quickly. I am also less restless and more patient. 

These changes in entrenched behaviour patterns have been enough of a motivation for me to persevere with my practice. It’s not been five years of bliss, light and no problems. But there’s been enough of a revolution in my personality for me to be committed to this technique.

TYsummer_retreat

What obstacles – or challenges – have you had to overcome in your own practice?

Restlessness. You may expect meditation to be a blissed out experience. While this can and does sometimes happen, it’s not all that frequent. This is when motivation and persistence is crucial.

It can be hard when going through a protracted period of difficulty. But whatever a meditation session is like, I don’t judge the experience nor do I have expectations anymore.

I just see my practice as something I have to do in the morning like having a shower or cleaning my teeth. I don’t overthink it or procrastinate, but see it as the driver for everything to work properly in my life – my relationships, my work… all that I do.

What advice would you give to students encountering difficulties or doubts over this meditation method?

If you’re experiencing difficulties, don’t give up. Challenges happen and are a normal part of the meditation journey.

• Sit with the restlessness, the boredom, the doubts, the sadness, essentially whatever comes up – the sensations are impermanent, they are rising to pass
• Meditate with other people too whenever possible as that helps strengthen your practice
• Share any difficulties about meditation with fellow meditators – chances are they’ve experienced the same problems and can help.

Book your meditation course

Register now for a Traditional Yoga meditation course run by Flavia in north-east London

Find out more about Traditional Yoga courses, retreats and training

Visit Neeta’s Yoga Cafe on Facebook

With thanks to Traditional 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