Surviving or Thriving this Winter?

A late December Wander on Dartmoor, Devon

A late December Wander on Dartmoor, Devon

Winter in the UK can be an emotional sink hole, as an Aussie I’ve found them almost unbearable. I’ve dropped into some dark places at times, but even if you’re a native the heaviness of the grey days and lengthy nights can really suck the life out of you.

I feel if we didn’t live in the upside down world we do, our natural reaction to this, in the wild, would be to either migrate somewhere warm and sunny or retreat into hibernation and fully rest our weary souls. However, these solutions aren’t a practical option for most of us. The capitalist society that we live in would simply collapse if we all just decided to look after ourselves and focus on an integrated, balanced co-existence.
I digress, the point of this post is to shine some light on how to thrive at this time of year, rather than focus on the dreary darkness.

There are some very simple yet effective things you can do to improve your emotional wellbeing at any point in the year, however they may be particularly helpful if you’re struggling with the winter blues.

The inspiration for this post comes from my determination to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder this year. I’m familiar with the despair that rears it’s ugly head when the depths of depression threaten to drown out rational thoughts. I also call upon the wisdom gained from my many years of working in a professional capacity with people who suffer from severe and enduring mental health challenges (my clients taught me more than they will ever know).

So here is a list of easy and enjoyable ways to boost your brain, connecting all the circuits and firing up all the synapses and neurons it needs to keep you from the downward spiral…

  • Move Your Body

    This is obvious, everyone knows it and for that reason it gets the top spot! Exercise pumps up your endorphins, stimulates the growth of new neurons and increases nerve growth factors like BDNF (steroids for yo brain baby! ) Your brain lives in your body - healthy body | healthy brain.
    TIP - Set yourself a goal or exercise with a friend to keep the momentum going!

  • Get Out of Your Box

    We spend over 90% of our time inside, cooped up in stale air with unnatural, often fluorescent light. Admittedly, during winter there are less hours of opportunity to be bathed in natural light, but even just sneaking outside for a wander on your lunch break can reintegrate your cells to the rhythms of nature. Electricity is a very recent invention in the big scheme of human evolution, our body-mind still responds best to the big ol’ blue (or even grey) sky.

  • Sleep More (yes you have permission)

    How good is bed?! The best. So get in it. Without your laptop or phone. Did you know that less than 7 hours sleep each night is actually considered sleep deprivation?
    Cultivating a healthy sleep routine starts the moment you wake up… let that sink in.
    It’s simple, exercise and eat early in the evening and turn off your screens at least an hour before bed, try to be in bed by 10pm. You’ll feel good for it.

  • Limit Your Screen Time
    Specifically social media, it’s just not good for you. The mindless scrolling, comparing your insides to others outsides. Sure it has some benefits, but the bad outweighs the good for me. It’s addictive and sneakily steals your time.

    Time. That thing we all whinge about not having enough of? That thing we can’t get back when we’re laying on our death bed, you think you’re gonna wish you spent more time on instagram?
    Time that could be better spent doing the things you love with those you adore, that includes yourself.

  • Get Social… in the Real World!
    Connecting in person with a tribe of like-minded people who love and support you is the best thing we can do for our emotional health. We get boosts of oxytocin and serotonin when we are in good company and through touch. So go organise a dinner party, or plan to see a gig, at least give someone a heartfelt squeeze or just go get some from your lover.

  • Start a Creative Project
    Painting, dancing, knitting, singing, drawing, pottery, writing, a foreign language, an instrument - what is it? That thing you’ve always wanted to learn? Go do it! This January, I knitted my first hat! I’m super stoked on it and proud of myself. I feel good and that’s the point. Go get after it.

  • Dry January
    Alcohol is a depressant. The more aware I become of myself and the older I get, I increasingly notice how it affects me negatively for days afterward. If I have just a couple of pints or glasses of wine over the span of a week, my mood plummets the following week. It’s simple science. While in the act of drinking we usually feel great, but sadly the consequences are inevitable, it’s gonna numb you out and get you down on life.

  • Book a Holiday in the Sunshine
    Have something to look forward to… imagine yourself sitting by or in a body of water, hear it. The gentle lapping of waves. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Smell the coconut sunscreen and taste the refreshing beverage, whatever you want it to be, that’s just been put in front of you. Bliss.

  • Learning Interdependence
    Ask for help, tell someone how you feel. If it gets bad, don’t be too proud. All too often I’ve been lost in the black and white filter of negativity and utter numbness and I’ve resisted telling even those closest to me. But with practice I’ve gotten much better at it and those around me are always ready and willing to offer support. Don’t underestimate your loved ones, they’ll be there for you. But you gotta let them know.

I love the beginning of a new year, the feeling of fresh potential and possibility. It’s a time to reconnect and commit to your core values. I’m not inspired by the ‘new year, new you’ slogan. That’s not what it’s about.
I am still me. Same struggles, same baggage. But I’m energised by contemplating what the year may bring and how I can dedicate myself to being the best version of me, right now.

This list above is helping me to keep my head above water this winter and I hope it inspires you to do the same.

Getting Grounded...

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What does it mean to “ground”?

Being grounded means feeling a sense of stability, a deep connection to the present moment and a knowing that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be.
It’s a sense of coming back down to earth, literally.

That doesn’t mean your life needs to be calm, stable or in order. The stability comes from within and it’s this awareness that allows us to meet challenge with balance and perspective.

We can improve our ability to connect with the present moment in times of chaos by practicing being, as Fatboy Slim suggested - right here, right now.
This is where your yoga practice comes off the mat and why your yoga teacher is always banging on about the breath. It’s our anchor to the here and now.

In your asana practice, feeling grounded can be breathing fully into shapes, moving slowly through transitions, coming back to foundations by feeling the solid earth beneath you and pausing to notice what arises without judgment.

In life, feeling grounded is no different than on the mat. It’s finding space for a long, slow breath in a moment of frustration, it’s watching our reactions for unconscious and unhelpful patterns, it’s a gentle pause before making a decision and asking yourself if the direction you’re moving in is in line with the way you want to show up in the world.

At different times in our lives we’ll feel more settled than others, these are simply the natural rhythms and cycles of our human existence, however there are many things we can do to bring ourselves home when we feel a little lost or uncertain.

Suggestions for Earthing

Sit Still & Observe.

The ability to sit still and do nothing is almost a lost art in our modern world.
It shouldn’t be so hard for us to pause and be with ourselves, but it is. At first, at least.
Practice makes progress.
Release your expectations and give meditation a go, yes it’s hard in the beginning, but so is anything else worth doing.

Nourish Your Body

Feed your physical and mental body the nutrients and vitamins it needs to function properly.
This seems obvious and simple, but sometimes we just need a reminder to choose the veggies over the burger or some water over another wine.
Also, try eating slow without a screen in your face.
Try my dal recipe if you’re looking for something hearty and healthy!

Get Outside

We spend so much time indoors (especially in England!), it’s really not good for our mental health or our inbuilt natural routine of living by the sun and moon.
Schedule time to go outside, whether it’s on your lunch break or walking home from work instead of getting the bus (the bus is still inside!).
Put your bare feet on the earth… if it’s cold, don’t worry you can get those tootsies warm again in no time, but allow yourself to be physically in contact with the earth. If you think this is tree-hugging hippy bullshit, look up the science, it’s improves your wellbeing!

Organise Your Home

Have a big tidy up, send a heap of bags to charity.
Clean out those cupboards and all the crap you’ve been holding onto for no reason.
A great book for learning how to do this well is Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’. She’s not lying. It’s magical and life changing. The air literally feels clearer in the rooms I’ve worked on so far.

Spend Time With Real Friends

You know the ones, they’re the ones you’re totally honest with and who are honest right back at ya. You can joke about the “unjokable” with them and tell them what you’re really scared of or pissed off about. They listen and may not always agree with you but they bring you back down to earth and help you to feel ok as a human in this mad mad world.
Make time for them, it’s always worth it.

I’d love to hear your own experiences and suggestions for grounding… this simple yet profound practice really is a golden nugget of wisdom just waiting to be remembered. Over and over again.

The Best Dal in Town... Yours!

nom nom nom

nom nom nom

I’m pretty excited to put this out there… It’s the simplest, most nourishing meal I can cook and will last you a few lunches or dinners, depending on how many mouths you have to feed.

The best part is you can completely make it your own once you know the basics of the meal.

I will forewarn you - I don’t do measurements! This is a loose recipe and you can’t really mess it up so go with it and experiment for yourself…

Ingredients

Red Split Lentils
Veggie Stock
A Big Brown Onion
Some Garlic & Ginger
A bit of oil or ghee

Spices - Curry Powder, Cumin, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Tumeric (about a teaspoon of each)

Veggies! (I use the following but use whatever you like);
- Sweet Potato/Potato
- Carrots
- Zucchini/Courgette
- Capsicum/Pepper (any colour)
- Green Beans
- Fresh Tomatoes
- Coriander

Coconut milk
Brown rice and Papadums to serve with

Cooking

Chop up all your veggies into nice bite size pieces.
Dice your onion up, heat some oil or ghee and fry it up in a large pot/pan. Throw in your chopped/grated/crushed garlic and ginger.
Add your veggies like potato, carrots, zucchini, capsicum (save the tomatoes & beans for later on)
Add your spices and stir through to activate the flavours and coat your veggies.
After a few minutes add about 100/150mL of water, turn the heat down and pop a lid on to let them all simmer away.

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In another large pot, pour in about 1L to a 1.5L of boiling water, stir in some veggie stock (about a cube or teaspoon) then pop your lentils in (maybe about 200 grams).
Bring to boil, simmer and stir for about 20 minutes.

Once the lentils have turned more to a soup and your veggies have softened, combine everything you’ve used so far in the bigger pot, stir and turn the heat right down to finish cooking the veggies.

Serving

If you’re only using some of the dal for the current meal, then take out what you want to eat for now and pop it in another pot.

Cook some rice and when it’s about 5 minutes off ready, start to heat your dal up - add about 100mL of coconut milk, a fresh chopped tomato, some green beans and some chopped coriander.

Serve with some papadums and enjoy!

11 ways to pull yourself out of a funk…

1.     Acknowledge the funk – and that’s it.
Don’t analyse it. Don’t try to explain it. Just acknowledge it. Accept it. Breathe.      Acknowledging and accepting something allows you to approach it with curiosity and compassion instead of trying to avoid it. It’s natural to want to avoid things that are uncomfortable, we are constantly sold an unrealistic idea of happiness and perfection. It might be natural to push it away, but it’s not helpful.

2.     Give yourself a break.

It’s most likely that stress has played a huge part in your emotions taking a dive south. So care for yourself as you would someone you love. Whether it’s making a hot cup of tea, doing some gentle yoga, having a warm and soothing bath or shower, reading that book you haven’t had time for, writing a letter to someone you love, watching an inspiring TED talk, gardening, painting, drawing or listening to an album you love - do it and don’t feel guilty for it, not even a little bit.

3.     Get outside.

Absorb some fresh air into those big beautiful lungs and get the blood pumping! Not only is exercise scientifically proven to lift your spirits, it feels so damn good to get out of your box. Rain or shine - go and connect with nature, be captivated by beauty and get out of your own head for a while.

4.     Tell someone.

But wait - there’s a catch - choose who you speak to wisely. Running to that person who fixes everything, quells every insecurity you’ve ever had and tells you everything will be ok is wonderful, but what happens next time? And the time after that? It’s time to adult. Connect with the person that’s going to be real with you, someone who can empathise (not sympathise – look up the difference if you’re not sure). Someone you respect, who knows you, someone who can help you laugh at yourself, ask the right questions, read between the lines and call you out on your bullshit and bad habits with care.

5.     Tidy up your space.

Chances are, that if you’re feeling low the desire to clean up around you has diminished, even more so than usual. Commit to sorting out your nest, one small step at a time. Break it down into little jobs and do them when you can. If you have 7 rooms in the house – do one a day for a week.

6.     Nourish your body.

Eat good food. If cooking is a chore – make it fun with some music and a friend to cook for. Look up some easy healthy recipes. Reduce stimulants (alcohol, sugar, caffeine) and drink plenty of water, replace processed with wholefoods, eat fruit, nuts, herbs and spices and add salad or veg or both to every meal – even if you’re having a bloody pizza just add some greens, simple. Your brain is connected to your body – if you don’t feed it the nutrients it needs how can you expect it to function properly?

7.     Make a list.

Of little things that will help you feel better about your current situation – this could be as simple as clean my room, pay overdue bill, send email to boss, meditate for 5 minutes, call Mum. Tasks that are easy to tick off and leave you feeling like you’ve been productive.

8.     Do the things you’ve been avoiding.

When we avoid the jobs we hate, they weigh heavily on us even if we aren’t aware of it. Try not to look at a big job as a huge mountain to climb but a collection of pathways that slowly, one by one, get you closer to the top – in other words break it down into manageable sections. The hardest part is to start. Just begin and the rest will happen, if it doesn’t don't be too proud to ask for a bit of help. 

9.     Spend time with quality mates.

Just hang out or do something fun! Let go, be silly, have a moan, have a laugh, reminisce, take selfies if that’s your thing, eat good food and enjoy yourself in good company, remind yourself what life is really all about. 

10. Reflect on recent accomplishments.

We tend to focus on what we haven't done or what's not happening. Shift your focus to what you have achieved over the last week, month, year, 5 years! Give yourself some credit for your hard work, whether you’ve been “successful” or not is irrelevant.

11. Learn from your mistakes.

We all fail. We all make wrong choices and have bad habits, it’s ok! Failing is good. If things never went wrong we’d never learn how to deal with it. Adversity builds strength and character as long as there is insight and a willingness to take responsibility and keep going.

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” – Albert Einstein.

with love, jess x

 

Tips for Starting a Meditation Practice

Get comfortable. 

You don’t need to be seated on the floor with your legs tangled up like a pretzel to meditate. Find a comfortable seat where you can ground down through the legs and hips, this may be on a chair or sofa, on the floor on a cushion or some blocks or even on your bed. It’s best to be upright, keeping the spine tall with a sense of ease and softness. The ability to relax through the belly and open the chest is a good start. Move around a little and find that space where you feel like the spine is stacked and there is grounding balanced with lightness.

Just start.

Have a go, sit in stillness for a few minutes and simply watch what happens. There is no wrong or right. If you find this really challenging that’s ok, you can also use a guided meditation to help you discover the process. The truth is, you can read all the articles in the world on meditation, but you won’t start to understand the practice or the challenges and benefits you will come across until you experience it for yourself. Keep it brief and consistent, for example 3 to 5 minutes twice a day to begin with.

Breathe naturally.

Step away from the need to control the breath, your body breathes 24/7 and most of the time you are completely unaware of it. During meditation we want to be aware of the breath as it serves as a tool, something for the mind to focus on. Our tendency is then to try to deepen or lengthen the breath. Move into an awareness of the breath how it is in this moment.

Become aware of expectations.

Simply identifying what you think a meditation practice “should” look like is an important part of the process. This links us to the fundamental concepts of mindfulness - non-attachment and non-judgment. Be open to experiencing what is, rather than what you think it should be. Often we are under the impression that meditation is about clearing the mind, then when we can’t clear the mind we become frustrated with the practice and give up as it’s not meeting those unrealistic expectations.

Watch.

You will find that thoughts, feelings and emotions will continue to surface and distract the thinking mind. This is completely natural. You will also notice that there is a part of you that can step back and watch this, it is in these moments of awareness that the practice begins. We have a choice regarding the way we respond to ourselves, either with criticism and judgment or acknowledgment and acceptance. Commit to an approach of kind and patient discipline towards yourself.

Find an experienced teacher.

Join a mindfulness or meditation group or do a course with a teacher who you connect with. Find like-minded people to share your experiences with and get tips and perspective on the practice, it really can make all the difference. 

"That's not very yogic"...

Have you ever heard someone say this and thought, what does that even mean? 

I promise you this isn’t another one of those judgey, self-righteous posts about how yoga is a spiritual practice and we should stop culturally appropriating it with our wicked Western ways... blah blah blah. I strongly believe that yoga is what it is, to whoever needs it to be, whatever they need it to be. Now that I’ve sufficiently confused you, I should say that I, myself, used to say the “not yogi” sentence all the time, most often referring to myself for doing something that comes quite naturally to me, simply being human.

I started contemplating the relevance of this particular phrase after my wise-beyond-his-years teacher stated something profound during our teacher training and it really struck a chord with me. He said that there are no hard and fast rules to yoga, there are no yoga police coming to check that you’re cueing Virabhadrasana B correctly, chanting Sanskrit fluently or teaching enough philosophy. (At this point I zoned out, hmmm yoga police? My imagination conjured up a couple of beyond handsome, super smiley and supportive yoga hunks in lycra uniforms attending my classes and giving me feedback on my teaching prowess. I can handle that, we need to get some yoga police stat – don’t worry I’ve sent the email to Yoga Alliance and eagerly await their response, I’ve also kindly offered to be involved in the recruitment process). When my goldfish-esque attention span returned to reality, teach added that there are guidelines and suggestions by way of the Sutras, the Yamas & Niyamas, there are beautiful and inspiring stories such as the Gita and there are literally thousands of interpretations and ideas about how to achieve the state of yoga, but there are no (contrary to popular belief) unbreakable yogi-laws, as such.

This was such a relief! I began to let go of a whole lot of crap I was holding onto, inhibiting me from believing that I could be a "real" or even good yoga teacher. I can be my complete authentic self, someone who loves yoga, teaches yoga and is still human with endearing flaws and rough edges. I can be crankey sometimes, I can be offended by stuff, I can not like someone just because I get a weird vibe, I can drink coffee, eat burgers and I can be the loud, uncouth Aussie who loves a cold beer while watching the cricket, I can drop an f-bomb here and there (maybe not while teaching, but who knows if the situation calls for it, why not?).

Literally, yoga is "the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind" and can be achieved by practicing the 8 limbs of yoga but it can also be achieved by painting, dancing, singing, hiking, surfing, loving, running, playing or whatever captivates you completely in the flow of the moment!

I was inspired to reflect on the idea of not being very yogic and I realized that the implication of this sentence is this; for one to ‘be yogic’ there are these conditions, certain specifications that you have to meet and if you don’t, bad luck, you’re not in the club. Are we back in high school here? Who gets to say who’s a "real" yogi and who’s not? Correct me if I'm wrong, but that was never the point of this practice.

I returned to the Sutras to see what Patanjali thought and was drawn back to the two fundamental concepts behind yoga.

Non-attachment ~ Letting go of expectations/outcomes/ideas of perfection.

Non-judgment ~ Letting go of perceived good and bad.

Next time you start to chastise yourself (or another) for doing something “un-yogic” just come back to these two guys ^ and take a big breath in & out. 

We are all yogis, some people just don't know it yet. Remember that everyone is on their own journey, including you! You are where you are and they are where they are and that’s it for now.

Acceptance with a compassionate heart is not just “yogic” it’s what it is to be human, so let go of the labels and high-school bullshit. After all, we are just stardust, sitting on a big rock, flying through outer space. How cool is that?

I’ll leave you with some wisdom from Kurt Cobain - “come as you are”.

Big love, Jess x

What are the Yamas & Niyamas?

If you've ever heard a yoga teacher mention a yama in class and looked around thinking what did she say? Lama? Is that a new pose? This, my friend, is for you. 

First, it's important to explain that there are '8 limbs' of yoga. Think of a friendly old spider like Charlotte from Charlotte's Web (80's kid reference) with her 8 lovely long legs. Asana, the physical practice of yoga is just one of our wise & helpful spider's legs, the third to be precise. The Yamas & Niyamas are her first two. 

Put simply they are ethical and moral guidelines that help us navigate a joyful, meaningful, pure and simple life. Eventually the idea is that we will reach a blissful state of enlightenment (Samadhi - the last of Charlotte's spindly legs). 

This is my simple interpretation of the yamas and niyamas, obviously I don't claim it to be a comprehensive breakdown of each, I'll leave that to the pro's. But this is what they mean to me right now... I hope you find it helpful.

Yamas ~ "restraints"

Niyamas ~ "observances"

Grace * Gratitude * Gusto