Thoughts on well-being

w/e 23rd January 2022

I was thinking of a theme for my next yoga workshop, and for some reason digestion popped into my mind. So many people have problems with it, ranging from serious pathologies to minor discomfort and from issues of sluggishness to not being able to hold onto anything, or in many cases oscillating between the two.

Stress and lack of physical activity can have a huge impact on digestion, not to mention what, how, and when we eat. There’s a confusing amount of advice out there, where do you even start?

One thing to consider is that each person has a unique digestive system, so what agrees with me won’t necessarily agree with you, and vice-versa. We may be born with a robust or delicate digestion and also, our digestive systems change with circumstances and with age. It’s worth paying attention and noticing when you feel comfortable and have a good level of energy after a meal and making a note of what you ate, and equally being of aware of what doesn’t work so well.

There are some very simple and basic things we can all do to improve our digestion. Eating slowly and chewing thoroughly is key. However nutritious the food is, if you bolt it down it will be difficult to process. Think about how much electricity or gas it takes to blend or cook food into a mush. If food goes into your stomach in hard lumpy pieces, your body has to supply that energy to break it down. When babies start eating we give them pureed food because they don’t have teeth to mash it up with. While we are chewing our food and converting it into a nice homogeneous paste that will be gentle on our stomachs, the enzymes in our saliva are starting to break it down, further reducing the workload of our stomachs.

Our lifestyles are horrible for our digestion! Whatever our individual constitution, it’s pretty safe to say that e.g. regularly skipping breakfast, eating ‘on the go’, having very short lunch breaks or working through lunch, eating whilst looking at a screen, ‘grazing’, are all things we need to try and minimise and which impact negatively on our digestive systems, whilst eating slowly and chewing well is beneficial for everyone.

w/e 16th January 2022

One of the first things I learnt when I began to practise and study yoga was the importance of breathing through the nose rather than the mouth. Pranayama, the practice of breath regulation, is an essential part of yoga. As we move through a range of poses, the asanas, we focus on coordinating breath and movement, enabling us to breathe more deeply and slowly and quieten our busy minds. That helps us prepare for the breathing exercises, the pranayama, usually done sitting or lying down.

In a yoga class earlier this week a student mentioned a radio programme she’d heard recently where the importance of certain yogic breathing techniques was mentioned.

It sounded interesting so I listened to it online. James Nestor, who has written a book called Breath: The New Art of a Lost Science, was being interviewed. He spoke about an experiment he participated in to look at the different effects of mouth-breathing and nasal-breathing. He and another participant spent 10 days with plugs up their noses, so they could only breathe through their mouths, followed by 10 days only breathing through their noses, then the data sets were compared. He says of the mouth-breathing 10 days, “We knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but we didn’t know it was going to be so bad and we didn’t know it was going to come on so suddenly.” His blood pressure went up considerably, sleep quality “went down precipitously in the first day”. Within a few days both of them went from zero snoring to severe snoring and sleep apnoea. James describes the subjective mental effects of mouth breathing as, “focus issues, memory issues, extreme fatigue and so much more”.

He was asked, “The mouth is a hole in the front of the face, and the nostrils are two smaller holes in the front of the face. The air comes in and it goes down into the lungs. What’s the real difference?” to which he replied, “When we breathe air in through our noses we’re forcing it through this labyrinth of different structures where it’s heated, it’s pressurised, it’s moistened, and so many different pathogens and pollutants are extracted in our nasal cavities. This is a first line of defence.”

In his book he makes the point that an understanding of breathing and its importance goes back not only to the first yogis but also to the early periods in Chinese culture and many middle eastern cultures, amongst others. Our ancestors were aware how harmful mouth breathing is, and of the benefits of nasal breathing. Now we have access to machines that can objectively measure what happens when we change our breathing and which confirm what the ancients already knew.

When asked whether mask-wearing deprives us of oxygen he suggested that anyone who is concerned takes a pulse oximeter and measures their levels with and without a mask on because they will find there is no difference.

Here is the link if you would like to listen to the interview. He is the first guest, but if you want to miss the show’s intro just skip the first minute. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0012scb

Or if you want to read the back story of why he became so interested in breathing, – basically due to poor health which improved dramatically when he learnt to breathe properly: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jul/26/every-breath-you-take-the-lost-art-of-breathing

w/e 9th January 2022

After the New Year began I had a slump for a couple of days, where I just felt a bit weary about the pandemic and craved certain simple pleasures, like going round a friend’s house for a cup of tea, or having people to stay. I’ve been avoiding indoor social contact because I don’t want to add to the number of Covid infections. I have a  thing about being part of the solution, rather than contributing to the problem. I stayed focused on the fact that my glass is more than half full, had helpful conversations with a couple of friends, and managed not to get despondent.

I really like the New Year’s message sent out by Jan Engels-Smith, a shamanic colleague in Portland, Oregon. We met a few times when we were both teaching at an annual Shamanic Conference in Canada.  Here’s an excerpt:

“In my recent journeys about the state of the world today, there has been a continual theme about staying positive during this continued pandemic. We learn from the trees, from nature, about how to be adaptive—how to sway and move—in other words, let go of rigidity and resistance. Strong opinions create internal distress and discord. “

I cannot wish the pandemic away, or any of the other things which cause me discomfort. It’s much more constructive to put that energy into adapting, trying to become more resourceful, and finding ways to make the circumstances work for me. Staying positive can be hard work, but gets easier with practice. It certainly doesn’t mean denying any of our feelings. Acceptance is key; accepting that we are where we are and our feelings are what they are. Suppressing feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just pushes them out of sight where they can fester. Then you don’t know when they are going to surface, maybe at an inappropriate moment. But accepting them with compassion and understanding, recognising their right to exist, can make it possible to let go and move beyond, into a more easeful state. Jan mentions the trees, if they don’t sway in the strong winds, they are toppled, uprooted by an ‘invisible force’. Water teaches us too. When it meets an obstacle, it flows round it.

During this era of polarisation I like Jan’s use of the phrase, “Strong opinions create internal distress and discord.” Anyone who’s tried arguing with family members who hold opposing political views can attest to that! Usually it is possible to find even a tiny patch of common ground if we listen, ask questions from a place of curiosity, don’t try to change the other person’s mind, and remain open to adapting our own views as circumstances change and new information comes to light. Believe me, I hold some strong opinions and know it can be very challenging indeed! But I’ve discovered it’s definitely much better for my well-being to maintain cordial relations and not fan the flames of conflict. There have been times, not often, when I have totally distanced myself from someone who expressed views I found abhorrent and who I didn’t need to encounter again. And, for my own well-being, I avoid people who have abused me. But there are always going to be people with vastly different opinions that I do need to encounter at certain times because we are both going to be present at some important occasions and I don’t want to contaminate the atmosphere for others.

Here’s another quote from a New Year’s message, this time from a yoga teacher colleague, Heather Mason, who I haven’t met: “Whatever we hold to be true and sacred at this extremely challenging time, we need to consider that other people have opposite beliefs that they hold with equal passion and importance. We must remember that beliefs arise from individual and group experience. There is a story behind each thought we hold dear. By inquiring with rather than judging each other we generate understanding instead of discord.  This is how we forge union even in the absence of agreement.”

I’m really hoping, as we approach the third year of this pandemic, to stay positive and resourceful and not become too entrenched in my outlook!

w/e 2nd January 2022

Gratitude. Sometimes it arises unbidden, spontaneously, like first thing this morning in the simple act of handwashing. The refreshing cold water on my skin made me feel tinglingly alive. I became aware of the dexterity of my hands, the grace of the ritual, the rose scent of the soap. And then drying my hands on a fresh, clean towel. Simple pleasures not everyone has access to. I felt flooded with gratitude, for my peaceful night’s sleep, running water, the time to sit and meditate in preparation for the day ahead.

Other mornings I have to summon gratitude, but my efforts are always rewarded by this reality check. We all experience tough times; internally generated, due to external circumstances beyond our control, or a combination of the two, but most often, even when things are bad they could be a whole lot worse.

During the pandemic my daily practice of gratitude has been particularly worthwhile. Instead of focussing on limitations and the many people and things that I miss, I have reminded myself every day of all that I have to be grateful for. Thankfully, that appreciation has helped me to enjoy my great good fortune and to make the most of what I have, rather than waste too much energy lamenting what I don’t have.

On the one hand, I am extremely grateful I don’t live in a war zone, like so many in the world. Just the fact that I have a clean, comfy bed to sleep in at night and no fear of bombs falling on me seems a huge thing to be thankful for. Clean running water, plenty of food in the cupboard and fridge, heat and light at the touch of a switch, weekly rubbish collections, all things that we often take for granted in developed countries but that much of the world cannot. Even in this country many people are living in poverty, caught up in modern slavery, or in other dangerous circumstances.

I am so grateful for my personal safety and for all my basic needs being amply met. But there’s more, there is so much to rejoice in, like birdsong, green shoots poking out of the earth and reminding us that spring will soon follow winter and there will be flowers! There are sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, trees, smiles from friends and random strangers, gorgeous smells, delicious flavours, music, poetry, curiosity, radio plays, books, films, political satire, laughter, the air on my skin, the wind in my hair, the earth beneath my feet, the moon and stars overhead, and a sense of life as an unfolding adventure, because you just never know quite what is going to happen on any given day.

w/e 26th December 2021

At this time of year my heart goes out to all those who, for whatever reason, dread Xmas because it amplifies something they are struggling with.

For example, I had a conversation this week which reminded me of how tough a time it can be for those who struggle to regulate their eating. The person I was speaking with had attended a Xmas lunch and eaten well, including dessert. As they were leaving the host offered them a spare box of mince pies to take home. At first they refused, but after the host insisted, they felt obliged to accept the gift to avoid giving offence.

What the generous host didn’t know is that their guest can’t have food lying around without immediately consuming it, and has a well-worked out system to minimise binge-eating opportunities.

In the scenario I’ve described, both people were well-intentioned but one of them ended up feeling really quite bad, physically and mentally. This is something to bear in mind when we ply our guests with yet more food and drink. Of course there are all sorts of cultural scripts overlaid onto these situations too, and a little bit of over-indulgence is not a problem for everyone. But maybe when someone turns down an extra drink or mince pie, we can just follow up with, ‘Are you sure?’ and leave it at that. Of course, it would be a whole lot easier if it was perfectly acceptable and natural to simply tell the truth.

Footnote: Coincidentally, shortly after adding this post I saw an article in the Guardian by Richard Osman, who I’d never heard of before, speaking of his food addiction. He noted that, “while quitting alcohol and drugs was “unbelievably difficult”, you often can cut them out of your lifestyle. Food, however, is essential, which makes tackling the addition “tricky”. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/dec/26/richard-osman-reveals-difficult-journey-with-food-addiction

w/e 19th December 2021

I believe that it is vital for our overall well-being to have a sense of agency, to feel that we have a say in things and can influence outcomes. After all, isn’t that supposed to be the point of democracy? It’s already bad enough that we have a First Past The Post voting system in this country, rendering many people’s votes useless and leaving them unrepresented. Now we also have the threat of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, sponsored by the Home Office and Priti Patel, which, if passed, will seriously restrict our right to protest.

I don’t want to lose my right to express my opinion, including the right to demonstrate about issues that I care about. I don’t want to just stand by helplessly while the planet burns and children drown in the Channel and powerful companies and corrupt politicians do whatever they like. Here are some excerpts from an article in The Big Issue, which sets out the effects the bill would have:

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been condemned as “draconian” by experts across the political spectrum. It will effectively hand powers to police – and Home Secretary Priti Patel – to shut down protests in England and Wales at will, while forcing social workers to betray the trust of vulnerable young people. Lawyers warned the Government the proposals in the bill “clearly violate international human rights standards”. 

You just know it’s seriously bad news when even ex-Tory PM Theresa May expresses concern over this bill!

Patel is facing a revolt from her own benches over the bill. A number of Conservative MPs voiced concerns about the bill’s far-reaching powers when it passed through the Commons earlier this year, including former prime minister Theresa May, who urged the home secretary to consider the “fine line between popular and being populist” because “our freedoms depend on it”.

https://www.bigissue.com/news/activism/how-priti-patels-new-policing-bill-threatens-your-right-to-protest/

Here is Liberty’s summary of the bill:

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill – with its tremendously broad scope – represents one of the most serious threats to human rights and civil liberties in recent history. It hands the police and the Home Secretary sweeping new powers to restrict protest rights, undermines Gypsy and Travellers’ nomadic way of life, establishes new stop and search powers, provides a basis for expansive, police-led data gathering, retention and sharing which circumvents existing safeguards, and paves the way for a rise in predictive policing practices.

If you want to read the whole briefing: https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Libertys-briefing-on-the-Police-Crime-Sentencing-and-Courts-Bill-Report-Stage-HoC-July-2021.pdf

And here’s a shorter read, exploring the potential impact of the bill on the art world: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/09/07/uks-controversial-new-police-bill-poses-major-threat-to-the-art-world

Here’s a pic of me and my friend exercising our democratic right to protest, while we still can!

w/e 12th December 2021

One of the things I love about winter is the food, hearty roasts and bakes and stews and soups. We are fortunate in our area to have access to farmers’ markets, where I can buy fresh, local, seasonal veg. True, there’s more work involved scrubbing off the mud especially if, like me, you prefer not to peel your potatoes and root veg. Their supermarket counterparts are usually pre-cleaned and require little more than a rinse. But the extra effort generally rewards us with more flavour. This is especially true, I find, with leeks. Pale, trimmed, shop-bought leeks, in my opinion, don’t have much flavour, whereas the ones sold at farmers’ markets are very tasty, especially the dark green leafy part that usually gets chucked out. Why does it get thrown away? But then, why do cauliflower leaves and broccoli stalks and many other perfectly edible and nutritious food items get discarded? Maybe because they are tougher than the rest of the plant and need to be cooked for slightly longer, or perhaps people just don’t know what to do with them?

Many people believe that it is healthier for us to eat mostly local and seasonal produce, a view that I agree with for various reasons, including but not limited to my own physical well-being. It obviously makes sense to minimise food miles, maintain crop diversity and support local businesses. It also gives me great pleasure to eat food grown by people I know by name who are happy to explain, whilst weighing my carrots, why one crop has done particularly well this year and another not so well. Food keeps me alive and I am interested to know where it comes from and be reminded that a crop’s success is not a given. It’s as precarious as the whole of the rest of life. Until recently, it was easy for supermarket shoppers to be oblivious to food’s provenance and seasonality, and the role of supply chains, because they stock pretty much the same uniform stuff all year round. Now though, shortages and disruptions caused by Brexit and Covid have taught us not to take for granted that everything will always be available.

One of my favourite go-to winter recipes is loosely based on an Anna Jones ‘pick and mix’ traybake roast. Over the years I have made innumerable variations on this theme. I like to have it as the main component of a meal, with plenty of starchy, filling roots and tubers, often some squash and/or brassicas, a bit of imagination, and whatever else is to hand. It also works well with frozen veg, as I discovered when someone moved out and left a mixed pack in the freezer. I always use plenty of garlic and lemon and usually chuck in a handful of walnuts. It goes well with a chunk of sourdough bread to mop up the juices, or any cooked grain, like rice or buckwheat groats.

Here’s one I made earlier, containing celeriac and broccoflower (which i think of as the fractal vegetable), amongst other ingredients.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is winter-veg-roast-2.jpg

And here is Anna Jones’ original recipe:

Six steps to making roasting tray dinners

1 Main vegetable
4 courgettes, cut into thick coins
1 roughly chopped butternut squash
800g winter roots, chopped into about 1cm pieces

2 Soft vegetable
200g Spinach
1⁄2 a jar of roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
2 leeks, shredded

3 Hearty add-on
400g tin of butterbeans, drained
400g tin of chickpeas,drained
2 slices of good bread, torn

4 Liquid
100ml veg stock
100ml white wine

5 Herb
A small bunch of basil
A small bunch of thyme
A bunch of sage, thyme or rosemary

6 Flavour boost
The zest of one lemon
A teaspoon of hot smoked paprika
The zest of one orange

*   *   *   *   *

w/e 5th December 2021

It’s winter. Sorry winter, but you’re not my favourite season!  I love the summer, the heat, the light, dancing barefoot on the grass at outdoor parties and festivals. But winter is more of a challenge to my ease of being. And therefore, of all the seasons, winter is my greatest teacher. Just as the people who most trigger me are my greatest teachers!

I guess I’m not alone in having seasonal preferences. Whereas I slip into summer like donning a favourite comfy garment, every year I have to consciously practice and relearn the lessons of winter.

When I first began studying five element acupuncture, which emphasises the importance, for maintaining health, of adapting to the cycle of the seasons and living in harmony with our environment, it seemed like plain common sense! Nonetheless, back then, it was the first time that message had been clearly spelled out to me. But of course I’m as much a part of the environment as the plants and other animals. Why on earth would I fight against and try and impose my will on those natural seasonal rhythms, which here in northern Europe follow very distinctive patterns, even now in these times of climate disruption.

I find rituals very helpful for effecting transitions. This is not surprising, given that humans have always performed ceremonies to mark rites of passage. There’s power in focussing our intention and dedicating time and thought to honour the ending of one phase and the beginning of another.

This year, when winter arrived and I could no longer pretend it was still late autumn I went with a soul friend to a particular place, a branch off the river Thames, to perform a little private ceremony to symbolise letting go of the autumn and welcoming winter into our hearts. We set off on a dry, bright, freezing cold day. Even at midday there was thick ice on some of the puddles.

Our ceremony was quite simple, but held deep meaning for us both. We stood on a bridge over a small stream and each lit a tealight, which we placed in tall glass holders so they wouldn’t be extinguished by the chill wind. This represented light and warmth, the yang within the yin. We placed these at either end of the bridge. Next we smudged (‘cleansed’) each other with white sage. We faced each of the four directions in turn as I rattled and spoke aloud, acknowledging what each represents, beginning with the east: dawn, birth, new beginnings, then turning to the south, west and north. I also rattled and spoke to the earth and sky, and lastly to the centre, the spirit within.  

We faced west to say our farewells to autumn and express our gratitude. I thanked her for the teachings of letting go and paring down and said I’d experienced her as especially beautiful and colourful this year and how I prayed to be alive to enjoy her once again next year.

Then we turned to the north and spoke to the winter. I declared that I welcomed her and her teachings with open arms. And I’d try and be a better student this time round! And I read her my favourite winter poem:

The work of winter starts fermenting in my head

how with the hands of a lover or a midwife

to hold back until the time is right

force nothing, be unforced

accept no giant miracles of growth

by counterfeit light

 trust roots, allow the days to shrink

give credence to these slender means

wait without sadness and with grave impatience

here in the north where winter has a meaning

where the heaped colours suddenly go ashen

where nothing is promised

learn what an underground journey

has been, might have to be; speak in a winter code

let fog, sleet, translate; wind, carry them.

 Adrienne Rich, from “The Spirit of Place”, in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far

*   *   *   *   *

Recently I was very moved by an interview I heard on the radio with a most impressive and inspiring human being. He is Eddie Jaku, a 100 year old man who has written a book called ‘The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor’. In the prologue he writes:

“I have lived for a century and I know what it is to stare evil in the face. I have seen the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life and the lives of all my people.

But I now consider myself the happiest man on Earth. Through all of my years I have learned this: life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.”

I believe that happiness, or contentment, is a skill we can learn and the more we practise, the better we get at it and it becomes a habit. People like Eddie show us that it is possible, it’s not an unattainable goal, but it requires sustained effort. I agree with Eddie about the importance of kindness:

“Kindness is the greatest wealth of all. Small acts of kindness last longer than a lifetime. This lesson, that kindness and generosity and faith in your fellow man are more important than money, is the first and greatest lesson my father ever taught me. And in this way he will always be with us, and always live forever.”

Practising kindness, I am convinced, is good for us and everyone else. Most of us would like to live in a world where there is harmony and life is easier because people aren’t rude to us and don’t take advantage. We humans are very sensitive beings and it is so easy to get offended and blame others, or the weather. Even the smallest things can set us off. Sometimes I am taken aback at how much a random, unwarranted, scowl or rude comment from a stranger can hurt. The person is gone in a moment, but the feeling I am left with can last a long time if I let it. I have a choice over whether I let it fester and bring that negativity into my encounters with others, or whether I pay attention and bring some kindness to the situation. I can choose to recognise that the person is gone now and in this actual moment I am not being insulted or accused, so I don’t need to replay the scenario and remind myself of my own innocence and how horrible a person they are. I can check in with my own feelings, which maybe are not entirely proportionate to the situation, and be kind to myself, acknowledging that I am sensitive and there is nothing at all wrong with that. Maybe on this day I am feeling even more sensitive than usual, because I am worried about something or someone. Perhaps it is the anniversary of the death of a loved one, or someone I care about is in hospital. If I recognise that it is the same for everyone, we are all to a greater or lesser extent walking wounded, easily triggered, and we all need kindness and healing, then my need for victimhood diminishes. That rude stranger probably forgot about me the moment I was out of their sight, they have probably been rude to a couple of other people by now. What a grim day they must be having, what pain they must be in to lash out like that. I find it can take a while for the effect of the shock to wear off, but if I just let it be, accept it as part of the range of feelings that I will inevitably pass through during the day it will gently change into something else, like the way the colours of the rainbow change mistily, there is no sharp dividing line and yet the colours themselves are distinct.

  *   *   *   *   *

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

William Stafford

I first heard that poem a few years ago when a colleague, Jonathan Horwitz, recited it at a shamanic gathering we were both teaching at. It continues to resonate with me, because it expresses, simply and elegantly, a core belief of mine. For me, the ‘thread’ represents ‘living’ rather than merely ‘being alive’. In order to follow it I believe it helps to have a regular practice to give a rhythm to our life, something which both grounds us in the physical world and connects us to the spiritual realms, and helps us maintain our equilibrium between the two. Personally, I get that from my daily meditation. Others may find it in the ritual of walking their dog every morning, or playing guitar for half an hour after work, or wild swimming, or sitting with a cup of tea and watching the sunrise or sunset.

*   *   *   *   *

Autumn

Harvest time is well past.

The fruits are gathered in.

That was a golden time of abundant splendour.

Now something else is in the air,

a different quality of light,

a thinning of the air.

Nature has given us her riches,

and now she prepares to rest,

and so must we.

The trees are shedding their leaves,

just letting go.

They trust that

at the right time

more leaves will come

and the cycle will repeat itself.

If we wish to achieve harmony with our environment,

then we need to do as the rest of nature,

let go and quieten down.

If trees didn’t let go of their leaves, they’d rot on the branches,

instead of falling to earth and providing rich humus to nourish new growth.

Think about it.

Are you holding on to things in your life which are no longer appropriate?

Maybe habits, beliefs, relationships?

Are you slowing down in preparation for the quiet time – that is, Winter?

In order to breathe in, you must first breathe out.

If you pour water into a full glass, it will simply run down the sides and be wasted.

If we don’t let go, we’re not making space for new and fresh ideas, practices, relationships, etc—, and we stop growing.

And if we don’t slow down and quieten down then we use up all our reserves.

See how Nature shows us her example, slowing down, resting, conserving and gathering her energies so that come the Spring her reserves have built up again and the Earth can burst into life , green and vibrant.

Supi

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