Monday, 13 April 2020

This is what the technology was meant for

If you would like to rest your eyes, you can listen to this blog post on audio here:

handmade lace international facebook group

Hallelujah! It is time for technology that serves us. I have been quite blown away by my friends, colleagues and teachers in the last few weeks in their efforts to offer their work outside of their usual environments and support their communities, reaching out to people they may never meet and without knowing that they will ever earn a humble living from it again or handle the stress of trying to use technology that simply is not ready to support so much activity online. We have been and are still in great danger of our lives being manipulated by technology that does us great harm, that distracts us and separates us, dulling our senses and our thinking, and yet while we are pulled even further apart from each other, we are also being brought closer together and we are being given opportunities for creativity and autonomy perhaps more than ever. This is a hopeful time, if we wish it to be so.

There is a growing concern about the damage that technology is inflicting on us now, but I haven’t always been so worried. The first time I saw the Internet and I started working as an Internet programmer in the 1990s, I was entranced by the possibilities. I dreamed of increased understanding across borders. I didn’t foresee social media aggression, competitiveness, illusion and narcissism, I didn’t imagine that technology that connected people would be used to abuse and humiliate, to control our opinions. But despite the terrible ways the Internet has been used, it is still up to us how are use it. For the last year I’ve been involved in ethics for artificial intelligence, and there is so much work to be done to defend people from technology that has gone wrong - so much has gone wrong. But programmers will not know how to make good technology unless we use it to enhance our lives rather than diminish us. This is a new world that requires courage, curiosity and awareness. We must treat technology with the same skills and meditation that we use in a yoga posture or a mindful walk or sitting practice.

I hope this is the time to develop practices that will serve us after this uncertain time, that increase our authenticity with each other and our ability to ask for what we need from people around us and to give openly without needing to receive something in return. I hope it is a time when we can enjoy our homes and our gardens and our local communities and for myself, it’s a chance to share practices that are very important to me like barefoot techniques that I haven’t had the chance to do until now.

While we are separated by physical distance, we are also brought spiritually, energetically and emotionally closer to each other, from clapping for the NHS, coming out onto our doorsteps, trains and cars sounding their horns, people shout hello to each other as we exercise outside, and we reap the advantages of slowness, of having fewer places to go and spending more time with the people physically close to us.

The world has been turned upside down and is shaking us about, this at least we can be sure of. Let’s connect into the calm and the sustenance of the present moment and the physical presence of those around us, placing boundaries where they need to be, offering our help and allowing ourselves to receive others’ help where others can help us.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Power of Skype

I'm surprised myself to be saying this, but I really enjoy teaching yoga and meditation over Skype. I thought that FaceTime, and all the video calling software, could be good for a meeting or a conversation with friends far away, but with students now in different places to where I am, I had to try it…

The first time I carried out a little test with a friend doing a mindfulness exercise. I remember his face going red when I told him that he was doing the exercise correctly... he said, how do you know that?! I promised him that I couldn't read his mind, I could just tell when he had his attention in his sitting bones...

Despite this, I avoided Skype because I didn't think it was possible to be really present with a student, that I would be able to see them or they would be able to see me. But time after time, it is confirmed to me that this happens, I feel a complete connection with students and trainees, that enables me to see what they are doing... energetically, not just visually. I can make suggestions that work for them and I get their immediate feedback. I can also see myself, which is interesting as I have never worked in a yoga studio with mirrors... I actually see what I'm demonstrating and this helps me demonstrate more effectively.

Most importantly, students tell me that they forget that we're not in the same room… there is something magical that happens.

I can't say how it works… perhaps as I can't say how yoga and meditation heal… but it is something that makes things possible, which is what technology is supposed to be about, after all.

In memory of Mariano who passed away this month. He created with his family Parco Jalari, my first retreat place in Sicily, with these sculptures that he worked tirelessly to carve from the rock of the mountain that Jalari stands on, which have moved, inspired and healed visitors over the many years since the park opened. Mariano taught me to use everything at my disposal to be creative, to listen, and let go of the fear of making mistakes...

Friday, 20 May 2016

Mindful Eating at a Sicilian Carnival

Sicily is teaching me a lot about mindful eating. How to mindfully stuff my face is very important… As in every family in the world, giving and receiving food is an expression of love. The way that a person prepares food shows so much about how they feel about the people they are cooking for. The way that a person eats food, shows so much about how they feel about the people who prepared it for them, and how they feel about themselves in that moment. To refuse food in Sicily, a culture of great affection - I can't go through a single day without exchanging kisses on the cheek or hugging, or squeezing someone's hand - is to refuse their kindness, to deny their natural expression of a need to love.

One of the reasons I began teaching mindful eating was an article I read about one man's realisation about his obsession with "healthy eating". He wrote that he had diligently studied his body's needs… he had tested what he needed to eat, and what he didn't need. He was careful about the time of day that he ate, and the times he should avoid eating. He usually ate a little less than he wanted… Reading the article, I recognised many of my own techniques, and remembered countless others that I had tried, kept up or discarded over the decades since being a teenager, while I worked at improving my body and my health.

I realise now the sadness in this. The denial and restriction on my eating, treating myself like a machine that needed tuning. But at the time, this article was just a wake-up call for my way of thinking (rather than feeling) about food. The writer told the story of meeting a monk, and sharing lunch with him… the monk reminded the writer, as he left food on his plate, of how good it tasted and what a shame it was to leave it considering all the care that had gone into making it. And then while the writer felt uncomfortable with his full stomach and they were ready to leave the restaurant, the monk suggested they have a large serving of ice-cream, as it was so delicious and the chef had gone to so much trouble to make it… The writer already knew at this point that the monk was teaching him something, so he accepted the ice-cream, then went on his way to process the lesson.

My move to Sicily in early February happened at the same time as carnival, and it couldn't have been better timing. I arrived just in time to begin the dancing, the eating and the shouting… the drinking homemade grappa and so many things I really can't remember.

How can this be mindful eating?

For me, meditation is a gift… whether it's a spontaneous mindfulness while walking along a beach, or sitting on cushions with a straight spine and a clear intention… Mindful eating for the last few years has taught me about the love I give to myself and that I am able to receive. I no longer have a restricted diet. I don't calculate the qualities in the food I eat, the type of fat, the protein, the vitamins… In fact, I try not to think at all while I'm eating, but just experience it.

When I was "improving" my body in all of those years, I believe I was actually creating discomfort in my body, intolerances and a lack of ease with myself… a lack of trust in myself. As if, without the studying and the thinking, I would not eat properly and my body would suffer, and then my mind would follow. I believed that I shouldn't eat dairy, wheat, sugar… and when I ate them I had a physical and emotional reaction, sometimes immediately… I had stomach pains, tiredness, I was bloated and I reproached myself for doing myself damage.

Life is so different in Sicily. Not eating pasta at lunch is just not possible… as long as I spend time with Sicilians. Not eating cannoli pastries stuffed with ricotta or chocolate at carnival (and any other occasion… any excuse is good for a party) is not allowed… One of the words I most frequently hear is: "mangia!" "eat!" and they mean it… If I don't eat, I see unhappy expressions and realise that there is no way out, other than to eat my way through. But it's not an unkind threat… it is a loving insistence that this is the way things are done.

And the food is different to the UK… almost everything I eat here is homemade or handmade. Most of my fruit and vegetables are grown in gardens with volcanic earth and natural sunlight, the wheat is Italian, not from North America or Australia (where I have had violent reactions to wheat) and the dairy is often sheep's milk, goat's milk or buffalo milk. The wine and chocolate are made with ancient methods, so you don't know how a bottle of wine will taste, even though you know the vintage, until you open it… and the chocolate is so rich in cacao and so roughly processed, that it is an amazing stimulus for meditation (more about my September yoga and chocolate retreat soon).

Mindful eating, for me, is not about eating properly… it is about eating with kindness and as much awareness as I can… not just of the food… but much more importantly, my emotional and physical response to the food in each moment. For some people, alcohol helps increase awareness… for others, the greatest kindness is to avoid alcohol. It also depends on the circumstances, the people we are with and how we feel in their company, in that place, in that moment.

Mindful eating is not easy, as being kind to ourselves and being aware of how we are feeling in our body and emotions is not easy. But it can be learnt… or re-learnt… as we knew perfectly well how to do this as young children, when we played with our food, ate with our hands, threw our food when we didn't want it and ate happily when we did… As adults, we can use our intellect to help us… to remind ourselves to listen, to feel, and to say no when we don't want something… and allow ourselves to say yes when we do… even when our thinking tells us we shouldn't, but we can feel that our body is capable and willing to process all of that love and attention - not just from the maker of the food, but from ourselves.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Teacher Training & Mentoring with TaKeShiatsu

This year I have been trialling a teacher training method for yoga, meditation and shiatsu teachers. It is not a fixed program, but responds to the needs of each teacher in training and existing teachers who would like mentoring and support.  

I have been training in yoga, meditation and shiatsu for nearly 20 years and I have experienced many ways of helping prepare people to teach. It has become my passion to support teachers in all moments of their careers, as I believe teachers need encouragement, nurture and inspiration and that working teachers have a need for time for themselves outside of the classroom to recharge their batteries and give up, for just a little while, the role of being in charge.

In the sessions, we train and meet in circle, so each person is responsible for themselves and their learning. My role is to encourage you, listen to you and help you develop your talents. We discuss teaching practices, ethics, how to set up and maintain your business and relationships with clients, venues and employers.

Self-care is fundamental in my courses. In all teacher training and mentoring sessions there is movement, meditation, creativity as well as deep listening in circle.

Teaching practice with real students is also really important, so students and I can give trainees feedback in a real class situation. This can be for a single exercise, a part of a class or a whole class. Trainees can also assist me or observe in my class, or ask me to assist or observe them in their class.

The practices that we work with specifically are self-shiatsu with the extra-ordinary vessels, classical yoga, womb yoga and compassion-led mindfulness.

Training and mentoring lasts as long as you need it to, and takes place at your own pace, as and when you can attend a session. There are quaterly weekend group training sessions in Colchester, UK, regular opportunities on retreat in Sicily and one-to-one sessions in person and by Skype.

All trainees and teachers studying with me qualify for insurance that is affordable and covers full professional indemnity and public liability.

I believe that teaching is a vocation that chooses us, so if you feel that teaching is what you need to do, you must follow that desire and discover wherever it will take you...

The next weekend teacher training in Colchester is 2nd & 3rd January. Take part, observe or assist in an afternoon retreat on Saturday 2nd (£20), then the group training session is Sunday 3rd 9am-3pm (£65). Please email me to ask about places:

My next Sicily retreat where you can take part in teacher training is 5th-12th February:

For a one-to-one teacher training session in person or by Skype, please check here for availability:

Friday, 29 May 2015

Conscious Admin?

My shiatsu teacher Suzanne Yates taught me a little trick about admin. She said, "feel your feet while you're at your computer". Easier said than done?

I started by closing my eyes and disengaging from the computer to connect with myself and be aware of my body, and that was good for a few moments… though coming back to the computer and maintaining the connection was harder.

Inspired by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, I tried wriggling my toes from time to time… which brings all kind of benefits, as my dear friend Claire Batey showed me… try it and you might know what she means ;) Again though, I wasn't able to maintain my concentration for very long… my mind kept wandering off into my tasks leaving my body behind, becoming cold and tired all over. My toes abandoned :)

I tried sitting on the floor and feeling my sitting bones too… sitting upright and feeling the ground beneath me was great, but I'd still get lost in tasks from time to time… losing my heart connection.

I kept up my practice of dancing whenever I felt like it, and that helped, except when I was very tired and just hurt my ankles from all the tarantella ;)

But then, probably because of a recent trip to Sicily, which teaches me more and more about trusting flow each time I'm there… I was able to feel my feet whatever my stting position, whether I'd taken a break or not… then once I let the liveliness in my feet come into my awareness, I could feel my breath and the rest of my body…

Of course this could all be caused by homegrown chilli… but I'll have to investigate that more thoroughly in another post, and definitely after a conversation with Fiona Mealing!

What do you do to keep yourself balanced and energised while doing admin or sitting at a computer? 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Yin for Birth Partners

It is natural to try to help a woman in labour as much as possible, but sometimes what she needs is a little space... a little Yin from her birth partner.

Birth is essentially a Yang state - it is outward movement. So as the birth partner, to complement this, the more fluid and adapting you can be, the more restful and relaxed you may find yourself and the more benefit you may both enjoy.

Lots of talking and movement may not be helpful - try it and find out how she responds! Each woman is unique, there is no formula that will work for all.

Some shiatsu massage techniques, particularly using the extra-ordinary vessels, can provide calm, quiet and deeply supportive care for the woman, and will help you to feel those things too.

Yin exercises for a birth partner to try:
  • stroking, perhaps head to tailbone
  • massaging the shoulders
  • encourage the mother-to-be to rest in between contractions: lie together, let her lean on you, making sure first of all that you are comfortable enough so that you can continue to support her 

Self-care is extremely important for the birth partner, so take time out for yourself, make sure that you rest, perhaps with a meditation. And leading up to the birth, practise some breathing exercises and birth positions with the mother-to-be, so that you know how to physically and emotionally support her. Perhaps go to a yoga or antenatal class together, try hypnobirthing or listen to some relaxation audio together.

One of my birth preparation clients had a long labour with high blood pressure - the solution for her was to be held by her birth partner on the belly and lower back (called the Girdle Vessel or Dai Mai in shiatsu). Also rocking, circling and leaning exercises (developed by Suzanne Yates, creator of Wellmother) where the woman was able to follow her own rhythm but she was supported by her birth partner as she moved. And like this they were able to continue for several days with poise and calm...

Essentially using the same techniques for the woman on yourself as the birth partner can be really valuable, so make sure that you give yourself enough time to prepare for the birth so that the exercises become second nature and you can engage completely in your partner's and your own experience. With the balance of Yin, you can certainly preserve and increase your energy levels and find equanimity in the face of challenges during labour, helping you embrace the joy in the arrival of your new baby.

Harnessing Yin - some practical exercises

How do you harness Yin? By becoming it... stopping, yielding, finding fluidity, stillness... being aware of the Earth, substance, water... and above all, practising self-nourishment. Here are some physical and meditative exercises that you can try these ideas out with...

I recommend finding a place to practice that you enjoy, outside if possible, and barefoot if you can. Wearing some Yin clothing might help too, something flowing, that responds easily to your movement.

Waking up the body and connecting to the Earth through the Conception Vessel

The first exercise is a warm-up, helping you connect with one of the Yin extra-ordinary vessels in shiatsu, called Ren Mai or the Conception Vessel. It runs from the chin down to the pelvis, and can be felt as a band as well as points in a straight line down the centre of the body. Have a look at the video first...

This exercise comes from womb yoga created by Uma Dinsmore Tuli, combined with shiatsu 
practices of the extra-ordinary vessels as developed by Suzanne Yates... as well as connecting 
with the Conception Vessel by stroking the front of the body, this exercise stretches and 
stimulates the opening and coupled points for some of the Yin extra-ordinary vessels in the 
hands and wrists: L7 (for CV), P6 (for PV). In womb yoga these hand gestures include 
"mothering lotus" and "yoni mudra". More about how I use the extra-ordinary vessels and 
womb yoga as mutually sustaining practices in future posts...

Standing exercise
Feel your feet on the earth, and separate your toes. Be aware of the connection between the outside corner of your heel and the ground... be aware of the outside edge of your foot and the ground, from the outside corner of the heel to the little toe... then maintaining these connections, also be aware of your big toe on the ground... if you know K1, then be aware of its connection to the ground too.

Have your hands palms together in front of your heart.

Maintain this position, and listen to the response in your legs, your pelvis, your spine and your head.

Then whenever you wish, start stroking down the front of your body, perhaps making contact or at a little distance away from the body. Then come as far down to the ground as you wish, then lift your arms up, stand and return your hands back to your heart.

You may like to give a little "thanks" to the ground as you come close or touch it, for the beautiful planet we live on.

Sitting exercise
Find a comfortable sitting position, I suggest using blocks, or a bump in the sand or grass wherever you are, so that your hips are above your knees. This makes the position more sustainable and reduces pressure on your knees, hips and ankles.

Join your palms together at the level of your heart. Then stroke down the front of the body, making contact or a little distance away from the body, down to the lower belly or pubic bone, then lift your hands up to your mouth, perhaps brushing your lips with your fingertips before you come down again.

Try this as many times as you like... it may take a minute or so before you start to feel it, so be patient and don't try too hard, let it happen almost by itself...

Allowing your body to be supported... leaning and using the wall

Sometimes it is the hardest thing to ask for help. In your shiatsu and yoga practice, leaning is a gentle way of opening yourself to feeling physically supported. Walls can be really useful for developing your strength and balance, and they are also fantastic for resting...

Have a blanket or two underneath your hips if this suits you and rest your hands on the midline, Conception Vessel, wherever is comfortable for you. As well as a meditation, this may help tired or puffy legs if you have been sitting, driving or standing for a long time. If you are newly pregnant, it can be a good way to connect with your baby and rest.

You can use this to help prepare for handstands. Start by saying something open-minded and positive to yourself, such as "I'll give this a go and see what happens" :-) Then on all 4s have your feet by the skirting board, then walk up the wall, pressing your feet firmly into the wall. Perhaps use chalk on your feet and hands to stop from slipping. Breath gently.

This may help slow your breath and also stretches the back of the leg... have the front knee against or close to the wall, one hand on the wall at chest level, the other hand on the wall above your head. The stretch in the back leg is gentle, don't do it if it hurts, and stop if you feel faint. To rest after this, turn your back to the wall and lean, enjoy the support!

Holding the ancestral connection to our heart

This is a meditation on the Penetrating Vessel, that links the heart to the reproductive organs and the ancestral "Life Gate" or Mingmen Du4 in the lower back. I find this helpful for women with issues of menstruation or childbirth, whether recent or a long-time ago, and for men with lower back pain, working with fertility and anxiety.