Island dreams

It all began with a chance comment in one of my yoga classes. We had been discussing the upcoming yoga retreat at St Non’s in Pembrokeshire and I laughingly said that our next retreat should be on a small island called Chole in the Indian Ocean. Some friends of mine run an ecotourism business there and they had been suggesting I should take a group of my students as it would be the perfect place to hold a retreat. I described the turquoise seas, the baobab tree houses and the fact there is no electricity and several people said “So when are we going?”

So early in 2018, I found myself back in Tanzania, after an absence of twenty years, on a planning mission for the yoga retreat. A quick flight from Zanzibar on the aptly named “Tropical Air” brought me to Mafia Island. Then a short drive across the island to Utende, where a boat was waiting to take us across to Chole. I had first visited in the mid 1990s, when Anne and Jean de Villiers were just beginning their venture on the island and I remember looking towards Chole and seeing red flame trees in the distance. Luckily I had returned at the right time of year and there were bright splashes of red visible among the green palms and baobabs.

After a short crossing we landed and waded ashore through the crystal clear shallows. We were greeted with chilled, fresh coconuts to drink and then to get to the lodge, walked past a row of frangipani trees, along a shady forest path lined with ruins. Among the trees there are old warehouses, merchants’ houses and a Shia meeting house whose walls have been taken over by a sculptural maze of fig tree roots. This was once Chole Mjini, built by Arabs and Shirazi who traded and settled along the coast for centuries.

The path branches off to seven tree houses scattered among the forest and in no time at all I was climbing up a wooden stepladder alongside a gigantic baobab trunk. Baobabs are described as vegetable elephants and the trees have a sense of massive, calm solidity. The tree house has two floors and from my king size bed on the first floor, I had an uninterrupted view out to sea over the mangroves. I was surrounded by trees – casuarina, palm, flame and frangipani, as well as the murmured conversations of palm doves.

Chole has its own rhythm – you wake with the dawn and birdsong as the sunlight creeps softly through the canopy. The first morning, I watched the sun spread across the massive baobab trunk that was visible from my bed like a giant sundial. After a cup of tea in bed, the tree house was the perfect spot to do an early morning yoga practice. I put my mat down on wooden floorboards decorated with the flowers that had blown in during the night. It was an interesting challenge trying to contain the mind, whilst looking out to sea and watching the dhows sailing by. Then a breakfast of porridge topped with baobab powder, scrambled eggs and fresh fruit set out under a breathtaking flame tree.

Two mornings involved waking before dawn to travel across to Mafia Island. It was no hardship to be up early, seeing the sun rising behind Chole, a gentle pink spreading across the sky as we sailed across to get to Anne and Jean’s other camp. Kitu Kiblu are involved with whale shark research and conservation. If you are lucky you may have the privilege of swimming alongside whale sharks, which come to the surface to feed on plankton during Kaskazi, the northerly monsoon.

After heading far out to sea, the first whale shark we saw looked enormous to me but I was assured it was just a baby at around 6 metres, as they can grow up to 20 metres in length. Through the morning, far out in the Mafia Channel we saw another 7 or 8 bigger and bigger individuals. As instructed, I swam alongside their pectoral fin – you feel as if you get into their slipstream, close enough to appreciate their unique spot pattern and even look right into their eyes. Our last swim involved two whale sharks swimming in a figure of eight around us as they fed and swam in circles hoovering up plankton. It was an immense privilege to be accepted into their world.

I found the whole experience so amazing that I had to take the opportunity to go again. This time the sharks were often a little deeper, rather than surface feeding. I had one swim with a whale shark whose enormous tail was moving like a pendulum just below me, in sync to the rhythm of my breath. I felt as if I could have just carried on swimming like that forever.

While staying on Chole, other mornings were spent snorkeling in the marine park on coral reefs vivid with fish, reading in a hammock or strolling through the local village to see the boat building yard and the fruit bats roosting. I happened to be visiting on the day that the school students in the village were going to receive their text books at the beginning of the new school year. The books had been funded through the Chole Mjini Trust via a grant from the Waterloo Foundation. There was a large gathering of the village council, as well as teachers and students and speeches were made before the books were handed out.

Chole Mjini lodge was initially set up with development and support of the village as priorities. When the project started in the 1990s there was only one teacher on the island, few resources and no one continued in education beyond primary school. Now both girls and boys continue on to secondary school and several Chole students have also gone on to university on the mainland. Chole Mjini Lodge’s Development Trust has also set up a Health Centre, a kindergarten, a Market and Community Centre, a Women’s Centre and a Learning Centre for adult education.

Afternoons passed paddle boarding around the island, navigating in and out of narrow mangrove channels. We sailed to the ancient ruins at Kua on the neighbouring island described as “the Pompeii of East Africa” and explored the palace, mosques and graveyards. When the tide was low, we sailed to a sandbank that emerged from the sea like a strip of white muslin. This was perfect for walking meditation – making the first footsteps on sand that had been washed clean by the tide. The only inhabitants were crabs who kept popping out of their burrows as I passed. As the sun sank lower, it was the perfect canvas to make giant yoga shadows on.

Later in the afternoons, Anne and I spent time in the Boma, an imposing building near the slipway. This was partly built by the Omani Arabs and then extended and used as the old District Administrative Headquarters during German colonial times. It was a complete ruin the last time I visited but now in collaboration with the Department of Antiquities, Jean and his team have restored it, using mangrove, coral and limestone, traditional Swahili building methods. Anne and I christened the space for yoga and after some sessions I developed an individual practice for her to work with.

This will be the venue for yoga on the retreat. One half of the building is open to the breeze on three sides, keeping it cool even at the hottest time of year. The other side faces the setting sun and is perfect for a later afternoon practice with pranayama and meditation. Yoga will frame the day with an early morning and before sunset practice and then people will be free to do their own thing, relax, read, have a massage, swim, bird-watch, sail or explore. Or just simply have time to be and watch the world go by from a hammock.

After spending five nights on the island I felt as if I had slipped into an entirely different rhythm and pace of life. Up with the dawn and then to bed early, reading a page or two by the light of a solar lantern before enjoying drifting off to sleep watching fireflies bob past the mosquito net. Waking to the sound of the call to prayer from the village and then the voices of individual birds building to a chorus. Living entirely in the fresh air, surrounded by the sea.

Chole is definitely not an easy place to leave. Especially when friends live there. As we sailed towards Mafia, I had a last look at the flame trees. It felt good to know I will be seeing them again soon….

November’s yoga retreat will be during whale shark season. I’m already counting the days.




New Year New Directions

I always enjoy the time between Christmas and New Year as it is gives the space to reflect on the year that has been as well as the one to come. On New Year’s Day I stopped at Newgale, a beach near home to take a photo. It happened to be a lowish tide and miraculously there was a blue sky after days of rain. The beach looked washed clean and there was a solitary figure walking across the sand. It made me think of the old year having washed away with the tide and now the pristine beach offering a blank canvas to make new imprints and new steps.

The beach is always somewhere I am drawn to and for the second year running I held a workshop during the summer on a Pembrokeshire beach. This has started to become an annual event as it has proved to be such a favourite with my students. Once again we were blessed by the weather gods who held back on the summer rain on our chosen evening when the tide was just right. At one stage we were sharing the beach with a ride from Nolton Stables as well as dog walkers but everyone agreed that along with the background sound of the sea, they all seemed to enhance the experience of doing yoga outside.

Then I was lucky enough to have the chance to practice in warmer climes during September on a trip to Barbados. It was a lovely reminder of how easily my body moves when it’s warm and how possible it is to get up with the sunrise! It was wonderful to practice on the beach in the early morning or just as the sun went down.

In November I had the pleasure of working with a retreat group who were staying at East Hook Farm, near Martin’s Haven. The weather was wild and stormy but the retreat space was cosy and warm and it was lovely to batten down the hatches to focus on yoga and Ayurveda themes relevant to balance the cold and windy conditions outside.

As for 2018 – I think it’s going to be an exciting year. I am holding my first weekend retreat at St Non’s Retreat Centre, near St David’s in March and then in November I am taking a group to the Indian Ocean island of Chole for a week’s retreat. Chole is one of my favourite places in the world, where time seems to slip into a different dimension. There will be yoga and meditation at dawn and sunset and in between there are tree houses to view the world from, sandbanks to laze on as well as whale sharks to swim with. It might not be that easy to come back!

These are some of the imprints that I am really looking forward to making over the course of the next year…

Detox and Transform – a Yoga Workshop to start the New Year

In Ayurveda, the concept of healthy agni or fire is one of the most important factors contributing to the overall health of our body. Agni deals with the food we consume and converts it into energy – it is also the element associated with transformation. After Christmas and New Year partying this energy can become depleted.

The workshop will be an opportunity to start the year with some energizing yoga practices. It will offer some practical ways to set a good routine in place as well as clearing out Christmas excess and supporting agni. It is an opportunity to begin that New Year transformation!

Saturday 13 January, 2018 from 10am to 1pm. Cost: £30.00.

Venue: Redhill School, Haverfordwest.

To book your place, please email me.

St Non’s Retreat 9–11 March 2018

Kriyā Yoga: Transforming Ourselves Through Practice

A weekend retreat offers the opportunity to deepen your yoga practice and to step outside your normal routine. St Non’s is perched on the cliffs near St David’s in Pembrokeshire looking out across St Bride’s Bay and it has its own rhythm and a quality of timelessness far away from the rush and hurly-burly of life.

During the retreat we will explore the theme of Kriya Yoga – the Yoga of Action- and ways we can incorporate these ideas and practices to bring integration and transformation to our own lives. There will be yoga practices, pranayama, chanting, meditation and a deeply relaxing, evening yoga nidra session. There will also be time on the Saturday afternoon for a walk into St David’s or to explore the coast path or to simply relax!

Accommodation is in the retreat centre which is run by Sisters Anna and Bridget and there is delicious, freshly prepared vegetarian food. There are 5 twin and 5 single rooms.

The total cost for the weekend is: £280 per person for a single room or £265 per person for a twin room. This includes full board from Friday evening until after lunch on Sunday. Arrivals from 4.00pm on Friday afternoon and departures on Sunday afternoon.

The retreat is now full, but please email me if you would like to be included on the waiting list in case of cancellations.


Kapha Time

Winter is Kapha Time – How to stay well?

According to Ayurveda, the science of health and longevity that sits alongside yoga in the Indian tradition, this season is the time of kapha – the element which predominates in the cold and damp of winter. Ayurveda states that we all have a unique constitution – a balance of the elements (Vata, Pitta, Kapha), that was set down at the moment of our conception and which affects how we are built physically as well as how we think and respond. Then as we live our lives, the moment by moment choices we make will affect the balance of our constitution – what we eat, how much we eat, how much and what kind of exercise we take, how long we sit every day, how late we stay up/sleep in – all these factors together with our age, the climate and particular season will affect this balance. In Ayurvedic terms, we are healthy when we manage to maintain the unique balance of elements that we were born with and ill health comes about when we stray from that balance.

Another good image for kapha is a flowing river which gradually begins to slow as it freezes.

Kapha is a combination of the elements of water and earth and at this time of year when the weather tends to be cold and wet, its effects can build up in our system and we may begin to experience symptoms. A good image for kapha is mud with its slimy, heavy, cold and damp qualities or a flowing river which gradually begins to slow as it freezes. The feeling of kapha is the same as after a long lie-in when you feel slightly thick-headed and sluggish for the rest of the day.

The main site of kapha in the body is the stomach where mucous is produced. If kapha begins to get out of balance, first the metabolism and digestion slow down, then mucous problems develop in the chest, throat or sinuses and also in the lymph where fat can accumulate and ultimately weight is gained. Typical problems are Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression, colds, flu, allergies, asthma attacks, fluid retention and, later in the spring, hay fever.

So during winter and early spring it’s important to be aware of changes, particularly if you already have a high level of kapha in your constitution. It’s good to avoid getting cold, eating food that is too heavy, fried or oily or eating heavy meals after 7pm. Too much dairy and wheat, ice cold food or drinks, too much sugar and salty food will all encourage kapha to build up in the system. Sitting down all day, sleeping late in the morning or taking naps will all increase kapha.

Recently I taught a workshop at the Narberth Natural Health Centre focussing on kapha and how we can keep it balanced over this winter season. We did yoga practices which were both energetic and dynamic. We focussed on postures that opened the chest as this is where kapha accumulates. The aim was to leave us feeling warm and energised as well as invigorated. We also worked with sequences to keep the mind and the senses engaged as this helps to dissipate the dull and lethargic tendencies of kapha.

We also discussed various therapeutic tips to stay well at this time of year. It’s good to include plenty of warming spices into your cooking such as ginger, turmeric, cumin, black pepper and garlic. Lots of fresh, organic vegetables, pulses and drying grains such as millet, buckwheat, barley and rice are also good. Warming soups and stews are best eaten at lunch time and it’s best to have dinner before 7pm to aid digestion. Plenty of exercise during the winter is important to really warm the body – before 10am if possible – a dynamic yoga practice or a 30-minute brisk walk tick this box. Meditating for 10 minutes a day also helps to keep the senses sharp and helps prevent a slide into lethargy.

The key is awareness as changes happen gradually. If you start to feel a bit dull and heavy in the winter or notice mucous building up, then you can take steps to redress this increase of kapha and return to a feeling of health, energy and vitality. An understanding of Ayurveda and our own unique constitution as well as the potential effects of the changing seasons, enables us to make simple lifestyle adjustments to help restore our equilibrium and sense of wellbeing.

Some feedback from the workshop:

“Really enjoyed this winter session – warming and calming”.

“An interesting practise, lots of useful advice for the winter. I enjoyed it!”.

“The perfect balance of yoga and factual information. Lots to chew over. Great snacks too”.

“It was really interesting to learn about the three doshas and what influence they have in our lives and how to balance and look out for things. Really enjoyable thank you. Felt much better leaving the class than when I started”.

‘Texting neck’

Recently I drove past someone who was sitting on a bench texting on their phone. Their back was so rounded that their head was very close to their knees and their drooping head reminded me of the bluebells that were in flower at the time.

This is a common posture when using a mobile phone – the head hangs forward and down and doing this for many hours causes repetitive stress for the neck as it has to support the whole weight of the head – a job it isn’t designed to do. Heads are really heavy – an average human head weighs between 4.5-5kg. If you’ve never felt how heavy they are – get someone to lie down and then gently pick up their head from the floor. The weight of the head often comes as a surprise.

Our head should be supported by the neck in a neutral position where the head is not too far forward. These days, neck problems and degeneration of the spine are becoming increasingly common in young adults and teenagers who show structural changes in the spine that you would only expect to see in much older people. Texting or spending long hours sitting at a badly positioned computer where the weight of the head pulls forward cause stress to the muscles and ligaments that support the neck vertebrae, which can ultimately lead to inflammation and soreness. If the head pulls forward, the shoulders tend to come forward as well and the upper back rounds which can lead to shoulder pain and tightness.

When I work with yoga students, I assess whether or not they carry their head in a neutral position. Our spine forms the central axis of the body and when the head is in a neutral position it is given support by the pelvis and it can then rest on top of the spine, supported but not carried by the muscles of the neck. The spine has natural curvatures and these are vital to maintain its structure. As people age, the upper back and shoulders often become more rounded and then the head has to be lifted to look forward, exaggerating the natural curve of the neck. This causes compression through an area which can lead to headaches and arm pain. When the structure and natural curves of the upper spine are lost, the lower back is not well supported and it thus becomes more prone to injury.

Yoga texts stress how vital it is to maintain the upright structure of the spine so that all the systems of the body can function well. Practicing yoga makes you more aware of your posture in daily life and helps to gradually correct bad postural habits such as holding the head too far forward.

The next time you are texting, driving or working at a computer, take a moment to notice where your head is and see if it is tilted forward. If it is, then the neck muscles, ligaments and tendons are all working overtime to hold it up. Screens should be at eye level so that you don’t have to bend the head forward or look down. If you already have a tendency to do this, then yoga can help to unravel this and make you more aware of maintaining a good posture throughout your day, teaching you to hold the head in an effortless, neutral position while strengthening the spine and helping to maintain its natural curves.

Time for kitcheri

After all the lovely Indian summer weather over the last few weeks, it felt as though autumn arrived with a bang a few days ago and the wind and rain really brought home the fact that we are already in October. Today was back to sun again and I ate my lunch out on the cliffs in warm sunshine. The changeable weather has prompted me to begin to adjust my diet by including more warm food and spices to help my body prepare for the cooler weather conditions that are ahead.

It’s a great excuse to start having kitcheri for lunch again as it’s one of my favourites. Kitcheri is a one-pot dish that is really easy to prepare and there are lots of variations of the recipe. Ayurveda advocates kitcheri to cleanse the system and it’s seen as a balancing dish which is easy to digest. I tend to use whatever vegetables are in season and I sometimes make enough for lunch and then finish it off as a side portion with dinner. Ayurveda says that food should be eaten when it’s fresh so if you want to keep it longer, it’s best to freeze it.

Here’s my October version:
2 cups of basmati rice (I used brown but white is easier to digest)
1 cup of mung dal

Wash the rice and dal well (the dal can be soaked for a few hours but this isn’t essential)
Melt coconut oil or ghee in a large saucepan and then add:
2 cms of fresh ginger chopped finely
1 heaped tsp turmeric
1heaped tsp cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds

Stir well to prevent the spices burning and cook for a few minutes until they begin to release their aroma. (You can adjust the amount of spices according to taste.)

Then add the washed rice and dal and stir again for a few minutes to coat with oil and spices.

Add 6 cups of boiling water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cover.

Then you can add any vegetables according to how long they need to cook. For this version I added 2 chopped carrots just after the rice, then a sweet potato, a chopped leek and just before the rice was ready, 2 large handfuls of kale.

When the rice and dal are cooked and all the water has been absorbed, add sea salt to taste.

It’s delicious served with some fresh coriander.

Time for a change?

As we move into autumn and the change of the seasons, the theme of my next yoga workshop is “Ayurveda and How to Stay Well”. Ayurveda is a system of healing with a tradition stretching back more than 5,000 years and its main aim is to enable us to live and remain in a healthy state. Ayurveda asks us to take responsibility for our own health and it enables us to take simple actions to help us stay well.

In the workshop we will explore how and why we go out of balance, the idea of ama or toxicity and what we can do through yoga and lifestyle adjustments to restore our equilibrium if it has been lost.

The workshop will take place on Saturday 26 September from 10am to 1pm at Redhill School, Haverfordwest.

Working the spine

I saw these foxgloves gently swaying in the wind whilst on a walk this summer. They were past their best, the flowers had started to fall and the stem was beginning to dry out. Their silhouette reminded me of the shape of bony spines and it made me think about the way our spines change through our lives.

The word spine comes to us via the Old French espine from the Latin spina meaning thorn or backbone. The spine is a vital part of our structure as it holds up all the upper body, the head, neck, arms, chest and abdomen. It is also involved in walking as the pelvis tilts, causing the spine to bend to the side. Flexibility, strength and correct alignment of the spine are all important in maintaining the structure of the rest of the body and facilitating ease of movement.

The spinal discs don’t have a blood supply of their own, but are part of a self-contained fluid system. They are hydrated by diffusion from surrounding tissues and this occurs when they move. The best way to keep the spine healthy is to keep the discs moving through a range of movements on a daily basis. These movements actually nourish the disc joint.

As we age, the spine is affected by gravity and a decline in muscle strength and tone. These effects increase all the curvatures of the spine which in turn affects the circulation of blood and energy in the body. There is an overall drying and stiffening of the body – the process that was visibly starting to affect the foxgloves.

This process isn’t inevitable however and yoga texts talk about nurturing a feeling of lightness in the body and fostering the body’s ability to withstand change. Yoga postures were developed to help the body remain balanced through the different stages of life and they help to maintain the uprightness of the spine. Yoga can help to sustain the spine’s strength and flexibility and directly works against the effects of ageing, bringing benefits to the circulation, digestion and respiration.

I teach a method of yoga which links our awareness to the spine through the use of the breath. We strengthen the core muscles and learn to work with posture in a way which can be carried through into daily life, not just in a yoga class or one-to-one session. This tradition stresses the importance of influencing the spine and this sometimes comes as a surprise when people who have practiced yoga for years, realize that they haven’t really been doing that at all.

The aim of working in this way is to prevent the deterioration of the spine by supporting it with a strong core and keeping the discs well-nourished and mobile. Maintaining the spine in good working order is central to good posture and standing tall and it also affects how energetic and well you feel. Good motivation to get the yoga mat out!

Yoga retreats at The Grove

Exciting to see my yoga retreats at The Grove, Narberth, advertised in a recent issue of Woman & Home magazine. The Grove is such a beautiful setting, I’m really looking forward to working in their stunning space overlooking the garden. The first two retreats are planned for 6-7 September 2015 and 10-11 January 2016. Contact me or The Grove for more details.