Ahimsa

I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.

I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.

Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.

One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.

This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.

I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.

In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.

In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?

Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.

Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.

Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.

And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.

I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.

I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.

Ahimsa. Try it.

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Ice-Breaker

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling with the Ice-Bucket Challenge phenomenon.

On the one hand it’s raised awareness and millions of pounds for an underfunded charity while making people laugh.

Undeniably good things.

On the other hand, it’s raised my hackles because it taps into two pet hates of mine: viral chain-messaging and so-called ‘sporting’ behaviour.

Let’s start with VCM. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about – ‘share this email with 10 friends who mean the most to you or your hair will fall out by Christmas’. This means instant deletion for me. I think the very nomination process of the Ice-Bucket Challenge preys on people’s insecurities: a) not to pour a bucket of icy water over your head is to be seen as not part of the ‘gang’, and b) something bad will happen if you don’t do it.

When I was younger, this was referred to as a chain letter. Back then you’d get a paper copy handed to you by a friend, telling you to write out ten copies and hand them out to ten friends, who’d then write ten copies… You get the picture. It was quite prevalent in a highly superstitious Catholic community, but at a certain age – I think I was about 14 – I decided to stop the chain. I’d rip up the letter and refused to carry the chain on. I delete emails that do the same thing now.

Job done.

Still alive.

Now this activity is transferred to Facebook. ‘Like this if you think our soldiers are brave’; ‘Share this if you have lost a loved one’; ‘Nominate a friend to neck a pint of wine to prove you are fun.’ It’s purely a con to get you to share something – the person or company that started it wants to see how far it will reach. I don’t blame a charity for using something so seemingly addictive to spread their word – I just marvel at the extent to which people adopt it, beyond the point at which they’re aware of why they’re doing it. It’s just for ‘fun’.

Ah fun. That word I’ve never quite got my head round. For many Brits, ‘fun’ is to be found in debasing yourself or others by various means, usually in large groups – wearing comedy fancy-dress costumes, throwing water or snow over each other, or playing a team game you’re crap at to show you’re a ‘good sport’.

I’m so not a good sport. I wear glamorous fancy dress, if I can be bothered to do it, I’ve never been in a snowball fight (just why?!) and I actively avoid team sports. To me, the national sport is showing how ‘orribly ‘umble you are by looking like a fool in public. We love it when our celebrities are forced to do it in jungles and in the Big Brother House – it somehow makes them ‘part of the gang’.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that people (including me) are more likely to donate to charity if they witness someone doing something either ridiculous or majorly ambitious that they can hang the donation on. Why can’t we just do it?

I recently went on a thirteen-mile hike and people asked me which charity I was doing it for. Er, my wellbeing, actually. I have two charities I actively focus on and donate to them monthly. They are tied to personal events in my life and I think many people have set up direct-debit donations in this way, enabling them to quietly donate in the background.

When we’re asked to donate to something with no link to our personal experience, we clearly need more motivation. I’ve recently given to two very worthwhile causes for which work colleagues have completed gruelling physical challenges. I could see how much they cared about their charities by the extent to which they were prepared to push themselves physically. When I volunteered for Crisis, I raised over £2000 for working over Christmas – people were astonished that I’d give up my Christmas Day to look after homeless people and dug deep into their pockets (thanks again, guys).

Do I have the feeling that the Ice-Bucketeers really care about their cause? Not really, no. I think about 1% of them have actually had personal experience of motor-neurone disease, either directly, or through friends. Good for them for showing that they care. But everyone else? I think they’re bandwagoning. (I felt the same about the no-makeup selfie, but was more astonished in the end at how horrified I was at the thought of showing my bare face in public – that’s for another post).

No one’s nominated me yet, as they probably know me too well. In an E. L. James way, I’ll just take my Inner Spoilsport for a lap round the building and quietly make a donation.

Fun times.

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http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/26/dodge-ice-bucket-challenge-avoid-fun-retain-dignity?CMP=fb_ot

Complimentary

This weekend, I found myself sitting alongside Rebecca Adlington on a train. My first thought was, “there’s that amazing Olympian”, and the second one was, “who’s been viciously trolled on the internet.” I wanted to tell her straight away that she is an inspiration to me and many of my friends, that we thought she was fabulous before she lost huge amounts of weight, and still think she is fabulous, especially with her Commonwealth Games swimming commentary. I spent the whole journey formulating what I was going to say to her when I got off at the next stop, talking to my friends on Facebook about it during the journey, with them all urging me to tell her that they think she’s great too.

When it came to it I was a gibbering wreck. I felt sure she must have thought I was mad, but she politely thanked me as I wittered on, telling her we all think she’s amazing. I like to think that although I didn’t quite get the words out according to plan, that I made her feel good with my girlcrush declaration.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we dole out compliments, or not, why we find it so difficult to do, and the effect that has on a person, especially a woman. I’m only writing this blog because the night before I started it, some girlfriends at a party started telling me they thought I was clever. I was absolutely stunned. One of them said, “Surely people have said this to you before?” Nope – not since I got a first in my degree and one of the lecturers was urging me to do a PhD. I’m pretty sure that was the last instance, and interestingly, I didn’t believe him.

I spent the day after that party basking in the memory of what my friends had said to me. I started to think: why do we spend so much time complimenting our girlfriends on their great hair/weight loss/new handbag when actually, telling them they’re clever has such a profound effect? After that party, I started my blog, went about my working week with renewed vigour and felt like I could take on the world just that little bit more effectively.

Throughout my life I’ve noticed that the non-compliment has a very powerful adverse effect. You think you’ve done something well or looked particularly good one day, in fact you are confident you’ve nailed it, but there is a certain set of people who can’t bear to tell you that. You start to doubt yourself because there is no validation of your actions coming back to convince you that the confidence you feel at that moment is right.

One of the things I’ve learned is that the less certain people say in response to these moments, the more you know you’ve nailed it. And I’ve learned that this sort of person isn’t my favourite. They always ‘like’ things on Facebook that are bad news for you, and never respond to the good posts. (I’ve actually stopped posting anything particularly negative to cut off their ‘food supply’). They’re seemingly there for you when the chips are down, but are nowhere to be seen when the chips are up. These people are mean-spirited, foul-weather ‘friends’.

I’m not just talking about women, although they are the predominant non-responders I’m referring to. One of my exes admitted he was afraid to compliment me because he thought ‘my head would get too big’.  Unfortunately, it made my head look for compliments elsewhere. I had been happily doling out compliments to him to make him feel good. Where was the reciprocation?

I think we have a problem with confidence, particularly in this country. Many people can’t bear to see it and do their best not to feed what they perceive as a vulgar trait.

Why bolster someone else’s confidence when you’re struggling with your own?

It occurred to me last week that as a nation, we’ve only been able to truly welcome two of our biggest sporting talents (sport requires confidence, obviously) when they’ve been seen to buckle on screen and cry their eyes out. Andy Murray and Rebecca Adlington are now only acceptable because they’ve shown some ‘humility’, but they were never cocky so-and-sos in the first place. Weirdly, we love cocky so-and-sos and find them easier to handle than people whom we perceive to be more like us. Bradley Wiggins or Usain Bolt are seen as lovable ‘characters’ whose confidence appears to be so unassailable that we don’t even begin to have a go at them for it. No – we go for the relatively quiet ones.

Nice.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve never felt a pang of jealousy about something a friend has achieved and not wanted to feed their moment of glory by adding my praise into it. I usually have a harsh word with myself and force myself to face their achievement square in the eye and shake its hand. That feels so much better than seething with resentment in the worst part of my brain.

As I’ve got older, I’ve begun to feel a lot more sisterly towards women (of all ages) and it’s part of the reason behind me starting this blog. Various events, particular in the post-marriage era of the last four years have made me realise how much women have to put up with in life and how our culture has set up a dynamic where we’re pitted against each other. Divided and ruled. Magazines allow us to jeer at other women to make ourselves feel better and we find ourselves laughing with our male and female friends over a bad outfit choice of a woman in the pub. It’s not on and we know it.

Behind the ‘bad’ outfit is a person trying to make their way in the world, who could be in a job where she is routinely told she’s rubbish by a bad boss, in a relationship where her partner never tells her she looks nice or in a panic because she is about to go on holiday and has ‘failed’ to achieve the bikini body. Why would we want to try and make that situation worse?

You can see the effect on a friend – or even a stranger – when you go up to them and tell them they’ve done something great. They look slightly startled at first, because they’re not used to people doing it, but then their eyes shine with pride. They feel good. You feel good. The effect lasts for days, weeks, months. But the effect of not saying anything lasts much longer.

I think we all assume that people we admire in our circle of friends must be being complimented on their intelligence/beauty/achievements all the time, so we don’t bother to do it. But what if everyone thought the same thing and the person you think is an incredible doesn’t actually know it? Just telling her or him might make them face the world with a clear, undaunted eye.
Just do it.
Because you can.