How a yoga retreat can change your life

Have you ever wished you could chuck it all in a walk away? That’s what I did last week. I kissed my children goodbye and walked out on my home, my work and my family.

Everybody reaches a point in life where something has to give. It could be a health-scare, the end of a relationship or just the realisation that you’re in a good old fashioned rut. For me it was, well, everything. You probably think that, as a yoga teacher, I’m a permanently relaxed and jolly person. Uh-uh. I’m sure I’m far more relaxed and jolly than I would be working in a different industry, but my point is that day to day stresses creep in even when you have the best job in the world.

A couple of weeks ago I started to exhibit the kind of symptoms that set off alarm bells. Short temper, forgetfulness, mouth ulcers. When I found myself over-reacting on an operatic scale to minor setbacks, I decided it was time for a reality check. And there’s nothing like going on retreat for a reality check.

My little cabin retreat

I headed off to the Billabong Retreat, a residential yoga retreat set high in the trees on a rural property not far from Windsor, NSW. I worried to myself the whole way there. What if I didn’t like the style of yoga there (I hadn’t bothered to ask in my hurry to get away)? What if there wasn’t enough food (I went on a retreat once that fed us a watery vegetable soup for lunch and dinner every day. It made me very grumpy)?  By the time I got there, I felt like a coiled spring.

There was nobody there when I arrived. Just me and the cicadas. I found my cabin dumped my bag and sat on the balcony. It was warm, beautiful and quiet. I sat very still for a few minutes and took in my surroundings; a group of cabins set in to a hillside overlooking a large billabong with a curious round deck next to it. I decided to walk up to the main building, a yoga yurt and indoor living/dining/kitchen room, connected by a wide covered deck that was hung with hammock chairs. Other retreat participants were beginning to arrive and at 4pm our teacher, Paul, came to greet us. I needn’t have worried about the style of yoga. It turns out that Paul studied with the same teacher as me.

Relaxing on the cool deck

That was the first of many coincidences during the retreat. I had the full ‘six degrees of separation’ experience as I met people who knew many of my own friends, told similar life stories and discovered that I’d actually spoken to one of the women on the phone several months before! It was certainly serendipity, but I think there was more to it than that. I’ve noticed that when I listen to the inner voice that tells me the right thing to do (like “get away on retreat NOW!”), things start to fall into place. Happy accidents occur, positive relationships are formed and new opportunities arise. Oh, and I needn’t have worried about the food, either. Paul’s wife, Tory, cooked some of the most delicious vegetarian food I’ve ever tasted (and accomplished everything with a smile on her face and a two week old baby strapped to her chest).

Al fresco yoga

Over the next two days I was thankful for the nurturing yoga practises, nourishing food and the joyful company of some very special people.  On the last evening of the retreat, I found out what the deck next to the billabong was for. We all trekked down the hillside and set out our yoga mats on the timber floor and there, under the shade of tall gum trees, we enjoyed an hour of al-fresco yoga. Listening to the sounds of nature, feeling the reflected warmth of the sun from the billabong and watching tiny finches darting through the branches above me, I couldn’t even remember the stress and worry that I’d brought with me on the first day.

Me swimming in the billabong

After three days of clean food, rejuvenating yoga (morning and night), two early nights and more free time than I’ve known in several years, I felt fantastic. I also wondered why I hadn’t booked some time out earlier and vowed to take regular retreats in the future.  When I got back home, everyone noticed the difference. I was more patient with the children, less prone to frantic multi-tasking and more focussed at work. As with all good things, I wanted to share it and, before the week was out, I had booked the Billabong Retreat on behalf of Adore Yoga and will be leading a retreat there in October.

Yoga yurt and communal area

Not all life changing experiences are dramatic. My three day retreat changed my life for the better in subtle ways that go beyond simply recharging the batteries and zipping back into a hectic life. The daily yoga, meditation and time for reflection allowed me to shift my thinking and realign my actions with my deepest values. It was an opportunity to rediscover mindfulness and for that I am extremely grateful.

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Is it OK to be judgemental?

Mia Freedman wrote on her blog this week: “Have you noticed how being judgemental has become a terrible sin? Suddenly, we’re not allowed to judge anyone for anything and this is starting to bother me. Particularly when the “don’t-judge” admonishment is used as a moral gagging tool by someone who doesn’t agree with you.”

Those of you who know me are aware that I’m something of a plain speaker. My first reaction to Mia’s blog was “yeah, that’s right!” But I felt a bit uncomfortable about it. Something about judging other people (and don’t think I don’t do it), just doesn’t sit right. As usual, I went back to yoga to find some answers. One of the fundamental principles of yoga (and most religious/spiritual traditions, most notably Buddhism) is compassion.

I think the problem with judgement is that it often lacks compassion. This accounts for the strong reaction against ‘judgmental’ statements (this is what Mia was on about, people getting snippy when you voice a negative opinion about someone). People naturally feel compassion towards others, regardless of their behaviour. That’s why we live in a country that abolished the death penalty. Yes, it might feel cathartic to condemn a murderer to death, but most of us understand that this would diminish our collective sense of humanity. Same thing with judgement.

I think the behaviour of adults who hurt children (or any living thing for that matter) is wrong. But I try to maintain a sense of compassion for them. I have two small children and when I come up against an adult who’s behaviour causes me to ‘judge’ them, I imagine them as a two year old. Now, the parenting they had themselves, not to mention their genetic make up and socio economic status, absolutely does not excuse any kind of cruel or criminal behaviour. But when I think of them as a 2 year old and recall the spontaneous joy, innocence and vulnerability that I see in my own babies, I can find compassion for them. They were babies too. They weren’t born bad and I don’t reckon that badness is innate, so something has gone horribly wrong.

I’m fine with condemning bad behaviour and I’m cool with law-breakers suffering the consequences of their actions. But (and feel free to call me a bleeding heart liberal), it’s their behaviour I have the issue with, not the person. Maybe if their parents had understood that, they wouldn’t be doing those crazy things.

Anyway, I’ll let the last word go to this guy who knows a lot more about compassion than I do.

Sunshinyday sells green, healthy and ethical gift experiences.

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My neighbour, Keli Lane

This is not the sort of subject I usually cover in my blog. Sunshinyday’s all about living a good life, looking after yourself, your community and the environment. But the shock news of Keli Lane’s conviction for murdering her baby daughter has prompted me to look back at the 3 years when she and I lived side by side in a small, friendly block of units in Manly. A lot of people are speculating about her character and motivation. I want to share my experience of being her neighbour and my feelings about the guilty verdict.

Keli Lane was my next door neighbour for three years, and we’d had a cup of tea together a few days before the news about baby Tegan’s disappearance broke. Then a whole load of press photographers turned up on my doorstep and everything changed.

Keli often used to pop in to say “Hi”. I had a baby in 2004 and she, along with her own child who was 2 at the time, was fascinated by my little daughter. Keli loved to come round and see the baby and was always very considerate, teaching her own child to treat the new baby gently – I remember her saying “Gentle, it’s a baby not a dolly!” She was a pragmatic and down to earth working mum who balanced her job at a north shore girls school with looking after her young family. When she married her partner at around this time, she told me “I’m not that bothered about marriage, it’s for my little one really.”

As my daughter grew into toddlerhood she loved visiting Keli’s unit (we were a close knit block of units in Manly, we all knew eachother’s names and looked out for eachother). Keli’s child’s bedroom was a cornucopia of delights for my little girl who loved to play with the ‘big kids’ toys and try on the dress ups. Her husband was a fellow pom and we used to chat at the communal clothes line as we juggled kids and laundry. He was a nice, normal dad. We still see him occasionally, he and the child he had with Keli live close by to where we live now and our children play in the same parks. We never discuss what we know about his family’s tragedy.

When the news first broke about Tegan’s disappearance, I didn’t believe it was ‘our’ Keli. Even when I saw the pictures of her on the front of the local newspaper, I told my husband it was just somebody who looked a bit like her. Finally, I had to accept that it really was my next door neighbour who, as I watched her being accused of killing her baby on the evening news, was sitting just a few feet away from me in the adjoining unit.

When the press started knocking on the door, then hiding out in the nature reserve opposite our units, I sent her a card offering support. I couldn’t believe it. We were sure she’d done something stupid like give the baby to somebody in return for money. That made sense to me – at 21 yrs old, I did a few misguided things that I wouldn’t want to tell the world about. Maybe not as daft as selling a baby, but I could understand how a young woman backed into a corner could make a crazy decision like that.

As the story unravelled night after night on the TV, so did Keli’s relationships. She spent less and less time at the unit and we hardly saw her. When we did, she was anxious and hurried. Our evenings were punctuated by the sound of Keli and her husband rowing next door. Every night they screamed and shouted as they tried to come to terms with what was happening to them. I can only imagine how it all felt for her child, lying in the next room and trying to make sense of the madness that had taken over her family. Keli’s best form of defence seemed to be attack as the arguments became more aggressive and hot-tempered. Eventually we stopped seeing her in the corridor and we no longer heard the rows. The pressure became too much and she left the unit. I know that shortly after that her husband and their child moved on, as did we.

I still find it hard to believe that Keli Lane is a baby killer. Determined, single minded, combative – yes, she was all those things. In fact, all the traits that we celebrate in sports people (especially men), but which have contributed so much to her vilification. But having seen her care for her child and spend time around my own daughter, I find it incomprehensible that she would murder her own baby. My daughter still enjoys playing with some of the dress ups that Keli gave us as her own child grew out of them. Whenever she puts on the blue sequined play-shoes that Keli gave her, I think about Keli and wonder what the future holds for her three surviving children.

So I guess this blog post is about what it means to live a good life after all. Keli’s story is about the interconnectedness of all people and all things. It’s about how the choices we make affect those around us. I don’t know what happened to baby Tegan, but I do know that Keli Lane is not a monster.

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Understand the environmental issues and pitch in

That’s the message I got from this great little film. We’re heading for a post-carbon world. We can do it the hard way (do nothing – suffer the consequences) or we can prepare for it and start constructing a new paradigm (pitch in). Enjoy.

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How being grateful makes you happy

Writing and counting my blessings

I’m reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and I’m grateful to her for reminding me to be grateful. When the going gets tough, my default setting is ‘whinging pom’. I don’t know about the rest of the UK expat population, but I certainly fit the cliché when I’m under stress. The problem with whinging (apart from the fact that nobody wants to be your friend when you do it) is that it gets in the way of seeing the good stuff.

The antidote to this is gratitude. Now, you can read all about cultivating an attitude of gratitude in self-help books, but while it remains a ‘concept’, it’s not doing you any practical good. You’ve got to work at being grateful and, like so many lessons, it took a crisis for me to learn the truth of that.

My crisis came after the birth of my first child. After a long and difficult labour, I was tired, anaemic and struggling to get to grips with motherhood. After a few weeks of watching me go downhill, my partner printed off a postnatal depression checklist from the Beyond Blue website. I ticked all but two of the boxes and had to face up to the problem. In an attempt to find a glimmer of hope in what seemed like an ocean of gloom, I started to write down all the things I had to be grateful for. I knew I was incredibly fortunate and couldn’t understand why, in the face of so much privilege, I felt so rotten.

I started by writing down all the good things in my life, starting with a healthy baby, loving partner and a roof over my head.  By the time I’d finished the list, I didn’t feel any better. So I read it over twice, then put it away till the next day when I pulled it out and thought hard about something else I could add to it. I did this every day for three weeks. Reading the list, adding at least one new thing I had to be grateful for, then reading it over again. Bit by bit I started to find joy in everyday things. I felt a glow of appreciation when my partner made me a cup of tea. I found myself thinking ‘how lucky I am to live here’ as I wheeled my baby down the hill to Manly beach. I started to appreciate my mothers group and felt supported by our meetings (I’d found it all rather intimidating up till then). The difference this small activity made to my state of mind was tremendous. The secret: Gratitude. The Method: Consistency.

Cultivating moments of gratitude with my children

As I juggle the ongoing demands and surprises of motherhood,  running a business and navigating a new phase in my life, it was a timely reminder from The Happiness Project to utilize the power of gratitude. It’s a lesson I’m passing on to my children. I’ve noticed that when my 6 year old is peeved, she says she ‘hates’ everything. Food, toys, activities, friends. It doesn’t matter what you do for her, she remains ‘ungrateful’. I believe that an understanding of gratitude is one of the most important gifts I can giver her and so we spend time every day talking about ways in which we’re lucky (researching the life of our sponsored child in Lesotho is a favourite activity), noticing things that give us pleasure (from interesting cloud formations to a funny expression on the cat’s face) and getting into the habit of saying ‘thank you’ whenever we experience a moment of joy.

I’ve learned from experience that  gratitude makes me happy. It starts with acknowledging all the things you’re grateful for, every day, and leads to profound feelings of contentment.

Have you found a way of ‘counting your blessings’ that enhances your happiness? Do you have an innate, natural sense of gratitude or do you have to work at it?

Sunshinyday sells green and healthy gift experiences.

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Our Kayak-Yoga Experience in Pictures

Setting off from Manly Wharf on our Kay-Yoga Experience

I spent most of yesterday thinking “I am so lucky. I am SO lucky!” I was 10 minutes from home, doing something I could do any day of the week, and yet it felt so incredibly special. It could have been the glorious weather, the wonderful company or the satisfaction of wagging work in the middle of the morning. But I think it had more to do with the fact that I actually DID it.

The voyage to Store Beach

I took a group of Sunshinyday friends and supporters on our Kay-Yoga adventure experience on the harbour at Manly. During the event, several of us said “What’s the point of living near the harbour if you don’t use it?” which translated as “Why don’t I get out and do this more often?” The photo’s themselves tell the story and I think you can see what a very special morning we had. Just 2 hours out of the day and we all felt energised yet relaxed, inspired and motivated.

Coming ashore at Store Beach

I’ve made a promise to myself that every Sunday night I’m going to sit down and plan my week more carefully. Not just the work stuff. I’m going to weave into my weekly schedule  the small things that make a huge difference , starting with making the most of natural beauty that surrounds my home.  And the start of summer is the perfect time to get out and enjoy the good life, courtesy of nature.

Starting with an Ommmmmmm...

Do you take full advantage of the natural environment near where you live? Do you have any ‘secret’ places that you and your family love to play in nature? What makes you feel re-energised and motivated?

See all the pictures here.

Sunshinyday sells green and healthy gift experiences.

Stretches felt great after paddling the kayaks

A tree-pose forest

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What’s your idea of ‘budget’ fashion?

The view from one of my desks

I usually eat lunch at my desk. The good news is that my desk is mobile. If I’m working from home, it’s often the garden table where I set up my laptop under the Jacaranda tree that forms the boundary between my back yard and the reserve beyond. Sometimes my desk is the corner table in The Vale Espresso Bar in Mosman. Sometimes it’s the top of a yoga bolster in my yoga studio. As you can guess, my working wardrobe is quiet casual.

Once or twice a week I make my way into the city for a meeting, event or conference. This is when I exchange my stretchy black Lululemon pants (standard uniform for a yoga teacher and mother of young children) for a frock and a pair of heels. While I do like an excuse to dress up a bit, I’m pretty level headed when it comes to fashion. Affordable, adaptable, ethical and practical are my criteria for clothes.

Standard issue black stretch pants for a yoga-mum

Well, I was eating lunch at my desk today (the garden one) and found myself perusing an article called “Dress Smart – Fashion on a Budget” in the business supplement of a national newspaper. Because it’s a business supplement I guess the readership is, at the very least, employed, but I was struck by what passes for ‘budget’ these days.  The cheapest ensemble came to $486. The next one totalled $597 with the most expensive outfit sporting a price tag of $1, 035 (all excluding the price of the shoes).  The clincher was the article’s sub-heading which ran “…looking a million dollars at work won’t cost much more than time and effort.” That’s right, a $1,035 outfit from Jigsaw is virtually a freebie. A $700 suit from Saba? You wouldn’t find it cheaper in Vinnies! Since when was this normal?

I looked down at my own workwear and decided to write the alternative ‘clothes on a budget’ guide. It starts like this:

  1. Don’t throw out your old maternity clothes – even after your baby turns 3, you’ll find ways to mix and match those comfy tops on ‘fat days’.
  2. Make long bus trips into the city more exciting by picking off the bobbles from the pilling on your Sportsgirl pants.
  3. Transition seamlessly from office to cocktail-hour by jazzing up your suit with a bespoke hand-threaded button necklace from your 6yr old.

It goes on, but I’ll spare you. My point is, $1,000+ on a single outfit is not ‘budget’. With one fifth of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day, $1000 for a suit is, well, a significant amount of money.  Like Sydney house prices and the cost of a coffee on the lower north shore, we’ve lost all perspective when it comes to good value clothing. I’m not advocating that everybody buys their work clothes at Vinnies (although environmentally and style-wise, this could be a smart move).   But, in my quest to live a Good Life, I’ve noticed I’m increasingly bothered by marketing that tells me something is good value when it’s clearly not. It’s time to claw back some perspective. In a world of diminishing resources, I’m opting to spend my dollars where they make a difference and find ways to enjoy my wardrobe without adding to the mountain of money and resource sapping Stuff.

Do you think that $1000 is a bargain for a work outfit from high street chain store? Is your wardrobe contributing to the clutter and ‘stuff’ in your life? What’s your take on magazines that tell us what to wear and how much to spend?

Sunshinyday sells green and healthy gift experiences – not stuff!


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Grow your own veggies in pots

My veggie patch.....

I experienced a kind of mini social death last week. Vegetable patches are all the rage in my suburb with families spending happy hours educating their small children about the rhythms of nature and the nutritional benefits of snow peas. I think it’s fantastic, I really do. But I’m no good at it. When two mums from playgroup came round last week, they eyed my sad looking dwarf beans and said “Oh, it’s such a shame about the possums, ” before turning the conversation to the joys of sharing home-grown salads with their grateful three year olds. The truth is, it’s not the possums, its me.

Keen to live up to my sustainability ideals (and not deprive my own three year old of home grown snow peas) I decided to do something about it.  I emptied the last of my dead plants into the compost bin at the weekend and went off to South West Sydney in search of Veggie Nirvana. Camden is a pretty unlikely setting for horticultural heaven, but that is where you’ll find the extraordinary suburban backyard of Toni Salter; mum, ex-merchant banker and passionate exponent of growing your own veggies. A qualified horticulturalist, Toni teaches people how to get their veggie patch in shape.

A do-able suburban garden

Toni's garden

I joined the ‘Grow veggies in pots’ workshop, which started with fresh, home-made scones (still warm from the oven), jam, cream and tea. Top marks. The session moved on to the basics of pot selection (terracotta looks good but requires frequent watering, self watering pots are the opposite), pot position (I didn’t know plants needed around 6hrs of sunlight per day which might explain a lot…) and companion planting (grow blue flowers like lavender to attract bees and pollinate your veggie plants).

The session began with home-made scones

We toured Toni’s garden – blueberries, tomatoes and eschalots around the pool, water filled pots growing reeds and waterlilies just along from the kids trampoline (providing shade for the pots of herbs growing in front of them). There are leafy greens on the verandah and a mini chamomile lawn under the hills hoist. The beauty of Toni’s classes is their accessibility. She has a real-world back yard in which she grows practical produce. It’s all do-able. Even I, with my track record of miserable horticultural failure, wasn’t intimidated. She also encourages questions so I got answers to all my beginners questions like ‘what’s mulch’ without being made to feel daft.

I took away three important things from Toni’s ‘Grow Veggies in Pots’ class:

  1. Choose high quality organic potting mix
  2. Fertilise (and no, the liquid seaweed isn’t a fertiliser. Use it in combination with a fish emulsion for best results).
  3. Organic pest contol – Spray plants with diluted biodegradable dishwashing liquid to tackle aphids and mix bicarb with water for an effective fungal spray.

Toni and her students

Since doing the workshop on Saturday, I’ve found myself having conversations with all sorts of people about home-grown produce. I’m writing this in my local café where the owner has been chatting to a customer about his veggie garden. He comes over to me and says “Are you coming in tomorrow? I bring you BEAUOOOTIFUL rocket from my garden.” That’s the thing about growing your own veggies. It’s not just the nuts and bolts of sowing and tending plants. It’s more than harvesting and enjoying the taste of produce from your own garden. It’s about honouring the basic human instinct for nurturing life, sharing what we produce, and making friends along the way.

Do you have a green thumb? Did somebody teach you how to grow your own or learn by trial and error? I wonder what percentage of a successful veggie grower’s food comes directly from the garden….

Everyone got to pick a plant to take home

Sunshinyday sells green and healthy gift experiences.

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E-Waste recycling – not as green as you think.

I experienced a warm glow driving the kids home from school this afternoon. Observing the old computers, TV’s and stereo’s on the nature strips, I quietly admired my local council’s e-waste policy and the good people of Manly who obediently put out their old electronic gadgets for recycling and responsible disposal.

However, this evening I came across the latest “The Story Of Stuff” video on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with this series, it features the animations of American sustainability advocate Annie Leonard as she explains how our crazy consumer culture really works.

In a few short minutes, she extinguished my warm glow as she introduced me to the realities of recycling e-waste. Recycling is one of those words with almost universally positive connotations. But if you think that recycling your e-waste is a nice, green, wholesome thing, you might want to take a look at this.

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Three ways to save the world during your lunch break

Have you lost your youthful zeal for saving the world? I had a lot of button badges when I was about 15 declaring my opposition to everything from nuclear missiles to whale hunting. I felt particularly strongly about the testing of cosmetics on animals and smelled strongly of white musk and coco-butter for many years as I purchased all my personal care products from the staunchly ethical Body Shop. Ah yes, I was a child of the 80’s.

I’m a little less idealistic these days, but I still bridle at the thought of giving my hard-earned dollars to businesses who do bad things in the name of big profits. As Anita Roddick demonstrated to a generation of idealistic teen’s (ahh, it was the era of Live Aid and Feed The World), it is possible to enjoy our lovely consumer products without causing a great deal of misery to somebody or something else.

Over the weekend I came across a story that demonstrates this principle on a grand scale. The Netherlands have committed to only buying palm oil (which is used to manufacture everything from ice cream to lipstick) from sustainable sources. Applauding this progressive step, online news site Fast Company states  “If even larger countries follow the Netherlands’ example, unsustainable suppliers could be shut out altogether.” If you don’t know about the devastation caused by unsustainable palm oil, check out what this little guy has to say…

While this is a government level decision in the Netherlands, democratically elected governments invariably follow rather than lead public opinion. Public opinion is formed by the behaviours of groups which are, in turn, made up of individuals. Each and every one of us can be an agent for positive change in the world. And you can do it in your lunch break. Here’s how:

  1. Buy your lunch from a café that sells fresh, local (preferably organic) produce and say no to unnecessary packaging. Or, make your own using clean, green ingredients and avoid the cling-wrap.
  2. When you nip out to buy a gift for this evening’s dinner party/birthday/office do, instead of buying an over-packaged, imported gadget, choose a sustainable gift experience.
  3. Take your KeepCup when you head out for coffee and choose fair trade/organic coffee (I am especially fond of the Belaroma fair trade blend).

I drink my fairtrade coffee from my KeepCup

The way you spend your time and money affects everything from the way big companies do business through to public policy. If you keep buying stuff that damages the environment, not to mention your own health, somebody, somewhere will keep making a profit by supplying it, whatever the long term costs. What could you do in your lunch hour to change the world? Do you feel excited by the idea that your purchasing power can make a real difference to big issues (or do you still feel a bit helpless in the face of so many challenges?)

BTW, with the exception of Sunshinyday,  the products and companies that I namecheck in my blogposts are not connected to me in any way and do not pay for advertising. I only recommend products and services that I genuinely love and which have minimal environmental impact.

Sunshinyday sells green and healthy gift experiences.

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