Wholehearted

This past week I have been listening to Brene Brown talking about the Power of Vulnerability. She is a researcher who has found that people who live ‘wholehearted’ happy lives have several things in common, many of which relate back to the yoga lifestyle. Her data shows that these people are spiritual in one way or another, that they believe that we are all connected by something bigger than ourselves. It also shows that wholehearted people engage in creative pursuits and practice gratitude.

Santosha is a 5,000 year old Sanskrit word for ‘contentment’ – being happy with whatever you have. As a yoga practice, it’s being grateful for specific things in your life. On my morning walks I find it improves my emotional state so much if I list these things in my mind. They can be as simple as finding a new path to walk on or having a chat as I buy a coffee.

Today I met Valerie, a lady who told me she’d been evacuated during the war to Shropshire, near the Welsh border. We talked about how much we liked wildflowers and the tamarisk bushes by the sea, even though they’re overgrown. Each person who walked past us said, “Ooh they need to be cut back, don’t they?” but we grinned at each other and said the bushes were lovely, filled with bees on the tiny flowers.

Thank you, Valerie, for reminding me that the obstacles in our path are sometimes worthy of the space they take up in our lives – we can simply walk around them, gazing in awe at the sight, rather than raze them to the ground.

Mountain mantras

I tackled a mountain horseshoe hike this week on my own and I’m so proud of myself. I hike solo a lot but there’s a big difference between the South Downs or a coastal path and the big Lakeland fells. There are steep drops, which I’m really afraid of, and some scrambling (meaning you have to use your hands). Scrambling at the top of a fell with a steep drop to one side had me chanting mantras and practicing my yoga breathing.

The thing is, you’re never alone up there. I met and chatted to lots of people and there is an exchange of information that really helps you make the right decisions for your walk. It’s all too easy to find yourself in difficulty on the side of a fell if you pick the wrong path.

I completely forgot about everything that’s been plaguing me recently – I focused on my map and how to place my feet on the rocks and I feel like my brain has been replaced with a new one.

I use an app to navigate – Outdoor Adventure – and today I had a paper map as back up, which I had to use. But it was the human input that really helped me that day – people here really know these fells and they’re keen to help other people enjoy them too.

I met two Yorkshire women who were doing the same route and we compared maps to check we were on the right path. I met them at the end in a sunny pub garden for a pot of tea and they gave me a lift back to my B&B.

Yesterday I had pain in my knee going downhill – after the strenuous horseshoe hike – and was really struggling to get down a fairly easy descent. Two men who were putting out flags for a fell race immediately said, “IT band. Get a roller on it when you can.”

I’ve had this issue before – when the side of your thigh tightens up and pulls on your hip and knee and knew exactly what I needed to do. It used to happen when I ran a lot and pushed myself too hard.

“Extend your poles going downhill – it’ll give you more to lean into.”

Instant relief.

“We can give you a lift back into Keswick if we see you at the bottom,” they said. But I declined – there was a tearoom waiting for me and a regular bus schedule.

Think you can’t hike on your own? Wondering what the point is? I’ll say this – you’ll talk to more people when you’re on your own than you would with a sidekick.

Because you can.

Everything is food

One of the things I’ve been learning on my Indian philosophy course with Sudhir Rishi is the idea that whatever we take in through our senses is ‘food’. Whatever we taste, smell, see, touch or hear feeds not only our physical body but becomes associated with our thoughts and moods, our memories of joy and sadness. You might say, ‘we are what we sense’.

My hike yesterday was filled with the smell of wild garlic, the sight of yellow dandelions, the sound of birdsong and lambs, the taste of lemon drizzle cake and the feel of warm wood under my hands as I passed through gates.

While walking, I thought about how I feed my body and mind, not always with the things that make it happy, whether that’s scrolling on my phone, watching trash TV, eating processed food, drinking alcohol or listening to an argumentative political radio show.

Once you start thinking of all these things as food, it’s easier to cut some of them out. In Indian philosophy, everything in existence is ‘god’ including your own body, so why would you offer it something bad? I’m not saying I’ll be able to change all my bad habits overnight but it’ll make me stop and ask myself some questions before I let them in again.

The Sound of the Universe

I love hiking on my own. It makes my soul happy. When I wandered the hills around my home in Wales as a girl I felt like I was looking for something – or someone – to complete me. It felt circumstantial that I was on my own and not my fault, but now I realise that I’ve chosen to be on my own for most of my life. I need it to recharge, especially in nature.

I think this is the definition of introversion and for so many years I pretended to be an extravert. I had to, to get somewhere in my career, but she ultimately was not me. Now, I sit alone in silence, working in my flat and listen gratefully to the silence. I love it – no noise to fill the space. I don’t need it. The sound of birdsong is my music. There’s so much of it, when you tune in.

I remember someone asking me what I listen to on my long-distance hikes. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The sound of the universe, maybe, the Om. I always used to wonder what the thrum of the earth underneath my feet was and now I know.

It is Om.

The Six Enemies of Peace

Sometimes I learn something that blows my mind and I just have to share it. I am learning such a lot from the Sthira Yoga School course on Emotional Empowerment with Sudhir Rishi.

The ancient Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita, is our guide and today I learned about ‘The Six Enemies’ of peace – the six things that rob us of our inner joy. Here they are in Sanskrit:

  1. Kaama – an intense craving for something. “I want it at any cost.”
  2. Krodha – anger. “I can’t have it because something is stopping me!”
  3. Lobha – greed. “I’ve got it but now I need more.”
  4. Moha – delusion born out of attachment. “I refuse to acknowledge that this thing is bad for me.”
  5. Mada – arrogance. “I’ve got lots of this thing and I’m better than you because of it.”
  6. Matsarya – jealousy. “You’ve got the thing I want and it’s eating me up inside.”

I can apply some of this to my drinking past, especially the first four. I know I’d get annoyed if friends wanted to leave the pub early and I was in a state of denial about how bad alcohol was for me.

When I first heard my teacher say the names and meanings of the Six Enemies, I cried. Because I’ve felt like the moment I pressed ‘publish’ on my book in August last year, my peace of mind was robbed and I’ve been using those words ever since. Many of the elements of this checklist have been responsible, both in myself and other people. I’ve only just regained my inner peace and I’m back on the yoga mat after months of not being able to face it.

The only ‘sin’ (there isn’t an exact translation for that word in Sanskrit) in Indian philosophy is hurting others, including yourself. That is the root of all suffering, along with ignorance of the true nature of the self: which is uninterrupted, unconditional joy.

Maybe this is something someone needs to hear this Easter weekend so I’m putting it out there.

Be kind to yourselves as well as others.

🙏🏻

Freedom to roam

Hiking solo means that I often meet people I wouldn’t otherwise get to chat to if I was with someone else. It’s the great advantage of being alone – I actually meet more people, but not for very long, which is just perfect for me.

I met Caroline and Dan, two old friends catching up over a two-day hike, at The Pink Pit Stop – where there always seems to be someone willing to chat.

Me (left) with Caroline at the Pink Pit Stop

“I’ve just seen the happiest dog in the world!” Caroline said, in the queue for coffee and a brownie. I was amazed that it wasn’t Gnasher, the resident terrier.

They were going my way and happy for me to join them hiking and we spoke about freedom. Caroline spoke about having lived in San Francisco for a long time and how much she felt free there. I told her that SF had been the setting of a life-changing moment for me, finding a shell on a beach there and making a decision to leave my marriage.

We talked about ‘home’ and what that means and decided that we both felt nomadic and tied down by mortgages and property ownership. She has a husband and two children and feels the pressure to put down roots to provide stability for her family. It goes against her DNA, she said.

Dan was scampering around taking pictures as we talked but he said there was a woman in his life who wanted her freedom too and he wasn’t sure if he could cope with her being away travelling so much. I told him about my long-distance relationship and how it had made me reassess what is ‘normal’ versus what feels right. Perhaps it was time for Dan to think about the advantages of being in a relationship with time spent apart, we concluded, especially as he’s an adventure junkie too. Not every life adventure has to take place in a couple.

At the end of the hike they were going to the pub in the evening sunshine and I experienced a pang of longing for my past life of downing a chilled glass of white wine (or three)after a long walk. Instead, I said goodbye, felt grateful for such wonderful company and chose freedom from alcohol. It’s the only path for me.

Never the same again

I’ve been thinking about the significance of storms marking the end of the pandemic restrictions in the UK.

In many ways, we’ll never the same people we were before this started. We’ve watched loved ones battle against more than just a virus, with emotional, mental and financial strains testing us to our limits. Our carefully laid plans have been uprooted and thrown asunder.

For me, it has been a time of huge creative focus, the long periods of welcome solitude giving me the time to reflect. I have emerged as a writer and that is something I never expected when I left India to come back for lockdown. My memoir had been shelved for good, or so I thought.

Around 15 years ago, I visited Bermuda two weeks after a hurricane. The roads were riddled with holes where trees had been uprooted but the trees and bushes were dotted with flowers, determined to push their faces towards the sun.

I see that now, here, with spring buds waiting to burst open after the February winds have softened. I will be ready to join them. Will you?

Give and take

I’ve been thinking a lot about transactional friendships and relationships, where one party always expects something in return for a deed done.

I’ve found it occurs a lot in female friendships, from remembering to send a birthday or Christmas card, inviting someone over for dinner or even deciding whether or not to end a text with a ‘x’.

Sometimes I’ve given someone a gift or bought them a coffee for no reason, just because I want to. It pains me when days or weeks later, they ‘pay me back’, leading to a neverending cycle of giving and taking where each party has to remember their place in the queue.

What would happen if we just gave and received without expectation?

Be Your Own Valentine

The perfect Valentine gift for yourself or a friend – my seven secrets to a successful single life:

  1. You don’t have to get married – I used to think that coupledom was the only valid life choice. It isn’t.
  2. You don’t need a wingperson – I used to wait for friends to accompany me to drinks, dinner or a concert, before I realised I could do it all by myself, and love it.
  3. You can date whomever you want (and it doesn’t need to be forever) – coming out of a socially condoned marriage opened my life to dating younger men and men from very different cultures. All of these experiences have enriched my life, and continue to do so.
  4. You don’t have to have children – even though it seems as though everyone is doing it, you can opt out. It is a choice not a given.
  5. You can go on holiday on your own – you can do exactly what you want, when you want, without having to compromise. Win!
  6. Single life isn’t perfect (but neither is coupledom) – it’s a rollercoaster but I know which ride I’d rather be on…
  7. The greatest relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself – it’s a cliche for a reason. If we don’t put ourselves first, no one else will.

Now available on Amazon for only £1.99 (ebook) and £4.99 (paperback):

Track and Trace

During the first lockdown, I started walking along the seafront each morning, further and further, until I established a regular walk with regular stops to pick up tea and coffee along the way. I greeted the same people each morning, first with just a wave, then a ‘good morning’, and not long after, a proper conversation. They became part of my morning social life – I’ve largely replaced socialising in the evenings with mornings.

Almost every day someone will tell me that I’m ‘late’ or ‘early’, or not where I am normally on my walk. They’ll ask me how far I’ve walked, where I’ve come from and sometimes even tell me off for not going further. Only last week, a woman spotted me on my way back home and said, “That’s too quick! There’s no way you’ve walked to X beach!” I’d never said I’d walked to that beach, so I don’t know why she was measuring me on it.

The next day a man I vaguely know tapped his watch and said, “You’re running late!” The day after that, the same man noted that I was carrying a second cup of tea. I confess that I slightly lost it with him. “Are you tracking me or something?!” I cried. He laughed nervously and dragged his dog away.

Listen to me reading this blog post here.

I get this commentary all the time and it’s something I would never say to someone else. I see the same people each morning doing their thing and might observe a change in their routine, but I wouldn’t dream of pointing it out. This is their precious morning time, to do with whatever they choose.

I never walk at exactly the same time every day, so the ‘you’re late/early’ comments are a waste of breath. I’m hoping they work it out soon. I don’t understand why me being on time is so important to them. The lack of fixed routine is one of the greatest joys of my new freelance life – why would I impose a fixed schedule on it when I don’t need to?

A few weeks ago I met another solo woman when I was out hiking and helped her with some directions. We stopped to chat while eating lunch and shared our favourite walking books – Wild, The Salt Path, The Old Ways

It turned out that her husband and two children were waiting for her a mile up ahead. Her husband had got her into travel and nature writing and wanted to encourage her to walk alone and experience the joy of it.

“How wonderful,” I told her, and she beamed.

“I love being on my own in nature,” she said. “Just a few hours where I’m off grid, untrackable.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

After we parted ways I showed my face to the sun and took a huge gulp of air, knowing that no one knew where I was (apart from the woman I’d just met) and that I could choose to go wherever I wanted, in whatever direction, quickly or slowly, with no commentary from anyone else.

As a solo woman, you know that you should probably leave details of where you’re going with a friend in case something awful happens, but that’s the last thing I want to do. This is about disappearing from view with nobody else’s input. I want to hike alone and tell no one about how far or where I’ve gone. I used to post everything on social media but it always came with a commentary I didn’t need: someone who’d done the same route and told me about their favourite bit, someone who wanted to do it, someone who’d done it twice as fast, someone who’d done it naked…

As a solo woman, you also encounter ‘Challenge Man’ – the man who questions you intensely about whether you’ve ‘completed’ the path you’re on, how fast you’re doing it, and how many days you’ve ‘allowed’ yourself to complete it in. These men are often my age and dragging around a woman who is trying to enjoy nature, not complete a challenge in a set time. She, like me, wants to stop for tea and cake in the sunshine, and not be concerned about how that is impacting her overall time or Fitbit stats. She smiles at me apologetically, standing slightly behind her competitive other half.

The approach I’ve decided to adopt with all these people is to be as vague and non-specific as possible.

They ask me how far I’m going: “I haven’t decided yet – I’ll see how I feel…”

They ask me if I’ve completed the path I’m on or planning to do another: “No, I’m doing my favourite sections of this path, over and over again.”

They tell me I’m early or late: “I don’t have fixed times…”

They ask me if I’m not working that day: “Yes, I just start whenever I want.”

But when they ask about my second (or third) cup of tea, I might just smile politely and walk on by.

Because I can.