Dark Horses Ride is a story of midlife reinvention, of friendships, relationships and a working life all put to the test by the seismic effects of menopause.
But it is also a story of love and homecoming. It is about the healing power of walking and meditation, the therapeutic process of writing and one woman’s determination to redefine what success and happiness look like.
Living the dream isn’t all she hoped it would be when Lisa swaps a high-flying job in London for a freelance life as a writer, editor and yoga teacher by the sea in India. She struggles to control the tide of emotions that hit her as the red mists of menopause descend and she begins to question whether her new life – and her relationship with a much younger man – are all she hoped they would be.
When the pandemic hits, Lisa decides that the universe has made the decision for her and back in England, she falls for the charms of a man her own age. However, he is not who he appears to be. Neither are the friends she’d hoped would support her when she publishes her first book and releases her ‘dark horses’ for all the world to see.
After travelling back to her homeland in Wales and reconnecting with ‘The Most Handsome Man in Goa’ in India, Lisa is forced to confront her dark horses alone when her health and hormones threaten to derail the happiness she’s learned to live for.
ORDER HERE and don’t forget to rate and review – it’s so important to authors. Thank you for all the support for my writing on this blog – my books wouldn’t be here without it.
Like many people, I’ve taken out a Disney+ subscription just to see the hours of unseen footage of The Beatles, lovingly restored by Peter Jackson in his Get Back documentary, preparing for their live rooftop show. I’ve been watching in awe at the creative process shown live and in full colour: Paul strumming the first chords of Get Back and trying out unformed lyrics while George yawns in front of him, Ringo staring into space.
Paul and John getting the scansion right for “Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona” has been a particularly memorable moment for me. When I’m writing (and editing) I listen to the sound of the words. Like songwriters, I’ll live with something that isn’t quite grammatically correct if it “sings right“.
Last week I’d got so bogged down in various activities related to my book I was starting to drown. I was monitoring adverts and promos on Amazon and Facebook, preparing my first newsletter which contains a free downloadable book, my print materials for a sober conference in January, plus launching pre-orders of my first guidebook – all while trying to hold down my (freelance) day job. By the time it got to Friday, I was at breaking point.
I went on a self-publishing forum I use to ask other authors if they experienced overwhelm when they publish their first book; if they initially thought they could publish and run but found themselves unable to tear themselves away from trying keep it alive and kicking in the world, like it was a small child crying for milk and cuddles. Of course, the resounding response was that I was not alone. It was also that having written book one, the best thing you can do for yourself is write book two and don’t kill yourself promoting book one. So I set about doing that.
As soon as I started filling the first page, I felt happy. Writing makes me happy and I’d temporarily forgotten that. It was a cold day but I wrapped up warmly and sat at my desk with coffee and candlelight. I feel happy just writing these words, writing about writing.
So this week’s blog is about the importance of getting back to the core reason why you started something. The reason that made you write words on a page or strum chords into a guitar. Watching Paul and John create songs together is hugely inspiring for me. It makes me remember my seaside walks coming up with ideas for book one, which have now morphed into ideas for the sequel. It’s how I create – I spend time thinking, going over and over the details of the past until a pattern emerges that I can commit to paper. Events loom large, or recede, and I make editorial decisions on what to include, or not. It is the essence of me in the world and I can’t thrive without it.
Last week, I was interviewed by Be Sober‘s Simon Chapple about my relationship with alcohol, and how I managed the transition to a sober life. I talk about how writing my memoir made me realise that drinking had had a huge impact on my life from the time I started in my twenties until my early fifties, when I gave up. Many of my (bad) decisions and behaviours had taken place under the influence of alcohol, including asking the wrong man to marry me. You can hear me talk about my story below, and of course, read the book here (leave a review!).
I also wrote a blog post for Simon, which I’ll share here. For me, it’s all about awareness and choice – if you’re aware of the realities of drinking, you can make an informed choice as to whether to do it or not.
Last Woman Drinking
I knew that I’d hit rock bottom when the young designer next to me in my bed was on the phone to his very understanding girlfriend, reassuring her that he was ok, and that nothing had happened. “We have a very honest and open relationship,” he said, looking at me shyly.
I’d got him so drunk at some work drinks that he hadn’t been able to get home. We’d both slept next to each other, fully clothed, and now it was time to face the harsh light of day. And the fact that I was his boss…
As a senior manager in a publishing house a few years ago, I organised a weekly ‘Prosecco Hour’ every Friday at 4pm. I’d say it was ‘for the staff’, but now I realise it was also for something else: it was a way of enabling and validating my own drinking by having everyone around me join in.
The publishing world is made of prosecco hours; they’re everywhere, from book launches to book fairs. We’d whip out a bottle with the merest whiff of something to celebrate, even if it was just the end of a stressful day. But over time, I noticed that the numbers joining in had dwindled, and they were more likely to be peers my own age gathering around the fizz while other younger team members backed away politely, saying they needed to get to their yoga class. I couldn’t understand why they’d prefer that over booze and I scoffed at their lack of party spirit.
I’d got a name for myself. “Lisa likes a drink,” I’d hear people say. I’d laugh with them about my inability to ‘just have one’ – everyone knew I’d drink one bottle, not one glass. I didn’t know I had a problem. It was what everyone was doing, wasn’t it?
Writing my memoir, Cheat Play Live, made me examine where my drinking began. I knew it had started in the nineties with my entry into publishing and ladette culture. We all drank Stella with the boys and fancied ourselves as Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal or the girls in Sex and the City. I drank as a reward for triumphs at work and as a commiseration for the stress. But I was also using alcohol to numb the grief of losing my father as a child and to cope with my mother’s dementia.
As the decades passed, I started drinking on my own in bars. My feminist self justified it as a woman exercising her independence and freedom, but really it was further validating my habit. My drinking gathered pace over time, until it reshaped itself into something I could cope with: bingeing.
Before I stopped drinking almost three years ago, my life was largely constructed around alcohol. I was successfully managing my career, and my drinking. I was trapped in a binge-recovery cycle that I told myself was ‘cutting back’. I’d restrict my drinking to three nights per week and felt smug about my nights off. In reality, I needed those days in between to recover from the bottle of prosecco (or two) that I was consuming on the other nights.
Leading UK alcohol charity, Alcohol Change UK, states: “…a generation who drank heavily in the 1990s and 2000s is bringing those habits into middle age, with potentially serious consequences for their long-term health.”
I spoke to Lucy Holmes, the charity’s Director of Research and Policy who said, “Many women drink half a bottle of wine per night, not realising that it represents a third of their weekly recommended intake. They are unaware of the health risks and the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
I am proud of the fact that I’ve never smoked, having lost my dad to cancer (he was a heavy smoker). I was ten years old when he died and I swore I’d never touch a cigarette, even though everyone around me was doing it. As it was, I also managed to avoid alcohol until I was in my early twenties – and if I’d been told that drinking alcohol was equally harmful, I never would have started. But of course, we know that the alcohol industry is worth £10bn to the government – they’re never going to highlight its harms in any meaningful way, even if £3.5bn of that income has to be spent on managing alcohol’s damage to our health.
Being made aware of potential physical harm has a huge effect on our smoking and drinking habits. The increase in non-drinking among millennials and Generation Z is largely attributed to their awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects (as well as its cost). Similarly, many women my age are proud of giving up smoking because they see it as a greater harm, having swallowed health campaigns such as the British Lung Foundation’s Stoptober. Like me, they’ve also seen the effects of smoking on their ageing parents. A friend of mine, Cheryl, 51, a press officer living in Brighton, admits, “I don’t worry about my drinking,” she said, “it’s the late nights and the cigarettes I smoke when I am drunk that I worry about.”
Public Health England found that high-risk drinking increased from 16% in 2019 to 19% in 2020, most of which was driven by women during lockdown, specifically those between 35 and 54 years old. (High-risk drinking is anything above the recommended limit of 14 units, equating to one and a half bottles of wine, six pints of beer or seven double gin and tonics, or anything above 5 days per month of binge-drinking.) Women my age used alcohol as a way of coping with the increased stress around working and schooling from home during lockdown.
I relied on zero-alcohol prosecco to see me through, even though I did spend some time staring at the shelves of the real stuff. It’s the most I’ve been tempted since I gave up – I wanted to break up the day, numb the boredom and anxiety, and celebrate when it was all (apparently) over. On ‘Freedom Day’, I watched two women taking a bottle of prosecco and two glasses down to the beach and I so wanted to join them. But I didn’t.
The UCL report showed that while the numbers of women drinking during lockdown increased, the numbers of those trying to give up also showed an upward curve. I know that among my friends, their increased lockdown drinking scared them a little into cutting down. Candice, 42, single mother and a senior lecturer in sport and fitness in Hampshire, worked from home and homeschooled her 13-year-old daughter during the pandemic. She drank gin and tonic every night as her life became more stressful. “I use alcohol as a reward or something to help me unwind, and during lockdown,” she told me. “It was something I used to break the day into evening. That kind of habit forms very easily and after lockdown I decided to cut back for the sake of my health.”
Since the pandemic, Candice has reduced her drinking to two to three nights a week: “I now consciously have nights off alcohol, drinking a cup of tea or a hot chocolate instead. I try to only drink at weekends and I’m happy with that. All my friends have done a similar thing.”
A number of celebrities who were heavy drinkers in the 1990s and 2000s have recently embraced the sober life. Kate Moss, 47, has been alcohol-free since 2018 and Zoe Ball, icon of ladette culture, quit in 2016. More recently, Susannah Constantine, 59, spoke about her own alcohol dependency: “The truth was, not only was I dependent on alcohol, I enjoyed life better when I was drinking. Until I didn’t… Drinking had ceased to be fun. I had ceased to be fun. I was no longer in control of my drinking; it was controlling me.”
I had a very similar epiphany to Susannah. My own sober journey started nearly three years ago with therapy, yoga and reading ‘quit lit’ such as This Naked Mindby Annie Grace – the sober bible for so many people. Drinking alcohol had stopped making me feel good and I’d begun to question why I was ordering the first drink, never mind the second. The only part that was every truly good was the anticipation of it and that first sip. Drinking started to feel increasingly disappointing after that point and I did and said a lot of things I now regret while under its influence.
Reading This Naked Mind and William Porter’s Alcohol Explained revealed that what I was drinking was literally a poison – a toxic depressant – and it made me give up for good. But this was a message I was opening to hearing at a particular time of my life. When I’ve told friends who are still drinking that they are putting flavoured ethanol into their bodies they just look at me blankly. But is the message slowly seeping in?
Some of my friends gave up drinking at the same time as me (literally the same day I told them), seemingly relieved to being given social permission to do so. Others have read my blog and my book and felt they could give it a try too. My friend, Cheryl, who recently fell down some steps on her way home at 3am and knocked herself out, said, “It made me question why I can’t just have the one and head home. When I’m dancing away in a club I feel great, but the next day, I feel dreadful and a bit of an idiot. If my friends all slowed down then I probably would too – I don’t want to be the last woman drinking.”
Since becoming sober, my life has completely changed. I’m more likely to stay in, because I’ve realised how much of my going out was tied to drinking. I’ve reclaimed mornings and now use them as my ‘evenings’, where I walk, meet friends for coffee and muse on the day ahead before I start work. At 54, I look younger, have a clear, (mostly) anxiety-free head, and I’m more able to cope with menopause symptoms which are known to be worsened by drinking.
But that, my friends, is a subject for another book…
Cheat Play Live by Lisa Edwards is out now (Redwood Tree Publishing, £4.99 (ebook), £6.99 (paperback). Buy the book, read reviews and listen to more interviews here.
I’ve realised that I’ve got a thing about the west. Not ‘the west’ as in globally, but I appear to gravitate west in all things.
I live in West Worthing in West Sussex and I walk in a westerly direction every morning. To go east doesn’t feel quite right, although I walk back in an easterly direction. I walk east in the evenings in order to walk back west and enjoy the sunset.
I’ve noticed that on the way out in the mornings, going west, I feel creative, imaginative, hopeful and dreamlike. Coming back in an easterly direction I am facing the reality of the day. I start to rush knowing I need to get back to ‘my desk’ (aka the kitchen table) and my brain starts to fill with my ‘to-do’ list.
It’s happened with holiday destinations over the years. I favour west coasts – often battered, dramatic, elemental – over east-facing ones: smooth, calm, unremarkable (I know – not all east coasts…). I’ve visited New Zealand and pretty much stayed only on the west coast, I’ve been to the west coast of Ireland many many times but never Dublin. I’ve visited the west coast of Costa Rica twice, driven the west-facing Skeleton Coast in Namibia and have lived on the west coast of India.
When I’m going west, I feel like I could just keep travelling, keep moving over the horizon, but when I’m travelling back in an easterly direction it feels like I’m on a return journey. I wonder what it is that drives me west so much. Is it something to do with me being left-handed, and therefore my brain veers left when faced with its internal north? Is it because I grew up on the north-west Wales coast? I’ve no idea, I just know it’s a thing that I do. It’s my internal compass. Even when I moved to London I went to university in the south west, later lived in the north west, and in between forayed into Buckinghamshire, to the west of London. When I moved to Brighton in the ’90s, I quickly moved west into Hove.
It simply feels ‘off’ to me in the east of anywhere. I can’t really put my finger on why. I can only stay for about an hour in East London before I want to go back west. Once, I was on a date watching a really bad comedian in an East End hipster bar and he starting making fun of me in the audience because I ‘looked posh’ (I was wearing a fake-fur jacket). Really, he didn’t like it because I wasn’t laughing. When I got up to leave, he said, “Are you going back west to the poshos?” “Yep,” I said in front of everyone. “Get me out of here.”
This week in West Sussex has seen some high winds buffeting the coast. They’re southwesterlies and they create, it seems, the biggest waves here. I’ve been watching the kite surfers out west – and out in force since lockdown rules allowed them out – and it’s a real delight to watch grown men (and some women) whoop with joy as the wind carries them high above the waves. I’ve seen videos of people jumping over the pier so it’s a thing here. God I wish I could join them. As I watch, I imagine myself skimming the waves, lit by the bright spring sunshine, grinning as the wind takes me. Having not long learned to swim, it’s probably not something I should leap into but I confess I’m tempted.
Every morning that I walk west, I dream of just carrying on going on the coastal path, all the way to Cornwall. I thing of Raynor Winn’s Salt Path and the epic journey she and her husband did around the south-west coastal path and wonder if I could just do that. Me and a tent. Maybe a small dog in tow. I dream of owning a small white cottage in a west Wales coastal village, where I can see the sea from my desk and walk in the wind every day. I dream of hearing curlews at dawn, just like Dylan Thomas did.
For the first time, some of these dreams seem attainable. Maybe not right now, but they’re within reach.
People say to trust your gut, don’t they? I say it to people who are in the throes of a decision-making crisis, but so many of us question those pure instincts even when they are screaming at us. I’ve relied on mine so many times but this week I didn’t listen as much as I should.
I’ve had a week where my gut was telling me one thing while my head was telling me what it thought I ‘should’ do, based on what others might choose. I wrestled with the issue for a few days before listening more closely to my gut and realising that it had been right all along. The moment that clarity settled inside me, I felt so much happier, and when teaching my next yoga class, I realised how important it was for me to be happy with myself when passing on the joy of yoga to other people.
I find these moments of clarity most often when I am walking along the beach. For a week or so, I was working for a couple of hours at 6.30am and missing my morning walk to the river and back. On some days I even missed the sunset walk too, and I felt something die a little in my soul. Now I have them back I am feeling so much happier.
It’s so simple, that walk. The mornings are cool, now, and the sand is almost cold underfoot. I’ve found that the sand is warmer where the outgoing tide has just left it, and it feels lovely to walk on it after the cold touch of the dry sand. I like to step on the sandy ‘pouches’ – air-filled sand pockets that I thought contained a sea creature, but I’ve noticed that the waves cause them as they bubble onto the shore. It’s like a game of bubblewrap popping as I walk along – something about depressing one of these bubbles is so satisfying as your foot sinks down into it.
I love that part of the beach where the river waters meet the sea. There is something about the confluence that is calming when you’re grappling with a decision. I stand and stare at it for quite a long time, noticing how the waters flow over each other for a while, trying to compromise.
I’ve also started to run the same way in the evenings, when the tide is further out and there is a wider plain of hard sand. I’ve tried it with running shoes on, which offer stability and mean I don’t have to focus on random rocks or broken glass that might be in the sand beneath my feet. This week I tried it barefoot and it was actually lovely. I think I’m going to do that more.
I made a pact with myself to only run the beach if it feels good and if I can smile while I’m doing it. So far, so good. People seem perplexed as to why I carry a long bamboo stick when I walk and run – if you’ve been bitten by a beach dog you know that a stick is a great preventative measure. I don’t intend to use it – it seems to be enough that I am carrying it. Also Zimbo and Sanjo are less likely to jump up when I’m carrying it, I’ve noticed. A small win.
I worked out that Agonda is at least 50% down on its usual numbers of seasonal tourists, purely based on the numbers turning up to the drop-in yoga classes I attend. This time last year, they had two shalas full, running simultaneous classes. This year it’s just the one, and even that’s not full. I’ve noticed that some visitors feel the need to decamp to a busier place, but a quieter Agonda makes me want to stay here even more.
Of course it’s not great for those people running businesses, but my attempts to give prospective visitors some information about Agonda being open for business met with some criticism in a local Facebook group so I deleted the list and came out of the group. Sometimes people reject help and I have to accept it. Sometimes people like to cluster around negative comments and I have to accept that too. Thankfully some people really appreciated the list and approached me by direct message to glean the information.
My policy to date has always been to tell the truth about a situation, to present a scenario exactly as it is, no sugar-coating, no beating around the bush, but I have found that while most people seem to appreciate the honesty, others can’t bear to hear the words, often specific words. An interesting response to my Facebook post was that I ‘shouldn’t’ have used the word ‘demolished’ with regards to properties on the beach that have actually been demolished. Despite weeks of the word ‘demolished’ being used over and over again on every social media outlet with regard to Agonda. And me, warrior-like, trying to stop people describing this beautiful beach as a ‘war zone’. I say the word ‘demolished’ for the first time and suddenly it’s not ok.
Whenever people say to me, “You’re living the dream! I’m so envious!” I always reply by saying it is possible to feel sad in paradise. Believe me, I’ve experienced it all over the world. I’ve cried on beaches in Thailand, Costa Rica and Egypt. Somehow these palm-fringed locations make a feeling of sadness or loneliness stronger because you’re not meant to feel those things here. But you can, and do.
I haven’t had a terrible week, I was just feeling sad and a bit lonely last weekend for reasons I won’t go into here. I started to do that thing of ‘wandering the earth’ that I do back home when I’m feeling like this, but this time the earth was simply Agonda. And then, just as I was at my lowest ebb, a motorbike came wobbling towards me carrying my friends Hannah and Dave and their precariously balanced luggage and guitar. It was so good to see them I nearly knocked them over with hugs on the street. They are just such great people – nice and normal. They love dogs as much as I do. Thank goodness for Hannah and Dave.
As well as his guitar, Dave has brought his harmonica and when he spontaneously began to accompany Taylor the guitarist at Silent Waves resort, it was a beautiful moment. He played along with guitarist Willem to Mr Bojangles – a song with such poignancy. I felt so proud of him as he shyly took to the stage. It takes guts to get up there.
Part of the reason for me feeling so discombobulated is that I’ve started teaching public yoga classes. I watched Dave get up on ‘stage’ (aka a raised bit of sand) and tried to channel a bit of his bravery. I think it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done – preparing and teaching a class full of hopeful yogis. I tore myself to pieces beforehand and during the classes, feeling sure people would just leave or pick me up on something I’d got wrong. It turned out the only person who wanted to leave or criticise me was myself.
I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends at Sampoorna – hugs and kind words and “it’ll be fine” times a million. I’ve also had one or two people returning to my classes – thank you Daniela and Uwe. I have resolved to keep going and ‘screw my courage to the sticking-place’, but this whole week I’ve felt very emotional and I’ve hardly slept. There’s been another full moon, too. Perhaps that has something to do with it.
I haven’t spent as much time on the beach this week, but when I have it has more than delivered. Firstly sunsets to die for and secondly a sea otter, who emerged near Simrose last Wednesday at 8am, and swam all the way along the coast to its rocky home, accompanied by me alongside (walking, I might add). He, or she, swam silently by people in the ocean who didn’t notice they were sharing the ocean with such a glorious animal, and he stopped to come out of the water with a silver fish in his mouth at one point, to eat breakfast. I was pointing him out to people but few were interested. Vasudev (Captain Nitesh the boatman) was as excited as me, though, because he loves the nature in his home village.
I’ve also discovered the delights of Charlie’s street food van by Gita’s clothes shop in the main street. Gita introduced me to Charlie one day when she was having her lunch. I was persuaded to come back for a snack lunch the next day and sampled an omelette and bread roll for 25 rupees. The next day I had bhaji with bread roll for 50 rupees. Both were delicious and Charlie is so lovely. I like that you stand and chat with him while you eat. He’s there all day from 7.30am to 10pm at night serving delicious food. And for someone on their own, this is a way of bypassing the awkwardness of sitting somewhere on your own. I sense that I’ll be going to Charlie’s cart a lot from now on.
In dog news, Sweetpea has been spotted on the beach again and again, and I’ve just left her in the company of a Portuguese family, being fed titbits. It’s so lovely to see her out and about again. The old Sweetpea has returned. Zimbo and Sanjo are still my pack, but I saw Zimbo cosying up to a group of people at Jardim a few days back so I know I share him a bit.
Papaya, the Kopi Desa dog, has started to walk up to me for a cuddle whenever I stop by, after years of ignoring me. Same with Jerry (Gary? the jury is out on which name it is) at Simrose. He’s ignored me for years (apart from sitting outside my Simrose hut two Christmasses ago) and suddenly he’s butting my legs with his head. I don’t know what’s caused the change but I love it. More dogs to cuddle for me.
Ocean is growing bigger and stronger every day and now sits on the beach to watch the sunset with his human and canine friends from Love Bites. I saw the election news from back home and cuddled Ocean to remind myself that beautiful, innocent things exist in the world.
I have decided that I won’t let the news get me down. I won’t let it fill me with negative thoughts and feelings of helplessness. I will simply strive to live a life that is as good as it can be. Many people have been quoting Gandhi on Twitter and Facebook: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m not sure if he said those exact words, but that’s what we were taught in our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna because it’s part of Indian philosophy (otherwise known as Hinduism). It’s all you can do when it comes down to it – be in control of your own thoughts, words and actions.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve hit my 11-month soberversary this week and the fact that I almost missed it shows how much I’ve moved on from my drinking lifestyle. I’d rather watch a sea otter in the ocean early in the morning and say hello to a dog named Sweetpea.
This week began with an incredibly colourful visit to Chaudi market. Mr Happy drove me there and I wandered around for an hour or so taking in the sights under its yellow canopy. It was the yellowest place I’ve ever visited, and therefore one of the happiest, filled with stallholders selling every kind of fruit, vegetable and spice, plus a range of plastic goods from combs to soap dishes. Yet again I succumbed to the beaded necklaces and bought three silvery ones to wear on the beach. As you’ll know from previous blog posts, I like a bit of sparkle. They’re £1.50 a strand…
Like many people in Agonda, the purpose of my visit to Chaudi was really to use the ATM because the one here is closed indefinitely. Of course the ATM was broken in Chaudi too, so I’m having to use a local cash-exchange place that charges commission. I’m letting it go – it is what it is. Things could be a lot worse.
I’m keeping up my swimming practice at my Secret Swimming Location but I have now added a Not-So-Secret Swimming Location to my portfolio – the Wild Berry Resort just outside Agonda. I had the huge blue pool almost all to myself on Sunday, for three or four hours.
When I say ‘almost’ I mean I was accompanied by a huge domestic row between what looked like two guests but I gather they may have had more to do with the management, judging by the staff’s reactions. In extraordinary scenes, a woman beat her partner about the head while two other men stared at their phones nearby. He appeared drunk and she kept shoving a phone in his face, so I took a wild guess and thought he may have cheated. It was actually horrible seeing a man getting beaten like that – imagine if it had been the other way round? Would we have all sat around ignoring it? Thankfully the pair were encouraged to leave the pool area and took their argument elsewhere. Lord knows what happened to him.
Talking of men, I have met two extraordinary ones this week. Sven from Germany, who is the happiest person I have met in a long time, has joined me for breakfast at Simrose most days this week. It turns out that he has never touched a drop of alcohol (“Am I a real German?!”), and he told me he’d ordered a ‘Sex on the Beach’ cocktail the previous night “without the alcohol and without the sex.” He laughs like a drain at his own jokes and it’s infectious. He has two grown-up children and has their faces tattooed on his chest – he obviously has an amazing relationship with them and it’s so lovely to hear him talking about them.
Every day Sven climbs aboard a scooter and explores South Goa and I envy him his freedom. I’m still too scared to ride a bike here so it does mean my daily activities are restricted to Agonda unless I want to hire Mr Happy or a Tuk Tuk. He tells me he’s been mistaken for Bruce Willis by some Russians who asked for a selfie. Cue infectious booming laughter.
Then, as I was writing a piece on men doing yoga for Sampoorna Yoga School, I met Luke, a 35-year-old yoga teacher from Manchester. He’d been taken to a yoga class following a divorce and a period of depression. He now says yoga is a tool he uses to help himself cope in society and teaches other men back home who are struggling to cope, as he once was. He talked about the social pressure on men to be the ‘alpha’, to curb their emotions and act competitively and aggressively. On the yoga mat they can choose to step away from all that. As he spoke, I thought about Sven and his ‘alpha’ appearance, all muscles, earrings and tattoos, but how all of that is undercut by his clear-eyed grin and the way he talks about his children. We need more Svens and Lukes in the world.
I have continued to get to know the pigs who live behind me and have started to call them ‘Chica’ whenever I see them. They seem to like it and honk their approval. I met the guy who owns the house where the pigs ‘live’ and asked them if he had names. No, he said, but he calls them ‘Chico’. I’m not sure if he’d heard me talk to them but I like to think I just guessed their collective name correctly. I also found out that Orson the puppy is in fact called Ocean. I’d misheard Umesh say his name. He’s now got a tiny collar and is running about outside Love Bites cafe.
My early morning walk on the beach was wild this morning. I didn’t have my phone so I can’t show you a picture, but the waves were crashing high onto the beach, almost into the buildings along the shore. I’ve never seen it like that and was told this is what it does during monsoon or just before a cyclone arrives.
Everything is much calmer now so I hope it was just a post-monsoon blip but you never know.
After the seismic activities of last week in Agonda, it’s been a fairly calm and restorative one. Partly because I’ve slipped back into doing morning yoga at Sampoorna Yoga School and using the office there a few mornings a week. It’s lovely to feel part of the yoga village again, and to catch up with a few yogi friends.
A dog that used to run in and out of class during my training has now been adopted by the school – it’s a bit sad to see him chained up in the morning, but I can see why he is. His unbridled joy when he’s let loose towards the end of breakfast time is a sight to behold – he sprints round and round the restaurant.
It’s taken a while for my beach dog pack to realise who I am again, but finally Sanjo and Zimbo (who live at Jardim do Mar on the beach) have resumed their customary massive run at me every morning and follow me down the beach. They caused a bit of doggy mayhem by following me all the way home this time, upsetting the dogs that patrol the main street outside Kopi Desa – Zimbo looks so upset when I don’t ‘save’ him from them as any good pack leader would.
After last season’s dog bite, I’m not taking any chances, so I carry a bamboo stick in the morning on my beach walk. That’s the time when the dog population of Agonda is at its most lively and whilst they’re probably playing with me, sometimes that play turns into a biting match. They’re quite rough with each other, so you can see where it comes from. The stick works as a preventative measure – I don’t intend to start using it, but it seems to ward off unwanted attention just by having it. Even my pack are a bit wary of it.
One of the highlights of this week was walking past my two pig neighbours who were fast asleep and making cute snuffly noises. I heard that their piglet had died in a bike accident so I hope they managed some trouble-free sleep. Bless them…
This week I’ve witnessed the early morning catch a few times, when the fishermen of the village pair up to drag the nets in by man-hauling them ashore. I’ve only ever seen them when the nets are already in and on the beach so I didn’t know that this is what they did each morning. It’s like watching a silent tug-of-war as two teams of men haul each side of a net in to the beach.
The full moon earlier this week caused some really strange happenings on the beach. One on day, the tide seemed to be sucked right out all day only to be thrown back at the beach at sunset. Even Vasudev was worried about his boat – I saw it pitch violently as it came back to shore on the crest of a big wave. I knew it was a tidal thing, but it did an the eerie pre-tsunami feel to me.
The town has been very quiet in the wake of the cyclone and the demolitions that took place last week and I have spent some time fighting the scaremongering that’s going on about Agonda online. “It’s a war zone,” said one British guy, annoying me so much because it’s still the beautiful town and beach it always was, just minus his favourite bar. I can see people talking about not coming here because of what they’ve heard and it makes me so angry – Agonda needs the tourist business more than ever and people are so ready to desert it just because their favourite bar closed. I am pretty sure it will have recovered by Christmas.
Yet again I’ve met some interesting people this week. Peter the ex-teacher and psychologist who has a particular interest in left- and right-handedness, swam with me for a bit at ‘rock beach’. He talked to me about the ‘tyranny of the right’ and how we are all unconsciously persuaded to use our right hands to write. Being a leftie I am so glad my parents let me use my left hand after a short period of ambidexterity as a child. I think they did that because my uncle had been left with a stammer after being forced to use his right hand as a child.
At Sampoorna I’ve also met Meritxel and Adri from Spain who are running Yoga Sin Fronteras (Yoga Without Borders), a non-profit organisation bringing yoga to disadvantaged people around the world. I’m so impressed with their drive and optimism, I’ve been lending an editorial hand on their website. It’s one of those ideas that you think should have been done already. The best ideas are always like that.
And finally, I can reveal that I have found a Secret Swimming Location. I have found it difficult to swim in the sea so far (dolphins spotted right at the shore’s edge this week!) because of the huge full moon waves and general fear, but I have been granted access to a small pool where I can practise my new swimming skills in peace. I’m not sharing the location because technically I’m not supposed to be there, but boy, I’m glad I am. The water is freezing cold and when I float on my back I can see a circle of palm trees and eagles (they look like kites) soaring above them. Perfect after a hard day at the office…
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.
I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.
I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.
And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.
I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.
Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?
The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.
Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.
Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.
In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).
I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.