I’m back!

I just wanted to write a quick post to explain the absence of blog updates in the last six months.  I had been working really hard on the blog up to my trip to Nicaragua last September.  All the hard work paid off when I was short listed for the Irish Blog Awards.  I was delighted to have reached my goal and took a break while I was on my travels.  When I returned I found that my focus had shifted slightly.  I began a yoga teacher training course when in October and since then most of my energy has been going towards that.

Initially I felt a lot of guilt and stress at neglecting the blog, as I struggled to juggle my full time job, as well as working on the blog which is very time consuming, as well as yoga practice and study, as well as working on my other goals and not to mention finding time for a social life and relaxation!

I decided to just go with the flow and do what felt right.  I allowed my work on the blog to slide for a little while.  Many people asked me when I would be updating it or if I had given it up.  I didn’t have an answer for them but I knew that there was no point in working on the blog if it was becoming stressful or a chore, whereas it had begun from a place of passion, creativity, fun and excitement.

In the last  couple of months I have been missing blogging, and my enthusiasm and passion for Natural Fuel has been returning.  I have a lot less time to dedicate to the blog compared to what I had last year but I am planning to continue!  I am hoping to design a completely new website in the coming months.  In the meantime I will be posting new entries here when I can and I will be active on social media.

I am really looking forward to interacting with the blogging world again and seeing where life will take me (and the blog) next! :-)

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Marking the Winter Solstice -Reflections on the year past & setting future goals

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When I was a teenager I became interested in the wiccan pagan religion. Not because I had watched ‘The Craft’ and wanted to cast spells on people, but because I was drawn to how interconnected to nature and natural cycles the belief was.  As I grew older by a few years and matured and developed in my own personal beliefs and opinions, I realised that any form of structured, organised religion or faith is not for me, but I still consider myself a spiritual, meditative person.

I still enjoy aspects of wiccan belief, particularly as I am from Ireland and it is a belief system that is deeply connected with ancient celtic pagan beliefs. I am therefore aware already of many of the ideologies, symbols and deities used and it feels familiar and natural to me.  As a lover of history, I enjoy observing this connection to the ancient tradtions of my country.  For this reason, and due to my deep love and reverance for nature, I still feel an affinity for many wiccan rituals.  Therefore rather than making new years resolutions in January, which are often short term and doomed to failure, I prefer to do my annual review of the year and planning on my goals for the future on this day -the festival of Yule, the winter solstice, and the shortest day of the year.

This is the deepest, darkest day of the year, but within this is hope, and forethought for the future and the coming year, as each day onwards from this the light will gradually grow each day, and the hours of darkness will never be this great again for another year.  It also celebrates the reflection, healing, hope, growth and new beginnings to be found in darkness.  The traditions of this pagan celebration, as with all other pagan festivals, are the roots from which Christianity was based on. The familiar Christmas symbols of evergreen trees, mistletoe, holly, and ivy are all aspects celebrated at Yule -a triumph of nature, growth, and rebirth even in the depths of bleak midwinter.

Of particular interest to me is how the ancient celebration of the winter solstice is poignantly highlighted in Ireland -at Newgrange, County Meath.  Newgrange is a prehistoric monument consisting of a large circular mound with internal stone passageways and chambers.  It was built in the neolithic period, about 3,200 BC, which makes the structure older than Stonehenge in England, and The Pyramids in Egypt.  There is much debate about exactly why it was built, but we do know that it was purpose built to align with the arising sun.  Every year, during the winter solstice at dawn, a narrow beam of rising sunlight enters through a purpose built hole in the roof of the structure.  As the sun rises higher, the beam of light widens and slowly travels along the eighteen metre passageway until it eventually floods the internal chamber with sunlight so that it becomes dramatically illuminated.  It fascinates me to think how those who built Newgrange achieved this amazing feat of engineering.  I am also fascinating by the fact that that ancient, intricate structure, built to highlight the winter solstice, is still functioning in the exact same way, over 3,000 years later, as year after year the cyclical rhythm of nature repeats it’s ancient cycle.

It is in the spirit of this reflective positivity that today I went to my favourite place, a place that always heals and soothes me -the seashore, to reflect on the year past and on my goals for the years ahead.

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Things which I am greatful for from the past year:

  • The wonderful people close to me -my boyfriend, friends, and family, and the love, support and fun times which I get from them
  • Maintaining good physical & mental health
  • Having a very pronounced yet easy, natural shift in the past year from being a ‘part time’ health conscious, fit, meditative person to naturally finding a rhythm in my life to incorporate health & well being constantly in my daily life without effort -and without being obsessive, inflexible & preachy -very important!!
  • Making the decision to begin this blog, and the overwhelming, exciting support and encouragement that I have received, from both people I know in ‘real life’ and complete strangers who have stumbled across it.

Goals which I will work on achieving in the next year:

  • Intensive regular yoga practice to get me on the way towards being ready for yoga teacher training (that’s a goal for another year!) -in particular to transform my super tight hamstrings which are hampering my progress in many poses.
  • Be ready to attempt a driving test -it has been a looong, sloooow process for me as ultimately I have no interest in cars or driving, but I do want the freedom to be able to drive -my inspiration is the ability to take weekend road trips in the beautiful West of Ireland and to more easily reach the Dublin and Wicklow mountains for weekend walks.
  • Continue to post regularly on my blog and dedicate time to developing it organically.  I have found in this a real passion and joy, it is  a great new hobby and I am loooking forward to seeing where it will take me in the next year!
  • Take a big, exciting trip -either to Columbia with my boyfriend and some friends, or if that plan doesn’t work out, a solo trip to Nicaragua to stay in an eco yoga retreat in a nature reserve and organic farm -heaven on earth! (if you are me anyway!)
  • Be able to run 10k by June -who knows if I will stop there, I have no desire to run a marathon at the moment, but the running bug does get under your skin! But at the moment my goal is 10km, as I consider that to be a really good level of fitness that I want to achieve and maintain.
  • Improve my meditation & mindfullness -as I have written here before, meditation is not easy, and I am still improving my technique to quieten the mind -mine never shuts up!!
  • Keep helping others, both humans and other animals, as my life’s mission -through my day job, my blog and my personal life.
  • Focus on the beauty and kindess of humanity rather than the negative aspects -believe it or not I have a natural tendency to be a more pessimistic, melancholy person, and the horrific actions of humanity towards each other, non human animals, and the planet severely upsets me daily. As I am powerless to stop this, I want to try to be more introspective rather than looking at the catastrophic bigger picture, and find the positivity in the little things, the baby steps, the positive individual actions. All you interesting, motivated and compassionate bloggers help me with this!
  • Develop my creative side -while the blog definitely has nourished my creative spark in terms of creating food, design and writing, I want to return to creating art -such as drawing, painting and sculpting, this year.

I hope that this post inspires you to focus on the positive, to celebrate the small things, to live a life true to your own self, and to work hard to achieve the endless wonderful possibilities which you are capable and deserving of.  Here’s to celebrating the end of this year, the positives and the negatives, and looking forward to what lies ahead in 2014.

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Backbends Yoga Workshop

I had a lovely Saturday morning today.  I did a three hour yoga workshop with Catriona Mc Cormack of Yoga Ireland, in the always gorgeous Irish Holisitic Centre in Dublin City.  I love history and adore the Victorian era, so I find it amazing doing a yoga class in such a wonderful old building, looking up at the beautifully ornate original Victorian plaster work on the ceiling!

The workshop focused on back bends.  It was aimed to highlight some of the benefits of these asanas -improve posture, relieve back pain, increase energy, improve mood and enhance the ability to boost the immune system.   The workshop also focused on the fact that back bending can help shift energy leaving the mind clearer and more focused, while balancing and opening the anahata or heart chakra.

Back bending is one of my favourite series of poses in yoga as I find them so energising and boosting.  A deep back bend is so satisfying, especially for someone like me who doesn’t always have perfect posture and is fond of high heels!  I hoped that this workshop would give me some pointers on how to improve my practice in back bends.

It was a fantastic morning.  We began with some anahata or heart chakra meditation to ground and calm us.  We then moved on to a relaxing series of floor poses to warm up the body and open up our shoulders in order to prepare our bodies for the deep back bends.  It was a small class of 7 so we got a lot of individual attention and feedback.
We did all the usual back bending poses like locust (salabhasana) the cat (marjariasana), the cobra (bhujangasana), the bridge (setu bandhasana), the bow (dhanurasana), and the cow (bitilasana) before moving on to one of my favourites, the camel (ustrasana), which I Iove.
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I was given an important tip to mind my body in the postures.   I am generally flexible (except in my demon hamstrings!) so I therefore can have a tendency to go too deep in to some postures, just because I can, which could result in injury.  I will keep this in mind from now on when doing postures which I am able to reach, as I may be unintentionally damaging myself while thinking I am great for doing the pose well!  We then did matsyasana or ‘the fish’ which was a pose I had never done before.  I was recommended to do this often as I was told that my middle spine is quite tight and this would help, so it was nice to learn something new.
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The final posture we did was the full wheel pose (urdhva dhanurasna) commonly known as ‘the crab’.  I was really excited to get some advice on achieving this pose as I have never been able to get in to it as my arm strength just isn’t enough to lift my shoulders off the ground.  The teacher confirmed for me that my back is able for the posture but it’s my arm strength that is preventing me, so I will need to work on my resistance weight training and plank pose!
But much to my joy, the teacher informed me that she has a technique which will help me to get in to the wheel pose although my arms are weak.  By holding on to her ankles instead of using my hands on the ground, I was able to push off her legs to get my back up, while using yoga straps to guide my body up.  I was able to get in to the full pose this way and then steady and support my body and remain in it.  It was a really good way to learn the posture.  The teacher took the photo below of me giving it a try!
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It was such an amazing feeling to have such a complete back stretch and it was really invigorating and euphoric.  I imagine that this pose creates these feelings anyway, but being able to do this pose for the first time when I previously thought it wasn’t possible yet for me was fantastic and was the highlight of the workshop for me.  We ended with more anahata meditation and I left feeling energised, uplifted and super relaxed.

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Kundalini Yoga ‘Gong Bath’ Meditation

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I work in social care -supporting children and their mothers who have become homeless as a result of domestic violence.  I really enjoy my job and find it so rewarding, but the work can be disturbing and challenging, and there is no doubt that at times it can impact on my own emotional well being.  You hear a lot of talk about the need for ‘self care’ in these sort of professions.  When I first began working in the field about five years ago, although I took this on board, I never really thought about putting it in to practice.  After a year or two however, and seeing several colleagues quit the role or take stress leave, it became clear that I needed to take responsibility in addressing the impact of the work on myself as I too was beginning to feel the effect in my own personal life.

There is an interesting theory called ‘vicarious trauma’ or ‘compassion fatigue’, a form of post traumatic stress, whereby a person working in a support profession dealing with trauma is negatively effected as a result of emphatic engagement with their clients reports of traumatic experience.  This is not as a result of poor boundary keeping with clients, but is a natural potential impact of the work which is far more likely to occur in the absence of self care methods, and where the worker has experienced their own personal traumas.  This vicarious trauma experienced by support workers generally parallel those of direct trauma, though are usually less intense.  A few of the main common symptoms are withdrawal, depression, anxiety, greater sensitivity to violence, sleep difficulties, and intrusive mental imagery.  I find this theory compelling as I can absolutely relate to it from my own experience of the profession.  There is no doubt that at times I have experienced all of the above symptoms, to a small or large, temporary or more prolonged, extent as a result of my work.  One clear example is that I definitely have a much greater sensitivity to violence due to my current role.  I now find it difficult to watch violent tv programmes or films, or to read books or articles depicting violence.  I find that violence effects me at a much greater level than it used to, and that emotionally I find it difficult to process depictions of violence outside of work.  In my opinion I think that I must be saturated with hearing depictions of violence during my job, and that I just cannot bare to address these issues also outside of work in my ‘down time’ when I am out of my role. This definitely irritates me sometimes, when I feel the need to pass on a cinema trip with friends, or I feel ignorant for not following an important global news story in depth.  At times I feel inclined to force myself to snap out of it, and at times I do feel less effected than other times, depending on what has been going on in work and in my own life. But ultimately self care is about awareness and listening to your mind and your body so this is something I will just have to accept and develop with!  This is similar to the related theory called ‘vicarious transformartion’, which promotes a process of active engagement with these negative changes.

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As with all jobs, some employers handle their responsibility to their employees better than others.  I have worked in a place which offered free, external counselling to it’s employees, set up under a system so that the employers never even knew which people availed of it, let alone why.  Employees were encouraged to attend for any reason, be it an issue related to the impact of the work, or a completely unrelated personal issue.   I have also worked in places which offered little to no support, and alleged supervision from managers was little more than case management meetings.  I am firmly of the opinion that social care employers have a massive responsibility to their staff in relation to the subject, and that most organisations could do with updating their practice!  There is no doubt that supported workers can better support service users.
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Regardless of the best practice, or lack thereof, of employers, I realised that looking at my own self care was ultimately my own responsibility.  I therefore endeavored to begin looking after myself more, both physically and emotionally.  My lifestyle has changed considerably over the past few years.  I am less of a party girl and more of a wholesome hippy!  I think this tied in with a natural desire to change as I got older.  I definitely still have my wild nights out as I believe that these are also integral to self care and stress relief, but I have definitely reduced the amount and the severity of the weekend hangovers, completely by choice, as previously I found myself on many Mondays not feeling physically or mentally prepared for the week of work ahead, and the related problems this would cause for my own well being and mood.
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In my renewed quest for better self care, stress relief and relaxation, I have tried meditation myself over the past year or two, either by myself, or via guided mediation using cds, youtube and iphone apps.  I found that even with guided meditations, although in theory I quite enjoyed them, I just didn’t have the discipline or desire to develop a regular practice.  For my self care to date I have tended to rely predominantly on nature and the outdoors, fitness and exercise, yoga, plenty of sleep, and natural stress busters such as spending time with friends and family and going on trips away.  I am however always very open to new things and know that meditation can be such a powerful tool if used properly.
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With this in mind, I decided to give it another go and went along to a ‘gong bath’ mediation in a local yoga centre. The principal of a gong or sound bath is that one is ‘bathed’ in the sounds and vibrations of gongs.  These instruments create unique sound vibrations and frequencies which put the human brain in the alpha-tetha border of brain waves, which is said to promote great benefits and healing for the body, mind and spirit.  This narrow band of waves is known as the Schuman Resonance.  It produces waves that travel at 7-8 (Hertz) cycles per second, which is the precise frequency of the earth’s electromagnetic field. It is said that when our brains are producing these same waves, as induced by the vibration of the gongs and bowls, the body is in a state of harmony and expanded function, as the central nervous system reduces input from the peripheral nervous system.  It is said that this enhances the body’s self healing mechanism and over time can re-balance the brain wave patterns which may have become disrupted.
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Being unfamiliar with all of this theory previously, I was unsure what I thought of it, but definitely quite fascinated!  I went with an open mind and the belief that if nothing else it was bound to still be a relaxing, interesting and unique experience!  The woman who was delivering the session has been a Kundalini yoga teacher for the past twenty years -this is a very traditonal form of yoga which focuses on awakening Kundalini energy through meditation, mantra chanting, asana (the restful yoga pose) and pranayama (use of breath).  I have never tried Kundalini yoga before as I am much more focussed on the more physical schools of yoga and it’s effect on the flexibility of the body, but I was looking forward to trying it.
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We began with some group mantra chanting, something which I have done before in some yoga classes, but only for several seconds rather than for such a prolonged period of time.  I was interested to find that I found it really enjoyable and somewhat cathartic.  At first I was a little bit reserved and low pitched, being unsure of the melody and not having a very good singing voice, but the group voice really swept me up and after a few rounds I was really belting it out!  There is something very amazing about group voice work like that when everyone becomes in sync and the combined voices are so loud and powerful.  Although I am not a spiritual or religious person, it sounds very ‘sacred!’.
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The gong bath part was really enjoyable and fascinating, lying on the floor with our heads towards the centre of the room, the facilitator played the gong with varying tempo, rhythm and strength.  There was a total harmonic spectrum and it was incredibly relaxing to be immersed in the sounds, and to hear and feel them at the same time . I could feel them washing over me in waves and at times it felt like the vibrations were coming from within me.   It was mesmerising to listen to the initial tone, and then the overtones and to feel the related vibration extend for up to a minute afterwards.
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After a few minutes I began to get an unexpected sensation of pins and needles in my body, and the muscles in my legs, arms, and shoulders began to involuntarily twitch and jump occasionally.  I found this really intriguing as I had experienced this before during a reiki session, and had been told that my body must be quite uniquely very sensitive to shifts and unblockages of energy.   Following the class I questioned what I had experienced and this teacher told me the same thing.   I am still not entirely sure what that means for me but it is an interesting concept to mull over!
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After the gong bath we did another meditation and mantra.  I still really struggled with keeping my mind focused and halting the flood of thoughts.  I thought perhaps in that environment I might be able to focus more easily but I definitely have a long road to go in terms of learning how to meditate.  That said, any effort is beneficial and it is easy to re-focus and constantly bring your mind back to the practice.   I left feeling very relaxed and peaceful so it was definitely a positive experience.   I would be interested to try it again sometime, and with more meditation practice perhaps the gong bath would be an increased experience for me.   I have seen it advertised in other places with the addition of Tibetan singing bowls and so will keep an eye out for the next session of those to see what they add to the aural and sensory experience!  I am not a converted sound bath fanatic following it, but I am happy to have tried out a new experience and a new form of ‘self care’ and I am definitely feeling relaxed, content and ready for the week of work ahead :-)

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