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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Rachel Brathen (‘Yoga Girl’) Workshop

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The amazing potential of our bodies fascinates me.  Last year, this was highlighted to me when my body was able to transition from not being able to jog for more than thirty seconds to running 5km in less than thirty minutes.  I said to myself that I could never be ‘one of those runners’, and now that I am one, I have decided to also be ‘one of those fabulous yoginis!’    I have been doing yoga on and off for years but I have never developed a regular, dedicated practice.  I flit from centre to centre, never settling on a teacher or a schedule.  I wish I had practiced more regularly since I first started, but obviously it was just not right for me then, as I now have the desire and almost the need to practice daily. I find it so grounding, relaxing and stress busting, as well as fun!  I have therefore set myself the goal of practising yoga every single day for a year.

I would never be able to afford a daily yoga class, so I have signed up to a yoga website that gives you access to a fantastic range of high quality yoga videos for a monthly fee.  This is also gives me the flexibility to practice whenever and wherever I want to.  I have started getting up at 6:30am to fit in an hour of yoga before work each morning, and when I can I try to get twenty minutes or so in on my lunch break also. I am also going to go to some drop in classes and workshops throughout the year, as although yoga videos are great, nothing beats the knowledge and personalised direction of a yoga teacher, or the enjoyment of practising with others.

Yoga should be about the journey, rather than the destination, so my goal is simply to practice daily for a year, rather than set myself particular goals for the poses.  I am however aiming to concentrate when it feels right on the poses which I need to improve rather than constantly re-do  the poses that I enjoy and have perfected. I know where I would like to be, and what I need to do to help myself get there.  What I mean is, I know how to do these poses that I wish to improve, but my body just isn’t able to go there yet, and that’s okay. This time next year I will do another post and see what ways my body has changed in the twelve months of daily practice and if my ability in these poses has progressed.  I think it will be interesting to see!  I do believe that I can get there with positivity, patience and perseverance!

My weaknesses are my tight hamstrings and hips which prevent me from going further in to some poses, and my weak upper arm strength, which makes all of the inversions, arm balances, handstands and headstands impossible for me at the moment.  As well as strengthening my arms through yoga poses in preparation for these, I have started doing resistance training to strengthen and tone all my muscles, and it is amazing!

I have been following the very inspiring and beautiful soul Rachel Brathen on instagram (‘yogagirl’) for the past few months, and her wonderful photos of handstands on sunny beaches are inspiring to say the least!  A lot of her practice and favourite poses involve my ‘impossibles’.  When I saw that she mentioned in a post on instagram that she was going to be doing a workshop in my home city, I scrambled to the laptop like a dorky fan girl as I knew that it would sell out fast! Image

The workshop was described as follows “In this Vinyasa style class we will create plenty of heat, diving deep into our practice to explore our physical space on the mat.  Beginning to break down the foundation of handstands and other arm balances we learn how to incorporate flying into our flow practice, one pose at a time! We work handstands into our transitions, finding the courage to little by little get our feet off the mat and up in the sky.  By expanding the breath and working our core we connect to our center strength, finding a place of stillness in the midst of movement. Taking our first steps towards flying, expect fun transitions between traditional poses and plenty of opportunities to get upside down. Suitable for all levels – no previous handstand experience needed.”

The no previous handstand experience part was reassuring, but I knew that I wouldn’t be flying very high without increasing my upper arm strength.  I only booked the workshop two weeks before it was scheduled to occur so for the fortnight before it I was planking and doing push ups like crazy trying to pump the (non existant) guns!  I wanted to be as prepared as possible but knew that it would be an informative, inspiring and enjoyable workshop even if I could not get very far in to some of the poses. Rachel has a great energy and sincerity and it was a really enjoyable two hours.  We were encouraged to work with partners in order to help each other with inversions and handstands, which was a nice way to build community in the class.

Needless to say I didn’t do a handstand this time, but I got a good tip for practicing -transitioning from down dog to a L shaped handstand with both feet flat against a wall. This will help to strengthen the upper body and arms in preparation for for inversions.  (I should probably add, be careful -the first time I tried this at home I literally nearly killed myself by almost kicking my six foot bookshelf on top of me!  If I wasn’t decapitated I would have suffocated under a pile of books, my whole antique collection and my Granny’s china teacups!)

Click here to see a video of some of the workshop.  Unfortunately (or maybe I mean fortunately, I’m sure I wasn’t looking too Yoga Goddessy!) I don’t feature in the video, I am just out of the shot whenever the camera comes over to my side!  It gives a nice snapshot of what the evening was like and I thought some of you might be curious about what a workshop indoors in Ireland might be like seeing as many of her followers are so used to seeing her in more idyllic beach settings in Aruba!  Given that I usually practice on my own in my room, it was great to go to such a large workshop.  There were at least a hundred people practising together in the room and it felt wonderful to be with so many like minded people. Namaste all round!

All photos in the post are from http://www.rachelbrathen.com

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Coconut Water, Cucumber & Mint Drink -and my return to Bikram Yoga

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I made this amazingly refreshing drink after Bikram yoga tonight -blended coconut water, cucumber and fresh mint leaves.  A little sip of summer on this freezing, dark November night!  I outlined the benefits (and deliciousness!) of coconut water in my post on coconut water high protein smoothies -you can read it here.  BIkram yoga is like doing yoga in a sauna so rehydration afterwards is really important -hence my coconut water!
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I went to Bikram yoga tonight for the first time in over a year.  I first went about five years ago and always really enjoyed it.  I used to go now and then on a weekend but never developed a steady, frequent practice as I found it very time consuming to fit in to my usual schedule on top of work and everything else.  It is also a lot more expensive than a regular yoga class.  It became something I occasionally went to when I wanted a really good work out, rather than my more regular forms of exercise -yoga, pilates and running.  I recently saw a deal offering 8 Bikram yoga classes for €29!  At less than €4 a class, compared to the usual €18 I snapped it up immediately and was really looking forward to getting back in to it.
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Each class lasts ninety minutes, and is practised in a room of 40 degrees celcius, with 40% humidity.  It’s founder Bikram Choudhury claims that the increased room temperature improves physical performance in the body as blood vessles dilate and tissues expand -improving blood flow and the distribution of oxygen throughout the body.  Choudhury also claims that blood circulation is greatly enhanced due to the extension and compression stimulated by the postures which are said to work together to deliver fresh oxygen to every joint, muscle, and organ within the body.  He claims that the individual postures either stretch or compress a certain part of the body which temporarily cuts off circulation.   This restriction of circulation causes the heart to pump more fresh blood in reaction to the shortage, which is called extension. When the posture is finished, he claims that the new oxygenated blood rejuvenates the compressed arteries.  Choudhury states that the volume change and influx of this fresh blood releases infection, bacteria, and toxins from the body.  Regardless of whether these claims are accurate or not, it’s certainly an energising comprehensive work out for your whole body.
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The 26 postures and 2 pranayama breathing techniques are derived from traditional hatha yoga practice, so I am familiar with practising all of them in a regular temperature environment.  The heat certainly helps me to get deeper in to some of the poses compared to a regular yoga class but I am mindful of not over stretching my body due to the hot environment as I am concerned that this could do damage.
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I like how the class never changes, the series of postures are set and you can expect the same sequence and pace each time you go, which I find very meditative.  However, for this reason I prefer to only go occasionally, as I would rather a more varied practice overall.  I also like how the class is suitable for all levels at the same time, whether you have been practising it for years, or if it is your first time and your fitness levels are low.  The only difference is how deep you go in to the posture but regardless of your level, everyone gets the same benefit just by doing the pose at whatever level they are able to.  This can be said for all forms of yoga but it is something I particularly enjoy observing in bikram yoga as many people go to increase their general fitness rather than due to an interest in yoga -so there is a range of yoga lovers, fitness fanatics and those completely new to exercising.  I do think that a more intimate class or greater attention by the instructor to individuals would be better as there is little individual attention paid to posture, alignment or personal body weaknesses, which could lead to poor practice or injury in those new to the postures.
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I certainly don’t like the fact that Choudhury is so precious and controlling about the practice of Bikram yoga, having copyrighted it in to a multi million dollar business.  This is not really synonymous with the open, accessible and spiritual nature of yoga.   But as a personal practice of fitness, I absolutely love it.  There are many yoga studios who also practice hot yoga, with similar benefits and challenge, though without adhering to the rigid, copy righted format which he created.  I’d like to try these out also as the hot yoga element really appeals to me.
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While I wouldn’t replace my regular hatha and ashtanga yoga practice with bikram yoga,  I really enjoy it as an occasional power work out.  I feel so many benefits from it as it I get the amazing challenge of fast paced flowing yoga combined with a powerful full body work out and stretch, as well as the use of mental discipline, and a bonus 90 minute sauna session which is great for your skin!  Even compared to running, I have never experienced more natural endorphins following exercise compared to the rush of lying down in the final asana of bikram yoga, your heart pumping, knowing that you have worked hard for ninety minutes and given your body an amazing challenge and benefit.  All the better if you are looking forward to a coconut water, cucumber and mint drink afterwards!!

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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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