What Katy Louise Did...

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Katy Louise writes about health, wealth, happiness and relationships, and the spiritual insights she gains along her path. She is currently editor of Top Sante magazine (www.topsante.co.uk). Prior to that she was editor of Bodyfit magazine (now Your Fitness www.yourfitnesstoday.com) and the launch editor of Soul&Spirit magazine (www.soulandspiritmagazine.com). Katy is also a certified Fitsteps and STOTT Pilates instructor. She is the go-to girl for all matters relating to health, wellbeing and spirituality.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

NEWS FLASH! FitSteps classes being taught by... me!

It's been so long since I wrote on this blog! How remiss of me. I've been a busy little bee and am writing this short entry just to let you all know about my new venture, which is teaching FitSteps! 

FitSteps is a brand new ballroom and Latin-based group workout, devised by none other than Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe from Strictly Come Dancing fame. (see pic of me with the guys, below). Classes are taking place as of now, all around the UK. 

My current class information is as such: 

Monday: 7pm, DanceEast, Jerwood DanceHouse, Foundry Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1DW, 01473 295230, info@danceeast.co.uk (first class September 9th then weekly)
Tuesdays: 6.15pm, Hythe Community Centre, 1 Ventura Dr, Colchester, Essex CO1 2FG, 01206 870266 (first class on September 10th then weekly)
Thursdays: 6.30pm, Old Heath Community Centre, D'Arcy Road, 01206 870266 (first class on September 12th then weekly)
Sundays: Potential Performance, Unit 892 The Crescent, Colchester, CO4 9YQ, enquiries@potentiaperformance.co.uk, 0845 6251055 (classes start end of September, open to non members).

Here's a link to my own little video I made with Ian at the training day Katy's FitSteps video
And another one with the official promotional vid: FitSteps testimonials

STRICTLY FUN! Katy Louise with Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe at the master training day in May, 2013

So, now you all have to come and try my classes! And if you don't live in Essex or Suffolk, go here to find a list of instructors around the country. FitSteps

Friday, 17 May 2013

A step closer to Strictly! (wearing one of Flavia's dresses)

I've been meaning to write in this for ages, and I can't believe it's been almost a month (now since I performed at Karen Hardy's studio in London (karenhardystudios.com) wearing one of the actual dresses from Strictly Come Dancing as worn by the amazing Flavia Cacace! (bbc.co.uk)

Outside Karen Hardy's studio at Imperial Wharf, London, on the day of the showcase!

Just to recap, it all came about when, 10 days before their Big Band Swing Dance night, Emma from the studio called me up to say Karen really wanted me to perform in the showcase (April 27th), as I'd expressed an interest a few months back after I had a lesson there, but sadly was unable to fit my schedule together with the male professional teachers', so it looked like I'd be unable to take part. I'd really wanted to, but thought maybe next time then forgot about it. So I was elated when I discovered Karen had found me a professional partner who would be dedicated to training only me; the only question was did I want to take on the challenge with only a week to train. Simple answer: yes!

Training like on Strictly
We did seven hours of rehearsing, three one weekend to lay down the routine - I'd gone prepared with about four songs already downloaded, and lots of ideas - and then another two practise sessions on the weekend of the event! It was a bit like it must be on the actual Strictly Come Dancing show, where they only have a week to perfect a routine.

Dresses to impress!
It was already exciting enough but then on the Friday night prior to the show, when I was rehearsing, Karen was at the studio and I just happened to say how much I loved the dresses on show, when she disappeared into a back room only to emerge with four dresses actually worn on Strictly, saying I could choose one to wear!!! O.M.G!! I virtually skipped back to my hotel room at the Jury's Inn across the road (pricey but worth it for convenience!) and jumped up and down, saying 'thank you thank you' over and over (to no one, as I was staying up there by myself!).

SEQUINS GALORE! Four dresses as worn by Flavia, Katya and Karen on Strictly Come Dancing

SILVER SHIMMER: It had to be Flavia's cut-away dress, after a unanimous vote!

It was a hard choice between Katya's clinging green number as I loved the colour, and Flavia's slinky silver outfit which was less a dress and more like a bikini joined together at the front (as made by Chrisanne, who makes all the SCD dresses chrisanne.com) In the end, having text pictures of them to my mum, two best friends and Camilla Dallerup (former Strictly pro and winner in 2008, who has also given me a lesson and was kindly going too lend me a dress but we couldn't get to meet up in time), I went for the silver one, thanks to everyone being in agreement, and Camilla texting back 'You look hot, end of!!'. 'Nuff said.

IT'S SHOW TIME: With partner David Barnes at the start of the night - nerves kicking in!

STRICTLY FAB-U-LOUS! With the lovely Karen Hardy, Strictly champion in 2004 who made my day (and year!) by lending me Flavia Cacace's stunning dress to wear on the night

SUFFOLK AND PROUD: With pro dancer, former Dirty Dancing cast member and Suffolk boy Ian Banham, who also trained during his teens at the Lait School of Dancing in Ipswich (my home town!)

The actual night went by so fast, and I've yet to see the video my friend took of it, but here's me and David Barnes in rehearsal to give you an idea youtube.com (I do go a bit wrong at the beginning and right at the end, but ignore that!) I'm just hoping this show isn't a one off, and it's only the start of loads more dancing to come! Bring it on :-)

Sunday, 31 March 2013

How to find buried treasure from the past

The past never truly goes away, especially if it had emotional significance. Relationships especially. Just when you think they're dead and buried, the past pops up to take you back down memory lane. And it doesn't even have to be actual relationships, it can be passionate 'liaisons' you had when you were barely out of your teens that left an indelible mark on your psyche. The reason I say this is because yesterday I got a message out of the Facebook blue from a former flame from my college days. I won't go into detail, suffice to say I'd been on his mind and, apparently, in his dreams. We were only in each others' lives for five months or so, but yet the memories had lasted much longer. Why contact me now, I was wondering? What did it mean, if anything?
Then it occurred to me I'd been reading a book called Finding Inner Courage, by Mark Nepo (Heron Books; £12.99 Amazon.com), only the previous day, and had opened it 'randomly' at a chapter about a building project that had been stalled when they unearthed the ruins of an old city, and had to get archaeologists in. The part I'd most pondered was this: "What stays with me is this question of how to build on the past. For aren't we all pressed with excitement and necessity to build new homes, new relationships, new careers, new lives  - always pressed by some real or imagined deadline, eager to get the thing done? Yet suddenly, if blessed, we trip on something of the past and, just as it feels that we are stalled, the thought appears that the need to dig in order to build might be God's way to unearth our foundation."

Learning from our mistakes
And while my eye is on the future, with regards to relationships and what might occur this year, perhaps this little interlude from the past has arrisen to show me something. Though too much backwards glancing is counter-productive in that it prevents us living in the now - and Lord knows I'm guilty of that one - sometimes remembering where we've been, who we were back then, and where we came from, can inform our choices in the present, and remind us of certain mistakes we may have made so as to avoid them again.
We can all look back and regret things, wondering what would have happened had we taken this path or that; again, this is something I've been guilty of far too much. But to be proactive about it, as Mark Nepo suggests, is to think 'OK, I made this choice and this, now what do I want to do and who do I want to be? If the past has any point at all it is to learn from and grow as human beings. None of us is perfect and I reckon everyone has something they said or did of which they are ashamed, but we can't keep carrying those burdens around, shackled to the regret, remorse or 'missed opportunities'.

Energetic connections
Did I 'cosmic order' his message somehow? After all, I do still have the university teddy bear mascots on my bed, and, since moving house, a picture of the college building on the mantelpiece. And I was only the other day talking to my house mate about the teddies saying where they came from. Was I energetically reconnecting to that part of my life, hence opening up the channel to receive a message from someone connected to that time? Or am I reading too much into it? Either way, as storyteller Mark Nepo suggests, it's brought up an opportunity to reflect on the issues of that year, and the romantic mess I created, and perhaps as a reminder not to do the same again. It also makes me think back to my hopes and dreams as a naive 20-year-old, and how I've fulfilled some of them, such as editing not one but two great magazines, which has been a blessing and a dream come true (Soul&Spirit and Bodyfit) but how other 'fantasies' have remained shelved because I never thought them possible, namely my desire to dance in professional shows, which was always a pipe dream.. It might be too late for that one - but I guess it only is if i think it is.

Pearls of wisdom
I think we can all learn a lot from the relationships of our past, good or bad. I was recently talking to TV presenter Amanda Byram (amandabyram.com) and she said something very wise on the subject, which was that each relationship brings us closer to who we really are. Few people get lucky enough to be with someone from 18 through to when they die, and those that do often have other life issues to contend with. The rest of us go through a series of learning experiences, each one of which can, if you take time to unearth the gems hidden within the remnants of the relationship, help you discern more about who you are and who you want to become. It's only by being with people who challenge us and push our buttons that we get to grow, painfully at times, into the people we are destined to be. And that's the benefit of digging back into the treasure chest of the past. Just don't stay there for too long or you miss the beauty in the present moment!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Being part of Strictly (well, by association!)

Can't believe it's more than a month since my dance lesson with Camilla Dallerup - former winner of Strictly Come Dancing (Strictly Come Dancing). I spent about three hours getting to the lesson, in Sunbury Upon Thames, but it was so worth the trip. We spent the time working on my rumba action, which was a bit lame as I wasn't using my legs properly - not straightening them enough or using my muscles correctly. After half an hour I could already feel my limbs aching! And rumba is the slowest dance too.

STRICTLY PALS: With Camilla Dallerup-Sacre, former winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2008 and now not only a dance teacher but an NLP master! 

It was great to see Camilla again. She writes for Bodyfit, but I met her a few years back interviewing her for Soul&Spirit magazine, which I edited for five years (Camilla is into all the same spiritual stuff as me, i.e. crystals, law of attraction, that kinda thing. In fact, she has launched her new website camillasacredallerup.com all about her life coaching/NLP work - check it out!). And the lesson taught me so much - I never knew rumba was quite so technical! Just listening to the music and dancing around the studio felt so great. I litereally come alive when I'm dancing, though I still feel a bit shy in front of others, and only really let loose the real me when prancing in front of my bedroom mirror. I don't know why that is: fear of looking silly, perhaps, or not being good enough (yes, that's prob it, me and my perfectionist tendencies).

SPIRITUAL CONNECTIONS: Meeting Camilla for the first time at the Hay House I Can Do It event in 2011 in London

Since the lesson I've been practicing my rumba walks as often as possible, including that same day as I went to a salsa night and must have looked rather odd to all the other dancers as I kept sashaying across the carpet at the front of the room on my own, doing a very non-salsa dance. I did some more on stage at a salsa night the other week, while waiting for the DJ to change tracks and then come dance cha cha with me - which is just a faster version of rumba anyway). And I also practised them at the launch of Flavia and Russell Grant's Zalsa Fitness DVD (zalzafitness.com) at Pineapple studios (pineapple.uk.com), as they did a short class to introduce a group of journos to the DVD routines, one of which was rumba.

Strictly dreams...
Ever since watching the first episode of Strictly back in 2004, I've always said I wanted to be on the show, but not being a celeb or a pro dancer was going to make it tricky! Unless I got the job presenting It Take's Two.. Now there's a thought. But then the other day it occured to me that between my self and the two deputy editor's I've worked with on Soul&Spirit and Bodyfit, we've interviewed most of the pros and a fair number of the celebs too! I met Anton when he was holding auditions for members of the public to be in a dance event at Trafalgar square back in 2006, I think; I interviewed Darren Bennett and his wife Lilia for the EADT newspaper where I used to work (and Darren's brother Dale used to dance with a girl from my old school too). I have a pic of me with them somewhere, just can't find it; I've interviewed and met Flavia and her former celeb partner Russell Grant ...
GETTING ZALZA FIT! With Russell and Flavia at the launch of their Zalsa Fitness DVD at Pineapple studios, London, early March

KEEEEP DANCING! With Karen Hardy at her studios in Imperial Wharf, London, where I did a workshop and later a private lesson - more rumba to practise what I'd learned with Camilla weeks earlier
... Karen Hardy last December when I interviewed her for Bodyfit and did her dance workshop (karenhardystudios.com); I met Andrew Cuerden, who was in the first series, at a salsa holiday weekend in Suffolk many moons ago, I interviewed Kristina Rihanoff over the phone, and we've got Natalie Lowe going into the mag in a month or so. And I also interviewed Robin Windsor for my local rag, when he was first in Burn the Floor, before Striclty, and had dance lessons with his dad in a village hall in Suffolk for a few months!!! (by the way, Burn the Floor is on again in the West End and I'm so excited and will def be going at some point (burnthefloor.com)
On the celeb side there's Lynda Bellingham, Gabby Logan and, of course, Russell, who I've already mentioned. I'm sure there are more and I just can't remember right now.
I also used to dance at the same school as Crystal Main (who was one of the group dancers on Stricly and went on to be in Brendan Cole's show). So, I reckon I HAVE been part of Stricly by association! Well, that's what I like to think anyway :-)
For now, I'm hooked on ballroom and Latin again I want to do a ProAm competition (where you compete with a professional), and also take part in the showcase coming up at Karen Hardy's Studio at the end of April... watch this space!
As Camilla says on her coaching website, you have to 'Dream, Act, Believe', so perhaps if I focus enough positive intentions on my dancing dreams, I might just turn them into a reality. Life has a funny way of manifesting what you want when you relax and get out of your own way :-) Fingers crossed!

Monday, 25 February 2013

How to detox in 1 minute! My pre-breakfast 'power cleanse'

In addition to my 'power porridge' breakfast I posted about yesterday, I meant to mention this lot too, which precedes the porridge...

DETOX TRIO: Forever Living Aloe Vera Gel, a lemon, and Herb Farmacy detox tincture provide a healthy 'flush' to my system each morning! (note the irony of the 'death by chocolate mug - I ought to get one that has a healthy message on it instead!)

I've been taking Forever Living aloe vera gel (foreverliving.com) for a couple of years now and can't rate it highly enough (I'm not paid by them to say this either). It's probably the only supplement, of all the liquids and pills I've tried, that has an almost immediately noticeable effect, and definitely seems to work better than the capsule form.
If you're eating your breakfast you may want to avert your eyes at this point.... but aloe really keeps you regular! I think it's important to include all types of health when wanting to be fit and healthy, inside and out, so bowel health ought to be discussed more than it is. After all, the beautiful and much loved Audrey Hepburn died of colon cancer, and even now it gets far less attention than other cancers.

Multitude of health benefits:
Anyway, taking aloe is just great for so many other reasons too: it keeps the body lubricated, including joints, and is an anti-inflammatory, meaning it's working to lessen the effects of any acid-forming foods you might be eating (dairy, meat, sugar - all the usual culprits). I take 10ml of it neat first thing in the morning, and yesterday added my Bodyism Beauty Food powder to it, having wondered whether I might be killing some of the goodness by adding it to my heated porridge. (bodyism beauty food)
I've also been adding this Herb Farmacy detox tincture (herbfarmacy.co.uk to hot water and squeezing the juice of half a lemon into it. The combination provides a great kick start to the liver and to peristalsis, thereby also aiding the elimination of waste.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Get better skin with my power-packed porridge

Want to set yourself up for the day with one of the most nutritious breakfasts ever? Try my ‘power porridge’, which will help you stave off the wrinkles and feed your skin, build muscle, stay regular, and stay filled up until at least, well, 11am (I have to snack frequently!). I ought to soak the oats overnight to make it creamier but I never remember to, though I advise it.

Here’s how I make it:

SUPER FOODS: My tub of linseeds and jar of raw cacao nibs (some of whic are in the coffee grinder), with Bodyism beauty food supplement, Minvita Baobab powder, and Comvita Manuka UMF15 honey - just some of the ingredients I add to my hearty bowl of porridge in the morning!

1)   OATS: Simmer a handful of oats in water. Sometimes I use almond or coconut milk. I know Irish steel-cut oats are meant to be the best – they are less processed – but I tend to use cheap ones because the steel-cut variety have too much husk still in the mix, which gets between my teeth!
2)      APPLE: Cut up an apple and add this to the porridge, along with two small scoops of baobab powder (it’s an amazing super food and beats oranges and goji berries for vit C, has more iron per gram than red meat, is packed full of antioxidants and has high levels of potassium and magnesium). At the moment I’m using Minvita Baobab (minvita.co.uk).
3)      SUPER GREENS: Next, I add a tablespoon of Bodyism’s Beauty Food (bodyism.com) which is a green powder packed full of marine collagen peptides; super greens such as spinach, broccoli and barley grass, which alkalise the body (too much acidity leads to illness); MSM (Methyl Sulphonyl Methane) which is my new fave ingredient as it helps with the formation of collagen, elastin, cartilage and keratin; green tea extract to help cleanse the liver; aloe vera, which is an anti-inflamatory; beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that’s said to help control of sugar cravings, which I need at the mo having ditched it for lent, and loads more.
4)      LINSEEDS AND CACAO: Then, I’ll blitz some dark linseeds and raw cacao nibs in a coffee grinder until powdery, and add that to the green gloopy porridge. Cacao is high in magnesium, which I read is important for healthy muscle tissue, and it’s generally lacking in our diets. Linseeds (also called flaxseeds – took me ages to work out they were the same thing!) are also high in omega 3 and 6, and fibre.
5)      NATURAL SWEETENER: If I don’t use the cacao, I’ll often add cinnamon or coconut sugar/lucuma/gurana/cocoa powder from Essential Living Foods (essentiallivingfoods.com).
6)      MORE WATER! I always end up having to add more water as I go along, as the oats soak it all up.
7)      PROTEIN POWER: Depending on whether I’m planning to exercise that day, I might add half a cup of protein, either whey or hemp powder (highernature.co.uk). Sometimes I add the hemp anyway as it’s full of omegas, which are good for the skin, as well as iron.
8)      HONEY: After only about five minutes, I pour it out into a large bowl and add a dollop of manuka honey, currently the Comvita UMF15 variety, which has strong antibacterial powers. (comvita.co.uk)

Et voila! My nutritious, power-packed porridge. It may look pretty gross with thanks to the green powder (sometimes I just add pure chlorella, which I’ve been using for ages and which is now all the rage thanks to supermodels Miranda Kerr endirsing it thedetoxshop.net), however, it tastes great. I can’t eat plain porridge anymore!  
I rarely stay this healthy for the rest of the day, but since it’s lent and I’m on my sugar ban I’m doing pretty well. This morning I walked into town and bought some sugar-free raw chocolate bars. Well, a girl can't completely give up her cocoa fix! More on those bars in a later post...

Monday, 18 February 2013

Do you listen to your body?

It's 6.30pm and I'm in bed. Why? Because I expended 90% of my energy yesterday travelling around London and then dancing until 10.30pm at a salsa night. I loved every single juicy minute of it, but now I'm paying the price, and I knew in advance that I would.

Bodily rhythms
Ever since attending a workshop about menstruation a couple of years ago and finally working out the connection between a woman's cycle, emotions and energy (yes, it took 20 years for the penny to drop about why I'd sometimes cry the day before my period) and how each seven days is linked to a different season, I've had more awareness of the my mind/body connection. Check out the workshop here www.flyinginspiration.co.uk.
For example, in 'winter', which is the menstruation phase, a woman ought to be chilling out, taking care of herself, not pushing and striving etc, where as when she's in her 'summer' phase, i.e. ovulating, she's more vibrant, vivacious and energetic. 
Someone else who teaches about women's health and cycles is Dr Christiane Northrup. I'd highly recommend her books to anyone (www.drnorthrup.com)

Feeling energised
Two weeks ago I was in my 'summer' and had been on a spiritual workshop in London by the lovely people who created the books and retreats called F**k It! The ultimate spiritual way (ignore the profanity, their teaching truly is spiritual www.thefuckitlife.com). After that, I was really feeling up for dancing, yet I'd neglected to take my Latin shoes with me. Ironically, I'd automatically put them into my bag but then changed my mind and taken them out for some reason, rationalising that I'd be too tired to go after the workshop (another case of intuition being right but left-brain analyser not listening). But rather than feeling tired, I was energised by the weekend's activities and talks, and hesitated to get the train home, wishing I could magic up my shoes and a new top just so I could go.

Not listening to my body
So, this weekend, knowing it was two weeks later and hence my insular, time-to-rest 'winter' time, I ought not have planned so many activities. But I seem to love living life back to front: doing things when I ought not, and not doing things when I really should be getting my arse into gear!
And, as a result of overstretching myself, energywise, I'm now in bed, pressed up against a hot water bottle (not a hot guy, sadly) having eaten nothing but three packets of Yu fruit drops for dinner an hour ago. I'll have to save the blog I had planned to write, all about Strictly Come Dancing, to another time. That and the rest of the Vipassana meditation entries.

Right, I'd better sign off before I ....... Zzzzzzzzzz

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Life's Etch A Sketch moments

Just a quick post - I know I've yet to finish my saga about the Vipassana retreat, which I shall do - but I wanted to mention the death early last week of Andres Cassagnes who invented Etch A Sketch, which I heard on the radio. That toy had to have been one of the most advanced, innovative things of the mid 80s, looking like a TV with its grey screen and two buttons, one for up and down, one for left and right. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etch_A_Sketch
With those buttons, you drew whatever shapes you could manage, most of which consisted of zigzaggy lines; trying to do anything curved was nigh on impossible, and you could forget about circles.
But I loved it. I had three coloured transparencies that would lay over the screen so as to 'play games' with the Etch A Sketch if the normal was of using it got too boring.
And then, when you'd finished creating a picture of a house, a boat, or whatever other scribble came to mind, you just picked the whole thing up and shook it vigorously until all the little iron filings, of which the lines were made, fell back to the bottom (or the side, or wherever they went) to quite literally 'wipe the slate clean'.

Etch-A-Sketch end of the world
The reason I found it odd hearing about Casssagnes's death on the radio last week was that only a few days before, I'd replaying in my mind an Eddie Izzard sketch - he's my all-time fave comedian - from his Glorious tour where he describes the famous bible story of Noah's Ark as God's 'Etch-a-Sketch end of the world' moment. He jokes about how God must have realised there were one or two design flaws in the human and animal kingdoms, and so sent a massive flood to wipe everything out and start again, hence the Etch A Sketch reference. Watch from 4mins 20second (though I'd of course recommend watching the whole thing: www.youtube.com)

The urge to shake things up
And why mention this? Well, because I often wonder what it would be like to have my own Etch-a-Sketch moment. To really shake things up big style, not just the odd tweak here and there, and start over again. I think I must be like Carrie from Sex and the City, who, when things seem to be running too smoothly in all areas of her life, feels the need to create drama somehow. On the surface, everything is pretty darn good in life: good job with good salary (for Colchester), nice place to live, good friends, supportive family, health, etc etc. But yet.... what is that bubbling up from within? The ambitions of youth batted aside as being too 'outrageous' and 'not sensible'. A longing, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (which I watched last night) to see foreign lands, experience new things, push the boundaries of my comfort zone. I know Dorothy, as with all the heroic adventurers in those types of tales, ultimately realises everything she wanted or needed was right under her nose all along (www.youtube.com) and knowing that kind of makes you wonder why bother go anywhere or do anything. But without those experiences, the traveller would not gain the wisdom or insight to move up to a new level of understanding.

2013: the year of new starts and/or completion
And so, is it time for an 'Etch A Sketch' moment? How about you? Do you feel 2013 is poised to be a year of changes? I also read the number 13 represents completion of sorts; I for one have noticed a few themes recurring already this year, and that cropped up at the end of 2012, in the forms of people, places and ideas resurfacing from 2008 or earlier. Are things coming around again to finally be completed in some way? Feels like it. And I just so happen to have begun reading Robin Sharma's The Secret Letters of the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, which has a chapter on overcoming fear. Perhaps I picked up this book now for a reason.

The man who invented Etch-A-Sketch may have died, but his toy will live on, as will the notion of shaking things up to start all over again. Sometimes, it's just necessary...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Day 1 in the Vipassana house

early to bed...
4am – that’s what time they rang the morning bell/gong for meditation – 4 flipping am! I knew this would be the case, having read the timetable and wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for. My room mates were already stirring, taking it in turns to use the en-suite shower room. I clambered down from my top bunk, shoved on a pair of slippers and a baggy cardigan, and went out of the room, crossing through the outside area into the main building to get myself a cup of hot water. The air was cool and crisp and roused me from my slumbering state.
Back in the meditation hall though, I only lasted about 20 minutes max before I was nodding off again in my cross-legged position atop the two blue cushions and mat. During Goenka’s chanting it was OK, as there was something upon which to focus, but once he stopped I had no chance. And yet we had two hours of this until breakfast, with a short five-minute gap in between the two sits. Our only task was to ‘focus our attention entirely on the breath coming into the nostrils and out of the nostrils’ as Goenka instructed from the CD playing at the front of the hall. Two hours of concentrating on your nose is pretty full on, and nigh impossible. My head, of course, stayed full of other thoughts about everyday things, events and people from the past, possible future outcomes I’d like to happen, and not happen, and what I would do when I ‘got out’, making it sound like a prison, albeit one we all willingly chose to inhabit.

Eating in noble silence
Breakfast was rather nice porridge with stewed prunes and raisin in their own juice, which was warm and comforting on that rather cold morning. There was a variety of fruit to eat too, plus toast, jam, rice cakes and muesli. I went for the porridge and chopped a banana onto it for a bit of added energy – this became my morning ritual. Sitting in silence in a dining room full of 50 or so women, attempting not to make eye contact with any of them, was strange but soon became quite normal.
After we all washed up our bowls and cuttlery, there was a little ‘free time’ – not that there was anything to do or anywhere to go other than sit in the conservatory overlooking the outdoor seating area, or actually go out and sit on one of the benches or swing chairs facing south east toward the direction of the sunrise, which by the end of breakfast at 7.30am, was just beginning.
The rest of the day’s meditation sessions, of which there were six or seven – yes really, and all an hour each! – were about focusing again on the nostrils and the breath. They were broken up by lunch at 11am – the earliest time I think I’ve ever eaten a full meal – and another afternoon hour of free time, during which I would end up having my daily shower each day as I could take my time.

Goenka the guru
The evening discourse, which was an hour-long video of SN Goenka sat on a raised platform, obviously in a large meditation hall – although we never saw the audience, only heard them sneeze, cough or at times giggle at one of his many jokes – was the highlight of the day as it gave us time off from meditating, and a chance to listen to stories from Gotama the Buddha’s times, 2,500 years ago, but stories that are still as relevant today in their teachings about compassion, patience and mindfulness. And it was nice to put a face to the voice we’d so far only heard on CD. Goenka was a jolly looking Indian fellow (still is, he’s currently 92 I believe), and looked very Buddha-like in his cross-legged position with a green meditation blanket wrapped around him.
“The first day is over, you have nine more left to work, to work very hard… diligently, ardently, patiently but persistently, continuously…” these words, repeated over and over in the coming days, became like friends, gently reminding me to continue the practise and not get disheartened by my scattered mind.
“As it is” became another favourite phrase of his, which is arguably the main teaching of the Buddha, who showed his disciples how to be at peace with whatever was happening on the outside. This, in fact, is the main aim of vipassana, not purely to calm our manic minds but to purify them “at the deepest level, the root level” so we remain balanced, said Goenka.
Creating craving towards events, people or things, or aversion towards unwanted things, will only lead to misery, he told us. And the way to come out of this is to understand the truth about life, which is that ultimately, everything changes, so not to get attached to any of it.
With so much to contemplate, I headed straight to bed at 9pm, feeling that perhaps this retreat really would help me dissolve those negative mental thought patterns, often generated when I feel let down or upset by the actions, or inactions in some cases, of men, or useless thoughts about how I 'should' have done this that and the other in the past as, of course, my life would be SO much better now if I had done so (it thinks). This vipassana lark had to be worth a go at least! And I’d signed on the dotted line so there was no going back now, however hard it got. 

For more information about Vipassana ten-day meditation courses, visit http://www.dipa.dhamma.org

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Day 0 in the Vipassana house

Wow so many days have passed since my retreat! I meant to write about it as soon as I returned but I was enjoying just ‘being’ for a few days, without going into all the emails and facebook and digital communications. I enjoyed Friday in town, which was novel as I have never spent a day off from work just chilling out around home – it’s always been to go somewhere. I did do a yoga class though, then decided to have my hair cut – the fringe is back! – which I think triggered the cash splurge in Karen Millen as I then fancied a whole new outfit to go with the new hair. A pair of knee-high boots and two dresses later and I was £400 lighter – this after coming back from a meditation retreat about avoiding craving! Ha ha. But then I felt like a new person on the inside, so why not show that on the outside too! I felt like a bit of a wardrobe boost to feel more professional at work as my attired had 
grown somewhat slobby in the past few months as I cared less what others thought.

Entering the Big Brother, er, I mean Vipassana house
So, how was it? I think I’ll spread out the experience over a few blogs, as that is how my life was measured out for the duration, making it feel like I was in the reverse of the Big Brother house, where rather than everyone else 
watching you, you turn your attention within and watch yourself…

Day 0 in the Vipassana house
I arrived in Sherringham ridiculously early, having booked a 9am train just to save myself a fiver (see, I can save money at times). I wandered around the north Norfolk town – a pretty seaside place with pubs, candy shops, lots of tea rooms and trinket shops among the grocers, newsagents and even a small arcade – and had a massive lunch of fish, chips and peas as I didn’t know how much food we’d be getting once the retreat started. When I made my way back to the station, there was a guy also waiting there with a large rucksack, whom I reckoned must be going to the retreat too. Just then, a car turned up and the driver asked whether we were there for the Vipassana retreat. It was only a five-minute drive to the centre – Hill Tops, which is a kids activity centre throughout the year – and as we arrived he said ‘I’ll drop you off first in the men’s lodgings’ addressing the other passenger, ‘then take you to the women’s accommodation’ turning to me. I knew men and women were segregated in sleeping quarters but I didn’t’ realise we were totally separated in different buildings (it’s only at this location, apparently, as the set up facilitates this arrangement).
Being the first one there – I was still an hour earlier than the set arrival time – I sat and drank tea, looking out at the surrounding trees and a rather prominent wooden pirate ship construction, with two levels of lookout platforms and complete with a skull and cross bones flag at the top, while the course manager, a short, sweet Indian lady, bustled about and conversed with the assistant teacher, who had the longest grey hair I’d ever seen, way down her back.

Back to school in bunk beds!
I filled in all the forms and got given the code of conduct and asked to read it again, even though I knew what I was in for having read the very same thing on the website about agreeing to abstain from lying (this would be easy as we had to stay in silence), killing (hence all food being vegetarian), stealing (easy), sexual misconduct (no men here, and even if there were, part of the reason I’d gone in the first place was because I was fed up of repeating what had become boring relationship patterns, so there was no chance of any misconduct), and taking intoxicants (this would be easy as my most lethal ‘intoxicant’ is sugar and I doubted there would be many chances to indulge in that with our healthy veggie diet).
When I was shown to my room I got a shock: bunk beds! And I’d been allocated a top one, on the grounds of being ‘young’. It was a compliment I guess. But bunk beds? I’d not been in those since I was about ten on a family holiday. And there were four of them, meaning eight beds in total, though as it turned out only five were filled. We were lucky too, as our room was one of only a few with an en-suite shower room.
As women began arriving one by one and in small groups – a surprising number of whom were much younger than me, I guessed, in their late teens and early to mid 20s – we got chatting about why we were doing the retreat, whether we’d done it before, and I found people to be very open and honest. I didn’t expect there to be so many of us and began to wonder why they had all chosen to leave their families over Christmas, but then I’d done the same thing – we were all seeking salvation from something or other. Seeking silence, calmness, a way to eradicate suffering, most of which is generated in our minds. 

No phoning home 
The hardest part was handing over my phone and purse – the only valuables I’d taken with me – and I even questioned where they would be kept and whether or not it was totally safe (we were in the depths of north Norfolk at a holiday camp tucked out of the way off the beaten path, so it was highly unlikely anyone would be passing and, on the off chance, try to come in and steal any of our stuff, and we’d all vowed not to steal anyway!)
I'd already told my parents I'd not be texting to wish them a happy Christmas, which made me feel slightly guilty, though a friend had said she would psychically transmit a Christmas song to me on Xmas day itself and I was to tune in and tell he which one it was when I returned. 
After a short introductory talk, in which we were again reminded of the rules and given our final chance to back out – no one did – it was into silence, after wishing each other luck! And not just any silence, but noble silence. They use this term as it means silence of body, speech and mind. This I found impossible, at least at first. The not talking to others was completely do-able, but as for silence in my mind? No chance! It was having a field day singing songs, chattering away, reacting to everything with thoughts, flitting from past events to big decisions I had to make when I 'got out' (makes it sound like a prison - one in which I'd chosen to inhabit anyway).

So what is vipassana meditation?
Then it was time for our first sit in the meditation hall – the dhamma hall as it was called. The word dhamma means teachings of the Buddha. I hadn’t realised it, but the lady with the long grey hair wasn’t to lead our course; instead, she sat at the front, stone still, alongside a more junior teacher, who turned out to be training to be a main teacher, and all the discourse was to come from either a CD or DVD of SN Goenka, who is the founder of the Vipassana order here in the UK. So what is Vipassana? Here’s what it says on their website www.dhamma.org:
“Vipassana is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practised by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all.”

What Vipassana is not:
It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
What Vipassana is:
It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life's tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.

It was this part about ‘eradicating suffering’  that most appealed to me. Not that I’ve had a hard life in terms of physical suffering – I’ve always lived a comfortable existence with no major problems. But I’ve become highly skilled at creating internal suffering of the mental variety, namely over analysing, thinking things were better in the past, thinking they will be better in the future, wishing I had taken a different course of action at various points in life, lamenting ‘wrong’ decisions I’ve made, and generally believing I could have done, been and had so much more in life had I just done things differently. This, I know, is all totally unhelpful and not conducive to living a calm and happy life. So, if Vipassana could help me eradicate these distorted ways of thinking, then good! Ten 
days of silence meditation was probably just what I needed.

Mirth in the meditation hall
I hadn’t been expecting what came next. The teacher pressed play on the CD machine and the strangest chanting I’ve ever hear poured forth into the hall, sounding like a cross between a frog croaking and Bagpuss yawning! (for anyone under the age of 30 and not from the UK, Bagpuss was a children’s TV animation in the 70s about a pink and white striped saggy old cloth cat). Anyway, it sounded like a load of unintelligible words and disjointed syllables sung, in the loosest sense of the word, by Goenka, which elicited a fair few laughs around the dimly lit hall as we sat on our blue cushions, wondering what on earth we’d signed up for. I stifled my laugh but a massive grin spread across my lips as it sounded so strange! the teachers and old students, of course, all sat stock still with a look of concentration on their faces. (ten days later we were all sad to leave the funny, oddly comforting tones of Goenka’s voice, even if they were in the early hours of the morning). After an hour or so of being directed to observe our breath going in and out of our noses, we retired to bed. The journey had begun…