How to do the Perfect Sun Salutation! Photo Blog

The Sun Salutation is the heart of any yoga practice- in fact, this core set of movements is an entire yoga practice within itself as it contains all the major types of asana – forward bends, backward bends, folds, inversions, mudra (hand positions), breath work… It is simple, and it is the perfect sequence to start off your own at home yoga practice with. Classes are great of course but your yoga journey really begins when you make it part of your daily routine at home. All you need is yourself, a mat, a wee bit of time, and you can feel great!

Everyone has a different way of doing sun salutations, the method I show you in photographs here, in my opinion, is the BEST. I don’t really intend for you to read the blog WHILE doing the poses! That wouldn’t work, it would be pretty awkward too, as it’s all about FLOW. But hopefully you can read it off the mat, and then try out the poses a few times while reading the descriptions and looking at the images and once you are comfortable, just go for it, fly solo! Once you have learned the ideal sun salutation technique you’ll never go back, and then with each day, you’ll continue to perfect it on increasingly subtle levels, it is SO satisfying!

If you do a few repetitions of these every morning you’ll start off the day on the right foot and will establish a calm sense of balance to take into your day. For me, sun salutations are as essential as brushing my teeth every morning. In just a few minutes of doing this simple sequence you will have completed a small -but whole- yoga practice and with a daily routine you will quickly begin to reap the benefits, you’ll start to tone up, will breathe much deeper, and you’ll be much calmer. You can quote me on that!

At first, go slooooooow- really BREATHE and enjoy each movement– the most important part of this is to breathe in step with the movements, it’s ALL about the breath- breathe in and out through the nose, as deeply as you can (if you can feel the breath moving up the back of your neck and into your head, especially in ‘Downwards Facing Dog’ then you’re really on it!) Yep, I’m even gonna say it one more time as I really can’t emphasise this enough, the breath is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

Start with 6, doing 3 sets on each side, and work your way up. 6 Sun salutations will take you less than 5 minutes! (I’m sure no matter how busy you are you can take 5 minutes out of your morning routine to centre yourself, right?)

As you become more familiar with the routine you might want to do the sequence at different speeds. Some days I feel that I want to be really slow, breathe really deeply, do it ALL with eyes closed, be very feminine, or ‘yin‘- other days I want to launch myself onto the mat and do them really fast- I might be a bit frustrated, or I might just be feeling really energetic- this is more masculine energy, or ‘yang‘. Go with your own energies, if it feels too slow, speed it up, if it feels rushed, slow it right down. It will fluctuate. 

Preferably face the sun! I know we’re not all as lucky as me to have our own personal outdoor yoga deck in the countryside… If you can, face a window, or at least orientate yourself in the right direction – the sun rises in the East. It honestly makes a difference, I feel out of sorts if I am saluting the sun facing the wrong way… Oh yeah, and wear something you can stretch in -bright green leotard (or ‘yogatard’ as I like to call it)- optional, FUN, but not compulsory ; )

Begin by standing up straight at the top of your mat, feet together, hands by your sides. Breathe in and out a few times, deepen your breath until you are breathing from the belly. Find your centre. Feel the firm, stable contact of your feet on the floor, relax into it.

Ok, here we go!

BREATHE IN: Bring your hands up into ‘Prayer Position‘, in front of your heart. Establish a sense of balance as the hands push against one another (this balances the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ energies).

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BREATHE OUT: Keeping the hands in prayer position lower them to in front of your navel. Use this as a propelling motion to then…


BREATHE IN: REACH UP with the hands until you are stretching as far above your head as you can, hands still in prayer pose. Reach up, up, UP!


Still on this in breath. Bend your knees slightly and as you reach up, tilt your pelvis forwards as far as you can and arch softly back so you are doing a very small bend in your lower back, bring the arms back with it, and even look up/behind you as long as you feel it is no strain. Really listen to your body here, only go as far as you are comfortable, this will develop naturally as you become more familiar with the practice and you will, over time, bend further.


BREATHE OUT: stretch back up straight then bring the hands back towards the front and, knees still slightly bent, FOLD forward, from the hips, part the hands wide, let them glide down, palms facing down, to beside the feet, and place them on the floor, either side of the feet. Drop the head fully forward. Relax into this forward bend. Straighten your legs to intensify the stretch or keep your knees bent slightly if you have to to get your hands on the floor here. Again, this will come over time, your hamstrings WILL loosen with yoga!


BREATHE IN: LOOK UP and out straight in front of you, straighten the legs here and with your hands come onto the very tips of the fingers on the mat, allow the ‘lifting’ of your head and your hands to adjust your torso into a ‘lifted’ position too, suck that belly in!


BREATHE OUT. Fold forward again, head to straightened legs, plant the hands firmly on the floor either side of the feet and



Staying on the same breath, look straight ahead and really BEND INTO your left knee to feel the stretch here in the hips, look up, hands come onto the fingertips, ooh I love this stretch- a real hip-opener!

BREATHE OUT really gain MOMENTUM in your movements here and put your hands flat on the mat, either side of the feet, put your weight INTO the hands to use that firm grounding to lift and BRING your LEFT FOOT back to meet the right, into a strong ‘Plank position‘.


Hold steady this for a second before you DROP your KNEES to the floor, and with your arms, be strong and deliberate, as if you were doing a push-up and carefully lower your upper body towards the floor and propel FORWARDS and with strength and control, BREATHE IN and  push your chest UP and THROUGH to ‘Upwards Facing Dog‘.


Relish in this pose. Look up to the sun, imagine yourself like a Sphinx or a Cobra with this lovely inverted back bend. The tops of your feet should be on the matsoles facing UP (look at the image above). Keep your knees and hips on the floor to begin with as you do this pose, although as you progress and develop strength in your upper body you will want to ‘push through’ from ‘plank’ into ‘upward’s facing dog’ all with your knees and hips lifted up off the mat to intensify the bend, Oh, it’s so goooood!


BREATHE OUT. Curl your toes and TURN YOUR FEET under, so the soles begin to move towards the mat, use this motion and the strength in your arms and hands to PUSH your entire body up and back into ‘Downwards Facing Dog’, FEET TOGETHER (yep, in my way we do it feet together here).

Really GROUND and establish yourself in this pose, head down, bum up! Lower your heels towards the mat. Really PUSH against the mat with your hands to OPEN the shoulder blades and push the body up and back. LIFT the pelvis up to the sky. Relaaaxxxxxx into it. Walk your legs a few times on each side, straightening them, one at a time, each time trying to lower the heel as close to the ground as you can, the goal is to get the feet flat on the ground. Eventually, with practice, you will be able to plant both feet firmly on the ground and it will be the most satisfying stretch. BREATHE DEEPLY through the nose. 3 deep breaths in, 3 deep breaths out. Hey, why not 5 deep breaths, 7 even (I do 7- it’s my numerology!) Do as many as you can manage (this is where, if you can begin to FEEL the breath moving up the back of your neck and into your skull you are REALLY on the money!)


When you’ve had enough downward-dogging…

BREATHE IN: Step the RIGHT FOOT forward into a lunge, finger tips on the mat either side of the foot, look up and ahead, really feel into that hip-opener. Toes of the left foot curled under, ready to step forward.

BREATHE OUT: Step the LEFT FOOT forward to meet the right, stand firmly on both feet, hands placed either side, touching the mat (fingertips is fine) straighten the legs and FOLD forward, head down, REALLY fold here, enjoy it!


Still folded forward BEND THE KNEES, ROOT your feet firmly to the ground, really stabilise, and as you do, carefully lift the hands off the mat and bring them into prayer pose in front of your chest, still bent over.

BREATHE IN: PUSH your feet down into the mat to stabilise you and use this to enable you to SLOWLY COME UP,  REACH your hands up in prayer pose until you are stretching RIGHT UP above your head, stretch up, up, up, feel as if your body is lifting up out of the knees, out of the hips, out of the shoulders!


As we did at the beginning, bend the knees, tilt the pelvis forwards and arch gently back. 


To close slowly bring the hands forwards and come out of the bend, return your hands gently to prayer pose to in front of your heart. BREATHE OUT.

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Mmmmmmmm…. finally, before you move onto the other side, gently let your hands fall to your sides and take a couple of deep breaths to complete.

Then begin again! This time when you step back, step back with the LEFT foot, and when you come out of ‘Downward’s Facing Dog’ again step forward with your LEFT foot. And there we have a set!

GOOD MORNING! FEELS GOOD, RIGHT?! And although this is a lot of words all this will take you under a minute, but it’s all about doing it with the right intention, getting the breath right, really feeling into the postures…

As I say- start with 6 sun salutations, R, L, R, L, R, L.

And as you become more comfortable you can work your way up. Every day I do 10 of this sequence (which is called ‘Sun Salutation A‘ followed by 4 of more complex and ‘yang-y’ ‘Sun Salutation B‘- keep your eyes out, I’ll post the photos/instructions to B soon! (I might even wear a different coloured ‘yogatard’ oo-er) I incorporate my Sun Salutations into a self-designed practice which also contains the warm-up exercises of Kundalini Yoga, twists, inversions and breathing exercises (Pranayama) and I always precede all this with an hour of Vipassana meditation (for years I did my meditation AFTER my yoga- for the first 6 years, but since I discovered Vipassana I prioritise my meditation and do it first, this really enables me to check in with how I really am that day). This is my essential daily practice. More than that, this is my primary avenue of HEALING.

I can’t wait until I am a qualified Kundalini Yoga Teacher and it makes me very happy to share this with you. I am happy to offer any tips to help you establish your own daily at home yoga practice- just let me know how I can help! My number one piece of advice: ONLY DO WHAT FEELS GOOD!

Now, go get on that mat, and salute that SUN! Whether it is sunny or not, indoors or outdoors, it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s cloudy and rainy, the sun’s still there, behind the clouds, just face East!

Love x

An Open Letter to Anyone Who is Considering Taking Up Meditation from a Vipassana Meditator

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Dear Friend,

So you are thinking about learning to meditate? Let me tell you straight away that this was the best decision I have ever made, and although I know I’ve got a fair few decades to live, I am pretty sure it will hold that title for the remainder.  Meditation is without a doubt the most important cornerstone of my life, and as such it is the most difficult thing to even attempt to write about… meditation is the hardest thing to put into words, it simply has to be experienced. Saying that, like many, I want nothing more than to be able to communicate the ongoing revelation that is meditation to others (you’re missing out guys!) and as such I am in the process of writing my first novel/memoir ‘The Silent Meditation Retreat’ where I will really go into detail about the practice of meditation and what it means to me by recounting the experience of my first Vipassana Meditation retreat: 10 days of silence, 10 hours of meditation a day; it was a truly life-changing experience, verging on unbelievable at points, I hope you will read it. But for now, here is a tiny taster, a droplet, and if these few introductory words go some way enrich your thirst, to bring you closer to sitting down on that cushion, closing your eyes, focusing on your breath and the sensations in your body, and just simply BEING, then great!

In the first section ‘What is Meditation?’ I set the context and go someway towards defining what the practice of meditation means for me, and in the second section ‘Vipassana Meditation‘ I talk specifically about this intensive method, which has changed my life beyond recognition. I hope you will read to the end, as with meditation, the further along the journey we go the bigger the insights get!

You don’t need to be a Buddhist to meditate, you don’t need to be spiritual to meditate; in fact you don’t need anything to meditate… All you need is yourself, a bit of time, and somewhere to sit, and the desire to stop letting your wayward and fear addled mind run (and ruin) your life. That’s it. (I can’t promise that you will remain non-spiritual if you keep it up for a while though!) I find that by meditating in the morning it sets me up to have a good day. Others find that it is best for them to meditate in the evening to help them to wind down before going to bed. If you can do both then you’re well on your way to enlightenment already! If you can make it a quiet place, preferably close to nature, then that’s absolutely ideal, then you’re living the meditation dream! But if not, it really doesn’t matter. As one of my first meditation teachers said as we sat learning to meditate in a Buddhist Centre situated on one of the busiest streets of the city where buses roared by every 30 seconds and crowds of drunken revellers paraded down the streets: ‘don’t disturb the noise.’


What is meditation?

Well, as I understand it at this point in time, given my own experience so far, it is a process of simply paying attention to the breath or sensation in the body to calm the mind, with the intention to reach a point of stillness where we learn to dissociate from the ‘chitter chatter’ thoughts of the ‘to-do-list’ brain and the fear-based projections and ruminations of dwelling on the past/worrying about the future/about what others think of us/about what we think of ourselves. If you’ll allow me to use a theatrical metaphor: these ego projections become but scripts that you are able to observe being read aloud in your head as opposed to unwittingly embodying the role of the actor and fully identifying with them. You become instead a witness, a member of the audience and not embroiled in the action of the play. This gives you license to re-write the script, to decide where it is going to go from here. Over time the script gets less melodramatic and becomes more profound and universal, and when you see it beginning to verge into the territory of the soap opera you can spot it and quickly nip it in the bud before you end up embarking on a storyline you will undoubtedly go on to regret.

The practice of meditation IS really as simple as keeping your awareness on the breath, or on sensation in the body. That really is all there is to it on a practical level. But that is where the simplicity ends. Meditation can feel like THE MOST CHALLENGING THING IN THE WORLD given our human nature and the world we live in. In my opinion it is not an activity that can be undertaken lightly. It is truly transformational.

It is a technique that encourages you to stop looking outwards for answers (where you will never find them) and instead to turn inwards and LISTEN, and if you are able to get quiet enough you WILL be given the answer to every single question you ask. The voice of the ego communicates by shouting, the voice of the soul communicates in a whisper, and so the only way to hear it is to get as quiet and still as humanly possible. Meditation is the way to get there.

It is a method where, given practice, you are able to see that the constant yelps and to-ings and fro-ings of the anxious and overactive monkey-mind as it jumps from tree to tree are so deafeningly loud and relentless that they completely prevent you from connecting to your true Self, the world around you, and everyone you encounter in your life. Add to this the noise of the overstimulating, inhumane, alienating and non-stop nature of the capitalist world around us and it is surprising we ever manage to connect with ourselves or each other at all. Fortunately we still do, mostly albeit in momentary glimpses, and these are exquisitely beautiful. Meditation will help you to learn how to grow and nurture these moments until they become more plentiful and last longer, maybe one day it will even be possible to live from this place… much more of the time anyway. Meditation will allow you to dwell in bliss states; timeless, spaceless voids of utter peace, pleasure and serenity, the like of which you will have never have even thought possible. They will increase in intensity and duration as you develop your practice. But it is undeniable, being a human being is hard, life is hard, there’s no escaping that. It’s far from permanent bliss states. Someone said to me recently ‘first the ecstasy, then the dishes.’ But knowing that the ecstasy is possible, and you will know this for certain once you experience it, makes the thought of doing the dishes MUCH more palatable (obviously this extends to INFINITELY more profound things other than the dishes!)

In our minds we are constantly stuck either in the past, future, or dwelling in ‘me’ stories, or ‘you’ stories. It is mostly all projection, and far removed from reality. These projections enforce separation between us and keep us from living in the now, and stop us from recognising the real. Meditation encourages you to be fully present, in the moment, and to see yourself in every other person on this planet; there is no separation, it is all in our poor disillusioned heads.

Meditation will teach you that far from there only being once voice in your head, there are many, and no, this doesn’t make you a schizophrenic —far from it— the real sanity lies in learning to identify and distinguish between these voices and know which ones you can trust and which ones you really shouldn’t. We can’t however make them magically disappear. We are human, we are products of our evolution and as such we have voices that find their origin in our mammalian past and our reptilian past which at times trigger us to cower in fear, or attack, thinking we are at risk of being destroyed by predators. Unfortunately we are hard-wired in this fear-based mode and can, when under stress in our modern world, see our colleagues, our partners, or our siblings or parents (always our siblings or parents!) as predators… as well as work deadlines, or any undesired event or situation where we are under stress… and we are human, it’s LIFE, there’s gonna be MANY of these! And it’s not just our inner wild animal we need to worry about as we also carry within us the voice of the damaged inner child (who is deeply hurt and fearful due to not being unconditionally loved by its parents and so is afraid to put its trust in others, or the world… it is ironic that to unconsciously withhold this love the ‘unloving’ parents will have within themselves, a severely damaged inner child of their own, in fact even MORE so, and so a destructive cycle continues until someone down the line is brave enough to break free of it). It’s not all bad though of course as we all also have the counterpart of the damaged inner child – the divine inner child (who is so full of joy and innocence and love, and who just wants to laugh, giggle, run around and PLAY all the time!) This is a voice that we DO want to learn to listen to! The big showdown on this front is of course that we need to learn to stop listening to the voice of the Ego and start listening to the voice of the Soul, or Higher Self. Meditation is key for this as it helps you get quiet enough to differentiate between the two, it is no easy feat. The ego is bombastic, mouthy and wordy- it has a well thought out argument for EVERYTHING, our ‘intellect’ is predominately ego, if it needs to create an elaborate rationale to justify anything- it’s ego. It is the constant stream-of-consciousness worrier, judge, critic and self-important separatist that says things like ‘you need to live in the real world’, ‘no wonder he doesn’t want to be with you’, ‘if it looks too good to be true it probably is’, ‘I need this new <insert whatever it is here> because <lists a million reasons to justify it>, (ironically it is also the voice that says: ‘we can’t afford it. Money doesn’t grow on trees you know’). What else… things like ‘SHE hurt me!’, ‘It’s MINE!’. It also feels the intuitive twang in your stomach that says ‘this is not for me’ and CONVINCES you to ignore it and carry on regardless; or it feels the flutter of your heart and says ‘don’t… we’ll only get hurt’ (although the damaged inner child is in there too of course)… It is the voice that says ‘When/if I do this, go here, fix this thing about myself, about my relationships THEN I’ll be happy.’ And it NEVER is, and It NEVER stops. Each of these statements in essence is saying the same thing: FEAR, FEAR, FEAR, FEAR, FEAR. The soul, or higher self on the other hand speaks in the quietest little voice and just IS. It is happy right now, it wants and needs for nothing as it is fully aware it already has everything. It never raises its voice to be heard above the ego. It doesn’t need to- it only ever speaks truth and so it never needs to defend itself. It is your biggest cheerleader, the unconditionally loving mother and/or father (that you didn’t get in real life), your fairy godmother that encourages you to dream and tells you they CAN come true, and everything it says is not just for the good of one, but for the good of all. It is your inspiration. It is the voice that says ‘have you thought about this?’ and it’s utter genius! (when you hear this whatever you do, don’t let the ego talk you out of it!) The voice of the soul just waits patiently until your ego exhausts itself and shuts up for a second so you can hear yourSelf (all it needs is the tiniest gap) and it will chime in sweetly and lovingly with a truth so complete, so kind, so universal and so perfect you will feel like you’ve finally ‘got it’, all is right with the world! and rather than say ‘About time! I’ve been trying to get your attention on this for YEARS!’ all it will say ‘well done darling, I knew you’d get it. Now what do you really want to do?’ It reassures you that no matter what happens all is well and all will always be well. It has infinite time, patience and love for you, it holds all the answers to your happiness. Everything the soul says is LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. But in order to hear it, and then live from it, you have to get rid of the ego. Let me tell you- the ego will not give up without a fight. It will throw absolutely everything it has at you, it’s gonna get ugly- expect plenty of underhand tactics and nasty vitriolic bile. The ego will do ALL it can to keep you living in a fear-based mode of existence, and stop you from surrendering to love. It takes courage, patience, determination and persistence and a WHOLE lot of love and compassion to first placate, and then dissolve the ego. Meditation is the battlefield on which this takes place, it’s one hell of a battle, but it is worth it: you WILL win. Something I’ve come to realise is that a common misconception of meditation is that the goal is to quiet the mind until there is nothing there at all, when in fact, the real goal is to quiet the mind until you can clearly hear, and act upon, the voice of the soul. (The voice of the soul is the voice of Spirit by the way. That’s the term I have come to use for myself, but I moved through a few different ‘names’ before I arrived here: subtle energy; soul; higher self, Self…. ultimately- Spirit.) A label is a label, a word is a word, a name is a name, it’s not about that, it’s about the experience.

Through the process of meditation our eyes are opened as we learn to recognise ALL of the conditioning we have been saddled with over the years, decades, generations, eras, eons, and Man, it’s A LOT! We look at it, and it breaks our heart to see it in all its painful reality, and we want to shut down in fear because it’s just too frightening, we want it to just go away, we might even think we want to be ignorant again, and revert to our consumerist, capitalist, asleep existence where all we had to think about was that project at work, or what so-and-so said about so-and-so, and where you want to go on holiday or what you want to see at the cinema… ‘ignorance is bliss’, right? But you can’t just UN-SEE something… and in truth we don’t really WANT to un-see it, we just wish it weren’t the reality. What we WANT is to be as conscious as humanly possible, what we WANT is to create a life for ourselves in this world in which we can be truly happy, and to extend and share this with those around us as much as we can, and make a valuable contribution to making the world a better place. So, if you’ll permit me to now use a textile metaphor, we take a big long unflinching look at the monstrosity before us as if it was an old, ugly, badly designed, unwanted damaged rag of a garment, and once we’ve taken it all in, an honest appraisal, we begin to work, to laboriously, painfully, stich-by-stitch, unpick it until we have dismantled it completely back into its raw material state and from there we can begin the slow process of consciously re-making it, again stich-by-stich, into something of our own design, and something we will truly love to wear. We’ll stand proudly in our handmade garments and encourage those around us to go through their own un-picking and re-stitching process until they are happy in their new second skin too. EACH PERSON HAS TO UNDERTAKE THE PROCESS BY THEMSELVES. There are no shortcuts and there is no way that we can do it for them. And we will learn to love our painstakingly reassembled selves, with all the battle scars, tatters and tears that are still evident, as we can’t make them disappear, we can only learn to accept them, and re-fashion them in a new light. And we will also learn to love all the other rags that are walking around, no matter what state of array or disarray they happen to be in at the time. Every single rag can be transformed into something else if it wants to do the necessary work, but it absolutely has to be of its own volition, and there are no sewing machines, this has to be a handmade labour of love, and you will prick yourself, more than once.

In essence meditation is a massive process of examining and UNLEARNING every single thing we ever thought we knew until there is nothing left, and then and only then can the RE-LEARNING can begin.

Although we live in our bodies as men and women, within both sexes there are the dynamics of BOTH the masculine and the feminine, and it is our task to enact a balance between the two. These are split further into the positive and the negative. We have the negative masculine side of ourselves (the aggressive and retaliatory resentfully responsible being who works itself into the ground thinking that the world would cease to turn if it didn’t get everything done), and the negative feminine side of ourselves (the overly emotional, afraid, insecure being with an overwhelming sense of worthlessness, unlovableness and inadequacy who is at risk of collapsing into a pool on the floor at any minute). But we also have the positive feminine (who is also like a pool, but one of still deep water: calm, safe, insightful, inviting and connected to nature and wise beyond words) and then finally the positive masculine (creative, inspirational, pioneering, active in the world and full of energy with which to pursue its dreams). By meditating we learn to live from the positive as opposed to the negative, but we don’t deny the dark, we learn to be WHOLE, we learn to integrate the dark and the light, balance the masculine and the feminine, and accept it ALL as part of our being.

By practicing meditation you learn to get out of your own way. You learn that you can’t control everything, but you CAN choose how to stop mindlessly reacting, and instead to RESPOND to anything that comes your way. You learn to do your best to empty yourself of all the unnecessary ego fuelled thoughts of inadequacy/craving/misery/arrogance/woe/unfairness/separation and allow yourself instead to be filled with energy that will enable you to see, hear and think clearly, and encourage you to love, respect and unite with yourself, those around you, and the world you inhabit. With meditation you choose to approach the world from LOVE instead of FEAR, and you realise that it REALLY IS A CHOICE.

And it is an ongoing process which never ends, with each day, week, month, year, (lifetime?) you learn a little bit more… you become more aware of your deeply ingrained psychological conditioning and patterns, and you begin to learn how to first of all accept them, and then over-ride them. It is a long, never-ending trial and error process. You see something in a new light, a person/an event from your past/an irrational worry you had about your future…. And when you have that ‘A-ha!’ moment it is as if another veil has been lifted, there are MANY veils, maybe an infinite number. And this IS the journey, this is the path towards enlightenment: an ever increasing development of consciousness, a growth, an unfolding— and meditation is the daily practice that allows for you to begin this journey and is your constant companion throughout. Although you have your eyes closed, meditation is the practice of waking up and seeing things clearly in the light of day as they really are. It is staring unflinchingly directly into the sun, and it is simultaneously entering into the darkest caverns of existence and waiting in the darkness, no matter how terrifying, until the light begins to stream in, which it always will. And you don’t just wake up once, you continue to wake up incrementally, every single day, sometimes in the tiniest ways, sometimes on a seismic level, sometimes by realising things that make you do a complete 360 degree turn and change your life beyond recognition. You realise just how asleep you were, you see your past pain and suffering with increasing clarity, and you see the suffering of others, and this is incredibly painful to witness. But you wouldn’t want to un-see it for the world, as it LIBERATES you. And with the pain paradoxically comes real peace, real happiness, real understanding and real acceptance. And you continue to be liberated in different ways with each new day.  So you keep meditating, every day, and the veils continue to be lifted, and the world becomes a COMPLETELY different place. It becomes astonishingly beautiful, even in inescapably deeply troubled and flawed state.

Much more than sitting with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath, eh?! Much more than just seeking a way to chill out and be less stressed..? Of course it can be this- you choose to take it as lightly, or as deeply as you wish. And there are many MANY roads into meditation- some of them only scratch the surface and will affect your life in the sense that you’ll find you have slightly more patience when stuck in traffic, or doing the dishes, or dealing with that annoying guy at work. Other forms literally turn your world upside down, your conception of reality inside out and force you to examine every facet of your own existence, and that of humanity. Soooooooooo…. Choose your weapon.

Vipassana Meditation

How do you get started with meditation? Well, to very briefly give you my story, I got started with meditation roughly seven years ago by finally relenting and taking my father’s advice after months of prodding and marched myself down to the local Buddhist Centre to a drop-in meditation and did my first ever guided meditation. I was an alcohol and drug addicted, cynical, promiscuous, nihilistic, overly-analytical, desperately unhappy girl in my early twenties and I needed help to get out of my own way. I had never even attempted to still my mind before. I vividly remember the tingling sensation present in my hands throughout the 20 minute meditation, which felt like HOURS, where we were simply instructed to count the breaths as they came in, up to 10, and then start over. I had never noticed that my body was constantly generating sensations like this, and I realised that, WOW, my mind doesn’t stay still for even so much as a second! It started to fascinate me.

For the next five years or so I pursued this path, sometimes with admirable dedication, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes I’d fall off the wagon for weeks, months, over a year (!) at a time. I went to classes at the Buddhist Centre where I learned to meditate in a non-sectarian manner at first, then I felt the urge to explore Buddhism on a deeper level, so I started to attend classes which incorporated the teachings of Buddhism- ‘the Dharma’ as well as meditation. I attended retreats where I meditated alongside complementary activities like Yoga, Tai Chi, Shiatsu… I read lots of books on meditation, I even hand-painted a picture of a Buddha (I have the art skills of a five-year-old) that I had up on my bedroom wall, and I used this little corner as my own personal ‘shrine’ that I would meditate in front of. It was laughably bad, but it made me really happy. It certainly did help me to create a more peaceful existence for myself. It definitely went below the surface, but there were still a good few layers that remained untouched, and I was still unsatisfied with my existence.  I could never really integrate the intellectual ‘academic’ side of my personality- who I felt was ‘paid to think’ and the ‘spiritual’ side of my personality- who I felt was tasked with learning to STOP thinking and start BEING. I also found it very challenging to let go of my party-hard hedonist ways. Although I often experienced extended periods of bliss and deep resonating peace and tranquility in my meditations I always came crashing down to earth afterwards and there was nothing that shifted the foundations of the world for me as I understood it. To me the world was still a chaotic, inhospitable place with no essential meaning; and I just couldn’t find my place in it. I couldn’t say that I KNEW anything for certain. It was an ongoing tussle for years, at points underlying, at points painfully acute, marked by intensive struggles and suffering of different sorts. My Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which triggered my entire life (as it was) to unravel, finally forced me to jump in to the deep end and swim right down to my very depths. I realised that I was living falsely as an academic, and in many other senses, and that my true calling was to direct my intellect towards fully embracing the spiritual; and to go on to share that with others, as I am doing with you right now.

The real awakening happened when I found Vipassana meditation. And since I found Vipassana I can say for certain that I KNOW. I had heard about it roughly six years previous, as soon as I had started meditating, I had even signed up for a couple of 10 day retreats over the years, but I had pulled out at the last minute each time. Vipassana meditation is known as the extreme sport of the meditation world. It is INTENSE. There are centres all over the world and you go there for 10 days. They are completely non-sectarian (although based on the teachings of the Buddha there is absolutely no religious dogma) and the teaching is open to Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Atheists alike. You don’t need to have meditated even once before you go, you will be taught everything you need to know. You don’t pay a penny, this is not a profit-driven business. Don’t think that it’s austere though, far from it, you will have a comfortable bed and will be fed really good quality food. But they will not accept any money from you unless you have already completed a ten-day retreat, and even then you are under no obligation to donate, if and how much you donate is completely up to you. It is based completely on a ‘Dhana’ based economy. And it is THRIVING. Once you have learned this technique you want everyone in the world to learn it, because it really does put an end to suffering. On the retreat you agree to remain completely silent and over the course of the 10 days you are taught the technique which is believed to be the undiluted teachings of the Buddha, preserved in Burma (which remained much more of a closed country than India), before it was eventually exported, firstly back to India and then beyond. As Buddhism spread across Asia and finally to Europe many branches were created: Zen Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Shambala Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism to name but a few. Vipassana meditation would argue that these forms of Buddhism, and thus meditation were (mostly innocently) tampered and tinkered with in the transition and so the teachings are no longer completely pure, and thus the Dharma can be akin to a game of Chinese Whispers. Vipassana is unique in that it goes right to the source, to the original teachings of the Buddha, and all you learn to do is to bring your attention to sensations all over your body. Sounds easy right? IT IS ANYTHING BUT THAT. Vipassana means ‘insight’ and yes, this technique will enable you to have huge, mind-blowing insights, that will just keep on coming and coming over the days, weeks, months and years you practice. If it wasn’t for the insights brought on by Vipassana I wouldn’t be writing this to you right now, I don’t think I’d be writing anything at all.

But as I said earlier, when we look at the way things really are it can be HELLA PAINFUL! And these first 10 days of Vipassana is like lifting the lid on Pandora’s box if you will. In fact, in my experience learning this technique can trigger the onset of the ‘dark night of the soul’- which is an inescapable rite of passage everyone MUST go through on the road to enlightenment. It did for me, and over the months following I had to delve into the darkest parts of myself and face everything, bring every skeleton out of the closet. SHIT GOT DARK. It was a rough ride, I’m not going to lie, there were points where I was ready to throw in the towel it was so hard (the towel of life, I mean) but I committed to seeing it through, and I’m so glad I did, the more you are willing to go into the dark, the brighter the light is when it is finally revealed. This is what I mean when I say that meditation is truly transformational, especially this technique. The technique teaches that our minds are hard-wired to react either positively or negatively to physical sensation, and this extends to mental experience where it turns into either craving or aversion, and this produces attachment, which ultimately can only lead to suffering. We want the ‘good’ things to last and we want the ‘bad’ things to go away. But the truth is we have no control over either, so we suffer. Vipassana teaches us NOT to react, and instead to accept the infinitely changing nature of all things and the fact that there is no intrinsic selfhood in anything— this is known as ‘Anicca’. EVERYTHING IS IMPERMANENT. EVERYTHING IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE. ‘GOOD’ and ‘BAD’ (but let’s try and refrain from making that distinction). We learn instead to react with ‘equanimity’ to anything as it arises in meditation (and eventually out-with meditation also) and to observe and accept reality AS IT IS whether it be a physically or emotionally painful experience, or an utterly astonishing fully immersive bliss state, and as such WE ARE LIBERATED FROM OUR SUFFERING. When we STOP reacting, we are then triggered to process the suffering we have endured in the past as a result of all our years, decades, (lifetimes?) of craving and aversion. I relived so many painful memories from my past I was shocked to my very core by all the things that came up. But they came up, and I rode them out, accepted them, and they lifted off, and they LEFT. (I should say that I also, for the first time, experienced extended bliss states beyond the realms of anything I had considered possible up until that point.) The Vipassana technique encourages our deepest ‘Sankharas’ to rise up to the surface so that we can lift them off, slough them off like dead skin, and LET GO OF THEM FOREVER, it is an intense process of purification, of acceptance, of forgiveness. Our ‘Sankharas’ are all the things we have said/done/regretted/the things that happened to us/the conditioning passed onto us by our parents or down through the family line/the further conditionings imposed on us by the society we grew up in. Vipassana sees each of these as a knot, and that it is these knots that are preventing us from attaining real peace and happiness. They are preventing us from seeing REALITY. The technique works to loosen and then finally release these knots, one by one, and they move up through the body as both a physical sensation and as a mental experience. This happens over days, months and years of practice. Each of us will go through this process at our own pace. On my 10 day retreat I felt like black matter was literally rising out of my body, I could almost see it the feeling was so palpable. The teacher, S.N. Goenka, describes it as an operation to remove the source of your misery at its very root: you are the surgeon, and the patient. It works to eradicate the suffering of human beings at the DEEPEST level. It is like the most intensive period of self-induced therapy you can possibly imagine. It has to be taught in a concentrated environment such as the retreat centres as this is where you are given the time, space and the correct teachings to learn the technique properly and in safety, surrounded by people that know exactly what it entails. It also has to be taught in a uniform manner for the technique to remain fully intact. So, although it sounds strange, the teachings are delivered by audio and video by Goenka (the Burmese man who exported Vipassana firstly back into India and then worldwide), and this allows for the technique to remain in its original state, and for it to be easily spread across the world successfully, in its undiluted form. And it works. There are teachers there in person, but they are more guardians of the technique than they are the actual teacher- they hold the space and answer your questions (sometimes you are allowed to talk!)

After the 10 days are up, and it does go without saying that these will be among the 10 HARDEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE, you are then left with the technique to practice in your own time, and you will likely want to top up with more courses, one a year, perhaps. Immediately after your first course, but especially as you progress with your own practice, with all the insights it will bring, you will begin to see these 10 initial heart-wrenching days morph into the 10 GREATEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE. With continued practice, over the following months, or maybe years (we all do things at different paces) you will experience a major ongoing transformation where gradually you will process ALL of your ‘Sankharas’ and as you do you will EMPTY YOURSELF IN ORDER TO BE FILLED. And when you are filled, the suffering will STOP (although from the beginning you will experience moments where the suffering will stop, but only temporarily). Please note, I say that your ‘suffering’ will stop, not your ‘pain’: we are still human. (Having said that, further down the line you will be able to eradicate your pain as well as your suffering, this really is powerful stuff!)

And then you will KNOW.


When the ‘Sankharas’ leave they are replaced with light. It starts as a few flashes within the darkest cave, but as you progress it will develop, first into a shaft of light that cuts through the darkness, then multiple beams, and will finally expand into an all-encompassing beam of light which will envelop your entire being, and then you can call upon it at will. And that is what your meditation practice will become. Your meditation practice will become the act of connecting to Source every day, where you will bask in its energy, and allow it to soothe, refresh, enliven and nourish your body, and entire being. This is a PHYSICAL experience. Once all the ‘Sankharas’ are processed and lifted off, we can be filled completely with light/love/universal energy/spirit/consciousness/big mind/Buddha nature/Chi or Qi/Tao/God… choose your own term, it honestly doesn’t matter. Whether the route to this awareness is through Buddhism, Christianity or Quantum Physics… it really doesn’t matter. We’re all going to the same place in the end, it doesn’t matter how we get there, or what words we choose to define it. All I’m saying is that Vipassana is a tried and tested fast-track. It works, and if you want to dive in at the deep end, and KNOW sooner, then give it a go! And then the fun REALLY begins as you begin to learn how to assimilate everything you have learned (and will continue to learn) into your human existence, with all its limitations.

So my dear friend, you are thinking of taking up meditation? If you’ll permit me to use one more metaphor, this time, to do with the act of cooking with fire: the difference between other forms of meditation and Vipassana meditation is like the saying ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire.’ When you learn to meditate by other avenues you will be like a tasty morsel in a frying pan- you WILL get juicier, more fragrant, and over time, slowly slowly slowly, you will cook in the frying pan, and to eat this will satiate you to some extent, but with Vipassana you will LEAP from the frying pan into the fire. The fire is both beautiful and dangerous, and you will be cooked in record timing. Do you dare to put your fingers in the flames? Are you brave enough to handle the hot coals? Let me tell you, you’re going to get burned. But once that flame ignites and sets your soul on fire it CANNOT and WILL NOT go out. Your soul WILL burn with an insatiable passion and you WILL feel more alive than you ever thought possible, you WILL die to yourself as you knew it, and be born anew in the purifying flames and you WILL see yourself, everything and everyone in the world through entirely new eyes. You WILL see the world as it really is and it WILL be imbued with meaning. You WILL want everyone you care about, everyone you’ve ever met and everyone you have never met and will never meet to join you in the fire. This is the challenge. You will have to be patient my dear friend, as you cannot drag anyone into the fire with you, they have to make the leap themselves. All you can do is stand beside them so that they feel the warmth that radiates from you, and shine your light in their direction so that they gravitate towards you like moths to a flame, which they will as they will recognise that this light in you is also their birthright. You can but stare into their eyes so that they can see the flames dancing behind your eyes, and if you can get close enough, you can whisper in their ear just how great it is in the fire and encourage them to jump in with you so you can dance together in the flames. Be patient. Have faith. It WILL spread like wildfire.

OK. BREATHE. (I’m saying that for myself as much as you, I get so overexcited, this is BIG stuff)… let’s come back down to Earth to finish up….

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So THIS is my understanding of what meditation is, almost a year after completing my first Vipassana retreat, and I am very much still learning, and will continue to do so every day, it is not a journey that has an end. It does however have to begin with just one step in the right direction.

So how to you take that first step? Well it’s entirely up to you how you go about it. You could start small— download a guided meditation and do it in your bedroom (maybe even paint a Buddha for the wall!) Or you could go in search of a local ‘Sangha’ a community of like-minded people that meditate and practice Buddhism together, as I did for the first part of my journey with meditation. Go along and see if the way they teach it feels like your ‘cup of tea’ and that these folks are your ‘peeps’. In the most part you will meet really lovely, welcoming interesting people, but know that you might also encounter situations where the folks you meet are perhaps not your peeps… For example, I once went to this weird place with lava lamps and lurid plastic flowers with people dressed in futuristic white tabards where everyone called one another ‘brother and sister’ and meditated by staring with open eyes at a fluorescent light situated at the third-eye point of the ugliest mural I have ever seen… each to their own and all that, but… not my peeps. Listen to your gut and don’t settle. Feel free to take your time, follow your nose, take it step-by-step. But if you are feeling brave, if you are fed up with suffering, if you are impatient to see the true nature of reality, if you want to leap into consciousness, dive in at the deep end, if you want to make a good go of the ‘let’s get enlightened’ stuff, then take 10 days out of your life and do a Vipassana. As I said, it costs you nothing. It’s FUCKING HARD (excuse my French, however I am still human). But it WILL change your life, and it WILL open you up to completely new levels of consciousness, both at the time, and in the months and years following. And it WILL enable you to live a fuller, happier existence, both for yourself and those around you. IT SIMPLY WORKS.

So go sit down on that cushion, close your eyes, and simply BE. If you can do that everything else will follow. (One thing- Make sure you find a good posture, this is essential, trying to meditate while wobbling about all over the place is a total pain in the arse, often quite literally!)

But most importantly, please don’t take my word for it, it really is impossible to put into words anyway, you absolutely have to experience it for yourself, and your experience will be different from mine, your insights will be different from mine, and hopefully you will want to share them in the way that feels right to you. We will all want to hear them. Do let me know how you get on as I’d be very interested to hear! And maybe, like me, you’ll even want to write a book about it… as I say, I hope you’ll give mine a read when I get it published… and written, I’ve still got a long way to go with it, better get cracking!


Emma x

P.S. If this resonates with you please do SHARE far and wide, let’s get more bums on meditation cushions!

The Way Through the Woods’s ‘Top Ten of Tree Hugging!’

Tree Hugging: without a doubt considered to be the hippy dippiest, airy fairiest, yogurt weavery, sun and dirt worshipping, let’s all skinny dip in the loch then dance around naked on a hillside activity of them all, right? It will probably come as no surprise to you that I am a massive fan of throwing my arms around our fir-ry friends; yep, I am an unashamed trunk toucher, fern fondler and canopy canoodler.


By sharing a run down of my ‘Top Ten of Tree Hugging‘ it is my intention to provide a playful introduction, manual and defense of this wholesome yet oft ridiculed activity. By a hug I don’t mean one of those reluctant two-second long hugs you give to people you don’t like very much just to be polite, where you barely touch (and if you do it’s only upper body, you try to keep your pelvis as far away as humanly possible) and you give a swift couple of awkward pats on the back, as your grit your teeth, counting down the milliseconds until you can pull away, phew! No, I mean a full on bear hug, the kind of full body contact cuddles you save for the people you really like, where time stops for a second and you momentarily fuse with the other person, you feel your whole body relax and sink into it; it is just the most satisfying experience there is. These are the kinds of hugs trees give: your body registers it on a cellular level and you feel so soothed you could just melt into a blissful puddle on the floor. Tree hugging is not in fact all about ‘I just love the Earth, man, and I want to spread the peace and love, and express it by embracing my leafy bretheren.’ No, the real reason people hug trees is because it just FEELS SO GOOD. And it is HEALING. When you hug a tree (the bigger and older the better) you can feel as if every cell in your body is being recharged with energy direct from Mother Nature… because it is. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise though as the reason we hug is to feel safe and protected, right? Hugs are stabilising and comforting, they make us breathe more deeply and feel more alive; they are an expression of love. And what could provide more stability and comfort that these native giants which happen to be the biggest, strongest and wisest things growing on our planet? Trees can weigh up to 30 tonnes, be over 200ft tall, cover up to 2,000 square yards, include ten miles worth of twigs and branches and can be up to 4,000 years old, and they constantly renew themselves growing up to 100,000 new leaves every year. Oh, and of course not to mention, they help us BREATHE.

Hugging is healing. What is that saying about hugs? That every day we need ‘4 for survival, 8 for maintenance, and 12 for growth.’ Living in the city I had regular access to several ‘human’ hugs a day, which was nice (apart from the two second, bum sticky-out awkward ones, those I do not miss, and superficial air kisses… don’t miss them one jot either). I didn’t have much access to those of the tree variety, it would have had to be at the local park, where there would likely be onlookers (but please don’t let this stop you, there’s no way I would let it stop me these days!) When I was becoming very unwell, being progressively crushed under the weight of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome far from home on the other side of the world, and away from all my closest friends and family, I would sneak out of the house everyday (it was proper East Coast US suburbia) and go to the nearest park and desperately hug every tree I could get my arms round like they were the only things that were keeping me alive… in some ways I think they really were! And they were stunning at the time, the burnt yellows, oranges and reds of Fall in upstate New York. I didn’t consciously decide to do this, it just kind of happened, it was like an unconscious gravitational pull towards nature. Now, as I live a bit of a hermit lifestyle in the countryside in the Scottish Highlands I don’t often get to see that many people to hug these days, but there are certainly plenty of trees, so I get my regulation 12 easy, and now it’s not so much out of desperation, but rather out of pure joy. Sure, people hugs are wonderful, I love a good hug and I look forward to the day I can fill my quota of 12 with embraces of the bear hug variety, but tree hugs just take it to an entirely new level, and I am a fully converted conifer cuddler.

Before I count down my top ten, permit me a little anecdotal preamble… I was not always such an unashamed tree worshipper, I had just as many inhibitions as the next person and definitely harboured a scepticism towards hippy-dippy tree huggers. This all started to change a few years ago however, things started happening like: I started collecting pine cones, I found myself being moved to tears by the beauty of the last remaining Caledonian Pine forests and I went to California to meet and dance with my free movement idol, Anna Halprin, on her sun-dappled outdoor dance deck situated under the towering Californian Redwoods; I think this might have been the best day of my life so far.


It was whilst on my first Vipassana meditation retreat last year that I realised that, there was no longer any denying it, I now was one of the hippy-dippy tree huggers. The retreat was 10 days long and completely silent. We were not allowed to talk, gesture towards, or even so much as make eye contact with the other people on the course (and there were about 200 of us in total, although men and women were kept strictly segregated). Our meals and basic needs were all completely catered for so we were absolved of any need to interact with others whatsoever and had no obligations apart from meditating, eating and sleeping, and being with ourselves, which any committed meditator will tell you, can be the most challenging thing you have ever attempted at points. When you don’t have to worry about doing anything for anyone else or having others judge or question, or comment upon your choices, you find that you actually start to let go of any inhibitions you might have and simply meet your own needs. I discovered that I needed to do regular yoga stretches. If we hadn’t have been silent I would have perhaps felt self-conscious about bending and stretching all over the place or twisting my torso about in public, but as no one was looking at me I just went for it, adjusting my limbs whenever necessary, you know, doing huge lunges while going up stairs, that kind of thing.  The other main craving I found that I had was that I needed to be in direct contact with nature. When we weren’t in meditation (which we were for 10 hours a day!) we had short breaks where we could wander around the grounds or lie on the grass, and that was about it as activities like reading and writing were also strictly prohibited. In fact all external stimulation was removed in order to support the journey inwards, and although the major part of the experience focused on getting acquainted with, and penetrating deep into layer after layer of our own mental conditioning and suffering, when our eyes were open and we weren’t on the meditation cushion everything in nature seemed much more alive and vibrant than usual. I would often spend ages watching a bee pollinating, or be fascinated to examine the intricate detail of a fly that had landed on my sleeve. After particularly strong meditations, where my whole body was literally vibrating I was buzzing with so much positive energy, it was all I could manage to stumble out of the meditation hall, kick off my shoes, and fall face first onto the grass, stretching my entire body flat out along the earth so I could ‘vibe in harmony with the cosmos’, I know, it sounds totally ridiculous, but it was complete bliss! Interestingly though, after really challenging meditations, where I felt like I’d gone ten rounds in a boxing ring, I’d come out of the meditation hall all tense, riled up, and often on the edge of tears, dissonantly vibrating with SO much negativity I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had steam rising out of my ears. I would, as if on auto-pilot, march my frazzled self up behind the meditation hall and into the woods where I’d search out the biggest, most comforting tree to hug, like a child who’s fallen over and hurt herself running to her Mum to kiss it and make it better. Usually I’d go from majorly stressed out to zen in under a minute. After a really bad meditation I’d need to hug a few trees, and as I did, with each hug, I would gradually feel myself come back into my body, and eventually would feel like my feet were back on the ground again. I’d make sure to do this only when no one else was around. This secret tree tryst lasted a few days until one afternoon I was getting intimate with a tree and I noticed another girl coming along the path, so I quickly extricated myself and nonchalantly walked past her, hoping that she didn’t catch me at it. It wasn’t until I’d walked a few metres past her that I realised I had a huge branch sticking right out of my hair which despite the lack of direct eye contact there was no way she could have missed…! I could only laugh (silently of course). It made me realise that by hiding my arbory affection I was the only one judging; I was judging myself, she probably didn’t even give it a second thought, and I decided that if I want to hug a tree I should just jolly well go ahead and hug a damn tree, who cares if anyone is watching?  If I want to do it and it feels good then that’s all there is to it: no shame! (This realisation applies to MUCH more than tree hugging, obvs). And I hoped that maybe my actions would even inspire others to try it out for themselves. And so I proceeded to do just that for the rest of the retreat. On the final day, when the silence was lifted and we were finally allowed to talk, a lovely middle-aged red-headed Welsh woman came up to me (her accent was such a shock to me, I had built up this idea in my head where she had a posh London accent) and told me that she had been watching me hug trees for several days and had longed to try it herself but had felt too embarrassed… but she faced her fear and one day, towards the end of the course, she finally managed to pluck up the courage, and it was so beautiful that she cried! I love that story.

So, drum roll please… here is the count down of my top ten huggable trees! These are mostly based on the trees available to me on my doorstep in the Highlands of Scotland, so it’s not a comprehensive list by any means, they are perhaps a few noticeable omissions: like the Yew, for example, one of Britian’s oldest (and no doubt therefore most hug-tastic) tree species, but we don’t really have these nearby. However, I do hope one day to take a campervan round the UK on a bit of a tree pilgrimage, maybe even further afield! So this list will undoubtedly sprout new branches over time…

10. Lime


I like touching the leaves of Lime trees. They are large, a vibrant green, spade shaped and feel quite moist to the touch. The tricky thing about hugging a Lime is that often they ‘lower whiskers’- branches that grow right down to the bottom of the trunk meaning that it is quite a mission to even get near the thing. I had to jump a fence, make my way through some Elephant Rhubarb (you know the leaves that look like dinosaur food?) and battle my way through the undergrowth to reach the trunk. When I got there I found it was multi-trunked and so I went in to embrace a section, two parts rising together, and I felt exactly like a whiny little child desperately grabbing onto its mother’s legs to try and get her attention… Not what I was looking for. I decided instead to push my way through all the whiskers, and it was a pretty hairy specimen, and clamber right inside so I could get a good leg around. The sensation of hugging a Lime isn’t that powerful as they are pretty young trees but it was the fun of the climbing mission, and being completely ‘inside’ the tree, that made it all worthwhile.

9. Douglas Fir


Last year my friend and I took a pilgrimage to see the Douglas Fir at Dunkeld, which is the tallest tree in Britain at around 212ft, and it is young, it is very much still growing. It sits across from the Hermitage which is a famous viewing hall the Duke of Atholl had built deep within the beautiful forest in the 18th Century to showcase the grandeur of the gigantic Braan waterfall to tourists on the ‘Grand Tour’. It was originally called ‘Ossian’s Hall’- you enter a dark room where there is a dimly lit painting of Ossian- a legendary Gothic poet, who in the end turned out to be a literary spoof. But the visitors would be lulled into a false sense of calm before the painting would SPRING back into the wall and the RAGING waterfall, which is deafeningly loud and really quite terrifying, would be revealed, causing the tourists to gasp in sublime delight at the epic drop into the gushing water almost immediately beneath their feet. The Douglas Fir in question is across the water and so I didn’t get to hug that one, but we have some in the woods by my house, and they are a treat to hug. They are very tall and skinny which means you can easily get your arms round, you just have to watch out for low spiky branches. There is a definite soothing sensation despite these trees not being that old. I find the Douglas Firs quite amusing as my Dad’s name is Douglas and as they are so tall and thin (as he is) and so it can feel like hugging a person… and if my Dad were a tree he would definitely be one of these!

8. Cedar (a.k.a ‘Weird Tree’)20150807_140528

This is another ‘climb inside’ job. I call this Cedar ‘weird tree’ as it sticks out like a sore thumb within the forest of old, dead, spindly fir trees near my house. Within the tree graveyard the Cedar is an anomaly as it is luscious and the bark looks almost like animal fur and is soft and pleasant to stroke, reminiscent of the bark of Californian Redwoods. Despite being a fern this tree looks and feels decidedly exotic, and when I go to hug this guy I feel like I have momentarily been transported into the Amazonian rainforest and expect a Shaman to come and offer me Ayahuasca any minute or something. Again, like the Lime, the fun of this hugging experience is that you have to climb inside, but the perk of this one is that the trunks are so close together that you can easily hug one part while leaning your entire weight on the other, and you receive a lovely calming, healing sensation from it… maybe there is a medicine man lurking somewhere in those woods!

7. Birch


Birch trees are so elegant. They have slim trunks and thousands of small leaves which when they flutter in the wind like a huge swarm of moths. Silver Birches in particular are as far as I’m concerned, the most elegant ladies of the tree world. In Winter their white spindly trunks rise up into bare purply branches that glisten against the snow; they are like ballerinas. This Birch is not of the silver variety, but it is still incredibly elegant and grows in my garden. Hugging it is again like hugging a person, but it is not without an energetic pulse, far from it. This tree is particularly special to me as it was planted here before I was born, transported from my late Grandmother’s garden, and as such reminds me of her, and she was also a very elegant lady, if an undeniably crazy one; seems it run in the family!

6. Ash


Ash trees usually grow near water and are fairly young so can have quite thin trunks. A young, thin trunk does not for a good tree hug make. The older and bigger the better. Ash have beautiful sets of leaves, ranging up to 13 on each stem and this huge Ash actually made for a magnificent hug. What happens with a good tree hug is that you feel a pulse of soothing, relaxing energy buzz right up your body and it can travel right up to the very top of your head. You feel completely grounded but also as if you are being lifted up by the energy. It is a beautiful feeling. As I was hugging this particular tree, blissing out on this feeling, I could hear someone pottering about in their garden (the tree grows right next to someone’s driveway, although we are still in the middle of nowhere in the countryside) and I was half expecting them to venture out and see me and get a bit of a shock!

5. Scots Pine


Scots Pine are my equivalent of Anna Halprin’s Californian Redwoods. I hope one day to build a retreat centre with an outdoor deck for dance and yoga, just like hers, but mine will be built using Scots Pine. I even have the site picked out, it’s two minutes walk from where I live right now, a piece of land that has lain abandoned for as long as I have been alive, complete with a beautiful stone ruin, and the the most stunning Scots Pine forest behind it. It just calls out to be used as a place of healing, ritual and interaction with nature. All I need is the money in order to convince the landowner to sell it to me, and spookily enough, even the wood for the deck is there already as several of the trees fell due to the 100mph+ winds during some crazy storms we had this Winter. I like to think that they willingly sacrificed themselves for my deck. Time will tell if this dream will become a reality- I imagine lots of people simultaneously hugging a tree each. They are tall and thin and elegant, and quintessentially Scottish. Hugging one of these feels like hugging a person, but they are very strong energetically, you almost feel the history of the landscape as you hug them.

4. Sycamore


The trees that I would go and hug on the Vipassana meditation retreat when I needed to be soothed and brought right back down into my body were Sycamore trees. The woods next to my house is also full of them, and as such I am very attached to them. You will definitely get a nice buzz from hugging a Sycamore. Also, have a look at one sometime, if there is a light breeze often just one solo leaf will be waving about like crazy, it sometimes seems as if it is trying to get your attention. In the Autumn all the leaves will start to develop hundreds of black spots. Worry not, they have not contracted the tree plague… this it completely natural and in fact the higher the air quality is, the more black spots there will be, so ironically, the more diseased they appear at this time, the healthier they are, and likewise their surrounding environment.

3. Beech

Beautiful Beech

Big beeches tower over you, this one in the woods next to my house is an absolute beaut. Hugging this mammoth Mother tree would calm you straight down after any argument or upset, no matter how bad. You can quite literally feel its stoic power, stability and peace permeating your entire body, simply by wrapping your arms around its trunk. Enough said- just go hug a Beech, they are one of the most common species of tree in the UK, and they actually only tend to live for around 250 years before they disintegrate completely, which is quite young, for trees of this size, so, GO! What are you waiting for?!

                                                             2. Oak
20150717_143430Now we are getting to the big Daddies of the tree hugging world. The mighty Oak.  So old and wise, and gives a bloody good comforting hug. This one grows under a minute’s walk from my house and its trunk is so thick that I think it would probably take five of me to be able to stretch right the way round it. And this makes it tree hugging gold- the simple checklist being: the older the better, the bigger the trunk the better. When I hug this tree I do feel like I could just melt into a puddle of bliss at its roots. You can see the sheer scale of this by looking at the teensy weensy farm buildings to the right, it’s a freakin’ giant!


1. Caledonian Pine

20150722_120432And my number one is without a shadow of a doubt is this particular Caledonian Pine, trident in shape, which sits perched on top of the hill that rises majestically across the road from my house, which is called Knockfarrel. It is my favourite tree, and I highly doubt anything will ever pip it off the top spot. This tree is quite literally ‘King of the Hill’ and when I hug it, like the Scots Pine, I somehow feel that I am imbued with the history of the landscape. In fact, when I hug this tree I often have visualisations of a Stag! This is quite honestly the most powerful tree I have ever come into contact with, and it is surrounded by six other trees and they form a circle of 7, which is a very powerful number for ritual. I foresee one day taking my troops of yoga/meditation and dance retreatants up to the top of this hill, yes, to dance about, yes, probably naked, but also to hug these remarkable trees. They have an infinite amount of energy to pass on, they are just waiting to give it to us.

20150722_121654 (1)
So my verdict on ‘The Way Through the Woods’ when it comes to tree hugging is really quite simple- hug as many trees as possible! City or country be damned, who cares if anyone is looking, deep down inside they want to do it too! I hope that some of this has tempted you to hug a Hawthorn, embrace an Elm, cradle a Cedar, pounce on a Pine, or get your leg over a Larch. So what are you waiting for? GO AND HUG A TREE!  

And let’s face it… Sometimes no matter how pure the intention is, it will just look down-right indecent!


We Need to Talk About Periods! Truths, Trials and Tribulations of Surfing the Crimson Wave (or ‘Ode to the Mooncup’)

PMSWhat characterised the greatest day of the year for you last year and why? For me 2014 was without a doubt the hardest year of my life so far (due to the ongoing see-saw of struggling with, and ultimately surrendering to, and learning to live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, for now anyway) but I can say without a doubt that the BEST day for me was Friday 24th October, and on that day I was- kiss the postman, dance along the street, life is a musical- happy…. Why?

Because I GOT MY PERIOD!!!

Yep, that’s right- I was completely over the moon because I was bleeding from my vagina, hurrah!

You think I’m crazy to say that? Hear me out- this was big news as I hadn’t menstruated for over a year and a half (no, I was not pregnant; it would have had to have been a case of immaculate conception for that to be the case, CFS puts quite the dampener on your love life). No, I was having such a dry spell (in more ways than one it appears) as my hormones were all out of whack due to my illness- Adrenal Fatigue and HPA Axis-Dysregulation are in fact caused by discombobulated hormones (that statement is a massive over-generalisation of course, but now is not the place to go into the details.) Now don’t get me wrong: I was really tired- even more so than normal for someone with a fatigue-based illness- (the dancing down the street is just a metaphor). I felt fat and unattractive (so would not have been in the mood to seduce the postman); I was anxious and teary (so not about to belt out a show-stopping musical number) and had swollen and tender boobs, a knotted stomach and a sore back. Oh yeah, and I had a completely insatiable hunger (despite eating ALL the food), a knife-edge irritability and a desire to do nothing but hide under the covers, cuddle a hot water bottle and watch (and weep at) crappy chick flicks. But yes, despite all that, this was definitely the best day of the year. If my life was indeed a musical then the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ would have blasted from the bathroom, booming out in surround sound for miles around as I screamed ‘Mum, I’ve got my PEEEEERRRRRIIIIOOOOOD!!!!!!’

You must think I sound mad to be overjoyed at the arrival of what most women consider to be their most decidedly unwelcome monthly visitor? But I’ll tell you why:  this was the single most important sign that my body was healing I had received since getting ill, I had been waiting SO LONG for this, and I cried floods and floods of tears of joy (and hormones!) and dusted off my beloved Mooncup (and sterilised it, obvs.)

And now the way I approach my periods has changed forever… each month I am delighted by its arrival and I welcome my period like a long lost friend.


Now, my fully embracing the arrival of my period in this way is a far cry from how we tend to approach our periods, right? Bliss? Really?! In fact, isn’t it the opposite of how we customarily greet this pain-in-the-arse pal who comes to visit once a month? The bane of our lives… The unwelcome frenemy we wish would never visit at all, as they make you feel really uncomfortable and mess everything up, but no matter what you do you just can’t shake them off. ‘The Curse’… Who came up with that name? It’s really horrible. But that’s exactly how we tend to think of it. And why shouldn’t we of course: we feel rotten in the few days running up to it, our energy levels dip, at points we verge between suicidal and homicidal (those who cross our paths better watch out!), we want to eat everything in the fridge and cupboards- yes, including that mouldy cheese (just scrape those bits off); yes, even that crazy concoction of porridge with raisins, hot chocolate powder, honey and desiccated coconut mixed in for dessert as it’s the closest to chocolate we have in the house and we need something sweet and stodgy.

And there are so many things we can’t do with the usual gusto we have the rest of the month: swimming for example (who remembers the excruciatingly embarrassing blue plastic ‘shower cap shoes’ you had to wear while sitting on the side of the swimming pool at school when you couldn’t take part as you had you were surfing the crimson wave?) ’Dear Mrs P.E. teacher, please excuse Emma from gym today, she has her period, Mrs Forbes’. (FYI- that is one of my all-time favourite chick-flick quotes, when Alicia Silverstone, in overprivileged 90s romcom Clueless, has her teacher wrapped around her little finger and when he tries to reprimand her for being late or something and she says ‘Mr Hall, I was surfing the crimson wave, I had to hall ass to the ladies,’ end of discussion.) What else- running (staying in bed is so much more tempting than putting on those running shoes at that time of the month), yoga (especially not inversions such as shoulder stands as yoga urban legend has it that it will make the blood travel back upwards, eek!), have sex (tends to be the furthest thing from your mind, but for when you do want to N.B. the good guys honestly do not care either way, there is no stigma, and they are not even slightly grossed out. And mentioning periods will not render them completely mute, maybe they might even bring you chocolate and rub your belly and curl up and watch films with you…. ah, lovely, progressive, feminist men… perhaps not the guilty-pleasure chick flicks though).

there-will-definitely-be-blood-maybeAnd of course it is nigh on impossible to stick to the healthy eating plan (see aforementioned crazy sweet stodge concoctions). Now it goes without saying that we still can do all of these things in exactly the same manner we would the rest of the month if we want to, but I feel we have to be careful we are not forcing ourselves, and ignoring the signals being sent by our bodies. I feel we need to be mindful of the 80s/90s macho-feminism portrayed in sanitary towel adverts that is still prevalent in our society today which shout: ‘just because I’m a woman on her period doesn’t mean I can’t run the race, swim the channel, own that board meeting, climb the hill, skydive off the bridge and do everything and anything men do and all things in between while on my period’…. Of course, you absolutely can, if you feel like it. But be honest if you don’t actually feel like doing that stuff at this time of the month. It’s not anti-feminist to surrender to the low energy, and admit to being a woman, who bleeds. In fact, in my opinion it’s much more of a feminist statement to really listen to the body… be slow, lie around, do little, rest, sleeeeeeep (there is a biological need for more sleep from day 25 of your cycle onwards- that’s 5 days before your period) rub your own belly, or get someone else to do it. Sucking it up, powering through, getting on with it, ‘coping’ and putting up with, and forcing yourself to do things that don’t make you feel good (even if they do the rest of the month) is not a feminist act. Radical self-acceptance and compassion, unconditional self-love, self-nourishment, self-nurture, supportive self-talk and awareness IS. And it’s not just for CFS sufferers that everything is exhausting both emotionally and physically at this time of the month, right? So we have to be even more patient and gentle with ourselves than ever around this time. Sometimes in the run up to and during our period all we want to do is batten down the hatches and hole up in the house, speak to no one and ride out the storm, and of course, that’s fine too- provided you have a sizable chocolate supply… absolutely essential. Whatever you do, go with the energies, and be honest with yourself about it.

FYI- Natural PMS Relievers that will really help: B vitamin complex- Solgar to a great one; Calcium, Magnesium and Zinc- again Solgar’s is excellent; Evening Primrose Oil (a liquid form is much more effective than capsules); Iron supplement (try a good quality liquid form from a health shop such as Iron Vital F, or Floravital, much better than the awful black pills from the chemist or prescribed by the GP). Good sources of dietary iron can be found in red meat, eggs and leafy greens (N.B. don’t eat spinach with eggs or red meat, it will actually prevent you from absorbing the iron); Omega 3 Fatty Acids (from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and eggs, or Flaxseed and Hemp Oil if vegan); good quality carbohydrates such as sweet potato, plantain or squash; good quality raw chocolate/raw cacao. Since I started taking care of myself in terms of my diet and supplemental needs my PMS has reduced significantly, sometimes I get absolutely no PMS whatsoever and I go to the bathroom and I’m like ‘Oh, would you look at that, I’ve got my period! Ho-hum, smile.’ Honestly! And even if I do get PMS one thing I definitely don’t get anymore is lots of cramping during it.

The Contraceptive Pill

But back to how we have been conditioned to treat our periods… As we tend to abhor them so much you’d think the idea of not having them for a couple of years would be the BEST THING EVER! But it’s not, it really isn’t. For the first six months or so, sure, it’s liberating, but after that you just start to worry, and wait, and worry, and wait, and worry… what the hell is going on in there? (Could I actually be the next Mary?!) The regularity of our periods are a sign that everything is working exactly as it should, they are a barometer of our health. And how are we supposed to get an accurate reading of the barometer when our bodies are not functioning on their own natural level whatsoever: e.g. we are artificially controlling our hormones by taking the contraceptive pill, or patch, or injection? On these medications we can’t even begin to read the barometer, we have no idea what is going on in there; if we were a map even a compass wouldn’t be able to help us out, as we are completely off grid. It’s dangerous. When my periods disappeared completely for a year a half it was after I’d stopped taking the contraceptive pill, having had taken it for probably… 6 years non-stop at least, probably longer on and off. During that time I had a ‘regular monthly period’, or so I thought, but it wasn’t that at all, it was purely chemical- a withdrawal bleed from the artificially induced state of quasi-pregnancy that the artificial hormones create. I knew this intellectually but I’d never actually stopped to think about what it meant for my body; which I now realise had no idea of its own rhythm; it was all being created for it, and I, unbeknownst to me, for a number of years, had been getting really sick. If I had had the natural health barometer of my menstrual cycle to guide me would I have perhaps taken notice of my Chronic Fatigue earlier, before it was too late? I think so. This was just one of the ways I tried to control my body from without rather than listening to what was within. I went on the pill for a myriad of reasons. Although I am grateful for my periods now, from their onset until my early twenties they were a nightmare. They were so debilitatingly painful and heavy I’d have to have at least one day off school/uni/work a month and would have to take to my bed, dose up on high strength pain killers and even then I’d still be writhing around in pain, yelping like a wounded animal. I went to the GP for 10 years and tried numerous medications before I was finally referred to a gynecologist who suspected Endometriosis, which was confirmed when she operated, and after that I was put on strong injections which made me go through a chemical version of the Menopause at the age of 20! (I was in fact being injected with the same medication my late Grandfather was being administered at the time for his Prostate Cancer) can you believe it? At least I know what to expect when I reach Menopause later in life- I had the hot flashes, night sweats, dryness, everything! And to help prevent the endometriosis from returning I was put on the pill straight away. Now, I know I’m not the only one who felt miserable on the pill, not myself at all, as if I was walking around in a haze, often with no sex drive, and was at points verging on, ok, was, totally depressed. Why is it rammed down our throats by the medical establishment as a one-size-fits-all contraceptive and cure from our teens when it is anything but that I have no idea. You have acne- take the pill, you’re sexually active- take the pill, your cycle is erratic- take the pill. Did you know that on average these days 1/3 of women stop taking the pill because it’s making them depressed? Did you know that you have a doubled risk of breast or ovarian cancer and ditto developing brittle bones if you have taken the pill from under the age of 20? Also, your levels of ‘globulin’ which binds testosterone and affects the libido are four times lower FOREVER if you have taken the pill? And that’s not to mention the weight gain, heightened risk of infertility, risk of deep vein thrombosis, high blood pressure… the list goes on and on. For me personally, I know that the overgrowth of Candida in my gut which has proved to be a major player in my chronic illness was caused by two factors- overuse of antibiotics to clear my skin, and yep, you guessed it, taking the contraceptive pill. Taking this for years completely decimated all the good gut bacteria in my body and made me REALLY sick and it is proving to be a long, complex and exhausting process to undo all this damage and rebuild my gut. The pill can also be a major player in other gut oriented illnesses such as Hashimotos, Auto-Immune disease, Crohns and Fibromyalgia, as well as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Why do we start to take the pill? Of course our reasons are completely understandable- We think it will help get our crazy ‘neurotic woman’ hormones under control, that it will regulate our wayward cycle; that it will help to clear our skin, or help Endometriosis/PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) for example, it could be ALL of the above. The biggest reason we take it of course is to avoid pregnancy: who of us hasn’t had those scares where something just doesn’t feel right but it’s too early to take a test and you google ‘very early pregnancy symptoms’….. ‘EXTREMELY early pregnancy symptoms’….‘EARLIEST POSSIBLE PREGNANCY SYMPTOMS’ – and isn’t it absolutely infuriating that the symptoms of early pregnancy are more or less exactly the same as PMT?! I know we’ve all cried tears of joy and sang the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when we’ve got our period in this instance. Yes, it’s easier to be on the pill, be injected, have an implant put in, slap on a patch- as then you have peace of mind that you won’t get pregnant. But is it worth it for all the potential damage this might be doing to your body? (I haven’t mentioned the Coil or IUD devices at all, but these are not an option in my opinion too, due to potentially harmful leaching of toxic material entering the body, and issues with damage caused by keeping them in longterm and/or removing them). Can we get old school instead- chart our cycles and get intimate with ourselves from the inside out by taking our temperature daily (this is called the Sympto-Thermal Method) and monitoring our cervical mucous so that we know when we are ovulating (approx. days 12-16 of our cycle) and so know to reinforce the troops (or alternatively of course during ovulation go for it if we are at the stage of our lives where pregnancy is actually the goal as opposed to the thing we wish to avoid like the plague?!) [see links at the end of the article- you need to do LOTS of your own research on these]; and to ‘reinforce the troops’ can we re-ignite our resistant relationship to condoms? Can we take our bodies into our own hands and learn to really listen to them, and embrace our natural cycles instead of handing them over to a synthetic intruder who disrupts our body’s inbuilt methods of self-care and regulation?

My First Period

And of course it’s not just how we medicate our menstrual cycles. Getting your first period is the single biggest initiation in womanhood there is; it is sacred, and as such should be honoured by the family and society alike. In native and tribal societies a girl’s first period, known as ‘menarche’ has been celebrated for thousands of years with rituals including song, dance, feasting, ritualistic bathing and care-taking, and retreats to women’s lodges. These are just examples of some of the sacred activities used to mark this rite of passage into womanhood.

Was yours at all sacred? Mine certainly wasn’t.

I remember the day that I got my first period: November 30th 1998, I was 10 years old, it was just a few weeks until my 11th birthday. I remember the date vividly as it was the night of our primary school’s ‘St Andrew’s Night Ceilidh’ where I was probably singing (both solo and in groups and as a class), playing violin, playing recorder, reciting poetry and God knows what else; I was ‘Miss Extra-Curricular’, even at that young age. Anyway, just before we were about to leave the house I went to the toilet and was aghast at the stains I found in my underwear, and I yelled from the same bathroom to my same mother, who quickly handed me a sanitary towel, told me I’d gotten my period, that it was completely normal, but that life doesn’t stop: ‘Now hurry up and let’s go, you’ve got a performance to do.’ So I put it to the back of my mind, sucked it up and got on with it, and labelled it from the off as little more than an inconvenience as I waddled about all evening wondering if there was an unsightly bulge visible through my tartan skirt. This was just one of the ways in which I unquestionably accepted patterns of conditioning and ‘coped’ instead of really listening to my body, my emotional responses, myself. (If I’ve learned anything from my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome it’s that disease ‘dis-ease’ starts in the mind and if it is ignored enough eventually it will manifest in the body. Could my Endometriosis have been a result of this early repression of my womanhood? I would have to say that it is distinctly possible that it was.)

I told no one I’d started my periods.

No way was I going to admit to my circle of friends that I had started my periods at 10… none of them were anywhere near close to starting (the average age girls start menstruating is 12.8 years these days, compared with 14.5 years at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re starting younger and younger) . Over the next year or so I did my very best to keep it a secret. When we went to my Dad’s house for the weekend I would stash my used sanitary towels in my rucksack and take them home again with me to my Mum’s to bin, God forbid he and his partner see them in the bin, or I would do a disguise job by wrapping them in LOADS of toilet roll before hiding them at the bottom of the bin. This really makes me giggle now, knowing how much my Dad is such a stickler for waste; as am I these days. But ultimately it upsets me that I was so ashamed of my periods that I felt I needed to be so secretive about it.

A couple of stand out early period memories are when my friends and I had a sleep over and were watching ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (teenage blood-bath horror with a fisherman with a hook for a hand starring one of my top girl crushes- Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In keeping with the blood-bath theme I had a REALLY heavy period and had absent-mindedly forgotten to flush the toilet (I was probably frightened of being alone in the bathroom lest a man with a hook for a hand come in decorate the bathroom red with more than just my period blood. These days I know I can’t watch anything that contains senseless violence, and have absolutely no desire to, I find it completely traumatic, not to mention that watching violence serves to condition us to believe that the world is a scary place with evil people… which is absolutely is not). So the scandal of the night, in all the blood and gore, became a detective game as to who had left all the disgusting blood in the toilet, it was SO MUCH BLOOD to a bunch of 11 year old girls. I flat out denied that it was me, and I blamed it on someone else… I was completely drowning in guilt. In the end I think I might have admitted to the girl I’d blamed that it had been me, but that I’d had a nosebleed and didn’t want to tell anyone.

Why was I so ashamed of my period?!

A few months after that I was shopping with a friend (the sleepover host) and was trying on a dress in the changing rooms when I realised that my period had arrived unannounced, and it was in full flow. This time there was no covering it up, I needed a sanitary towel, stat. So I had no choice but to tell my friend (who was a bit of a gossip, as every adolescent girl is of course, and I knew it would be spread like wildfire to boys and girls alike at school the next week…as it was.)  So I feigned shock and told her that I’d just gotten my very first period and off we went to buy sanitary towels, brought up the chemist counter with beetroot faces. The funniest thing about this story is that I still have this dress, and it still fits me! I bought it when I was 11 years old (I developed early if you hadn’t already picked up on that), it is affectionately known by everyone who has seen the dress and heard this story as ‘the period dress’; and no, it is not red.

Periods are Sacred!

To get a bit hippy-dippy on you for a moment… Thankfully increasing numbers of women who were deprived of their own sacred initiation into womanhood are beginning to reclaim the connection to their own cycle, by re-enacting ‘menarche’ rituals for themselves in any way that might feel right for them, or even in group ceremonies, and understand the importance of welcoming new generations of girls into their own womanhood in a way that celebrates and honours their femininity and cycle, and that does not attach shame or guilt to it. I did my own personal ritual when my periods returned, and it was beautiful, but what I did is a cherished secret between me and my menses. There is a growing movement of ‘Red Tents’ (based on the Old Testament where women would go to a ‘red tent’ to rest during menstruation) and ‘Moon Lodges’ (the Native American equivalent) where groups of women meet, usually around the time of the New Moon, to simply rest, eat, relax and BE with one another in designated spaces that honour our natural cycles. And of course, the menstrual cycle is closely aligned with the waxing and waning of the moon, it’s often referred to as a woman’s ‘Moon time’ and traditionally women would menstruate around the new moon which is characterised by darkness, retreating inwards and reflection- this is known as the White Moon Cycle. Of course as we live in a world where we are so out of touch with nature where our lives are filled with stress, artificial lighting and technological interference so many women are completely out of sync with their natural cycles. As such there is also the Red Moon Cycle (where women menstruate at the full moon- and if you’re at all like me the full moon makes you go a bit mental- ask any Policeman, A&E Nurse or Teacher- we’re all affected, that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ comes from! The full moon is an excellent time for creativity- work late, get manically stuck into a creative project, harness the energy!) Lastly. there is the Wise Woman Cycle (where you have a few months on the Red Moon then a few months on the White Moon and it keeps going like that, just to keep you on your toes! I think I might be a Wise Woman.) Of course if you are medicating with the pill, patch or injection your body doesn’t have the chance to sync itself to the moon’s cycle at all- is it any wonder we feel completely out of sorts when on the pill when we are completely cut off from our natural state? Also, it’s not just ourselves as individuals syncing to mother nature- I’m sure we’ve all experienced ‘syncing’ our periods with women we’re living with or spend lots of time with? That’s why the ‘Red Tents,’ because everyone was in sync- It’s fascinating! Ok… enough hippy-dippy for now.

Sanitary Protection

As I was recounting my earliest period memories there, as with most girls, my first form of sanitary protection was of course the sanitary towel; I shudder to even think of them. Oh the many pitfalls of the sanitary towel- the ghastly smell, the expense, the panty-bulge, the embarrassingly LOUD noise they would make when you opened a new one in a toilet stall so you would cough as you ripped along the seams so that the girl in the next cubicle wouldn’t hear! And I know that I can’t have been the only one with a flow heavy enough that I often had to wear the ‘night-time’ pads during the day, or if I’d run out of those I’d often overlap two regular ‘with wings’ so as to make it through the school day; I must have had a noticeable waddle. Ah, periods were so much more inconvenient in the days of the sanitary towel! Then after a year or two your courage builds and you finally, gravitate to tampons. Big step! Now you can go swimming (no more shower-cap shoes!), no more nappy-like bulges and no more unwanted toilet cubicle concerts. But these are far from ideal. Again, the expense, the fact that they are flushed off into the sea to damage marine life, and not to mention the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome that comes with wearing them. And of course you can’t frolic naked in public (should the urge take you) as you have what one of my ex-boyfriends affectionately referred to as ‘a tail in’ (I say this as I was once able to frolic naked on a hillside with a group of women whilst on my period as I was wearing my Mooncup). No, tampons are perhaps more convenient but they are just as expensive and environmentally unfriendly as towels, and come with an added health risk. And also, as well as a tail, your boyfriend might accidentally mistake them for a SWEETIE they are so small and inciting in their inconspicuous bejewelled wrapping, remember that advert?!

Enter the Mooncupmooncup

I honestly think this should be ranked up there are one of the most important inventions of ALL time. If I was a poet I would definitely write a poem called ‘Ode to the Mooncup’, it has changed my menstruating life. The Mooncup is a silicone menstrual cup that is completely safe (absolutely no risk of TSS or anything like that), it is environmentally friendly (you empty its contents down the toilet, wash it in the sink and put it back in again, so no harming the fishes and dolphins!) and not to mention it saves you LOADS of money as it is longterm re-usable so you never have to buy sanitary towels or tampons again, hurrah! It is quite literally a Godsend. As with anything new, it takes a wee while to get the hang of, you need to work on your ‘folding and inserting’ technique, and to start with you might want to use a little lubrication to help with this. But once you work out how to insert it properly it ‘pops’ open and it collects the blood, no leaks! And no discomfort. It is the best thing ever. You do need to get pretty intimate with yourself, and your blood, as you will be cleaning it out multiple times over the course of your period, but I find that this feels natural and liberating, and as Germaine Greer famously says in The Female Eunuch ‘if you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go, baby.’

I think I’ll leave it there and suggest we take Germaine’s words in relation to the whole topic of periods. Let’s talk about them more, let’s get intimate with them and get to know our own cycles inside out, and let’s share our experiences with one another- I hope to attend a Red Tent or a Moon Lodge one day in the not too distant future, or maybe even help to set one up myself with some other willing women. I hope some of this has helped give you some insight into your own cycle, and an appreciation of just how much it does for you and how we really need to honour it, and ourselves. And when my period comes along next I may curl up under a blanket and weep over a trashy rom-com, but I’ll do so happily, filled with gratitude that my body is working the way it’s supposed to, and inside I’ll be dancing!I got my periodFurther Reading


Moon Time: Harness the Ever-Changing Energy of you Menstrual Cycle ‘ by Lucy H. Pearce

Red Moon: Understanding and Using the Creative Sexual and Spiritual Gifts of the Menstrual Cycle‘ by Miranda Gray.

The Optimized Woman: Using your Menstrual Cycle to Achieve Success and Fulfillment‘ by Miranda Gray

The Wise Wound‘ by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove

The Pill: Are You Sure It’s For You?‘ by Jane Bennett and Alexandra Pope

Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control‘ by Holly Griggs Spall

Taking Charge of Your Fertility‘ by Toni Weschler


5 Reasons I’ll Never Take Another Birth Control Pill‘ on Mind Body Green

Basic Introduction to the Cervical Mucous Method by Mayo Clinic

Basic Introduction to the Sympto-Thermal Method by Mayo Clinic

Why I Stopped Washing my Hair and Face and Wearing Deodorant a Year Ago and Why You Might Just Want to Too: 100% Natural Beauty Product Alternatives…. (I don’t smell, honest!)

coconut oil ACV The Story:

Around a year ago when I looked in the mirror I was confronted by the face of a very sick girl, I almost didn’t recognise myself at all. Never in my life have I condoned violence of any sort, but on more than one occasion I had to stop myself from punching the glass in utter frustration. I’d suffered on and off with acne ever since puberty and at 26, at the height of my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which by then I’d been ‘fighting’ for almost a year, I use that word deliberately) my skin had broken out worse than ever before: my cheeks and jawline were completely covered in angry red spots, as if I’d taken a scouring pad to my own face. My eyes had completely lost their glitter and instead looked dead-inside; if the eyes are indeed ‘the window to the soul’ then my soul was not at home. They were, depending on what kind of day I was having either red, blotchy and swollen from all the tears; or drawn, grey and haggard with stubborn dark puffy circles underneath that made it seem like I hadn’t slept properly in weeks (I hadn’t, not for months, despite more or less living in my pyjamas that whole time.) I looked like I’d aged 10 years. My unsightly mousy brown roots were now clearly visible against my (up until then) perfectly highlighted blonde hair, which by now was unkempt and tangled from days on end spent lying in bed. The prospect of ‘getting ready’ to go out – showering, washing and blow-drying my hair, putting on make-up and getting something nice to wear out of my wardrobe just seemed completely pointless as no amount of eye-drops would clear these bloodshot eyes, no amount of make-up would cover the monstrosity that was my skin, and no dress, no matter how pretty, was going to make me feel attractive. I was completely exhausted. I just couldn’t be bothered to fake-it anymore, and I’d been faking it for a long time.

At that moment I decided ‘f*ck it, that’s it, from now on I’m not going to wear make-up, I’m not going to dye my hair anymore, I’m not going to try and make myself look ‘healthy’ when in truth I am anything but that, and I am certainly not going to use a host of expensive, chemical-laden synthetic products to do so.’

All of these things were going on and into my body, and for all I knew the harsh chemicals they contained could have been a contributing factor to my illness. Nope, at that moment I decided that I was done with ALL of it, and I was going to go down the natural route, trusting that, by taking care of what I was putting in and on my body (I had already begun to completely overhaul the ‘in’ by completely turning around my supplements and diet, you can read about this in ‘Can a Steak Really be Healthier for You than a Carrot? The Fat vs. Sugar Debate’) there would come a day when I would look in the mirror, completely au naturel, and I would smile, as I would look healthy, and my eyes would have their sparkle back. I decided that this was the way I would really know that I was getting better as eventually my health, and beauty, would shine from the inside out.

So, I let my roots grow out and I threw away all of my toiletries and cosmetics and stopped conventionally washing my hair, and my face, wearing deodorant, and wearing make-up. I stopped using anything that wasn’t 100% natural on my face or body, my rule being- if I can’t put it in my mouth then I won’t put it on my face, and if I don’t know what an ingredient is, it’s coming nowhere near me. (I do still shower by the way, just so we’re clear.) It was the best decision I could have possibly made.

Before I give you the run down of exactly what I use and how I use it let me first tell you it was not always this way. Noooooooooooo. Far from it in fact.

Emma GI picHigh Maintenance

Up until that day I had to stop myself from punching the mirror my daily beauty routine could be described in two words: high maintenance. Before I got sick, every morning I would get up over 2 hours before work (yeah, this would include having a good breakfast and often a decent session of yoga and meditation- when I was looking after myself, that is) but the main reason for getting up this early was so I could go through all the ritualistic preening and prepping, buffing and blow-drying, and moisturising and make-upping needed to create the ‘mask’ that I felt I required to hide my looks-based insecurities to face the world as a confident, attractive woman. It was a ‘mask’ in more ways than one. One I wore for many years even as a ‘healthy’ person, long before I even got sick. See my article ‘The Story of my Skin: How I Finally Stopped Wearing Make-Up and Cured my Acne after Fifteen Years of Trying (Hint, Look to your Gut not your Face)’ for the full history of this ‘mask’ and how I finally learned to step out from behind it.

Each morning would go like this. I’d jump in the shower, shampoo and condition my hair with products that declared they would furnish my locks with some, or all of the following: Volume, Body, Highlights… that were Cleansing, Smoothing, De-Frizzing, Moisturising, Natural (pah!) I’d lather up with a sweet smelling shower gel- again something supposedly natural: maybe scented with Almond or Coconut.  I’d wash my face with, again, a ‘natural’ (and no doubt expensive) foaming cleanser for Sensitive/Oily/Combination/Normal/ (how many different types can you think of? Insert here) skin that purported it would give me a Clean, Clear, Radiant, Shine-Free, Blemish-Free and Moisture Balanced complexion. I’d get out of the shower and deodorise my under-arms with a scented roll-on anti-perspirant (oh, and of course it would have the word ‘natural’ somewhere in its name) that promised that it would under no circumstances allow me to perspire. In fact it would block my sweat glands completely to keep me smelling fresh for 24hours (ok, so it contained aluminium which is toxic and there was a teensy, ok rather widely known, proven risk of cancer) but it promised no unsightly white marks on my clothing and even if I had a complete stress-induced meltdown at work there was no chance I would break out in even the smallest sweat patch, phew- glad I had my priorities in order! Oh yeah, and I’d moisturise my body with Cocoa Butter infused body moisturiser (again, cocoa butter’s natural, right?) which made me smell super sweet and promised to simultaneously soften and tone, sculpt, and define my limbs whilst making them silky smooth. Once or twice a week I’d exfoliate my face with yet another shop bought product, that claimed to be natural as the exfoliating beads were derived once upon a time from almond kernels, and I’d similarly scrub my body with some kind of fruity perfumed salt or sugar scrub I’d spent a tenner on in the chemist that claimed it would remove dead skin to reveal baby soft skin, oh yeah, and not to mention, completely banish cellulite.

Of course none of this sh*t was ‘natural’ in the slightest. And in no way did all these products end up doing ‘exactly what they said on the tin,’ but of course, I kept mindlessly buying them anyway.

Are we done? No, not yet, in fact that was just Act One. Then I’d blow dry my hair and put serum on the roots and texturing clay though the lengths and ends until it perfectly resembled the ‘laid back, tousled, low maintenance, just got out of bed’ look I was going for.  Only then could the real work begin of moisturising (yes, best to start using expensive anti-aging products in my early twenties) and priming my face before applying a plethora of cosmetics: foundation (to cover the spots), concealer (so that I would look as fresh as a daisy even if I was super tired and powering through) , powder (to hold it all in place), blusher (to give me rosy cheeks and a healthy glow, as if I’d been frolicking in meadows as opposed to working way too hard), bronzer (ditto, but in the sun) eyeliner and mascara (to accentuate my eyes and thus, again, banish any evidence of being over-tired). And if I were getting ready for a night out add to that: highlighter (for perfectly sculpted cheek bones), more bronzer (dramatic effect), eye-shadow (for a sultry and seductive air) and the use of a scary looking metal vice-like contraption that I would hold the flame of a lighter up to for a few seconds before using it to curl my eyelashes, (thank God I didn’t hold it too long and accidentally burn them all off!) And of course I wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without spritzing myself with perfume.

Ok. Ready to go? Yes. Finally.

And then of course there’s coming home again every night and using make-up wipe after make-up wipe to clean all the war-paint off again (that is unless you came home drunk and fell asleep in all your make-up in which case you had to shamefully do it in the morning) finding yourself disgusted by the black, soiled rag that displayed the remnants of all the crap that was just on your face. And that’s not even going into ALL the intermittent shaving, hair colouring (lest anyone see my REAL hair colour) face-masking, eyebrow plucking, and nail trimming maintenance that it takes to maintain the upkeep of the ‘confident, attractive woman’ mask (N.B. as you can see often underneath the ‘confident attractive woman’ exterior lurks a deeply anxious insecure little girl).

Oh my God, I’m completely exhausted even just writing that. Enough already!

In the past year I’ve gone from extremely high maintenance to decidedly low maintenance. 10632626_919682994760816_5915804082943372919_n

Low Maintenance

Now if I’m tired, I look tired. If I’m well rested, I look well rested. I’m done faking it. And I’m still very much in recovery from Chronic Fatigue so I tend to look tired a fair bit, sometimes I look down-right dreadful, but without the mask I notice it, and I take the steps I need to make it better- more rest, less worrying… And I do not claim to be completely secure and perfect in my looks (no, 27 years of vanity cannot be undone in mere months), I am as imperfect and flawed, and vain as everyone else and as such am still often painfully insecure. I won’t deny that occasionally I will put on a little bit of concealer and a flick of mascara if I’m going somewhere and I feel I need a little assistance, however, this is a far cry from the inch by inch military precision with which I used to apply layer after layer of foundation everyday, even if I was just spending the day at home. Although in an ideal world none of us would feel that we had to wear any make-up at all, ever, the fact is that we do live in the world we live in, and it’s undeniable that sometimes, a little bit of make up just makes you look and feel great, and I honestly think there’s nothing wrong with that. A few weeks ago I went to an African music concert with some friends and as I was going out in the evening (not a common occurrence for a CFS sufferer) I decided to put some liquid black eyeliner on my eyes for the first time in over a year- and you know what, I looked in the mirror and I felt really attractive, and I danced barefoot all night long (and that’s the important bit!). But what I’m saying is that although I wish we didn’t feel the need to paint our faces at all, of course we want to feel attractive and we should feel confident and love ourselves when we look in the mirror, and sometimes a bit of playful make-up to ‘dress up’ is wonderful. So don’t throw out that shocking pink lipstick yet, I haven’t, although I have no idea when I will next find myself in the right situation to wear it.

But all in all, these days- I’m in and out of the shower in a heartbeat and ready in under 5 minutes. Phew!

You know what I see when I look back on my high-maintenance beauty routine now? Well for one thing I see


How much money did I spend on cosmetics, toiletries and make-up over the years? Blindly buying into the consumerist ideal that if I just used this lengthening mascara then I’d flutter my eyes and be a bonafide boy-magnet; if I used this toning cream my distinctly Amazonian thighs would transform into spindle-slender legs; or if I just spritzed myself with this extortionate perfume then I would leave an irresistibly scented pheromone trail in my wake which would cause men to literally fall at my feet. It pains me to think of the money I spent, knowing that next to rent, bills and food, it was probably my most significant expense. I remember joking in airports that that worst thing that could happen if my luggage were lost would be that my make-up bag would be gone. Firstly, how would I go outside? No one ever saw me without make-up. Holiday photos would be out of the question. And also, how could I even begin to replace all those expensive products and perfume on my minimum-wage budget? That little bag could easily have been valued at a couple of hundred pounds. Again, I’m pleased to see I had my priorities in the right place, f*ck’s sake. How many more trips to exciting places across the world could I have made if I added up all the tubes of mascara and all the other unnecessary crap I bought over the years? It doesn’t even bear thinking about. I can tell you this, next time I’m in an airport it’ll be with a camping rucksack and a tent and no make-up bag.

Another thing I see: I see hour after hour of wasted time, when I could have been in bed sleeping, I could have been meditating, I could have been reading, I could have been journalling or writing my novel, I could have been doing yoga, I could have been making a really elaborate breakfast while dancing round the kitchen, I could have been listening to the morning birdsong, I could have been in bed doing more fun things than sleeping with someone I care about, I could have been outside admiring a beautiful sunrise… but instead I was so insecure thought I needed to put in these hours, every day, just to make myself look presentable.  This makes me sad, I wish I’d known.

And finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of ‘natural’ beauty products. Even if these lotions and potions had  the word ‘natural’ in the title, or were derived once upon a time from something in its natural state, they were anything but that. No, there was absolutely nothing ‘natural’ or organic about them. (Did you know that unlike food the use of the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are not regulated when it comes to body products?) If once upon a time an almond or a coconut was involved in the creation of the product then it can be labelled as natural, even if it has been mutated beyond recognition with a million strong chemicals added so it in no way retains any links to the original fairy story. Every one of these products, without exception was synthetic, artificial and full of unnecessary chemicals, not to mention potentially toxic. And I was using these on my skin (which is a key part of the immune system, and the body’s largest organ of detoxification) so I was absorbing all of these not just into my skin, but also into my bloodstream. There was no question, they had to go. Who can tell me what Sodium Laureth or Lauryl Sulphate, Glycol Distearate, Methylparaben, Propylene Glycol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine or Methylisothiazolinone are? Who can even pronounce them?! I can tell you that many of these ingredients have been shown to disrupt the levels of healthy bacteria in the body, which is essential for a healthy immune system (and clear, healthy skin) and have also been proven to in many cases disrupt the workings of the endocrine system (your hormones), cause immune damage and of course majorly irritate that which it professes to protect: your skin, stripping it of its own self-regulating natural moisture, so that you, as a result, end up buying yet more products in an attempt to restore it! (Capitalism takes unfair advantage of the misinformed consumer yet again.)

What Worked:

So what about the positive stuff in all this? Yes, finally! Well the entire contents of my bathroom cabinet these days are as follows:

A jar of Raw Organic Coconut Oil, a jar of Bicarbonate of Soda, a bottle of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar (try and get one ‘with the Mother’, a tub of Raw, Unpasteurised Honey, a bar of 100% Olive Oil Soap, Natural Moisturiser and Natural Fluoride-free Toothpaste.

These are the essentials and I also have a few other things: a bottle of Almond Oil, a Dry Body Brush, an empty Jam Jar and a Spoon (I’ll explain this later) a Razor (I can’t claim to be fully liberated), and Rose and Lavender Essential Oils.

And that’s it. That’s everything.

And this is what I do with them:

Hair: I follow the ‘No ‘Poo’ method of hair washing. Google it, there’s loads online about it. Sometimes it’s also called ‘Curly Girl.’ I use Bicarbonate of Soda as my shampoo and an Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse as my conditioner. (Can you get more natural than that? Or cheap? Plus I never have to browse all aisle after aisle of unnecessary products ever again.) Oh and I only wash my hair once a week, and I do it at night and sleep on it so never use a hairdryer. And it doesn’t get greasy in the slightest- hurrah! I have long hair so the measurements I give are for that. If you have short hair maybe half it to start with, and do your research, but most of all, just play with it and see what works best for you. It takes a while to get the amounts exactly right for your hair, but it’s worth it when you do.

Here’s what to do: wet your hair in the shower and in an empty jam jar put a tbsp. of Bicarbonate of Soda. Fill the jam jar up most of the way with hot water and give it a good stir, or put the lid on and shake, so that the powder dissolves and you have a salty liquid. Pour it over your roots, you will need to flip your head upside down to get underneath and to each side, then disperse it through the roots and scalp (not on the lengths and ends) until you feel a kind of silky, slippery texture- it will feel a little different, it maybe takes a minute or two of working it through with your fingertips before this shift takes place. Then rinse out really well. Rinse rinse rinse.

To condition: rinse out your jam jar, make sure there is no bicarb left at the bottom and put a tbsp. of Apple Cider Vinegar in it. Again fill the jar almost to the top (no stirring or shaking required this time) and pour is over the lengths and ends of your hair, not the roots. Again, rinse out thoroughly, and just when you think you’ve rinsed enough, rinse one more time. The vinegar scent disappears almost immediately, and although your hair will not have that sweet intoxicating (in more ways than one) freshly washed smell you used to get from shampoo, I can assure you that you will not smell of a chip shop, and your hair when it dries will just smell of…hair.

Speaking of chip shops… when I was going through puberty my Mum used to say to me when my greasy roots were screaming out to be washed ‘you look like you’ve stuck your head in a chip pan’. And I promise you that if you keep up with this routine over the weeks and months, you will never again have a problem with greasy roots as your scalp will gradually rebalance itself and they will be a thing of the past, honestly. But AT FIRST this is not the case. If you are going to go ‘No ‘Poo’ then you have to endure the adjustment period: it’s unavoidable I’m afraid. The first 3 weeks or so are not pretty. Your hair will completely shock you with all the crazily weird textures it can adopt. During the adjustment period I was using the bicarb and ACV a few times a week, maybe once every 2 to 3 days. In my experience it is best to start this way and then gradually reduce the number of washes. I am down to once a week these days, it took me a few months to get there (if it’s particularly hot weather I find that sometimes I need to do it twice a week). But yeah, the adjustment period… there was a point where my hair felt exactly like glue. But of course, your body is adapting to being weaned off a daily diet of artificial crap to re-instating its own, much more reliable, self-care methods. This will not happen overnight. But ride it out. Tie your hair up for a few weeks, wear a headscarf, it’s worth it. It’s a trial and error process and you just have to keep tweaking it as you go along- for example, for a while I was using too much bicarb and not rinsing properly and I ended up with a flaky scalp, there was another period where I was using too much vinegar as I felt my hair was beginning to get a bit greasy. It’s all about working with the amounts to see what works best for you, when you get it right, it’s brilliant! No looking back. Think of all the money you’ll save and how your body will thank you.

How hard or soft your water is can also be a factor, so those in big cities like London might find it a bit more challenging. It’s all trial and error, but ultimately so rewarding. Alternatives I know of that friends use are: Rye flour as opposed to bicarb as shampoo, or Himalayan salt crystals. You can also use Aloe Vera juice as conditioner instead of ACV.

Face: I go into more detail on this in my skin blog ‘The Story of my Skin’ but what I use is Raw, Unpasturised Honey as my facewash. It smells so yummy and feels so lovely and soothing on your skin, and I only do this at night, never in the morning, as overnight your skin has re-balanced all of its own oils. In the morning all you need is a little splash of cool water on your face at most, if anything at all. As someone who has suffered from severe acne for 15 years, this REALLY works for me; NOT washing your face is what works? Who knew! If I need to exfoliatea couple of times a week, I use Bicarbonate of Soda again. I’ll put a little bit, say ½  teaspoon of bicarb in my palm and then use some cold water to turn it into a little paste and use that, very gently, focusing particularly around the nose area.  Once rinsed off, it is essential here to use some form of toner to rebalance the PH of the skin (as bicarb is incredibly alkaline). So, you can make a toner, by using, guess what? Apple Cider Vinegar in water! Yes, just a tiny bit, maybe ½ a teaspoon or so, mixed into a plastic bottle (100ml) and use that to get your skin’s PH back in balance. Then moisturise. I intend to move towards creating my own moisturising facial oil, but right now I am just using a Neal’s Yard natural moisturiser until I can afford to buy all the essential oils to mix up my own potion, which I know will be really fun! When I’ve mastered this I’ll share the recipe. And finally, for those times where I do use a little bit of make up, to take it off I put some almond oil on a cotton wool pad and use that as a make-up remover.

Body: To wash my body I use a 100% olive oil soap. I love Chandrika soap too which is Ayurvedic, super cheap, and smells amazing, you can buy these in any health store. Or if you want to treat yourself, get some of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap, made from essential oils and 100% natural ingredients. I have the Rose one and it smells absolutely divine.

For deodorant I use my trusty coconut oil and bicarbonate of soda again. First get a small dollop of coconut oil and warm it between your palms and spread it under your arm pits, then pour a little bit (about the size of a 10p coin) of bicarb into your palm and dab it on top. This works an absolute treat. I was completely amazed by how well this works as a deodorant, I don’t smell at all! It will not prevent sweat patches from developing, and do watch out for white marks when you are wearing black, but, as I’m sure you know, the body is designed to sweat and it is potentially very dangerous to prevent this natural process with aluminium filled anti-perspirants.

To exfoliate I dry body brush for 5 minutes before I get in the shower. Here’s a great little article on this by my favourite wellness website Mind Body Green: ‘Why You Should Start Dry Body Brushing Today’ You could also make a body scrub by mixing rough Himalayan salt crystals into honey perhaps.

I moisturise my body with coconut oil, I just keep a tub by the shower. As oil and water don’t mix you can do this while still standing under the shower and it will stay on your skin- perfect for Winter (or Scotland, at any time of the year!)- and you smell like a coconut, mmmmmmm.

And did you know that coconut oil has a naturally in-built SPF of around factor 10 so can be used as sunscreen? Brilliant.

And that’s about it.

Oh, and instead of expensive perfume, these days I dab Lavender and/or Rose Absolute Essential Oils on my neck and pulse points. They smell gorgeous, and give you the relaxing aromatherapeutic benefits as well, and not to mention are far kinder to your wallet. I find that even the most expensive perfumes smell synthetic to me now.

So, this is how I have made my Way Through the Woods away from the cosmetics industry and towards a beauty regime that is much better for my wallet, my body and the environment. And although I am still very much in recovery, there are most definitely days when I look in the mirror and that sparkle is back, in fact, it’s better than ever.

(Update- I wrote this post in June 2015. At that point I had been following ‘No Poo for just over a year and my hair was loving it. Cut to almost 6 months later and my hair is not so much loving it anymore, and so I have decided to stop. I felt that a build up of bicarb and vinegar was developing on my hair and eventually it just was not getting clean enough with my weekly wash. So I have reverted back to Shampoo and Conditioner (the most organic and natural I have been able to find), for now anyway. I might go back to ‘No Poo in the future, but as with everything in our bodies and minds, we need different things at different times, and it is our duty to follow THAT at any given time, not what we know to be healthiest, or most ethical or what someone else has told us. Be your own guide.)

Scrumptious *Grain Free* *Gluten Free* *Sugar Free* Breads and Muffins, That’s Right, Not a Carbohydrate in Sight!

20150622_093831What is the single hardest thing about going gluten free that every coeliac or gluten/wheat intolerant person can attest to? That’s right GIVING UP BREAD- yummy dietary staple bread. And it’s not just coeliacs that have to do this. What if you are eliminating sugar from your diet? To do this effectively that means removing (or at least severely limiting) grains from your diet, as well as fructose and of course, any form of refined sugar. And we in the U.K. are a nation of sandwich lovers- cheese and Branston pickle and peanut butter and jam used to be my fillings of choice, back in my pre-intolerance days, and before I knew what was good for my body. Throughout my university years an embarrassingly high proportion of my meals were sandwiches, or bowls of cereal, that and countless boring bowls of pasta and pesto (when I did eat that is, I mostly subsisted on a liquid diet whilst smoking cigarettes to keep hunger pangs at bay): no wonder my body built up a resistance to these foods (and substances!) and eventually rejected them altogether. I won’t lie, sometimes I still wish I could eat bread, but I know better, and I have found the grain free holy grail (of bread substitutes) the recipes for which I am more than happy to share.

Stop Press: You can eat a very low carb, or even 0 carb diet and still eat ‘bread’. That’s right- there are many delicious breads to be made from ingredients such as whole or ground flaxseed, ground almonds and coconut flour.

They are a source of fat and not carbohydrate and so unlike all grain derived breads which ultimately turn to sugar in the body (and that also goes for your gluten free buckwheat/rice/quinoa loaf as much as it does for your crusty baguette or seeded wheat/spelt/rye loaf) these do not. These recipes for healthy baking are fully in line with my argument in ‘Can a Steak Really be Healthier for you than a Carrot : The Fat vs. Sugar Debate’ where I delve into this issue in great detail.

The trouble often with gluten free and grain free breads is that they are not as satisfying and delicious as real bread. I have eaten my fair share of cardboard over the years and I can fully attest to the brilliance of these bakes- even my friends who aren’t gluten or sugar free love them, and have chosen to eat them over bog standard bread. Enjoy!

Flaxseed Rolls (the ‘breadiest’ grain free bake I’ve ever come across)

Makes 4 large rolls, 6 medium, or 8 small.

(Sometimes I just make 1/4 of the recipe if I just want one roll for one meal) it takes no time at all to mix the ingredients together, so it’s really straightforward.


250g Flaxseed (whole or ground- you can use either- whole will make a textured granary bread roll, milled or ground will make a smooth roll, akin to wholemeal)

80g Ground Almonds

4 Eggs

50g Coconut Oil (or you can use butter if you can tolerate dairy)

1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp salt (good quality- Pink Himalayan or Celtic Sea Salt)

100ml water

(Optional) – 1 tsp oregano, or fennel seeds or caraway seeds, black pepper.


Preheat the oven to 170 degrees celsius.

Put the coconut oil in a small oven-proof dish and pop it in the oven for 5 mins or so, just so it is almost liquid.

Add all the other ingredients to a food processor (and the coconut oil once it is closer to a liquid state) and blend until smooth.

Once blended leave it for a few minutes, to allow the mixture to thicken, and then blend again.

Grease a baking tray with coconut oil/or butter

Divide up the mixture into well spaced blobs on the tray. 4 for large rolls, 6 for medium, 8 for small.

(N.B. If you are using whole flaxseed and not ground the mixture will be much runnier, don’t worry about this, they will turn out great, but divide the mixture into 4 or 6, and not 8, as the loose consistency means they will be shallower.)

If you are using ground flaxseed the mixture will hold together better and so you can make 8 easily.

Both are good, often I prefer to use the whole flaxseeds, the end result is densely packed with seeds and has a lot of texture. Also the roughage that they provide are quite possibly the best thing if you are experiencing sluggish digestion.

Wet the back of a spoon and smooth out the dollops into roll shapes. They will not really rise so bear this in mind when you are shaping them.

Bake for up to 45 mins, until golden brown on top and springy.

Cool on a wire rack.

Cut in half, like you would a roll. These are very filling. If I make a batch of 4 often I will cut each roll in half and eat a half at a sitting and freeze all the other 1/2 portions individually. They can be popped in the toaster from frozen but they won’t take as long to toast as frozen bread.

flaxseed roll

Enjoy with whatever: scrambled eggs and bacon, wild salmon and sliced avocado, nut butter and apple, grilled chicken, sauerkraut and salad….

Ground Almond and Spinach Loaf

Makes 12 slices (like a cake), I sometimes just make half the recipe. Or make it all and freeze portions.


300g Ground Almonds

4 Eggs

Bag of Spinach (steamed and drained and chopped)

30g Coconut Oil (melted) or butter if you can tolerate dairy

Pinch of good quality Salt

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar

(optional) a wee sprinkle of nutmeg, ground or freshly grated.


Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius

Steam spinach and drain of all water, give it a good squeeze to get all the water out, and chop.

Mix all the other ingredients together in a bowl. Mix in the spinach.

Grease a baking tin coconut oil or butter (I use a small round one, a small one of any shape will work). Line with baking paper if you have it, this often gets stuck without baking paper, so I would advise it.

Pour in the mixture and even it out.

Bake for 30 mins until it is starting to go golden brown on top and a knife comes out clean when you do a skewer test.

Loosen the bread from the edges and leave to cool for a bit before turning out onto a cooling rack. Flip back over when cooled and cut into slices as you would a cake. Portions are freezable, or will keep in the fridge for a few days. This is nice hot or cold, and is especially good with soup.

You can play around with this recipe and use other veggies than spinach. What about a courgette and almond loaf? (just substitute the spinach for a medium grated courgette), or beetroot? Or why not make it sweet- instead use a couple of grated carrots or grated apple and add in some chopped walnuts, chopped prunes and cinnamon.

Coconut Flour Lemon and Poppy Seed Muffins

Completely Sugar Free Grain Free Muffins? Yes please!

Makes 8 Muffins


75g Coconut flour

4 Eggs (separate the whites and the yolks)

Zest of 1 Lemon

3 tbsp Lemon Juice

50g coconut oil (melted)

10 drops liquid Stevia, or 10 sachets of Truvia (1 sachet = 1 tsp) (you might want to make it sweeter, add to your taste).

(optional) 1 tsp sugar free vanilla extract, or the inside of a fresh vanilla pod

1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda

1 tbsp Poppy Seeds


Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius

Melt coconut oil in oven briefly to soften.

Separate the egg whites from the yolks. Set the yolks aside. In a separate bowl whisk up the egg whites into stiff peaks (you might want to use an electric whisk if you have one to save your poor arm.)The reason for doing this is that coconut flour is VERY dense, this helps to lighten the mixture by bringing some air into it.

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl (include the egg yolks) you can do this in a food processor if you have one.

Fold in the egg whites.

Divide mixture into 8 paper cases in muffin trays.

Bake for 25-30 mins until golden brown and skewer test comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack (if you can be that patient… A grain free, gluten free, sugar free person like me is SO excited about the fact I actually get to eat a muffin that there’s no WAY I can wait for them to cool before diving in!)

Again, play with this recipe. What about raw cacao nibs and walnuts and desiccated coconut instead of lemon and poppy seed? Or if you can tolerate a bit of root veg/fruit why not use the coconut flour base and create carrot cake muffins? (grated carrot, walnut, cinnamon, and drizzle tahini on top for frosting, or a dollop of co yo as frosting?), or grated apple and cinnamon, or grated pear and some blueberries, cherries, desiccated coconut… go crazy.

YUM! Healthy, 100% Sugar and Grain Free and decidedly delectable.

Oh So Healthy *Sugar Free* *Grain Free* *Vegan* Delicious Dessert Recipes

choc cake

Just because we don’t eat sugar doesn’t mean we don’t want dessert, right?! Here are a few of my go to desserts. All of them are completely free from grains and refined sugar and also natural sugar substitutes like honey/agave/maple syrup as these are all just as sugary as each other. They are all gluten free/lactose free/soya free/ and most are vegan. The only sugar in some of these recipes is a little bit of fruit sugar, and for those of you who literally can’t tolerate ANY sugar, even fruits/root veg for health reasons (like me!) there are some 100% sugar free recipes in here and guess what- some of them use CHOCOLATE, yep, that’s right, you CAN be 100% sugar free and still eat chocolate (in the form of raw cacao).

Paleo Pancake

This is grain free, and free of any refined sugar, it does contain eggs and the natural fruit sugar of a banana though, this pancake is a breakfast fit for a King or Queen, or (for Queens only) an unbeatable snack for one of those PMT-y evenings where you need something sweet and filling to make you feel better but don’t want to be unhealthy. This is it.


2 eggs

1 banana

Yep. That’s all.

Plus a little bit of coconut oil to fry it in.


In a blender blend the eggs and banana together, can be in a food processor, a smoothie maker, or in bowl with a hand-held blender, either way, does the same job.

In a frying pan (a small-ish one is best if you have one as the mixture will spread to cover its entire surface) melt some coconut oil on a high-ish heat. Once melted and hot, pour in the pancake mix.

I advise AGAINST FLIPPING THIS PANCAKE! It ends in disaster more often than not. Instead, after cooking it on the bottom for a few minutes I then stick the pan under the grill to cook the top. Keep an eye on it, when it is ready it will have lots of little aerated holes on the surface and a little bit of colour.

Eat with the healthy toppings of your choice: sprinkle with berries and seeds and cinnamon/flaxseed/tahini… if you are carnivorous maybe eat with a few slices crispy bacon on top, yum (sorry Veggies/Vegans)

Chia Seed Carrot Cake Bowl:

This tastes like a big bowl of the healthiest carrot cake you have ever tasted. It’s everything free- gluten free/grain free, dairy free, soya free, sugar free, but not JOY free, it is yummy. Chia Seeds are an exceptional source of protein, fibre and are packed with omega 3s. You can use them as a grain substitute, and eating a bowl of Chia in this way will give you the same amount of energy as if you were to eat a bowl of porridge. I like to eat a big bowl of this for a lazy Sunday morning breakfast. (N.B. The chia seeds are best if soaked in the almond milk overnight so you want to do this the night before for eating the next day, they swell up like frogspawn- the tastiest frogspawn you’ve ever tasted! BUT even 15 minutes soaking will make them swell up pretty well, so you can do it quickly too if need be) The only ‘sugar’ in this is the carrot. Most people can easily tolerate the sugar in a carrot, but if you are like poor me, and temporarily can’t tolerate even the teensiest but of sugar in a carrot, then try my alternative: I substitute the carrot for finely chopped celery- still pretty tasty! Sometimes I don’t have the chia seed part but just have a bowl of the rest- carrot or celery topped with tasty things, a really quick, easy, and oh so healthy sugar free dessert.

Ingredients for one portion:

3 heaped tbsp Chia Seeds

250 ml of almond milk (unsweetened) – or cow’s milk if you can tolerate it, always go for full fat, and raw unpasturised if you can.

1 carrot (grated)

Sprinkle of some of or all of: Pumpkin seeds/Ground Almonds/Ground Flaxseed/Walnuts broken up into a few pieces/toasted sunflower seeds/cinnamon and nutmeg.

(if you want you could also add something like a couple of chopped dried prunes, these are much lower in sugar than raisins or dates and are very good for digestion)

1 heaped tbsp tahini drizzled over the top.


If eating for breakfast the next day: the night before put the 3 tbsp Chia Seeds into an empty jam jar, add the almond milk, if you think it needs a bit more liquid add a little more milk or water. Put on the lid and give it a good shake. Put in the fridge for the seeds to swell overnight.

N.B. Even if you soak the Chia Seeds for 30 mins they will still swell, so you can do this and eat it quicker, but the longer they have to soak, the better.

Once your Chia Seeds are like tasty frogspawn, mix and empty into a bowl.

If you want to eat it hot (hot Chia porridge is nice on a cold day) then warm in a pan or pop in the microwave.

Grate your carrot or chop your celery and pop it on top.

Then put all your yummy additions on the top: pumpkin seeds/broken walnuts/ground almonds/sunflower seeds/flaxseed/a good dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg, and finally drizzle with a big dollop of tahini, yum, enjoy!

Other options with Chia Seed Porridge:

Eat with some berries and dessicated coconut on top. Grate a green apple on top and sprinkle with seeds, cinnamon and tahini. Stir in a heaped tsp of raw cacao powder (like co co pops, but for adults, and insanely healthy).

Baked Spiced Apple with Yogurt and Nut and Seed Grain Free Granola:

Again, there is a small amount of natural fruit sugar here in the apple, but the greener the apple you use, the better. I would say that if you can use a Bramley cooking apple, then that’s the best, they have the least sugar of all apples. The next best would be a Granny Smith. The Nut and Seed Mix you can make a batch of in a food processor and it will keep for a week or two and you can use it as you would a granola (it is absolutely delicious and completely grain free!)

Ingredients for one portion:

1 Bramley or Granny Smith Apple

Cinnamon and Nutmeg

A big dollop of Co Yo coconut yogurt if you are dairy free. Or if you can tolerate lactose then full fat live yogurt, or even double cream. Full fat dairy is miles better than low fat, raw and unpasturised even better, it’s the sugar you need to worry about, not the fat, so cut the carbs and enjoy full fat dairy!

A few chopped dried prunes if you want some extra sweetness. I prefer these to raisins, raisins are just little sugar bombs.

For the Nut and Seed Granola, make a lot and you can store in an airtight container and use for a couple of weeks:

A few handfuls of different nuts and seeds, whatever you can get your hands on e.g. almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, ground flaxseed, dessicated coconut and cinnamon.


Heat oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Core the apple and cut off the top, before putting the lid of the apple back on stuff the chopped prunes into it (if using), and dust liberally with cinnamon and a little bit of nutmeg.

Bake for 25-30 mins, until soft and unctuous.

Make the Nut and Seed Mix by putting all the ingredients in a food processor and blending. Use any ratio of nuts and seeds you like, I think the additions of desiccated coconut and the cinnamon are really important though for ultimate tastiness, I would make sure I have those. You should have a fine-ish powdery like granola. Store what you are not using in an airtight container.

Get the apple out the oven, whack it in a bowl, dollop on your yogurt or cream, sprinkle over a couple of heaped tbsps of your Nut and Seed Granola and dust with a bit more cinnamon and nutmeg. Delicious.

Use your Nut and Seed Granola for more yummy desserts like this, instead of an apple maybe try a baked pear, or peach if you can tolerate that sugar. Or for breakfasts chop up an apple and add the mix, yogurt (or almond milk, or even full fat coconut milk- sometimes I empty a can of coconut milk – the kind you use for curries etc- into a plastic container and put in the fridge, 24 hours later it will have thickened to the consistency of cream, so I would then use in like the yogurt in this dessert recipe). Berries such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blueberries (berries are the lowest sugar fruits).

100% Sugar Free  Grain Free Chocolate Cake (Dairy Free but not Vegan, contains eggs)


50g raw cacao powder (you can buy the Raw Chocolate Company’r raw cacao powder in most healthshops)

125ml boiling water

2 tsp vanilla extract (make sure it’s sugar free, or use vanilla bean paste or a fresh vanilla pod)- or leave it out.

150g ground almonds

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

pinch of good quality salt (e.g. pink himalayan or celtic sea salt)

3 organic free range eggs

Stevia- this acts as the sugar substitute. I do not advocate any other sugar substitute than stevia. The amount to add is not the easiest to work out. If you are using the sachets of ‘Truvia’ maybe add 8 (each is a tsp) and then taste. If you feel it needs to be sweeter, add more, but keep it as minimal as you can, Stevia has a very strong taste. If using liquid stevia, add a tbsp, taste, and add more if you have to.

150 ml olive oil (+ extra for greasing)


Preheat oven to 170 degrees celcius

Grease a round cake tin (23cm) with olive oil and line with baking paper

Put the raw cacao in a heat proof bowl and whisk in the boiling water until the mixture is smooth, raw cacao takes a while to mix into water, just keep stirring, it will eventually.

Add the vanilla (extract, bean paste, inside of a fresh pod, if using)

In another bowl mix the dry ingredients- the ground almonds, salt and bicarbonate of soda.

Leave the cacao/water bowl to cool for a few minutes (you do not want scrambled eggs!) then add the olive oil, eggs and stevia to the ‘wet ingredients’ bowl and whisk well.

Then slowly stir in the ‘dry ingredients’ bowl- the ground almonds/salt and bicarb.

Once all mixed well (it will be a liquidy consistency) pour into the cake tin and bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes (if you can, so it holds together) before demolishing.

100 % Sugar Free Dairy Free Absolutely To Die For Hot Chocolate

This hot chocolate is so thick and creamy it is more like chocolate soup. You can have it as a dessert or as the best pick me up possible on a cold, rainy, windy, snowy, hormonal, weepy, whatever afternoon or evening. Again, this takes some advance preparation as the cashews need to be soaked overnight. So make sure to plan your hot chocolate in advance, you won’t regret it!


This makes enough for a few people. It will keep in the fridge for up to 4 days. You can always half the recipe. It is in ‘US Speak’ so uses cups. When I see this I just usually use the smallest cup I have and just go by that, I know that isn’t technically correct, but I am very slapdash in the kitchen and not a natural baker (as some of you know!) so do as I do, or measure your ‘cups’ accurately. Up to you.

1 cup cashews (soaked overnight)

3 cups water

1/4 cup of raw cacao powder

Stevia to sweeten (a sachet (tsp) or two, or a couple of drops if using liquid, adjust to taste)


The night before, or in the morning for the evening. Soak the cashews in water, why not just use 3 cups water here too, keep it consistent.

At least 8 hours later, drain the water from the cashews and rinse well.

Put the nuts in a blender with 3 cups fresh water and raw cacao. If you want to be fancy you could add a little pinch of pink Himalayan  salt here, or the inside of a fresh vanilla pod, or a dash of sugar free vanilla essence.

Blend until smooth. Really blend. Blend for ages to get the best consistency.

Transfer to a pot and heat on the hob until it is hot enough for you (just transfer the amount you want to drink right now, keep the rest in an airtight container in the fridge, but you can reheat it again even if you heat it all and have leftovers.)

Enjoy, mmm hot chocolately SUGAR FREE goodness! I want some now….

And finally, for now, my quickest go to dessert of all desserts that requires absolutely no preparation and is 100% sugar free and 110% mouth-wateringly delicious:

Co Yo yogurt with a tsp of raw cacao powder mixed in. To me, as someone who can’t eat any sugar at all, and so would think you can’t eat sweet creamy luxurious things, this is heaven.

Confessions of a Hedonist: Dissecting a Decade of Drink, Drugs and Debauchery on the One Year Anniversary of the Day I Finally Gave Up Alcohol, for Good

Friends who’ve known me for only a few years (since I started working in contemporary art and I started constantly harping on about the benefits of yoga, meditation and healthy eating) often don’t believe that I had a ‘party past;’ those who’ve known me longer, know better. This is written for anyone who, like me, has struggled— or maybe continues to struggle— in our society where substance indulgence (and more often than not, abuse) is accepted, and you might even say, sanctioned. This is for anyone who, like me, might call themselves a Hedonist: (O.E.D.: ‘A person who believes that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important thing in life; a pleasure seeker.’) This is written for someone who sometimes takes it that wee bit too far, and perhaps is at a loss as to how to stop themselves. I think this is an issue we tend to laugh off, but it needs to be grappled with.  I’ve chosen to use the word ‘Hedonist’ but I probably could have picked one of the scarier ‘A’ words: ‘Addict’ or ‘Alcoholic.’

This is split into two parts: the first ‘Part One: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – The Epic Hangover to End All Hangovers?’ is about how suffering from this illness has really opened my eyes to how I used to actually inflict many of the symptoms upon myself. ‘Part Two: A Decade of Drink, Drugs and Debauchery’ is an unflinching and sobering (if you’ll forgive the pun) account of my own experience. I write about this not to be sensationalist (though at points it undoubtedly is); I am far from proud of it, but importantly, neither am I deeply ashamed of it anymore, as I was for years. Neither do I share my own shame stories towards the end to play a game of ‘shocking drunken misdemeanour anecdote’ Top Trumps. Far from it — and I’m sure many of you could beat me hands down, and I actively encourage you to replace my own trolleyed tales with your own— I honestly think it serves a purpose to share these, otherwise I would keep them securely locked away in the dark recesses of my memory. In many ways that is where they firmly belong.

This is not about getting a little but tipsy. No, this is a story of extremes. This is about getting out of it – pissed – wasted – shit-faced – gubbed- swallied – blazing – steaming – annihilated – nutted – utter guttered – swedgered – or into a total state.

This is not about a few quiet drinks down the pub or a nice bottle of wine over dinner. (Or it might be, if your nightly medicinal glass of wine is pure escapism from your reality). But on the whole, No, this is about nights of some of (or all of) the following: wine with dinner followed by pre-drinks in the flat, and the 9.45pm dash to the offy before it closes. Then more pre-drinks in a bar (perhaps dropping your first pill in the toilets) – drinks, double-dunting and constant tiny sips of water in the club, complete with the hourly dancing break in the smoking section (we all knew the best banter was out in the smoking area, right?) And after the post-club ‘find a party’ mission was complete, and we’d made a middle of the night pilgrimage for fags and mixer, lollipops and chewing gum: more drinking, smoking, snorting, dabbing, bombing, maybe even parties with rave rooms and k-holes. It’s about the 10am pilgrimage back to the off-license to re-stock and keep going (Glasgow dwellers- remember the one that is actually inside a CAGE?) Shudder. It is about all of these things; and it is about the infamous ‘walk of shame’- we’ve all been there.


Part One: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – The Epic Hangover to End All Hangovers?

Exactly a year ago today I had my last drink. My last alcoholic drink, ever. The date doesn’t really hold any special significance. I remember the date clearly though as my friends and I had put on an artists’ film screening event at the local arts centre and we had a few drinks afterwards. It was a big success; it was so full that people were sitting in the aisles. But I was completely exhausted and was suffering from crippling anxiety (not that anyone would have guessed, I even read aloud in front of the audience) and I tried to mask it by drinking. I couldn’t face talking to anyone apart from my closest friends. I’d been suffering, without a firm diagnosis, from Chronic Fatigue for 6 months at that point; I should not have been drinking at all. The next day I couldn’t get out of bed, that continued for the weekend, the next week, the week after that… At that point I decided to leave my job.

Let me explain.

Imagine your worst ever hangover. This is what a really bad day with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome feels like. Not the nausea (at least not for me anyway). But you wake up (at some point in the morning, or the afternoon) and you have a blinding headache. There is a hollowness behind your eyes. You are dehydrated but you can’t face getting up for a glass of water so you just hope that licking your lips will do the trick. You have ‘the fear’ big time. You seem to have lost the inability to think, speak, and you swear, you once had this thing called a ‘memory’, but you draw an absolute blank when you try to remember what happened last night (extend that to yesterday/ the last week/ the last month, even months for CFS sufferers, depending on the severity of your illness). You can’t bring yourself to text any of your friends, you can barely make out the screen at all your vision is so hazy. Reading a book is out of the question. Even watching a film in bed turns out to be too sore on your head. Listening to the radio is no good either, they may as well be speaking a foreign language and it is too loud even at its lowest volume, and your ears won’t stop ringing. So you just lie there with your eyes closed. You don’t go back to sleep, you just lie still, trying your best not to move. If anyone came in to check on you they’d only know you were alive by the occasional groaning, or ever-so-slight shifting of position. You hope that that urge to pee doesn’t escalate any time soon. After a few hours like this you contemplate getting up to make food. You wish someone would bring food and water, even better, juice, to you in bed, mmmmmmm, juice, but there is no one else in. You can’t call for a pizza or a Chinese delivery as you’ve developed intolerances to so many foods that you have no choice but to prepare everything from scratch and for it all to be healthy. You can’t even drink juice anymore as it is pure sugar. Your choices are water or… water.

The fear

The similarities between the worst hangovers of my life and my CFS led me to concoct the following explanation for my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – I sometimes joke with family and friends that to redress my karma for all my years of devout hedonism I am being forced to re-live EVERY SINGLE hangover I’ve ever had and that once I’ve relived them all I will be miraculously cured – Hallelujah! I calculated that with roughly 3 nights (often heavy) drinking every week over the course of the last, say, 10 years (that’s 3 x 52 x 10) = 1,560 days. So, altogether, that would be roughly 4 years and 3 months. It sounds weird, I know, but I feel like it would make some kind of sense if this were the case as living with Chronic Fatigue is very much is like the ‘luck of the draw’ you get with hangovers. Some days are fine. I’ll be out and about doing shopping, laughing with friends, eating properly, only with that undercurrent of tiredness and that ‘hollow-eyed’ feeling; otherwise I’d feel more or less human. Other days were like those I mention above: utterly catatonic. Days where you can’t call yourself a human; you’re more like a human shell. Days where all you can do is pray that it will pass, that it will soon be over and that the next one will be better. Food is out of the question unless someone makes it for you— the sound of a knife on the chopping board is head-splitting. Even the rustle of opening a bag of celery is too excruciating to bear (yes, the turn of phrase would usually call for ‘bag of crisps’ there, but with all the food intolerances, the last time you ate crisps was YEARS ago). I remember when I was younger my worst food nightmare when hungover was the idea of a cherry tomato bursting in my mouth (the very thought alone was enough to make me wretch, eugh). Now, with CFS, I can’t even eat tomatoes any more, and these days it’s the thought of the food preparation that scares me more. The idea that I might need to stand to stir a pot on the hob, or God forbid pull open the heavy door of the fridge. I wish I was exaggerating, I really do, but that’s what it’s like on the absolute worst CFS ‘hangover’ days.

So you can probably see that now that as I have experienced feeling like this, day after day, often with no sign of it letting up, I never ever, ever, again want to do anything to induce these lows by my own volition. Luckily I have no choice whatsoever now, even if I wanted to drink alcohol I physically couldn’t. My body literally can’t break down sugar anymore, to the point that even if I were to eat a grape I’d immediately get so dizzy I’d likely lose my balance, my eyes would glaze over and the rest of the day would be spent with a crippling migraine. If I drank wine—fermented grapes— I would be in bed for a week, in something akin to a shallow coma. One glass of wine = one week in bed. Is it worth it? I don’t think I need to even answer that. Can you please pass the celery?

Part Two: A Decade of Drink, Drugs and Debauchery

In honesty this issue is much bigger than my illness. It extends WAY beyond my issues with Chronic Fatigue. It was about time that this decision was made for me; the decision to stop drinking alcohol altogether, and for me to stick to it this time.

Alcohol and I never really got on. Well, that’s a lie, we got on GREAT, when I was drunk and having an awesome time. For a good few years my body coped with the weekly abuse fine. Sure, I had dreadful hangovers, but what was losing one day? (Or 120 odd a year?) I was young. In truth, on a psychological level, my mind was never able to handle alcohol— The regrets of things you’d said the next day, the drunken revelation of secrets you wish you’d kept, the promises you’d made that in the cold light of day you had no intention of keeping, the mortification of having sent that text, or made that middle of the night phone-call, or worse, of having showed up on that doorstep— Who was that person? It certainly wasn’t the person I associated with the word ‘me’. How many times have you sent an ‘I’m so sorry for what I said/did/for what happened last night’ text? I’ve lost count.

I couldn’t hack it, not when I was 15, not when I was 25. I had been trying, and failing miserably to stop drinking, knowing that, as much as everyone else might not be as adversely affected by our drinking culture: I was. We all were. We all are. But I never did manage to stay on that wagon. Despite my best efforts to stay sober, our society geared me up to fail.

From about the age of 15 I did what every ‘normal’ teenager did. On the weekends my friends and I would go up to the local village where a friend (one that looked 18 and got ‘served’) would buy us quarter or half bottles of vodka, or whisky (we’d been able to get sold fags since we were 13, so we could get our own) We’d go to someone’s house, preferably whose parents happened to be away for the weekend. If that option wasn’t available to us then we’d go down to the Old Railway Station (the immaculately preserved end of the line from Victorian times) smoke resin filled joints (remember that awful crumbling smell?) and spin around on the platforms, drinking 3 litre bottles of ‘Frosty Jacks’ cider. Or we’d go and hang around up to the ‘Eagle Stone’ (A Neolithic standing stone which is legendary for being the subject of a prophecy of the infamous Brahan Seer, who said that if the stone fell three times, the village— which is situated in a deep valley— would be flooded to the point that you could attach a sailing ship to the church steeple. It had fallen twice and the village had experienced dreadful flooding each time. Now it is cemented into the ground, there’s not a chance of it moving an inch!) Strangely quaint places for teenage drinking sessions you might say? Yes, it was on the whole quite a ‘well-to-do’ village, many of my friends lived in big fancy mansions, not me though; I lived in a tiny cottage nearby the village, so needless to say there were never any parties there. My mum told me recently that sometimes I’d come home so drunk that she’d sleep on the floor beside my bed just to make sure I didn’t choke on my own vomit or something in the night. I had no idea. I never did though— in fact, for years, I prided myself on never being sick no matter how much I drank— I had a liver of steel, I proclaimed, I’d inherited it from my alcoholic grandmother.

I was at university from the age of 17 to 21. I can only speak from my own experience so I don’t know if my university drinking days would be classed as ‘normal.’ I gravitated from a drink and a smoke to an array of substances, and I took them as regularly as I take my vitamins now. I had a timetable at university of course, I can’t remember it. I’ll tell you the timetable I do remember though, for my first couple of years there, once I had my I.D. it was:

Monday — Hungover/come down from Optimo (eclectic club night at Sub Club). Night in.

Tuesday — Not hungover. Killer Kitsch (Electro night at the Buff Club).

Wednesday — Hungover/come down. Night in.

Thursday — Not hungover. Record Playerz (Electro night at the Art School). Parties until the morning. Biggest night out of the week.

Friday — Hungover/comedown. Night in. Once a month: Pressure (city’s biggest Techno night at the Arches). Usually too tired to party after.

Saturday — Not hungover (or hungover if Pressure was last night. Mandatory massive comedown, but always lessened by amount of toxins sweated out by all the furious dancing). Once a month: Death Disco (city’s biggest Electro night at the Arches). Parties well into the next day. If not Death Disco, maybe another club, ABC, maybe Buff Club, just for somewhere to go out.

Sunday — Hungover. (If Death Disco was last night- massive inescapable come down.) If energy, Optimo. If not, Night in.

Monday — Start again.

See the pattern? I was either drunk or hungover, or coming down pretty much every day.

How I managed to leave university with a First I have absolutely no idea. Well actually I do. At the end of my second year, after a good year and a half of not missing a ‘class’ (of the above ‘timetable’ of course, not my classes at university, oh no.) I entered my English Literature exam only to sit down in front of my exam paper and be hit with the sobering reality that I couldn’t possibly sit this exam as I hadn’t studied any of the texts. Did I even go to class? I had spent the last year at house parties, in clubs, with eyes as wide as saucers ‘chewing my face off’; Either that or at home with my head in my hands, or ‘kipper flipping’ in bed— sometimes alone, often not.

I had a panic attack and walked out of the exam.

Luckily the university let me resit my exams at the end of summer without being penalised. Thankfully I got my act together and found a kind, reliable boyfriend who was a good influence on me for the next year or two and as a result I went out less for the remainder of my undergrad. (By less I maybe mean twice a week instead of almost every night. I calmed down completely on the drugs front and I would tend to come home when the clubs closed, that is instead of going from after-party to after-party until the next day.) ‘A’ for good behaviour.

This lasted right up until my final exams were over. Then I was free.  Free to start abusing my body again, woohoo! I almost didn’t make it to my graduation as I thought it would be a great idea to take acid 2 days beforehand (you would never know by looking at the photos). I calmed down after a few weeks as I found that no matter how much I tried I just couldn’t party like I used to. But then the stable boyfriend and I ended up on the rocks and I stopped coming home after the clubs closed and before I knew it I was staying out all night again, with the help of many stimulants. We broke up and so I went at it full-pelt. The endless rounds of parties and club-nights continued until just after my 23rd birthday, and by this time I was working in a bar so that just made it all the easier to drink all the time. A couple of days after New Year I was in a very dark place and thankfully realised that it was time to Stop. This. Right Now.

I was tee-total for just over a year and a half. In that time I took up daily yoga and meditation, I went on retreats to learn Tai Chi and Shiatsu. I cycled everywhere. I juiced. I was happily single. I was really enjoying my close friendships, and my own company.  I took up ‘Biodanza’: the hippy-dippy dance class this guy told me I would LOVE when we were tripping together (that time 2 days before my graduation) — I totally loved it; I hope to teach it one day. I had a lovely trip to Paris. I had a great time at Glastonbury with my Dad. I got really into hill-waking. I would come home to the countryside for a weekend a month. I had good relationships with both parents, and siblings. I started running. I danced naked on hillsides with a group of inspirational women. I performed with another group of inspirational women where we channelled our inner wild woman and howled like wolves. I was the happiest I had been since I was a carefree kid. I knew who I was, what made me happy and where I wanted to go in life. I was comfortable. I smiled when I woke up in the morning. I started getting promotions at the art gallery I worked for, and even thought about applying for a masters degree, if I could get a scholarship. I did. (I was becoming a workaholic, but that’s another story for another time…). Quite different from the drunk/hungover pattern though, no? I’d also finally had enough of the ‘I’m soooooooooooo hungover’ banter, (where people wear their hangover like a badge of honour). Or ‘I was sooooooooooooo wasted last night, I can’t remember a SINGLE THING’; like it was something to be proud of— It’s not. It’s boring chat. It doesn’t serve me or you to hear about your self-inflicted woes, let’s talk about something else (of course, who was I to say this? I had uttered those words countless times over the years myself.)

Then I met someone. We started dating. I was really into him. And what do you do when you go on a date? That’s right- you go for drinks (you’re nervous, you think you need some Dutch courage, right?) Then next time you maybe go for dinner and drinks. The time after that maybe he cooks dinner and you bring round a bottle of wine, and you decide to go out after getting a bit tipsy and you end up in a club taking shots (ok, so maybe you shot coffee flavoured Café Patron these days as opposed to cheap Sambuca, but a shot is still a shot). Then my memory starts to get a little hazy… I stopped doing yoga and meditating, I didn’t go home to the country so often and my relationships weren’t as fulfilling, including even the romantic one—especially the romantic one; it was a car crash and this just made me escape further into the bottom of a wineglass…or bottle— When I started drinking again after my first extended period of being a tee-totaller I was just your average binge-drinker: no drugs, just a few glasses of wine after a long, stressful day at work or in the university library; a bottle over dinner; a big Saturday night out dancing once in a while, especially if you’d had a tough week, a ten deck of Camel blues for a night out. Often I’d stop drinking by 1am and finish the night with water. Sometimes I’d even leave the club before closing time. A semi-sober walk or taxi ride home, maybe some left over risotto before bed. ‘A+’ for good behaviour!

I thought: ‘Hey, everyone else does it, why can’t I?’ But I was a mess. The hangovers kept getting worse. The weeks and months rolled by in a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends blur. I couldn’t even function as this level, of ‘normal’ drinking. I just couldn’t hack it. I became one of the ‘I’m soooooooo hungover’ people again. Yeah, there were lots of things besides the booze, but it really was not helping. Something I learned one time that has always stuck with me: you can always find someone to drink with. You can always find someone to drink with. The facebook status update I posted on the day I handed in my masters dissertation read: ‘Did that actually just happen? Just handed in my masters dissertation! Time for relaxing, sleep, but most importantly, GIN!’ You can see where my priorities lay… is it any wonder I developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? The illness for people who live life at such a fast pace that they live on stimulants, tend to go without sleep and have completely forgotten how to relax?!

But it’s so fuuuuuuunnnnnn, I hear you say. And I agree, I LOVED drinking and going out, I really did. I loved DANCING to good music. I loved losing my inhibitions enough to dance all night long; and often well into the next day. I loved the EUPHORIA. I loved all the different people I met, all the deep conversations I had, all of the exciting new and situations I ended up in. And I loved all the attractive boys I kissed (and then some). I especially loved the late night sing-a-longs, of every song we could think of off the top of our heads. What would have happened if I’d been sober that whole time? Would I have still got to sing all those songs at top of my lungs? (I’d probably have carried a tune much better if I wasn’t half-cut). Would I have kissed all those boys (probably not, probably not even half, did I even find them that attractive? did we even have anything in common?); would I still have had the amazing conversations (yes, probably more so in fact. I bet it would be hilarious to be able to re-listen to some of the conversations I considered to be ‘profound’ at 5.30am, sitting chain smoking around some random’s kitchen table, all of us on a different concoction of class As.) Would I still have gone to new and exciting places and met lots of new people? (as much as it kills me to say this I know that if I could get back all the money I spent on booze, fags, drugs and nights out over the years then I would be able to go on a round the world trip—maybe even more than once.)

Me at Death Disco

Of course, I would be lying to you if I said to you that some of my best memories were not under the influence of drugs and alcohol…. Many of them were:

-Remember that time we played invisible tennis on the Kelvingrove courts at 7am, dressed in our finest clubbing regalia complete with beehives and leopard print coats? We launched our dancing shoes across the deserted courts, doing our best  grunting impressions of Monica Seles and shouting ‘Tally Ho!’ as if we were playing ‘Throw the Welly Boot’ at a Highland Games?

-What about that time we wandered round the backstreets of Florence, tipsy on the best cocktails I’d ever tasted, made with gin brewed by Benedictine monks. Do you remember: the barmaid in our favourite bar on the piazza accidentally gave me 50 Euros change too much? More drinks!

-What about that time I had that impromptu party in my flat and we were running around dressed in the pink, white and black feathered angel wings I’d somehow acquired?

-What about that time when it got to about 6am and our legs were so tired from all the dancing that we lay down in the middle of the aircraft hanger, our scarves underneath us. We held hands and we closed our eyes for a rest while the pounding techno next door reverberated through the floor beneath our prone bodies. Hundreds of people milled by but gave us our space. People started taking photos and someone came and called us ‘Sonar Angels’ because we were both in white dresses?

-What about that time we sat up just the two us and talked into the wee small hours while listening to Bob Dylan and Neil Young records and my very soul was stirred not only by the music but by our profound conversations?

-What about the time I told you I’d secretly fancied you for four years. You invited me to come and meet you for drinks in the city you lived in and said that you were going skiing with your friends the next day and did I want to join you?

-What about the time we sat round my kitchen table, smoked a joint and sang along to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ in its entirety?

-What about that time that you took me by surprise and kissed me out on the cobbled stones as we left the party, the shock of which made me go weak at the knees?

-What about that time I said ‘Yes’?

Drunken memories, and good ones at that. But wait…. Wait. You didn’t let me finish:

-After we’d tired ourselves out with all the invisible tennis we went back to mine to crash. I was so drunk I wet the bed.

-We ended that night in Florence, the last night of my coming to see you, fighting in the middle of the street. When we finally made it back to the apartment I passed out in all my clothes and spent the entire flight back to Glasgow the next day thinking I was going to vomit. It completely spoiled what had been up until that point a really romantic break.

-You asked everyone to leave around 10am the next morning; I was totally out of it. You convinced them to go, telling them I had a flat viewing at midday. I didn’t have a flat viewing but I did have to move out in 2 days’ time. It was only after everyone had left and I had regained consciousness that I surveyed the damage: the white tiled bathroom floor was completely black with muddy footprints, there was broken glass everywhere, the bedroom door was off its hinges, and someone had stolen my grandmother’s aquamarine ring. I went out to another party, came home to change, and went back out to Pressure that night. I still miss that ring; it was my most treasured possession.

-We left the club at 7am to get the subway back to our digs. We spotted the police with sniffer dogs in the station too late to turn back. We prayed as we walked through the gate; we were lucky. We were so high we were dancing to the sound of ambulance sirens. We got back to the hostel and managed a few hours of sleep, well, kipper flipping, until the manageress wanted us to get out so she could clean the dorm. We refused, we’d barely slept. I sat on the steps outside, dressed in my pants and a vest, last night’s glittery make-up and crusty mascara smudged all over my face and feet caked black with streaks of dirt all up my legs from my overzealous outdoor barefoot dancing to Dave Clarke. I was sitting there trying, and failing, to read Milan Kundera through blurry eyes. I could hear you fighting with her in Spanish. She called us prostitutes and wanted us out by the end of the day.

-In the morning I couldn’t remember a single word of our conversations, partly due to the booze, partly due to the fact that I was (unbeknownst to me at that point) already very unwell; I wasn’t ‘me’ at all; and I hadn’t been for quite some time I now realise in hindsight. The albums I can go back to, but all those beautiful words had disappeared forever into the drunken ether, never to be recalled.

-I was going through a heavy-drinking phase. I drank the best part of two bottles of wine, you barely touched any. At 4am we left to make the journey north to go skiing. I was still drunk, and your friends decided they wanted to go snowboarding instead. The funicular railway dropped us off at the very top of the mountain due to poor conditions. It was sheet ice and there was little to no visibility. I had never been on a snowboard. Within 15 minutes I had broken my elbow. I walked down the mountain with my snowboard under my arm (the one that was still intact.) That was some hangover. I never told you how bad it was. We haven’t really spoken since anyway. My elbow still twinges sometimes.

-Our kitchen table singing that night was just brilliant. Can we do that again? I am still impressed that you know that album word for word. I will never tire of belting out ‘The Chain’ and I have the fondest memories of hoards of us singing this at the top of our lungs at countless parties that summer… I do feel for the neighbours though, there was a lot of stomping.

-I was completely taken aback by your kiss as we were just friends, and you had just been on the couch at the party, kissing another guy. I turned on my heel to run for the taxi, my friends were waiting. My heel got stuck in the cobbles and I completely decked it. So hard. I heard the gristly sound of my face smash against the stone paving. I tried to get up, saw stars, and fell again, this time my face smashing right into the cobbles. I should have gone to A&E but instead I went to the party, took another pill and put a bag of frozen peas on my face. I now have an ‘x’ marks the spot on my tooth to remind me. Thankfully that was all, it could have been so much worse.

-I really meant ‘No.’

I could go on, but I won’t. I’ll leave it there. I think I’ve made my point.

But I’ll go back to the same question I asked before: What would have happened if I’d been sober that whole time? Well, for one thing I probably would have been able to control my bladder. In Florence, our holiday probably wouldn’t have been spoiled. If those talks had been sober ones — and if we both hadn’t been so busy and co-dependent on alcohol; If I hadn’t been so stressed/heartbroken from my last train-wreck of a relationship/disconnected from myself/getting ill… and if I hadn’t been leaving—who knows, maybe it would have turned into something— (I’m aware that’s a lot of ‘ifs’). This I know for certain: I wouldn’t have broken my elbow (honestly, I probably would have never agreed to snow-sports of any kind in the first place) and I definitely wouldn’t have smashed my face into the asphalt, TWICE. I can tell you that much. And I would have firmly said ‘No’ when I meant ‘No’.

I am glad that the decision to stop drinking was made for me. I am glad that, as painful as it is, my head is now clear enough that I can see my years of self-destruction clearly, and the structures that our society keep in place to keep us thinking it is just ‘completely normal’ to abuse our bodies and minds in this way. I know I won’t fall back into it even when a fermented grape will no longer force me to spend the rest of the day in bed, and I know that I have learned my lesson; those days are over for me. I just want to take good care of myself, my body and my mind. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever drink again, even in strict moderation.

I can only speak from my own experience. Of course, many people can enjoy alcohol in moderation, or even in copious amounts, and still be happy, and relatively healthy.

I never have been, and never will be, one of those people.

For me, quitting drinking is the biggest sign that I don’t want to escape myself anymore. I don’t need to get out of my head, or out of my body— I’m happy in it (even if sometimes I still have to endure the odd bad hangover CFS day. If my ‘calculations’ are correct, I might have another couple of years to go before I am miraculously healed. I sincerely hope my theory is complete bullshit). But I know I don’t need to get smashed – trashed – obliterated – rat-arsed – hammered – rubbered – off my face – paralytic – pure steamboats –fucked— anymore to enjoy myself.

BUT. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m always going to be a hedonist.

And don’t get me wrong:

I still want the dates (but without the need for the Dutch courage). I still want the dancing to great music (but not in seedy clubs, and not when I’m the only sober person amongst throngs of drunken revellers). I still want the euphoria (but I want to get my highs from Kundalini yoga, Vipassana meditation and from the music, and not pills and coke— it’s freakily similar btw, try it!). I still want the sing-a-longs and the sharing of amazing music (but I want to be sober enough to sing in tune and I want to be compos mentis enough to listen properly). I still want the deep and meaningful conversations (but I want to be fully present so I can say what I really want to say and remember every word of them). I still want the silly escapades (but without the need for stimulants to get there, I want to be silly sober). And of course I still want the knee-weakening kisses (but I want to be 100% sure that I definitely want to be with the person I’m kissing).

And I don’t want the next generation of kids growing up to have to go through all this in order to come to the realisations I have. ‘It’s just a normal part of growing up.’ Is it? IS IT?

[Just before I finish— A wee ‘smoking break’ aside: I could write a whole other article about smoking, but I don’t think I want to. I smoked for 10 years (if I had a glass of wine in one hand I tended to have a cigarette in the other). I finally stopped for good when I got sick and when I tried to smoke I literally couldn’t breathe (my adrenals were so weak that my breathing was already impaired and smoking became impossible).

I think it’s pretty simple really: If you ask me why we smoke it’s because we don’t want to face our real problems. Yeah yeah, I hear you: ‘I enjoy it,’ ‘I like the taste’, ‘it calms me down, ‘I can stop when I want to.’ I’ve said all those things. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are spending an exorbitant amount of money to inhale little chemical sticks into our bodies that pollute our own lungs and those of the people around us, and are proven not only to shorten our lives but to quadruple our chances of cancer, not to mention a whole host of other suffering while we’re still alive. We don’t want that, right? Of course we don’t. (It’s also a bonus to never have to wake up with furry carpet/ashtray mouth ever again). I think that we really smoke so that we convince ourselves that smoking is our problem. Just like we do with drinking. We use it as an escape route from our real problems. ‘I really need to quit’, ‘I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself,’ ‘I just can’t seem to stop.’ But you know this already. For as long as smoking is our ‘big problem’ it means that we don’t ever have to look underneath, at our real problems. If we stopped smoking, maybe we’d have to face that we hate our job/we’re unhappy in our relationship/the city we live in; or that maybe it’s time to heal that family rift/face that childhood trauma. Even if we did quit smoking we’d probably go through the same cycle with a few other addictions first (sugar/exercise/sex/work perhaps? Alcohol of course) before we actually began to address the real problems… But it’s all the same in the end. That’s some tough shit right there. No, I’ll just keep smoking instead ‘Man, I really need to quit smoking…’ Ok. Rant over. I told you the deep conversations always happened in the smoking section!]

I’ll finish with this: the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung believed that alcoholism was a sacred disease. In his book Further Along the Road Less Travelled M. Scott Peck writes about how it occurred to Jung ‘that it was perhaps no accident that we traditionally referred to alcoholic drinks as ‘spirits’, and that perhaps alcoholics were people who had a greater thirst for the spirit than others, that perhaps alcoholism was a spiritual disorder or better yet, a spiritual condition.’

Maybe we ARE looking for something at the bottom of a bottle? Maybe those of us that have problems with addictions to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are, underneath it all, among the most sensitive and spiritually aware people of all? Maybe we are just looking in the wrong place?

I’ll leave you to chew on that. (Perhaps just don’t drink it down or put it in your pipe and smoke it!)

Can a Steak Really be Healthier for You Than a Carrot? : The Fat vs. Sugar Debate


I am going to break this down to the simplest form I can and try to render it as succinctly as possible:

Eating FAT will not make you fat. Eating SUGAR will.

But this is a very complex issue (a complex carbohydrate if you will). It’s a bit of a brain-pickler to say the least. I’ll do my best to share what I know (and I’ve done a lot of research on this in the last year), but I encourage you to look into it yourself and I will provide some good links at the end of the article. I want to state that although I have a qualification in Nutrition I am not a doctor or nutritionist.

I want to say at the beginning too that I don’t intend for this to be exclusively about weight loss. Yes- although it sounds counter intuitive it does boil down to the fact that fat does not make you fat, and that sugar does, and so if you cut out sugar and eat fat instead you will lose weight, maybe even a lot of weight (N.B. If you eat them BOTH together the exact opposite will happen!) But I am much more interested in optimal health than I am in optimal weight. Importantly, what I want to flag is that Eating fat will not make you ILL. Eating sugar can and perhaps WILL. You do not need to be even 1 lb overweight for this to be the case. And this article seeks to look at the key question: where exactly IS sugar in our diets? And the truth is that it is in so many more places than we realise.

(Before I get stuck in: Just a wee note to my veggie/vegan friends:  In my heart I am one of you; for a long time I was mostly vegan and ate a few eggs and the odd bit of fish here and there. I used to go to the Buddhist Centre and say to my fellow meditators ‘I know it’s only a matter of time until I go vegan, I keep telling myself “fish have feelings too”’. But, for health reasons, I HAD to start eating animal protein to help my body to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ongoing) and to go vegan right now (which I intended to for both for ethical and environmental reasons) would be the worst nutritional health decision I could possibly make. Although eating meat has been a very hard thing for me to justify to myself, it is eased somewhat by knowing that even the Dalai Lama has to eat meat for health reasons. So I ask you to maybe read on, even though there is quite a bit of meaty content here, but it might just become relevant to you at somepoint, even if it seems anything but right now, as your current diet is so different. I will be writing something on the ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’: the wider meat eating/vegetarianism debate soon; it is a topic of great concern to me— and I try to be as conscious a meat-eater as I can: I might sometimes even thank the fields of cows and sheep when I walk past them for helping me to get stronger by eating their brothers and sisters!)

So, the Fat vs. Sugar debate is big mainstream news these days. Perhaps you watched the recent BBC documentaries about it? I did. Although they are undoubtedly  informative, I have a lot of issues with these programmes as they really only skim the surface of the nutritional health concerns that need to be raised to do with the impact eating fat vs. sugar has on our bodies. Yeah yeah, we all know that eating crisps, sweets, cakes, pastries, pies, pizzas, microwave meals, convenience foods, fry-ups and takeaways are bad for us. We don’t need to be told that. What annoys me is that these documentaries don’t even really break the top layer; they don’t chomp down enough to get through the skin to the meat, let alone down to the bones of the topic. So I want to share what I have come to know.

In order not to get caught ‘skimming the surface’ I’m going to make some (quite big) assumptions about your diet so that we can get to the juicy stuff quicker. The ‘assumptions’ I’m going to make for the sake of getting to the morsels we will want really chew over are to do with we all know is unhealthy and we don’t need anyone to tell us otherwise. So I’m going to assume that you do not eat any processed foods that we all know are filled with fat and sugar in a bad way: e.g. cakes, sweets, pastries, pies, takeaways laden with calories/salt/MSG/sugar, microwave meals, fried foods in vegetable/sunflower oil, biscuits, tomato ketchup and other sugar filled condiments, fizzy drinks, alcohol (pure sugar)….etc.


I’m actually going to go much further and assume that you eat a 100% wholefoods diet (that is, everything exactly as nature intended), so that means you eat no refined sugar and what you do eat is natural— e.g. an orange instead of orange juice, butter instead of margarine, homemade soups instead of tins of Heinz tomato soup, porridge oats instead of sugary breakfast cereal, natural yogurt instead of sugar filled Muller fruit corners (God, how I used to love them), fresh fish fillets instead of fish fingers, homemade baked sweet potato fries instead of packaged oven chips, honey or agave instead of sugar to sweeten your tea etc. And I’m going to assume that you get your 5 fruit and veg a day (at least) and I’m also going to assume that maybe you even try to buy organic when you can. A lot of assumptions I know (and maybe this might not match your current diet at all) but there’s a big reason why I am setting the baseline much higher: it means that we can properly tuck in to what the Fat vs. Sugar debate is really all about. Oh yeah- I’m also going to assume that you drink at least 2 litres of water every day and are sensible about caffeine in tea and coffee! So, all in all, I’m going to assume that by all intents and purposes you ‘eat really healthily.’

But surely if I eat a wholefoods diet, filled with lots of fresh fruit and veg (organic when I can) then I don’t even need to pay any attention to the Fat vs. Sugar debate at all as it is not relevant to me?

This is what I used to think. Then I got really sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I had to start re-learning everything I ever knew about what I thought a healthy diet was; and this is coming from someone who has a qualification in Nutrition! My main learning was as a patient at the UK’s only NHS Homeopathic Hospital, taking part in the Wel Programme. I was shocked beyond belief at what I found out. It quite literally blew my tiny mind.

As a nation, as a species, we are getting sicker and sicker. In 2011 the United Nations declared that, for the first time in human history, chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (and we can also add obesity, depression, chronic pain, chronic fatigue to this list) pose a greater health burden worldwide than infectious diseases do. There is no ‘vaccine’ or ‘cure’ for these illnesses. In the Western world illness is now a whole new form of ‘dis-ease’ that incorporates both mind and body and demands what we take a holistic healing approach to maintain, or regain our health: looking to stress levels, lifestyle, exercise and diet, as well as going down the traditional medical route. The kinds of illnesses we suffer from today require a complete overhaul of how we live our lives, and instead of pills and procedures one of our main sources of medicine; both as prevention and cure is FOOD.

And the biggest nutritional cause of these illnesses is— you guessed it— SUGAR. Not fat, not red meat, not salt, but sugar. And as we all know, sugar is perhaps the most highly addictive substance on the planet: much more so than cigarettes, alcohol or drugs (the withdrawals are so bad to begin with, coming off it is akin to coming off crack- not that I know what that actually feels like; but ride it out!), and our consumerist culture is constantly marketing sugar filled products to us at every turn. Why is this so? Our consumption of sugar has changed radically since the advent of agriculture, industrialisation, and Capitalism. In 1700 the average annual sugar intake per person in the UK was just 1.8kg (4 lbs), by 2007 the average was 68 kg (150lbs) – that is a fair bit more than my own entire body weight. Excessive consumption of sugar drastically impacts upon our metabolism (the way in which we break down food) and causes dangerous spikes in insulin in our bodies. These changes in metabolism due to insulin spikes over time accumulate and cause inflammation in the body, and this inflammation is widely scientifically proven to be the primary cause of most illness: diabetes, cancer, heart disease and attack, hypertension, obesity and chronic illness. How can we help ourselves and prevent these chronic conditions in our own lives? We need to take action to reduce our insulin. How to we do this? By reducing sugar in our diets. But, importantly, research has shown that is it not just sucrose (refined white sugar) that is the culprit here, but it is specifically the increase in our intake of other sugars- such as the sugar present in grains and fructose (the natural sugars found in fruits and root vegetables) that are proving so detrimental to our health. (For scientific evidence please examine the research for yourself, I’ve based my own research on the teachings at the NHS Homeopathic Hospital.) And we have been completely taken for a ride when it comes to the benefits of eating a high fat diet. It was not unknown that sugar was so deadly in the 1970s- in fact John Yudkin published the book ‘Pure White and Deadly‘ on the topic in the 70s (it has recently been widely re-published)- advocating a high fat as opposed to a high sugar diet, but it was swept under the carpet, and by the medical establishment no less. This is a massive generalisation (forgive me, but I’m writing a blog not a medical journal) but basically in the 80s a group of ‘healthcare professionals’ with a capitalist agenda sat in a room and created the brand concept of ‘low fat’ and the correlation was made between the fat we eat (in full-fat dairy, oils, meats, fatty fish, nuts and seeds) and the fat in our bodies– adipose tissue and internal body fat. So, to be ‘healthy’ the population started eating a diet high in carbohydrates (such as grains like rice, pasta and breads) and low in fatty meats/fish/oils and full-fat dairy. ‘Fat free yogurt’ and ‘skimmed milk’ etc. became leaders in the diet industry, and when ‘fat’ was removed, what was put in its place? Sugar and sweeteners. Throw into the mix the rise in convenience food (which is packed with sugar, excessive amounts of processed, refined salt and all sorts of other additives, preservatives and other hidden nasties) and we have the recipe for a nation-wide health crisis right there. If these two words had not been the same (the fat we eat and the fat that is the excess weight we carry in and on our bodies) then perhaps this epidemic crisis could have been averted. But for decades we have believed that if we eat fat, we get fat. But what if I told you that just wasn’t the case? What if I said: you eat fat you get thin? (Provided that is, you STOP eating sugar. As I said— if you start eating more far whilst continuing to eat sugar you are just going to get really fat, and more importantly develop a whole host of other health problems to boot.)

But sugar isn’t just in the granulated white stuff, chocolate and sweeties. Oh no. The biggest lesson I learned was to realise that sugar is also in all the ‘natural’ sugar substitutes (honey, maple syrup, agave nectar) too. Stevia is the only truly ‘sugar free sugar substitute’ available. And sugar is in ALL grains (rice, pasta, breads, in fact anything made from flour- cakes, biscuits, pastries- yes, even gluten free pastas and breads, this doesn’t make a difference. Switching from white to wholemeal [white pasta to wholemeal pasta/white bread to granary or rye] only means slightly less sugar, it still breaks down as sugar in the body in the end). And, the biggest shocker, it is ALL fruit and also root vegetables: carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, beetroot or squash. Yes, fructose (the sugar in fruit) is different from dextrose is different from sucrose is different from saccharin is different from high-fructose corn syrup, but they all are metabolised by our body as sugar. The system used to identify the level at which foods are metabolised by the body as sugar is the Glycaemic Index (GI). Every carbohydrate is measured on this scale.

They all look so different on the outside (a cake looks really different from a carrot, right?) but once we have chewed and swallowed them and they are digested in our gut, they all enter the bloodstream in exactly the same way: as SUGAR. Yes, they all produce varying amounts of sugar in the body, often drastically so, as you will see if you look into the GI of different carbohydrates– Of course between a carrot and a cake, there is no question that a carrot is miles better for you. But a carrot turns into sugar in the body, whereas a steak, which has 0 sugar, does not. A steak has no sugar whatsoever. To give you another example: an apple produces less than half the amount of sugar in the body as a bowl of white rice would. But did you know that eating a bowl of white rice equates to eating the same amount of refined white sugar to the level of 97%?! You could switch to brown rice? Yes, but this is still about 60% sugar when it is broken down in your body. When I first found this out about rice on the Wel programme, I almost cried, how could I live without rice?! I ate rice, in different forms, every single day!- rice porridge, rice cakes, brown and white rice, rice noodles, rice flour in gluten-free breads (I was a rice-aholic as I was gluten intolerant) What about sushi? How could I live without sushi?! But I gave rice and ALL GRAINS up entirely a year ago and I haven’t looked back since. Have you ever heard of cauliflower or broccoli rice? (Where you put the raw cauliflower or broccoli in a food processor until it looks like rice, then you fry it in a little water and coconut oil for a few minutes, and voila: a completely sugar free rice substitute) And no more bloating! (Oh, and you can use cauliflower rice to make sushi too).

Brain pickled yet? As I said, it’s pretty damn complex, hey?!

BUT– meat contains NO sugar, fish (and the best are the fattiest fish, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids- salmon, sardines, mackerel), eggs and seafood contain No sugar. Nuts and seeds contain No sugar. Good-quality nut and seed butters and nut flours and milks contain No sugar. (You can make amazing grain-free breads from nut flours and seeds like flaxseed FYI, see the Helmsley sister’s recipes in the link at the end). Full-fat dairy- milk, cream, cheeses (if you can tolerate them) contain No sugar. Butter and lard and goosefat (all of which can be used to cook safely at very high temperatures) have No sugar. Healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil (unheated) and coconut oil (which can be safely heated to very high temperatures) contain No sugar. Yummy coconut (in milk, oil, creams, yogurts, even ice creams, flours and desiccated and whole- try Co Yo products) contain No sugar. Raw cacao powder and cacao nibs (pure chocolate- try the Raw Chocolate Company) contain No sugar. And ALL the green veggies you can possibly gnaw away at- kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spring greens, spinach, lettuce, asparagus, chard, sprouts etc. and all the anti-bacterial fighting veggies like onions, leeks and garlic you can eat have absolutely No sugar and next to no calories (you could eat 10 entire broccoli heads and still not be close to the number of calories in a Mars bar). All the tasty herbs and fragrant spices contain No sugar. Legumes contain very little sugar also (but there are issues around how well nutrients are absorbed by the gut when we eat legumes, which you can look into if interested, I’m afraid I don’t have space to go into it here.)

One thing I discovered when I began this journey in earnest: begin a vegetarian was no longer an option for me.

These days I eat a ‘Paleo’ diet. Paleo is short for ‘Palaeolithic’ which advocates going back to the diet of our pre-industrial ancestors, before agriculture. So the diet is mainly made up of good quality grass-fed meats (Paleo eaters do not eat meat where the animals have been fed grains/they have also often been pumped full of a whole load of growth hormones/soya/and other potentially toxic substances), organ meats like liver are favoured highly as these are the most nutritionally dense; wild fish (no farmed fish that has been fed soya pellets- farmed salmon and trout are the biggest culprits- soya messes with oestrogen levels and is a big issue, for women especially) and seafood, free-range eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables and some fruits. Basically, anything our ancestral fellows could have hunted or foraged for or grown, and nothing else. It is grain free, and sugar free, it also tends to be legume free. (Paleo as a diet is also dairy free but Weston A. Price advocates adding full-fat dairy to this, and I would, if I could tolerate it. But I can’t as I am lactose intolerant.)

Weston A. Price is the daddy of this way of eating. I learned all about Weston A. Price on the Wel programme. In the 1930s Weston A. Price, a dentist, travelled the world in order to research tooth decay among different indigenous populations. He studied 13 tribes (from the Maasi to the Aborigines, tribes in the Peruvian jungle, Maoris in New Zealand and White settlers also in New Zealand, to traditional crofting communities on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland).  In 1938 he published his findings in the study ‘Nutrition and Physical Degradation.’ He compared tribes who ate either a traditional ‘Paleo’ hunter-gatherers diet (based on meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and fruits, notably WITH full-fat dairy, often raw and unpasturised) to tribes all over the world (indigenous populations and settlers) who had adopted the ‘White Man’s White Diet’ of refined grains and sugars. As well as finding enormous discrepancies in the dental health of his subjects (as you can see from the images those on a traditional diet have impeccable dental health- tooth decay was virtually unheard of- compared to those on the refined/sugar diet where tooth decay is highly prevalent, as well as growth


abnormalities). He also discovered that alongside the deterioration in dental health, adopting the ‘White Man’s White Diet’ resulted in the explosion of the diseases of industrialisation among the population- cancer, severe infections and degenerative illnesses. Cut to 2015, this list includes today’s epidemics: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, chronic illness, chronic pain, obesity and depression. The research more than speaks for itself.

But how do we begin to think about making changes in our own diets? Especially when the consumerist nature of the food industry wants us to do anything but that?

Perhaps by examining my own diet as a case study to finish I might be able to point to some of the changes that can help immensely.

A few years ago I thought I was ‘really healthy’ and a good day’s eating would have looked something like this (bear in mind that I was already gluten/lactose/soya/deadly nightshade [potato/tomato/aubergine/bell pepper] and caffeine intolerant).

Breakfast: homemade green juice made in my juicer (2 apples, a handful of spinach, kale, lettuce, celery, cucumber, fresh ginger, lemon juice, parsley and some honey) and rice porridge with a chopped pear on top, a few blueberries stirred in, some flaxseed and cinnamon on top. Maybe even a swirl of agave nectar if I was feeling particularly luxurious.

Mid-morning snack: some dried apricots and 7 almonds (yes I used to count them out and my boyfriend at the time would rip it out of me)

Lunch: Humous with 2 rice-cakes, carrot and celery sticks and an apple.

Afternoon snack: a banana

Dinner: boiled white rice with a fillet of baked salmon, steamed broccoli and spinach, lemon juice and parsley on top (no oil, no salt)

Dessert: A couple of squares of dark chocolate with a decaf tea with rice milk and a spoon of honey.

Sounds pretty damn healthy, right?

Well, let’s compare. These days a ‘healthy’ days eating for me is as follows:

Breakfast: 2 egg omelette with onion and courgette and garlic cooked in coconut oil served with rocket salad and sauerkraut. All sprinkled with pink Himalayan salt and pepper.

Lunch: A big bowl of steamed broccoli topped with a tin of mackerel (in olive oil), green olives, capers, parsley, pumpkin seeds with lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and Himalayan salt and pepper.

Snack: a small handful of toasted sunflower seeds.

Dinner: Pan fried sirloin steak with a big green salad (lettuce/avocado/cucumber/spring onions) generously seasoned with salt and pepper and a salad dressing made from extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar.

Dessert: A Co yo yogurt- a rich creamy, indulgent dairy free yogurt made from 100% full fat coconut milk, with a spoonful of raw cacao powder stirred in (my God I’m salivating even writing this) and a chai tea made with almond milk.

Which sounds healthier to you? If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said hands down the first one. And I was completely shocked to find out how WRONG I was!

It is not an exaggeration to say that in the first day’s menu I am a SUGAR ADDICT. But how can that be? It’s all healthy stuff? There’s none of the granulated white stuff in there?

To see why more clearly, let’s break down the two days meals into the categories of FAT and SUGAR.

Diet a couple of years ago:

The apples and honey in the juice, the rice porridge, the pear, the blueberries and the agave at breakfast; the apricots, the rice-cakes, the carrots, and the apple at lunch; the banana, the white rice, the chocolate, the honey and rice milk in the tea: ALL = SUGAR

Compare that to my diet today:

0 = SUGAR. That’s right, absolutely none. Even the coconut yogurt and the raw cacao powder are 100% sugar free (and they taste amazing)

What about FAT?

Diet a couple of years ago:

Very little: The salmon, flaxseed = FAT

There is also a little bit of fat in the humous too (as it contains tahini- pulped sesame seeds, which are fat), but that’s all. That’s all the fat for the whole day.

And what about my diet NOW?

The coconut oil, the eggs, the mackerel, the olives, the pumpkin seeds, the extra virgin olive oil, the sunflower seeds, the steak, the avocado, the salad dressing, the coconut yogurt, the almond milk in the chai: ALL = FAT

So the BEFORE diet is high in carbohydrates, and low in protein and very low in fat. The AFTER diet is high in fat, high in protein and 0 carb.

(Now- 0 Carb is extreme, I am by no means advocating anyone reading immediately switch to a 0 carb diet,as I said I strongly encourage you to do your own research and make any dietary changes very slowly and cautiously: most people would function best on a LOW CARB diet, as opposed to a 0 carb diet (e.g. you would still get some carbohydrate from root vegetables and the odd bit of fruit), but the ratio of fat and protein to carbohydrate would still be drastically switched and you would derive most of your energy from fat intake.

I am listing my own person nutritional needs only as an example here, and they are extreme due to my numerous food intolerances and my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Candida (where yeast in the gut feeds on sugar so the only way to cure it is to starve the bacteria of ALL sugars- which means temporarily even cutting out things like carrots and beetroot, squash, sweet potatoes and all other root vegetables, oh and ALL fruits. Oh God, how I miss carrots, they were my equivalent of a slice of cake for so long, no joke!)

So yeah, I am on the extreme end, but the knowledge I can share by using my own eating patterns as a case study to highlight the difference between a diet high in fat or high in sugar impacts across the board— You might think of my diet as going the ‘whole hog’- although perhaps going the whole hog is more like the American guy in a recent  BBC documentary who ate a ‘raw Paleo’ diet where, far from eating raw veggies, he slaughtered and butchered his own animals (very humanely) and ate the animal nose to tail, RAW. Bloody hell! He was in recovery from Chronic Fatigue too. I am NOT going to do that. And he had a bowl cut and was wearing these Hicksville-like dungarees which made him look even creepier as the camera-man filmed him sat at the table, ready to chow down on his plate of raw lamb’s liver. Eeeeeeek!)

Ok, just before I wrap it up there are a couple of other interesting sugar related nutritional differences between the two diets I’d like to flag up while I’m at it:

There is a lot of FRUIT in the BEFORE diet, there is 0 FRUIT in the AFTER diet. Fruit = carbohydrate = sugar. My doctor at the Homeopathic Hospital, who founded it in 1990 and is one of the leading medical consultants in the country said to me once ‘people with weight problems often have to watch their fruit intake.’ Wow- who knew?

(Note- some fruit is much more sugary than others. The fruits with the least amount of sugar are as follows: lemons and limes have 0, berries (raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, strawberries) have very little. Green apples such as granny smith have very little, as do kiwis. Prunes are really good too; and great for digestion also: if you suffer from sluggish digestion try incorporating some flaxseed and prunes into your diet, it should help massively. Then the amount of sugar begins to creep up, up to bananas and your dried fruits like dates, raisins and apricots, which are really quite high in sugar. I look forward to the day that I can eat the odd apple/handful of berries again, fingers crossed by the time blackberry season comes around!)

Also, the BEFORE diet has very little protein: the salmon and the humous are really the only sources, the rest is carbohydrate (a.k.a. sugar) in the form of all the grains and fruits.

The AFTER diet is high in protein: the eggs, the mackerel, the steak are all great sources (not to mention the eggs and mackerel are high in Omega 3 essential fatty acids and the steak is rich in iron). Protein is widely acknowledged to keep you fuller for longer and to release a slow, steady amount of energy into the bloodstream, whereas carbohydrates (sugar) provide a quick release of energy which induces a ‘spike’ of energy, but this falls back down very quickly (often plummets into a trough) and then we get those cravings where we get shaky and irritable and feel we need to eat something sugary to ‘boost’ us back up RIGHT NOW before we SHOUT AT SOMEONE!!!… And then we have that chocolate bar/slice of toast/bowl of pasta and AHhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, that’s better. Until it dips again a couple of hours later and we need to satisfy the craving again; It is a vicious cycle.

In fact, if I find myself having a wobbly— ‘I need to eat something right now before I faint/cry/shout/hit someone’— moment these days I don’t reach for a banana or a biscuit, I often eat a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, or hemp oil, or another fat source- a handful of nuts or seeds, a spoon of tahini or nut butter. It really works. And you don’t get the dreaded energy dip shortly afterwards.)

A couple of other wee things: the BEFORE diet has NO SALT, the meals in the AFTER diet are seasoned with good quality pink Himalayan salt and black pepper, the body needs good quality salt to function optimally: note: GOOD quality natural salt, such as this or Celtic Sea Salt— not processed, refined table salt. Also, the BEFORE diet has no oil or salad dressings (trying to eliminate the fat), the AFTER diet is generous with oils and dressings– and they are made from extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, and NOT balsamic vinegar (which is pure sugar.)

So- after breaking that all down, can we really still say that the BEFORE diet is the most healthy when we now know how much sugar it contains?

No. No we cannot.

Brain sufficiently pickled now? Thought so. It’s a fatty sugary MINEFIELD out there, that’s for sure.

And can we still say that a carrot is healthier than a steak?

In my opinion, and following Paleo, Weston A. Price and the message from the Wel Programme at the Homeopathic Hospital, no, we cannot. And good: I love steak (and I will keep on thanking those fields of cows!)

Ok. That’s it. I hope you have found some of this illuminating. As I said, amassing this knowledge over the past year quite literally blew my tiny mind. I encourage you to take your time with it.

Lots of love for finding out everything you can to eat a diet that will help you maintain or regain optimal health x

Here are some resources that I recommend if you want to start doing some of your own research.


– ‘Pure White and Deadly‘ by John Yudkin

– ‘Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease‘ by Robert Lustig

‘Grain Brain’ by David Perlmutter

– ‘The Paleo Cure‘ by Chris Kresser (I like to think of him as the King of gut health!)

– ‘The Art of Eating Well’ by the Hemsley Sisters (great mostly paleo/grain free cookbook- uses some ‘pseudo-grains’ such as quinoa and buckwheat)

And excellent online resources:

– (this guy really is the best when it comes to your gut)


– (loads of great paleo recipes)

And here you can access ALL the resources to enable you to do the Wel Programme that I participated in at the Homeopathic Hospital by yourself at home:

Crystals & Angel Cards: More than just Exceptionally Pretty Rocks and Pictures of People with Wings?

Before I get into this topic I’m going to say— you might just want to keep your tongue pretty firmly in your cheek for this one as it’s going to get pretty hippy dippy, airy-fairy, and perhaps teeter on the edge between fascinating/a wee bit mental. This is the tale of how I first came into contact with Crystals and Angel Cards (yes, those two words make me cringe too) and how they are now a regular presence in my day-to-day existence. There is also a ‘how to guide’ element about this too. Just so you know- up until a year ago I too harboured a healthy scepticism towards many of these things, some I still do, some are inexcusably laughable. Take it with a pinch of salt, how little or how much is completely up to you. Though I hope you’ll bear with me, be open-minded, and let me show you where I’m going with this. I’m sharing a lot here. crystals So last Spring I was very unwell, at the height of my illness. I’d tried to ‘get back to normal’ after returning from New York. I’d been really physically sick for a few months, but I managed to crawl back enough to get a nice job, and had been trying to re-establish some sense of normality. I even managed to do what ‘normal’ people supposedly do and got myself a boyfriend-of-sorts. I managed to keep this charade of wellness up for a couple of months, but who was I kidding, I was far too sick for this, I couldn’t cope. I gave up my job, ended the relationship (as lovely as he was we just weren’t exactly the best suited for one another anyway and I think we’d both now admit that the two of us had simultaneously suffered from a classic case of rose-tinted spectacl-itis when we first met). So I gave it all up started surrendering to the fact that I was really unwell.

Around this time my flatmate’s alternative New Age Spiritualist Eastern European mother had sent her a pack of Angel Cards. This was the first time either of us had come into contact with them, we were beyond dubious. They were in Polish, and utterly ridiculous and we had a good giggle playing oracle and doing readings for ourselves and friends. As they were in Polish, my flatmate took on the role of mystic, and she did it very well in fact, shuffling the cards and delivering the messages from above with a straight face and a remarkably convincing tone, as if she were looking into a crystal ball. We did not take them seriously at all. The cards had a ‘What’s Your Life’s Purpose’ theme, and so this was what we were asking for when we did the readings. I remember one of the first readings we did we were to pick three cards, to represent our past, present and future. That day my ‘past’ card turned out to be the card we affectionately named ‘Computer Guy’. His picture was our absolute favourite and would send us into fits of giggles. Here he is, check out the wings on him; he kind of reminds me of Newman from Seinfeld. WP_20150409_001Anyway, although the picture really cannot be excused, he stands for computer based work and travel. This actually very fitting to have been selected as my ‘past’ as the year previous, when I had been studying for my masters, I had spent the majority of the year buried in books and behind my computer screen and had secretly hated it, all of it that is apart from my amazing research trip to Anna Halprin’s outdoor dance deck in San Francisco, that was, hands down, the best 10 days of my life so far. I was lucky to have been on numerous research trips throughout my masters and immediately after: Berlin, London, San Francisco and New York, and as fun as these were (San Francisco especially) but I was completely exhausted and I knew that my ideal job would not be like this. I was not a natural academic, I felt it in my gut. I honestly think I’m meant to teach yoga, outdoors.  Neither did I want to see in the inside of an airport unless I was going somewhere to do nothing but relax, in fact I set the intention to stay at home for the entire next year, and my illness ended up pretty much enforcing that anyway. I can’t remember exactly what my ‘present’ was, I think it might have been called ‘Protection’, I know it was telling me to relax, that I didn’t need to do anything, and that I would be taken care of; something I really needed to hear at the time. How does a workaholic admit that they just can’t keep going anymore? That they can’t go to work and pay the rent, and get their own food shopping, and they need to (gulp) ask for help… This was an alien concept to me. Looking to the future, the card that came up, funnily enough, was ‘Music’, and a picture of an angel playing a violin. Delightful as I’m sure you’ll agree. WP_20150409_002At the time this didn’t seem to hold any meaning for me, but a few months later I decided to take up singing again. I’d been classically trained in my youth and hadn’t sung for over ten years, and I’d massively neglected it. I decided it was time to start again so I used the last remaining money in my bank account and bought a guitar. I named her Vashti. I started singing again in my kitchen, and now, up in the Highlands, I am singing not only on my own but with a couple of groups, including one where we sit around in a circle by candlelight in a yurt singing the mantras of Kundalini Yoga in Sanskrit, I love it (you might want to move your tongue to the other side of your cheek!) I confess I haven’t really managed to get anywhere with Vashti yet due to headaches and complete in-aptitude; I might need to get some lessons. But, I have also just picked up the fiddle again after a 12 year gap, and although it sounds like I’m strangling a bag of cats right now, I am hoping I’ll remember how to play it again if I practice hard enough. Just like riding a bike? So in some ways I have fulfilled the prophecy, but whether music will be my ‘path’ remains to be seen. I was always hoping the cards would turn up ‘Yoga’ for me. Maybe I’ll end up recording an album of Sanskrit mantras for people to listen to while doing my yoga classes— who knows!

We laughed when my flatmate pulled out ‘Research’ for her future— which had a picture of an angel (again with big comedy wings of course), sitting at a writing desk, deep in thought with a scroll, pen and ink in front of her – and this was pretty damn accurate. She was currently in the middle of her PhD and was well on the way to becoming an academic, so this was a given. Around that time she had been really stressed at work, to the point of taking some time out, she had become very unwell; what a pair we were! She was questioning her career path: maybe she just wasn’t supposed to go down this route? But, as I said ‘Now my dear, you must listen to the angels, they agree that being an academic is your calling!’ And she really is; she is a  natural academic. We had a few weeks together at home, ill, exhausted and trying to take care of ourselves and each other. My energy levels could just about manage (when I wasn’t in bed feeling awful) the short walk to the park to lie down on the grass in the Spring sunshine. In fact I remember one morning where the sun was out and glorious so we put on our shorts and headed to the park. But we were like a pair of 90 year olds we were both so weak, hobbling across the street arm in arm, only narrowly missing getting run over. But we really were too sick to move any faster! This was about all I could manage, or if energy levels were exceptionally good then a meander along the street to buy food or by the river and up to the local hippy-dippy shop not too far from our flat.

It was here that we would go and buy our first crystals, feeling momentarily at peace in the little shop full of gems and oils, incense, candles and wind-chimes and all that New Age-y stuff. I knew absolutely nothing about crystals, all I knew is that they looked pretty and the felt nice and comforting to hold in your hand, and were renowned for their capacity to heal. I was willing to try anything that gave me a few moments comfort. They come in lots of different colours, shapes and sizes, and various degrees of rough to smooth, and apparently the key to picking out crystals is to trust your intuition. First of all, what are you attracted to colour wise? Each crystal type comes with a little label which states its connections to the Starsigns, Chakras (the 7 energy centres in the body running from the base of the spine up to the top of the head) and the different qualities it is said to help cultivate. I was suffering from these major migraines (one of the most debilitating ongoing symptoms of my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and so I was looking for stones that would help to stimulate and clear my Crown Chakra, situated at the top of my head.  I chose that day a couple of little stones (which cost less than a pound each) which related to the crown chakra that I also liked the look and feel of: A ‘Rutilated Quatrz’ which was said to help promote ‘clarity, concentration and energy’, and a ‘Laborodite’ which was, according to the label: powerful, protective, transformative. What the hell, it’s worth a try, I thought. So I’d sit at home, playing with them in my palm. I didn’t really feel anything, maybe at best the kind of stress-relief that you get when you have something in your hand to play with with (something I know most other ex-smokers will relate to!)

But I was intrigued, I’d been having these headaches since I was in the States, and it was then that I’d been gifted my very first crystal by the wonderful alternative therapist who gave me Accupressure there: a Selenite Quartz that I had placed on the table beside my bed. When I first got it I had to move it away in the night sometimes I felt such strong vibrations on the top of my head. At times these vibrations would travel right down to the base of my feet when it was too close to me. It felt nice, but I was freaked out by it! I wasn’t sure if it was the crystal, or just me.

A few months later, at the end of the Summer, shortly before I moved out to return to the Highlands to recover, I was not much better, and we did an Angel Card reading and I’d asked the cards ‘What do I need in my life to help me to heal’ and the cards turned up ‘Crystals.’ I felt that this was freakily accurate. The day before we did the reading I’d ordered a Crystal Bible and a book of Crystal Prescriptions by the ‘Mother’ of the Crystal world, Judy Hall, and had them sent up to my mother’s cottage so that when I arrived home I could begin my research into these tiny energetic powerhouses properly. By this point I’d amassed a good few of the little crystals, (that I still felt were little more than fondling material), but I’d also bought what is still my favourite crystal: a rough-hewn Rose Quartz. I had gone to buy one (it cost £2.50) after I’d spent my week at the Homeopathic hospital. In the room where I would do my yoga every morning there was an enormous pink crystal, a rough-hewn rose quartz bigger than my head. I was curious about it so one morning I walked up to it and placed my hands on it. A wave of complete relaxation enveloped my entire body and I felt completely soothed, calm and refreshed. ‘I have got to get myself one of those’, I thought. So the day after I returned home, I meandered up to the hippy-dippy shop and picked out a rose quartz, much smaller, about the size of my palm. I held a couple and I knew which one was ‘right’ for me as I felt the same feeling, the wave of pure relaxation, that coursed through my veins just by holding the stone in my hand.

Crystals can be used in a multitude of different ways. You can wear it in jewellery- in a ring, or a necklace, certain stones work best when are worn on the body at all times. A small one can just be held in the palm of your hand, or applied to the area of the body that needs healing, maybe resting with it there for 30 mins or so. You can also make crystal remedies by following instructions to soak the crystal in water and/or alcohol. Crystal Prescriptions has all the advice on this you need, it cannot be done with all crystals, if you are trying this please do follow a recipe.

If you are going to start with any crystal, I would highly recommend a Rose Quartz. Here’s a short section of a much longer entry on what the Crystal Bible has to say about them:

‘Rose Quartz is the stone of unconditional love and infinite peace. It is the most important crystal for the heart and the heart chakra, teaching the true essence of love. It purifies and opens the heart at all levels, and brings deep inner healing and self-love. It is calming, reassuring, and excellent for use in trauma and crisis. If you want to attract love, look no further than romantic Rose Quartz.’ Judy Hall, ‘The Crystal Bible’.

We could all do with some of that, right?

The Encyclopedia of Crystals lists some other things Rose Quartz is beneficial for: ‘Inducing love, reducing tension, overcoming trauma, sexual imbalances, grief, addiction, heart and circulatory system, chest, lungs, kidneys, adrenals, vertigo, fertility, burns, blistering, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, senile dementia.’ After doing my research I realised that maybe it wasn’t just the fact that my heart needed to soothed after my fair share of tumultuous relationships that had attracted me to the Rose Quartz. Maybe my weakened Adrenal Glands (the main contributive factor to my fatigue based illness) were drawn to them too? Anyway, I had to admit, this was really powerful.

So I keep my trusty Rose Quartz, beside my bed, pointed towards me, bringing in the love. And I usually carry one around with me, although I keep finding myself giving them away. One I gave away on the spur of the moment to a close friend as we were listening to Charles Eisenstein give a talk (my favourite Spiritual Ecologist, who I will no doubt write more about in future posts) and he had pulled a pebble out of his pocket and was challenging us to consider that perhaps this rock was just as ‘alive’ as the rest of us. The friend I was with had said previously that she was never able to feel any energy from crystals. When he was talking about the stone I had an urge to test this out so I quickly grabbed the rose quartz out of my bag and stuffed it into my friend’s hand, and waited to see if she felt anything. She said she did feel a little something. Another one I gave on the spur-of-the-moment to my five-year old niece when she has been admiring a rose quartz necklace I was wearing. I’d remembered I had a heart-shaped one in my bag, so I gave it to her. I told her that this was her very own stone and that she should keep it somewhere safe and hold it when she was upset and wanted to feel a bit better. I didn’t think it through properly and I said to her that it was important that she was the only person who touched it, and if someone else touched it then she should wash it under cold water to cleanse it. (This is the case, crystals attune to the energy of the person using them, and if you are using them on someone else they need to be cleansed before and after so that the energies don’t get mixed up). A  natural water source is preferable, I clean mine in  the stream in the garden every now and again. But under the tap is fine too. stream Immediately I realised this was not a good thing to tell a five-year old girl with a two-year old brother, as this could lead to so many potential upsets: ‘This is MINE, You’re not allowed to touch it! EWWWW, you touched it, now I’m going to have to clean it of all your dirty fingerprints!’ Admittedly, not the best Auntie advice on my part… oops. I do think that it is a good sign that I keep giving these rose quartzes away though, somehow like there is more than enough love to go around? (Oh my, I can be so cheesy, well you might want to stop reading now if you can’t handle any more as it is just about to get even more so…)

Although my crystal collection was only just beginning I’ve been collecting stones and shells since I was a kid. I think it began with a handful of bright pink shells my Dad brought back for me and my sister from the ‘beach of pink sand’ somewhere on the West Coast that he promised he’d take us to one day. I still treasure them, they have survived several house moves. (Dad, if you’re reading this, we’re still waiting…) My absolute favourite stone is small and in the shape of heart. I remember giving it to my first love, as a sign of commitment, with the proviso that he would have to give it back to me if we ever broke up (not that I ever thought we would, ah, first love, so naive!) But as you might have guessed, we grew up a bit, and as such apart, and we broke up a few years later. He dutifully returned my stone to me, still intact, but my real heart, and his, were definitely left with a few cracks. Ever the quick witted wordsmith, he returned my stone to me and delivered the equally hilarious and cutting remark in jest ‘You can take back your heart of stone!’, no doubt alluding not only to my treasured little rock, but to the one beating in my chest, although perhaps in his eyes at that point it appeared frozen. Ouch! He always did have absolutely impeccable comic timing, the best jokes always have a dark undercurrent don’t they? I then forgot about the stone for the best part of a decade, but I re-discovered it last Summer. Now it sits perched on top of my Rose Quartz, inviting love into my life. And although I know this sounds ridiculous, I feel it’s sitting there waiting for the man that I am supposed to be with. And whoever he may well be, he will have to completely get the significance of this little stone for me. I like to think of it as the male equivalent of an engagement ring. ‘Heart of stone?’ pah! Far from it, I’m a hopeless romantic, my heart is more like honeycomb!

On another occasion I realised just how attached I was getting to my crystals when I went to meet my two best friends from university for a coffee, a big thing for me to do at that time I was so tired all the time, and somehow I started talking about crystals and I happened to have an ‘Atlantasite’ and a ‘Turquoise’ in the pockets of my dungarees, I think to support me as I was ‘out in the big bad world’ that day, and I brought them out of my pockets to show them. And they both, quite naturally, stuck their hands out to touch them ‘oooooooh, pretttttyyyyyyy’, and I went ‘Nooooooooooooo! You can’t touch them!’ and I snapped my hands as then they would have no longer have been attuned to my energy. I so was embarrassed, as that just sounds mental, but as I said If you want to use them for yourself they have to be attuned to your energy, and you have to cleanse them each time someone new touches them and I’d been building up some pretty good vibes with these wee guys and didn’t want to disrupt that. Yup, I was getting majorly into crystals.

So, these days I’m a bonafide crystal convert. The more you use them, the more sensitised you become to them. (The ones I used to feel nothing from while I played with them in my hand, I now have to keep in a sealed box under a desk, otherwise I can’t sleep due to the vibrations that come off them). My most used crystals are my ‘Chakra set‘ where you place a crystal on each of the corresponding seven chakras, these are amazing, well worth it. They work to completely re-balance you, whatever is going on, and you can buy a set for under a tenner; I use them on an almost daily basis. I even always have a Rose Quartz and an Amethyst in my water filter jug (I’m a tee-totaler these days so it’s not relevant to me but FYI- Amethyst derives from the Greek for ‘to be intoxicated’ and was worn to prevent drunkeness, so you might want to get hold of one for your next big night out…).

And I must admit I’m partial to the odd Angel Card reading these days too. On my very last night in the city, before I moved home to the Highlands, my flatmate made me a lovely dinner (the last of our two-years worth of ‘flat-date-nights’.) When dinner was over I said ‘We have to do one last angel card reading’. She was taking our teacups into the kitchen and I shouted after her: ‘You know, I’m going to need to get a pack of my own Angel Cards, and in English this time, so that I get to play oracle!’ and literally just as I was finishing my sentence she walked back into the room carrying a leaving gift for me. I opened it up and sure enough, it was a pack of Angel Cards. And not only that, a small clear Amethyst. She’d bought the little stone just as an added extra, but when we opened the cards to look at the instructions, what did we find? That to ‘cleanse’ the cards between readings you had to place a clear crystal on top of the deck for a minute or two. And, that is exactly what I use it for now!

So, there we go. Thanks for reading to the end of this post, it is, admittedly, quite a fair bit ‘out there’. I know that not everyone is inclined to be as big of a crystal fondler as I am. But best of luck if you do decide to dip your toe in the crystally water, or try and make contact with the Angels. It can be pretty revelatory (but yep, despite everything I’ve just written it still makes me cringe a little).