Sometimes life accidentally plants you at a desk, in a city, with hours too long to make room for the thing that makes you feel most alive. For me that thing is the company of horses. After a childhood spent at the stables I somehow managed to let 10 years go by without any horse in my life, relying on hugs with the occasional passing police horse to keep me sane.
Last year I rectified that situation with a trip to California, where I spent a week on the ranch of a man named Monty Roberts, a horse trainer now famous worldwide for his approach. Having grown up watching wild mustangs, he developed a method of communication based on the horse’s natural language, and he teaches it to people all over the world. I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager and had long dreamed of learning his methods.
Since that trip I’ve been riding regularly again, and these last two weeks I took it a step further and began Monty’s official training program with one of his excellent instructors in the UK, Laira Gold. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier.
We learned how to mimic the communication of the lead mare in the herd (in horse world the ladies are in charge). We learned to slow a horse down with just our eye movements and breathing.
We learned ‘join up’, a process of communication between horse and human that invites the horse to choose to be with you and to follow you around. If I close my eyes I can still see that moment of join up – the horse’s nose at my shoulder reaching out and huffing gently to say ‘Please can I hang out with you? You seem alright.’
In language terms, I probably know about the equivalent of asking the way to the discotheque, but it’s a start.
Horses are extremely special creatures. In this country they suffer from some negative associations that keep people away – of little rich girls and landed gentry. That’s certainly not my experience – most people I meet with horses are just normal people who spend all of their time and money on their hobby, who somehow get by and never go on holiday.
Fortunately the negative associations are perhaps starting to fade and horses are taking on some important roles. These days they are being used increasingly in therapy – from helping autistic children, to working with soldiers with PTSD, to assisting in psychotherapy. I can see why. There is something very powerful about a relationship of trust with a large flight animal, about having it want to spend time in your company.
I feel like I’ve found my way back home. I have been reminded of the thing that makes me happiest. I can’t believe I ever forgot it and let life get in the way of something so important.
I write it here and ask that you remind me if ever I lose my way again. Should I ever accidentally let other things use up all my time and money and energy, you have full permission to punch me in the throat repeatedly until I stop being so silly.
Until then, tally ho!
I love a little swim in some wild water. No chlorine, no lanes, no squeaky, splashy children; just sky overhead and a few ducks to navigate.
I’m in Oxfordshire on a course so this weekend I took the opportunity to throw myself into a clean part of the Thames, a part far enough from London that swimming is unlikely to result in a 4 day extreme stomach cleanse.
I went on to the Outdoor Swimming Society’s excellent wild swim map and found a quiet little spot just upstream of Wolvercote. I parked in the carpark for the Trout Inn and walked down the Thames Path until I reached a point that looked about right – a gentle sloping paddle into the water, and no one around besides a few mildly interested sheep.
I threw my dress on the bank, clipped my car key to my bikini bottoms and waded in. It was pretty chilly, so the only option was to launch forwards without over thinking things. I stayed in just long enough for everything to go numb (a few seconds), then got out and stood in the wind for a while.
Thus prepared, I got back in, this time acclimatised enough to enjoy a swim and to take in the view. I floated and sculled around in the silky, clean water, spying on sleeping ducks in the long grass, and listening to the rustling of trees and the distant whoosh of the bypass.
There is no better way to appreciate a sunny British summers day. Even if you ran in and out of a sprinkler, listening to a lawnmower whilst drinking ice cold home made lemonade, eating strawberries and cream, watching Wimbledon on the telly, wearing a handkerchief for a hat and freaking out about wasps.
There were no other swimmers anywhere to be seen. I encountered a few walkers, all with coats on against the wind. There’s something about plunging into a bit of natural water that is so much more immersive than just walking along looking at the view. It says ‘I am not just a tourist here to peer at nature, I am part of it; squishy, pink, and exposed instead of wrapped up in man-made fibres and clumpy walking boots.’
I know it feels like the snow only just melted and the grass only just started growing, but we’re just a couple of weeks off midsummer and now’s your chance. Get on the OSS map, find a wild spot, and get swimming. You will (probably) thank me afterwards.
Life has got in the way of Ditch The Treadmill this year. Much of my exercise has involved chasing my own tail. And typing. To get back in the swing of things again I decided to do something that might help slow me down a bit.
I went to a Glow yoga class at Good Vibes Fitness in Covent Garden. Glow yoga is basically a vinyasa style class in a heated room. Not the oppressive heat of a Bikram class that makes you feel like a raisin left out on a rooftop. This is like being wrapped in blankets and cuddled. It’s a comforting heat in a dimly lit room with nice relaxing music. Exactly what was needed.
The class was great – top quality instruction that talks you through every pose and helps you to feel your way through it. It’s sweaty and challenging without being punishing.
Most importantly I learned a great technique that made me feel like the top of my head had come off and all my preoccupations and to do lists had floated out of it.
Here it is:
- Shut your eyes
- Take a deep breath (through your nose)
- As you breathe out, imagine the air leaving through the top of your head.
I know. Good isn’t it.
If you go, expect more of that sort of thing with a few handstands thrown in for good measure. Delightful.
There is a new fitness class on the block, and my prediction is that it’s going to be big. Its name is ‘Gliding‘ and it has all the right ingredients to be the next Zumba: it’s fun, it’s effective, you look like a fool while you do it, and a few Virgin Active gyms have started to offer classes.
The set up is simple: take two Glide discs, put them under the balls of your feet, then slide about as directed.
It is amazing what the addition of such a simple piece of equipment can add to a fitness class: from gliding squats, to a move I’m calling the ‘speed skater’, to plank pose with running legs – all the exercises you recognise from circuit training with an added twist that makes them feel more fluid and a bit harder. You can even use the discs to add a whole new level of evil to crunches.
There are testimonials all over the official website claiming impressive results: ‘Glide into your jeans in 10 days,’ they say (glide! get it?) Though, now I come to think about that, I would much prefer to be able to glide into the jeans of someone carrying a bit less thigh.
I went to a class at Clissold Leisure Centre in Stoke Newington, but I suspect there will be classes everywhere before long. Or you can do it in the privacy of your own home using a DVD, as long as you don’t mind the people/pets you live with pointing and laughing at you from the sofa.
I enjoyed it so much that even when they played the Black Eyed Peas ‘I gotta feeling’ I managed not to scream or commit any violence. I walked home a sweaty haired weirdo smiling at strangers and chuckling at things. Two days later I was still enjoying the ache of muscles that have been properly tested.
Go to it please – if it gets popular enough I’ll be able to find a regular class to attend.
No, not bellydancing whilst dangling at the end of a bungee rope.
I promised myself that this year I would do more dance classes and I would do them without whining, throwing a tantrum or grumbling at the back while failing to follow the routine.
So I made a start on that resolution by heading to Danceworks for an ‘extreme bellydance’ class. The ‘extreme’ made it sound like my kind of thing – less trying to make it look graceful, more sweating until you slip over.
When I heard at the start of the class that this actually meant belly dance-jazz fusion, I had a teeny tiny freak out that was not entirely in line with the promise I’d made myself at the start of 2013. I had a flashback to all the other times I’d lost it mid-class.
The problem is not dancing. I like dancing. I am frequently the first on the dance floor. I am just incapable of learning more than about 10 steps without eventually bashing into the oncoming class as I forget we’re supposed to be moving to the right.
But not this time!
For this time I was under the guidance of a very wise teacher. I mentioned as we waited outside that I have a problem remembering routines. She told me I must combine my kinesthetic memory (the movements my body remembers) with words that will help me remember what comes next. Her suggestion was that I said every move in my head as I did it. She also suggested that I try to watch myself in the mirror, not just watch her and follow what she did.
It bloody worked I tell you. It forced me to be more aware of what I was doing where normally I would just copy as I went along and each step would disappear from my head as soon as it was over.
It’s a bit like when you just follow a sat nav and don’t really take in the route for yourself. I don’t know why I’ve not worked this out before. Possibly because it’s quite hard to have any sort of breakthrough when your brain is telling you you’re doing it all wrong and you look like a lost hen trying to swim with the swans.
The class itself is great. It has the sexy hip swinging of bellydance, with some of the speed and grace of jazz. It makes you feel all Jessica Rabbit curves and sex appeal. I AM WOMAN DAMMIT, LOOK AT THESE HIPS.
Anyway, I’m very pleased with myself and can’t recommend a lesson with Charlotte highly enough. I am actually even looking forward to my next dance challenge.
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If you Google martial arts classes and then just kind of keep going down the rabbit hole, you may eventually happen upon a Lishi class in a boiler house in Stoke Newington on a Tuesday.
I did anyway.
Lishi is a Taoist martial art. Or at least I think it is. It’s nearly impossible to find a short definition of what it is. A little like Tai Chi and Kung Fu, borrowing elements from Chinese yoga, it is a system so multi layered that writing it up after just an hour in a class is a bit like standing on a ladder for 20 minutes and then coming down to tell everyone what it’s like to go into space. I shall tell you what I know.
We started with a warm up that’s similar to the type you’ll do in many martial arts classes – lots of joint rotations and so on. Every time I do this I find it enormously beneficial and make a resolution to do it every morning as soon as I get out of bed. Unfortunately I invariably get out of bed and grumble my way into the day and forget all about it.
After the warm up we did some movement and breathing exercises, followed by a demonstration of Chi to which the only reasonable response is: “What witchcraft is this?!”
For this we were split into pairs. One person tried to hold their arm straight while the other tried to force them to bend it at the elbow. Universally the one doing the bending prevailed. Then we were asked to repeat the exercise but this time the person keeping their arm straight was told to keep that arm and hand totally relaxed, and instead to focus on ‘sending’ their out-breath down the arm.
Something weird happened to all of us: no one managed to bend their partner’s straight, relaxed arm even though there was no effort or tension holding it straight. We were told this is Chi – or life force.
Now, the sceptical scientist in me tried to find lots of possible psychological and physiological explanations for this, but the sceptical scientist in me has a tendency to be a major buzz kill, so I decided instead to gawp and assume it was magic and just let it be awesome.
I left the class feeling relaxed and full of life all at the same time. I shall be going back as often as possible because I could do with some magic powers, and anyway it’s right next door to my flat.
My lifestyle is totally unnatural. I sit at a desk or meeting room table all day under strip lights, my body just a sort of pointless appendage to my brain. Then I try to remind it of its function by cycling home or going for a run or trying some new thing to write about here. Without being able to do those things lately I’ve been even more aware of my body as a sort of brain vehicle. Like the pope mobile only squishier.
So instead of my usual attempts to reengage the flesh, I decided to do it the old fashioned, natural way: put it to work. Put it to its original use. Shovel some donkey poo!
Stepney City Farm is a little oasis amidst the tall buildings and markets and busy roads of East London. It is a working farm, rural arts centre and community meeting place. They give children and adults a chance to meet farm animals, learn how to grow food and try out arts and crafts. It is my new favourite place in London.
I mucked out the donkeys and the cows, disinfected guineapig houses, fed pigs, herded ducks, walked donkeys, picked up chickens to shut them away for the night and so on. I got my boot licked by a cow while I was trying to catch a chicken.
It was good to do some physical work. I am not built for life at a desk. I took a wrong turn somewhere. I should be ruddy faced and covered in bits of hay.
Until such time as I find a full time way of being ruddy faced and covered in bits of hay, I shall be volunteering at the city farm every Saturday. Please pop down and say hello.