Guest Blog: Why Yoga Improves Your Mental Health

Yoga requires a few things that impact and reduce your stress level, says CHERYL MACDONALD, and the first stress-reducing component is breathing.

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When we become calm, this stabalizes the functioning of the mind. Many yoga styles have a structured breathing protocol. When you focus on your breathing, it automatically lowers cortisol (a stress hormone) and it lowers your heart rate.

Additionally, yoga requires great focus. Some poses not only ask you to hold your body in a balanced position, they also ask you to pay attention to your body and make slight adjustments to improve the pose. You’re looking inward and focusing solely on your body and the very moment you’re in. This focus reduces stress. It’s akin to meditation and it’s wonderful for the health of your body and your mind.

Top Yoga Tip: Take 10 minutes at the start of each day to focus only on your breath. Close your eyes and focus on the cool inhale and the warm exhale. If any thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge them and then let them go.

There are numerous other yoga health benefits: improved breathing, better posture, and weight loss are just a few more to consider. If you’re looking for a new fitness program to try, you just can’t go wrong with yoga.

Cheryl MacDonald is a yoga elder and founder of YogaBellies women’s yoga school. She has been practising yoga for 20 years and has trained hundreds of yoga teachers across the world. YogaBellies specialize in yoga for women of all life stages from puberty to post menopausal.

For a yoga class near you please visit www.yogabellies.co.uk/findaclass

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Down on the ‘free-for-all’ farm that offers a spiritual twist in Positively Scottish

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“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus.

For me, the invincible summer can be found in Lesmahagow, some 25 minutes south-east of Glasgow, just off the M74, writes ERICA CROMPTON, in Positively Scottish.

Here I discovered a spiritual eco-farm retreat through Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming (WWOOF), a global collection of farms where you can work the land in exchange for accommodation and food.

The Krishna Eco Farm in Lesmahagow, or Karuna Bhavan, is home to a community of over 30 people, made up Hare Krishna monks, families, volunteers and the wider Krishna community.

It sits atop a steep hill. If you’re coming by bus and walking here, expect to feel the burn as you reach the entrance. To begin with, you’ll find a navy and white sign letting you know you’re in the right place and acting as a gate to the women’s ‘ashram’ (ashram meaning home in Indian, where the Krishna religion originates). It’s in front of the men’s ashram (the two houses are divided as that sort of thing isn’t allowed here on the sacred grounds).

thumb_img_0997_1024Accommodation is basic, and shared, but often there aren’t many travellers stopping over so you may find you have a room to yourself like me. The heating is on, and my abode for the next five nights is stencilled with elephants and peacocks with plenty of floral fabrics in a rainbow of pastel and primary colours. I could be in India with all this 1970s wicker furniture and wooden floors…although a glance outside at the plump and heavy Scottish rainclouds reminds me I’m not.

You don’t have to be devout or don the tangerine robes to reap the spiritual benefits here, though many do after escaping the rat race or leaving behind troubled pasts. The WWOOF scheme means you can help harvest crops for six hours a day, five days a week in exchange for a bed, and the meals (much of which are made from the crops here).

13423885_10154315812036907_5156835934155131328_nVolunteers are a staple in the running of the temple. Head gardener Bhakti Vinode (above) says: “Labour on the farm has helped us in a big way and we couldn’t cultivate the amount of land without the volunteers – we’ve been depending on them and they bring life to the farm.

“Personally I feel enthused when I see things growing. I work hard to cultivate the land then plant the seeds, so it’s nice to see the seeds germinate after all the hard work. I feel I’m doing something for the world, like I’m contributing. Everyone needs food so I like to grow food and teach others how to grow food. We can feed the hungry but we also have to educate people how to grow food. Growing food gives me a purpose in life.”

Earn your keep, take a working holiday, or stay as long as you want while you get back on your feet if unemployed or homeless. It can even help those with mental health problems, says Bhakti. “We do some horticultural therapy here too. People with mental health problems come along and we encourage them to grow food as it makes them feel more positive.”

For those who don’t want to do the farming, you can pay £10 a night for the same deal and explore the surrounding areas. However you’ll be still be expected to observe the house rules, such as no alcohol, no meat, and no sex.

thumb_img_1060_1024Those rules are keenly observed by the monks and you can’t miss them dotted around the grounds in their orange robes, sometimes chanting “Hare Krishna”. They mostly cut lithe, warm figures with their shaven heads fully focused on their work. The farming is also known as ‘Bhakti yoga’. It’s done with devotion for the Hindu God Krishna and forms a crucial part of the devotees’ lifestyle.

Bhakti takes his spiritual name from Bhakti yoga. Of the practice, he says: “Working on the land keeps me fit and it helps regulate my life. I have to be there every morning to water, feed, and weed the seedlings. Most important is I love what I do. Practising Bhakti yoga means I grow food with love and whoever eats the food feels the love while eating.”

You’ll often find Bhakti working in one of two large greenhouses that sit aside the women’s ashram, a little further up the hill and framed by a winding path to the temple right at the top.

Chanting, meditation and yoga take place in this colourful and diminutive temple with intricate carved deities covered in garlands which are made on-site with the marigolds that Bhakti and the volunteers’ harvest.

The marigolds only add to the colour to the site. I also visited this summer for the Hindi Festival of Lights. With monks and friends, we threw coloured paint at each other while singing and dancing. The best part was sitting in the farm grounds around a campfire with sheep until late. But it’s not uncommon for a devotee to rise at 2am to start their mantra rituals.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner follow the early birds at 8.30am, 1.30pm and 7.30pm. The food is all vegetarian and much produced on site, such as the spinach and the potatoes. They call it ‘Prasadam’ and it tastes a little like curry – think saag paneer rather than vindaloo, as it’s all very mild.

Of the food, Bhakti says: “Prasadam means everything to me. It’s spiritual food, and when I eat it, I feel the love! I like to serve Prasadam to others. The Beatle George Harrison said he hopes in the future there will be Prasadam restaurants and takeaways on every corner and I can see that happening in the future, because it’s great food.

“Everyone that comes to the Krishna eco farm gets Prasadam and it’s always such a nice occasion sitting and eating it together – it’s enthusing to see after growing the crops and makes me feel happy and peaceful while bringing the love out in my heart. It’s so easy and everyone can take part.”

I, too, took part. Healthy eating was welcome on my stay and after five days without coffee, booze, and meat I do feel energised and not a little lighter (it must be all that bending and stretching over the spinach).

Sanctuary and peace don’t cost the earth on the Krishna eco farm. So free-loving, colourful summer vibes can live on through the wildest of winters.

For more information on the Krishna eco farm, go here.

 

Forget the church! Here are 10 more imaginative ways to get married

In case you haven’t already got the memo, you don’t have to get married in a white dress in a church.

Fancy flying to the moon for your wedding?

What about a traditional Thai blessing like Kate Moss and Madonna?

Or perhaps the ocean is a good metaphor for the depth of feelings you share with your fiance?

Whatever takes your fancy, there’s a weird and wonderful nuptial package to make your wedding album stand out from the rest and give your guests a day to remember.

From balloons and Vedic ceremonies to medieval hand-fastings and Buddhist blessings, here’s a round-up of some imaginative ways to tie the knot and celebrate your love for one another.

1. Balloon brides

An increasing number of couples are getting hitched in hot air balloons and there’s some stunning backdrops to choose from like in New Mexico.

The balloons can host up to 12 passengers and a small party might even spot cupid up in the clouds.

Just be sure to bring your minister and your witnesses.

 A couple of lovers sit on hot air balloon at Pablo Ecological Valley in Zhuzhen, Liuhe district
(Picture: Wang Xin/VCG)

2. Hand-fasting and jumping over the broomstick

For centuries, couples have ‘jumped the broomstick’ and promised each other friendship and fidelity in a hand-fasting ceremony that was traditionally Pagan.

It’s a fun way to celebrate your love and is still offered as a non-legally binding ceremony in the UK, such as at Tutbury Castle.

3. Vedic wedding

Don your best robes and flower garlands for a Vedic wedding, a traditional Hindu ceremony, at places like Bhaktivedanta Manor.

With water and fire blessings, these are tremendously opulent and will see the bride and groom together for several lifetimes (if you believe in that sort of thing).

Maharashtrian Indian Bride And Indian Bride Groom Perfoming Mangalshutra Vidhi In Wedding Ceremony.
(Picture: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

4. Tsok Puja

Celebrate the Tibetan Buddhist way with a social gathering, a Lama’s blessing and offerings of plenty of food.

A ‘Tsok puja’ takes up to about an hour and consists of chanting, and a little quiet time for some mantra recitation in the middle.

You can also enjoy the ceremony without the wedding, like at the Kagyu Samye Dzong in London.

5. Wedding on the slopes

Combine your love of skiing with your nuptials and hope to God your marriage doesn’t go downhill too soon!

Companies like Wed ‘n’ Ski offer packages for snow enthusiasts, with ceremonies taking place while they’re skiing or snowboarding.

There’s even an option in Switzerland to wed in an igloo. Go on, melt a heart.

Kelley McGhie , left, Sander Wyjad , both 30, of Nederaland, kiss together after attending a mass wedding ceremony at the top of Loveland Ski Area
(Picture: Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

6. Prisoner of love

Give a whole new meaning to the term ‘ball and chain’ by getting married in a former prison.

The Malmaison Oxford is based in a medieval castle and used to be a prison.

But it is also, I’m told, a beautiful venue for weddings.

7. Cabaret kisses

Fancy being a burlesque bride and a groom with glowsticks?

Then dance on to Cafe de Paris, a notoriously decadent London nightclub and cabaret spot that can be hired for wedding receptions, too.

Burlesque diva performing burlesque show act.
(Picture: Getty)

8. Cave wedding

The path to love doesn’t always run smoothly, so why not have your wedding among the Slovenian mountains?

Predjama Castle is set against the rocky backdrop of a towering cliff and is the largest cave castle in the world.

And, you can host your wedding inside the enormous cavern of its cave.

9. Thai long drum parade and a water blessing ritual

Kate Moss and Madonna both had Buddhist blessings to show their affection and cement their relationships.

The best place to go to have your own is Thailand.

There are a number of all-inclusive packages, including for a traditional Thai wedding at the Manathai Koh Samui.

10. At sea

Cruise lines often offer weddings at sea.

Norwegian for example, offers an itinerary featuring the exchanging of vows at the summit of an Alaskan glacier, helicopter ride, sparkling wine, flowers, and a wedding certificate and cake.

Go on, sail off into the sunset together.

See the original in Metro UK here!

Crocs the dignified footwear of choice

We all know that owning a pair of Crocs is your entry pass to being uncool. Who can forget the viral image stating that the holes in Crocs are where your dignity seeps out? But what is cool? Is there an item you can own that will make you the envy of your friends? How about a fridge always stocked with Vintage Cristal or a Chanel makeup bag stuffed with Mac cosmetics?

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The truth is that cool and its definition can be tricky but need not cost the Earth. Cool can be found in the history of the swinging Sixties, with its round John Lennon shades and freaky hair. It’s through the eyes of the filmmaker who pans her camera over a Parisian street at midnight. Kelis got it right, too – we can find cool in a milkshake!

Trends come and go but cool is timeless and meaningful to the wearer. One of the things I was taught at Chelsea College of Art is that cool, like good art, is always personal. Being cool is being yourself and not following everyone else.

I’ve heard it said that “if you stand still long enough you always come back into fashion”.

So maybe I’ll just put my Crocs at the back of the wardrobe for now.

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You never know when the embarrassing item you hide under your bed might be in Vogue again and if you keep hold of it for the future you can always say you started a trend next time round!

{Since writing this for CoolFashionStyles.com designer Christopher Kane has put Crocs on the catwalk for SS17 – see image…}

Art’otel Amsterdam – blending culture, food and comfort

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Part of a small chain of boutique-style hotels, art’otel Amsterdam has 107 guest rooms and an innovative mix of design, art and upscale hospitality.

The iconic and historic art’otel seamlessly fuses art and life in the very heart of cosmopolitan Amsterdam. Within the hotel, guests are exposed to a myriad of artistic experiences.

The work of Atelier Van Lieshout permeates every corner, a spectacular 12-metre art curtain displays emotive footage and the 300-square-metre 5&33 art gallery hosts a varied programme of exhibitions from emerging and established artists.

Add to that a comprehensive library featuring lectures and publications and a dynamic cultural agenda of events and workshops, and the atmosphere is one of creativity and inspiration.

A dedicated art curator is on hand to stimulate, advise and engage guests in their artistic adventure. Offering tours of the most impressive displays, the art concierge also shares Amsterdam’s cultural agenda, recommends galleries and exhibitions and, above all, conveys an infectious enthusiasm for all things cultural.

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Each of the 107 guest rooms feature an unique piece of art by signature artist by Atelier Van Lieshout, ultra-comfortable beds with a choice of pillows, mood lighting and a generous selection of Elemis guest amenities offering a sleek, modern escape during your stay in the city centre..

art room – art rooms offer at least 25 square-metres of luxury, with a work desk, lounge chair, a plug and play device, an in-room entertainment system and a 42-inch flatscreen TV

art room – iconic view – the art room – iconic view option is slightly larger, with all the facilities of an art room. The art room – iconic view provides uninterrupted views of Amsterdam’s iconic Central Station, the city attraction first encountered by most visitors.

art room xl – the art room xl option includes 43 square metres of space and offers all the facilities of an art room with an additional seating area.

art room xl – iconic view – the art room xl – iconic view option features at least 37 square-metres of luxury with all the facilities of an art room, plus uninterrupted views of Amsterdam Central Station.

masterpiece suite – Measuring at least 69 square metres, our four masterpiece suites offer the ultimate in contemporary luxury with a separate living room, extra sofa and two 42-inch flatscreen TVs.
All rooms have rain showers, bathrobes and slippers, while an illy espresso machine, a stocked mini bar, a bottle of water and the breakfast on us add to the welcome, as well as:

 5&33 – 5&33 is an exciting restaurant within art’otel amsterdam combining an all-day and late-night kitchen, bar, library, lounge and multi-functional public gallery. The innovative concept 5&33 fuses food, people, art and design to present a uniquely creative environment across two floors for art lovers and foodies alike.

For further information, please visit http://www.artotelamsterdam.com/

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Yes, you can always be happy! Published in the Mail on Sunday

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Rummaging through charity shops, going for a walk through the forest, tending to my little potted garden, or enjoying every bite of a six-course meal at the 17th Century Weston Park with my partner – these are all things that make me feel happy. I do them as often as I can (well, the last one was a pretty special occasion, to be honest).

I list these things because, for me, moments to savour have been hard-won. I have paranoid schizophrenia and have even spent time on a psychiatric ward. I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life.

Today, I am largely recovered (the psychiatric term is in remission). I’m committed to my care plan – things I do to maintain my stability, which I devised with my community psychiatric nurse.

Alongside tablets, I have weekly psychotherapy sessions, and considering the things that make me happy – in fact, I write them in a journal – is part of this.

It’s a simple trick but highly effective, and both listing them and taking time out to actually do them is part of a type of therapy called compassion-focused therapy (CFT), which I have written about before in The Mail on Sunday.

Increasingly, research shows that counting our blessings can have a positive effect on a range of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, which affect millions of Britons.

MADE TO MEASURE

Happiness is a buzzword. In 2010, David Cameron announced his plans to invest £2 million in creating a ‘happiness index’. The scheme, run by the Office of National Statistics, is supposed to give another measure of how well we are doing as a nation, besides just looking at the economy.

Other countries do this, and when you suspend your cynicism for a moment, it does make good sense – after all, we know money doesn’t buy happiness.

According to the latest results, 33 per cent of UK adults rated their happiness at a ‘very high level’ last year, which was an increase of two per cent on the previous year.

Research published earlier this year from the San Diego School of Medicine revealed that 37 per cent of schizophrenic patients were happy most or all of the time. That compared with 83 per cent of ‘normal’ respondents.

A worrying 15 per cent of the former group said they were never or rarely happy, while no one in the comparison group ticked that box.

On one hand, this shows that happiness and living with serious mental illness needn’t be an oxymoron. But happiness is clearly more of a struggle for some of us.

And the pursuit of it has become something of an obsession. More than 50,000 books are listed on Amazon with the word ‘happy’ in the title. Many of them are self-help books, perhaps geared towards making us happy.

Making my own happy book, in which I record the good things in life – whether they are kind words from friends and family, or lovely memories – serves the same purpose. It’s part of my own CFT, which I started earlier this year.

Having tried other so-called ‘talking treatments’ including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, I have found the approach works really well. Of course, whether it suits you is highly personal, but for the past five years CFT has been offered on the NHS for people with a variety of mental health problems.

Like mindfulness, it’s largely inspired by Buddhism but also has its roots in CBT, which helps patients change the way they think and therefore behave. As Professor Paul Gilbert, one of the pioneers of the method, explains: ‘It’s similar to CBT, which works by helping patients to consider their negative thoughts and come to more realistic alternative views.

‘But while CBT focuses on changing behaviour in a neutral, practical way – such as using timesheets to plan the day more productively – in CFT the focus is more on being kind to yourself.’

LIFTING THE GLOOM

If this all sounds rather Polyanna-ish (and I’m not ashamed to say I’m a fan of the book and films), experts are quick to point out this isn’t simply a matter of saying ‘Think happy thoughts and you’ll feel better’.

As Dr Martin Seligman, the father of ‘positive psychology’, says: ‘Psychotherapy traditionally is where you go to talk about your troubles, [but it can also be where you] go to talk about positive emotion, your strengths and virtues, and how to build more meaning into your life.’

His methods have been shown in placebo-controlled trials to have an impact on symptoms of depression.

In one such trial, 500 healthy volunteers were recruited to take a range of online tests while undergoing a ‘wellbeing evaluation’ over a six-month period.

One of the exercises that proved most beneficial in terms of boosting mood was ‘three blessings’: each day, participants were asked to write down three things that went well that day, and say why.

This test was given to depressed patients. An astonishing 94 per cent of severely depressed people became less depressed, and 92 per cent said they became happier, with an average symptom relief of a whopping 50 per cent.

A control group, which was not given the exercise, did not have the same turnaround.

One of the symptoms of my illness, which started in my teenage years (I’m now 34), is that I become consumed by the idea that I have done something dreadfully wrong, to the point where I won’t leave the house

I have found in the past that therapy that required me to focus on the negative things in my upbringing, for instance, was almost traumatic. So, given that I have a tendency to feel so bad about myself, it’s no surprise CFT is a boon – and I believe it could well be for anyone whose mental illness might lead to similar feelings of causeless guilt or self-hate. It’s worth chatting to your GP if you feel it might be right for you.

TRAIN THE BRAIN

Of course, being unhappy is not reserved for psychiatric patients such as myself. Suzanna Halonen, a Surrey-based coach, trainer and self-proclaimed ‘Happyologist’, says that happiness is a challenge for everyone.

She explains: ‘Often people forget about happiness and think it’s something they can delay until retirement. But in fact you can choose to be happy every day. It’s a bit like a habit and you can train your brain, just like you work out muscles in the gym. Your brain can become stronger in its positivity, making optimism more natural.’

Labour MP David Lammy, who is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, agrees, saying: ‘In Britain, public satisfaction with life has hardly changed since 1970. Despite all the social, technological and medical advances we have made since then, we are still no happier or more fulfilled as a nation.

‘That should be a real concern for our national leaders and can involve anything from campaigning for fair pay to promoting good planning in new houses and finding ways to tap into the potential benefits of things like positive psychotherapy.’

As well as choosing to spend time doing things I enjoy and listing them, I keep a folder containing treasured letters and emails, which I have printed out, and mementos and greeting cards that have brought a smile to my face.

If a rain cloud of unhappiness does float along, I take refuge in this folder – something I work hard to keep up to date.

I force myself to read it cover to cover, and once I’ve finished, my mood always changes dramatically. It works a little like an umbrella giving me shelter when a cloud blackens my mental sphere.

But I’m sure everyone would benefit from spending some time working towards a happy state of mind. If I can do it, anyone can.

Chinatown round-up in Area Culture Guide


Cheeky monkey cake from Caffe Chino

Cruise cake from Caffe Chino

CHINATOWN BEST OF…
Caffe Chino
Best place for cake
Describing itself as a mystical place where all of your dreams come true, Caffe Chino does indeed have it all (with much more discerning decoration than a mere cherry on top). Delicious, delectable, delightful – and these words only begin to describe the staff uniforms and decorum. The cakes here are so cute they could melt the heart of the most misanthropic Birmingham-bashing national journalist. Couture cupcakes, sugary bespoke bakes and edible designer decorations fill this mint and powder pink boutique-café’s shabby chic shelves. It’s the perfect place to come with friends for a slice of something fancy.
Unit B107, Arcadian Centre, 70 Hurst Street 0121 622 1144 http://www.caffechino.com

Chinese Cultural Xchange
Best place for jewellery
A real treasure trove for magpies yearning for something more upmarket than a Claire’s Accessories headband. Amid gold lurid boxes of the Rolls-Royce of Chinese teas are trendy scrunchies and diamanté head-pins that’ll make a classic yet culturally diverse cover star out of any Brum belle. There are also Susie Wong dresses, pretty paper umbrellas and lucky cats – which will all add a glamorous, glittering touch to wardrobes and desks respectively. Come here for the more classic, traditional Chinese paraphernalia embossed with horoscope signs or vibrant carnival dragons. Visit also for the jewellery and fashion, many of which are well crafted time pieces.
Pershore Street 0121 666 6838

MuMu’s
Best place for stationary
The newest edition to Chinatown, MuMu’s sells the cutest stationary. Hello Kitty cameras that do credit card size snaps. Chinese fashion magazines such as Milk (it was the 3D edition complete with free 3D specs at the time of going to press). Many of the products on sale here are imported from Korea and China and all boast that naïve, candy-floss quality of South East Asian commercial art – much seems to derive exclusively from Japanese pop culture. Ichiban! It’s a great place for students to stock up on the sweetest stationary, or local creatives can get inspired by cute bits of philosophy that you just won’t find in Paperchase.
Unit B102, Arcadian Centre, Ladywell Walk 07411 671 520

Sing Fat Chinese supermarket
Best place for sake
For the best spring rolls and sake head to the Sing Fat Chinese supermarket which is conveniently located close to Chinatown and on the fringe of Digbeth. Impress your friends with a bottle of fine sake (which comes complete with bottle and cups). Simply warm it in the microwave for 20 seconds and you’ll have the perfect tipple. Serve with wasabi peas or biscuits in refreshingly bright, non-British packaging. The great thing about the Sing Fat is that it’s very quiet so you won’t find any pushing and shoving over the produce! Just have a look around and see if you can’t find a new Oriental dish to cook at home.
334 – 339 Bradford Street, Digbeth 0121 622 5888 http://www.singfat.com