Confidence is the greatest gift under the sun. When your confidence is high you can conquer the world. You can take control of your life in every way: work goes swimmingly; relationships become more straightforward. The world simply feels like a friendlier place. Yet few of us have unlimited stores of self-confidence. We are far more likely to suffer self-doubt and self-criticism than revel in self-adoration. Why? Generally it goes back to childhood when we picked up all those negative messages from a host of concerned grown-ups both at home and at school. They told us it was a dangerous world out there; to be careful; to be prepared for the worst so we wouldn’t be too disappointed when it happened. No wonder we grew up doubting ourselves. But it’s never too late to learn new tricks to foster self-confidence. The following methods can help anyone feel happier and more at ease in life. Try them – you just might change your whole life.
THE POWER OF POSITIVE THOUGHT: “It’s a peculiar quirk of human nature to focus on failure,” says hypnotherapist Wendy Grant, author of Are You in Control (Element) who insists that the more we focus on our failures, the more likely we are to create them over and over again. The key is to boost your self-image. Focus on the things you do well and the things you have achieved, however small they might seem. Write a list of everything you have achieved in your life – from learning to ride a bike to having a child. It should be a pretty long list. Remember, above all, says Wendy, that you are an individual: “No one else can feel as you do; no one else has your sense of humour or your way of seeing things; no one else can even write your name exactly as you do.” So stop comparing yourself to other people and live your life.
OILS TO BOOST YOUR SELF-ESTEEM: Aromatherapy oils have powerful effects on your emotions as well as your physical body. Some are particularly good at helping you feel better about yourself, more confident and more in control. Aromatherapist Gabriel Mojay, author of Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit (Gaia) says, “One of the most effective aromatics for boosting self-confidence is rosemary oil…it warms and invigorates both the body and mind, uplifting the spirit and instilling inspiration.”
He also suggests laurel for low self-esteem; it’s great if you feel you’re not clever enough. For low morale, Gabriel suggests thyme: it helps overcome feelings of self-doubt and defeatism. If you feel overwhelmed by an oppressive environment (perhaps at work) check out pine and hyssop oils. If poor health has dented your confidence try tea tree. Use a few drops of your chosen oil in a carrier oil for massage or an uplifting bath. Alternatively put oils in a special burner and let the scent drift around you all day. If you need to use the oils more subtly, pop a few drops on a tissue and sniff it throughout the day.
FLOWER REMEDIES – SUBTLE HEALERS: Flower essences do not work on the physical body but on an energetic level, soothing emotions, invigorating and balancing our psyches. The Bach remedies are the great-grandfather of flower essences, emerging around sixty years ago. The classic Bach remedy for lack of self-confidence is Larch. However many other remedies can help including Gentian (for despondency and discouragement); Cerato (doubting your self-judgment); Pine (for guilt and self-blame); Centaury (if you are timid and subservient).
The Australian Bush Flower remedies are also worth investigating. Naturopath Ian White who developed the essences believes that the remedies can go right to the core of modern dilemmas such as lack of confidence and dislike of self. Five Corners is perhaps the supreme confidence-booster, a wonderful remedy for low self-esteem, particularly if you have a bad body image or dislike yourself: it teaches love and acceptance of self. Dog Rose is useful if you are shy, insecure and apprehensive with other people; Flame Tree for people who constantly feel rejected; Red Grevillea if you depend too much on other people and are over-sensitive to criticism. Sturt Desert Rose gives people the strength to be true to themselves and can ease guilt and low self-esteem. Sunshine Wattle is superb for those who feel stuck in the past and always expect the worst from the future.
VISUALISE SUCCESS: Use the power of your own mind to help you become a new, confident person. Ask yourself: “What would happen if I were confident?” Wendy Grant points out that you might have good reasons for staying the way you are – you might be afraid of losing friends, of being seen as bossy or self-opinionated. Now start to imagine how you would be if you were supremely confident. What would you do? What would you wear? What would you say? Where would you be? Imagine it in as much detail as you can. If you find it hard to see yourself like that at this point, Wendy Grant suggests you create a picture of someone you know who demonstrates the confidence you admire. “Imagine him or her doing something you would like to be able to do,” she suggests, “How do they approach it? What body posture do they use? What expression do you see on their face? How do you think they are feeling at that moment? Now imagine that you could slip inside their skin and experience doing that thing the way they do. How does it feel? After a while step outside, and with that new knowledge see yourself approaching the same task, challenge or goal. You can do it!”
THE MIRACLE OF MASSAGE: We actively need to be touched. Research has found that massage can actually reduce depression and increase feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. And it feels great too. There’s no excuse for not having massage – if you can’t afford to see a professional, go to workshops or buy a video and learn the basic techniques yourself. Get your partner or a friend to learn too and then swap massages. There are any number of techniques – from the gentle strokes of aromatherapy massage (try the oils already mentioned) to the deep stretches of shiatsu. Massage isn’t just a pampering session – it helps you feel good about your body, can release tension and is the best stress-buster going. Professional bodyworkers also find that quite often old memories and the origins of self-doubt and lack of confidence can surface when they work on the body. So massage can have a strong psychological effect, releasing old traumas and resolving unfinished business. It doesn’t always happen – don’t automatically expect to relive your birth trauma at your next massage – but it’s quite possible.
SELF-HYPNOSIS – HARNESS YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS: Wendy Grant suggests the following self-hypnosis exercise to build confidence.
a) Make yourself comfortable and relax. Focus on something in front of you (a picture, lamp, mark on the wall) and begin counting backwards from 500 to yourself. Continue counting until your eyes feel tired and want to close. Let them go and stop counting. Check you are totally relaxed right through your body.
b) Choose something you would like to be able to do, if only you had the confidence. Make sure it is something you really want to happen.
c) Place it to one side for now and think instead of something you know you do really well – it might be baking cakes, gardening, ironing a shirt, cleaning the car. Imagine doing that task now and notice exactly how you are feeling as you do it…perhaps you are so relaxed you hardly have to think about it. Imagine completing the task and experience how good you feel when it’s done.
d) Now, taking your new goal, picture yourself doing it in the same way, easily, successfully. Use the same expression, the same easy, relaxed attitude, the same calm assurance. Picture it now….
e) Say quietly to yourself: “This is how I am going to …..[insert your goal]. I can do it. I am confident. I will succeed.” Take your time and enjoy the sense of achievement.
f) Count slowly backwards from five to one, open your eyes and come back to normal consciousness with a wonderful feeling of confidence in your own ability.
g) Repeat this exercise daily until you get the results you want. Remind yourself often of your own achievements and goals.
GET PHYSICAL: Feeling good in your body is one of the key steps to feeling confident. Few of us are perfect with the face of a model and a drop-dead gorgeous body but we can learn to love our physical selves nonetheless. If you don’t already exercise think about starting a regime: you could join a gym, sign up for exercise classes or simply start a walking or swimming programme. Start small and slowly build up – if you do half an hour of exercise three times a week you will see a world of difference within six weeks. If you hate regular exercise take up dancing, yoga, t’ai chi or a martial art. Martial arts in particular will give you an enormous sense of self-worth and a huge dose of confidence as you start to realise you can take care of yourself in any situation. You’ll be amazed how quickly you turn from super-wimp into wonderwoman.
USE AFFIRMATIONS TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS: Dr Herbert Benson, a leading doctor at Harvard University Medical School in the USA, has found that our thoughts produce actual physical reactions in the body. We are what we think. Many new age teachers like Louise Hay and Sondra Ray have been saying the same thing for years. They use affirmations to create new states of confidence and success. The process is really simple. Pick a statement that expresses what you want to achieve. It has to be totally positive and include your name. So, for instance, it might read “I Jane, now choose to be supremely confident.” Write out the phrase twenty times every day for at least ten days. Each time you write the phrase think about what you have written and scribble down your response, your gut reaction to the phrase. So you might find yourself writing. “What rubbish.” or “I’m hopeless when I meet new people.” As you keep going you may find you get fresh insights into why you aren’t confident or where your confidence has been battered in the past. Persist with the exercise and you should notice surprising results.
BECOME ASSERTIVE: “To succeed in life, to get things done, to prevent people walking all over us, it is sometimes necessary to be assertive,” says Wendy Grant. Becoming assertive, even in the tiniest ways, can really boost your self-esteem and hence your confidence. Wendy suggests that you start to become assertive in everyday situations. “Ask yourself, if you were in the position of the other person, would you want someone to tell you?” she says, “If you had sold inferior goods, would you rather the customer brought them back or lose that customer? If something you had said (or done) was causing anger or hurt, would you not want that person to tell you so that the situation could be resolved.” Start seeing being assertive as something really positive – for other people as well as for yourself.
FIND YOUR VOICE: When we’re nervous or shy our voices tend to shrink, to become high and squeaky. We stutter and stammer and lose our words. Finding your true voice and learning how to use it to its full potential has a subtle yet powerful effect: when you use your voice fully, you immediately sound more forceful and important. People start to treat you with more respect and that, in turn, boosts your sense of self-esteem. So spend some time with your voice. Voice trainers and sound therapists often give workshops but you can do a lot on your own. Start singing: join in with the radio or a favourite download. Find what pitch you feel happy with and really belt out the songs. As you continue you’ll find you start to breathe more fully and deeply – you have to or you won’t be able to sustain the notes. Use this natural, slow, deep breathing when you talk too. If you feel anxious or nervous practice humming – just sit quietly and let the hum resonate through your body. It’s very soothing. You can sing your affirmations too: try short daft ones like “I’m great, I’m great, I’m utterly utterly great.” Or “Listen to me, listen to me, I’ve got a right to be heard.” Belt them out as if you were on The Voice.
(c) Jane Alexander
I loved writing The Natural Year. The aim was to produce a book that would act as a friend throughout the year, not badgering or hectoring, but offering suggestions, inspiration, helpful ideas. Whether you want to overhaul your entire life, or just tweak it here and there, the book will hopefully provide a springboard for shift. It’s a bit of a smorgasbord really, with tips and techniques culled from traditions all around the world, from the myriad teachers and guides I met when I was writing a weekly column for the Daily Mail on natural health.
Anyhow, here’s a section from the beginning of the book. Although you can start the book at any point in the year, I kicked off in March, at the start of spring. To my mind, each season has a different focus and, for me, spring is…
THE SEASON OF THE BODY
KEY FOCUS: Getting in touch with your body, playing with your relationship with your physical self.
SECONDARY FOCUS: Starting to think about your life.
CHALLENGES: Introducing a healthy diet; starting to exercise; cleansing, toning the body, boosting the lymphatic system, becoming more flexible.
QUESTIONS: How mind I like to live my life? How do I want to treat my body? Am I willing to take responsibility for my health?
CHALLENGES: Dare to pamper yourself; dance to discover your emotions; try seemingly irrational exercises!
FESTIVALS AND CELEBRATIONS: Spring Equinox, Easter, Beltane
Everything seems possible in spring. This is the young year, the growing year, the season of buds and blossom, of lambs and all young things. It is, to my mind, the perfect time to turn over a fresh leaf, to start anew. Spring is the season of hope, of fresh life and new beginnings. It’s as if each year we get another stab at getting it right or, at least, getting it better.
After the darkness of winter, the days start to get longer and this change in light triggers a deep shift in nature – everything begins to come back to life and vigour. Catkins appear on hazel trees and pussy willow, bluebells cast a hazy sheen through dappled woods, primroses cling to steep mossy banks and larks soar and fall over the ploughed fields. Even within towns and cities, the onrush of spring can be seen in the bright cheery faces of daffodils and other spring bulbs and the frenzied nest-building of sparrows, pigeons and their other city friends. You don’t even need to see visible signs of spring: just stop and sniff the air, there’s something fresh about it, a new energy has arrived into the year.
Spring is pure physicality – it’s the season of the body and the perfect time to start a program to bring you into peak fitness. Take it slowly, one step at a time, and you can alter forever the way you look and feel. Spring is the time when we need to cleanse and detoxify our bodies, to clear out the debris that has accumulated during the relative inactivity of winter. It’s a time to start looking closely at how we feed our bodies; a time to decide on changes that will help our bodies serve us better. You can lose weight now but it’s not the best time of year to launch into a fully-fledged weight-loss regime. Your body has just come out of its winter hibernation and needs to be cleansed and then fortified, tonified. Far better to spend spring easing yourself into good, honest healthy eating, to cut out toxins and junk food and then launch into weight loss proper (if that is what you truly need) in the summer.
Equally, although spring might seem like the perfect time to change your entire life, it’s not a good idea to overturn it right now. Spring is great for deciding upon your focus for the year but it is not necessarily the best moment to kick in your job on whim or to make sweeping life changes. It’s the time to start thinking about what you want from life; to consider what you might need to change. But leave the implementation of those changes until that other dynamic season, autumn.
How would you like to see your body? How would you like to feel in your body? Really think about it. Do you know, in your heart of hearts, that you eat the wrong food, too much food, too much junk food, too little food, too little fruit and veg and fibre? Think about what you’re putting in your body. Think about how all your internal organs, all your bodily systems, pounce on the food you put inside you and try to obtain the nutrients they need to make you function properly. Do you give them a fair chance? Or are they scrabbling around trying to keep you going on a pile of empty calories, a sickly wodge of sugar and a dead weight of salt? This spring the aim is to make friends with your body so the least you can do is give it the bare essentials it needs. Try to follow the healthy eating guidelines given in the book.
What about exercise? Think about the muscles of your body – not just your pecs and biceps but your heart and your lungs. Exercise on a regular basis strengthens the whole body. Think about it.
What changes could you make right now? What changes do you want to make over the following year? Make a list of everything you would like to improve or change and give yourself a time scale. Also write down how you would do it. For example if you want to start exercising your list might read:
GOAL: improve physical fitness. Be able to run for the bus without gasping. Be able to play netball and go jogging again.
HOW? RIGHT NOW: walk up escalator every day on way to work. Look up gyms and sports centres in yellow pages and check out membership/facilities.
OVER THE NEXT MONTH: join gym and start regular workouts.
WHEN THE WEATHER IMPROVES: fix bike and start cycling to work. Get outside in lunch-hour – maybe start walking or jogging.
IN THREE MONTHS TIME/WHEN FITNESS LEVELS IMPROVE: join team for netball.
Again, don’t try to do it all at once. But do do it.
THE SEASON OF WOOD AND THE EVIL WIND
In the Chinese system spring is the season of the element wood and it is filled with the expansive, explosive energy of young yang. Young yang is boundless energy but can be reckless, impulsive, impatient. It is like an adolescent, straining at the bit, wanting to race out and make a mark in the world but not quite sure of his or her own limits. Wood makes us feel that we need free expression, to find our own way, to try new things and meet new people. It is open and energetic and can lead to great enthusiasm and new endeavors. However it can also become out of control and can lead to the feeling of “spring fever”, obsessive, undisciplined mania. It’s unpredictable – think of mad March hares, April showers, sudden heatwaves that vanish equally suddenly in squalls and sleeting rain, the sneaky frost that can devastate your garden overnight. Spring is also, quite naturally, the season of sex and sexuality. It is the season of procreation in the natural world and, just because we can mate at any time of the year does not mean we are not moved by the primal seasonal urges. Lust rises in spring – it is the time for starting relationships or recommitting to old ones.
The colour associated with wood is, unsurprisingly, green. The direction that governs the spring is east which also rules the beginning of the day, the morning. The secondary element the Chinese associate with spring is wind. Wind is the fresh air of spring, that whisks away the old and sweeps in the new. But too much wind can be harmful and the Chinese say that the great danger of spring comes from the wind “evil”. If we are balanced and healthy then the wind can do us no harm. However if our energy is low or stagnant then we might not be able to cope with the fluctuation in the external energies of wind and wood – the troublesome wind can invade the body and throw yin and yang into even more imbalance. The result is that we go down with colds and flus, coughs and snuffles, hot sweats or even more serious ailments. Some practitioners of TCM say that the wind evil is allowed free rein in our modern world through central heating and air conditioning because they shock our bodies and don’t allow them to adapt to the outside conditions. Microwaves and radiation equally come under attack but then no-one would suggest that radiation is particularly healthy.
Avoiding any of these evils is pretty difficult nowadays, unless you live in a cave up an isolated hill. But there are ways to minimize the damage:
* Fortify your body with good clean food. Avoid sweets, soft drinks and snacks made from refined sugar and steer clear of junk food, deep-fried food and over-processed foods.
* Take a daily good quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.
* As far as possible don’t shock your body by plunging from extreme heat to extreme cold. Wear a sweater or a vest rather than turning the heat up high.
* Install an ionizer in your home and office – particularly if you live in a large town or city.
* Keep a window open, especially at night. If you can avoid sleeping with air conditioners or central heating do so. Try using a fan to generate cool air. Time your heating so it comes on an hour before you get up rather than being on all night.
* Practice the techniques of good breathing. The Chinese recommend qi gong breathing exercises be carried out every day and say that twenty minutes of qi gong will re-establish your energy levels, enrich your blood, soothe the nervous system and the endocrine system and put your autonomous nervous system into the calming, restful parasympathetic mode. Practitioners of yoga would say the same for their practice of pranayama, which teaches the art of good breathing. There are plenty of vid clips on YouTube or, for best results, join a yoga or qi gong class and learn how to do it in absolutely the right way.
Read more in The Natural Year - now updated and available in Kindle format.
I also post seasonal tips and recipes on my Pinterest board here.
Some things the doctors and websites simply won’t tell you. In the course of writing a feature for the Irish Daily Mail, I talked to several breast cancer survivors for their honest, straight-from-the-hip advice on what to do, what to avoid and what to look out for if you get a diagnosis of breast cancer. This is what they said…
- Look abroad. Foreign medical websites are often better than homegrown ones for up-to date information . Breast Cancer Online (www.bco.org) is aimed at healthcare professionals – ignore the bit that says it’s ‘not suitable for nonprofessional readers’ – why shouldn’t you read what the doctors are reading? Breast Cancer Network Australia www.bcna.org.au is a patient website but it has good resources and is not as cloying as many sites. Their Messages of Hope and Inspiration download is great.
- Prepare for lymphoedema. It’s pretty common after surgery or radiation treatment and if treated early can be better contained and controlled. Ensure someone who knows that they’re doing measures the volume of both your arms before surgery and records the results (keep a record yourself too). It’s done by measuring at 4cm intervals from wrist to armpit. Some hospitals do this routinely but some don’t.
- Move. Advice on movement after surgery has changed. Use minimal movement for the first week to aid healing and then start gentle physio exercises.
- Check out MLD. MLD (manual lymphatic drainage) can be of enormous help if you do get lymphoedema. A trained practitioner can also teach you how to do it yourself . See www.mldireland.com
- Do exercise. Exercise is great for breast cancer because it helps you sleep, it cheers you up, it helps control your weight and it gets you into a new exercise habit after your life has been disrupted. They used to say you shouldn’t do much exercise – and certainly not lift weights – but that’s now been overturned.
- Kinesiotaping is amazing. You may have seen athletes wearing strange brightly coloured bands on shoulders or legs –it’s known as kinesiotape and can be of enormous help if you develop lymphoedema following radiation or breast removal. www.kinesiotaping.co.uk can put you in touch with practitioners.
- Think ahead. Make sure your hospital keeps the cancerous tissue they extract from you. As treatments are developed and refined for specific genetic versions of breast cancer, in the future you may need to know precisely which type you had to get tailored treatment.
- Keep records. Insist on keeping copies of all your test results and notes. Many hospitals are still poor at record keeping and important information could get lost.
- Check your tests. If you go private for your care, make sure they aren’t doing unnecessary tests and treatments (they’re like the garage – will do everything, even if you don’t need it). If you’re in the state system, check the opposite – that you aren’t missing out on the best or latest treatments.
- Watch your immune system. Chemo destroys your immune system. There is a very expensive drug called Neulasta (Pegfilgrastim) which (if given after each chemo) protects you from infection. Make sure you’re offered it. Bear in mind that many cancer patients on chemo die from ‘underlying medical conditions’ if there’s an outbreak of flu or legionella.
- Invest in soft front fastening bras. They are easy to put on, comfortable and great when you’re not moving much. But once you start exercising, get a very good sports bra. Run Ireland (www.runireland.com) has good choices.
- Crop it. Chemo inevitably means hair loss (within the first three weeks of treatment). It’s much easier if you get your hair cropped very short before it starts to fall.
- Be wig-aware. Wigs are a waste of time if not properly fitted. Theatrical wigmakers are better at this than orthotics suppliers (who are not real hairdressers). Real hair wigs are very expensive and you will need two – bear in mind they need as much styling and washing as your real hair. Theatrical wigmakers recommend acrylic wigs with a monofilament area to make the wig look more natural.
- Go a bit crazy. Buy them longer than you need and have them cut and styled on you. Don’t buy it when your hair is long – it won’t fit when you’re bald. Either buy two wigs the same or choose one that’s a bit wild – in colour or style. Breast cancer gives you the chance to be a crazy cancer lady if you want!
- Choose caps and scarves. Chemo makes you feel very hot and if you have breast cancer before your menopause the sudden loss of ovarian function (chemo kills them) will give you raging hot flushes. So find alternatives to wigs for those times (plus exercising and at night – heads get cold at night). Muslim shops online sell great cotton caps or invest in a range of pretty scarves. Turbans are another option but you may need to use padding underneath to make them look okay.
- Bald heads burn. It may be tempting to just bare your head to the world but bear in mind that chemo makes skin photosensitive so you can burn easily. Up the SPF.
- Ask for Als. The majority of breast cancers are hormone positive – either oestrogen (ER) or progesterone (PR). After surgery and sometimes after chemo and/or radio you will be offered anti-oestrogen drugs to prevent recurrence. These tend to be Tamoxifem and Als (aromatase inhibitors). Tamoxifem can cause other cancers. Als are very effective but do have side effects – joint pains, UTIs and vaginal atrophy and hair thinning. It wrecks your sex life!
- Demand silicon. You can get burns during radiotherapy and you should demand Mepitel silicon dressings. They make a massive difference to pain levels burns cause and how well the skin heals.
- Invest in Bio Oil. Bio Oil is brilliant for scars. Chemists stock it or buy online from www.inhealth.ie MLD can also reduce scarring.
- Don’t blame yourself. So many women beat themselves up if they get breast cancer. They feel guilty; like they’d done something wrong. Yes, there are things that increase your risk but mostly it’s just down to luck. Shit happens.
The Body Retreat’s Stress Re-Set retreat is a four-night retreat that aims to balance body, mind and emotions through an immaculately thought-out programme of diet, exercise, mindfulness and behaviour modification. Plus oodles of fun and tons of big warm-hearted bonding.
It’s such a smart concept. You’re kept pleasantly busy all through the day (so you don’t have the chance to start worrying about anything) and, come night, you’re so blissfully tired, you can’t help but fall into a good sleep pattern. Days start early: there’s a gentle knock on your bedroom door at 7am, accompanied by a cheery ‘Good Morning’ (no need for stressy alarm clocks) and you toddle out in your bath-robe to pick up a glass of hot lemon. Our bedrooms are grouped around a central sitting area so it has the feel of a grown-up boarding school (of the nicest kind) as we all emerge, tousle-headed, mutter greetings and then retreat back to our rooms to sip our juice and do some skin brushing. Then it’s downstairs for a quick burst of circuits (exercise here is generally low intensity or short sharp blasts as apparently more than 45 minutes of intense exercise can boost cortisol levels and stress the body, twenty minutes in the sauna and a quick splash in the pool before breakfast.
Food is delicious here and surprisingly plentiful. It’s all about balancing hormones and blood sugar levels, so there are three main meals a day and three small snacks in between. Admittedly some are very small and portions are never exactly huge, but you don’t really feel hungry.
The days pass in a blur of activity – there’s usually a hike around the local countryside (sometimes with Nordic walking poles, sometimes without) and there are plenty of classes (yoga, fitness Pilates, fitball, kettlebells, bands). In between there are talks on nutrition, mindfulness and stress in general, including a visit from nutritional therapist Kate Delmar-Morgan. When we do have the odd hour or two free, we all (without exception) fell asleep. The idea is that you never have to worry about what you’re doing or where you’re supposed to be. There’s no frantic checking of schedules. If you’re not there, someone will come and find you.
The retreat is purposefully kept small (never more than six) which gives a very safe, intimate feel to the retreat. My fellow retreaters were all absolutely lovely – professional women with stressful lives who needed to step off the gas and regroup. Come day three we all had a touch of the ‘mehs’ – lacking in energy, barely able to summon up the energy to move. ‘It’s the hump,’ said Juls, clinical hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner who runs the retreats with Julie Brealy, fitness trainer and weight management specialist. ‘Everyone gets the hump on day three. You’re nearly over it, and then you’ll feel good.’ And she was right. I felt better as the day went on and, come the next morning I felt bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, powering off up the hills with my Nordic poles.
The Body Retreat uses several venues but our base was set down miles of winding tracks in the middle of the Somerset countryside. It was ridiculously quiet and, come nightfall, the sky was completely black. We toyed with the idea of opening up the outdoor Jacuzzi to watch the stars but wimped out and hung out in the sauna instead. The house itself is immaculate, maybe a little bland in décor but, in its way, that helped the feeling of serenity. My bedroom was lovely, fine cotton sheets on a vast bed with a view of fields. I arrived to find a goodie bag of t-shirt, natural bristle brush (for body brushing) and notebook – a really nice touch. The bathroom was total heaven with a walk-in shower with piping hot water and a huge free-standing bath with a TV screen at the end. Ideally you’re supposed to try a digital detox here but it was just too tempting to watch television with my nose just floating over the bubbles.
Local massage therapist Pippa comes in on a couple of evenings for treatments (the first is included in the price and you pay for any subsequent sessions). Her aromatherapy and remedial massage was excellent.
What’s not to love here? Well, the Vini yoga wasn’t really my bag – the idea is that it’s kept very simple so you can concentrate on being mindful throughout, but it felt a little wishy-washy and half-hearted somehow and I craved a deeper practice. But really, that was my only quibble. The rest of the classes were great – simple, straightforward, effective. If you’re an exercise novice, this is a great way to ease yourself into movement. If you’ve ever felt too shy about trying out a class or joining a gym, this really could get you over your reticence – you’ll try out circuits, kettlebells, fitballs, gymsticks, bands and rebounding. Most of the workouts use minimal equipment and you will go home with plenty of ideas of how to incorporate mini workouts into everyday life. The team also pack you off with a booklet of recipes for the meals you ate – and a ‘homeward bound’ snack box so you aren’t tempted by sandwiches or pies en route home.
Best of all was at the end when I had my parting consultation with Julie. She takes measurements at the start of the retreat and re-weighs and measures you at the end. I’d lost an incredible eight pounds in weight; six inches in total from hips, waist and chest and two percent body fat. And I’d only been there for three full days (as I had to leave early). No doubt about it – I’ll be back!
The Body Retreat also runs dedicated weight loss, detox and fitness retreats, in various venues around southern England and also in southern Spain.
If you fancy a DIY home detox, I give full details of both a month-long programme and a weekend cleanse in my book The Detox Plan, now available to download RIGHT NOW to your Kindle.
Yes, it’s freezing out there but, while it’s tempting to turn up the heat and huddle by the fire, maybe we’re missing a trick. There’s been a sudden plunge in temperature in the world of health and beauty as therapists, doctors and surgeons are increasingly discovering the therapeutic power of cold.
Actually it’s nothing new. People have believed in the health-giving properties of cold temperatures since classical times. Plato, Hippocrates and Avicena all recommended cold water treatments as a vital part of medicine. In Russia and northern Europe, the therapeutic use of snow, cold and ice are legendary. There is even a specific word in Russian – which translates as tempering – which means to toughen and strengthen the body through the use of cold and ice.
‘Cold makes skin and blood vessels contract,’ explains Alla Svirinskaya, a medically trained healer and a firm advocate of cold and ice therapy. ‘Cold is energizing, reducing fatigue, both mental and physical. It also gives an emotional boost because our blood receives increased levels of endorphins. Cold can help repel toxins and even prevents the desire to overeat. It’s also known to improve memory and concentration.’
In northern Europe it’s common practice to go straight from a hot sauna to a freezing plunge pool or even to roll in snow. Sports therapists commonly use ice packs and cold spray as well as heat, and many cutting edge facials and beauty treatments are now combining heat and cold to gain maximum benefits.
Heat brings blood to the surface of the skin while cold sends it to your organs. Shifting between the two (as many of the following treatments advocate) acts like a pump to your heart, increasing blood flow. This, in turn, boosts circulation and helps to clear the complexion – some say it can even help reduce cellulite. In addition, cold temperatures stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and repair) and can trigger the release of feelgood chemicals.
So what’s cool in the ice-cold world of health and beauty? We look at the latest chills – from high tech, high end treatments to simple treatments you can do at home for the price of…an ice-cube or two.
Whole body cryotherapy: the rejuvenator
Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) involves marching around a cold chamber (basically a giant freezer) at body-numbing sub-zero temperatures. It is touted as a highly effective form of pain relief – particularly for chronic degenerative conditions and is widely used by doctors in Poland, Germany and Austria. ‘Cold therapy has profound analgesic effects,’ says Dr Georg Kettenhuber, who has treated many top athletes (including international footballer Fabiano) at his clinic in Austria. ‘I use it to treat sports injuries, inflammatory rheumatic diseases, degenerative diseases and all manner of chronic painful conditions.’
Sportspeople find recovery time from injury can be halved and sporting performance enhanced. Given that localised cold treatments (sprays, packs and baths) are already common in sports therapy, it’s perhaps not so surprising. What is surprising is that it’s said to affect the mind as well as the body. ‘There are huge psychological benefits,’ says Dr Kettenhuber. ‘It can ease depression and insomnia, and has good effects on stress, partly because it raises endorphin levels.’
It’s not a pampering treatment. I tried it out at the “Ice Lab” at the Alpen Hotel in Seefeld Austria (www.alpenmedhotel.com ). I cut a ridiculous figure in swimming costume, trainers, gloves, headband and a face mask but it’s important to keep the extremities covered and breathing the freezing air without a mask would be uncomfortable. My blood pressure was checked, medical history taken and I was given clear instructions. You go in the chamber alone (or in small groups) but are watched all the time by a therapist.
The chamber had three sections – you acclimatise at a relatively balmy -10 degrees before a brisk turn in the next segment at -60. Then you tug open a heavy door to the main chamber. Icy fog billows out and a large part of your brain balks at voluntarily walking into -110 or below (bear in mind the average home freezer is only -20C). Curiously, because it’s dry cold, you don’t shiver and it’s not particularly uncomfortable. The major hurdle is purely psychological, as you try to forget the fact that you’re turning yourself into the Sunday joint. I did star jumps and jogged on the spot, more for the need to do something to pass the time – which seemed to stretch out unfeasibly slowly. But you’re in control all the time and, if you feel uncomfortable, you can leave at any time. I stayed for the full three minutes and, strangely, could have done more. When I came out, my blood pressure was tested again, I was bundled into a robe and sent to lie down to relax. My skin was alarmingly vampiric to the touch (rather like touching marble) but I felt fantastic – high as a kite, to be honest. More importantly, I was amazed to discover that a painful Achilles injury had noticeably improved.
So, does it work? Yes. It’s a shame it’s not more widely available for use in sports injuries and to help regulate chronic pain.
Pukka Herbs Refresh Tea: the digestion soother
A hot drink that cools you down? Ayurvedic medicine teaches that our bodies comprise three bio-energies (combinations of the elements fire, earth, water and air). If fire (known as Pitta) falls out of balance, it’s common to find our digestion starting to play up; we become prone to ulcers and also tend to fly off the handle easily. Pukka Herbs Refresh tea is blended specifically to cool down fiery Pitta, with cooling peppermint, fennel and rose, balanced with nourishing liquorice. The hot-cold effect is strangely delicious.
Mail order from: www.pukkaherbs.com
So, does it work? It’s delicious and refreshing but not a surefire cure.
Zerona: the fat melter.
Cold is being increasingly used for non-invasive cosmetic surgery procedures. Zerona uses cool laser beams to target and stimulate fat cells. Unlike other fat busting laser treatments, your fat cells are not destroyed but rather pores are created in the cell walls, allowing fat to be released into the body where it is burned off naturally. The cells are then returned to their natural smaller state. Mr Christopher Inglefield, cosmetic surgeon, says: ‘This laser functions at just the right wavelength to create a natural biological reaction in the cell.’
Zerona helps reduce stubborn fat from difficult to target areas such as the waist, hips, thighs and arms – the kind that, no matter how much you diet and exercise, never seems to budge. The number of treatments needed depends on your weight and age but usually averages around six. The treatment is non-invasive and does not require any downtime.
See http://www.findzerona.co.uk for more information.
So, does it work? Apparently so but for best results you will require a course of treatment and at €200-€300 per treatment, it’s not cheap.
Ice Turban: the headache banisher.
An ice turban is made by soaking a large, light towel in ice water and winding it around the head. Place crushed ice in another small, porous towel (or use an ice pack), and apply over the turban to the top of the head. Dian Dincin Buchman, author of The Complete Book of Water Therapy (Keats) says, ‘Short applications excite mental activity, as well as helping to decongest the head.’ He recommends using the turban to prevent and control headaches, to soothe anxiety and depression and to help control faintness. He also suggests putting on an ice turban to ease tiredness caused by overwork.
So, does it work? The jury is out. Some swear by it; others say that just the thought of an ice turban is enough to bring on a migraine.
Aromatherapy Associates Soothing facial: the skin soother.
The latest facial from this highly respected aromatherapy company uses cold to cool and calm irritated or inflamed skin. A hydrating cleanse is followed by an instantly cooling serum to reduce redness and help to restore the skin’s natural barrier. The skin is massaged with a blend of soothing chamomile oils. Cold stones are placed around the eye area and cooling masks are then applied to the skin while your shoulders, scalp and neck are massaged. A pleasant, relaxing and totally feelgood application of cold.
So, does it work? Yes. It’s not a permanent solution to irritated skin but it certainly cools it down in the short-term.
Fire and Ice facial: the skin brightener
Beloved of Hollywood celebrities such as Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow and Evangeline Lily, this intensive facial combines heat and cold to resurface and brighten the face. The core of the treatment is two masques – the heating one (containing glycolic acid and retinol) which resurfaces and the cooling one (containing hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and herbal extracts) which soothes, hydrates and rejuvenates. It’s a clinical facial so don’t expect it to score high on the feelgood factor – but it’s worth it as results tend to be seriously lookgood.
Contact www.isclinical.ie for more information and your nearest clinic.
So, does it work? Some people swear by it. I found it actually inflamed my (very pale) skin in the short term but, when the redness calmed down, my complexion did look brighter and clearer.
Cold shallow bath: the stomach trimmer.
Naturopaths commonly use a sitz or shallow bath (immersing only the buttocks, thighs and lower abdomen) for a toning effect on the body and, in particular, on the abdomen. ‘This bath can be used every day to increase abdominal tone,’ says Buchman. ‘Because the bath promotes internal intestinal movement, it also helps to overcome constipation.’ Fill the bath with 6-8 inches of cold water (it should be around 50-70 degrees F). Splash your face, neck and hands with cold water before getting in. You only need to stay in the bath for around two minutes. For additional abdominal stimulation, rub the abdomen in an inverted U movement, clockwise. This bath may also help regularise periods and has been known to help impotence. Czech research found regular cold baths increased production of testosterone (in men) and oestrogen (in women).
So, does it work? The research suggests it could. But whether anyone is actually tough enough to endure a daily cold bath is another thing entirely.
Ice swimming: the immune booster
It’s known as ‘walrus swimming’ in Russia – jumping into freezing cold water or even knocking a hole in the ice for a quick plunge. Insanity? Not so. Scientists from the Czech Republic found that being immersed in cold water for an hour, three times a week, caused an increase in white blood cell count – the immune system was given a serious boost. Endorphins, the body’s feelgood chemicals, are increased, circulation gets a boost and energy levels soar. If you can’t bring yourself to jump into the sea around our shores, then try a cold shower. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body (http://fourhourbody.com) says freezing cold showers can also improve your sex drive as well as leading to healthier skin and hair. Need to ease your way in? Have a few minutes of warm water first then go for it!
Or try the thermal suite at Parknasilla Spa, Sneem, Co.Kerry. Alternate warm and hot rooms with cool foot spas, a cold thunderstorm rain shower and end up with a bracing splash at the ice fountain. www.parknasillahotel.ie
So, does it work? Both research and anecdotal reports indicate yes. Unpalatable but true – those hardy winter swimmers aren’t so crazy after all.
Lava Shells Glacial Detox Massage: the natural colonic
A few years ago, it was all about heat in massage: hot stones and lava shell massages were sizzling. Now it’s all about the deep chill as Lava Shells turn cool. This latest massage treatment combines heat and cold to target the stomach and legs. The therapist uses one heated lava shell and two chilled glacial shells to massage the legs and stomach using long flowing movements. The combination of hot and cold pressure is said to help the breakdown of fatty tissue. It can stimulate sluggish circulation and acts as a natural colonic to help shift backed up waste in the bowel. Water retention is also relieved, leaving you feeling less bloated and with a flatter stomach almost instantly.
The treatment also stimulates the lymphatic system, encouraging the body’s natural detoxification system. It can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight (combined with a healthy eating plan and exercise) and people also report it can help ease IBS, menstrual cramps as well as soothing stress – it’s surprisingly relaxing.
For more information see: www.sharedbeautysecrets.com.
So, does it work? It’s a feelgood salon treatment so don’t expect miracles – but the emphasis on abdominal massage will activate the gut while the gentle stimulation of the lymphatic system will improve skin tone and immune function.
Chillicious: the air conditioner in a bottle
A lightweight gel-balm that instantly cools the skin and then slowly and gently lowers your body temperature. It works by activating cold receptors in the skin’s nerve endings and contains dandelion extract which helps to reduce swelling caused by heat. Ideal for women going through the menopause or for anyone who gets a bit hot and bothered after sport (or generally) and needs to chill (in all ways). Not only does it help to eliminate sweat and stickiness, refreshing the skin, but the blend of cooling aromatherapy oils (lavender, chamomile) also helps to calm down anxious feelings. Just rub onto touch-points (back of neck, wrists or behind the knees) whenever you need to chill out. Comes in a neat travel-sized bottle to fit into handbag or sports bag.
Mail order from www.victoriahealth.com
So, does it work? A gel can only do so much but, yes, it cools the skin and the scent is calming (providing you’re a lavender fan).
Note: If you have any health conditions or concerns, please consult your doctor before using extremes of temperature. Some treatments are not suitable if you have a medical condition or are pregnant.
A version of this feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail
For more seasonal health and beauty tips check out my book, The Natural Year…now updated and available for Kindle.
Yes, it’s January. Yes, everyone is off doing crazy fasting and detoxing regimes. But do you need to? Should you even? I’m really not convinced that January is a good time for a stringent detox (unless you have the luxury of heading off to somewhere warm and lovely). It’s just too cold. Bodies need a bit of warmth and comfort in January. However, if you really did overdo it over Christmas and the New Year, you might consider a period of ‘easing off’, shall we say?
In The Detox Kit (Hay House) I offer what I call the Cheat’s Detox. It’s for those times when you’re not up to a complete cleanse. Here’s the lowdown…
So you can’t face a total detox or your lifestyle makes it just impossible? Don’t panic or get depressed. There are plenty of things you can do in everyday life to minimize your toxic exposure and even to let go of many of the toxins you have already accumulated.
Try incorporating as many of these guidelines into your life as you can. The more you do, the better you will feel–but even one or two will make a large difference.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Try keeping a bottle of fresh spring or mineral water on your desk and sip throughout the day. You could also try the ayurvedic way of sipping hot or warm water – keep a thermos by you (you can add a squeeze of lemon if you like).
- If you aren’t getting a good whack of vegetables in your diet, then squeeze them in via fresh juices. It’s worth investing in a really good quality juicer (otherwise you’ll get fed up of endless cleaning). I still adore my Oscar Neo. You can juice pretty well anything but try to include greens (kale, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli etc.) Celery adds good flavor. You can include a little fruit juice to improve the flavor but don’t overload on fruit or you’ll spike your system with the sugar.
- Cut right down on your alcohol intake. Drink two glasses of water for every alcoholic beverage. Try diluting your drinks–i.e. spritzers instead of straight wine; small spirit measures plus a liberal dose of fresh juice.
- Cut out all “junk” and processed food–they’re one of the quickest ways to toxic (and fat/sugar) overload. You can still eat “fast” food if you’re short on time– hummus or nut butter on oatcakes, stir-fries, soup – all pretty ‘fast’
- Cut down on your caffeine intake. Try cutting out one cup of coffee and having herbal teas, hot lemon and water (deeply detoxifying) or coffee substitutes instead. Gradually replace more and more.
- Introduce regular exercise into your life. Maybe make yoga part of your morning routine. Or buy a mini-trampoline (a rebounder) and bounce while you watch the news – absolutely THE best exercise for your lymphatic system. Or take up a new sport. Just get moving on a regular basis.
- Try skin-brushing before your shower or bath. It needn’t take long – just work on dry skin using a natural bristle brush and always move towards the heart. Work clockwise on your abdomen. Don’t forget the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands.
- Practice good deep breathing. Even if it’s just for five minutes a day, take time out to focus on your breath, allowing your abdomen to press out as you breathe in, and flatten as you breathe out.
- Toxicity isn’t just about what we eat and drink – it’s about our environment too. Switch to non-toxic natural alternatives for cleaning materials around the home. If you dry-clean your clothes, take them out of the wrapping and leave outside in the fresh air for at least an hour before bringing them into your closet.
- Everything we put on our skin is absorbed by it and goes into our bloodstream and right around our bodies. So, do you really want to overload your body with chemicals? Switch to truly natural cosmetics, make-up and beauty products. There are very few ranges that don’t use any chemicals (even those labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ often sneak in nasties because of loopholes in labeling rules). Less truly is more–all our skin really needs is gentle cleansing and moisturizer over damp skin. Hair dyes are particularly toxic–there are no really non-toxic alternatives (though I’ve switched to henna) but health shops tend to stock less unpleasant brands. Dump the depilatory creams and use a razor or sugaring instead.
My favourite natural beauty brands include Aromatherapy Associates, ila-spa and Pukka. I also use plain argan oil (with a few drops of essential oils added) – it’s a superb moisturizer for face and body.
If you fancy a more stringent detox, check out my book The Detox Plan, now updated and available for download to your Kindle. It contains two full detox programmes and also a lot more information on environmental detoxing and emotional/mental detoxing. It’s on offer for January, so grab it while you can!
Well, here’s a pleasant surprise…I’ve been nominated by Natural Health magazine as a ‘holistic hero’. I’m up there amongst some big names in the natural health field so it’s deeply gratifying (and mightily unexpected). I’m not sure ‘hero’ is the right term but I have been championing natural and integrated health for over twenty years now (yes, that long) so it’s really nice to have some recognition.
Garn! Not sure if the link has taken on that button but if you follow this link you’ll find the survey and I’m the third category. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QPCJZWH
Every vote gratefully received and please do share the link freely. I’m happily voting for my favourite UK spa, online retailer and all-natural beauty range. Oh, and if you vote, you stand the chance of winning £500 worth of LoveLula vouchers – which would be very tasty.
If you aren’t already aware, I have written over twenty books on natural health and wellbeing. Do feel free to check my page on Amazon – a lot of my older books have now been updated and converted into ebooks and sell for about a quid or so.
Okay, shameless promotion now ending.