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The Alexander Technique – realigning posture to improve health and mood

2d6cd2e831930c8d1abc6fee2690a350A straightforward, down-to-earth technique could make you taller and slimmer. It can help silence stress and banish the blues. It can even give significant relief from back and neck pain and the ache of arthritis. Yet this technique is no new wonder-therapy, no esoteric healing – it’s been taught in this country for years. It’s called the Alexander Technique. In the past the Alexander Technique has suffered from an image problem. People equate it with “learning good posture” and it is seen as rather staid and boring. That view should change because although Alexander does take time and patience to learn properly, its effects can be nothing short of miraculous. A host of celebrities have used it – from John Cleese to Paul Newman and it is lauded by actors and dancers who need to be able to use their bodies to the optimum.

The technique was developed by Frederick Mathias Alexander, an Australian born in 1869. Alexander was a successful actor – until he started to lose his voice during orations. A host of doctors and voice coaches could find nothing wrong with him so Alexander reasoned he had to be doing something during his performance to cause the problem. Setting up a series of mirrors, he analysed his movements and discovered that he was pulling his head back and down onto his spine with an enormous amount of tension. The tension was impairing his breathing and causing constriction of the larynx.

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Alexander began to experiment and finally came up with a solution for the tension. He gave his body three main orders: “Allow the neck to be free”; “Allow the neck to go forward and upward” and “Allow the back to lengthen and widen.” These mental instructions relaxed the tension and freed his voice. In addition he discovered that the asthma he had suffered from since birth also vanished. Alexander was so intrigued by his findings that he developed an entire system which would enable almost anyone to return to the comfort and ease they enjoyed as babies and small children.

“Those of us lucky enough to be born healthy have perfect posture when we’re small,” says Kate Kelly, an Alexander teacher who gave me my first introduction to the technique many years ago. “We lose it because we’re not really evolved to cope with the twentieth century. We begin to lose our easy freedom of movement when we start adapting ourselves to our environment – we use furniture which is not very well designed for us. Plus we unconsciously imitate adults around us.”

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Our bodies will cope with these abuses for some time but then, generally in our 30s to 50s, they start to complain. “This is the time when the body will no longer put up with what Alexander called “misuse”,” says Alexander teacher Gail Barlow. “The body will no longer be resilient.” She explains that it is then that we develop neck and back pain; start getting headaches or migraines; feel permanently tense and stressed and have trouble sleeping. Some of us develop breathing problems because our lungs are cramped; others suffer digestive problems because we are squashing our colons.

Alexander Technique offers a solution, teaching us how to unravel taut, tense bodies. Teachers of the technique insist they are not therapists but do admit that the process can be highly therapeutic. “We would never say we could cure because we are not medical,” says Kate Kelly. “If someone comes with aches and pains I can’t guarantee anything.” However many people (especially those with neck and back pain and arthritis) are referred by their doctors while many psychologists agree that Alexander can often help to clear depression. But Alexander is not just for those with serious problems. Gail Barlow says that 97 percent of us have lost the easy co-ordination of youth and could benefit from learning Alexander. There are highly pleasant side-effects as well. Students regularly report they feel easier in themselves, that they have more energy and less stress. And yes, many people do actually grow.

Richard Brennan, author of several books on Alexander reports that, “Teachers advise students not to buy new shoes or clothes until nearing the end of their course of lessons. It is common for pupils to grow in height by as much as an inch and a half; and they appear to lose weight at the same time. Because we have a tendency to sink down into our hips, by allowing a lengthening of the torso, a redistribution of fat tissue takes place and the pupil becomes taller and thinner.” The technique is usually taught in individual lessons or small classes. Your teacher will painstakingly observe how you use your body, whether standing, sitting or walking. Then he or she will teach you how to subtly change your patterns of movement to restore your body to its natural balance.

Don’t expect miracles overnight – a basic course will consist of around thirty lessons and many people go on to take many more. Equally some people might find the minute attention to detail almost irritating. But persevere. Alexander technique is not exciting or trendy but it does work. And once you have learned the technique it is yours for life – along with all the benefits of a body which is deeply relaxed and comfortable in itself. “Do we need to go into old age with aches and pains, stiff and bent?” asks Gail Barlow, “It isn’t necessary. Alexander discovered a way of taking those bad habits away so we are left with that delightful co-ordination we are all born with.” As comfortable and relaxed in our bodies as a small baby? What a wonderful thought.

SIMPLE ALEXANDER TIPS FOR BETTER BALANCE

Sitting (at work): Don’t just throw yourself into your chair – this causes stress on the neck which can cause neck and back problems, even migraines and headaches. Bend your hips and knees so that your body is balanced until you reach the chair. Think about balancing on your chair. Keep both feet firmly planted on the floor. Is your seat high enough for you? If not, add a few telephone directories. Hunching over your desk affects breathing and all the internal organs. It’s far better to lean forward from your hip joints, so you lengthen your whole body.

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Sitting (relaxing): Slumping is terrible for your body. It may feel comfortable but you are putting pressure on your digestive system, your heart, your lungs – your internal organs cannot work as effectively as they should. Alexander teachers say they don’t expect people to sit bolt-upright while watching television or reading but do prop yourself up with cushions to give your back support. When you get up from a low chair or sofa, come to the edge of it before attempting to stand.

Standing: Think of standing balanced equally on both feet.  Don’t slump onto one leg. Don’t strain – just find your own point of balance. Become aware of your feet and where your body weight is being placed. Can you feel more weight on your toes or your heels? Is more weight thrown onto the inside or outside of each foot? For maximum stability you want the heel, the ball of the foot and the point just below the big toe to be in contact with the ground.

Driving: Car seats are designed for safety, not your postural health. Try putting a wedge in the back of the seat to stop you from sinking right back. Many people also give themselves injuries when they twist their heads round to reverse. Instead drop the tip of your nose to your shoulder and then turn round – it helps the spine to lengthen.

Carrying: Try to avoid heavy shoulder bags. They make your shoulder pull up to compensate for the weight which, in turn, makes your whole body re-align. A bag which can be carried like a rucksack on your back is best or use a small trolley.

RELIEVING TENSION IN THE BODY

Richard Brennan describes this simple Alexander exercise to relieve muscular tension. It involves lying on the floor with your head supported by a small pile of books. The number of books you will need will depend on your height and the curvature of your spine. Stand normally with your heels, buttocks and shoulder blades lightly touching a wall. Get a friend to measure the distance between your head and the wall and add about an inch to the measurement – this is the height of books you will need. Choose paperbacks (they’re much more comfortable!).

1. Get to the floor by getting onto all fours and gently rolling onto the books. Bring your feet as near to your buttocks as is comfortable, so your knees point to the ceiling. Your hands should gently rest on either side of your navel.

2. Lie like this for about twenty minutes. During this time try to become aware of any tension in your body: Is your back arched so it is not fully in contact with the ground? Are your shoulders hunched? Are your shoulder blades not fully in contact with the ground? Do the books feel hard because you are pulling your head back causing tension in your neck? Can you feel one side of your body more in contact with the floor than the other? Can you feel tension in either leg – do they want to fall in or out to the sides? Can you feel more pressure on the outside or the inside of your feet?

3. Don’t move or try to correct any problems – that will only make them worse. Instead apply conscious thought to help release tension. If your back is arched think of it lengthening and widening. If your shoulders are hunched imagine them falling away from your ears. If your leg wants to fall out then think of your knees pointing up to the ceiling.

4. Before getting up from the floor, pause for a moment – think about a less stressful way of rising to your feet. Roll over onto your stomach and go on all fours. Assume a kneeling position and then put one foot in front of the other to come back into a standing position.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Try these books:
Change Your Posture, Change Your Life: How the Power of the Alexander Technique can Combat Back Pain, Tension and Stress
The Alexander Technique Workbook

The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT): http://www.stat.org.uk/

Unnatural motherhood? There’s more than one way to be a parent.

IMG_20121021_0014Let me confess. Before I had James I had never bathed a baby. I had never fed a baby. I had certainly never changed a baby. I had held one once (arms rigid, fixed rictus of a smile painted on my face) but it cried so I gave it back – very quickly. I’m almost proud of my achievement in a perverse way. After all it takes some ingenuity to avoid babies quite so effectively for over thirty years – especially given my sister had five of them, and most of my friends are parents. Frankly when I listened to friends talk about their raging hormones, about having to have a baby, I was bemused. Somewhere along the line I was missing the baby urge gene. I just wasn’t genetically wired to be a mother.

Then I fell pregnant. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment I sat on the toilet, paper strip in hand, staring like an idiot at that faint blue line. I felt faint. I felt instant morning sickness. My belly seemed to swell before my very eyes. Then I shook my head – this couldn’t be happening to me. I simply wasn’t the mothering type. Part of me was relieved – after all my husband Adrian and I had been having the “should we, shouldn’t we?” conversation for years and now we didn’t have to make the decision. But what was I doing bringing a baby into the world? Poor mite – how would it cope with a mother who had never even stepped foot inside Mothercare? My friends were singularly unhelpful. “Oh, that’s wonderful. It’ll change your life forever,” gushed one (owner of two babies and typical Earth Mother). Well, that’s exactly what was worrying me. I didn’t want to suddenly turn into the kind of person who eats at Harvesters, holidays at Butlins and has a penchant for teddy bear prints.

“Don’t panic,” insisted my sister, “it will come naturally.”

“But I don’t like babies,” I wailed down the phone.

“Okay,” she sighed, “I’ll let you in on a secret. I don’t like babies either.”

“But you’ve had five,” I stammered.

“Yes, and I like them. But I don’t like all babies. Trust me, you’ll like your own.”

I hoped and prayed she was right.

It sounds funny but underneath the jokes I was seriously concerned. Nature doesn’t always work and what if I didn’t naturally bond with my baby? What if those hormones didn’t click into place? What if I were a rogue mother, one of nature’s misfits? What if I had become so work-centric, so self-centred that I just wasn’t fit to have a baby? I held out the forlorn hope, as my body lurched through pregnancy, that I would suddenly become baby-centric. But I didn’t. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t go gooey over babies, I didn’t get a kick out of Baby GAP. I, sin of sin, absolutely and utterly loathed being pregnant. I wasn’t blooming, I was ballooning. It felt like my body was under invasion and I was losing – badly. I suffered virtually every ailment it’s possible for a pregnant woman to suffer and a fair few of which nobody seems to have heard.

Susan Maushart understands. She is the author of a very wonderful book The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t which I think should be required reading for every pregnant woman. “At least part of the problem is that our society propagates a ridiculously positive myth of pregnancy,” she says, “At some primal level, pregnancy is the definitive incarnation of “womanliness”. And for many women, pregnancy genuinely does represent femininity in its fullest and most majestic flower. Yet for every woman who revels, goddess-like, in her pregnant body, there is another who feels downright grotesque. The prevailing mask of expectant motherhood suggests that there is something aberrant about such women, as if the failure to bloom hints at some intrinsic perversity of spirit.” That was precisely how I felt. That, by hating my pregnancy, I was disowning my baby. By feeling so untouched by “natural” feelings of impending motherhood, I was rejecting him.

I went to NCT classes feeling like a fraud. But, heavens be praised, I met a like-minded soul. Heather wasn’t a “natural” mother either. “I’ve never even touched a baby,” she confessed, “they scare the living daylights out of me.” Feeling slightly better (at least there were two of us unnatural mothers in the world) I went into hospital and four days and a totally unnatural birth later I had James. I was in instant panic. These nice trusting midwives were leaving me, a totally incompetent and utterly inept person (I still didn’t have the sheer nerve to call myself a mother) in charge of this helpless infant? They would come into my room and collapse in hysterics as they watched me scoop up meconium with one hand while the other held down the page on changing a nappy in What To Expect: The First Year .
I actually managed to avoid bathing James for three whole days, scared stiff they would realise I hadn’t mastered the origami of baby/towel/water/soap. One particularly low day, I overheard a couple of them talking, “She’s going to need a lot of support, isn’t she.” “Yes, poor soul, not a natural mother.”

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Yet, as soon as we left hospital, everything changed. Back in the peace and quiet of our own home, away from the beady gimlet eyes of the staff, I felt able to be, if not a natural mother, at least some other kind of mother. I looked at my baby and fell totally, hopelessly and helplessly in love. As we snuggled down together in bed, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. This was motherhood – and it was okay. I was going to manage, we were going to be alright.

I began to wonder whether there’s not some curious myth of the “natural” mother that we’re all buying into. Maybe there are women out there who were born to wear maternity smocks (I just upped a size in M&S bootlegs and wore baggier sweatshirts), who were destined to cluck over whether to furnish the nursery with Pooh Bear or Dora the Explorer, who loved being pregnant and adored nothing more than the smell of baby vomit. I just wasn’t one of them. “Well, what is the mothering type?” asked Sarah Dening, a dear friend who also happened to be a psychologist (a useful combination), “maybe you aren’t the Earth Mother type with children endlessly clasped to her petticoats and suckling at her breasts – maybe you’re more of an Athena type (the typical intellectual working mother), or an Artemis, needing your freedom alongside your baby. There are many ways of being a mother.”

I held onto her words in the weeks that followed. Okay, I wasn’t a natural mother but surely I could learn to be a decent mother. Surely all it takes is a good book or a scroll through the web. So I bought every book I could find. Soon the house was littered with books on baby development, how to cook baby foods, how to diagnose baby ailments. “Bloody hell, next you’ll be buying a book on how to play with him,” joked Adrian. I smiled sheepishly: I had just the day before ordered not one but two books on just that subject.

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But as the weeks turned into months, I began to relax into it all. I started believing my own instincts and trusting my own feelings. Above all, I really learned to watch and listen to James to discover his needs. “You’re a lovely mum,” said my health visitor and, although I still felt like a bit of a fraud, I took the compliment and, a bit smugly, thought she had a point. I may not be an orthodox mum but James and I have a lot of fun. Okay so he wears funny clothes and eats rather odd food but he doesn’t seem to mind. I can’t balance him on my hip because, being an unnatural mother, I don’t have child-bearing hips. I “talk” over my concerns and worries with my on-line playgroup whose babies are going through their milestones in far-flung places like Australia, Canada and Japan which is, I agree, a bit unusual and maybe a tad unnatural.

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I don’t know if I’m the only unnatural mother out there but I suspect I’m not. So, if you’re going through your pregnancy in a dazed sense of terror, worried that you won’t make the grade I hope you take heart from my story. I think it’s important to remember Sarah Dening’s point that there are many different kinds of mother, many different styles of motherhood. If you’re the type who knits hand-made bootees and snatches every available baby to her breast, that’s great. If you’re not, don’t panic – I promise you’ll be fine. Most of the tasks of early motherhood are (relatively) easily learned – after a week you’ll be a nappy changing/bathing/feeding pro. As for the bonding bit, I guess nature isn’t so dumb after all. If even a hard-bitten, tough old boot like me can go gooey over my baby’s smile, I promise you will too. My sister’s right, you know. Whatever you think about other people’s babies, your own is always different. And, guess what? I’m even starting to like other babies too. Scary thing, this motherhood game.

If you know me, you’ll realise this is a very old feature but I think it’s worth reiterating that there really isn’t one way to parent.  I’m not sure where this first appeared – possibly the Telegraph?

Floatation meets shamanism

f950ca9d3cfb612aad8e66986aa7c3ceAs a journalist and author of books on health and wellbeing I’ve tried pretty much every technique and treatment going. All were interesting but there were only some I fell in love with and made part of my regular spiritual ‘regime’. Shamanic journeying is one of them. Shamanism is not a religion: it’s a practice that is compatible with all spiritual paths. When you journey, you put yourself into a state of trance (usually by drumming or using a rattle) and travel to other planes of where you meet guides (either animals or discarnate teachers) for healing and knowledge. Shamanism treats the whole of the natural world as sacred – and as a teacher.

Floatation – where you lie suspended in 10 inches of highly salted water – is another of my loves. So the idea of combining shamanic journeying with floatation was just too tempting for words.
Recently I had been feeling a bit stuck. I had taken a gamble and tried my hand at teenage fiction. I wrote a novel about shamanism, Walker, and then a spooky supernatural romance called Samael. At first it looked as though Samael would be snapped up by a publisher but, what with one bit of bad luck and another, nothing happened. Then, to add insult to injury, my shamanic guides seemed to have deserted me. I didn’t feel their presence in daily life and, when I journeyed, they weren’t around. So I hoped that floating might be the extra dimension I needed to get back in touch.

Hands On is a small clinic not far from the gorgeous North Devon coast. Owner and bodyworker Phil Steward knew from the moment he planned the centre that a float room was central. ‘My healing journey started when I broke my back when I was 18,’ he says. ‘I was at university in Oxford and there was a treatment centre nearby with a float tank – one of the old pod ones. I went in it every other day, and suspended in zero gravity in water, my body could concentrate on healing. Up to 75 percent of the nervous system has to deal with keeping the body upright in gravity,’ he explains.

But I was more interested in floating’s other claim to fame – the way it switches your mind into a very deep state of relaxation. In shamanism, you use a blindfold to shut out the light and employ drumming or rattling to put the mind into a light trance state. I thought that floating would surely help the brain to fall into the right pattern even more quickly and easily. ‘Yes. When you float you produce slower brainwave patterns,’ says Phil. ‘They’re theta waves, normally only experienced in deep meditation or before you drop asleep. The two hemispheres of the brain work together (what’s called whole brain thinking).’ He explains that this is usually accompanied by vivid imagery, very clear creative thoughts, sudden insights and inspirations.

Phil’s partner Ellie MacGregor (a regression therapist) often uses the float room for trance work and considers it ideal for encouraging the intense visualisation of shamanic journeying. ‘It can be emotionally and spiritually transforming,’ she says. ‘Floating can help open doors into your inner world, gradually allowing access to those deeper levels at which real changes take place.’

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I’m excited. But before I venture into the float room, Phil suggests I have some therapeutic massage. He believes that massaging before a float helps people relax and the floating session can ‘embed’ the shifts he makes to their bodies with a healing massage. He has a strong, assured touch, using a combination of techniques and also a fair amount of healing [Reiki and Theta]. The very base of my spine had felt ‘jammed’.

At the end of my hour I am so chilled I nearly collide with a wall en route to the floatation suite. Ellie laughs and sits me down to talk through the float process, ‘It’s totally different for everyone,’ says Ellie. ‘There’s no right or wrong experience.’

I go into the private floatation suite, strip right off (you get cold if you wear a swimming costume) and have a shower. Then I pop in a pair of ear plugs (to keep the water out) and open the door to the float chamber. Some clinics have small ‘pods’ (where you clamber in and pull the lid down on you) but this is a proper small room filled with 10 inches of warm water; large enough that you can stand up straight and when you lie down you can stretch right out. It’s beautiful. A soft blue light shines under the turquoise water and the ceiling is sparkled with tiny lights like stars. I lie down and the water lifts me up gently – it’s body temperature and feels curiously silky.

At first I try to hold my head up but then I release the tension, let go and allow the water to hold me. Once I’m used to the sensation, I reach for the two buttons and turn off all the lights (you don’t have to but for the best effect floatation should be done with total sensory deprivation). It’s not remotely claustrophobic – just blissfully serene.

Then the drum beat of the shamanic CD starts, steady and insistent. Yes, I can still hear it through the ear plugs. I visualise myself at my usual entry point, a young oak tree in a wood near my house. To my delight, a small snake (one of my spirit animals/guides) slithers up to greet me and we plunge down into the lower world almost instantly, down a tunnel studded with gemstones. In fact we go much deeper than usual, right down into the fiery core of the planet, and then my snake guide and I become two huge pillars of light – one red, one white. The pillars fuse and our energy shoots out. Then I shoot out too, back to the middle world (the shamanic equivalent of the world we live in here on the physical plane) and find myself being greeted by another of my spirits, a proud red eagle. I fuse with the eagle and we fly upwards and are joined by another eagle, this one white: together we circle upwards until we are way out in space. We turn into human figures again but now we are absolutely huge. Looking back down to earth, just a pinprick in the vast spaces of outer space, I am given the message: ‘Heal the earth from the inside out.’ And then another, which seems more personal. ‘Relax. Don’t try so hard.’
Energy courses through my body and I feel as if I’m going to explode with it. But then the drum beat changes, signalling that it’s time to ‘come back’. I thank my spirit guides and bring myself back to my starting place, by the oak tree. And then I become aware of my physical location, here and now, in the float room.

The drum beat fades and I am left in complete silence and blackness. I feel a huge sense of peace, as if I’ve had a vast burden taken from me. I do try too hard, all the time. I try to make things happen, rather than allowing them to be.
So I don’t try to do anything for the last part of my float – I just lie back and enjoy the sensation of being held, supported, without a care in the world. Time becomes meaningless but eventually some music comes on to tell me that it’s time for my float to end. I turn the lights back on and step out, being careful not to get any salty water in my eyes. I have another shower, dry my hair, and emerge in the reception area, slightly dazed and feeling like a newborn baby.

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‘Was it good?’ says Ellie and then smiles as she looks into my eyes and nods. ‘I can see it was good.’
Phil gets me a glass of water and I sit down to ‘come to’ thoroughly. He tells me that, in the US, they do all-night dream-quest floats, more intense and long-lasting shamanic journeys. My eyes light up.
In the days that follow I remember more and more of my float journey and feel more and more reassured. I feel that I will be able to move forward, that what I need will come to me – and to the earth too. I just need to let go and relax. In other words, to float.

Hands On Clinic, Braunton, North Devon, EX33 1AH, 01271 812998, http://handsonclinic.co.uk/

A good introduction to shamanism is The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner

He has also produced a CD of drumming that facilitates journeying, Shamanic Journey Solo and Double Drumming

My shamanic novel, Walker, which is based entirely on real shamanic practices, is available on Amazon for Kindle. Click on the cover below to buy

You might also be interested in The Smudging and Blessings Book: Inspirational Rituals to Cleanse and Heal

This feature first appeared in Spirit & Destiny magazine.

Autogenic Training – ‘mental circuit training’ to control stress

34ddbd9144114855dbf03cfc464f56adNOTE: I wrote this feature some years back, before mindfulness was such a buzzword.  If you can’t seem to get on with mindfulness – or meditation – then this might be worth a go. 

Like most people nowadays I suffer from stress. In fact, juggling career, family and a farm without mains services would be enough to send most people into stress overdrive. But, when the going gets tough I simply sit down and start muttering: “My right arm is heavy.” It sounds as if I’ve finally cracked, but in fact it’s the first step in a series of exercises in Autogenic Training, possibly the most potent stress relief technique in the Western world.

The benefits of meditation have long been recognised in fighting stress – but resistance to “mystical mumbo jumbo” has been too much for many people. Autogenic Training is the answer. It gives all the benefits of meditation without any of the lotus-position and leotard connotations. Simply speaking, Autogenic Training (AT) consists of a straightforward series of mental exercises designed to switch off the stress “fight or flight” system of the body and bring about profound relaxation in both mind and body. It’s been called “mental circuit training”: I call it a sanity-saver.

Autogenic Training was developed by Dr Johannes Schultz, a neuropsychiatrist who studied with Oscar Vogt, an eminent researcher into human brain functioning, in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. It was then further researched and fine-tuned by Dr Wolfgang Luthe, professor of Psychophysiology at McGill University in Montreal.  Autogenic Therapy has been taught in the UK for thirty years and over three thousand scientific publications have reported its beneficial effects, making AT about the best documented and consistently researched method of stress relief. In Japan a study involving 23,700 industrial employees showed that AT improved both physical and mental health, reduced industrial accidents by two thirds, increased productivity and brought about a reduction in both absenteeism and medical expenditure. A research review reported that more than 60 controlled clinical studies of AT gave evidence of positive effects in cases of hypertension, asthma, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, atopic dermatitis and frontal lobe epilepsy. People with anxiety, sleep disorders and depression also found it a real boon.

ATpos2So what does it entail? I learned AT with Vera Diamond, one of the UK’s pioneers of the technique. For the first session we concentrated on the three positions of AT (lying down, sitting in a relaxed posture and sitting forwards in a kind of slump – ideal for practicing AT in public). Then we moved on to feeling a sense of heaviness in the limbs. I was instructed to go away and practice several times each day so the process became automatic. Eventually it just took the words “My arms and legs are heavy” and my limbs immediately relaxed. Over the next seven weeks we went through the body and I learned how instantly to make my heartbeat regular, to calm my breathing, to relax tension in the abdomen, neck and shoulders and to bring a sense of coolness to my forehead. Initially it takes a certain amount of time and commitment as you have to practice several times each day but, by the end of the eight weeks, you have an instant stress-reliever at your fingertips. You can run through the exercise in a mere five minutes and feel the stress drop away. It’s so simple it barely seems possible it can be so effective.

Yet the effects of AT are far-reaching and profound. AT lowers both blood pressure and blood cholesterol (key factors in preventing heart attacks). In fact its effects can be so dramatic that people with medical conditions have to be carefully monitored while they train. In some cases diabetics have found they needed to halve the amount of insulin they take and other forms of medication may also have to be lessened.   Vera Diamond also worked with Parkinson’s Disease and was excited to find that it can even help to reduce tremor. “It is an amazing breakthrough,” she said, “If we reduce the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline by regular AT practice, this results in the conservation of “home-made” dopamine and maximises the absorption of L-dopa, both of which are improvements in the Parkinson’s scene.”

It is equally effective and popular for healthy people.  Diamond worked a lot with people in industry, including Allied Dunbar, the National Coal Board, Mars and even members of the Obscene Publication Division at Scotland Yard.  Many airlines use the technique to combat jet-lag and insomnia in their staff and it is practised quite widely in other industries to reduce stress and improve performance at all levels. AT has even been taught to astronauts and cosmonauts as part of their space training programmes. Sportspeople have found that their performance improves – the Russian and East German gymnastic squads have used it and dancers, skiers and footballers find it gives them an edge.

Creativity seems to shoot up and many businesspeople discover that not only do their stress levels drop but their communication skills and ability to make clear effective decisions improve dramatically. The reason, apparently, is that AT brings the two sides of the brain into better balance, allowing you the advantage of the intuitive, imaginative right side of the brain which is normally switched firmly off during waking life. While sitting in Vera Diamond’s living room waiting for my session one day I happened to notice a hardback copy of the best-selling novel The Horse Whisperer. Flicking it open I saw a dedication from the author Nicholas Evans: “To Vera – who kept my right arm heavy while I wrote this”. “Oh yes,” affirmed Vera on her return, “he uses it. Lots of creative people do.”

Autogenic Training doesn’t work for everyone. Some find the initial effort needed to learn the technique too time-consuming so don’t gain the full benefits. Others find some of the exercises uncomfortable or downright impossible. “Every time I tried the heart exercise I felt a sense of panic,” reports a lawyer who tried, and gave up on, the technique, “it was very unpleasant. I tried using a modified version of AT but it just didn’t really work for me.” I also have to confess that AT didn’t manage to cure my persistent insomnia during pregnancy.

Although AT seems so straightforward, it’s vital to learn the technique properly with a qualified teacher. Aside from the sheer physical effects that AT can have, the therapy can also work quite deeply on the mind. Sometimes quite deeply-hidden anxieties, feelings of anger or frustration can surface when you start the training.

“As you work with some people you can become aware that they need a deeper form of therapy,” said Diamond who (like many AT teachers) was also a fully qualified psychotherapist. “Then we would work with them on a one-to-one basis using a further form of AT called neutralisation. We take people into the problematic area and allow them to release memories and trauma a little at a time while in a deeply calm state of mind.” One woman, a 32-year old accountant, was suffering from acute anxiety. She couldn’t sleep without the light on and constantly felt as though she needed to soothe her throat with cooling drinks. “When we worked in the group with the neck and shoulders formula, she found her head kept going back,” recalled Diamond. “So I worked with her individually and it emerged that she had nearly drowned as a little girl – the trauma had stayed tucked away in her brain and lodged in her body, in her throat, as she tried to keep above the water. Once we neutralised that old memory, her life changed. She got a new job, a new partner and all the phobias that were bothering her simply went. She was able to sleep with the light off for the first time in her life.”

Progress can be very swift. Whereas conventional “talking therapies” can take several years to achieve a noticeable effect, AT can produce good results in as little as 3-6 months. Diamond believed AT is so effective because it works with the unconscious in a selective manner – the brain chooses what to bring forward and how to do it. In many ways it is similar to hypnotherapy but there is absolutely no suggestions given by the therapist – everything is self-generating.

Given AT’s proven track record in balancing both body and mind, it’s surprising that it isn’t better known in this country. Although it is practised by many doctors and nurses (and used in several NHS settings) it still isn’t a household name. Personally I think that should change. Given the deep levels of stress in modern life, there is a clear need for a simple, effective method for coping on an everyday basis. Autogenic Therapy fills that slot very nicely.

British Autogenic Society:  www.autogenic-therapy.org.uk

DIY relaxation

To benefit from AT you need to be taught the technique individually. However these relaxation tips from The British Autogenic Society is based on the philosophy of AT.

1. Sit down and close your eyes for a moment. Practice quiet observation of yourself. Check for body tension: are you clenching any muscles? Don’t try to change anything; just be aware of it. If you have an ache or pain, such as a headache, quietly observe it. Decide that it is a form of stress release which may be beneficial. Rather than seeing it as a problem, take an interest in its movements or intensity. Watch your breathing. Let it lead you wherever it wants, whether in the form of sighs, shallow panting or quiet abdominal breathing. Don’t change it; just go along with it.
2. When you feel tense or upset, retreat to somewhere private, such as your bedroom or bathroom and “shake” it out of your system. Loosely shake each limb in turn and feel the wobble. When you catch yourself saying “I could SCREAM”, do it. Bury your face in a pillow and let rip. No-one will hear you and you’ll feel much better. If you need to cry and can’t, make some moaning sounds with dry sobs and you may start yourself off. Think how a child does it automatically – sometimes we need to relearn natural responses.
3. Have some fun. When did you last have a really good laugh? Ring up a friend and arrange a crazy night out. Go to a show: let some play-time back in your life. Above all allow yourself to believe you’re a worthwhile person, warts and all. Decide your feelings are part of you. Express them safely and honestly (in private), then turn your thoughts to a more positive outlook.

In memory of Vera Diamond – with great fondness.  

Art therapy – painting the unconscious mind

IMG_20121019_0095When we were children we used to paint and draw with pleasure and delight. For a few short blissful years we could do no wrong with our paints and crayons – we were free to explore, imagine and create. Then we began to be taught what was “good” and “bad” in art: those of us who were “good” at art started trying to perfect our skills while those of us who were not “artistic” simply threw away our paintbrushes. And that, say the art therapists, is a crying shame. Uninhibited art, they explain, has the power to heal: it offers a clear, straightforward route to the unconscious, to the hidden depths of our psyche. Rediscover the joy of art and you could put yourself back in touch with repressed emotions and long-buried hurts. You could even start up a conversation with your very soul.

Art therapy is most definitely not about painting or drawing “properly” – the aim is not to make pretty or lifelike pictures but rather to let go of any expectations and simply see what happens. Art therapy is like a key to a secret language of the psyche. Paint and you could discover different sides to your personality; you could gain confidence and self-esteem; you might even find quite physical ailments disappear when you allow yourself a creative outlet.

Art has been used as a therapeutic tool for many years. Back in 1810 a German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reill positively encouraged his patients to paint. His colleagues thought it was a way of diverting them from their problems but he insisted it was rather an attempt to put them in touch with their “passions”, their inner desires, hurts and fears. Since that time many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have discovered that when people paint freely they are able to express feelings and give a form to fears and terrors on paper that they are quite unable to express in words. Art as therapy is, quite simply, a direct way of communicating with the unconscious.

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Since those early days art therapy has become well established in the NHS where it is often used to help those who are mentally or terminally ill, people who have been abused or who are addicted to drugs. It can be a wonderful tool to communicate with children with special needs and adults who find it difficult to talk about their feelings. But it is becoming increasingly popular amongst people with less pressing needs. Workshops are springing up around the country and more art therapists are starting to work with individuals on a private basis. Some people simply enjoy painting without the pressure of having to produce a masterpiece; others find it a wonderful way to relax. Yet more regard it as a serious tool for sorting out their lives: a way to look at problems or fears in a safe, controlled environment. Everyone, it appears, can benefit from holding a paintbrush and splashing paint.

I hadn’t painted since I left school and so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I made my way to The Pelican Centre, a rambling medieval house in a small Somerset village which used to host a weekly art therapy group plus frequent residential weekend workshops (sadly it is no longer operational). About twenty of us gathered, plied with coffee, in a comfortable room full of armchairs. Michael Edwards, a Jungian analyst and art therapist who was running the weekend, immediately put the most paint-phobic at ease. “I’m not asking for any skills,” he insisted, “you can’t make a mistake; you simply can’t do it wrong. Nobody has to know what your pictures are or mean – you are only answerable to yourself.”

Although many art therapists will allow you a totally free rein, to paint whatever you choose, he had chosen the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty as a rough theme for the weekend. For some time we discussed the symbols and themes of the tale. “Fairy tales pick up the deep truths of life,” he explained, “however painful, uncomfortable and impossible they may be – they touch the deep roots of life.” We talked about the many versions of this ancient tale, including its less well-known and vastly more sinister versions (full of child-eating ogres and grisly suicides) that Disney carefully chose to ignore. Then it was time to paint.

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The art studio with its smell of paints and crayons brought back a flood of school-time memories. “Find a comfortable place,” urged Edwards, “you might want to hide in a corner – that’s fine. Sit and think quietly before you begin and let the story work on you. See what comes up. It might dimly connect to your life; you might just enjoy the images. Let them come.” I sat and stared at my blank sheet of paper with something approaching horror: it felt like looking at an exam paper and not knowing any of the answers. Then, slowly, I started tentatively to paint. It began as a representation of Sleeping Beauty – asleep amidst the briars. Then I found the paints I chose getting darker and darker, the paint strokes more and more harsh. “She’s not asleep – she’s dead,” I found myself thinking and almost burst into tears as thoughts of my grandmother’s recent death came flooding back into my mind. Fear, sorrow, pain, hurt, a bleak sense of mortality all poured out onto the paper. As if by sixth sense, Michael Edwards appeared at my shoulder and talked quietly and calmly before urging me to start painting again on a fresh sheet.

At the end of the day we all paused and assessed our work. “Try talking to your pictures,” urged Edwards to the group, “you might write a commentary or simply scribble a letter to your painting. Ask it questions: it might answer. I know it sounds nuts but it does seem to work.” “My picture said I needed a rest,” laughed one woman and added, “I think I’ll take its advice.” Another said, “I felt my picture had no point to it but then I thought why does everything have to have a point? I decided I could have time in my week where there didn’t have to be a point.” Some people chose not to say a word – nobody was pushed.

“Art leads people gently into their psyches,” says Edwards, “sometimes distressing things come up but somehow they can be contained by the paper. You might feel at the mercy of a nightmare or a fantasy but by putting it in a picture it becomes objectified. And you always have a choice, you can put that unconscious world, however distressing, away in a drawer.” In other words, art can give you back an element of control over your unconscious mind. Edwards is loath to claim the miraculous for his therapy but sometimes, he grudgingly admits, people even find physical problems disappear. One woman had suffered for years from a frozen shoulder: once she started painting, the shoulder cleared up almost instantly. “You can’t count on it, but yes it does happen,” he says, “I wouldn’t say come to art therapy and get rid of your rheumatism but it does happen.”

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But most people don’t seek out art therapy as a cure for physical aches and pains. Rather they see it as a journey into the recesses of their own minds. And like a voyage over uncharted seas, no-one quite knows what they will find. It might be frightening, full of terrors or it might uncover hidden strengths and talents, new resources and strategies. Quite likely it will do both. I left the Pelican Centre with an armful of paintings, feeling very small, sad and vulnerable. As I drove home I quietly grizzled, realising that I still had not given myself permission to fully grieve. Back in the safety of my own kitchen, I allowed myself to let go and really cry. I sobbed for about three hours and emerged with red-rimmed eyes and a mascara-smudged face. From the outside I looked terrible but inside I felt 100 percent better.

Try it yourself:  Paint your Lifetime

To get a feel for art therapy try this exercise from the book Inward Journey: Art as Therapy by Margaret Frings Keyes (Open Court).
* Take a large piece of paper and any art materials you choose (paints, crayons, felt tip pen). Imagine that the paper represents your lifetime – the beginning, the now, the future and the end. * Sit quietly for a few moments and then fill it as you choose. Don’t expect anything or try to draw “properly”, use whatever symbols or images you feel appropriate. You might choose to depict events in your life or simply choose different colours to represent different parts of your life or feelings.
* When you have finished, be aware of how you feel – both in your mind and your body. What is your painting saying – does it show more about how you think or how you feel about your life? What are the themes and questions in it?
* Don’t throw it away afterwards – keep it and look at it from time to time to see if any new insights appear.

A version of this first appeared in the Daily Mail.

Modern Exorcism – the work of Dr Francesca Rossetti

dd5fa9e5e1f812e04a7e302c7753b733“Are there any demons? Dark angels? An angel of death? Elementals of earth, water, fire, air or wood? Any negative animals? Birds, insects, reptiles or vermin?” The young woman lying on the couch considers each question and, in a low dull voice, answers with hardly a trace of emotion. “A hawk demon. A demon of self-deception. An eagle. A group of ants. A group of rats and mice.” The woman sitting at her head nods and continues the questioning: “Any ghosts or spirits? Any agreements with Satan?”
“Yes,” says the girl.
“What is the symbol of the agreement?”
“Claws, blood, evil. A devil in a black cloak. He’s not even a man – he’s a decayed skeleton with a sword.”
“Fine,” says the woman with a brisk nod of the head, “Now you’ve recognised it, it can no longer have any power over you. We will break up the energy and take it away. It is all going to break up like a black powder and collect on the surface of the brow and the crown of your head.” She picks up a rattle from a table by her side and shakes it as she lists the demons that she is asking to leave. “They are all going – the hawk demon, the demon of self-deception, the eagle, the group of ants, the group of rats and mice and the agreement with Satan – they are all breaking up. They are all to do with the past and are all collecting on the surface. You no longer need this energy and now you have recognised it, it no longer has the power.”

The rattling gets louder and louder and now it is joined by a high vibrant humming that fills the small room. Maybe it is a trick of the light but the girl’s face seems darker, older, almost evil. “Your aura is opening to release this negative energy,” continues the woman and, with her arms aloft, she invokes: “I call on the four archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, Raphael, the Living Christ, the Holy Mother and St Peter, to take this energy.” There is a perceptible pause, as if time were standing still for a moment, and then the girl’s face seems to clear and her body visibly relaxes on the couch. The atmosphere subtly changes and a ray of weak winter sunlight strikes through the small window onto her face.

The woman rings a bell with a curious high tinkling tone. “Vibrant energy is now flowing into your head. Beautiful pink and silver energy filled with the special qualities of your guardian angel.”
She moves around the bed, making sweeping gestures over the girl and sprinkles rose water over her face, stroking her forehead. Then, with her hands raised, like a priest at the altar, she intones: “We thank you, all the powers and angels that helped us with this work. We thank you. We thank you. We thank you.” Taking off the red stole, embroidered with two gold crosses, she kisses it and returns it to a satin bag. Wrapping the girl up in a blanket, she asks her to turn onto her side and rest for a few minutes until she feels quite well.

e9cd602436d48a1a5f1f53ae3694a9edThis is a standard morning’s work for Dr Francesca Rossetti who performs around 150 exorcisms a year. Felicity, whose exorcism I had just witnessed, is 24 and a beauty consultant. She had come to Dr Rossetti because she had an overwhelming fear of death and a terrible fear of hurting other people. Her terrors had been triggered following a party when someone had laced her drink with LSD and she had had a bad drug experience. Rather than seek help from a psychotherapist, she had turned to exorcism.
“I feel much better,” she says when she joins us in Dr Rossetti’s sitting room, “much lighter. And the terrible pressure at the back of my head has gone.”

Dr Rossetti performed her first exorcism over thirty years ago. It wasn’t a conscious career choice but something that just happened and she firmly believes she is simply carrying on work she started in previous incarnations. “I had quite a lot of supernatural experiences when I was very young and then people just started coming to me with their problems. By the time I was in my teens I was a bit of a Marj Proops.” She spent years studying and travelling round the world, learning from priests and medicine men and women of all cultures. She’s a doctor of Divinity and also an ordained priest in the Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church.

Rossetti is a warm, bright woman with a healthy sense of humour. Amidst the books, videos and ornaments that clutter any home, there are stained glass images of the saints adorning her windows and a crucifix and candles sit on top of the mantelpiece.
She talks of demons and spirits as if they were nothing more than irritating ailments and lists angels of death, mischievous entities and elementals like a long, dreary shopping list. But, despite her matter of fact approach to exorcism, she insists her work is in deadly earnest and that demonic possession is a very real fact of modern life. Demons, she says, are attracted by negative emotions and will positively thrive in an atmosphere of fear, hate, envy, lust or jealousy. Add excessive alcohol or drugs to the picture and you have a good possibility of infection. Even worse, she is convinced that many of us are carrying demons from previous incarnations, from lifetimes during which we made pacts with the devil, indulged in black magic or performed acts of cruelty. “To think that, after thousands of lives, you have not had some dealings with Satan, is very naive,” she says.

It is also naive, she insists, to imagine you can remove the demon and expect everything to be alright. Most exorcists, she says, simply get rid of the demon and don’t worry about either the underlying emotion or filling the gap. “It’s simply not taken seriously enough in the West,” she says. “In fact, the church takes it really rather lightly; exorcist is one of the very minor orders of the church. So when a person becomes an exorcist they really don’t know what the hell they are doing. They simply haven’t had the training.” She says she has seen exorcisms in which the demon has simply waited until the rite was finished before “popping back in.”

And, she also points out, exorcism has to be tailored to the individual’s system of belief. “If someone comes from Islam there is no point in treating them with Christian symbolism. If you have a Jewish demon, it’s hardly going to respond to Islamic symbolism. You have to adapt to individual needs.”
Demons, she says, come in all shapes and sizes. People are often surprised that she questions them about animal and insect possession but, she explains, it can be very common and, certainly in the East, it’s not unusual to see people writhing on the floor like snakes or jumping around the room while being exorcised. Personally, she tries not to actually “see” the demons as they are being removed but on occasions she has inadvertently noticed strange forms. “Sometimes I just see a dirty powder coming out or I feel unpleasant-looking creatures and so forth. Once though I saw this little creature – it was a sex entity and it was trying to put me off the exorcism with little jokes and so on. It had an oversized penis which it was waving at me. And sometimes the smell can be unbelievably bad. It’s generally ammonia I smell but the angels take it away so I don’t suffer for more than about thirty seconds.”

1f8c357458bd2f84cd1a5aaaa3b6a5e5Rossetti has no fear of the demons. Secure in the belief that her guardian angel and the archangels will take away anything unpleasant, she attacks her work with methodical precision. “Sometimes people have a very heavy energy. I remember one man who came to see me and I actually “saw” claws. He said he might harm me, he might damage me. It was quite unpleasant because you don’t normally see a human being with inhuman claws. But, no, I wasn’t frightened. If there is something really unpleasant, you simply break it up in stages. It’s like going into a field of bombs, you can’t diffuse them all in one go.”
For this reason she often performs exorcism over several sessions: like cancer, possession is often not limited to one part of the body or one demon. Demons of self-deception can mask pacts with Satan and sometimes it can take several hours of patient questioning to release all the entities trapped in a body.

The second exorcism I witness is that of a 50 year woman called Maureen. A self-confessed nymphomaniac, she appears nervous and suspicious. Her eyes flitter and shift from Francesca and me and occasionally she laughs in an eerie way for no reason at all. She repeatedly twists her hands as if she were trying to pull something off her fingers. “I think I have the spirits of four witches in me,” she says, almost with pride. “And I am so restless in bed; has a spirit been draining my energy in my sleep?”

Rossetti smiles gently and takes details, asking questions in much the way a standard psychotherapist would. Then we go into the small exorcism room and Maureen lies on the couch. Covered with a light blanket Rossetti places a white stole (for protection) around Maureen’s neck and calls on the powers to protect the work, to cast a circle of love and light around the room. Taking her into deep relaxation, Rossetti asks her to contact the part of her body that holds all her negative emotions. Unsurprisingly she goes straight to the vagina and brings through a demon of nymphomania. “What are the emotions?” asks Francesca. “Lust, longing for life,” she mutters. Then she gasps and shivers: “Something’s eating away at me. An animal. Four-legged. Like a horse.”

“Is there a demon of havoc in your heart?

“Yes.”
“One, more than one or a group?”
“A group.”
“Is there a dark angel?”
“Yes. A group.”
“Is there an angel of death?”
“Yes. A group.”
More demons and dark angels of havoc, greed and nymphomania follow and then Rossetti asks one more question. “Is there a devil attracting all these demons?” Maureen pauses for a moment, her knuckles white with tension, before answering.
“Yes, in the solar plexus. It’s black and dirty.”
Rossetti seems satisfied and quietly calls on the powers to take away all the demons and spirits, all the Satanic energy.

“It is all going now, breaking up, giving you a feeling of wholeness, of stability and of beauty. You now have a feeling of connection with reality; a new balance that is right for you.”

Back in the living room, Maureen seems much calmer. Her eyes seek and hold contact and she holds her hands calmly in her lap. “It was very intense,” she says, with a sense of wonder. “I feel far more “here” now, more earthed. But I feel worn out.” Rossetti advises her to take it easy for the rest of the day, to take a walk in the park and then rest. She leaves with a warm smile on her face.

Before the session I had put Maureen down as a paranoid schizophrenic and privately thought that her answers lay with a psychiatrist rather than an exorcist. But it was clear that, whatever it did, the exorcism had a substantial effect.
Rossetti is quick to point out, however, that she does not automatically assume demonic possession: “One has to be very careful to check out what the physical and emotional condition is. You might get irrational behaviour if the person is eating something they are allergic to or someone might come along and say I’m so depressed it must be spirits – and their mouth is full of amalgam which is known to cause depression. I don’t think everything has to be a demon.”
Rossetti has written two books on her work.  One – Psycho-Regression: A New System for Healing and Personal Growth
touches on exorcism briefly but her first, Casting Out the Devils (Aquarian, out of print), written under the name Francoise Strachan, deals solely with the subject. In it she describes how serious the effects of possession can be. One case involved a young woman who went to a spiritualist church and contacted what she imagined was the spirit of her lover who had died. She became obsessed with the spirit which eventually was able to materialise in a form solid enough to have sexual intercourse with her. Another woman became involved in black magic and made a pact with the Devil. She tried to kill herself in numerous ways: strangling, slashing her wrists, even swallowing razorblades. Both women might have been considered simply neurotic or deranged yet both responded to exorcism and made complete recoveries.

In some cases, Rossetti says, automatic writing will appear in a page of normal writing with the pen snatched and flung into the middle of a room. And, in very advanced cases, she says “the demon literally dominates the body, seizes on the organs and uses them as if they were his own. It can actuate the nervous system and produce movements in the limbs, speaking perhaps through the patient’s mouth.”
It’s quite common for demons to speak in foreign or unknown languages but Rossetti says she simply asks for a translation. She has, not quite respect or sympathy for the demons, but certainly a kind of pity. “I never scream or shout at them or send them to eternal damnation because that’s hardly very loving,” she says, “OK, a demon is a distorted form of energy but it’s still trapped. I feel, like everything, that they can be recycled and when the angels take the demons, they are transmuting them and allowing them to continue their own path of evolution. They can be transformed through the power of God.”

Her work gives her great satisfaction but, she stresses, what she wants most of all is to train more people in her profession. She would dearly love to find priests, therapists or others from the caring professions who could bring the necessary strength, compassion and understanding to the work. The modern world needs more exorcists, she believes, and good ones because, no matter how clinical and ordered life may seem, satanic energy does exist. “Satan is a big question,” she says, with a shake of the head, “and until Satan is transmuted, there will not be the completeness of God in all things.”

* Names of patients have been changed.

Psychic Protection – energetic ways to keep your self and your home safe

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Do you know who created this image? I’d like to credit it.

Why is it that some people fill us with joy and energy while others leave us feeling totally drained? How come we walk into one building and feel a sense of calm and peace while another will have us looking over our shoulders, feeling edgy and ill at ease?

“To one degree or another, everyone is sensitive to the atmosphere of places, objects and people,” says William Bloom, an expert in the art of psychic protection.  “We like particular houses because they feel good and avoid others because they feel bad. Even the most cynical of people may enter a meeting or a bar and sense immediately whether the environment is hostile or friendly.”

There is nothing sinister or mystical about this – we are just picking up on the kind of energy being generated by that person or place. A person who is angry will send out quite different energy patterns than someone who is feeling calm and happy. Equally places will retain energy vibrations long after people have left. Psychic protection allows us a way of controlling these energies – or at least controlling the way we react to them.

The term “psychic protection” is rather off-putting. It raises images of Dennis Wheatley-style black magicians and magic circles – all guttering candles and arcane symbols. But William Bloom, who has been teaching the technique for thirty years, insists that psychic protection is actually a very down-to-earth tool which we should all learn. “Whatever you do – whether parent or plumber, computer operator or teacher – you will want to know practical strategies for creatively changing atmospheres,” he says. Psychic protection teaches simple techniques to prevent you from being thrown off centre by people, situations and places. It also gives you the power to change the atmosphere around you so that you can always deliver your very best.

It’s nothing new, says Bloom: “In the past, many societies had specialists – shamans, medicine people, and so on – who understood and practised the art of changing atmospheres and creating psychic protection.” However he is convinced that everyone can practice these techniques – you don’t need any psychic ability or sensitivity. “They are very natural, like swimming or reading a bicycle,” he promises. And once you’ve learned them, you can use them in a variety of situations – from walking into a difficult business meeting to walking home at night down a dark street; from handling a row with the kids to coping with road rage.

SIMPLE TECHNIQUES FOR PROTECTING YOURSELF AND YOUR HOME
In his book Psychic Protection: Creating Positive Energies for People and Places
Bloom suggests techniques that can be used in all kinds of everyday situations. You may find them useful when you know you are going into a difficult situation – whether it’s handling difficult people at work or simply battling through the rush-hour on public transport.

The Bubble of Protection: This is the most well-known strategy to protect yourself. Use it whenever you feel under threat or uncomfortable. Breathe easily and deeply. Imagine you are surrounded by a transparent protective bubble or egg which protects you from negative vibrations. Spend a while sensing this bubble all around you – over your head, under your feet, completely surrounding your back. Sense that your own vibrations can exit through the membrane of the bubble and that good energies can come in however have a clear sense than no unpleasant external energies can penetrate your protection.
You may want to try filling the bubble with different colours – see how each colour feels. You
could also fill your bubble with protective images – many people use a religious symbol which is meaningful; others write slogans such as “Please keep out!” Experiment and over time you will find out what works best for you. Practice building your bubble for a few minutes every day so you can easily use it when needed.

The Shield: Imagine you have one or several shields. They are usually visualised as circular but can vary from a few inches wide to several feet in diameter. You then place the shield over any part of your body you feel is vulnerable. If you are dealing with someone’s spiky emotions, try putting the shield over your solar plexus area. If someone is thinking too intensely, place the shield in front of your eyes and forehead. If someone’s intent is obviously sexual, put the shield over your breasts and pubic area. You can imagine the shields decorated in any way you wish – again, perhaps with words or symbols.

The Flame: If you want to add some dynamism and confidence to your protection, try this. Imagine yourself to be a vibrant burning flame. The base of the flame is deep in the earth and your body is the core (like the candle-wick) of the fire. Your dynamism and glow simply cannot allow bad vibrations to get through to you – bad thoughts and feelings burn up and melt as they come into your radiance. Classically the flame used is violet and golden but you can experiment to see which colour suits you best.

The Cloak: Envelop yourself in a wonderfully magic cloak. It may be simple or multi-coloured and elaborate. Feel its protection. Draw it around you.

The Lead Curtain: This technique is very useful for people living together who sometimes need to feel a sense of space around them. It can be particularly helpful if you share a double bed and feel your partner’s energy is interfering with yours. Simply build up a sense of a curtain hanging between you and the other person. Make sure it goes into the floor and up to the ceiling. Then begin to sense that it is made of lead. Breathe deeply and, on the outbreath, feel the warmth and moisture of your breath helping to make the curtain more dense and real. Your own vibrations and your partner’s will then bounce off it.

Protecting your Home: Sit quietly, feel grounded and breathe deeply. Slowly begin to sense that your home is in a bubble of protection – a larger version of your own personal bubble. Breathe your own energy into the bubble. Sense the bubble not allowing in any disturbing vibrations. Colour the bubble if you like. Decorate it, if you want. Experiment with what feels right. If there are any symbols you particularly like, you can imagine them being placed over or on your doors and windows. However, as William Bloom points out, don’t forget to ensure more physical protections like locks and alarms are also in place as backup!

Building Confidence
Psychic protection is just about defence – it can be pro-active too. This exercise is aimed at increasing your levels of confidence and self-esteem. William Bloom says it vitalises and strengthens the nervous system so you feel physically strong and confident.

  1. First make sure you are feeling calm and centred. Breathe deeply and regularly. This exercise is best done standing or sitting in an upright chair. Keep your spine straight if you are sitting. If you are standing, have your feet directly under your shoulders, facing forwards. Bend your knees slightly, keep your shoulders relaxed and your spine erect.
  2. Now let your mind connect deep into the earth. Become aware of the fire and molten metal and heat – feel this fiery energy coming up from the earth into the soles of your feet, up your legs and into your spine and up your back. Let it settle somewhere between your lower back and shoulder blades. Feel its warmth and radiance.
  3. Now lift your awareness and focus on the area a few inches above your head. You may feel a gentle popping sensation in your skull or some tension around your face and forehead; don’t worry – this is normal. Now lift your focus even higher up into the sky and connect with a star high above you. This can be any star or it can be a star you already know. Be aware that this star is also a great sun in its own right, radiant and very powerful. Gently draw its energy down into you through the top of your skull and then down your spine.
  4. Bring the star energy down so it meets the rising energy of the earth. Where they meet they dance, spin and fuse, creating a warm radiance. Direct this warm radiance so it sits in your lower stomach.
  5. Now let your awareness go out horizontally and connect with the great warmth and light of the sun. Be aware that there is an inner life to the sun with huge force and fire at its core and essence. Gently draw this fiery essence horizontally into your stomach and chest.
  6. The sun energy now meets the energies of the earth and the star. Let them fuse comfortably and warmly. Let them sit glowing in your lower belly.
  7. Now begin to circulate this energy through your body – up your spine and head and then down your face, chest and stomach. Let it circulate in spirals in and around you. Imagine it going through your blood circulation, through your nerves, through your muscles and tendons, bones and marrow.
  8. Keep your breathing gentle and rhythmic as you imagine yourself absorbing all the nourishment. Repeat to yourself “I am strong and confident”

Discover more about energyworking and psychic protection in my book The Energy Secret – now available for Kindle.

How fit is your relationship? Take the Love MOT Quiz

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weheartit.com

If your relationship were a body would it be fit and toned, in the peak of health; or would it be fat and flabby, barely able to run for the bus? It’s relatively straightforward to find out how fit we are in our bodies, but it’s often not so simple to road-test our relationships. After all, even relationships which appear to be in tip-top condition often have an Achilles’ heel – be it communication hiccups or the commitment abyss.  Hence this –  the ultimate fitness regime for couples. Firstly a questionnaire which really puts your relationship through its paces – just like a gym assessment it is designed to highlight your strengths and uncover your weaknesses. Having found out which areas of your relationship are seriously out of condition, suggestions follow on how to bring your relationship back to peak performance. If it’s already running well, you’ll discover how to make it even better. After all, why settle for jogging along when you could be breezing the marathon?

THE QUIZ
If you join a gym you start with a fitness test. When you want to improve a relationship you need to know which areas need attention.
• Answer the questions that follow as truthfully as you can. Don’t try to guess the “right” answers – there aren’t any.
• For each question, answer Y (yes, agree quite strongly/most of the time); S (agree slightly/sometimes); N (no, don’t agree/very rarely).
• Ideally you should both do the quiz – separately.

THE QUESTIONS
1. When you and your partner have decisions to make or problems to solve does it ever feel as if you are on opposing teams?
2. Do you ever find yourself having sex when you really aren’t in the mood?
3. Do you ever argue about money?
4. Do you tend to change the subject if a difficult topic (ie sex, commitment, money, parents, children) comes up?
5. Do either of you set up situations where one of you has to choose between your relationship and something else you really want? (ie go out with friends or spend time with you?)
6. Does s/he repeatedly promise to phone/come round/do something for you – and then forget?
7. Can you reveal things to each other that might be humiliating or really embarrassing?
8. Do you find sex is a good way to finish an argument?
9. Does your partner exhibit any of the following characteristics:
a) excessive moodiness; b) over-possessiveness or jealousy; c) neglectful or unreliable; d) does s/he drink or smoke too much. e) Has your partner ever been violent (verbally or physically)?
10. If you wanted a really fun day out would you tend to turn to your friends rather than to your partner?
11. Do you ever find that little arguments escalate into ugly fights with accusations, criticisms, name-calling or bringing up past hurts?
12. Do you find nudity, masturbation, contraception embarrassing?
13. Does one of you earn far more than the other?
14. Do you feel you’ve invested so much time and effort into this relationship that it simply must last?
15. Are you and your partner roughly similar in terms of a) looks, b) age, c) intelligence, d) education; e) social background?
16. Do you believe that disagreement is destructive to relationships?
Would any of the following worry you: a) s/he goes off for a holiday with friends; b) s/he works in an office with very attractive member of the opposite sex; c) s/he has lunch with an ex.
17. Does your partner ever do/say things that make you irritated or uncomfortable?
18. Do you use private jokey phrases for sex?
19. Are you ever frustrated that your partner doesn’t understand automatically what you want and need from her/him?
20. If one of you won the lottery would you agree on how to spend it?
21. Do either of you hold ideas or cherish plans that would make your relationship difficult to continue? (ie you yearn to go around the world on your own; s/he talks about marriage as if it were a foreign country…)
22. Do you ever feel worried that your sex life isn’t as good as other people’s’?
23. Do you know what each other earn, save, spend?
24. Do you have any secrets (undisclosed emotions, events from your past, sexual likes or dislikes etc) that you keep from your partner?
25. Do you agree about the following issues: a) having children; b) being faithful; c) marriage; d) religion; e) politics?
26. Can you imagine yourselves happily together in ten years’ time?
27. Do you ever find yourself thinking about what it would be like to be with someone else?
28. Do you ever find yourself holding back from telling your partner what you really think or feel?
29. Does her/his attitude towards money ever irritate or annoy you?

Now look at the table below to mark your scores. Give yourself a total for each section.
SECTION A
1. Y: 5; S: 3; N: 0
4. Y: 5; S: 3; N: 0
11. Y: 5; S:3; N:0
16. Y: 3; S: 3; N: 0
20. Y: 5; S: 3; N:0
SCORE:

SECTION B:
2. Y:5; S:3; N:0
8. Y: 5; S:5; N:0
12. Y: 5; S:3; N:0
19. Y:0; S:0; N:5
23. Y:5; S:3; N:0
SCORE:

SECTION C:
3. Y: 5; S:3; N:0
13. Y:5; S (slightly): 3; N:0
21. Y: 0; S:3; N:5
24. Y: 0; S: 5; N: 5
30. Y: 5; S:3; N:0
SCORE:

SECTION D:
5. Y: 5; S:5; N:0
7. Y: 0; S: 5; N:5
17. score 2 points for each Y; 1 point for each S
25. Y: 5; S: 5; N:0
29. Y: 5; S:5; N:0
SCORE:

SECTION E:
6. Y:5; S:3; N:0
14. Y:5; S:5; N:0
22. Y: 5; S:5; N:0
27. Y:0; S:3; N:5
28. Y: 5; S: 3; N:0
SCORE:

SECTION F:
9. score one point for each Y; half a point for each S; add 10 points if you answered Y or S to e)
10. Y: 5; S:3; N:0
15. score one point for each N; half a point for each S.
18. Y:5; S: 3; N:0
26. score one point for each N; half a point for each S.
SCORE:

THE RESULTS
communication-trouble-007SECTION A: COMMUNICATION
Therapists say that the largest single reason relationships fail is lack of communication. “Communicating well is something that couples really need to do in order to keep going happily,” says Dr Maryon Tysoe, author of The Good Relationship Guide: How to Understand and Improve Male-Female Relationships
Professor Howard Markman, an expert in marital stress agrees: “If a couple do not have good communication then the relationship is already on life support,” he says. So, in many ways this is the most important section of all as underpins virtually everything else in your relationship. For this reason, any scores above 9 need careful analysis.

SECTION B: SEX
Most sexual problems can be ironed out – providing other parts of your relationship are strong enough. “The X-factor is trust,” says Sarah Litvinoff, author of The Relate Guide To Better Relationships: Practical Ways to Make Your Love Last
“Trust grows out of good communication – and communication is the key to satisfactory sex, as it is to all that is good in a relationship.” Obviously if you have scored highly in this section you need to think about your sex life – but don’t despair. Your score would need to be over 20 in this section for there to be a serious problem. Check your scores for the Communication and Trust sections – if those figures are low, the prognosis is very good that you can sort out your problems.

imagesSECTION C: MONEY
Money is one of the major squabbling points in relationships. “Many couples come to Relate because they are fighting about money,” says Sarah Litvinoff. However once again, problems with money often go back to poor communication and trust. If your score is over 15 check these sections. If your scores are good you should easily be able to sort out any niggling money worries.

SECTION D: TRUST
“For a relationship to develop, you need to build up trust between the two of you,” says Dr Tysoe. According to psychologists John Holmes and John Rempel, successful partners are quite vulnerable with each other (note: this is a two-way process) – they take risks and are very honest. As this is such a crucial section you should ideally have a very low score here. Anything above 9 suggests you need serious work in this area.

SECTION E: COMMITMENT
You can communicate brilliantly, have wonderful sex and perfect trust but if you don’t see the future together then your relationship will obviously not last. If your scores are high in this section it may well be that this is not a serious relationship. That’s fine – as long as you both realise this and accept it. If you have scored over 18 in this section you need to check that you are both heading in the same direction.

SECTION F: COMPATIBILITY
The evidence, according to a battery of anthropologists, is that people tend to be happiest with a partner who is roughly the same as them in terms of age, intelligence, interests, education and social background. We also tend to bond with people who are roughly as attractive as ourselves. Professor Markman says, “The more differences there are between a couple, the less likely their relationship is to be successful.If a couple have a wide disparity in age, if they come from very different races and cultures or if they have very different careers, their relationship will be in the danger zone,” he warns. In the light of this, check your answers to question 15 – a high score here should be a warning sign. However your answers to 26 will also be enlightening – these are the questions that psychologists say couples should agree on if they want a relaxed relationship. However you might be very incompatible on the surface but get on very well underneath. For this reason there is no optimum score on this section. If however you feel your score is high or there are compatibility problems, read that section.

THE WORKOUT
This is where the real work begins. Choose the areas where your scores were highest and concentrate on the advice given. If all areas seemed high, then focus first on communication. If you get this right, everything else may well follow.

COMMUNICATION
Good communication takes time, effort and sheer hard work – for everyone. “Get your diaries out and make a date each week to spend time together,” suggests Sarah Litvinoff, “this should be at least an hour of uninterrupted time.”
Take half an hour each to talk about how you feel and what you want in life – as if you were explaining yourself to a stranger. While each person talks, the other must be silent and listen with full attention. After half an hour you change roles. At the end of the hour stop the conversation and don’t dissect the conversation. If you want to talk about it, make a date to do so, but not for a few days. “Doing this regularly will make you and your partner much closer,” says Litvinoff.
Good communication means being able to talk about your emotions, about how you feel and what you want from the relationship. But it is very easy to misunderstand each other. Follow these ground rules from Maryon Tysoe:
• Make sure you’re both calm when you broach the subject.
• Talk in terms of your feelings and thoughts (ie “I feel [upset, hurt, angry, insecure etc] about [specific action or statement by your partner]” rather than “You are a complete mean selfish bastard” or similar.
• Be specific, never general.
• Don’t talk in codes, say what you really mean. So, instead of “Your mate Bob’s a drunken lech” (which will make him leap to poor Bob’s defence) try telling the truth – that you feel upset he’s spending more time with Bob and his cronies than with you.
• Suggest practical, specific solutions where possible. Ie “how would it be if you saw Bob and the blokes on Friday night while we go out on Thursdays?”

female-sexual-problems-s3-photo-of-troubled-couple-lying-in-bedSEX
“If you feel you’ve got to be perfect in bed you’ll get yourself in a terrible state,” warns Maryon Tysoe. However sometimes there are real sexual problems which need addressing. Painful intercourse and lack of erection can often have physical causes – check with your GP. If the problems are more psychological there could be a host of reasons. If you respond to what psychologists call “erotic cues” (ie nudity, masturbation etc) with anxiety, guilt, shame or embarrassment then there could be deep-rooted concerns about sex which a counsellor could help. Basically if the problem is long-standing, seek professional help. Talk to your GP if you can, or contact Relate. If the problem is more recent or you just feel worried about your sex-life, start talking to each other about it. “The main reason psychologists think sex therapy works is because it has encouraged the couple to talk to each other,” says Tysoe. She says you need the answers to four questions:
• Am I doing the things to her/him that s/he would like me to do?
• Is s/he doing to me the things I would like her/him to do?
• Are there things s/he might like if only we tried it?
• Are there things that I might like if only we tried it?

Sit down and talk about it calmly – find out how often you’d both like to make love. What would make it better for you – and your partner? You might both be surprised.

MONEY
“Very different attitudes to spending, saving, accounting and budgeting are a real problem,” says Sarah Litvinoff, “because money affects every aspect of ordinary life.”
The first step here is communication and trust. Do you tell each other what you earn, spend, save? If not, why not? Review the sections on Communication and Trust.
If you are open with your finances but you still quarrel, it could be that the friction is masking a difference in priorities – one of you has a new car in your sights while the other wants to pay off the mortgage; one of you wants a ritzy holiday while the other yearns to squirrel away an “emergency fund”. You need to talk honestly and reach a compromise – or you will be fighting all the time.
If neither of you are very good with money, then make yourselves sit down with a sensible outsider – it could be a financial adviser or simply an astute friend – and work out what needs to be done. Sarah Litvinoff suggests you start by listing what you spend your money on. Often disagreements come about from pure ignorance – the shopping might honestly cost more than you thought; so might running the car.

couplearguingTRUST
If you feel your relationship lacks trust, you need to ask yourself why. Social psychologist Elaine Hatfield suggests that there are six major fears that hold us back from divulging all in our relationships:
• fear of hurt and rejection.
• fear of losing one’s individuality or of being engulfed.
• fear of having one’s faults exposed
• fear of one’s destructive impulses if one were to “unleash” one’s feelings.
• fear that information disclosed now will later be used as ammunition.
• fear of losing control.

However, if you value your relationship you have to develop trust. “By increasing your disclosure of your personal thoughts, feelings, past actions, beliefs and so on – and by him doing the same – you will feel there is movement in your relationship,” says Maryon Tysoe. Take time to explore yourselves. Start by telling each other things like how you lost your virginity; your greatest fear; your worst moment. It needs to be a gradual process so take it gently.
If you feel you can’t trust your partner, check whether this is based on fact or irrational fears. “Feelings of unease should never be ignored,” says Maryon Tysoe, “but ask yourself some questions: What exactly am I uneasy about? What do I think it could mean; what are the theories? Is there any other evidence to support my theory? “Be calm, logical and rational,” she continues, “are your feelings based on your anxieties rather than what is really happening? If you are sure they are not, then talk to your partner about it.” (use the tips in the communication section.)

COMMITMENT
There can be a lot of motives for staying together other than True Love. “Sometimes sticking in a relationship can be easier than admitting you’ve made a mistake,” says Maryon Tysoe. Sometimes there are external pressures – your families want you to marry; you want children; you’re scared you won’t find anyone else/better.
You can’t force someone to commit to you; equally you cannot con yourself that love will miraculously appear when you get married, have children, move in together. If commitment is the big issue in your relationship then you need some honest, no holds barred discussion between you (follow guidelines in Communication). Obviously this depends on your situation. If you’ve only just met then pinning her/him down and demanding to know when s/he’s going to propose would be a walking disaster. But it is valid if you have been together for some time and/or are on the verge of some external commitment (mortgage, kids, even a pet.)

COMPATIBILITY
There are two parts to this equation. Firstly whether you are compatible in the fundamentals of your life: your age, race, culture, social and religious background. If you’re not then you need to be aware that you will have far greater challenges than many couples. “A couple need common experiences to communicate well,” says Professor Markman who believes that even a four-year age gap can cause potential problems. Make certain that your relationship is in peak health in the communication and trust areas. More than most you will need to be able to be totally honest with each other.
However you might be as similar as two peas in a pod and still have problems. “There are no such things as fault-free men – nor are there fault-free women,” says Maryon Tysoe, “but you need to ensure that you can tolerate and live with your partner’s faults on a long-term basis.”
Sarah Litvinoff suggests you put yourself in your partner’s shoes and describe yourself through her/his eyes. Pick on points you think your partner finds irritating or would like to change about you. Discuss together whether you got it right. Then swap places.

THE FINAL OUTCOME – SHOULD YOU GO OR SHOULD YOU STAY?
You may have scored quite highly in several areas. Does this mean you should ditch your relationship this instant and hunt for someone new? Not necessarily. A questionnaire like this can never give you a complete guide to your relationship.
It might be useful to think about this: psychologist John Gottman found that in stable relationships, “positivity” outweighed “negativity” by the ratio of about 5:1. In unstable relationships it was less than 1:1. As Maryon Tysoe comments, “The point is clear. You’re going to get some disagreements, arguments, criticism and the like in a relationship; but what’s important is that this is heavily outweighed by positive interactions (agreement, complimenting, hugging, humour etc). So if you do have the odd unpleasant interchange, check that you’re getting the overall balance right.”

WHEN YOU SHOULD GET OUT – NO QUESTION?
When your partner is violent or abusive in any way. If you answered yes or even sometimes to question 9e you have a serious problem. If a person is violent then no “soft” fix will help. End the relationship completely – for both your sakes. The only salvation will come if they accept they have a problem and seeks professional therapeutic help – but that choice has to come from them.

5 ways to get lean strong arms

54665ea62797ab889e0897e50baf5d27It’s nearly summer and the shops are full of t-shirts and skimpy tops.  However it’s been estimated that three out of four women in the UK will be worrying about wearing them. Research has found that flabby upper arms and, above all, the dreaded ‘bingo wings’ concern us more than bulging bellies or thunder thighs. 80 percent of us are so self-conscious that we cover up with cardigans or shawls.

‘They’re a problem area for a lot of women, particularly as they get older,’ says personal trainer Henlu van der Westhuizen (henlupt.com). ‘There’s no quick fix but 4-8 weeks of dedication and patience should allow time to show really good results.’

First of all you need to clean up your diet, says Henlu. Cut out all sugar, processed carbohydrate and processed foods (which will pile on the pounds), while upping your intake of protein (grass-fed beef, chicken, cottage cheese, eggs, fish), vegetables, oats, whole grains, fresh berries and healthy fats (coconut oil for cooking and cold-pressed olive oil or argan for salads). These foods promote lean muscle group and boost metabolism.

Next, you need to focus on reducing overall body fat in order to slim your arm shape. ‘I suggest full body exercises using as many muscles as possible which will up your metabolism and build a more slender, toned physique.’

Finally you need to target the muscles in and around your upper arms. Although the biceps are the most obvious upper arm muscle, the triceps (which stretches down the back of the arm) actually makes up 70 percent of your upper arm. Many highly effective upper arm exercises don’t need any equipment at all (you rely on your own body weight). But, for the very best results, it’s worth including weights – as heavy as you can manage. ‘Don’t be scared of weights,’ says van der Westhuizen. ‘It is impossible for a woman to gain huge muscle mass by training with weights.’

Tone up your arms
These exercises will give your arms lean definition. Do three sets of these arm firmers three times a week (have a day off in between for muscle recovery).

1. Elbow plank pushups.
Works triceps, biceps, shoulders, lower back muscles plus your core.
Lie on your front on a mat. Raise yourself up onto your elbows, so your lower arms form a right angle – your elbows should be directly under your shoulders). Keep your hands flat on the floor. Now push up onto your toes, keeping your back flat. Stay in this position (elbow plank) for a few second and then push up, one hand at a time so you are in an upright plank position (with arms locked). Hold and then come back down, one arm at a time, to elbow plank.
Keep moving between elbow and upright plank and build up to 10-15 complete repetitions.

From Prevention magazine

2. Biceps curls

Works biceps and also the brachialis (runs underneath the biceps) and brachioradialis (runs along the forearm and across the elbow).

You will need hand weights for this. Choose a weight that will stretch you for the last two or three repetitions.
Stand up straight, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed and rolled back. Hold a weight in each hand, thumbs curled around the grip. Your hands start off by your hips, palm-side facing forward. Bend your elbows and slowly curl your arms, bringing the weights up to your shoulders. Keep your elbows tucked in and your back straight (don’t be tempted to engage your back to help). Now slowly lower them back down to your sides. Repeat for 8-15 repetitions.

3. Tricep dips

Works the triceps and shoulder muscles

You will need a bench, a firm chair or wall (about knee height) for this.
Sit down. Keep your shoulders square and pull in your core to protect your back.
Place your hands either side of your body, with your fingers facing forwards. Keep your arms straight, slide your buttocks off the bench and stretch your feet out in front of you, keeping your feet together. Bend your elbows to lower your body towards the ground. Keep your body as close to the bench as possible. When your elbows reach a 90 degree angle, push back and straighten your arms, raising your body. Don’t go too low (it will put strain on your shoulders). Repeat for 8-15 repetitions.

4. Triangle Pushups
Works triceps but also shoulders, chest (pectorals) and core.
Kneel on a mat and place your hands under your shoulders. Now bring your hands together so your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond shape. If you can’t do a full pushup, it doesn’t matter. You can stay in a box shape or extend your feet back (crossing your ankles) so you’re in a halfway house between kneeling and full pushup position. Lower your body down slowly and with control, aiming your chin for the floor in front of you. Keep your elbows in by your sides. Push back up to the starting position. This is hard, so build up slowly to 15 repetitions.

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5. Kettlebell swings
Works the whole body, legs, buttocks, back, shoulders and arms.
You will need a kettlebell. Choose one that will stretch you on the last few swings. Most women start with a 4kg or 6kg bell.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Before you pick up your kettlebell, practice the hip drive – you need to hinge forwards from your hips (not your lower back). It’s like a pelvic thrust. Now pick up the kettlebell and hold it in both hands, with your knuckles facing forward. Keep your back flat at all times and keep your weight on your heels. Swing the kettlebell forwards, building momentum, until the kettlebell reaches shoulder height. Remember to keep your back flat and to tilt your pelvis as you come up. The lower you squat, the better the workout (but watch your knees). Build up to 50 swings.

Cardio workouts for lean definition

‘Unfortunately targeted tricep and bicep exercises alone won’t give you lean, toned arms,’ says Henlu. ‘You need to focus on reducing body fat to slim the overall arm shape.’
He suggests full body exercises using as many muscles as possible. This burns more calories to ramp up your metabolism and build a more slender, toned physique.
Aim for 20-30 minutes of high intensity cardio-based exercises, three times a week. Burpies, sprints, squat jumps are great and lower body exercises for the large muscle groups (squats and lunges) also help increase lean body muscle mass.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) circuits are all excellent. Also use HIIT on bikes, cross-trainers or treadmills.
Supercharge your walking, biking and cross-trainer workouts by adding ankle and/or wrist weights – but only if you are proficient and injury-free.

A version of this article first appeared in Top Sante magazine.

Vitamin D – the health and happiness vitamin. Are you getting enough?

3598232e9b9ef6b57c50ae64aefbef82Are you getting outside and getting your vitamin D?  If not, why not?

Vitamin D affects a vast array of organs in the body. It also plays a vital role in switching genes on and off (one of the reasons why it’s so vital pregnant women get enough). Medical researcher Oliver Gillie (healthresearchforum.org.uk), a foremost authority on this hormone-like vitamin, warns that we don’t pay it enough attention. ‘A deficiency is already blamed for the reappearance of rickets in the UK,’ he says. ‘But evidence is emerging linking low vitamin D levels to a rise in a whole host of diseases.’

Optimum levels of vitamin D can help prevent many forms of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, menstrual problems and raised blood pressure. It could also be a surprise best friend if you suffer from the blues or find it tough to lose weight.

Telltale signs of D deficiency include head sweating, aching bones, depression, weight gain, frequent colds and gut problems (IBS, gluten sensitivity).

‘To be honest, most people in the UK are deficient,’ says Gillie. According to the UK’s Department of Health about 50 percent of us are lacking, but Gillie and many other experts reckon the figure could be much much higher. However we’re all different. For example, dark skin requires ten times more sun exposure than pale skin; and if you’re overweight you will need more vitamin D than a slimmer person. You also need to be cautious once you hit 50 – older skin simply doesn’t make as much vitamin D from the sun.
There is no official RDA (recommended daily allowance) for vitamin D in the UK (it’s around 400 iu elsewhere). The NHS says that, ‘Most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need by eating a healthy balanced diet and by getting some summer sun. ‘Not so, insists Gillie. ‘Adults actually need about 3,000 ius for optimum health.’

Blame our lack of D on the UK weather and our indoor lifestyles. Getting out and about in the sun during the summer months is the best way to get your daily D but we’re up against it with our cloudy overcast weather. ‘Get as much sun as you can without burning,’ recommends Oliver Gillie. His advice is to take off as many clothes as you decently can – your torso is the area that absorbs vitamin D most efficiently, followed by your arms and legs. Obviously it will depend on your skin but even fair skinned people can usually take ten minutes before needing shade or sunscreen.  You know your own skin – you want to get exposure but you don’t want to burn.  It flies in the face of everything we’ve been told about keeping covered up to prevent skin cancer but, as with most things, it’s a balance.

Many foods and drinks are now fortified with vitamin D. It also occurs naturally in some foods. The best sources are oily fish (think salmon, sardines, mackerel) and fish oils. To a lesser extent you’ll get good D from liver (particularly beef liver), cheese, eggs and, curiously, certain mushrooms – portabello, maitake, morel and chanterelle are the highest sources – so think mushroom omelettes topped with cheese.
However Gillie says that food alone can never provide enough to take you to the optimum level. ‘Unless, of course, you are eating fish/seal/whale several times a day, like the Inuit.’

‘Most of us need to take supplements, particularly in the winter,’ Gillie continues. There are actually five types of vitamin D – the best form to take is D3. Ideally take it in a sublingual (under the tongue) form: it’s absorbed into your bloodstream most effectively this way (avoiding digestion by your stomach acids). BetterYou DLux 3000 gives 3000 iu per spray (it’s safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding). Like most vitamins, D needs optimum levels of other micronutrients (in particular magnesium, calcium and vitamin K) so add a good quality multi to support it.

A version of this piece first appeared in Top Sante magazine.