What’s the point of yoga?

book cover

My mother-in-law is a long-time yoga teacher; my sister is in her second year of a yoga teacher training course; and many of my friends are yoga addicts, some to the point of getting up at 5am to practise or get to class.

But while I’ve been to a few classes in the gym over the years and even developed a daily sun salutation habit for a while to stretch out back stiffness, I’ve never really got it. What’s the big draw? Why does everyone love yoga so bloody much? Why are at least four people I know training to teach it? Why is an ancient Indian practice suddenly everywhere in 21st-century Britain?

It occurred to me that maybe I’m doing it wrong and that everyone else is getting some secret buzz out of yoga that is eluding me. So naturally I bitched about this on a social network, and that’s when a book arrived in the post from mum-in-law Sue.

It took me a month to get through ‘Bringing Yoga To Life’ by Donna Farhi but, even though I would say I still don’t feel it personally, I understand a bit better why other people love it.

I’m parsing the dog-eared pages here into blog post Q&A so I don’t have to read the book twice. Yoga aficionados forgive me if I’ve misunderstood. It’s not my intention to have a go, so to speak. My aim is to understand yoga in terms that don’t involve saying ‘come back to yourself’. As my sister often says: “Language always gets in the way.”

1. What’s the point of yoga?

There is a lot of gumpf in the book about how yoga is a life practice that connects you to the wild force that runs through everything. Of course, a lot of people don’t believe in a wild force that runs through everything but the point is that it’s the spiritual aspect that is the thing in yoga and not the physical focus that you get in the standard gym class.

An ongoing practice in your everyday life can help fortify you against all kinds of attack and give you a means of coping when life gets physically, spiritually or emotionally tough. Which seems a very good reason to do it –more than the need to be bendy anyway.

2. What does it teach?

What is possible as a human being; a sense of returning to oneself and becoming ‘centred’ not being separated from others/humans.

I’m not 100% sure what this means but I’m surmising that it is about removing the gazillion distractions that surround us and getting the focus back on our humanity – and the wider sense of who we are as a species (for better or worse).

(Aside: Personally I tend to think of humans as ants, although that may be too kind: as Ripley says of the monsters in Aliens: “You don’t see them f*cking each other over for a percentage.”)

3. Do you have to be perma-calm?

No (thankfully) but the point seems to be to apply the feelings of attentiveness that you cultivate through yoga beyond the mat – into relationships, work, play, etc. Less perma-calm, more ‘aliveness’. Luckily for me I don’t NEED to do yoga to achieve this. Just slowing down is conducive to flourishing, mindfulness and being a bit kinder to others.

4. Why do yoga people seem smug* or a bit too happy sometimes?

There’s a section in the book about gratitude and faith being the two supreme qualities that transform a yoga practice, which may translate into feelings of being happy to be alive in the here and now, and feeling thankful for what you have. Recognising how fortunate we actually are can turn the most difficult of circumstances on their head and affect every waking hour, says Farhi.

*I’m being a bit harsh here, it’s probably more of a radiant calm that I admire because I enjoy being fast-paced and am reluctant to slow down.

5. OK, so where do we non-yogis go wrong?

There are five causes of suffering listed by the Patanjali (from ignorance of our eternal nature to seeing ourselves as separate and divided from the world to attraction/attachment to impermanent things).

We can work on these without getting into strange postures and breathing deeply – but then again, do we? Yoga brings a certain focus. Farhi outlines some positive actions we can take:

  • Friendliness towards the joyful.
  • Compassion for those who are suffering.
  • Celebrating the good in others.
  • Remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others.

6. Does it have to be yoga?

In a word, no. There are many ways to channel our energies in life and to still the mind. What setting aside time for yoga (or other practice) does is provide regular time and space to ground ourselves, think on life’s big questions, face our demons, celebrate being alive, push the reset button or simply be free.

7. So why all the batshitcrazy postures?

None of the above tells me that I have to get into some weird twisty posture so why is this often the main focus? Farhi says the point of practising asanas is “to become more sensitive, attuned and adaptable” and that “great gymnastic abilities are entirely inconsequential in the context of yoga”.

I’m not sure this really answers the question of why yoga is often so focused on the physical. My own novice understanding is that yoga is predominantly about the breath, and also the breath in each posture. So my conclusion is that if yoga is a life practice helping you out when things get emotional or out of control, then the exercise element is a big part of disrupting bad thoughts and changing the focus. After all, it’s hard to give any mind to one’s existentialist angst when you are trying to do a Tree balance and not fall over, or when breathing is stretching your taut muscles so that physicality is the most pressing issue.

In short, perhaps asanas offer a fast way to ‘not thinking’ about your suffering; and (with practice) take you to a place that offers a spiritual balm that allows you to “see past the immediate and fleeting feelings to a broader perspective”, to accept things as they are and “find a place of inner ease that no one and no thing can take away from us” as a result.

8. Keeping up with the young bendy teachers and pupils always causes me to get injured at the gym. What’s that about? Where’s the realistic yoga?

Accepting we are where we are is the thing to do – otherwise we’ll be contorting ourselves into an “ill-fitting suit” of a yoga practice. Easier said than done. Switching off one’s competitive head is hard, and the language around yoga teaching can make you feel inferior if you go for a ‘lesser’ stretch or other compromise.

I look forward to older, less bendy, injury-challenged role models joining the teaching fraternity. I had a practice lesson with my sister for her yoga exam and it was refreshing to break down some really simple yoga moves and make the most of the nuances of each posture. It also allowed me time to breathe – something that is often missing from yoga classes in the gym with their focus on agility.

Farhi says: “As we enter our 40s and 50s there is a noticeable drop in energy levels… this is a period of life when the focus in yoga practice needs to switch from the mechanics of practice to the subtler underlying energetics of practice… Through these subtler practices we begin to realise the deeper significance of yoga practice as the body becomes more sensitive in its role as a vehicle for perception”.

By which she means more meditative practices, less physical repetition of advanced postures.

9. Will it help with the bigger questions?

It can* – “This contemplation both on death and what it means to truly live is designed to help you distinguish between short-lived pleasures and long-lasting joy.”

* Other options are available.

10. Will yoga solve my emotional baggage problems?

Yes, no, maybe, it depends. All kinds of realisations can be had – especially with regard to what Farhi calls our “box of monsters”. Rediscovering one’s inner self, true identity, centre (or however else you term the feeling you get from yoga and similar practices) is a way to look at your ‘monsters’ in a different way, with a certain distance and impartiality, even kindness and compassion.

11. What if we don’t like our inner self?

Yoga can help us act differently on the “riptide of strong emotions” and teach us to act more skilfully once we have cooled down.

While seeing clearly is a gift, we all have blind spots, however – difficult relationships, making bad decisions, making the same mistakes over and over, resorting to outbursts of anger. Farhi suggests asking a trusted friend to tell us honestly what they see in order to accelerate the process of seeing ourselves more clearly – this awakening is probably only for the brave though.

12. What happens in the end?

Nirvana? Leaving the Matrix? Seeing ourselves and the world in a new way? The realisation that we are all one?

After reading this book, yoga seems mostly about two things: practically, it offers a coping mechanism for life with the byproduct of better physical/mental health; spiritually it offers a potential reawakening through connecting to own core sense of humanity and our place in it.

It seems a shame that I don’t get this from yoga myself but I’ve also learned from this book that yoga is just one method of transport and there are other ways to get there. The important thing is to find something that does work and to practise it regularly so that you don’t fold when the riptide of emotions comes.

So, yes, yoga –

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The bonkers magic of KonMari

‘Sorting out the house’ was mentioned several times when I asked friends what they would do with a few months off. I’ll look back at May 2017 as the month of decluttering. Like many others, I tried the Marie Kondo book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, aka the KonMari method.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and now bestselling author. She sounds insane when you read her book – she was addicted to tidying up by the age of eight – and her methods are no less bonkers.

But… it works.

I still can’t quite believe how folding your clothes so that they stand up has actually transformed what I wear simply because I can now see it all in one go. Or how asking if something ‘sparks joy’ has allowed me to emotionally, rather than practically, let go of things I’ve kept for decades – from university research papers to my 1990s Thelma and Louise denim top that never came back into fashion.

It could be procrastination from other more creative work or it could be life-transforming as the book promises. I’ve cleared out so much crap, I do feel lighter and freer, and more pertinently for an allergic person, the house is becoming easier to clean. The really sentimental things are to come but that’s why you practice with your socks and pants first. It gets easier.

Here are some before and after photos. Sorting is done by category – another trick that helps massively when facing a big clear out.

TOPS

BOOKS

ACADEMIC PAPERWORK

The nice thing about this is the focus is less on throwing things away and more on only keeping things that you love. But possibly the biggest lure of the KonMari method is that you only have to do it once. We’ll see if that is true in time but my socks do remain firmly folded for now.

Six-month therapeutic confessional sabbatical check-in post

Six months have passed since I started my inadvertent sabbatical. There are no fireworks or big announcements or even possibly any major achievements by most sabbatical standards. In fact, this may be the most boring sabbatical story you’ll ever read and here’s why…

When you work eight hours a day, you think three months off will be enough to achieve your dreams, but you don’t account for the need for an actual break. From three to six months, you start in earnest working on your ideas and plans, only to realise that life still gets in the way and procrastination still happens and you’re not even sure of what your dreams are any more. Six months in and there’s no sign of a book (or even an ebook), new business, travel caper or other big bucket-list tick of some kind. But, man, have you sorted out your shit – the house, the clutter, the finances, the open tabs and bookmarks, catching up with people, latent DIY projects and so on.

It’s not all procrastination, though, because when you’ve only known one career for nearly three decades, it turns out you need quite a bit of time to have a proper rethink about the final third of your life (we’ve had learning and earning, so what’s next?).

It’s like my sabbatical inspiration Sam Underwood said to me a few weeks ago: once you’ve started a sabbatical you kind of want to work out how to continue it (as he has managed to). Up to now, I’ve been logging what I’ve been doing to prove to myself that things are moving forward and that I’m not frittering away this precious time. To mark six months, though, I thought I’d look at how things have changed and what, if anything, I have achieved by dropping out for a bit.

Before…

From Feb 2009-Sept 2016 I worked as a full-time digital content editor for a London content marketing agency and my own private clients. Eight hours a day on a chair (or stepper!) at a computer doing the work I love – writing, refining, publishing, strategising; rinse and repeat.

For seven fortunate years, I rode the wave of brand publishing’s shift on to the Web and into social media and apps. Budgets flowed online, opportunities abounded, the publishing world I had known was changing fundamentally; it was really quite thrilling to be part of it. I threw myself into self-training and signed up for conferences from London to Paris to Texas. I set up Blogger and WordPress blogs, Tumblrs, Second Life, Flickr, Scoop-It, Ning, Storify, Delicious, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Vine, Meerkat, Instagram. You name it. I loved this new world of connection and freedom and the old hierarchies levelled.

I climbed the new digital career ladder eagerly and easily as digital skills were in high demand, going from journalist to blogger to website editor to content strategist to digital skills trainer in the space of two years. An even bigger change was being able to work remotely, which meant I could move away from hectic media-centric London to a less stressful lifestyle in my home city of Birmingham.

But as digital marketing became mainstream, I found my enthusiasm dwindling. Learning (for me at least) had plateaued and a new normal had been established that was less interesting.

To cap it all, my old RSI injuries – renamed ‘tech neck’ for the internet generation – weren’t getting any better in a sedentary, screen-based job. After being referred to a physio clinic, I got my final warning: nothing more could be done to resolve my ongoing suite of neck, shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist and back pain. The only option left for this unfit sedentary editor was lifestyle (ie, career) change.

After…

When a main client took their content work in-house, this provided the impetus for finally acting on the physio’s advice. Even so, I have to keep reminding myself that health is the main reason for taking this break, not to write a book or take off around the world.

As I ponder returning to the freelance writer/editor circuit, these are the three big changes that I want to keep going.

1. Health and fitness  

I’m not longer tied to a desktop computer but many of the things I want to do (write, infosec, connect) still involve firing up the laptop. At least now there is some balance: I can go to tai chi in the park or Scottish dancing or play basketball  (all new hobbies) to keep the muscles from seizing up in static tension. I now tend to work on the lappie late at night with a wine or tea.

I’ve also lost a few pounds from being more mobile and just generally feel a whole lot better being more active. There is still a long way to go until I’m fit and strong enough to achieve the South American bodyboarding holiday dream but one of the big realisations has been that I constantly underestimate how long everything will take. The important thing is to be on the path to fitness and to get there eventually and without injury.

2. Learning and creativity

I know the projects I want to do and have spent the past few months getting to grips with different ways to approach a big writing project. I’ve recently also found a few inspirations that have sent me off down the experimental-writing-text-photography-art spectrum, which feels ‘right’ to me as a blogger, more so than a straight text book does anyway.

I’ve also prioritised learning new things, such as exploring photomontage, brushing up on my Indonesian and I’m currently on my second cybersecurity course. Hopefully I can build on these without them taking up so much headspace in future.

3. Financial planning

I spent much of the first three months sorting out the immediate practical issues of a career break, namely the financial side. I’ve always put 25% of every income payment away – to pay for tax and travel – so I already had some money put aside. But instead of blowing it all on travel this time, I decided to significantly reduce my mortgage debt, get rid of unnecessary monthly debits and reduce my budget to minimum levels. We also set up a joint bills account and savings plan for petcare and holidays, and I reduced my luxuries to the occasional coffee out.

I still have some income from client work so I’m breaking even each month – and that’s fine. I see this as buying myself the gift of time rather than the gift of stuff. I’m no longer flush but I feel free.

In summary…

So this is the new lifestyle – poorer but healthier and with the hope that the new things I’m learning will take me somewhere new in time. I have no idea whether I’ll be looking at infosec jobs in a year’s time or creating text-based artworks or bodyboarding in Nicaragua, or just pottering around the garden, drinking tea and reading books with the bunnies in tow.

Other people I know have done major league things with their sabbatical – overlanding to Japan, for example, or taking the family on the road in a camper van in order to research a new business, or publishing a book.

In comparison, my sabbatical is pretty boring but I am very much hoping that by laying the sensible groundwork now, it will pay off many times over in the long run. My big achievement, hopefully, will be to ensure that a lifestyle change is just that – change for life.

Barack Obama: “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”

From surrealism to Roman emperors in the bath

This may be a more relaxed post than usual because… Saturday night rioja and dreamy Max Berlin on the stereo. I feel good. The screen break is currently going very well indeed.

Here’s what happened in February:

  • Practical – admin is on the backburner at last mainly because of setting up a joint account (which the BBC seemed interested in). Vet visits were ongoing as Clem Bundango came down with “the snuffles” (any illness in rabbits is near-death serious).
  • Learning – now up to 300/2000 words of Indonesian vocab so it’s slow-going but I have discovered that the University of Birmingham has an Indonesian Society so I will hopefully be meeting some Orang Indonesia for kopi dan percakapan (coffee and convo) in March. The big news is that my Explore Photomontage course started at last – and I’m really enjoying getting visually creative without needing drawing skills (see Anita Ekberg in NYC’s skyscraper fountain as a work in progress that plays with surreality and scale).
  • Helping – a bit more babysitting, a bit more Stirchley supermarket protesting, a bit of visiting a friend who is temporarily staying in a rest home (strange/conflicted places that don’t seem a good solution to elderly care – read Atul Gawande and Being Mortal for more on this difficult aspect of modern healthcare).
  • Writing – digitised various extracts of London life in the early 1990s into one document; next job is to edit edit edit. Put out a photo/video press release on a local protest that was picked up by the Birmingham Post & Mail. Applied for some writer development help for the next 12 months with Writing West Midlands (scrivener’s fingers crossed). Took a Life Writing day course at the Mac, which mostly made me realise I need to stop doing creative writing exercises and get on and write the damn thing. The tutor’s message of “You’ve got to enjoy it otherwise why do it?” was also a very good one for me.
  • Books – small books are my friends right now: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Noam Chomsky’s Media Control and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. All bath books – is this a thing? TMI?
  • Health/exercise – Scottish country dance x2, tai chi in the park x1, Nordic Walk session up the Lickey Hills, Cotswold hill walk with big sis, swim/sauna x2, allotment digging x3, shot a few hoops with my new birthday basketball and made a new friend (see People).
  • Events – first haircut in five months due to budget restrictions, second Stirchley anti-Lidl protest, Art Show & Tell #2 at the P Cafe, Lobelia’s album launch at the Tower of Song, exhibition at the Wellcome Centre on how we see animals (featuring a guy who lived with a fully-grown Bengal Tiger called Ming and an alligator called Ali in an apartment in Harlem), immersive video installation at the Barbican by Richard Mosse who filmed the refugee crisis with a thermal imaging camera, some interesting new pieces (including photomontage) at New Art West Midlands 2017 at the Mac. Oh yes and a birthday dine-drink family do at the British Oak.
  • People – finally met and chatted properly with Danni S, who went to the very top of my must-meet radar when she offered to dig the allotment: “I love digging!” It was refreshing to meet a confident and interesting lady who baulks at nothing (it seems), says what she wants and then does it. Fair play. Also I now have a basketball pal to play with – a five-foot-tall Iranian lady called Arafeh who used to play back at uni and still shoots a mean hoop decades later.
  • Something new – after four years, Professor Bunminster has finally succumbed to sitting on my lap and being petted. This is a major breakthrough in hoomin-rabbit relations. Also, being February, it was new songbook month at Moselele – we’re now up to Songbook 8, which features such grand tunes as Pink Sunshine by Fuzzbox, Reward by The Teardrop Explodes and a past relationship song to be punctuated and nulled by the mighty uke, Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. Used my new photomontage skills to create my first wedding anniversary card in 21 years.
  • Somewhere new – Cheltenham, a flying visit on the way to a Cotswold spa hotel, as a guest of my sis. Walked up Cooper’s Hill where the famous cheese-rolling takes place; it really is a breakneck gradient.
  • Holiday – two days in the Cotswolds; a trip to that London.

More sabbatical posts are here.

Sabbatical in full swing of lying in, coffee dates, protests and trip planning

Stirchley Lidl protest at the Council House. Pic: Neil Elkes?

I am finally relaxing into this screen break, sabbatical, time-out thing. Work decisions have been made (will be picking up freelance work again from April) and I’m not beating myself up about having lie-ins until lunchtime occasionally. Although there are a lot of things listed below, I’ve generally been living a bit more slowly and less stressfully after realising the main point of having a break is to actually have a break.

Ironically, planning a future holiday – a big overland train trip to Eastern Europe taking in eight countries – has seen me back on the computer for hours and days, trying to sort out the route options, pricing and accommodations. (I have shared some travel tips at the end of this post.) But I’m very excited to have finally sorted out the bulk of it and I’m looking forward to staring out of a train window for hours come spring. If anyone wants help  or advice with this kind of trip, I am now a semi-pro and free to be taken for coffee in February.

So here’s what happened in January:

  • Practical – starting to realise the admin never ends but my head is feeling calmer as the financial situation clears.
  • Learning – complete weeks 5-7 of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course (cryptography basics, protecting your data on the network, what’s the worst that can happen?); still plugging slowly away at Indonesian vocab (up to 280 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a young couple understand mortgages (randomly); waved a banner at a protest outside the council house against Stirchley/Lidl planning application; lent an ear a few times (being there for friends and family is a lot easier now); babysat for six hours for my super-cute five-month-old great nephew (changed my first nappy, made my first milk bottle up, dealt with my first tantrum).
  • Writing – finished processing a big three-year diary book and started a beat-style extract around London life in the early 1990s.
  • Books – ‘Love and Rockets X’ graphic novel, and made a list of some classic ones I haven’t yet read.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, weekly tai chi in the park, Millisons Wood to Meriden walk with big bro, yoga training from big sis, one gym session.
  • Events – Scottish Dance New Year Social, Stirchley Baths 1st Birthday, Roger Hiorns Ikon show, Justin Wiggins’ BOM show, Exploring Photomontage ‘Made at Mac’ show, birthday lunch for niece at the Mailbox, another school reunion wineathon, Pete’s talk on Cityscapes at the Kings Norton Photo Club.
  • People – many coffee shops have been visited this month. I finally booked in travel chats with Ruth, coffee with former work colleague Jo, catchups with the Kings Heath coffee crew, B30 brunch massive and London-Brummies curry meet-up.
  • Something new – mixed media textiles taster at the Mac made me realise it’s not for me; conversely, I found Pete’s new Art Show & Tell at the P-Cafe very inspiring and full of interesting artists/creatives talking about their work – and work barriers. Next one is on 16 Feb at 3pm (info here).
  • Somewhere new – Pitstop Cafe, Cotteridge (a gem, best mugs of tea); Gorilla Coffee Cafe, Kings Heath (nice enough).
  • Holiday – spent the best part of a week, researching and booking an overland train trip across Europe and trying to arrange a bodyboard holiday (postponed).

Some tips from my hours of travel research:

– You can get return flights to Bali in March/April for just £340 return on Qatar/Emirates. I’ve never seen them so cheap and on such good airlines. Check out latest prices on Skyscanner.

– Follow Seat61.com for overlanding by train; it really is a fantastic resource for telling you how to get there (cheap, express, scenic) and how exactly to book your tickets.

Bodyboard Holidays, run by UK bodyboard senior champ Rob Barber, offers bodyboard tuition in some very sexy winter sun places, from Morocco’s southern beaches to Costa Rica/Nicaragua to Indonesia. (They also do Newquay, Wales and Ireland.) Bodyboarding is a low-impact fun sport although all-round fitness is required for swimming out I discovered last summer at their Cornwall Bodyboard Camp. Check out the calendar.

And, yes, I’m ignoring the whole despicable Donald Trump thing.

‘Everything does change, something is happening’

Bollards at 4am.

After last month’s anxiety about the myth of free time and not getting much done, I had a rethink and reduced my ‘stuff I want to do’ list. There may still have been a spreadsheet. I had a lot more chilling out time thanks to Pete rescuing me from evening-working and getting me hooked on Mozart In The Jungle.

Thanks also to Pete’s mum who wrote a thoughtful family round-robin at Christmas about pausing and appreciating the stuff around you. In writing about her garden she said: “I take heart that everything does change and that, even when there is a feeling of achieving nothing or getting nowhere, something is happening.” I’m sure this is a message for me. A former colleague of mine has used her sabbatical to travel across Europe to Japan overland and, while this is something I admire, envy and is the perfect ‘here’s what I did on sabbatical’ pitch, I have to remind myself that my own wanderlust is not the thing I need to do with my break. Now is the time for review and change.

So here’s what happened in December:

  • Practical – a LOT of admin – mostly sorting out my financial situation, work needs and data security stuff, thanks to…
  • Learning – three more weeks done of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course, some Indonesian vocab learning (up to 256 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a retiring police officer understand his new Macbook and how to create presentations using Photos and Keynote. Helped paint a bedroom at sister’s house.
  • Writing – read a couple of books in diary project and sent a short extract in a Christmas card to a long-time friend.
  • Books – nearly finished two books: on yoga and Carrie Fisher’s diaries + got a load of great reading to come from Christmas books.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, tai chi in the park, PiYo (pilates-yoga), a night photowalk in central Birmingham, Highbury Park walk, Christmas Day walk up the Lickeys, got my bike out for the first time in a year and cycled up the hill to Kings Heath (high-speed freewheeled back down in 9 mins flat).
  • Events – allotment bonfire, The Atlantic Players gig at the Prince of Wales, played in the annual Snowselele singalong, Stan’s Cafe‘s 25th birthday party, got involved in a local anti-supermarket campaign, Stirchley in the Pub for Christmas Eve.
  • People – connected with several friends on coffee ‘dates’, lots of family meets with new baby, and met two new people: my mentee and a PhD student as part of…
  • Something new – took part in a PhD student’s psychogeography walk around Moselely, hooked up to a GPS device, heart rate monitor and GoPro. Volunteered at Fat Fluffs Rabbit Rescue after Christmas to help out with general bun care.
  • Somewhere new – Christmas Markets and Birmingham canals at night on a Photo-School night walk.
  • Random – the shed now has electricity thanks to our talented friend John Rushton, which means our three buns now have a milder winter to enjoy and we can enjoy hanging out a bit at evening feeding times. Thanks John!

In other thoughts, the BBC did a series on ‘How to stay young’ and it can be summed up as become a dancing, dog-loving vegan – or in my world, a dancing, bunny-loving, occasional vegan who is generally cutting down on meat and fish for moral and environmental reasons.

The myth of free sabbatical time

lightpainting_lores
Capturing time with a long exposure of moving light

I’ve promised myself I’ll blog my sabbatical once a month and looking back at November I’ve surprised myself with how little I’ve achieved given that I’m only working 1-2 days a week and that Pete is away on a residency.

Time really is an illusion. I thought giving up work would give me endless free time, certainly enough to get bored. It hasn’t. I haven’t slowed down but it seems time is passing differently and this left me feeling a little discombobulated.

Firstly, those eight hours a day that I used to sit at a computer do not appear to translate into eight hours of productive sabbatical time. Perhaps because they aren’t things with a specific end, such as rabbitcare, mining diaries, reading books, meeting people, and so on. There are no ‘outputs’ to mark time, which makes the day feel strangely insubstantial and intangible.

Secondly, there is less down time. I used to lie on the sofa in the evening with dinner, a drink and some telly – and a real sense of proper relaxing and de-stressing. Now everything I do is for a reason or because I really want to work on something so there is less flop time. Instead I turn off the telly and go work on my diary project, and suddenly it’s 1am. I’m feeling mentally a bit fried.

Thirdly, weekends are blurring into weekdays. It feels as if I don’t get a break now that each day is similar. Maybe I need to set some boundaries and timetable a few things, which is annoying as I was trying not to be too structured.

Finally, because I’m not tied to a routine, I’m getting sidetracked by spontaneity – going to things I wouldn’t normally have time to go to, helping people out with their ‘stuff’ or just reacting to whatever lands on my plate. This has had a definite impact on my main aim for November, which was to focus on health and exercise. I’ve actually done less than usual on that front and had a bad back from diary work.

HOWEVER… a lot has been happening and I think it will be helpful to list those things each month to make sense of what I >am< doing. Here’s what went on in November:

  • Helping – tech help for elderly friends with no internet on switching gas/elec suppliers (and a thank-you lunch follow-up)
  • Writing – edited three stories for friends from past diaries and creative writing (Amsterdam, Berlin, children’s story); also sent to University for CPW course use. Created a new piece – a vertical slice of a single diary day (1 January) from aged 10 to 48.
  • Learning – week 1 of Introduction to Cybersecurity course done and signed up for a ton of RSS feeds (I can now hack into an iPhone).
  • Books – x3: The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau and In Their Arms by Thomas Moore.
  • Health – Scottish country dancing x2 sessions, park tai chi x1 session, yoga x1 gym session, funk ‘n’ flow x1 session, gave up alcohol for five weeks.
  • Events – Spookelele Singalong, Stirchley Community Market, rejoined local library, attended Stirchley Neighbourhood Forum on crime
  • New people met x3 (five, if you count new baby twins); arranged to meet one lady again in Jan for mutual exercise support/class.
  • New places visited x2: National Trust Back to Backs and London day trip (Photographer’s Gallery show)
  • Random – lots of home stuff: the norovirus hit, a pet got ill, had a flat tyre, mini family crisis, cleared garden rubble, arranged builder, fencer, window and electrician quotes, client visit from France for two days, lots of rabbit care.

A lot going on and filling the days. Based on what happened this month, for December and beyond, this is my new loose-but-also-structured plan–

  • Each week
    • learn something new (cybersecurity course)
    • work on creative writing/diary project
    • Daily walk + 3x exercise/workout sessions
    • Daily meditation
    • Chip away at admin things to clear decks, eg, revamp website, make Twitter useful again, find a mentor, inbox unreads, review bookmarks and clear tabs
    • Indonesian vocab x2 reviews a week
  • Each two weeks
    • Meet a new person
  • Each month
    • Go somewhere new
    • Try something new
    • Read one book
    • Date night
    • Blog what happened
  • Each quarter
    • Seek out a collaboration
  • Each six months-year
    • Holiday!

We’ll see. Might need to schedule some more down time in there, but scheduling relaxation is a bit weird. Will report back in December.

Day 30: The end of the beginning

My 30 days of blogging about the transition into a sabbatical is theoretically ending today, which is kind of ironic as I feel I’ve barely started winding down let alone begun, and annoyingly there is no one to invoice for all the work and admin. Maybe it’ll all make sense in retrospect in the way you hope your diary will be enlightening when you get older and look back.

The first month seems to have been all about getting away from the home office and routine and sitting at a desk. Now that the holiday/travel disruption is over, I hope the next month will be more about relaxing and exercising and doing some creative projects, both random and planned.

Blogging daily has been a good routine but also it’s felt like an obligation that’s a little too close to being a web ed for hire. I’m sure there will be more writing here when there are things to say, though not with so prescriptive a deadline. It’s good to check in.

Day 29: Saturdays

Cleaning to music, coffee shop chats, charity shop mooch with sis, cruising to Big City Radio, a bargain buy (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 99p), hanging with the bunsters, eating nice foods with Pete, watching funnies on the tellybox, writing to my starred music playlist, and finishing with a hot deep bubble bath.

Saturdays are great, aren’t they? Hopefully more days of the week will be like Saturday very soon.

Bit weird to be sober tonight, though. The urge for a glass of wine as a Saturday night treat came – and fortunately went. Giving up is only hard when you are still thinking about it in terms of giving up.

[Coda: P says this reads like I drank a lot when in recent times it’s been taking me three days to get through a bottle of wine. But it still feels like a habit and a big deal to stop. Probably this is because socially and culturally, drinking is pretty ingrained. But also because by 6pm I’m sick of tea and because soft drinks are similarly samey, especially as I gave up fizzy drinks about a year ago.) 

Day 28: Doing nothing and stopping drinking

The thing about transitioning from work to not-s0-much-work is that it starts with a frenzy of all those things that have been awaiting. Four weeks in and it’s only today that I didn’t set an alarm to get up and do something or be somewhere.

I checked my watch at 2.30ish thinking it was about 5pm. But in work-time, it was just after lunch with the whole afternoon stretching ahead. I’m looking forward to the weird bending of time if not the total collapse of my daily structure.

Of course, I still did things. Tea with visitors, long-overdue photo backups, bunny bonding, builder liaison, admin, Coop trip, cooked a bloody ace dinner and so on.

Him Outdoors challenged me to do nothing for a week. But what would that involve exactly? No TV, internet or books? No garden, allotment or bunnies? No writing, films or chats? Forced ‘relaxation’ just sounds boring and annoying. I have a nagging feeling that I should still try it, however. A bit of unstructured quiet thinking time every day might be nice. Can that still involve rabbits?

In other big realisations, I’m giving up the booze for a month – maybe longer. I’ve been dithering about this for a week as I love the taste of wine but the truth is that I mostly drink to relax after a hard day and if I don’t have a hard day maybe all that is left is just an unhealthy habit or social drinking pressures. With health and fitness being my top priority in November, this can only help.

So yeah, I’m calling it – NO-vember.