Starting again in spring

I was unlucky to be one of those people who spent the Christmas break wiped out with a horrible virus. After working stupid hours throughout autumn and into winter (every Saturday and several Sundays teaching self-defence classes and yoga events, plus covering for another trainer) I was totally depleted and fell ill on the first day of my longed-for break. I lost over 4lbs in a week, and spent most of January trying to get myself back up to speed. My first attempt at training ended up with me lying on the floor of the gym and coughing my lungs up. Not pretty.

Bored of being sick and tired

It was a lesson thoroughly learned. While I recovered, I made plans: regular weekends off, holidays booked in advance, no more working bank holiday weekends, and cutting right back on Sunday events to just a handful a year. It’s been a fresh start that means I always have a break to look forward to, can pace myself more effectively and really enjoy working again. I had lost the concept of self care and basic fun, and now make sure I get time out every day to read, reflect and just chill. I try to welcome breaks between clients and actually stop, not just push myself to find work to do. I’m also reading a lot more than watching Netflix and finding this more healthy overall, although I always have time for a good movie or an episode of Jessica Jones. I’m just not reliant on zoning out in front of a screen to ‘relax’ so much.

Beginner’s mind and new challenges

So this is how I made a fresh start… Something I think is important to do when you train and educate others, is to regularly put yourself in the position of the beginner who is starting over. It can really help a trainer to remember what it feels like to know nothing and to experience the vulnerability of putting yourself in someone else’ hands, developing more empathy for your clients. I was writing a new workshop on emotional agility for my agency, Realise UK, during January and read something along the lines of, a life without risk is only possible if you stay on the sofa all day flipping the remote. This really resonated with me as while I had been stuck indoors being ill, all I could think about was getting outdoors, up a mountain or into the sea, and doing something well out of my comfort zone.

The latter was a particularly new feeling for me and really felt like a risk. I love being near to or on the water but chaotic school lessons as a kid had pretty much turned me off swimming forever. However, I suddenly became obsessed over Christmas with the idea of learning to surf, despite my non-swimmer status. Cue summoning my courage and signing up for adult swimming lessons. In just a few weeks of pure determination and a lot of spluttering, I am now far more confident in the water and am developing a strong enough front crawl to be discussing training for my first triathlon with my coach, the excellent Sarah Mildenhall at Create Fit Bristol – highly recommended.

Not only have I booked a surfing holiday in Morocco, but my training (which had got a bit stale) has been enlivened by the prospect of competing in a performance sport again. Indeed, just having a sport to focus on has been hugely motivating. After a few months of just going through the motions, I have a renewed reason to train and work on my nutrition, not to mention the thrill of taking myself out of my comfort zone on a bike and in the water. To make all this easier, I splurged on a new gym membership so that so can access the pool, weights, bikes and treadmill near to all the venues where I work, so I can easily get a session in. I’m already training with more vigour and enjoyment and can’t wait to see what the next 18 months will bring: apart from serious savings depletion as I invest in a road bike and a trisuit…

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Spring has sprung! What will you try?

I hope this has helped you think about making a fresh start if the year is already feeling stale. It’s been a long winter in the UK and we’re craving sunshine and warmer weather. Now is the time to try something new and set up a system to make it happen: get to a yoga class for the first time; try a martial art; try a climbing lesson – anything that makes your heart beat faster and feels a little risky. It’s going to get your heart pumping, help you meet new people and take your mind away from your daily worries, so pick something today and sign up! We can all benefit so much from starting over and doing something that scares us; it’s a guaranteed strategy for personal growth and facing life head on with that much more confidence.

What better time to start than now? And if it’s personal training, yoga or a group fitness class, find me at www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

How to maintain a healthy balance this Christmas

My clients have already started asking for pointers on how not to go completely off the rails when it comes to holiday food and drink, and this can be a tough time of year if you have worked hard to lose fat or overhaul your diet into a healthier guise. I’m particularly busy with work at the moment, which is why I haven’t been posting recently, but I have an unscheduled break between clients and thought I’d make the most of it to address this important seasonal issue.

Christmas is not the whole of December 

My main piece of advice is to remember that Christmas does not last for the whole of December! Between office parties and meals out, it’s easy to let the whole month slide into an orgy of excess consumption: mince pies at meetings, mulled wine out shopping, that grande hot chocolate with all the extra festive syrups…

At the moment, I’m still tracking what I eat against my energy expenditure, and a modest hot chocolate with whipped cream can easily eat up over 300 calories of my daily intake, so they happen on very active days only. This means I still get Christmas treats but only on the days when I can ‘afford’ them because I’ve been particularly busy with training clients and myself, so they are not unwanted ‘extras’ that will end up stored as fat.

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(Photo: Refinery 29)

Decide in advance when you will enjoy yourself 

I also see the majority of the month as being entirely consistent with my normal eating patterns: three healthy and nutritious meals a day with snacks if needed. I usually relax this completely from December 24-27, enjoying what I want, when I want it (I’m no clean eating fanatic and will happily chomp my way throughout crisps, bars of Dairy Milk and drink a cold beer, given the chance), but I still ensure my meals are nutritionally balanced with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as good quality meat and fish. This means I’m still giving my body what it needs and enjoy my festive treats on top of that, often being too full of the good stuff to eat too much junk. This is my own way of staying balanced. Trust me, I still eat A LOT, but staying on track for the majority of the month before I indulge means I find it easier to get my diet back to normal on the 28th. In fact, the bloated feeling and Buddha belly I usually have by then leaves me desperate to cut back and feel healthy again.

Don’t lay the treats out where you can see them

Research carried out by Brian Wansinck, author of Mindless Eating, showed that if you can’t see treats, you are far less likely to eat them. For example, office workers with a glass jar of sweets on their desk consumed far more than those who had to walk across the room to actively find them. So stash the ice cream at the back of the freezer and shut your nibbles into the cupboard. Chances are you’ll forget they are there until you really want them. When you do decide to indulge, put your crisps and nuts into small bowls so that you mindfully portion them out and don’t eat mechanically from the bag until they are all gone and you aren’t even aware that you ate them.

Keep moving or enjoy a rest – your choice

I relax my training schedule when I visit family for Christmas, enjoying winter walks  with my mother. I do still take a mat with me, as prolonged periods of sitting can trigger aches and pains, and a spell of yoga eases that as well as relaxing my mind and making me less likely to start an argument or over react to the usual stresses that can come up at this time of year! I might do a short HIIT session, often using the 12 Minute Athlete app, but I do enjoy a change of pace and a rest. If you stay reasonably consistent all month and only indulge for a few days, you shouldn’t have too much work to do to get back to normal training patterns. Those four days are a welcome deload for me and I enjoy every sugary carb-filled minute spent sitting on my ass watching films! Enjoy some walks, and by all means have a Christmas Day run, if that’s your thing, but a few days away from the gym won’t leave you deconditioned.

Detox – just don’t 

In January, lots of silly people will try to part you from your hard earned cash by offering you detox and cleanse packages. Leave them well alone. You do not need to juice cleanse or starve after Christmas. Return to your healthy eating patterns and get moving consistently, and your body will shed any festive excess. Eat more vegetables and cook as much as you can from scratch. That’s as much detoxing as you need.

So, have fun, enjoy yourself and choose what you splurge on; avoid mindless over consumption. Really want that piece of Yule log? Have it! Just don’t have one every day this month and you’ll maintain some damage limitation. Happy holidays!

Why you need a balanced exercise plan

I’m doing some corporate talks about getting started with fitness next month and one of the most important elements to consider when beginning a new training regime is finding balance across your activities. Most of us tend to just focus on one primary form of training and forget to build ourselves up in other areas, so it’s important to look at what your body needs beyond what you enjoy doing most.

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(With my client Linda in the studio at Sweaty Betty Bristol.)

The three pillars of fitness are: cardiovascular health, muscular strength, and flexibility and balance. Without addressing all three areas, you are potentially setting yourself up for mechanical imbalances that could lead to weaknesses that will impede your progress long term and maybe even cause injury.

For example, if you are a keen runner you may be very focused on putting in the miles, especially if you are training for a distance race. However, lack of overall muscle strength and specifically a lack of stability through the trunk can create an uneven distribution of force through your joints every time your foot strikes the ground. If you are running off road, you may be less able to deal with uneven terrain and correct your balance to avoid falls.

Runners often avoid strength training because they fear  getting too heavy, but there’s no need to worry. Even some simple bodyweight exercises can help build stability without creating bulk. Developing strength and stiffness through the core (the area between your diaphragm and pelvis, including your back muscles) will add stability while running, especially through the lumbar spine and help avoid lower back pain, while strengthening the leg muscles builds greater stability through the hips, knees and ankles. These are all joints ripe for potential damage when you are performing a repetitive movement with a heavy load. You need strong joints and muscles working through the appropriate range of movement to decelerate with care and distribute the force meeting you upwards from the ground with every foot strike.

Stretching also needs to be part of an athlete’s training repertoire. My client Linda has been a runner for many years but coming to my HIIT classes and performing different movements like squats and lunges has shown very clearly how muscle imbalances have been created over time. Her left piriformis (under the gluteals) became overactive, tight and sore. An overactive muscle can cause painful spasms as well as little ‘knots’ or trigger points that need releasing through a static stretching programme & some myofascial tissue release using a foam roller or massage. Partner stretching with me has given Linda a great deal of relief.

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(Linda performing banded squats above to help strengthen her gluteals and correct the knee valgus you can see below on her right side.)

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Linda’s focus on running also created a weakness in her gluteus medius on the right side, leading to weak abductors (the muscles that move the leg laterally away from the midline) and her right knee developed a tendency to knock in (valgus) while squatting. The quadriceps often take over when we run and weaker gluteal muscles can be a common problem as a result. A programme of activating and strengthening these underactive muscles now sees Linda performing squats with much improved alignment, strength and range of motion. She has been a clear example of how strength training helps to even out muscle imbalances, while  stretching to relax overactive muscles has taken her out of pain and enabled her to perform a range of exercises safely and with better form.

 

So, if you want to train in a balanced way and avoid imbalances that can lead to injury, think about your week. Plan in the exercise you prioritise, maybe three runs. Then add a short stretching routine after each run, and two strength training sessions of 20-30 minutes. A programme of bodyweight exercise can be performed at home and doesn’t need the gym.

(Linda is 55 but can now perform some advanced bodyweight exercises and has developed a strong core which will help her running form.)

Now, if you’re a yoga bunny and think that your practice is giving you everything you need, then think again. As both a yoga teacher and fitness instructor, I can tell you that while you may have great strength and flexibility, even the most vigorous yoga practice will not increase your heart rate to the level it needs to achieve to really improve cardiovascular fitness. One or two HIIT sessions a week, or spin classes – whatever you can do – will help build all round health.

Because I’m seeing increasing numbers of clients with imbalances and injuries, I started studying a few months ago for a specialisation in corrective exercise with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). What I have learned so far has already enabled me to help personal training clients like Linda and has also started to change the way I teach yoga, looking at different ways in which to modify poses to suit people’s anatomy rather than getting them to conform to traditional alignment that may not be possible due to physical limitations. I’m incredibly grateful that I decided to study this programme and work more effectively and safely with my clients.

While my current clients are already benefiting from my increased knowledge base, I will be offering individual corrective exercise 1:1s when I qualify as a specialist service. In the meantime, please exercise safely and try to balance out your range of movement and activity.

http://www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

Yoga for my (real) life

I spent yesterday at the OM Yoga Show in London, a massive festival and trade event, and I usually make the trip each year to network, touch base with my yoga contacts and stock up on new clothes and products to try. It also offers a vast programme of free classes, so it’s a great opportunity to practise with new teachers. I took a great workshop with Katy Appleton a few years back and got a fabulous hug from Tara Stiles, too!

My visit usually prompts reflection on my own practice as well as on my teaching, which are two quite different things. Teaching group yoga sessions is one of the most enjoyable parts of my work. Creating a space for people to feel safe, relax and feel confident in their practice is the essence of my teaching. My home practice is probably not as much as you think.  My sessions can be quite short and often focus on meditation and breath work, rather than on gut busting vinyasas or trying to nail a fancy new pose.

And that’s where my approach to yoga has changed so dramatically since my first visit to the Yoga Show more than five years ago. I went back then as someone with a long standing home practice, not a keen class goer, and not only felt like a bit of a fraud but was a bit too impressed by all the green juice-drinking contortionists. Now I go as a teacher and a well trained fitness professional with a nose for bullshit and a lack of tolerance for a lot of the nonsense that comes with the yoga world. I have met some horribly aggressive people there as well as stalls peddling totally useless products ‘guaranteed’ to change your life. The yoga industry, like any community, contains a cross-section of humanity, with all the good and the bad and the greed that entails.

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(My own teacher, Sally Parkes, leading a session at this year’s OM Yoga Show London.)

These days, my focus on yoga is very different from that first visit. I used to want to be ‘good at yoga’, whatever that means, whereas now I prioritise it as self-care, which means gentler practices and a lot more regular meditation. My priority for teaching is now based much more on the wealth of anatomical knowledge I have acquired in the last three years and is focused completely on client safety. The idea of correcting and adjusting people to fit the preconceived idea of a perfect pose (if such a thing can exist) leaves me cold. I am far more interested in clients working with what their bodies allow them to do and ditching a pose completely if it doesn’t work for their anatomy. Again, meditation is a key part of my teaching, as is reflecting on how we live yoga outside the studio. You can be all sweetness and light on your funky Lifeform mat, but if you’re rude to staff on the way out then you ain’t no yogi, no matter how many turmeric lattes you drink.

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If you want to expand your practice, think about living your yoga, going deeper into your practice and not just throwing shapes, as fun as that is!

Great books to read include:

Donna Farhi – Bringing Yoga to Life

Judith Hanson Laseter – Living Your Yoga

Deborah Adele – The Yamas and Niyamas

Richard Rosen – Yoga FAQ

Sally Kempton – Meditation for the Love of It

If you would like to practise with me, you can find my current Bristol teaching schedule here. You’ll be well looked after in a friendly group with lots of laughter and plenty of personal attention for a safe practice. Beginners are always very welcome.

You are also invited to join myself and Jenna Freeman at Foundations Cafe, Baldwin Street, Bristol at 10am on Sunday 26th November for our first yoga brunch: one hour of a relaxing flow plus protein oats or waffles and coffee for just £15. Places are limited and booking is essential so email me at info@brainboxcoaching.co.uk to pay for your place with YOGABRUNCH in the subject box.

Looking forward to seeing you soon!

 

 

Becoming a confident fittie presenter

Some of you will know that I put my former career hat back on to give a lot of lectures in the autumn term of each academic year. It’s been a particularly busy few weeks, which is why I haven’t published a post for a bit, but it’s great to keep my lecturing practice going in terms of my professional skills and I feel that working with new mature students to boost their confidence in degree level study is very worthwhile work.

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It’s also demanding work, and some jobs involve my standing up in front of an audience of up to sixty people for 4-5 hours at a time. I’m grateful that a) I’m fit, as it’s physically tough and b) I’m an experienced and confident speaker with twenty years’ experience, as there can be tricky situations and occasional challenging behaviours to deal with. Case in point: last week I pitched up to speak for three hours to a large group of assorted doctors, nurses and some undergrad medical students from around the world – and no one had actually booked the lecture theatre! It was a tough situation but I made the relevant calls, the administrator somehow found another space and we got going. However, I then had to ditch forty minutes of material at the drop of a hat as we were then running so late.

I’ve learned over the years that there is zero point in stressing when something like this happens. All you can do is try to solve the problem, apologise to those involved and take a deep breath. But, for people for whom just plain old public speaking is their worst nightmare, this added stress would probably push them beyond their limits and create total panic. Also, to be successful in the fitness industry, as well as most employment sectors, you need to be able to present with confidence to create a great profile and get your message out there. Trainers need to be confident in front of group classes, too, so there are many good reasons for wanting to improve your performance in front of a crowd. This year, of course, I’ve had to learn to present for television, too, so it’s all still a work in progress!

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Here are my best bits of advice for looking and feeling  like a confident presenter, no matter which industry you work in:

– body language is key. You must face your audience with an open chest and square hips. No crossed arms or legs. Get your chin up and make plenty of eye contact. Smile and be engaging.

– never read out loud to your audience. They may as well stay at home and read a transcript of your talk. Be lively and make sure that you offer plenty of added value to those who turned up to see you in person.

– prepare and rehearse all the way through at least three times to iron out poor transitions or any inconsistencies in the logic of your presentation. Never, ever over run your time slot. This is unforgivable and shows a lack of preparation and discrimination in your material.

– advance knowledge is key. Know who you are speaking to and pitch your content accordingly. Know where the venue is so you arrive early and know where to go.

– avoid visual aids unless they are really necessary. You should be the audience’s focus, not the PowerPoint. A few bullet points to outline the talk is enough unless you are required to use graphs and data, but keep it simple and minimal.

– make the audience and their comfort your focus to help detract from your own nerves.

– if you feel very anxious breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four. Smile. Open that chest. Go for it!

– keep your throat lubricated and sip water. I find lozenges called Vocal Zone to be an absolute godsend for keeping my throat clear when I have a lot of speaking engagements. Get them over the counter at Boots.

While I quite enjoy public speaking, I know it’s not the same for everyone. I’m coaching an author to prepare for their book tour right now and am available on a very limited basis (9-5 only and between existing clients) if you need help preparing for a specific speaking event.

Now, get out there, tiger, and slay that audience!

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

Images from episode one of Be Fit Bristol Fit.

 

Why we don’t need to demonise carbs

Carbohydrates: to eat or not to eat? It’s been one of the biggest questions in fitness and nutrition for years. My take? Oh, go on, guess. Yep, it depends… This post isn’t for the figure competitors out there who are watching every calorie and macro. That’s a whole other ball game. But for the average person who is trying to make sense of a lot of conflicting information and maybe wants to lose some weight, read on. Carbs are not your enemy and most people are miserable without them.

Look. Let’s be realistic. If you eat fruit and vegetables, and you really should be, then you are eating carbohydrates. I have no time for people claiming they are ‘carb-free’. While low carb and high fat diets have become fashionable of late, carbohydrates are an essential food group or macronutrient alongside proteins and fats, and provide necessary fuel for your muscles for physical activity, as well as helping us to metabolise fat. Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source. Even one of the biggest proponents of the no grain Paleo diet, Robb Wolf, recently published Wired to Eat, rethinking carb intake and getting readers to work out how many starchy carbs for their own individual energy needs. One size does not fit all.

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A lot of people who eat the Paleo way (no grains, no dairy) report significant fat loss and attribute it to this exact style of eating. However, we cannot be certain that it’s the low carb element that creates weight or fat loss. The only thing we really know that causes the body to burn fat is maintaining a caloric deficit i.e. eating fewer calories than your body uses for energy. If you cut out starchy carbs like grains, as well as dairy, then you are removing a large potential source of calories. A lot of people on high fat diets forget how dense in calories fats are, which is why munching on handfuls of nuts, adding tablespoons of coconut oil to smoothies and having an avocado every day can stop you seeing that weight loss happen.

What I like about Paleo eating is the focus on cooking from scratch from unprocessed foods. This places a firm focus on the quality of the nutrients in your food. I don’t believe in cutting out dairy (although dairy farming conditions need addressing for sure) but being more aware of what you eat and what’s in your food is a good place to start for healthier eating overall.

This attention to food quality is where we also need to look when it comes to which carbs we eat. There’s no real nutritional value in processed cakes, poor quality bread and sugary drinks; they can be a minor part of your diet but only as occasional treats. I don’t ban anything! If you want to make carbohydrates part of your meals then go for good quality whole grains, potatoes and rice. If you’re trying to lose weight then be sure you are in that calorie deficit, or try restricting your carb intake to pre or post-exercise meals to replenish muscle glycogen and then stick to meals made from proteins, vegetables and quality fat sources the rest of the time. This can be a very helpful post-menopause strategy too, if you are finding it hard to keep the weight off. If you’re unsure about portion size, then remember that a golf ball sized amount of grains is about right or half a cup/50g of uncooked oats. We’re not talking a plate of risotto-sized portion of rice.

So the key to getting the right balance of carbs is to think about what proportion of calories they make up in your daily intake, the quality and amount of nutrients they are giving you and when you might prefer to eat them. Just don’t demonise them and certainly don’t feel you need to cut them out. I eat starchy carbs with about two meals a day as I am so active, as I feel exhausted without them, but I am careful not to over indulge on rest days, and that works for me. Experiment and see what works for you.

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

www.befitbristolfit.com

Finding stillness amidst all the busyness

One thing I have noticed as I have been getting closer to middle age is an increasing and sometimes urgent need to…meditate. Life has changed dramatically for me betweeen my early 30s to mid-40s as I decided to get healthy after years of neglect, change my career from academia to wellness and start my own business. Where before I had set working hours and didn’t give a second thought to my job once I left the office, enjoying a two day weekend every week, now being self-employed is all-consuming and blurs the boundaries between work and play.

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Finding quiet mental space during a busy day where I can be literally running between several venues to train clients and deliver talks is hard. The prevalence of social media that comes with running a business also makes it hard to switch off as I’m always posting to boost class attendance or sharing interesting articles with my followers. I’m very lucky to get paid for doing what I would probably do for fun but it does make it hard to switch off my brain when everything merges. After realising that I wasn’t ever really relaxing until I was asleep, and even then being prone to nightmares and sweats, it was time to re-evaluate.

I am not one of these yoga teachers who gets up at 5am to practice. I work so hard physically during the day that I need a solid eight hours’ sleep and I’m often so late home that going to bed early enough to facilitate a dawn practice would give me all of an hour to have any personal time, cook, eat etc. I’m also stiff as an old crone when I get out of bed and need time for my muscles to warm up, as my early personal training clients will attest; I can barely demonstrate any moves at 06.30!

So, it’s a case of revisiting my mantra of small changes made consistently over time, in the style of The Slight Edge, a book that really changed my thinking about personal development. Instead of committing to an hour of meditation and a yoga practice every day, I aim for a simple five minutes before I get out of bed, as many mornings as I can. It’s a quick win and is still well worth doing for the benefits it brings. I also avoid looking at the news and my emails until I’m awake and ready to cope with them mentally. With so many unpleasant things going on in an increasingly unstable world, it’s not the first thing I want in my head. Carving out a quiet mental space before the day kicks off has become a much calmer way to start the day.

As with my training sessions, I look for windows in my diary to fit in my yoga practices. I have a subscription to the online platform YogaGlo where I can get as many classes with great teachers as I like for about £12 a month, with class lengths varying from 15-90 minutes, so there’s always something I can fit in. Unless I practise regularly, I don’t find inspiration for my own teaching, so I really have committed to getting it done.

I’m also welcoming short gaps in the day when I can just sit and breathe. You’ll often find me on the sofa at Powersports just relaxing or stretching, or maybe catching up with another trainer. And I’m being less militant about my physical training. With my hip injury still causing me problems, it’s not the end of the world for me to skip a training session when I’m still so physically active in my work and it means I can often feel a bit less like I’m right on the edge of being too tired.

So have a think about where you can carve out even just five quiet minutes in your day. Could you:

– escape your desk at lunchtime for a walk?

– take the dog out?

– roll out your yoga mat or find a class on your way to and from work?

– get some inspiration? Look on YouTube for guided meditations or download the fabulous app Insight Timer to your phone and access loads of them there. There is also a lovely new magazine called In the Moment for some fresh ideas.

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– spend time in a ‘flow’ activity in which you can really lose yourself, like dancing, gardening or reading a great book? I’m well into the latest of the Millennium books now as I love Scandinavian thrillers.

– wake up and just take five minutes to breathe in the peace and quiet?

I regularly lead meditations as part of my Empower Yoga classes, or why not book a 1:1 with me to learn some calming breath work or refine your yoga practice?

See you soon and enjoy the silence!

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk