‘Currant’ conditions

Three currant lemon muffins and some currantsMunich is rainy today and I’m feeling a little down; the perfect conditions for snuggling with a dog, reading a book, and noshing on homemade baking. Sofie’s got the cuddling taken care of, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at the ready, and I’ve just pulled muffins out of the oven.

This is a modification of the world’s easiest vegan muffin recipe, adapted for what I had on hand. It’s not longer vegan, but still super-easy!

Fresh or frozen blueberries could easily stand in for the currants and subbing in orange juice and zest would be delicious. Cranberries would also work well.

Red currant & lemon muffins

Ingredients

  • 120ml (1/2 cup) milk
  • 80ml (1/3 cup) apple juice
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 240g (2 cups) unbleached all purpose flour
  • 100g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar, divided
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 150g (1 cup) fresh red currants
  • 2 tsp grated lemon zest

Method

  • Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F) and prepare 12 cup muffin pan (using paper or silicone liners or greasing with oil or butter)
  • Mix together milk, juice, oil, and egg with a whisk or a fork
  • In a separate bowl, combine flour, half the sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt
  • Add liquid mixture to flour mixture and stir until just combined (a few lumps are better than overmixing)
  • In a small bowl, combine currants, remaining sugar, and zest
  • Fold fruit mixture into batter
  • Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling each cup 2/3 full
  • Bake 15 – 20 minutes or until lightly browned and firm to the touch

Sofie looking comfy

Now to make a cup of tea and convince Sofie to share her comfy spot!

Permission to be yourself

You need no one's permission to be yourself.While at an isolated yoga retreat, I read an article in Quartz about a three-day work week. In this very business-focused publication was a gem that fit in perfectly with all the self-help peace-love-and-happiness philosophy that a yoga retreat implies:

You need no one’s permission to be yourself.

Mohit Satyanand
Entrepreneur, mountain-dweller, actor

At least in this instance, the business and spiritual worlds agree: discover who you are and don’t let anyone prevent you from being true to that.

Peace peace peace

Peace peace peace on turquoise butterfly backgroundHaving just returned from an amazing week with a group of students in the Prana Yoga College Teacher Training program, I’m feeling very much at peace right now. But it’s hard not to feel peaceful when every day starts with three hours of breathing exercises and yoga postures – the challenge is keeping that serenity afterwards!

Thankfully, I can still hear Shakti closing each daily class with a chant: ‘Ohm. Shanti shanti shanti. Om; peace peace peace.” Shanti means peace in Sanskrit and it’s no mistake that the concept is repeated at the end of each session.

With every yoga practice, Shakti tries to bring a sense of peace to each student. Her style of classical hatha yoga aims to bring stillness in every posture, meditation throughout the sequence, and a deeply calm mind.

That quiet mind seems to be the goal of every style of meditation. Whether you prefer a silent Zen style or an active Kundalini version, the point of meditation is to get your brain to shut up. To find peace within your own thoughts.

Global Meditation for Peace - 8 August 2014

Despite no longer doing a guided yoga practice with Shakti every morning, there are still resources to guide me towards peacefulness. The Chopra Centre’s Global Meditation for Peace hopes to inspire peace through thousands of people meditating at the same time on 8 August 2014. Although 8 August is almost over and I’m too late to join the Chopra Centre’s event… it’s never too late  for peaceful meditation!

With the sound of the teacher training group chanting “Peace, peace, peace” echoing in my mind, I wish you all quiet thoughts.

May you find peace within yourself that will help overcome strife. And may that peace spread and help quell conflicts throughout the world.

Shanti shanti shanti.

The sweetest sour

Three different bourbon soursThe weather this summer has been all over the place. Scorchingly hot, pelting with rain, muggy and cloudy, thundering like mad, and just about everything in between. Thankfully, my favourite cocktail pairs well with all weather and all seasons!

I’m a big fan of bourbon sours and I think I’ve perfected the proportions: two parts booze (bourbon), one part sour (lemon juice), and one part sweet (simple syrup).

I like them with just about any bourbon, from pricier options (like Woodford Reserve, which might be my all-time favourite) or common duty-free finds (like the Jack Daniels currently in my cupboard), to relatively inexpensive bottles (like Jim Beam).

The secret to matching the sour to the season is in the garnish.

Summer, with its plethora of produce, calls for raspberries or blackberries, a few leaves of basil, or (best of all) the rummed cherries from the recipe below. Fresh cranberries or a slice of apple are perfect for autumn. While maraschino cherries, a twist of orange zest, or a slice of lemon carry the drink into winter. And spring means a sprig of mint, a wedge of grapefruit, or an early strawberry.

Amp up the impact of any garnish by including some with the liquids, letting it rattle around and infuse as the drink comes together, straining it out with the shaker ice, and then anointing the final product with a non-shaken specimen.

The process of making a bourbon sour is pretty standard:

  • Put a few cubes of ice in a shaker (or Tupperware container if your kitchen isn’t bar-focused)
  • Add two parts bourbon and one part each lemon juice and simple syrup – along with a flavour-enhancer if desired
  • Shake thoroughly and strain into a glass with a couple ice cubes
  • Garnish as seasonally appropriate or enjoy unadorned

I always add the bourbon to the ice first and let it chill while I juice the lemon and measure the simple syrup, but I suspect there’s no wrong order – I just love the smell of bourbon when it hits the ice!

Freshly squeezed lemon juice is essential. Use room temperature lemons and roll them on the counter first to help release the juice. Then squeeze like the dickens. Do not use purchased lemon juice (like RealLemon) or, god forbid, bar lime (aka lime cordial). I once ordered a bourbon sour at a bar and it came out bright green – turns out bar lime was to blame. Ick.

The simple syrup really is simple to make:

  • Pour a cup of white sugar into a clean jar
  • Add a cup of very hot water
  • Slap on the lid and give it a mix
  • Let sit until the sugar is fully dissolved – shaking a few times
  • Store in the fridge

Making the rummed cherries is just about as easy… pitting the cherries is the hard part!

Rummed cherries

Ingredients

  • 50g (1/2 cup) soft brown sugar
  • 125ml (1/2 cup) water
  • 50ml (1 & 2/3 oz) fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • Half a vanilla pod, scored
  • 450g (1 pound) sweet cherries
  • 250ml (1 cup) rum (amber or dark work best)

Method

  • Wash and pit cherries (cursing as cherry juice splatters everywhere)
  • In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except cherries and rum and bring to boil; when liquid begins to boil, reduce heat to a light simmer
  • Add cherries and simmer for 5 minutes
  • Remove from heat and add rum
  • Transfer cherries to jars and cool completely at room temperature, about 2 hours
  • Refrigerate up to 2 weeks (they’ve never lasted beyond a weekend in my fridge!)

The cherries are a fantastic boozy topping for ice cream, an excellent garnish for drinks beyond sours (like piña coladas), and great paired with anything chocolate. The liquor makes a wonderful cocktail when mixed with a splash of vodka (or vanilla vodka for a sweeter concoction) and topped up with sparkling water.

Some drinks only seem appropriate at certain times of the year (like piña coladas on tropical vacations or rum and eggnog at Christmas), but I find a bourbon sour is perfect regardless of the season! They’re pretty simple to make, fun to garnish, and easy to drink… sometimes maybe a little too easy!

Retreat ahead

Laura during Prana yoga teacher training
Serious concentration or bad red eye correction? Me in my Prana t-shirt on our last day of teacher training

This time next week I’ll be at Sklenářka in the Czech Republic on a week-long retreat. Seven days of yoga, vegetarian meals (eaten in silence!), workshops, and meditation in the middle of nature (meaning an isolated villa 130km east of Prague) with Shakti and Pepe from Prana Yoga College.

Much like tidying up before the cleaning lady arrives, I’ve been practicing more regularly in anticipation of the retreat’s daily yoga classes. My yoga practice has been pretty sporadic since moving to Munich, so this preparatory kick in the pants has been very welcome.

I suspect the retreat will bring some discomfort (whether physical, social, spiritual, or all three!), but hopefully my time on the mat beforehand will ward off the worst of the aches.

Many days, my practice involved a class from the Prana YouTube channel. I spent five weeks with Shakti and Pepe three years ago for my initial yoga teacher training, so these online classes feel a bit like returning to my yoga home.

Shakti’s consistent instructions (lots of reminders to breathe!) and Pepe’s subtle accompaniment are reassuringly familiar. There are no jolting surprises in the flow of poses – I know what asanas to expect and understand the sequencing. The setting is familiar as I spent many hours there during teacher training and in the months afterwards. There’s even a barely-on-screen cameo from Milo, Shakti and Pepe’s little dog who was so much like Sofie!

While I’m a bit anxious about the retreat, I feel certain that the comfort I’ve felt following the online classes will continue in person. I may not know what to expect in terms of the facilities or other students, but I do know Shakti and Pepe! And I know what to expect from their teaching.

I’m hoping that sense of yogic home-coming continues through the retreat with its silent meals, unfamiliar location, and bug-filled wilderness. And that seven days with Shakti and Pepe energizes my yoga practice long after!

Let tension dangle

Laura dangling on a Mediterranean beachThere’s a spot in my mid-back that sometimes feels as though it holds all the tension in my body. Like every keyboard stroke, knife cut, sponge scrub, page flip, steering wheel turn, and slouch collects between my shoulder blades and knots together.

The best method I’ve found to release that tension is a long-held standing forward fold. The yin version of the pose is different than an active standing fold (called uttanasana) as the focus is on holding for a minute or more, relaxing the back body and releasing the shoulders. Bent knees, supportive arms, and resting against a wall are all welcome!

A yin standing forward fold is known as a dangle and that’s exactly the hope: that your upper body hangs and allows the muscles and fascia loosen.

Because your head is below your heart, this pose isn’t great for people with high blood pressure and anyone with low blood pressure should come out of it really slowly. Be cautious and slowly release the posture if you feel any pain.

Dangle

Why it’s good

  • Releases tension from the shoulder blades, mid-back, and neck
  • Helps decompress the lower spine and sacroiliac region
  • Stretches the backs of the legs – if you straighten them
  • Promotes good balance
  • Compresses the digestive organs, which can improve digestion and alleviate menstrual cramps
  • Encourages relaxation and can reduce anxiety and stress

How to do it

  • Start by standing tall with your feet parallel and hip width apart
    • let your spine stretch upwards and your shoulders drop away from your ears
    • feel sturdy and balanced – your hips stacked atop your feet, your shoulders square above your hips, and your head floating above your shoulders
  • With an exhale, bend your knees and allow your torso to drop towards the fronts of your thighs
    • don’t feel any pressure to have your chest rest on your legs; most people will have significant space between upper and lower body
  • Straighten your legs to intensify the stretch along the backs of your legs or keep your knees bent to encourage the stretch in your back
    • do not lock your knees
    • try leaning against a wall for additional support
  • Experiment with arm positioning to find what works best for you
    • clasping each elbow with the opposite hand draws more of a stretch into the upper back and shoulders and can make your torso feel heavier
    • resting your hands on your thighs lessens pressure through your lower back
    • allowing your hands dangle freely or rest softly on the floor helps open the mid-back
  • Let you head release and encourage the muscles in your back, shoulders, arms, and neck to be heavy
  • Soften your gaze or, it’s comfortable and doesn’t mess with your balance, close your eyes
  • Stay dangling for at least a minute and up to five minutes
    • mindfully move your arms and bend or straighten your knees to find the best version of the pose for you, but try not to fidget
    • if it helps, visualize your spine flowing out of your pelvis like water flowing out of a pitcher, allowing tension to ebb away
    • if the pose doesn’t feel right, you can get a similar stretch in a seated forward fold with a rolled blanket or bolster under your bent knees

To come out of dangle:

  • If you’ve held the pose for several minutes, be cautious! Slowly come out of it using any of the methods below, then take a few deep breaths to regain your balance before moving to your next pose
  • Option 1:
    • Engage your abdominal muscles, bend your knees, and take several breaths to roll up to standing
  • Option 2:
    • Bend your knees and lower your hips downwards to come into a squat. Rest in a squat for at least a few breaths before lowering onto your seat or slowly moving to standing
  • Option 3:
    • Rest your hands on your shins and straighten your back; strengthen your abdominal muscles and inhale to come halfway up with your back parallel to the floor; exhale and let your upper body and hands release down again. Repeat this halfway raise a couple times before inhaling up to standing with your back straight.

It’s normal to feel some dizziness after your head has been down for a while. Take a few moments to regain your composure and allow the blood to flow throughout your body before progressing with your practice or continuing with your day.

As dangling is a strong forward bend, it can be nice to follow it with a back bend. Even standing and simply drawing your shoulders back as you lift your face and chest to the sky can be enough to release any tension in your front body that may have built up as you dangled.

Repeat whenever that congested mid-back feeling arises. This is a great pose for airports and offices because it requires no mat and no props!

Magnetic nature

Believe in the subtle magnetism in NatureIt was quiet on the Heide (heath) this morning. Just a handful of other walkers and a few joggers in the distance. The flock of sheep that appeared a few days ago had vanished, leaving only droppings and scents to entice my dog, Sofie.

Sofie ran and sniffed; alternating between joyously sprinting and burying her nose in the grass. I ambled along, taking whatever path struck my fancy or following Sofie when she ran ahead.

We had nowhere to be and nothing to do. Free to drift along enjoying the wide open space and revelling in a bit of solitude.

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.

~Henry David Thoreau
American author and naturalist

Sofie on the HeideIt’s wonderful having the vastness of the Heide so close. Sofie loves her daily off-leash walks here and I love the directionlessness of the space. It’s possibly to feel truly lost, despite the buzz of an unseen highway along the edge of the field and the knowledge that the Heide is enclosed by development.

At the centre of the Heide the surrounding apartment buildings and nearby stadium are no longer visible. There are few markers, which makes navigating fairly random, and often paths peter out, leaving us wading through tall grass.

In the end, though, we always find our way back home.

Maybe it’s Sofie’s homing skills or maybe it’s the subtle magnetism of nature.