Y is for… Yoga

I love, love, LOVE yoga.

My first experience of yoga was when a yoga teacher called Cath came to my office to teach a taster session, as part of a staff benefits scheme. I remember going along with the pre-conception that yoga would a nice, gentle exercise class;  I was keen to lose a few pounds and I’ve always been a bit of a hippy at heart so I thought I’d try it out with my colleagues. All I remember about that class was being in fits of giggles with my colleague Rosie, as we tried to walk in figure-of-eights on our hands and knees, on yoga mats.

Fast forward around five years and I’ve just signed up to my second yoga retreat. I attend yoga classes regularly and I’m currently on day 98 of a journal I’ve been keeping this year, to document how I feel during my own daily practice which I do at home. I set my alarm for 6:00 every weekday (8:00 on weekends) to roll out my mat; if the weather’s nice I practise in the garden and I hate it if I have to forgo my daily practice for any reason.

I’ve had several different yoga teachers during the last few years. Ellie, Ray, Sharon and, most recently, Claire are all wonderful and have taught me many different things. I’ve met them all through my original and lifelong teacher who got me hooked on yoga to begin with – Cath Kelleher, who owns Yogafever. I have a lot of love for this lady, not least because she caused me to fall in love with yoga in the first place through her fantastic teachings but because she is a huge part of Cardiff’s thriving yoga community and a totally inspiring person. In December last year, Cath organised Yoga for the Philippines, within a fortnight. She managed to fill City Hall, Cardiff with people participating in mass yoga practices and workshops, bringing together an entire yoga community and raising over £4,000 for the people of the Philippines following the hurricane disaster in the process. She’s one cool yogi.

The Great Hall, City Hall, Cardiff during Yoga for the Philippines

I’ve tried many different styles of yoga: vinyasa flow; hot yoga; power yoga; restorative yin yoga; kundalini yoga; yoga nidra. I’ve even attended a laughter yoga workshop (hilarious – thought I was actually going to die of laughter!). The class I attend at the moment is a mixture of flow, restorative poses and pranayama (breathing exercises), run by my teacher and friend Claire.

Yoga is not an exercise class or a hobby; it’s a way of life and it has changed mine completely. Yes, I’m bendier. I hang out in Downward-Facing Dog. I can breathe in for the count of ten and my shoulders and arms are toned from doing countless planks. Yoga is great exercise and a lot of fun however the main purpose for me will always be to strengthen and still my mind, to shut off all the chatter going on in my brain and to reconnect with my body, with the ground and with the universe. It makes me feel alive. And so happy.

Within yourself is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.

-Hermann Hesse

Yoga is completely accessible and beneficial for anyone and in my opinion, anyone who says they tried it and didn’t like it went to the wrong class. If anyone in Cardiff would like to give yoga a go, I can recommend lots of different classes.

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S is for… Singing in SUPERCHOIR!

For today’s A to Z challenge, I was torn between SUPERCHOIR and my cat, Spike. Spike’s somewhat of a legend and her escapades simply must be documented at some point, but I really want to share the magic of SUPERCHOIR today, so that half-feral, Aussie moggie will have to wait a bit longer for her moment of blog fame.

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I am a proud member of SUPERCHOIR and have been since the day it formed, just over two years ago. SUPERCHOIR started out as a Cardiff-based initiative (there’s also a Swansea version) run by Sing and Inspire, who are a wonderful, infectiously happy bunch of musical geniuses. Their vision is to inspire people to make a positive difference. They do what it says on the tin and then some, all through the medium of song!

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“Feel amazing, sing fantastic music and network with other, like-minded individuals in a fun, relaxed atmosphere” is how SUPERCHOIR is advertised. While this is indeed an accurate description, it means so much more to me. I wrote an open email last year to Andrea, Director of Sing and Inspire, explaining exactly how I feel about SUPERCHOIR, which you can read on her blog if you have two minutes. If you just want the short version, being part of SUPERCHOIR has changed my life for the better.

Singing makes me passionate, energised and joyful, which can only ever be a good thing and when this is done in a fun environment with a crowd of amazing people the results are magical. We gig quite a lot and have recruited lots of new members over the last two years, people who happened to see us perform and wanted to become part of the magic. People often think that we’re a professional, paid choir when this is actually something we do for fun after work on Wednesdays…

Superchoir, Sing and Inspire

We sang at a wedding on Saturday and I was so excited to be gospel-clapping in a church – it was straight out of Sister Act. We’ve got some flashmobs coming up in the next few weeks which are top secret…

Fancy a sing-along? Here’s a wobbly video of us singing Adele’s Skyfall, at a fundraiser in Porter’s Cardiff last summer:

And our signature song, Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher:

O is for… Ogmore-by-Sea

When I was ten, I went on an adventure to Ogmore-by-Sea’s residential school camp with most of the kids in my class, to become a Young Investigator. The coastal village was only about thirty miles away but it was so different from Caerphilly, the valleys town in which I lived at the time, that it seemed like a trip to a foreign country.

I have distant but fond memories of newly-found detective skills, sheep roaming the streets, learning that I was terrified of caving, sharing chores in the dining hall, spending all my pocket money in the local shop on midnight feast supplies and sleeping bag races. It was all very Famous Five. My favourite recollection is of crossing the stepping stones near Ogmore Castle then running down the huge sand-dunes at Merthyr Mawr with around twenty of my classmates, shouting out Eddy Grant’s song Give Me Hope Joanna as we ran (God knows why!) and screaming with glee. I’ve still got my Young Investigator’s badge.

A year later, I revisited the camp with my violin in tow on an orchestra trip, which was a completely different experience. The Enid Blyton-style fun of midnight feasts and sleeping bag races was still there but with the added excitement of learning some orchestral arrangements, to perform in a concert at the end of the week for our parents. I can’t remember all the pieces of music we learnt but Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was one. Another was Brass on Parade; we rebels in the string section all crossed out enough letters on our music sheets so that it read ‘Ass Rade’, which was of course hilarious to a bunch of eleven-year-olds. We were so proud as we performed our concert, though.

The camp closed several years ago and although the buildings are still there, I’ve read that the land is going to be developed into residential houses, which is a shame. It was a wonderful place.

Do any Welsh readers have memories of staying at Ogmore-by-Sea residential school camp?

I is for… Ignite Cardiff

Ignite Cardiff is a bi-monthly event held at Porter’s Bar, at which eight to ten people speak about something they are passionate about, for five minutes each. There are rules; each talk has to accompany 20 PowerPoint slides which auto-advance every 15 seconds and there are strictly no sales pitches allowed.

Ignite events are held globally and I attended my first in November last year, the 14th of its kind held in Cardiff. I’d heard a lot of buzz about it on Twitter and tickets (it’s free but numbers are limited to 200 people) are like gold dust so I was keen to find out what makes Ignite Cardiff so popular.

I wasn’t disappointed – I was blown away. Porter’s was packed out and the atmosphere was vibrant. The speakers were inspiring and entertaining, all in completely different ways: I learnt about science; I was made even more paranoid about online security than I was already; I got to hear some of my favourite ‘90s electronic tunes played live on keyboard;  I found out that YouTube is a great source for DIY advice; and I discovered that it’s rather easy to add your own ‘art’ to exhibitions without people noticing.

Everyone got a free drink which was a bonus and there was even an opportunity to take part in ‘Ignite karaoke’, the results of which were hilarious. Videos of all these brilliant talks and more can be found here.

Steve Dimmick, compere and an Ignite Cardiff organiser, mentioned that speakers, particularly women, were needed for the next Ignite Cardiff, as the evening’s speakers were predominantly male. I was convinced that I needed to do this (I had drunk rather a lot of wine by this point) and I declared afterwards on Twitter that I was going to put my name down. I joked that evening that I wanted to speak about Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a female icon (I’m a massive Buffy fan and she is a great female icon – see previous post B is for… Buffy!) but I didn’t really have a clue what I could talk about for five minutes that would be interesting or entertaining to others.

One speaker whose words particularly resonated with me was Ruth Steggles, a life and business coach, who talked about From Spectating to Playing. The message behind Ruth’s talk was that people shouldn’t be scared to do what they really want to in life, they should overcome their fears and follow their passion. I loved this; over the last few years I’ve made quite a few changes in my life based on the same premise. Ruth was also really engaging and it made me want to connect with her.

A few weeks and tweets later found Ruth and I walking through Bute Park in Cardiff, for a lunchtime chat. During a conversation about passion and purpose, Ruth told me a story about her husband, who’d said in the past that he wanted to write a novel but hadn’t done so. Ruth recently asked him whether or not he’d feel disappointed if he came to the end of his live without writing a novel, to which he answered no. Ruth realised that it was her expectation that her husband should write a novel and not his; he was happy as he was. This story had quite an effect on me. I told Ruth that I’d always wanted to write and so if posed with the same question my answer would be yes – I’d be extremely disappointed! Ruth then asked me why I’m not a writer; what stops me from writing. I immediately churned out a handful of reasons and we laughed at how ridiculous they sounded – they were all excuses not reasons. I admitted that the real reason is that writing fills me with fear – it’s something that I used to feel so passionately about that I’d be scared to actually do it. Ruth insisted that it was the perfect topic for an Ignite Cardiff talk, that other people may relate to it.

So, I had my topic and I signed up for Ignite Cardiff #15 in December 2013, giving me over a month to prepare. I’ve done loads of presentations in the past so I didn’t find the initial stages of brainstorming and planning the presentation difficult. Added to which, I had just watched a video about using stories powerfully, which made me realise that in order to connect with the audience I needed to get my message across in the form of a story. I even retrieved some cuttings and papers I had up in the attic that would bring my story to life. The title I chose was On not Writing, which is a play on the title of a Stephen King book, On Writing, in which he describes his craft as a writer.

What I found extremely hard during the preparation was the five minute time restriction and the rule of 20 slides, displaying for 15 seconds each. The speakers I saw at Ignite Cardiff #14 seemed to do this so effortlessly but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Although I’m a notoriously fast talker, when I started to practise talking through each slide my five minutes were always up before I reached the eighth slide.

To overcome this problem,  I asked two of my friends at work to listen to me recite the whole presentation, then tell me which parts didn’t work. This exercise was really useful; an honest, second opinion early on really helped me eliminate any weak sections and I learnt that what I find funny or interesting might not necessarily appeal to my audience (i.e. I’ve got an odd sense of humour – see H is for… Hotdogs for Sale!).

I was keen to make sure that I had some friends at the event for moral support, so I promoted it on Facebook and Twitter. So many comments followed about how brave I was that I started to wonder if doing an Ignite talk was actually a terrible idea! Lots of my friends were able to get tickets despite the event ‘selling out’ within a day. Laura Dunn, a friend who co-runs Women in Web, wasn’t able to attend unfortunately but asked if I would like to blog about my experience. She had no idea at the time that my talk would be about writing (or my lack there-of)!

I wasn’t feeling too nervous about presenting until the week beforehand, when I had to spontaneously stand up and tell a roomful of people a few sentences about myself at a work event. I got so unexpectedly and ridiculously anxious doing it that it spooked me. I’ve had issues with anxiety and panic attacks in the past (see A is for… Anxiety) and I wasn’t keen to revisit those feelings so I practised until I knew my talk inside out, with only the slides themselves to prompt me. I also asked the Ignite Cardiff organisers if I could speak first on the night, so that I didn’t have to sit there waiting for my turn and working myself into a state.

On the day, I took annual leave so that I could relax and prepare. As a self-confessed hippy, I found yoga and meditation a must that morning, as well as recording myself reciting my talk and tweaking the content further.

When I arrived at Porter’s, I was horrified to find that despite getting there before the start time, the bar was completed crowded and I had to fight my way to get my free glass of wine, which suddenly felt essential. I could see loads of people I knew but before I even got a chance to say hi to anyone all the speakers were called up to the stage for a pre-event briefing by Steve Dimmick (at this point, my legs started to shake uncontrollably!) and a minute or so later I was being introduced by Steve to the crowd. They were smiling, cheering and clapping like mad, and at least 25 of them were friends of mine. It all felt very surreal, especially as I don’t think I’ve ever been given a microphone on a stage before and I began to find the whole thing rather amusing, especially when I spotted my best mate Rhiannon in the crowd.

When my first slide appeared on the screen, I spoke as I had done when practising and I was honestly surprised at how smoothly it flowed thereafter. I would even go as far as to say I felt relaxed – it was such a friendly, supportive atmosphere. I was, however, completely bemused by how much people were laughing at my talk, especially when I thought I’d ruthlessly cut all the funny bits out; in fact I’m still amazed by this.

It was all over in a flash; there was applause, I necked my wine and it was the next speaker’s turn, then the next. During the first break, I realised I was on a complete high as I started speaking to people I knew and their feedback was really positive. The rest of the evening was great fun; some of the other speakers were really interesting, some were hilarious and some were inspiring.

I’m so glad that I took part in Ignite Cardiff; it was an incredibly empowering experience that I’ll never forget and I would recommend it to anyone who thinks they might like to give it a try. If you do fancy it, get in touch with Steve, Ed or Miranda via the website, @ignitecardiff or their Facebook page.

Here’s  my Ignite Cardiff talk:

Once you’ve watched it, you’ll realise that by writing this post and setting up this blog, I’ve taken the first steps towards my dream!

To finish this extra long post, here are my 5 tips for delivering an Ignite Cardiff talk:

  1.  Talk about something you are passionate about
  2. Use the presentation rule of 3 – it’s a cliche but it works
  3. Make it personal and tell your story – take the the audience will go on a journey with you
  4. Get your friends to vet your talk and do this in plenty of time to allow for changes
  5. Practise like hell!

This post originally featured on the Women in Web blog.

C is for… Cefn Onn

I love being outdoors and I’ve been lucky enough to live a stone’s throw away from Cardiff’s Cefn Onn Park (or Parc Cefn Onn if you’re a Welsh speaker) for over seven years. I’ve spent countless weekends exploring the park and beyond, in every imaginable weather condition.

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Cefn Onn was developed by a private landowner over a century ago as his own private gardens but it was sold to the Council in the 1950s. It hosts a beautifully maintained collection of ancient trees, exotic plants (some look like giant, pre-historic venus flytraps!), streams and ponds; I feel so blessed to have it on my doorstep. What I like best about it is all the dogs I meet there; it’s a good spot for dog-walking and even though I don’t have a dog to walk around the park myself, the way other people’s dogs always come up to say hello fills me with joy.

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If you follow the path out of the park just before you reach the main pond, you can follow signs for nature trails, the more obvious route being to climb up the mountain to the ridgeway, where you can see Cardiff on one side and Caerphilly on the other. There’s often a herd of cows to greet you at the top, which can also be a joyful experience!

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If you live in or near Cardiff and fancy a visit, the entrance to Cefn Onn is next to the Old Cottage Pub in Lisvane, near to the Lisvane & Thornhill train station. Click here for a map.