Are you so driven that you can’t see the daffodils?

Driven. Ambitious. Go getter. Super fit. High energy.

These terms are usually viewed as positive attributes. Perhaps how we might like to be described. Certainly, if I’m honest, I love living life with a sense of direction towards goals. Yes I’m ambitious but it isn’t necessarily good for us.

At home, in our careers, in our workouts, sometimes even in our leisure time we can swing too far towards the ‘success’ or ‘aim’ of it that we forget to enjoy it and life swings a little out of balance.

  • ‘When the house is tidy/decorated/re-developed I’ll be happy.’
  • ‘When I’ve achieved noteriety/published my book (make that my tenth book)/got a promotion, I’ll be happy.’
  • ‘When I’ve burned 500 calories/lost a stone/run 5k in under 30 minutes, I’ll be happy.’
  • ‘When I’ve got my golf handicap down/outings for every day of the kids’ school holidays/booked the optimal vacation resort, I’ll be happy.’

Isn’t it funny when you look at it like that?

But this is what we do to ourselves on a regular basis.

Our environments are saturated with messages that encourage us to be ‘driven’ and it can be hard to slow down or even recognise our need for more balance.

At the weekend I was privileged to be invited, as a guest, to the inaugural WIFE conference in Guildford (Women in Fitness Empowerment – hosted by Jacqueline Hooton). Of all the speakers, the one that spoke to me most clearly (and that if I’m honest – I wasn’t expecting to) was Nicola Hobbs. Nicola is a yogi and a GB weightlifter. ‘Now wow – that’s balance,’ I thought.

Nicola reminded me of the ancient Eastern wisdom of yin and yang. It’s not a concept recognised by modern medicine but has been used in healing and wellness for centuries.

Nicola had practical suggestions for creating more yin, if your life has got a bit yang. And woah I thought – I think I’m a bit yang.

When, in my conference chair, I considered all the thinks that truly make me feel happy and blessed, it’s all those little things that I absent mindedly just do because they make me feel balanced:

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  • Hanging out the washing (yes – don’t start me on laundry).
  • Walks out in the forest or round a lake, spotting wild fowl with my kids.
  • Just running – for little purpose – just to enjoy the outdoors.
  • Reading – being absorbed in the moment.
  • Down time with the kids, when nothing is planned. Just playing with bubbles, having a bath, or having family hugs/tickle time/rough play.
  • Baking – at a time when I can really get lost in the process.
  • Inversions, like the shoulder bridge or rollover in Pilates.
  • Swimming and enjoying a shower alone (perhaps the main reason I have a gym membership at the moment)!

And guess what. All these things are yin things. So rather than doing them absentmindedly, I plan to keep doing them. They aren’t big things that take time, money or planning. These are things I do on a weekly or daily basis.

This is what I really got from Nicola. You don’t have to change your life to get yin. You just need to change the way you think about it or the way you do the things you are already doing.

So for this week – I challenge you to take one area of your life, perhaps your workout and just enjoy it, for the love of doing it. Nothing else.

It’s Spring and it’s beautiful out there. So perhaps just take a walk and spot the buds and the daffodils. For yin’s sakes.

Karen Laing is a pre and post natal exercise specialist and journalist. Karen teaches Pilates (including pregnancy specific classes) in Epping, Essex and London and blogs about fitness, women’s health and wellbeing at http://www.alittlefitter.com.
Karen co-directs Fit School with her husband Chris. They run fitness classes, ladies only training camps and Pilates classes in Epping and Essex.
TWITTER: @fitschoolessex
FACEBOOK: ccfitschool
WEBSITE: http://www.alittlefitter.com

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Chocolate Cake and why women are f*bomb brilliant #WIFE2015

Today I’m brimful of energy and enthusiasm. Which is strange considering I started the weekend on very little sleep (children with coughs related), drove over 100 miles in a day on my own (I’m a nervous motorway driver) and spent yesterday digesting a ton of information. I should be exhausted.

But yesterday I attended a fitness event like no other.

I was at the #WIFEconference 2015. The brainchild of Jacqueline Hooton who also reminded me of the main I’ve forged a career in fitness. I hated school P.E. too. Especially the misery of bitterly cold and humiliating cross country running through Epping Forest.

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I’m in fitness because I want to inspire people, women mainly, to find enjoyment in activity. You don’t have to be brilliant at tennis to play it recreationally. There’s no need to run a sub-25 minute 5k to enjoy going out for a run. In short. I’m in fitness to encourage as many people as possible to just get a little bit fitter and hopefully not pee themselves in the process (post natal health is my passion).

This really for me was also the ethos of the day (not the peeing – the inclusivity). Every fitness professional is unique but our role as a corporate body is to make fitness available. As Jacqueline said, ‘If we think we [fitness professionals] are an exclusive tribe then we should be ashamed of ourselves.’

So why just women?

The weekend coincided with International Women’s Day but mainly it was because women are massively under represented at the majority (if not all) major fitness events. And we’re good. In fact if the minds, careers and energy of the women presenting at yesterday’s event are anything to go by. We’re f*bomb brilliant.

As women, we have a unique ability to nurture and encourage, we don’t have to try to be men to be at the top of our field.

There was no man bashing (well perhaps a little between the lines man bashing) and no glass ceilings. I’ve been at events before designed to inspire but only really selling a franchise. Yesterday I absolutely felt I could and am going it alone. I felt and feel inspired.

No one was on a pedestal. Everyone has accepted my friend request. And everyone who I tag will share this post (please).

As for content and learning, I have inspirational notes, already re-written on giant pink post its enough to last me some time. And yes, Charlotte Ord, I will re-visit them at least annually and I’ll be re-evaluating my idea of success. Love that idea.

Christianne Wolff reminded me of the importance of passion, that’s what draws people to you. The magic.

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From Rachel Holmes, the standout idea was chocolate cake (you had to be there)! I already have an idea brewing on that one. And speaking of ideas, Rachel’s top tip to get the ideas from my head onto cards, so I can actually sort them out, was genius. As a working mum I have periods where ideas are like popcorn in my head and it can be hard to know how to process them.

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The brilliant Katie Bulmer-Cooke made me cry. Her story reassured the ‘guilty working mum’ in me that building my own business and breaking the ‘slave to the pay cheque’ mould could be the best gift I ever give my children in terms of their education.

In half an hour Yvonne Radley made me believe I’ll be on the radio before the month is out. I’ll let you know.

And then there’s balance. Thank you so much Nicola Hobbs for reminding me of the importance of balance. Today I took a muddy walk in Epping Forest with my family to help find some yin and made bread with my four-year-old – and, thanks to the fantastic Rachel Anne Hobbs I added extra flaxseed and walnuts!

Thanks Jacqueline and thanks to everyone involved. I can’t wait to come back next year for #WIFE2016.

Karen Laing is a pre and post natal exercise specialist and journalist. Karen teaches Pilates (including pregnancy specific classes) in Epping, Essex and London and blogs about fitness, women’s health and wellbeing at http://www.alittlefitter.com.
Karen co-directs Fit School with her husband Chris. They run fitness classes, ladies only training camps and Pilates classes in Epping and Essex.
TWITTER: @fitschoolessex
FACEBOOK: ccfitschool
WEBSITE: http://www.alittlefitter.com

Toasted Coconut Shortbread Hearts

It’s never too late for a Valentine themed biscuit and given we had friends over for dinner on Friday, in the middle of my sugar fast, I had to come up with something quick!

I first created these biscuits a few months ago, when I discovered raw coconut sugar. Raw coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut blossom. It is processed at very low temperatures (hence it’s a raw ingredient) which means it retains all of its nutrients including magnesium, potassium, zinc, B vitamins and amino acids. It also has a low glycaemic index of 35 (similar to skimmed milk), so won’t create the sugar spikes in your body that traditionally processed sugars will. I love it because unlike processed sugar replacements, you can use it in baking and it tastes really sweet so you don’t need so much.

cracked coconut with splash

The obvious (when you come to buy it) downside to coconut sugar is the price tag. But I roughly totted up the cost of my scrummy shortbreads and 24 biscuits, the equivalent of two packets of high street biscuits, cost under £2, similar to a packet of high end supermarket brand, luxury nibbles.

I’ve also packed these biscuits full of almonds to help combat the refined flour that I’ve added. You could try an alternative but for this recipe, the biscuits are so crumbly and short that you need a little gluten to hold them together.

INGREDIENTS (I’ve used cups mainly since I made it up and of course, baked them with Isaac):

  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened dessicated coconut
  • 1/2 cup raw coconut sugar
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 4oz unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg (to taste)

Pre-heat oven to 150/GM3

Start by toasting the coconut. Tip the coconut into a flat, baking or roasting dish (metallic) and spread evenly. Toast in the oven for around 5 minutes. You’ll need to keep checking since it will suddenly turn. You’re looking for a light golden colour rather than brow.

In a large bowl mix the remaining dry ingredients together and give them a good stir. Add the toasted and cooled coconut and finally the butter, diced.

Work the butter into the dry ingredients as if you were making scones or pastry. Go lightly, rubbing the fat in until it’s incorporated, then you’ll be able to create soft balls of dough. The dough will seem really soft and unworkable but if you stick with small cutters you’ll be fine!

Watch out at this point if you’re cooking with children. They will want to eat the lot!

Roll out each ball of dough to about half a cm and cut out biscuits. Re-rolling is more a question of squidging the stray bits together!

Bake for 10-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until golden underneath and leave to cool.

Best eaten on the same day but will store in an airtight container (they just go a bit soft).

These would be brilliant served with thick, greek yoghurt and griddled pineapple for a no sugar dessert.

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My Grandma’s Preserving Pan. One of my favourite things.

This is, a preserving pan. It’s not a perfect, heavy bottomed, beautiful preserving pan. But this preserving pan belonged to my Grandma. My dad’s mum. And not long after she passed away, I was given this pan, along with a couple of WI cookery books which are now out of print.

Jams and chutneys are still relatively experimental to me. Ask me to bake a cake or a pie or to whip up a sugar free alternative and I’m filled with confidence but pectin tests, setting points and sugar thermometers fill me with fear.

So why the fascination with this pan? Well it belonged to my Grandma, who was just lovely and gentle and always made beautiful Grandma like pies and jam and puddings. One of my earliest memories is of picking daisies for my Grandma, which she lovingly put in an egg cup and displayed in her kitchen. One of my last memories of my Grandma, years after she had two massive strokes that changed her life completely, is of helping her to make a cake. It was something she’d always loved doing but the strokes had sapped not only her co-ordination and muscle function but also her confidence. She was shocked that I used baking powder (she never did) but still enjoyed the fruits of our labour.

I should also say here that whilst I am something of a health fanatic and believe that sugar really is the root of much health evil, I love baking. And I love baking because you (excuse the sap) bake with love to make people smile. No one ever bakes a cake for someone they dislike. And the pleasure a piece of cake can bring, even to someone who has little perceived quality left in their life is immense. Both my Grandma, and her daughter, my Aunty Brenda who passed away earlier this year had a love of cake. Both finished their days as very different people. Their disabilities, my Grandma’s strokes and my Aunty’s MS had taken away many of the pleasures I’m sure I take for granted in my life, and although both could say very little in the years before they died, I can always remember them saying, ‘mmmm … cake.’

And there is another, massive reason why I’m so fond of this pan which I associate with all the gentleness of my Grandma, and that is my Grandad, her husband, who is still alive but who I no longer have a relationship with. You see I fell in love with a beautiful man called Chris. My soul mate. From our first few dates I knew Chris was THE ONE and walking down the aisle to marry him was the most, on path, spiritual moment of my life. When I walked down the aisle I swear I actually caught a glimpse of heaven.

Grandad and I always used to speak. Lots. We’d have great chats on the telephone. He would ask all about Chris. We could talk in a way he couldn’t talk with other people. I’d say we had a special relationship. I saw through the anger and the front and we’d talk about how he felt and what was really going in in my life. He would tell me stories about the time he met my Grandma, as a beautiful young girl with stunning blue eyes. He would take me back to both happy and painful memories. I had an understanding of him beyond the snappy, agitated, angry at life man he could often appear to be.

But then one day he saw a picture of Chris and discovered he was black. And suddenly everything changed. I knew he disapproved and that he didn’t want for us to have children, since they might turn out brown. I found it difficult to understand but having a relationship with a black man gives you a very steep learning curve with regards to racism and attitudes.

Chris didn’t come to my Grandma’s funeral. We hadn’t been together for long and it felt too soon to go there. So at my Grandma’s funeral I felt very much alone. But when my Grandad, stood, frail and sobbing at the end of the pew, I sidled up to him and held his hand. In spite of my hurt and anger I held his hand because Grandma hadn’t been like that.

A month before our wedding, I wrote my Grandad a letter. I felt it was the right thing to do. I asked if he might actually meet Chris. He never has. I got a letter back telling me that he had no desire to do this and that he believed that we would live to regret our marriage and that by marrying we would offend a great many people. I took that as his answer and have not spoken with him since. Something I still find very hard.

When in 2010 I gave birth to the most beautiful baby boy in the world, Isaac, I fully understood the grievous offence he had caused my family. My Grandad has never acknowledged his existence or asked after him.

My Grandad is the person in my life who daily I struggle to forgive.

But, my Grandma was totally different. She always asked after Chris. Even though when I’d visit her after her strokes she struggled to speak or hold conversation, she would always ask about Chris and my ‘love life.’

So because of my Grandma’s gentleness and how she helped me to learn that baking is about love. And because of that constant wrangle of wanting to have a relationship with my Grandad but also knowing I need to put my own family first. And because I know I still need to forgive daily, whenever I use my Grandma’s preserving pan I feel I’m beginning to forgive.