Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A Journey Into the Unexpected: Promo for My India Documentary

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


But readers, readers, readers - my long neglected readers. It didn't all end there. No matter how much I would like to have ended my last post with "and they all lived happily ever after", I can't do that. Although it has been a hard realisation to have over recent months, I have come to know that life does not fit neatly into a narrative. It is a journey. and although the scene changes the action, the adventure, continues. For better or for worse. And that is what makes this beautiful ride so bloody exciting. We just don't know what the future will hold...

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Pray. Eat. Love.

East End Girl - before my travels
When I started my journey across Asia back in December 2011, I had no real plans, ideas or expectations. I knew that I wanted to make some big changes because, although I had been living a very comfortable and fulfilled life in London (on the surface, at least), I was in search of something deeper. And so it was that I, in that clich├ęd sort of a way, dropped it all and went off to India, that magical place which has stolen the hearts of so many seekers before me. I sat in temples. I worshipped the deities alongside thousands of devout Indians. I undertook an Ayurvedic detoxification of my body. I even learnt to stand on my head.

Embracing my natural beauty in Rishikesh
Stripped of make up, high heels, my pink vintage car and all of the props I had previously needed to make myself feel good, I began to open up to my inner beauty. The gorgeous people that I met reflected this and, as my heart gradually began to open up and I began to trust and surrender, amazing things started to happen. Significant people began to enter my life at times when I needed them, reinforcing the lessons that I was seemingly receiving from the universe. Ryan, a gorgeous scientist from Ohio with whom I spent a brief but life changing week in a community in Auroville, taught me that I could be attractive and sexy whilst shovelling my own poo, wearing no make up and sporting hairy legs. Jason Stewart who facilitated a one week workshop in NVC or Non Violent Communication made me examine my need to be ‘sexy’, seeking validation from others for my outer appearance. This was a belief that no longer served me and, in realising this, I let it go.

Attuning to Shakti energy at Agama
I had made a resolution at the beginning of my journey to preserve my female energy. In other words, I would undertake voluntary celibacy. (Thank you Liz Cirelli for the inspiration!) I wanted to be able to focus on my spiritual development without distraction and to ‘sublimate’ the energy upwards, directing it instead, for higher purposes. This is actually a Tantric method for attaining spiritual enlightenment. Tantrics believe that the female ‘Shakti’ energy we have residing in our base or muladhara chakra is incredibly powerful as it has the potential to create the entire universe. Instead of releasing this energy or wasting it in casual encounters, it should instead be directed upwards – towards our heart chakra (responsible for pure, unconditional love), our throat chakra (for creativity and expression), our third eye chakra (for meditation and contemplation) and ultimately towards our sahasrara chakra – the seat of the soul – which can take us to oneness or bliss.

Through the eyes shines the soul
In India, a land where alcohol is scarce and culture is overtly  desexualised, it wasn’t difficult to begin to start living in these elevated chakras, especially when surrounded by seeking souls on similar missions. I began to realise how wonderful it can be to live a life in higher aspiration and I felt my inner beauty radiate out. Back home, the most common compliments I received on my appearance were on my legs. In India, everyone noticed my eyes – “flame yellow”, “olive with burnt sienna” – it was as if the new found luminescence of my soul was shining through. And yes, I was tested. Notably by the Israeli man I met in Kodaikanal who gave me whiskey, the too good looking to be true Indian I met before my ten day Vipassana meditation and yet another drop dead gorgeous Indian I shared many late night chais and cuddles with in Dharamsala. But I was not led into temptation. I stayed true to my word and to myself. After being dumped at the Indo Nepali border by a silver-tongued Sagittarius I had promised my heart to, I looked my video camera in the lens and vowed out loud that "no more, am I attracting worthless men into my life”.

China - the 'Eat' chapter
After months of subsisting off rice and dalh, when I rocked up in China my ardent devotion turned to another one of my great passions. Food. And indulge I did in everything from whole steamed fish in garlic and ginger, to Yunnan bacon, yak cheese, home made dumplings, Peking duck, eggplant cooked every which way, muscles, pork, French beans, Szechuan style shrimp, black carp, sushi, smoothies, salmon - you name it. Me and my friend Will went on a gastronomic tour of Shanghai, Beijing, Anhui and Hainan dining in some of the finest food establishments through to shopping malls, street food stalls, hutong eateries and local Chinese restaurants. The theme continued in Vietnam where I not only enjoyed all of my favourite Vietnamese dishes (mango salad, fried spring rolls, deep fried squid) but I also took a couple of cookery classes and learnt how to make them too.  

And then came Thailand. I’ve always been a bit of a clairvoyant and I had had a psychic feeling that this might be the place to experience the ‘Love’ chapter – as did my friend Sandra Pearson (yes Sand, you win the £100 bet!) By this point it was August and I was feeling ready to move on – to take my spiritual progress to the next level. I had already planned to take 2 x courses in Tantra in Thailand and was curious to understand how spirituality and sexuality could become 'bedfellows'. The workshops that I took on the ‘fantasy island’ of Koh Phangan were life changing. I had always sensed a resonance with tantra and here at the Agama school, I found the path for me. You can read all about my tantric journey here.
Scorpio Pie looking delicious

During my time on the island I decided that, although I had enjoyed my time focusing on my self and my spiritual practice, I wanted to be able to open again into love. I had a brief romance with a wonderful soul, Phil. And then I met Ian Marshall - Scorpio Pie, Pisces Iscariot. One night as I was making my way back from a yoga class at the Agama school I met him at a fruit juice stand. I immediately noticed him because I liked his glasses and his attitude. He was intelligent and a little bit bristly.. and he was wearing a nice orange shirt. Unfortunately  at the time, I think that his affections were elsewhere. But that was OK, so were mine. 
Hear no evil...Ian, Flora and me at Three Monkeys bar

After a month of hard core yogi activity, I was beginning to tire a little of the community and its hard line ways. So one night I headed along the little beach where I lived to a tiny little reggae bar the Three Monkeys with the intention to have a few beers and a good time. Little did I know what was about to take place. My friend Jonny introduced me to a whole crowd of gorgeous individuals who had been gathering at the Three Monkeys every night, enjoying each other's company and being creative. Amongst them was Ian. We connected immediately over our discussion of the school (he was studying yoga there too). As the night progressed I think we realised we were falling for each other.
Our beach hut

A slightly furtive courtship ensued whilst we navigated getting to know each other in such an intense environment. The day after meeting him properly I moved beach huts so that I was almost next door to him. Then we effectively moved in together (we had to sleep in my place because he had a rather large lizard living under his bed who decided to come out whenever I was around - we thought that she was jealous!) After an idyllic couple of weeks together and with the rest of our loving crew from Three Monkeys, my dad came out to the island for a holiday. As I suspected, he and Ian clicked right away and we had fun exploring Ko Phangan on motorbikes, eating lots of delicious food and sunning ourselves on the beach and in the pool.

Ian and Dad hit it off immediately
Dad had a friend living in Chiang Mai and had got his return flight booked out of there. About a week before we were due to leave, Ian decided to leave with us because he had an exciting writing project up in Chiang Mai - working on a cookery book with a chef. And so it came to pass that within a few weeks of knowing each other, we had moved in together, travelled up Thailand and Ian had met my dad! Things happen fast in backpacker circles. I'll be writing more about my adventures in Chiang Mai shortly, but once dad left I moved in with Ian and I don't think I have felt happier, healthier or slept better in my life. Things were perfect.

Enjoying the other side of the island - holiday within a holiday
Those who have known me for a very long time understand that, after the breakdown of a long term relationship many years ago, I haven't had much luck with men. Sure, I've had some interesting experiences - some horrific ones too. In fact, I could write a book about the trials, tribulations and disasters that I've had - too many to list out here. My little red heart has certainly been bashed, bruised and broken. And through all of it, I could not understand why I couldn't find the one thing that I was looking for - someone who understood me in my entirety - from the hard exteriors of my wild party girl, through to my soppy emotional heart - the girl that liked listening to the radio and cuddles. The girl that wanted a canal boat, a dog and children - as well as the one that needed the glitz, glamour and raciness of life in the fast lane. 

In summer 2011, long before I went away I was driving me and my friend Kate home from a festival and she told me to just ask for it. To just ask for what I wanted. And so I  did. I compiled a list - a man who loved me for all of me. Someone who was sexy, kind, intelligent, funny and spiritual. It may have taken time, but one year later, that is exactly what I got.

At one of our local cafes in Ko Phangan

On the road again - travelling up to Chiang Mai
Ian is a really interesting person. He has studied Buddhism, Hinduism and tantra and he has been travelling the world for a long time. He's a writer and has a blog. It turns out that we had not only travelled to many of the same places in India but that we had also been there - on one occasion in the same room at a satsang - at the same time. We both went to University in Sheffield, we both studied English literature. We both used to live in London and work in the broadcasting industry. We share the same taste in music although he is a little older than me - but he doesn't look it or act it either. Most importantly we share the same values and dedication to a spiritual path - although equally we are both willing to fall off it. He is very funny and clever and eloquent but he's also understated and quite humble - the contrast to my alter ego party personality. It doesn't feel like relationships or romances I've had before - affairs that have caused me to to weep oceans of tears, waste thousands of words in conversation with friends or on email - trying to understand the inside of the heads of these men who broke my heart. There's no dramas - it all just, well - it works.

Ian and I have been together nearly 6 months now and I've had the pleasure of meeting his family and friends, who unsurprisingly, are my kind of people. He took to my friends like a duck to water and now he's part of my life. I'm very grateful for his being part of it and it feels so lovely to have such a supportive partner. We're planning a future together and it is exciting. 

And so, once more to spirituality - which is what this journey was all about. Way back in early 2012, I prayed to a 65 foot statue of Shiva to send me my man. And Lord Shiva - he of the cosmic dance, stamped his foot and delivered this man to me. The man of my dreams at long long last. Thank you. Thank you and Om Namah Shivay!

To be continued, whilst the rest of the travel journey unravels here...

Monday, 10 December 2012

Fantasy Island: Life in a Tantric Community

Koh Phangan - the fantasy island where I lived.
Photo courtesy of the gorgeously talented Clara Jansen
In Cambodia I fell ill again. Very ill. In fact so ill that I was trapped in a hotel room for several days, unable even to clamber down the 4 flights of stairs to get fresh water. I paid a Khmer man in the corridor to go and fetch me some. He came back with a bottle half filled. I couldn't trust it. I didn't drink water for 2 days and I watched myself waste away in the mirror as ants crawled up the walls. Losing weight was supposed to be a good thing but my cheeks were sunken and even my (formerly rather buxom) chest began to wither and sag. I felt alone and scared. I had to get out of Cambodia but I was trapped on a border town without my passport (on a last minute whim I had paid someone to send it back to Phnom Penh to get a 2 month Thai visa stamped in). Yet again I had to trust that it would come back to me on a local bus. I had to hope that I would get better. The days were drawing nearer to a course I had signed up to in Thailand. I held my breath. The passport arrived as promised. 

The beach that I would come to live on on KPN photo c/o Clara again
View from my beach hut on Koh Phangan
I spent a very uncomfortable day completely nil by mouth crossing the border into Thailand. Luckily I was amused by some very drunken boys from Devon, here on holiday. “I work in a pub and I drink in a pub. My life is great” said one of them, proudly. I told them I was doing a tantra course in Thailand and they oscillated between being fascinated and making crude jokes. It was to become the first of many conversations I would have about the definition of tantra which, clearly, is universally misunderstood. My first time in Bangkok was again spent sick and mostly inside a hotel room, punctuated only by a trip to hospital. In the end I had to fly down to Ko Phangan because I was too weak to travel by train.

Channelling the Goddess
A long day ensued taking in a bus and boat to Ko Phangan but as the sun was setting emblazoned across a purple and azure sky, the ferry glided over glass waters to the island. Triangular shaped smokey coloured mountains sulked in the background. The gulf islands of Thailand are quite possibly one the most sensationally beautiful places on earth. I wandered about the dusky air of the ferry, rocking with the motion of the boat and pondered how this was a dream come true for me to finally be here. And the next two months would be blissful, living on a beach and doing yoga every day.

Shakti awakens
The reason I had come all of this way was to enrol on a tantra course at the Agama School of yoga. Nobody had recommended it to me, I had simply found it on a Google search late one night on the Chinese island of Hainan. Tantra had come up for me a few times in India but I hadn’t felt ready for it back then. After months of deprivation or 'tapas', I now felt grounded enough in my spirituality to be able to start indulging my senses again. After all those months of sitting in ashrams and meditating, how to start living a normal life again? I believed that tantra was the answer.

The Shiva Hall at Agama, being prepared for a Tantric ritual
I didn't know it at the time but I had stumbled upon a gem with the school. The Sanskrit word 'Agama' is the name of a collection of scriptures which teach the practices of tantra, the most ancient science of India and the root from which the other Indian religions have sprung. Lord Shiva himself, who lived as a great master around 7,000 years ago was one of the proponents of tantra, along with the Aryan nomad tribes who invaded India from the North West. They brought with them the notion of non-dualism which is this: we are inseparable from the divine - we are expressions of God, as is everything around us. "I am that." We came from God and we can return to God and this is enlightenment. 

Shakti Power with Lyonne, another Tantric yogini
I have a lot to say on the matter of tantra, some of which is impossible or inappropriate to include here (please feel free to email me personally if you want to know more). It is a difficult subject to paraphrase but I will try my best. Tantra can be divided into two paths - the Right Handed Path and the Left Handed Path. Christ sat at the right hand of God. In India, the right hand is used for prayer and devotion. The Right Handed Path is that which takes you straight to the divine. Jesus was capable of this, Buddha was capable of this however most human beings, limited by working out karmas and bound by samskaras (imprints left by actions in previous lives), are not.  Most religions emphasise deprivation of the senses to get closer to God - through fasting, celibacy and asceticism. However the tantrics believed that it was possible to use the senses in order to transcend them.

More beautiful Shaktis
The left handed path offers an approach whereby the human body can be used as a tool to overcome itself, to attain 'one-ness' with the divine. The tantrics believed that in the age of Kali Yuga (the age of vice) in which we live, the left handed path is the only realistic path for people born into a life of materialism who are unable or unwilling to give it all up. Tantra provides a healthy route to enlightenment without complete renunciation - it basically involves bringing latent energy from our base chakras (associated with low, physical desires) into higher chakras associated with unconditional love, devotion, expression, intellect, creativity, knowledge and soul. I took to it immediately. The course itself was extremely well presented and inspirational. I was hugely affected by the teachings and the meditations which were so powerful I was often either in tears or flying out of my seat. Having been a reiki healer and member of the Usui reiki network for several years, I was well versed in using energy and I found the techniques of moving it upwards came naturally to me. Being an earthy, sensual woman, I had plenty of energy to use in the first place (a pre requisite for being a tantrica). At last I could use it for something positive.

Me and Joel, one of my gorgeous Shivas
The left handed path prescribes many ways of reaching enlightenment and although much smaller emphasis is given to it in the Shastra (the tantric scriptures) one route is sexuality. The sacred union of Shiva (masculine) and Shakti (feminine). The theory is that polarity exists in this entire universe - night and day, good and bad, yin and yang, black and white, male and female, Shiva and Shakti. Shakti represents energy, creation, manifestation, everything on this earth. Shiva is the consciousness which witnesses the action. Shiva is the eye and Shakti is the storm. Without Shiva, Shakti is nothing. Without Shakti, Shiva is nothing. In tantra, the point at which these two forces unite is the point at which Brahma or 'oneness' can be achieved. It is not only a beautiful notion but a beautiful and sacred practice which is completely undermined by ignorant modern-day interpretations based on new age derivations and activities of celebrities such as Sting.  

In the 'yab yum' with my teacher Assaf who I later
ran a workshop with in Goa
To get to the goal requires not only a very high level of purity of body and mind, but rigorous physical and spiritual training that demands an enormous amount of readiness and preparation. There are two pillars in tantra - sublimation (the raising of the energy) and transfiguration of yourself and your partner - to see them and yourself as an incarnation of the divine and to be as devoted to them as you are to God himself. Ram Dass has put this much bRetter than I ever could so I shall defer to him on this one: "It's all about making love. Make love in beauty, in joy, in seeing each other in truth...Let the man worship woman as God, the Holy Mother, the Divine Shakti, the Mana, the Food of Life, the Sustainer of Being, Isis, Astarte, the Good Earth, Terrible Kali and Herself - All of It. She is all of it. Let the woman worship man as God, the Son, the Sun, the Father, the Lite of Her Life, the Creator, the Provider, as Jesus, as Ram, as Shiva, as Krishna, as all of them and Himself. Surrender and die to one another. Become one. The glorious Mystic rose in the garden of the heavenly Father, Permeate the universe, fill it, become it, for this is the union beyond duality. O Holy Family. This is the seat of the practice."  

My beach hut home
And so it was that I lived in a little hut on the beach replete with hammock to swing in as the waves lapped nearby.. Paradise. I enrolled not only on the Tantra 1 and Tantra 2 courses, but a month long intensive yoga training course (6 days per week), which incorporated asana practice, meditation initiation and lessons, esoteric and mystical teaching, philosophy, laya yoga, lessons in a yogic lifestyle and kriyas (cleansing practices). I also embarked on a 10 day detox in which I ate nothing but brown rice and steamed vegetables and avoided all sugar (even toothpaste) to attempt to rid myself of the parasite that kept thwarting me. 

Nicola, my new friend enjoying raw food made with
love by Sabrina  at Wake Up Bar, Chaloklum
It was tough work but I was helped greatly by my fairy godmother Sabrina of Wake Up restaurant who prepared my raw food with love for the duration). With all of this healing work and yet more devotion to spirituality, things came up but on the whole, life was peachy. Tantra had given me a new and wonderful outlook on life and myself. I appeared to magnetise several men whilst on the island, including a gorgeous 22 year old German who became my tantric partner and together we enjoyed intense and beautiful practice. It had been a long time and I entered into love with him fully, consciously, joyfully and spiritually.  

But it wasn't all a walk in the park and, as with most communities, I found some of the aspects of the Agama 'way' challenging. Some of the members of the community were hard core non-drinking, non-smoking yogis who advocated 'urine therapy' (the daily drinking of one's own urine) and eating only 'yang foods' such as brown rice. I don't have anything against the lifestyle choices of others, but again I defer to Ram Dass on this when it comes to enforced asceticism "you cannot rip the skin from the snake, the snake will shed it's skin when it's ready". Nevertheless, with one notable exception (more on this later) the majority of my time on the island was also spent in sobriety. 

What I found more difficult was the encouragement of polyamoury within the community. Whilst I find the concepts of non ownership and unconditional love something to aspire to, I couldn't help but feeling that there were a few people on the island indulging in 'red tantra' - i.e. sex for the sake of sex. In this way, the ego is indulged, not surpassed and it is very easy to fall into the usual sense-pleasure games under the thin guise of 'spirituality'. They do say the tantric path is a slippery one after all. Although at times tempted, I did manage to successfully avoid getting dragged in. Another of my concerns focused around the ubiquitousness of sexual healing and the occasional unscrupulousness of certain people purporting to be healers whose motives might not be entirely pure. Thankfully the instances of this were peripheral and rare, but nonetheless it was something that I was conscious of and had occasional concerns for those more vulnerable than myself.

Despite this, however, my time on the island was nothing short of transformational. I am now a fully fledged and initiated tantrica and I went on from this to not only complete a tantric yoga teacher training course, but found my own company which runs tantric workshops. We have just launched our first event in Goa which was a great success - you can read all about it on my website and our Facebook page. Perhaps most importantly, I learned what it truly is to be a woman. To surrender. To devote myself to the Divine. To be a good partner. To love myself. And I was about to open myself to such riches that I could not have previously dreamt possible before. For this, I have my lover, Phil to thank, I have my new friends to thank (Johnny, Nicola, Lauren) and I have Agama. Although I don't necessarily sign up to all of their teachings, I think I have found my path.

To be continued... 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Cambodia Photo Blog

Entertaining a village full of Khmer children in a Muslim settlement outside Battambang

Khmer BBQ! Squid and chilly sauce at Phsar Thmey Central Market

Stunning Khmer architecture at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh

Beautiful Buildings in The Royal Palace of Cambodia

The atmospheric indoor Russian market in Phnom Penh

Tasty and cheap street food in Phnom Penh

My lovely friend Tim Tim, professional clown, yoga buddy & street food dining companion

The 'best iced coffee in Phnom Penh! in the Russian Market. They actually have their own Facebook page
And this is the reason why it's so good... It is full of sticky, sweet, condensed milk!  Half  a tin of the stuff! 
Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem or the S-21 prison, a former school where inmates where tortured to extract confessions. Over '17,000 'suspects' were 'processed' here, of which only 12 survived. Nightmare-inducing stuff but essential testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge.
Horrific images of forced evacuations, one of the Khmer Rouge's first and most radical moves to enslave citizens as peasants in work camps in order to create an 'ideal' communist society 

Choeung Ek Memorial at one of the many Killing Fields or execution sites...full of the skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge

Pretty in Pink in Phnom Penh

Me and Dana - my HCMC partner in crime, reunited in Happy 11 Backpackers

Buddha statues in a temple around Battambang
All aboard the rackety, clackety bamboo train - there is only one track along which 'carriages' made from Bamboo go in either direction. If a collision is imminent, the carriage with the least amount of people behind it has to be lifted off and disassembled to allow the train coming the other way to pass. Slightly farcical, very fast and lots of fun! 
Receiving a massage from the craggy hands of a blind Khmer woman. Life changing.

Just some of the 216 giant faces of King Jayavarman VII at Bayon Temples, Siem Reap

Crowds gather for sunrise at the infamous Angkor Watt temple

The sun beginning to peep out behind Angkor Watt 

The incredible temple of Ta Promh, being swallowed up by jungle, was used as a film set for 'Tomb Raider' 

Monks on a bike
Exquisite bas relief from Angkor Watt temple depicting the infamous 'churning of the ocean of milk' story of Hindu cosmology in which gods and demons churn the ocean for 1,000yrs to release amritam the nectar of immortality 

Meditating at Beng Melay, ironically a temple dedicated to Vishnu the preserver and now completely reclaimed by nature. A long tuk tuk drive out from the main temple complex at Angor but arguably the highlight of all the ruins. We were the only people there and clambered around in perfect peace
John Beaton (who I met on that infamous bus ride in Vietnam) and I decided one breakfast to make a film in a day in a Cambodian temple. Within 2 hours we had it storyboarded and scripted, had procured cast and crew and 2 x tuk tuks to convey us to the 'set'. A few hours later, it was in the can! Nice work
Action shot! Filming in the back of a tuk tuk

There are huge communities of Vietnamese, Khmer, Chinese and Cham people living on the Mekong Delta, either on boats or on structures like these on stilts and making their living as farmers and fishermen

Film directors

Cast and crew

Mekong Delta people

Cheeky little Khmer children
Traditional Khmer hats

Traditional Khmer dress - different colours are worn on different days of the week

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