Kasbah du ToubkhalWho’d have thought it? That leading a week’s yoga retreat* in Morocco, teaching five hours of yoga per day, with barely a fifth of the preparation time that I’d have liked, would leave me, yes, tired, but full of joy and a steady and enduring mountain energy. This was my home for a week, a little hut in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. I shared it with my friend Nicola Mills, who was the perfect roomie, preparing my morning drinks and helping out whenever I needed it.

The Kasbah du Toubkhal is amazing. A Berber hospitality centre nestled high in the Imlil valley, surrounded by mountains and in sight of the highest peak in north Africa, Jebl Toubkhal. It couldn’t be more beautiful.

Le groupe de 2017But it wasn’t just that. What made this week really special were the people. Our hosts, all Berbers, were delightful, every member of staff smiley and honestly eager to help. And our group. Wow, what a group. An unlikely mix, perhaps, of yoga teachers, novices, French and English of all ages, and (lest we forget the Cranbury) a Californian pastor.

Everyone brought something to the group and together they gave me the support I needed to lead the retreat at what could have been a cripplingly difficult time.  I feel lucky to have had this experience and, instead of being sad that it is over, I feel it has permeated into my very cells, infusing me with the same rosy glow that washed over the mountains morning and evening. Until we meet again. Inshallah.

*The retreat was organised by Roro Retreats, who organise yoga holidays in Morocco, Spain and beyond.

Whoa. Bit late writing September’s blog as life has been throwing my family a few lemons.

Ever since we set ourselves up as The Happy Coulsons, calling our businesses Happy Yoga, Happy Pools, Happy Computers, there has been a nagging thought at the back of my mind : This happiness lark is easy when everything is going well. Despite this, I found myself teaching classes and workshops and writing blogs on how to be happy. But the last time I had to dig deep was 15 years ago, when my dad died. Would I be able to practice what I preach and would it help when things got really bad?

Well, yes, I would. And yes, it does. Phew.

When my darling sister was diagnosed with double cancer in mid-August, life for our family was turned upside down. Back and forth to the UK, to be with her as much as possible, trying to be strong for her while dealing with the heartache inside. It is not easy but I can honestly say that everything I have learned and am still learning through yoga is helping me and my family every step of the way. It doesn’t take the agony away (I still cry, even at work sometimes) but it helps me get back to the place where I can once again choose how I react and keep going. My yoga-centric life also means I am surrounded by people who are not afraid to open their hearts and share love and hope with me and my family. That stuff really works.

So, has the experience I am living at the moment changed how I see happiness? Not a bit. I taught a workshop a while ago on the formula for Happiness = Compassion + Gratitude. We are being overwhelmed by compassion and Vicky literally feels lifted up by it. And gratitude. Well, one of the first things Vicky said to me was not to be too sad as she has had a wonderful life and is so grateful. Our amazing mum taught us how to be grateful for small things – a dewy cobweb on the grass, shiny conkers, a peek of autumn sun. I know now that this formula is the most powerful medicine in the universe. And it is free. For everyone.

Trying to choose a photo to represent our August was tricky. We have done so many fun things together as a family this summer, despite both of us continuing to work hard. Chris has been out cleaning pools every morning and we have had lots of campers and pilgrims. I have been teaching a few yoga classes and hosting and teaching French students for English immersion. But there is nothing we do that our kids can’t do too, and that’s the best bit of our life in France.

Having French students to stay means we get paid to do cool stuff during the holidays, and we have recently discovered canoeing in our local river. We have a 17ft Canadian canoe that we used on the Norfolk Broads when the kids were small but the rivers here are very different. This year, though, we ventured out with the local river association and we can now all hold our own in both canoe and individual kayaks. The river is so beautiful – wild and unspoiled – that Chris and I are seriously considering a two-week canoe trip from where we live to the sea when the kids are at Scout Camp next year.

Summer is festival time in this part of France – there are amazing events going on every single weekend. Even after five years we are still discovering new festivals, and this year we have had the pleasure of sharing them with friends from France and overseas. It is always wonderful to spend quality time with friends, old and new, for us and the children.

I love seeing the kids doing things that don’t require a plug and, apart from TV, the kids’ summer has been entirely screen-free. Not a decision taken lightly and we had our doubts, but it has been brilliant. Just removing it from the list of possible activities has saved a whole load of stress. India is not yet interested but it affects Tana’s behaviour in a way that suggests he is not quite ready. Parental decisions are often plagued by uncertainty but this one contributed to a very happy summer at Happy Coulson 🙂

Yesterday was India’s tenth birthday and the fifth anniversary of our life in France. Lots has changed since this photo of our first meal outside. But one important thing has not. Our capacity to adapt and adjust to whatever life throws at us.

Flexible living has always been key at Happy Coulson. When we only had the rooms we were living in, we would sleep in India’s room and rent our bedroom out to paying guests. When French students stayed, Tana moved in with India so they could have his room. With year-round guests in various guises – workaways, students, pilgrims, holidaymakers, family – we have all had to learn how to be flexible.

Yesterday, India’s birthday plans were foiled twice when it was too cold to go to the water park and her favourite restaurant was closed. No bother. We went for a Morroccan instead and India was pleased there were more vegetarian options for her Aunt Spider.

Tana has already moved out of his room for one student this year and both kids were happy to share India’s room this summer. But they need their own space now so in just two weeks, with lots of help from Chris’ mum and dad, we converted the landing into a room for our French students.

Sliding wardrobe doors from Ikea make the wall and door. Add a secondhand iron bed, desk, chair and bedside table. Finish with lights, a few shelves, a mirror and a genius solution to the lack of hanging space (door handles attached to the underside of a shelf – nice one, Chris). Et voilà – one new bedroom. Already test driven and fully approved by a French student. Flexible living at Happy Coulson 🙂

We were joined one night by three young pilgrims – Italian Jean-Luca, Spaniard Ishmael and Brazilian Loris – who were on their way to Jerusalem. A dear friend from the UK, Anna, was staying with us for the weekend, and our new German workaway, Rabea, had just arrived. When we noticed that it was a full moon, Jean-Luca was keen for us to have a small ceremony. We joined hands and took turns to say something we were grateful for.  “Friends” and “Meeting good people” came up a lot. We have had a flurry of visitors lately – old friends and new friends – reminding us that human connection is a wonderful thing. Seeing our home through other people’s eyes also helps us to pause, look around and really appreciate what we are creating here.

Oh, the madness of May. Pilgrims to feed and put up, pools to clean and open, the potager to prepare and plant. So busy that we had to stop going to our twice-weekly karate class and resigned ourselves to the fact that we wouldn’t be grading this year. Until last week, when Kate goes to training for the first time in ages and decides that “We can do this!”.

Just back from the first of three evenings of tests. All good so far, we think, apart from Chris’ strained hamstring and my busted finger… Maybe we are getting too old for this? Maybe we should just stick to caravanning? Good job we also made time to find and buy Happy Van. Tested at a mini-festival, it passed with flying colours 🙂

April has been a month of exploration. We spent a week in the UK as last Christmas we were given a trip to London to see the Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. It was a wonderful show – they don’t get much better – and an experience we will never forget. But what we all enjoyed most was exploring together.

The children are still young enough to want to spend time with us and that is a gift we are making the most of. We all love walking so that is just what we did. We walked along the marshes on the south coast near Portsmouth, pausing to collect stones and shells. We walked around the centre of London, marvelling at the vitality and craziness of the big city. We walked along the River Thames to the south of London, enjoying the green spring beauty and abundance. We walked (and skated) to Victoria Park in East London, chatting and pointing out things of interest.

This world is full of cool stuff to see. And a lot of it is absolutely free. Hence the new addition to the Happy Coulson family – HappyVan (pictured here awaiting decoration). We have explored our immediate area and now want to venture further afield, towing our sleep pod behind us so we can stay away overnight. The mountains, the beach, rivers, festivals and friends. So much to see, so many experiences to come. Let’s do this.

Organic vegI am watching what I eat. But I’m not on a diet. Diets deprive and that doesn’t work for me. Instead, I am trying to be aware of everything I eat and drink, what it is, where it has come from and how it was produced.

There is not a lot more important than how we nourish our one and only body. Imagine if we were allowed just one car to last us our whole life. I’m pretty sure we would fill it with the best quality fuel, get regular and fullsome services and do everything possible to prolong its life.

So it’s funny how often we barely notice what we’re eating. Food is so cheap and readily available that we can buy it and scoff it without even thinking. We live in a disposable, throwaway society. We eat when we’re not hungry and buy clothes we don’t need. When things are cheap you respect them less. You certainly don’t think about the work that has gone into making them.

Awareness is everything. Get curious about how and where your food was produced. We assume that local, organic food is more expensive and often it has to be. Ethically-raised meat costs more than factory farmed. Crops grown without pesticides and fertilisers yield less, pushing up prices. But we have found a local organic farm where we buy a weekly box of veg for just 11€ (pictured). It is different every week and entirely seasonal, which means it sustains us perfectly at this time of year.

When things are much more expensive, we eat less of them. A quality, free-range chicken here is up to four times the price of a UK supermarket chicken. So we do what people used to do, eat meat less frequently but treat ourselves to a quality cut when we do. I hate spending money. But I do not begrudge spending money on good food. When it costs more, you think harder about whether you really need it. And when you prepare and eat it, you really make it count. Your body deserves that.

February gets bad press. The excitement of Christmas and New Year is over and the weather is usually pants. But we love February at Happy Coulson as it’s the month of our family skiing holiday. For most of the year our house is full of pilgrims, workaways, students and other visitors, which we love. But our February holiday is just for us.

There was a slight hiccup this year when we phoned the owner of our usual apartment to say we were nearly there and she said there was already somebody there! She had made a mistake with the dates and put us down for the following week. So home we went, to try to rearrange all the work we were committed to, including a French student from Paris who was coming to stay for the week.

We were all disappointed, it took a lot of work to change our plans and we lost a fair bit of money. What do you do when things like this happen? I felt like crying, or getting angry. But with who? And would that help? I didn’t cry or get angry as I noticed these feelings creeping up and consciously chose a more helpful response. I can do that (most of the time) because yoga helps me practice and learn mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is trendy at the moment but what does it actually mean? Exactly this. Training yourself to be more aware of what is going on in your mind and learning techniques to help you master your reactions. It’s like the Cherokee tale of the Two Wolves – choosing to feed the good wolf inside you and not the bad. How we actually do this is through mindfulness, becoming aware of our feelings and emotions and choosing which to follow. This is brilliantly explained in this two-minute film.

You don’t have to do yoga to practice mindfulness. It can be as easy as becoming aware of your breath. But like anything worth doing, it takes time to get good so you will need to stick with it. The easiest way to start is with a guided programme – check out Happify or Headspace. Just 10 minutes a day of sitting quietly, being aware of your breath and what’s going on in your head. Give it a real go.

I still get angry. I am still practising. But the great thing is that you can help others learn mindfulness at the same time. When you get angry and don’t catch it in time, don’t beat yourself up, just think about how you could have responded differently. Talk about it with people around you. Admit out loud that you could have chosen a different reaction and it will get easier every time. Children learn by watching us. So let’s teach them how to be more mindful. It is a skill that really does make the whole world a happier place 🙂

The world in our handsThere aren’t many people who are not talking or at least thinking about politics at the moment.  It’s something that I usually try to avoid, despite being a BBC news journalist for several years. My total lack of interest in politics was noticed and disapproved of, especially as one of the five people I trained with was the brilliant and utterly lovely Laura Kuenssberg, now the BBC’s Political Editor…

But there are moments when everyone needs to sit up and notice what is going on in the world. For me, it started with Brexit, then Trump and now concerns around Marine Le Pen in France. We have all seen the comparisons with what happened in Nazi Germany and while I know that we can’t believe everything we read on Facebook, we cannot ignore the fact that atrocities often happen because people turn a blind eye.

Some of my friends think we should just accept that Trump is the president for the next four years. Others believe that as we are ok at the moment we should just keep quiet. No.

My mum always says: “Do as you would be done by”. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Imagine fleeing war with your family. Imagine being persecuted for your peaceful beliefs. We have a responsibility to stand up for those who are being treated unfairly. We don’t need to use violence, we don’t need to rant or rave or throw stones. But we do need to stand up and be counted.


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