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Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

After a very wet summer and autumn and a similar start to this year, everything is feeling decidedly damp. Our snow melted after a couple of days and it seemed that was the only taste of real winter we have had. Now everything has returned to the general dampness that has characterised most of the last year, a perpetual grey autumn leading on to a somewhat murky spring. The path from our house hasn’t dried out in months, the few bright days we have had not being enough to combat the effect of months of wet!

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Whilst it may sound like an obvious point to make, the environment and weather patterns outside our door play a vital role in the patterns of health and disharmony that we experience at any given time. So it’s little wonder than this year has been especially prolific in damp, phlegmy colds, chesty coughs and stuffy noses. The milder temperatures also allow bacteria to thrive and the general feeling of stagnation that comes from a water logged environment contributes to stagnation in our own bodies. So many people I have spoken to this winter have had colds and coughs that have hung on stubbornly for longer than usual and, even after they are feeling much better, there has still been some lingering phlegmy-ness!

While mucus is a natural and important part of our bodies, lining and protecting delicate membranes, phlegm is essentially the mucus of the respiratory passages gone bad! Whilst a balanced amount of mucus is essential to health, phlegm is often thicker, stickier and more related to states of disease or disharmony. Often when there is infection, the body will produce more mucus to help cleanse out the membranes but this can become congested or stuck leaving us with blocked passages along with a general sense of tiredness and malaise.

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Fog bank rolling over the escarpment

In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) conditions of ‘phlegm’ often arise from excess ‘damp’, but whereas damp is thin and watery, phlegm will be thick, sticky and cause obstructions. There will usually be a more obvious thick coating on the tongue along with other signs of congestion. Phlegm can also cause a whole host of other symptoms from dizziness and swellings to palpitations and a feeling of detachment. Dietary measures are often recommended to combat excess damp or phlegm including reducing or eliminating damp causing foods like dairy, bananas, pork, wheat products, beer and sugary foods. Foods to add in often involve root vegetables, garlic and onion, warming spices and teas of orange or lemon peel.

In Ayurvedic medicine phlegm would be seen as a disorder of kapha and treated with warming, drying herbs and lifestyle advice, as it would in Western energetics where the appropriate term, ‘phlegmatic’ sums up the constitution that is prone to an excess of the humour ‘phlegm’.

Depending on the nature of the client and their disharmony, there would be a few herbal categories that we would want to consider when treating people with excessive phlegm including mucus membrane tonics, immune tonics, expectorants, anti-catarrhals and possibly diaphoretics.

Firstly, if possible we would want to think about eliminating causes. This is relatively easy if they are dietary but much harder if they are environmental (a nice long holiday perhaps?). Then we would generally think about treating symptoms with a mix of herbs. Bearing in mind that everyone is different and each person’s unique symptoms and constitution must be considered, here is a list of a few herbal helpers that you may find useful when phlegmy-ness strikes.

Warming spices and aromatics: For many problems involving phlegm, these will be our first herbs of choice. Most warming spices will also have a slightly drying quality and many of the best ones can already be found in your kitchen cupboard such as ginger, cayenne, cinnamon and cardamom. Regular doses of these as tea or tincture will help to warm your whole body which will thin mucus and enable it to be expelled more easily. You can also add them to foods- think of how your nose runs after a spicy curry!

Aromatics will open up the channels and move stagnation and some are still harvestable over the winter months, even though they may not be at their peak in terms of taste or constituents. In particular I have been using rosemary and thyme from the garden this winter to add to foods or to make simple teas that warm body and mind and disperse congestion. Among the most useful of the aromatic herbs for phlegmy coughs is elecampane, Inula helenium, which has a wonderful combination of warming stimulating essential oils and soothing relaxing mucilage.

Mucus membrane tonics: In this category, goldenseal reigns supreme for treating the sinuses, however it is not a native herb and is highly endangered in the wild. Luckily there are some who are trying to grow it in this country. If you do use goldenseal, make sure you always buy from reputable suppliers who are making efforts to protect this valuable herbal ally. Elecampane is once again a very valuable asset for the lungs, as is hyssop, another wonderful aromatic with expectorant, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.

Anti-catarrhals: These include elecampane, aniseed and goldenseal as well as goldenrod, eyebright and elderflower. Elecampane and aniseed are wonderful where phlegm has settled in the lungs whilst the others are more helpful for upper respiratory congestion and sinusitis.

Immune stimulants and anti-microbials: These herbs can help stop infection from occurring and turning a stuffy nose into a full blown sinus infection. Echinacea root is wonderfully useful as an immune stimulant in general but I find it particularly useful where problems of the upper respiratory tract are involved – you can often feel a good extract tingling all through your sinuses. Once again goldenseal is especially helpful being highly anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant. Garlic and onion are also very valuable allies, lots of chopped, raw garlic sprinkled on food is wonderfully anti-microbial and very warming.

As always if you are unsure of anything or have pre-existing health concerns it is wise to consult a local herbalist. Bearing that in  mind, I hope this has given you a few ideas for how to help yourself feel bright and well during these dark, damp days.

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When The Snow Came

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Snow came to our corner of the world on Friday, bringing with it that childlike sense of wonder and awe that never seems to diminish with the passing years.

There is nothing like a covering of snow to make us see the world afresh, as if, for those few brief days, it really was the blank slate it appeared to be and and we could create anything we dreamed of when the ice melted away.

The sight of snow-dusted seed heads of monarda, motherwort and lovage made me glad I have been lazy with tidying up the garden this winter.

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The mild winter so far has meant plenty of new growth appearing too, seen here on rose and ivy and the young nettles out in the lane.

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The colours of tree branches make for beautiful contrasts with the powdery snow, the blackness of ash buds and vibrant green lichen on the willow.

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My favourite tree on snowy days is the oak however. It’s sinewy branches trace dark, dancing patterns across the sky as it stands, like a great guardian, in a white washed world.

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One of my favourite oaks stands in the field in front of our house. This is how it looked on Friday as the first snow began to fall:

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And only two days previously, last Wednesday, bathed in low winter sun:

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I hope that if you too are in a part of the world with snow, you are keeping safe and warm.

I’ll be back soon with a post on using herbs to help banish winter phlegmy-ness!

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The Winter solstice has passed and with it the darkest day and the longest night. As the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky and begins to climb again, we celebrate rebirth and life, symbolised most often these days in the evergreens and sparkling lights with which we decorate our homes.

Often this is a time of year that involves reflection on the year that has passed and the gentle stirrings of hopes and dreams for the year to come. Our own inner process can be seen reflected in the natural world around us, our energy turned inwards, ready to emerge again with the awakening spring.

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So often aspects of consciousness can be seen reflected in nature, it almost seems to me at times that we are alive within a living allegory, a story made manifest in the very fabric of the world we inhabit. And underpinning it all, the nature of our wonderful Mother Earth is not unlike the nature of our consciousness.

The Earth provides for us everything that we know or can conceive of in our physical reality. Even things that appear unnatural like the plastics and pollutants that clog our lands and our waters are made from things that come from the Earth, only the processes they have gone through have made them damaging to us and other life forms. So it is with our thoughts. Even the most horrific of thoughts arise from consciousness but have become mutilated by other aspects of mind, present conditions and collective patterns.

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The Earth itself, like consciousness, just is. Things we label as good or bad, healing or poison, reward or punishment, may all be seen in it, but are not it. Both Earth and consciousness are beyond concepts of good and evil.

Too easily we characterise people, individually and collectively, as either inherently good but misguided, or inherently selfish and bad, but able to control themselves with proper limitations. The field of consciousness is a field of potential however, from which anything can and does arise depending on what is cultivated and how. The greatest kindness, the awful act of violence; the most sublime landscape, the island of plastic bags floating in our ocean.

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For me, disillusioned as I may sometimes become, there will always be hope for humanity because the field of potential is ever present. Within a larger picture than our own individual lives, even in the worst conditions, new life will eventually spring again.

We humans struggle with our perceptions of ourselves as part of nature, yet alienated by our individual experiences of life. Buddhists refer to our human lives as a ‘precious human rebirth’, not because humans are seen as separate from other beings – interconnection is the foundation of much of Buddhist thought – but because humans do perhaps have an enhanced ability to recognise their true nature. The flip side of this is of course that the mind has incredible power and can lead us on all sorts of false trails, but even when mind is totally out of control, consciousness is still what illuminates it and allows it to be, just as the Earth allows everything we can see or touch.

Wishing you all a wonderful festive season, however you choose to celebrate it, and a blessed 2013.

 

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Several people I know have had a nasty cough this autumn that they are finding difficult to shift. As it seems like there is something going around, I thought I would share this herbal cough syrup recipe incase any of you are struggling with the same thing.

A syrup such as this one is lovely if your cough has both dry, tickly phases as well as wetter, more productive ones, as there are herbs here that wll address both states. As a syrup is slippery and sweet in nature though I would avoid it if your cough is very wet and you tend to be an all round damp sort of person. In this case tinctures and teas would probably suit you better.

As I have said before, don’t be put off if you don’t have all these herbs. A classic cough syrup recipe contains just liquorice and thyme herbs so you could try this if you wanted to make it more simple.

I don’t normally use a lot of sugar in the recipes I make but it does work best for this syrup unless you plan to use it all up within a couple of months and store it in the fridge, in which case honey should be fine as an alternative, sticking to equal parts raw honey to herbal liquid.

Herbal Cough Syrup:

25g Thyme leaf
25g Mullein leaf
25g Marshmallow root
25g Licorice root
25g Aniseed
25g Echinacea root
2 sticks Cinnamon

Water 1 litre
Sugar (organic soft dark brown is nicest) 750 g – 1 kg (depending on amount of liquid left after preparation.)
Peppermint EO – 8 drops (be sure you have 100% pure, preferably organic, essential oil, not fragrance oils which can be cut with all kinds of chemicals. Buy from a reputable supplier like Neal’s Yard or Materia Aromatica.)

Method:

Place the roots in a pan along with the aniseed and cinnamon sticks and cover with 1 litre of water. Bring to the boil and then turn down immediately to a gentle simmer, putting the lid on the pan to prevent too much evaporation. Simmer for 20 mins then turn off the heat and add the thyme and mullein allowing to infuse for a further 15 mins. When cooled enough to handle, strain the herbs out and measure how much liquid you have. You should be left with between 750ml and 1 litre.

Return this liquid to the pan along with an equal quantity in grams of soft dark brown sugar. So if you have 800ml liquid you will need to add 800g sugar and so on. Return to a simmer, stirring continually then remove from the heat and stir as it cools and thickens. Add in the drops of peppermint essential oil and stir well to ensure it is properly mixed in. Bottle in sterilised bottles.

You can take a tablespoon of this syrup as needed up to 8 times a day. For children younger than 12 make this a teaspoon and those between 2 and 6 a half teaspoon.

It makes a delicious mix so is a most pleasurable way to banish the season’s ailments.

Wishing you all good health!

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A Song of Ice and Fire

Well Imbolc arrived a few days ago, heralding the beginnings of spring… and bought with it the winter.

Last week we had the first really cold days of the season and today we woke up to a blanket of snow.

The perfect weather for a stroll down the lane, marvelling at how different everything looks after the snow comes.

The few colours to be seen in the starkly beautiful landscape are that much more present and vibrant in contrast with their surroundings.

Icicles hang from the branches, frozen in time, mid-drip.

And teasels bow their heads under the weight of the snow.

The Helichrysum, or curry plant, in the garden looked particularly beautiful, its silvery leaves caught between ice and morning light.

I love the way this weather highlights different aspects of the trees, making me see their forms in a new and inspiring way. Branches of oak and willow looked particularly lovely, their forms intensified by snowlines.

We saw tracks of rabbits, pheasants and foxes alongside our own great stomp-prints.

Can you see the little rabbits out on the lane?

 Some were understandably less enthused at venturing out of their burrows.

Whilst others were very happy to come inside, warm their claws and discover new treats on the kitchen floor.

Whilst we are warming up by the fire, I spare a thought for all the other creatures who will find it difficult to gather enough food today and make sure there is plenty of seed out for the birds.

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Early Winter Sun

Despite the warmer weather we are merely days from December and, even if the temperature is mild, the low winter sun orientates me at the change of season. I love to go out walking on days like these when the sun gleams through the leaves and even the dead stems of roadside plants are lit up with beauty.

The juxtaposition of vibrantly green grass, golden leaves and bare grey/brown branches against a bright blue sky makes for a starkness that is at once deathly and vibrantly alive.

The Burdock seeds catch on my coat and ensure I slow down enough to appreciate their perfect form and subtle beauty. Can you see all the little hooks they use to ensure they are carried near and far? Look a little closer…

Rosehips still bedeck the hedgerows with little flashes of colour whilst Hawthorns are now browning and becoming dull. Their sinewy branches and great thorns look somehow prehistoric and wild as the leaves die back and expose them fully in all their savage beauty.

One of the plants that catches my eye most at this time of year is the wonderfully witchy Black Bryony which winds and twines amongst the branches of other plants. She dangles temptingly juicy red berries like little Christmas ornaments draped through the trees, just ready to seduce the unwary passer by into an eternal sleep. Though it was once used sparingly in herbal medicine, the whole plant is highly poisonous. Maude Grieve tells us, “Death in most painful form is the result of an overdose, while the effect of a small quantity, varying not with the age only, but according to the idiosyncrasies of the patient, leaves little room for determining the limit between safety and destruction.”

And on the subject of Christmas decorations. It’s almost time to hang some mistletoe in our house, just to ensure a maximum number of kisses throughout the month of December!

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I woke up last week to a bright, sunny day and felt a surge of energy in me, almost as if it were already Spring.

So I headed out after breakfast to admire the many wonders of the world around me. In the shade, frost still hung to the leaves and young plants but elsewhere all was aglow with a freshness and vitality that seemed to sing from the rising sap of those first heralds of warmer days.

All about me were the signs that Spring is not so far away.

Spring bulbs in the garden.

Young nettles.

Perfect new Yarrow leaves.

Beautiful baby cleavers.

Fresh and vital Herb Robert.

First teeny Speedwell flower.

Even the autumn leaves, resplendent in death, were aglow in the wintery sun.

My favourite Elder tree, who is one of the most powerful plant spirits I have ever encountered, is just coming into bud and atop the escarpment the gorse was in flower. You know what they say… ‘when gorse is in flower, kissing is in season.’

Elder buds.

Give us a kiss then!

There were others out enjoying the day too and catching a few rays.

Sheep sunbathing.

'Wild' Exmoor ponies.

And when I got home I added a handful of fresh, young cleavers to my seaweed salad and felt the energy of a new year running through me. Cleavers are so delicious and green when they are young and tender so enjoy them over the next couple of months before they get tough and stringy later in the year.

Cleavers, dulse and rocket salad with a tahini and lemon juice dressing.

It was such a joyful day and enough to keep my spirits up for the last of winter and the cold spell they say is coming.

Even in the darkest months there is still so much to be thankful for.

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Virtually everyone I have spoken to recently has a cold and I also began the week with copious amounts of mucus pouring from my nose (too much info, I know!). Luckily it passed quickly and I’m back on form but it inspired me to share my top 5 simple tips for dealing with a cold and restoring the immune system.

People always bemoan the fact that there is no cure for the common cold and fill themselves full of paracetamol, noxious inhalers and antibiotics when all these things will tend to stress the body further, even if they bring temporary relief.  In most peoples’ cases a cold will move through fairly quickly and it’s not necessary to do very much at all other than eat a nourishing diet and stay warm and rested. It’s good to avoid foods that are too rich or mucus forming such as dairy, white flour products, sugar, bananas, sweet fruits like pineapples and mangoes or an excess of nuts. Generally I think when it comes to colds, the simpler the treatment the better. That’s why these tips are arranged from simplest to most complicated, for most people number 1 will be enough, though I did engage all 5 this week when the need arose. There’s nothing here most of you won’t already know but I guess it’s good to have a nudge in the right direction sometimes. ;)

These tips are very general as specific symptoms, chronic infections and low immunity will all require individualised treatment. For most of us just suffering from the occasional seasonal chill however, they should suffice.

  1. Rest: This is without doubt my top tip for colds. It allows the body space to heal itself which is, or at least should be, the ultimate goal of any treatment. I think the reason I tend to get over colds pretty quickly is that I have no problems at all with being grossly lazy! When I start feeling ill it’s straight to bed with a hot water bottle some ginger tea and a good book. In fact, I secretly quite enjoy getting sick on the odd occasion (don’t tell anyone) as it gives me the opportunity to do just that and no one can make me feel guilty for it. So if you’re one of those Type A personalities thats not happy unless 101 things have been achieved in your day and never give yourself time to rest and recuperate, listen to my words of wisdom and get thee to bed.
  2. Steam: A good steam, preferably in a hot bath with some lovely herbs, is wonderful for opening up the pores, clearing the sinuses and helping to move illness out of the body. Teamed with a herbal body rub prior to the bath this is a simple but very effective way to boost immunity. I included a recipe for a bath and shower rub in my post on using essential oils for the immune system here.
  3. Raid the kitchen cupboards: Ginger, lemon, honey, cinnamon, garlic, onion, thyme, sage. black pepper and rosemary are all useful in treating some of the symptoms of a cold. The majority of households will have one if not most of these things in their cupboards so no special herbal medicine stash is needed to get you back on form. Gargle with sage tea for a sore throat, indulge in a thyme foot bath if you have a cough or make a chest compress using a wrung out flannel soaked in thyme tea. Sip lemon and ginger in hot water with a spoon of honey and finely chop garlic in olive oil to spread on your bread. Make a spicy chai with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cloves and a pinch of rooibos or green tea to sip by the fire and add herbs and spices to your soups to fight infection and boost immunity. Treating colds is where kitchen herbalism really comes into its own.
  4. Diaphoretic teas – Diaphoretic herbs are those that encourage sweating and thereby help to rid the body of infection. If you have a feverish cold but are mostly cold and clammy to the touch with cold extremities you’ll benefit most from warming diaphoretic teas like ginger, cinnamon, angelica, sage, thyme and cayenne. However if you are hot and restless and need to release this through sweating, a cooling or relaxing diaphoretic will be of most use to you. These include delicious teas like Lime blossom, elderflower, catnip, chamomile and yarrow. Most colds are kapha, or damp and cold, in nature (hence the name!) so warming diaphoretic teas will be very helpful. However some colds are more pitta or hot and come with inflammation, sore throats a red face and excessive heat. In these cases a warming, stimulating herb will exacerbate the problem whilst cooling and relaxing ones will allow for a gentle release of tension, heat and discomfort.
  5. Elderberry and Echinacea: If you want a bit more support for your immune system then these two herbs are the first port of call for most folks. Lots of studies have shown elderberry’s effectiveness in both treatment and prevention of colds and flus and it’s so delicious taken as a syrup that it becomes no great hardship to take your medicine. Though it is great as a preventative, Echinacea works on the immune system in a variety of ways so it can also be useful as a treatment once you’re already sick. The root is the part most commonly used but this year I’ve been using a lovely Echinacea seed tincture made by my friend and herb grower Therri. She describes it as more nourishing and supportive than the root which is more stimulating. I made up a mix of equal parts Echinacea seed tincture, elderberry tincture and elderberry syrup and it was impressively efficacious.

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Echinacea

What are your favourite tips for treating colds?

 

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The festivities are over for another year and lots of us will have overindulged in rich foods, alcohol and sweets as the season dictates. Many will have made the New Year’s resolution to cut back and an ever increasing number of companies, never missing the chance to make a quick buck during their dry spell, have capitalised on this to produce a wide range of detox products.

However in traditional medicine, which is bound to the cycles of the Earth, Spring was seen as the time to embark on any cleansing routine and certainly this is when we find an abundance of fresh green herbs which will help our bodies to slough off the sluggishness of winter. January is still cold and dark and our bodies need deep nourishing to support them through the second part of the winter rather than being stressed by excessive cleansing and detox routines.

Having said that, I do believe that it’s beneficial to give our bodies some support in clearing out the indulgences of Christmas and the New Year but, as with all things, it’s about having a balanced and sensible approach to what is healthy and seeking always to support the body rather than force it to cleanse which can result in over-burdening the organs of elimination and creating stress.

People have different understandings of the term ‘detox’ and because of this, like all overused words, it can actually be a hindrance rather than a help when describing what I think of as a period of clearing and renewal. Perhaps instead of a January ‘detox’ which can imply actively forcing the body to release toxins in a potentially unbalanced way, what I propose is a January ‘no-tox’. By this I mean removing toxins from our diet and focusing instead on natural, whole and unprocessed foods. Whilst January is not an ideal time for juice fasting, restrictive diets or active cleansing programmes, it’s a perfect time to nourish ourselves with better nutrition and whole foods.

A January no-tox might also involve analysing and recognising what a toxin is and how it gradually poisons us. A toxin can be a T.V. program that leaves us agitated, unhappy or with violent mental images. It can be reading incessant negative comments about the lives of others in popular magazines. It can be a food, a thought pattern, a conversation – absolutely anything. Everything we come into contact with affects us and, as a result, becomes part of who we are. We can’t avoid all the possible toxins in our world but we can make intelligent choices about what we fill our bodies and minds with and as a result, make much more lasting changes than taking strong eliminative herbs for a month then going back to our old ways.

Like the Earth, our bodies can purify themselves… but only when we stop filling them with poisons. We view illness in this society as the body ‘going wrong’ but apply so little thought to why this might be. Cause and effect is a natural law, nothing happens without it.

There is a lovely Buddhist teaching story which underlines the importance of balance beautifully. Before his enlightenment the Buddha sought realisations through excessive fasting as was common practice in Indian spiritual traditions of the day. Finally, weak and emaciated, he was approached by a young milk maid by the name of Sujata who offered him a bowl of sweetened milk and rice.

Accepting the offering gratefully he found the strength to continue his practice and reach enlightenment. Though his companions rejected him as weak for breaking his fast and beginning to eat normally again, they eventually returned to benefit from his teachings and became his first disciples. Later Buddha is said to have remarked that we must be like the strings of a lute, neither to tight or too loose, else we will be unable to fulfil our true potential, just as the lute will be unable to make beautiful music.

There are two traditional sayings that I like to share with people when discussing cleansing and I think each person’s road to health lies somewhere in the balance between both sentiments. The first, Mosquitos are only attracted to a swamp, refers to terrain theory, the idea that disease can only flourish in an impure environment. The second, No fish can live in pure water, is a saying from Traditional Chinese Medicine and is teaching us that seeking to cleanse the body in an obsessive way can actually be detrimental to sustaining life itself.

So, in the spirit of balance, I like to try and support my body after the Christmas excesses with some of the following techniques.

* Body Brushing – My skin spends the whole of winter swaddled in numerous layers of clothing so taking time to do 5 minutes of body brushing before a bath or shower is a lovely way to encourage elimination from the skin by sloughing off dead skin cells, boosting the circulation and lymph flow and encouraging vital processes and renewal.

* Juniper Body Rub  – After my bath I like to use a body oil which again helps boost the lymph and aids gentle cleansing of my whole body. To 100ml of jojoba oil I add 20 drops organic juniper essential oil, 20 drops organic grapefruit, 5 drops organic cypress  and 5 drops organic black pepper.

* Gentle Exercise – Getting out for a walk in nature is really one of the most lovely cleansing, revitalising and renewing activities as it not only boosts circulation to all the body organs but also stimulates peristalsis in the bowel and encourages deep breathing which expels toxins or build up in the lungs.

* Seaweeds and Green Foods – Seaweeds and all fresh green foods are naturally cleansing and nourishing and I love adding them to my meals. I also use spirulina or blue green algae in powder form as they are so dense in vital nutrients.

* Hot Lemon Water –  Drinking a cup of hot water with a squeeze of lemon first thing in the morning is a good way of waking up the liver and stimulating gentle detoxification. I also have been enjoying this simple lemony smoothie which is great for the immune system as well as being cleansing and clearing. The garlic may seem like a strange addition but it actually tastes fairly pleasant!

 

1 Apple
1 Kiwi
Juice of one lemon
1 Garlic clove
Chunk of ginger to taste
Filtered water to cover

And on the topic of good intentions, do have a look at Danielle’s lovely post on sticking to New Year’s resolutions!

Photo of The Buddha and Sujata courtesy of Root Institute.

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Solstice night this year was apparently the longest, darkest night in 500 years, due to the lunar eclipse.

When all is dark and appears to be sleeping I love to imagine everything that’s going on under the earth, which is also a winter wonderland in its own way.

When we were snowed in recently, this is what I dreamt of.

 

Wishing you all a magical Solstice, an enchanted Christmas and an auspicious New Year filled with many blessings xxx

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