Riding My Cycle: The Life-Changing Magic of Going With the Flow

by Lily Lawes

I’ve been paying close attention to my menstrual cycle this year, and it’s been bloody fascinating. Life-changing, in fact. I’ve come to realise that I’ve spent my life, as many women do, fighting against a tide. But since I stopped resisting it, manipulating it, trying to master it, since I gave in and let it carry me, I’ve felt so much more at peace and empowered.

‘Tis the Seasons

I first learnt about Menstrual Cycle Awareness from my yoga teacher Bex Tyrer, who encouraged me to come off the Pill in order to listen to my body and its rhythms free of hormonal manipulation. It was kind of a bugger – the Pill has always helped with my painful menstrual cramps, as well as giving me control over when I’m bleeding (so I’ve never left a festival Portaloo looking like I’ve murdered someone, which is a total plus). But now, almost a year later, I know it’s been worth it. Bex pointed me to the book Wild Power by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer, which lays out the seasons we are all familiar with as an analogy of the power of the cycle.

Inner Winter

This is the time of menstruation, which many of us find challenging. But actually, when I honour what my body is screaming at me to do during this time – rest, slow down, be still – it’s really quite lovely. I drift, I dream, I breathe into the pain and listen to what it’s telling me. I enjoy time out, in peace. And the bleed time is when we’re most connected to our intuition, to our gut feelings (or the spiritual world, if you want to look at it that way). Big decision to make? Bleed on it. Luckily as a freelancer I’m now much more in control of my time, no longer leading client meetings while squirming with discomfort and panicking about leaks. But even at our busiest we can figure out a way to lighten the load, just a little.

Inner Spring

Coming out of the bleed with the rising energy of the first half of the cycle, the world can seem a little bright. Overall this is a playful time, full of possibility – I find I often start buzzing with ideas, I get curious and excited by all kinds of things, life seems more beautiful, I laugh easier, I’m full of anticipation. For me it’s generally pretty sweet, although I have to be careful not to try and charge ahead with a million different ideas, burn myself out and slump into a funk about all the things I’m not achieving – they can wait.

Inner Summer

Many women thrive in the ovulatory phase of the cycle – energy peaks, we’re feeling (and looking) more attractive, more articulate, braver and able to hold everyone around us. Summer is the time of the superwoman we all know well – getting shit done, ticking off lists, juggling a million things and never dropping the (metaphorical or literal) baby. If I’m truly in flow, it’s an incredible time. But I also find my anxiety can spiral at this point in my cycle – if I haven’t figured out where to focus all this energy, I can feel unanchored and unbalanced.

Inner Autumn

This is another challenging time for a lot of women because our bodies begin to call us back. Energy levels start to wind down and we’re reluctant to stop being that summer superwoman. We can’t be as ‘out there’ anymore, we need to return inwards – and there’s a reason for this. It’s important to check back in with ourselves, to make sure we’re listening to our gut and our heart and not going along with external influences we aren’t truly aligned with. In autumn we’re discerning, we take far less crap, we sniff out the bullshit. Personally, I love it, and I get a lot done at this time without procrastinating and faffing, as long as I’m in tune with myself and pulling back from the outside world. What we call ‘PMS’ is often simply the tension between wanting to (or feeling like we should) keep charging on at full steam, and our instincts saying: actually, no. I’m not putting up with this shit today. You had me last week, I need me now.

Sexy Cycle Science

Now, I am no science lady, but it’s all just biology. The overall gist is that we spend the first bit of the cycle looking for a mate, getting all excited and fluffing ourselves up, then we get down to business like crazy (ENERGY!), then we calm down and start looking out for ourselves in case we’re pregnant, and then physically we grieve that no life was made this time round. And then it starts again. Every month, peeps. Every. Goddamn. Month. It seems like a lot, and it IS a lot. Every month our incredible female bodies are preparing to create and nurture LIFE. Human freaking LIFE. Our bodies are astonishing, and we need to remember that. Now, just because we CAN create life doesn’t mean we have to, but we can embrace and honour the natural forces at play to make it happen just as much as the male ejaculation has been honoured and celebrated for thousands of years (or at the very least not shamed out of public discourse).

Mind Engine Optimisation

I guess it does all sound rather exhausting. Why do we have to put our bodies through all this each month? I mean we don’t, thanks to modern medical advances. But all I know is that I wasn’t any happier when I was pushing it down and ignoring it. For me, leaning into my cycle has become the ultimate mindfulness practice. If I start spiralling into despair, it’s often because I haven’t checked in with myself about where I am in the cycle – I haven’t been listening to my body and how I should be honouring it. And it’s basically optimised my life – I know the best time to schedule a night out and when I’m going to be the most fun auntie, and also when to stay home a bit more and enjoy my own company or deep chats with a close friend. I’m learning when to say NO to what doesn’t serve me – in life or simply in that moment. And I have more confidence to say YES to myself and those around me at the times it will be most meaningful.

Life Goes On, Period.

Ultimately, cycles are nature. Life, the universe, everything is cyclical – and we absolutely know that. But even though we watch the leaves falling from the trees and the nights drawing in, we seem to have forgotten that seasons are necessary. Time moves forward, it has to. If we were stuck in a permanent summer we’d be miserable, because we need to slow down at some point. We need the rain to come so the trees don’t die. We need the winter to appreciate how wonderful the summer is, and vice versa. The only thing that grows and grows, that charges ahead with no heed for cycles, is a cancer, and it’s destructive. And tuning into the cycle that happens every 28-31 days within my own body has made me so much calmer about all that. Knowing – truly knowing, deep in my belly – that everything will pass, means I can breathe into the more trying times and be more present in the joyful times.

Going with my own flow really has changed my life, my outlook on the world, and my relationship with myself. It’s been a huge force on my path to self-love, acceptance and respect. And through it I’m able to be more present, giving and caring to the people around me. After years of feeling so much chaos and despair and betrayal from my own body, I now couldn’t feel more in harmony with it.


Resources I’ve Found Useful

Hormonology – Hormone Horoscope
This App is often spot-on at predicting my moods and energy and behaviours, and made me feel better about the wild fluctuations of my whims before I even had a vocabulary for all this stuff.

Flo
A great resource for tracking the cycle, logging symptoms and accessing all kinds of info on women’s health, with personal analysis on the paid version.

Moody Month
A nice little tracking App that logs how you’re feeling at any given time, and also offers lovely advice about energy and factors like the moon and weather.

Red School
Leaders in the global Menstruality movement – read Wild Power and don’t look back. They also do a lot of work on menopause and living cyclically without a womb.

Yoni Shakti by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
A deeper, more spiritual resource with womb yoga techniques for different times of the cycle and loads more.

Unwind the Feminine with Bex Tyrer
A profound experience – Bex’s next yoga immersion is in Bali in December. Go.

A Warm Hug from Cheryl Strayed

A year ago today I met Cheryl Strayed, a writer I have adored for years, at Emirates Lit Fest on International Women’s Day. I wrote about it, and then, because I am the queen of self-doubt and self-sabotage, decided to hide it from the world forever, thinking I’d one day pitch it (I didn’t) or publish it on my own blog (which remains non-existent).

Fortunately, my ride-or-die BFF Lily offered me her platform The Cave Women as a place where my story could live. Because she is the master of helping me get my shit together.

Cheryl talked to me about International Women’s Day, feminism, writing, self-doubt and more, and everything she said remains relevant today.  She gave me a hug and it was magical. I hope she likes this, and I hope you do too. 

Cheryl Strayed: An Interview

by Stacey Siebritz

In Moranthology, the British feminist writer Caitlin Moran talks about the time she interviewed Paul McCartney and how she wasn’t expecting to cry but couldn’t help it. The moment she steps into his room and McCartney asked her if she’d like a cup of tea, the floodgates open. “In a way, I’m not really surprised I’m crying,” she writes. “I’m a godless hippy, so the Beatles are the grid by which I understand the Universe.”

That’s a bit how I feel as I wait in line to meet Cheryl Strayed, my eyes welling up as I attempt to quell the tsunami of emotion that threatens to escape if I don’t get my sh*t together. Because in a way, Cheryl Strayed IS my Beatles. I have read Wild and Brave Enough and Tiny, Beautiful Things over and over and over, in the same way that I have listened to Abbey Road and Rubber Soul and Revolver on repeat. Like the best songs, her art is a balm, a comfort and a compass all in one.

She embraces me in a warm hug as we settle in to chat. Cheryl (can I call her Cheryl?) is in Dubai as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2018, appearing on a panel for International Women’s Day.

“You know, I truly believe that at no other time in history has there been such a global movement for women’s rights,” she says. “I was so surprised to learn that women in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were so aware of things like #TimesUp and the #MeToo movements, which seem like such Western women’s concerns, but they are so switched on. Even though we are all fighting different battles, we are all connected. We’re linking arms across the globe.

“I’m hopeful, I really am. And I feel like we’re leading the charge too. I think it’s the patriarchy that’s on the defence, not feminism. So take heart.”

Later on today, Cheryl will hold court in a packed room where fans will squeeze in clutching copies of her books, sharing chairs and lining up against the walls to hear her talk about Wild, the bestselling memoir that followed her transformative hike through the Pacific Crest Trail. I ask if she’d always known, even during the darkest moments of that journey, that she would one day write a book about it.

“You know, I didn’t write Wild because I did this hike. I wrote Wild because I’m a writer. And my job as a writer is to build a bridge between my life and yours. That’s why I didn’t write it straight away. I couldn’t write it, not until I could tell that story in a way that had a deeper meaning that others could relate to. I had to be able to find something to say about my experience that was about more than just me.”

The first book Cheryl wrote after she hiked the PCT was, in fact, her first novel, Torch. It was only many years later that she would publish Wild, which would go on to be adapted into an Oscar-nominated film with Reese Witherspoon in the lead. (“I’ll say this, I NEVER thought I’d be played by Reese Witherspoon!”) But in fact, Cheryl has been writing since she was 19. How did she have the confidence to call herself a writer at such a young age, I wonder. Didn’t she suffer any creative self-doubt?

“Oh my god, that’s hilarious!” She laughs. “I have nothing BUT self-doubt, even now. Self-doubt is just a part of my creative process. It’s always hard for me to write, I always think I’m a terrible writer!”

But, I ask, half-laughing and half-despairing, if she doesn’t think she’s a good writer, what chance do the rest of us have?

“You know, it wasn’t even about confidence that pushed me back then. It was just this sense that the greatest gift I had to give to the world was my writing. As a writer, you can sometimes feel like you constantly have to justify your profession, especially in the beginning. I can’t tell you how many humiliating, condescending conversations I had to endure.”

“I would feel kind of embarrassed and kind of small, trying to convince people that yes, I am a writer.

“The best piece of advice I can give you is that you have to find a way to believe in yourself because nobody else will. At the end of the day, you have to have that core truth within you, that little inner voice that says, ‘This. Is. My. Calling’. Then the only way you can fail is if you don’t answer the call.”

She leans forward conspiratorially for a moment. “You know, I teach a lot of writing classes, and let me tell you: A clear sign that you’re a terrible writer is if you think you’re just great!” She laughs.

Before she leaves, she signs my book with one final piece of advice.

“To Stacey,

Write like a motherf**ker. Do everything like one.

♥ Cheryl Strayed.”

Cosmic Boobs

‘There’s no such thing as a bad boob!’ This was the battle cry on Day 9 of my 11-day yoga immersion in Bali, as I sat in a semi-circle of women, all of us topless, painting and printing our breasts in funky colours and patterns. Now, I’m not a total prude (although I’m still British), but this was quite outside of what I’d consider a normal Sunday night’s activity. By now, however, we had danced and stamped and sung and yoged our way to a more appreciative understanding of our bodies. We had discussed all the things we knew deep down, about the lies we are sold in the name of capitalism, and the big money to be made on the epidemic of self-loathing. We had even done some group therapy and stripped away the masks we put on to diminish ourselves and be ‘accepted’, and we’d agreed that, really, there’s no such thing as a bad boob.

I had, tentatively, surrendered everything I thought I knew about the size and weight of my body when I was introduced to acro-yoga. This beautiful form requires two or more people to work together, using each other’s body weight to lift each other and ‘fly’ – it’s super fun. I was lifted and flown by women much smaller than me – an exercise that took a serious amount of trust and letting go, and no small amount of astonishment!

We’d also received a talk by a nutritionist called Kate Reardon, an Australian woman absolutely bursting with life. In just a couple of hours, she packed us with insights into the inner working of the digestive system, and interesting things started clicking into place. Learning that the majority of serotonin receptors are located in the small intestine was certainly food for thought – the state of my mood is directly linked to the state of my gut. And when they talk about ‘a gut feeling’, it’s not just a saying – this is the place where the body processes emotions that, ignored and undigested, can get stuck and fester. I realised how freaking hard my body is working for me every damn day – the very least I can do is start listening to it, and particularly to my second brain, my gut, my intuition.

Bex Tyrer’s ‘Freedom Through Movement’ philosophy, which she has been developing over two decades of study, is ultimately about finding true connection with your body and listening to it, opening the channels of communication and discovering the fullness of the self – that doesn’t solely exist in the ‘mind’ (with all those pesky thoughts), but in an incredibly complex web of bones and nerves and energy and hormones and emotions and all kinds of other stuff. Through yoga, we stripped back the rigidity of traditional asana practice and felt around for where our bodies wanted to stretch and move and unwind. Through dance and song we felt joyful and embodied, and through tantra, we thought about how our own bodies are a part of something much greater than us.

Because it’s beautiful to look around at the sky and the trees and the vastness of the sea, and to understand that I am part of all this. Every cell in my being is interconnected to all the cells in all the cosmos. I can see it in the way my veins look like rivers, which look like lightning, and in the way my wonky boob print looks like something from space. Everything we see and feel, it’s all cosmically connected. So if the flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado thousands of miles away, how careful do I need to be in the way I treat and think about my own body, and the nature of the energy I put into the world? One day this body will return to the earth, so who am I to fuck with it, to treat it with nothing but the respect I would treat another human body?

What truly struck me, somewhere along this journey, was the fundamental truth that my body is only one dimension of who I am. My body is simply the vehicle I have in which to take this brief journey, and the more I offer it love and respect and gratitude for what it does, the more joyful the drive will be. Which is why I’m learning to accept, appreciate and love my wonky, cosmic boobs.

I Am Not This Body

I am in this body,
I am of this body,
I am not this body.
I am not fat, but my body is big.

I am in this skin,
I am of this skin,
I am not this skin.
I glow with many colours, but my skin is pale.

I am behind these eyes,
I am of these eyes,
I am not these eyes.
I see dazzling light, but my pupils are dark.

I am full of blood,
I am of my blood,
I am not my blood.
I flow with life, and breath and strength, but my blood flows with the moon.

I have this heart,
I am of this heart,
I am not this heart.
Love is the pulse of my rhythm, but my heart. just. beats.

Just To Have A Body

I had high expectations of the yoga immersion I was embarking on – ‘Body Image, Identity and Yoga’ with Bex Tyrer – and at the same time, huge apprehension. How ‘transformative’ can something be in just 11 days? And also, disturbingly, I think I was actually kind of afraid. Because if this thing was actually going to convince me to accept myself, as I am, right now, then I would never achieve the mythical ‘me’ that I’ve been culturally programmed to aspire to – the one where I’m skinny enough, clever enough, cool enough, creative enough, funny enough, desirable enough… I guess it felt like I’d be giving up on myself in some way. And although I know, intellectually, that’s all bullshit (enough for who, huh?), there was this irrational fear that it might actually… work.

These mixed feelings made me quite emotional on Day 1, as Bex bathed my feet and thanked me for having the courage to join the immersion even though I was one of only two people she didn’t already know and that weren’t yoga teachers, which made it all the more daunting. Getting settled onto the floor of the studio in which we would spend a lot of time over the coming days, Bex introduced herself and the course. She was very honest about her history with eating disorders, and the journey she’d been on to get to this point over 20 years of study. We all shared what had brought us here (for me it was Kali, really) – and I found myself in yet another circle of women trying to make sense of all the nonsense the world has thrown at us about what it means to inhabit a woman’s body. This time, we were exploring it through the lens of Tantra, which treats the body as the key to liberation (rather than an obstacle to overcome, like other yogic philosophies).

And Kali was our guide for the immersion. We built a yantra dedicated to the Hindu goddess – meticulously following the geometric pattern that represents her using different coloured petals – adding candles and meditating on it. It was a beautiful opening ceremony, which ended with lifting the yantra to the sky three times together. On the third, invoking the destructive, changing nature of Kali, we threw it in the air and the petals rained down on us. In many representations, Kali dances on the chest of her husband Shiva, carrying weapons, with a necklace of skulls around her neck and her tongue sticking out. She means business. She’s intense. The literal meaning of her name is ‘time’, and what greater power is there than the passing of time? It’s unstoppable – there’s nothing to do but accept it. As Uma Dinsmore-Tuli states in her incredible book Yoni Shakti (the foundation text for the course): ‘Kali, in her closeness to death and darkness, shows us the necessity for self-acceptance and surrender. Her great power is the power that comes with acceptance of change, and the willingness to let go in order to grow. At its most profound level, Kali’s siddhi empowers us to drop the limitations of who we think we are in order to encounter the limitless potential of what we can become.’

On the second day, after a juicy morning practice that celebrated the femininity of our bodies (you know, with a uterus and its power to create life, casual), I was introduced to ecstatic dance. Now, I love dancing, but I’m usually drunk AF and with a crew of friends at my side. This was 200 people dancing like nobody’s watching, sober, at 11am on a Sunday. It was kind of intimidating, and I felt uptight and self-conscious. The DJ played everything from New Age hippie stuff to dirty dubstep, and people were just… moving. Some fast, some slow, some were just hugging, some were still. I bopped about a bit. I stuck to the side of Jess, my new Australian yoga immersion friend. And once I got into it, I thought less about how I looked and more about how I felt. Because no one really was watching, and certainly not judging. And even if they were… so fucking what?

Dance was a surprisingly big part of the immersion. We were treated to several sessions of Capoeira Angola with the lovely Charli, a friend of Bex and one of only two female Capoeiristas in the UK. Capoeira is a Brazilian fight-dance that was developed by the West African slaves that ended up there. It’s beautiful to watch and HARD to do – you have to stay low to the ground and make sure nothing but your feet, hands and head touch the floor. My favourite part was the hypnotic beat of the drums, and sitting around the roda singing in Portuguese. We learnt some of the moves and twists and kicks that happen when two players are ‘fighting’ each other, and it felt like a powerful new way to move our bodies.

We also spent an extraordinary morning with a woman called Malaika dancing the Five Elements. We began on the floor as ether, creating space, and moved through fire, air, earth and water. Each element had its own sound and feel, and we really had to give up all concern to what we looked like. That was irrelevant. There was a lot of pelvic thrusting as we embraced our ‘power centre’ and listened to the fire there. We stamped around, grounding ourselves to the earth, and we ended up floating like water into one giant spoon. I had a very physical reaction to the emotion of it, and ran off to throw up. It felt like my body was rejecting the heaviness of the crap (self-criticism?) it’s been carrying around all this time.

With all this movement, I was freaking exhausted. But I was suddenly feeling this whole new connection with my body. I was USING my body and it was doing wonderful things. It felt strong. It felt alive. ‘Just to have a body!’ Bex would often cry, and I was beginning to understand what she meant.

Featured artwork by @tarablanca_printmaker_yoguini

Flying Solo

I ended up staying in Bali for two months, instead of my planned five weeks. The final few days of my Unsettled retreat had come around so unbelievably fast – a whole month of adventure, learning, quiet moments, laughs, hugs, discovery, strangers-turned-friends, one giant love-fest… Finding a tribe and connecting so quickly and comfortably with new people was a revelation for me – I’m only just realising how much anxiety has affected my social interactions throughout my life. A low dose of anti-depressants over the last 18 months has thankfully cleared a lot of that fog and helped me be a lot more present in situations – and thank Christ, as we shared a special experience on that beautiful Indonesian island. From our first adventure – which had felt so insanely cool, all riding pillion on a convoy of scooters out to the stunning rice paddies – life had settled into a sort of rhythm. We’d see each other at breakfast, or just hang out and chitchat after dinner. We felt like this little family. We’d make plans to pop to a yoga class, a vegan café or a sound healing session (because Ubud), and we had regular workshops that were really interesting and useful on things like finding our Ikigai – a Japanese concept of life purpose that’s the sweet spot between what you love, what you’re good at and what you care about.

But although it was time to move on, Bali and I weren’t finished with each other. During a class at the Yoga Barn I’d picked up a flyer for a 100-hour yoga immersion called ‘Body Image, Identity and Yoga’ with Bex Tyrer. It was a postcard with a beautiful illustration of the Hindu goddess Kali – who just happens to be my favourite goddess because she’s fierce and takes no bullshit. The immersion promised to be ‘as personal as it is political… a course that is about real liberation!’ As someone who’s spent far too much energy hating my body and carrying the heaviness of anxiety and insecurity, I wanted to be liberated. But could I handle 12 straight days of yoga, studying and who knows what else? And I’ve only been on my yoga journey for a year or so – since it all started clicking into place at Dina Ghandour’s blissful Jivamukti classes – would it be, like, fraudulent? And I’m certainly not some slim, fit, super bendy yogi so it could be rather embarrassing spending so much time in a studio. But this was literally about body image, and Jessamyn Stanley’s Instagram feed has shown me that any body is a yoga body – if it can breathe, it can yoge. I had come this far with my personal development, I had the luxury of time, and I had Kali on my side – I couldn’t manage to talk myself out of it.
https://www.instagram.com/p/BGowF-9kOwH/?hl=en&taken-by=mynameisjessamyn
But first, I was flying solo – alone and catching a flight to Kuala Lumpur, not because I wanted to leave Bali, but because (classic Lils) I’d failed to get my paperwork in order and had to do a visa run. It was kind of a shock to be in such a metropolis, but also rather exciting to be in a major Asian city again after quite a few years. There was that heady mix of modernity and oldness with shining skyscrapers and grotty back alleys, fancy restaurants and street food vendors. I find Asian cities bafflingly, beguilingly bonkers. The aim of the game was to eat, of course, and I stayed just behind Jalan Alor, a street of steaming dim sum, barbecuing meat, intimidating local cafes and exotic fruit vendors all hustling for business from the horde of tourists bustling through. I’m dribbling just thinking about the smells. I also jumped on the hop-on hop-off bus (more on than off – it was freaking BOILING in KL and the arrival of my period upped my body temperature to levels not conducive to happy sightseeing). I hit the spa for the longest massage of my life and had a blast in a pharmacy – Asian pharmacies are so fun and cheap!

After a few days of shiny, grubby, urban chaos and calm, I headed back to Bali with a sense of purpose. I had a website to create, a blog to start, a podcast to kick off and some exploring to do before my yoga immersion. And I had a new appreciation for Bali – I was picked up from the airport by my taxi driver friend Nano and we had such a great chat about language, food, culture and tourism as we crawled along in traffic. I delighted in the familiarity of the old mossy walls and the ornately decorated temples chiming out plinky plonky music. The ubiquitous offerings placed in doorways, on statues, car bonnets, shop counters. The kites in the sky giving thanks for the harvest, the rice paddies glittering in the sunset and the banana trees vividly waving hello. The smell of the frangipani and the incessant tooting of car horns that feels more respectful than rude, and the sense that you’ll get there when you get there. Returning to Villa Kakul was like coming home – even though my Unsettled friends were no longer there (which was unsettling), the staff are so typically Balinese in their welcoming warmth – especially chatty young Yuda, an absolute legend.

I spent a few days in Ubud checking out another awesome and inspiring co-working space called Hubud, and moved forward with the conception of The Cave Women before I headed off to the Gili Islands for my solo writing retreat. I was also able to check in with my new friend Fereshteh – a serenely kickass Unsettled participant and fellow Dubaian who was also staying longer in Bali to figure out some things. By the time I returned to Ubud for the yoga immersion, I was nervous but ready to take a deep dive into whatever yoga could offer me as a woman on a journey into rather uncharted territory.

Seismic Shifts

I began writing this blog on the tiny island of Gili Meno, and I published the first instalment from Gili Trawangan. These tiny tropical islands belong to Lombok, a two-hour boat ride away from neighbouring Bali. I spent three magical days on Meno, in a hut right on the beach where I could write without distraction (as challenged on the Life Design Lab). I would lay in my hammock and listen to the ocean, eat alone at little warungs (local cafes) looking out at the white coarse sand and clear blue water, and even discovered a wonderful yoga teacher called Giulia Lops. Giulia, a Brazilian national who is also a talented filmmaker, was working at the only resort on the island and teaching in a beautiful shala made entirely from bamboo. We bonded over a shared paralysis about how we were to going to move forward with our lives – could we even imagine life outside this paradise? And we talked about self-confidence, and how women struggle to love themselves, and chakras and sunrises, and we encouraged each other as creatives to get out there – me with this little blog idea I was working on and she with her filmmaking. Yaas queen!

From Meno, I hopped across to Gili Trawangan, which felt positively metropolitan in contrast. There was a bustle of tourists and horse-drawn carts (no cars or mopeds to be found on the Gilis), bars and cafes with actual wi-fi, and dozens of dive shops – this was the party island. I snorkelled and dived with turtles, watched an incredible sunset over Mount Agung (towering above Bali in the distance) and I met up with Robyn – an old friend from Dubai who has been working on Gili T as a dive instructor for a few years now. Robyn turned her back on the corporate life to spend her days diving and meeting people from all over the world, and she’s found Indonesian and international colleagues that have become family. We got rather drunk with a group of her friends celebrating a birthday (while I was high on the response to my first blog post) and we had a fab time catching up (and a less than fab hangover).

This all happened after my Unsettled retreat in Bali had finished, and after a solo visa run to Kuala Lumpur. Since my time there, however, Lombok and the Gilis have been devastated by a series of earthquakes and aftershocks. Hundreds of people have died, hundreds of thousands of homes have been destroyed, and many, many people are very vulnerable right now in need of shelter and supplies. Thousands of people were evacuated from the Gilis, but Robyn (thankfully safe) and her wonderful colleagues at Uber Scuba have been co-ordinating a relief effort for and through their Lombok-native staff. There are other grassroots organisations recommended by friends in Indonesia making sure that any donated funds get to where they need to go, both in terms of immediate aid and the rebuilding that is underway. If you’re able to spare something then please, please do.

I’m gutted that these beautiful islands are suffering through such a turbulent time. After my days of writing and rewriting, and the angst and self-doubt and rallying it took to press ‘publish’ on my first silly little blog post, there on Gili T in that little vegan café with the great wi-fi, and then the overwhelming love and support I received from friends and family, and even a few strangers, for that very blog post… And then the turtles I hung out with when I was diving in the afternoon, and trying to sing like The Little Mermaid through a regulator at a depth of 18 metres, and the awesomely chilled locals at the warung serving up satay chicken and fried rice and beers with a warm, open smile, and the drinking and the dancing… And even the next day when the bonkers Eid parade carried a giant Qur’an as a carnival of happy, torch-wielding islanders celebrated the passing of a prosperous and peaceful Ramadan, and the day after that when the sun was still shining and the sea turquoise and the fishing boats pottered in and out, and tourists arrived and life continued as I waited on the beach for my boat back to Bali, looking out at the serenity of Lombok with its volcanic peaks… It was here that something major switched in me. It’s where I began writing what I truly wanted to write. It’s where my little blog and podcast idea became something real, in the world, holding me accountable to my big ideas and thoughts and feelings, ones that I’d never expected to have the courage to put out there – let alone think that people would read. The Gilis gave me so much, and I hope those special islands and their special people get what they need.

The Endri Foundation
Raising money for the forgotten children of Lombok, with a special earthquake fund

Lombok Earthquake Support
Local Go Fund Me page

Friends Who Pray Together…

A few weeks into my Unsettled experience, and straight after my final LDL session, I met up with another Dubai friend. Grace had been travelling around South East Asia, and had just arrived for a few days in Ubud. It was so good to see her, and Rhi joined us after lunch. Now, Rhi and Grace are two friends I definitely associate with drinking, partying, going a bit nuts. But that night, Rhi and I were getting up for a 2am start to go and hike a volcano with the Unsettled crew. Yowser. Grace, it seemed, had been partying her way pretty hard through Asia, and was in no hurry to get on it. So, to my utter astonishment, what we did together was… pray.

The three of us headed out on two scooters to Pura Tirta Empul, a famous Hindu water temple close to Ubud that’s a must on the tourist checklist. Several of my friends had already been, and I was intrigued – the thing to do at the temple was to enter the water and undertake a ritual that involved a number of fountains shooting out water from a holy spring. We arrived and it was busy, and I was apprehensive. It didn’t exactly feel sacred, with loads of tourists getting pictures of themselves donning a green sarong and ‘purifying’ themselves in the holy water. Which had fish in it. But the girls were up for it, I was here, so why not. We changed into the green sarong, and a guide at the temple talked us through the ritual as the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed down. The bathing pools were suddenly cleared of people, and once the rain stopped we meditated on our offerings (little palm-leaf boxes with flowers, incense and something edible, that are EVERYWHERE in Bali), stepped into the slimy, fishy pool, and waded to the first fountain.
https://www.instagram.com/p/BjFlGYaFflm/?hl=en&taken-by=palodiazm
As instructed, I put my hands in prayer, and put my head under the fountain. I did three Oms, and then I sung the only Sanskrit chant I know: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu (which we sing in my Jivamukti yoga class). It means ‘may all beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all’. I also prayed to my favourite goddess, Kali, and to Ganesha as well, for the clarity, courage and conviction to follow my heart. This isn’t necessarily how you’re supposed to do the ritual, but it worked for me and I repeated it under each of the following 10 fountains in the first pool. It was meditative, and I suddenly understood the power of ritual. My mind felt clearer, my body felt lighter. Into the next pool for two fountains that cleanse the soul, and then the final pool to heal physical ailments. I loved it. All three of us felt cleansed and lightened by it. And it was a rather appropriate way to close the Life Design Lab for myself – galvanised as a seeker, unashamed to get deep with myself, in the presence of friends, without judgement or expectation. We did, of course, stop for a beer on the way back, and said goodbye to Grace having had quite a meaningful time together. Rhi and I headed back for an early night, ready for our sunrise hike.

We left Villa Kakul dark and early, and drove for an hour or so to the base of Mount Batur, a sleeping volcano that’s another must on the tourist checklist. Here, we could see millions of stars, and the blur of the Milky Way was incredibly bright. We began walking, at first along an easy, steady slope, which then became increasingly steep and more challenging. It was a cool night, but I started to sweat and wonder what on earth I’d signed up for. The ground was thick with dark volcanic dust, and the trail was narrow between dense brush, with an opening every now and then with enough room to step aside and let people past. Looking up, a trail of flashlights snaked skywards – hundreds of people were on the side of this mountain, aiming like us to get to the top in time for sunrise. The path turned into more of a climb – the rock was steep and it was a challenge to pick a path up the sharp edges and jutting rocks. My heart was racing, and I started to panic. I stopped and moved aside to let people past, and Rhi and Areti stopped with me. I told them to go ahead, that I’d need to take my time on this, but they weren’t leaving me behind. ‘It’s fine! We’ll take our time!’ We stood and marvelled at the stars, and looked down and realised how far we’d ascended. We chatted, laughed, sang, and carried on until I needed another pause. I was still apologetic, but the ever-cheerful Areti was dismissive ‘don’t worry, we’ll get there when we get there – and the sun will still be there!’ It was incredibly reassuring, and a previous Lily would have pushed too hard for fear of keeping people back, and out of shame for not being fit enough, and would have ended up in a full-on panic attack. But I was equipped with this new knowledge of myself – that I have to take things at my own pace and do things my own way. I’ll get there eventually if I listen to myself, and so guilt and shame about it really are not necessary. We carried on in this way, stopping often for me to catch my breath and slow my heart rate while we chatted and sang and gazed at the stars. And you know what? We made it to the top of the mountain in perfect time to join the rest of the group for the most incredible sunrise of our lives.

temple2
temple1

#LivingOurBestLives

Heading into the second week of my Life Design Lab course, Leannah’s challenge was to design the life we could see in front of us. Dude, that’s why we’re here! We’d learnt and accepted so much about ourselves, but we didn’t have any solid answers yet. But we were to take stock of where we were at this point, what we were working on, what was most likely to happen next, and how would we want that to pan out over the next five years. Yikes! I tackled it within the framework I had, and with the priority to make money for, you know, bills and stuff. Once this first iteration of life was planned out, we were told it was impossible. If we couldn’t do any of that stuff, what was plan B? And then once that was down, we wrote a third life design – what if money wasn’t an issue, what if there was no self-doubt, we’d excel at anything we tried… This was the big surprise. Mine involved writing a novel, starting a podcast, overthrowing the patriarchy and, in the fifth year, becoming prime minister so I could fix everything. Whaaaaaat! Where on earth had that come from? Well, from me. Not that I wanted to become a politician, I just wanted to be in a position of such influence that I could create some serious shifts in society – to make equality a reality, and poverty and struggle a thing of the past. Nothing too ambitious then, right?!!

The next day I was in the spotlight. I had to tell the girls about my three life designs while they listened and took notes, and then challenged me on everything I’d said. ‘The podcast keeps coming up in the different life designs – why?’ Because I want to explore the myths and stories I listened to as a child, but from a feminist perspective, and I think a podcast would be a beautiful way to do this. ‘Why did the novel only appear in the third iteration, where money and ability were of no concern?’ Good question. Was it something I truly wanted to attempt? Yes. And apparently my energy soared and my face lit up when talking about using my platform to speak honestly, empower women and girls, to overthrow the patriarchy and ‘convince stupid old white men to shut up and stand down’.

Following this, we were all given post-its to write as many ideas as possible to kickstart Lily’s New Life. I received dozens of ideas that were simple, made so much sense, and put me on a path to where I wanted to go. I was challenged to just start the podcast – and we made a plan to meet up the following week to record something. This was exciting! It also became clear that I just needed to write, to create, and stop blocking myself. I’d done a few strengths-finder tests online, and creativity consistently came up – plus I also had the testament of my close friends. I did a Talent Dynamics profile test, at a cost, which put me solidly in the role of Creator. I couldn’t deny any more, despite my insecurities, that I needed a creative outlet. I was to plan a solo retreat for a few days and just see what came out of my brain (spoiler: this blog). As a collaborative effort and with our combined energy and brainpower, where the girls had my back, could see me for what I was capable of and truly believed in me – it was as exhilarating as the obstacle course.

Amritha was in the spotlight the following day, and Tanya the day after that. It was just as empowering to become a part of their story as it was to have them help with mine. These women have serious ambitions, things that, like me, they didn’t fully realise they wanted, and all three of us were concerned, in our own ways, with empowering and championing women, creating beautiful content and experiences, bringing people together and being a force in the world. Amritha’s stunning music platform is just the tip of the iceberg – check out her incredible voice and join her fab SoulTribe on Instagram. As for Tanya, her gift for hunting out beautiful things and unique places is going to turn into one hell of an experience empire (unless I can convince her to curate my own life full-time). Life Design Lab came to an end with all of us buzzing at what we’d achieved, realised and uncovered. I felt so grateful to have these girls in my life now, and I was invested in their journeys that had become inextricably linked to my own.

Tanya Swift, Liloncé and Amritha Franklin met in Uluwatu the following week as planned for our own LDL finale. It’s the beautiful, southernmost tip of the island of Bali and a surfer’s paradise. Tanya and I spent a couple of days there together #livingourbestlives at stunning beach clubs she found, dancing, losing debit cards, failing to trip on mushrooms and generally letting off steam from the intense couple of weeks we’d had on LDL. Baring our souls and being so vulnerable together in our little women’s circle had gifted us an awesome friendship, but Christ, there’s a point where you just need to have some FUN. We also needed to catch up on emails and life admin, and so we found a beach club called Ulu Cliffhouse – the swankiest, sunniest office we’ve ever known.

Amritha joined us on our final day, and we even picked up a new French friend, a woman right on our wavelength as we discussed the pitfalls of being a woman trying to fit a mould, and the exhaustion of the corporate grind. She didn’t bat an eyelid at the weird shit we were doing – including rounding off the day with a little symbolic ritual that Tanya had been planning. We all wrote down the negative bullshit we needed to let go of, and as the sun went down and cast a gloriously fiery end to the day, we burnt them. But first was the task at hand – recording my first podcast. I had some ideas that needed refining in terms of the format, so this was to be a test run and a chance to have a good old chat about what we’d been through together in the last few weeks. We headed down to the beach to look for a quiet spot, and moving away from the crowds of surfers and sunbathers we came across a cave in the cliff. It seemed like the perfect place – secluded, hopefully good for the acoustics, and just… really cool! I loved hosting the conversation – the sea was quite loud, and the discussion wasn’t planned out so there were a few awkward pauses, but for me it was perfect, we were doing it, and it was exactly the boost I needed. Walking away from the cave after we’d recorded, I blurted out ‘how appropriate to have found a vagina in the rock!’ The Cave Women was born.

Here’s a very rough edit of the audio we recorded! (I haven’t done any work on the sound quality yet, soz.)

cave

All The Funs

The euphoria of what I’d achieved in that first week of Life Design Lab – physically and mentally – set the tone for the weekend, which was perfect timing for the arrival of my wonderful friend Rhi from Dubai. We had a fab time in the beach town of Canggu, where I’d booked a gorgeous villa that was open to the elements, with a private pool in a lush garden and an outside bathroom (I love how common these are in Bali. It’s weirdly liberating to get naked in the company of trees and geckos). We toured some stunning beach clubs – La Laguna, which had this laid back, softly lit, gypsy vibe going on, and La Brisa – which felt like where the lost boys live in the movie Hook. Here, we ignored the magical Bali sunset vibes and sat in a corner to stream the Royal Wedding. I’m not a royalist, but this was an event (and two seasons of The Crown have rendered me fascinated by the royal circus). While I couldn’t hear everything properly, I was thrilled that Meghan and Harry managed to turn an exercise in pomp and bullshit into a genuine celebration of love, of blackness, and the autonomy of women. The world needed this.

The weekend was a blur of massages, Bintangs, sunning ourselves, and cocktails at more beach clubs – such a hardship, but Rhi was in need of serious R&R, I had to provide! We explored Canggu on a scooter (my first time driving with a passenger, eek), and we managed to clear an entire dancefloor of baffled youths with our enthusiastic moves at 2am – overall we had a blast. We also met a friend of a friend for coffee – Lauren is another life coach, and had been in Bali for a year or so. She was glowing, with beach hair and the outfit to match. I wondered if this is what living in Bali did to you, and could I have some?! It was interesting to see Lauren unable to resist coaching mode when Rhi talked about her stressful job. It’s like this powerful secret that needs to be imparted once you’ve rejected the conventions of the corporate world – you don’t have to live this way if it’s not serving you. As well as the coaching, Lauren had found a remote company that she could do legal consultation for on her own terms – another indication of the way the world of work is moving forward.

We headed back to Ubud, and went straight out tango dancing, of all things! I had been to a workshop at Outpost in which a shy Russian guy mentioned self-consciously that he wanted to grow his following on social media. When he finally told us it was because he was a tango instructor and needed to up his marketing game, the room went nuts. Whaaat! This guy was cool! Rhi and I went along to his taster session at Gana Restaurant on a Sunday evening. I made Rhi go first, naturally, and was totally going to chicken out, but was soon being whisked around the dancefloor by the rather solemn Kirill. It was actually really fun! And another lessons about myself – I was struggling to relinquish control, to relax and just be led, and found myself trying to anticipate the next move. Classic Lils, but good to make a note of as something to work on.

Rhi fit in brilliantly with my Unsettled crew, as I knew she would, joining us for our family dinner and a big night out the following day – it was Areti’s birthday, and a bunch of us went to No Más to dance to the Latin band there (a wild night for Ubud!). This was soooo much fun – I’d had a pretty intense morning on LDL and needed to let loose. Andi, a diminutive Venezuelan-American treat whose hips were born to salsa, showed us how to move, Tamika propped up the bar, doctor Alice was her delightful self, I resorted to my ‘Spanish Spanish Spanish Spaaaanish’ interpretation of all the lyrics, and Rhi was the life and soul. I had been feeling bad for Rhi, as I was processing a lot from the morning LDL sessions and we were on very different schedules. Rhi was on holiday, wanting to see and do as much as possible, and I was on Bali time, deep in my own head, struggling to focus on much else. She was very understanding though, and I had to accept that I needed space to think while she went off and did some super fun activities I would ordinarily have been up for. We even parted ways for a day or so, and I was grateful that she understood.

Learning to say no is something I’m working on. I’m usually up for stuff – activities, socialising, all the funs. But I’ve noticed I need to recognise when my body, or my mind, is saying no, like if I just need to take some quiet time, or give myself the space to work on something creative and more mentally nourishing. And also, now that money is an issue, reining in the spending! I’ve wasted so much money on alcohol that I didn’t need over the years – either because I felt that I couldn’t have a good time without it, or as a release from work stress or other anxieties. But I don’t always need to drink to have fun when I’m with the right people, and just because I say no to something today, doesn’t mean I won’t be invited in the future. I’ve learnt that as an introvert/extrovert, I need around a 50/50 split of time with people and time alone. Too much of the former and I get derailed from myself, and too much of the latter and I get depressed. I always thought I was an introvert but I really do bounce off the energy of the people that I love, and that inspire me. And as someone who spends far too much time and energy analysing and fretting about completely inconsequential things, blowing off steam and quieting my mind is essential. I’m just trying to be more mindful of how and when I do it.

Taking A Leap

Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, forgot he had this incredible power to fly across vast spaces, until he had to take a great leap from India to Sri Lanka. Bali has many sacred forests dedicated to the monkeys that inhabit them, and Jalan Hanuman is one of the main streets in Ubud.

I bring this up because on the fourth day of the Life Design Lab we were pushed to take our own leap. We’d spent three days digging deep, figuring out our values, trying to recalibrate what our strengths and ‘weaknesses’ truly meant, and now we were being taken on an excursion. It was an ominously damp morning in Ubud, and the day got more and more foggy as we drove north. We arrived at Bali Treetop Adventure Park inside the Botanical Gardens. The trees were eerie and beautiful in the mist, and we looked at each other – what the actual fuck is she making us do?! It was some kind of aerial obstacle course, with zipwires and climbing nets that looked far too high up in the trees.

Tanya was itching to go first, so we made her wait – Amritha, a gorgeous little Indian-Aussie and the least pushy of the three us, would be forging out ahead. We watched Amritha scale a climbing wall that rose more than 30 feet in the air. It looked difficult and slippery, and no one was more surprised than Amritha when she made it to the top. We then cheered her from far below as she traversed seven hanging logs, one after the other, and two high wires. She came to a ledge, high in a tree, and was instructed to pull a lead that brought a heavy rope swing up to her – she looked tiny, and heaved on the rope until she had it ready to jump. JUMP!! Holy crap, are we all doing this?! And jump that girl did – our fierce, strong Amritha Franklin showed us the way, commanding some serious R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

I was next, and Leannah had me reciting the mission statement I’d been working on – it wasn’t concise, or perfect, but it felt something towards where I wanted to go: I am Lily. I’m passionate about wading through bullshit to find truth. I’m good at articulating the beauty and strength in the world around me. I’m inspired by conviction and self-belief, and helping people find theirs. I champion people to see their own magic. ‘What are you letting go of?’ she asked. Self-doubt, guilt and shame. What are you jumping into? My potential. I turned and placed one foot on the first foothold, grabbed a handhold and heaved myself up – my foot slipped right off and I was straight back on the ground. ‘Ok, this isn’t happening!!’ I turned and laughed and was met with resolute faces – they weren’t having any of it, I was doing this climb.

Somehow, slowly, I made my way up the climbing wall. Halfway up I felt exhausted and exposed, and had to pause. The path ahead of me wasn’t clear – that handhold is too far, my foot isn’t going to fit on that… The girls below worked with me: ‘try twisting and placing you right foot there’, ‘can you reach up to that wire?’. ‘You’re doing amazing, Liloncé!’ Their encouragement gave me the energy to keep going, and finally I was hauling myself over the top and onto a ledge. I fucking did it! I had to share a thought with the girls: that even though I couldn’t have done it without their advice and encouragement, that it was basically it was team collaboration, ultimately it was my own strength that got me to the top. Definitely an analogy for me to remember in life.

Next was the hanging logs. Shit. I needed time to recoup some energy, and stood hugging the tree, feeling safe against its solidity, before launching myself onto the first log. It wasn’t as swingy as I expected, and I moved across it and onto the next one – where I was promptly overcome and had to sit down. ‘You ok Liloncé?’ ‘Fantastic! Just need a minute.’ Hauling myself back onto my feet felt like too much, so I shuffled across the next log on my bum – and could hear the girls laughing below. ‘I may not do things the way other people do them,’ I called down, ‘and I may ultimately make life harder for myself, but at least I’m doing it! And I can only do things my way!’ Another nugget of wisdom for me to remember. Eventually, through a series of shuffles, hauls, rests, lols with the girls and slippery steps, I made it to the ledge on the next tree. Traversing the following two high-wires wasn’t too bad – I attacked these quickly, and then found myself at the ledge for the rope swing. I sat down, exhausted. The girls, far below, called encouragement up to me. ‘What are you letting go of?’ shouted Leannah. ‘What are you jumping into?’ ‘My potential,’ I cried back – and promptly burst into tears. I cried out of sheer terror at the thought of jumping off this ledge. I cried about the realisations I’d had on my journey to it – that the normal way of doing things doesn’t work for me, and that doing things my way might be harder, but it was ok, it got me where I needed to be in the end. I cried with gratitude for the girls below me, for their belief in me, for the magic they saw in me. I cried for all the times I couldn’t see that magic myself.

I sat for a long time, thinking about how I didn’t want to leap off this ledge into thin air. Then Tanya reminded me – if I could jump off the top deck of a boat, I could do this. So I imagined I was jumping into water, and kind of slid screaming off the ledge when no one expected it, least of all me. I was free, I was swinging through the trees, and it was exhilarating. It felt empowering. It felt worth the tears. I was helped, shakily, off the swing and clung to Leannah, crying again with relief and all the emotion that had bubbled up. I hugged the girls and laughed and shouted ‘I’m alive!’

Tanya, a New Yorker who seemed to have her shit way too together to need coaching, was up next and it was like watching spider-woman – she scaled the climbing wall insanely quickly, and traversed the logs with no sweat. Across the high wires, it looked like there was no stopping her – until she got to the ledge. ‘I’m so scared right now’. ‘You’re amazing,’ we called. And after some time to think it over, she leapt into the ownership she knew she was seeking. Together we discovered that Tanya was just looking for the right path, and that this was her challenge – because once she’s on that path, Tanya Swift charges ahead without a hint of hesitation or a backwards glance.

What the three of us had achieved that day was this visceral representation of everything that kept us stuck. It was a powerful exercise and showed us, quite literally, that no matter how terrifying or seemingly impossible, we can do the things we put our minds to. It just requires some faith in ourselves to charge forward and take that leap.