A smaller post-pandemic National Animal Rights March but just as passionate about a more compassionate world

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

With only around 1,000 people taking to the streets at this year’s National Animal Rights March in London – compared with 12,000 at the last similar (pre-pandemic) event in 2019 – the drummers were more important than usual.

Events like this are all about creating a vivid spectacle to attract the attention of the public and hopefully raise awareness. So you have posters (essential), smoke flares (optional and kind of annoying), wacky outfits (optional) and noise (essential) – anything that makes you seen and heard.

With any luck, much of the noise comes from marchers chanting slogans en masse: “There’s no excuse for animal abuse”, “Humane slaughter is a lie”, “It’s not food, it’s violence”, etc. But this year, unfortunately, with such a relatively small crowd, there was no way voices alone would carry the message, particularly as not everyone is into chanting.

Hence the importance of the drummers. There were two small groups of them, one near the head of the march, one near the tail, and they were magnificent and loud. Small it might have been, but there was no missing this demonstration.

The leading group of drummers at the beginning of the march near Smithfield market

I stuck close to the leading group of drummers and soon fell into an almost hypnotic state of presence driven the rhythm of their beats, marching for a cause I care passionately about. The persistent pounding ran through the protest like an invisible thread, lifting the limited chanting a little higher, stitching the spectacle together.

It was therefore absurd when the drummers were told by one of the march organisers to shut up. During a stop outside the headquarters of Unilever, which tests cosmetics on animals, a speaker said how great the drummers were but could they please stop for the rest of the march and let people speak for “those without voices”.

As the march continued without the drummers’ beat, it was immediately clear that there simply weren’t enough people there to make enough noise with voices alone. Without that pounding rhythm, the buzz had been killed. I could see a few what-the-fuck looks on the faces of the drummers, and indeed was so WTF myself I almost walked off at that point.

The rearguard drummers who kept drumming all the way to the end of the march

I have no idea why anyone would decide to pull the plug on a key component of the march – presumably the decision was made in a studiously democratic fashion, perhaps even by impromptu committee, for good reasons unclear to me – but fortunately it didn’t last long. One group of drummers remained relatively quiet for the rest of the march, offering the occasional rim-shot here and there, but the one near the rear went rogue and was soon pounding out the beat with full force.

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

Ultimately the job of the march will have been done: at least some of those who saw the spectacle passing through the City of London on Saturday August 28, beginning and ending at Smithfield meat market, will have been provoked into wondering what it was all about. Perhaps some will have been inspired to find out more about the cruelty of the meat industry and the dark contribution it makes to the destruction of our planet. Maybe some – in fact just one would be enough for today – will even find their way to a plant-based life.

I’m very glad I took part but must confess I was disappointed by the huge fall in numbers compared with the 2019 march. On that one, it felt like veganism was surging ahead. This time, it felt a little like it was in retreat. I doubt that’s the case, though; just my perception on the day. (High-quality statistics on vegans in the UK are hard to come by but everything points towards growing numbers.)

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

I understand that it must have been challenging to organise such an event just a few months into the post-pandemic opening up of the world, with many around the country reticent about the prospect of travelling to the capital for a demonstration.

But one of the big differences between the 2021 event and the 2019 one is that this year’s was organised by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) sister group Animal Rebellion (AR) and the last one by the campaign organisation Surge. I know very little about either group, but AR definitely has a higher profile – and not necessarily in a good way, at least from a public perception point of view.

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

This year’s march came at the end of a week of direct action by both XR and AR, with a good few activists arrested along the way. Perhaps this might have put some off attending, fearing it would be the kind of protest that would involve a willingness to be detained by the police. I support the missions of both XR and AR but even so, I initially had second thoughts about joining the march for that exact reason.

It’s a tricky issue for these organisations to navigate. On the one hand they argue we are in a climate emergency (I agree 100 per cent) and that strong action is needed right now (again I agree). On the other, much of what they do does little more than put off ordinary members of the public trying to go about keeping a roof over their heads; causing traffic jams in an already congested city, for example, or trying to stop public transport running do little to win anyone over.

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

We definitely need radical, rapid change to save our planet, but if this is going to come through the work of groups such as XR and AR, they are going to have to raise their game beyond the approach of any publicity is good publicity. It might make good fodder for the social media machine (and how strange it is that so many campaigners rely so heavily on feeding the artificial intelligence systems developed by some of the world’s most powerful corporate gangsters, thereby making them wealthier and even more powerful).

But for a revolution to succeed, you have to convince the broad masses to take action. It will require much creative thinking.

Camping out with 12,000 vegans – a joyous way to celebrate the return to post-pandemic ‘normality’

Karen_WY at the Vegan Campout 2021
Kindred spirits: the author at the Vegan Campout 2021

I’m going to fess up straight away and admit I attended the UK Vegan Campout 2021 in absolute decadence. Hiring a six-person campervan for two of us meant we avoided the epic queues to fulfil the basic human needs of eating and toileting at a festival of 12,000 hungry vegans at Newark Showgrounds in Nottinghamshire.

Coming during a pandemic, the organisers had had only seven weeks to finalise a lot of the practical issues – like food stalls and toilets, for example – so the queues for these facilities snaked back for up to an hour. It didn’t help that 15 food vendors and one toilet block company pulled out at the last minute.

We were set back a little from the main site, and walking across in the late morning as people began crawling bleary-eyed out from an endless variety of tents, I was struck by the seemingly stationary queues for the toilets and the solitary lengthy queue for the one tea and coffee stand at the site.

Karen_WY at Vegan Campout 2021
Happy camper: the author is fed and watered

But equally striking was the mood. From beginning to end, the festival-goers, whether waiting to relieve themselves or to fill their growling bellies, were chatting, smiling and making new acquaintances. I heard a couple of people comment on this, and speculate that perhaps this is in the nature of the targeted clientele, but I wouldn’t be smug enough to comment on that here.

This relatively new festival began in 2016, with no stalls, no talks and just 400 attendees, and was cancelled last year because of the pandemic. So for the vast majority of us, it was the first time we’d been out in such crowds for more than 18 months. In fact, there was very little apparent in the way of nods to Covid and I saw no more than ten people or so wearing masks. That said, for most of the time we were outdoors, and the weather was relatively kind to us.

As well as a large yoga and wellness tent, there were three dedicated hall buildings: a main stage, where big-name speakers such as Russell Brand appeared; a music area; and an activism tent – my favourite – with talks from different campaigners, as well as discussions on animal agriculture, the conservation and protection of marine wildlife, and animal rights issues in general.

Sitting in there, as I did for many hours, I heard a lot that made me think. It was speaking to Animal Rebellion activist Claudia Penna Rojas that convinced me to go on the National Animal Rights March through London the following weekend.

Vegan Campout 2021 presentation
Inspiration and learning: festival-goers enjoy a presentation in the main hall

I also had no idea about the extent to which beagles are still used for experimentation. There was an incredibly moving moment when activist John Curtin, speaking about this issue, asked if any audience members present had ever joined the “Camp Beagle” protest outside MBR Acres in Huntingdon to demand the release of some 2,000 beagle puppies being reared there for testing. When he invited them to come to the front, around 100 people went up to the stage and several then shared their own experiences.

Other speakers included Dina Aherne reflecting on how to compassionately raise awareness among the Hindu community about the atrocities committed by the modern dairy industry while remaining respectful of their beliefs and traditions. Advocates for Animals’ co-founder Edie Bowles provided an overview of useful legal tools that can be used to help animals. There was a lot more food for thought from a number of activists and charities fighting for the rights of our fellow earthlings.

I’d love to have spent more time in the music tent, but a definite highlight was Benjamin Zephania (above) and the Revolutionary Minds, who played on the first night. There was a beautiful moment when he announced he was going to pose a question he always puts to his audiences, only to be frequently underwhelmed by the response, and then asked if there were any vegans there that night. Hell yeah!

Big names in the Main Stage hall included Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, the vegan cookbook writers behind BOSH!, and environmental presenter Chris Packham. There were also names known primarily within the vegan community such as campaigner Lex Rigby and the inspiring plant-powered German strongman Patrik Baboumian (see clip above). The latter, having missed his flight, appeared via Zoom.

There was a screening of Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story, presented by Game of Thrones star Jerome Flynn (see trailer below). This film was made by the animal charity Viva! to highlight atrocities in the pig farming industry after it was alerted by hunters alarmed by the large number of rotting pig carcasses they were finding in the woods around Hogwood farm.

This farm was a major supplier of pig meat to the Tesco supermarket chain, and the documentary finally convinced them to drop Hogwood. The horror is doubtless reflected in many similar farms throughout the country. There’s no such thing as humane slaughter.

Viewing Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story at Vegan Campout 2021
No such thing as humane slaughter: festival-goers watch the film Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story

As I mentioned earlier, I missed out on most of the waiting and queuing, and only waded into the toilet blocks on a couple of occasions; my camping days, if they ever existed, are most definitely behind me. Hence I’m aware that I possibly viewed this entire festival through the luxury of my campervan goggles, but I absolutely loved it.

I loved the people, the atmosphere, and the speakers, and I loved the food stalls, which offered everything from ice cream to pizzas and curries, with heaps and heaps of plant-based fast food available. It felt good to be in that rare situation where there was no need to ask anything… it was all suitable for vegans.

The plant-based cheesemonger’s offering a rich selection of excellent vegan treats in London

La Fauxmangerie counter selection of vegan cheese
Spoilt for choice: Counter selection at La Fauxmagerie

“But, cheese…” Those whimpered two words are frequently the first response from omnivores at any mention of veganism.

And it’s true that for many of us, cheese is initially the hardest food to give up. That was definitely the case for me; though it was never going to be something to which I returned once the dairy industry blinkers were removed, I missed the distinctive taste for at least a year or so. I also felt the loss of its convenience as something to stick in a sandwich or melt on toast for a simple tasty meal.

Street sign for La Fauxmangerie
Step this way…

Over the past seven years, a bountfiful stream of processed foods for herbivores has saturated the market, and the search for the ultimate vegan cheese continues. As with the traditional product itself, the price range varies and you get what you pay for. For a basic cheese-on-toast fix, the competitors are increasing, with my own staple being Applewood.

But this week I ventured into the higher end of the spectrum with a trip to the UK’s first plant-based cheesemonger’s shop, La Fauxmagerie, in the rather aptly named Cheshire Street just off vibrant Brick Lane in London. A visit here provides the chance to sample some of the fancier vegan offerings before deciding whether to buy a larger block. The self-proclaimed mission of the shop is to curate a selection of the finest plant-based cheeses the UK has to offer and as well as selling established ranges such as I AM NUT OK, the owners have recently branched into making their own cheeses.

To me, vegan cheeses, unlike burgers and other fake meat products, can’t simply be a plain replica of their dairy parent versions, but I’m at a point where I don’t really want them to be. The smell of cheese, which once I found so appealing, is now sour, a little “off” and frankly unpleasant to me. What I want is the strength of savoury flavour and the creaminess… something I can lavish on to a seeded cracker or squish on to a lowly bit of toast and see it transformed.

Cheshire Street near Brick Lane, London
Cheesy location: Cheshire Street where La Fauxmagerie is based

That’s what La Fauxmagerie offers. If you get the chance, a trip to the shop is absolutely worth it. It’s both a personal and a flavourful experience; they also offer after-hours cheese and wine pairing evenings in their cellar. If not, you can browse online at lafauxmagerie.com

Graffiti near Brick Lane, London
Visual feast: A visit to the area around Brick Lane is a rich experience

From simple roots above a yoga studio in Cambridge to the heart of London, a glorious vegan restaurant blooms

Stem and Glory: fudge brownie sundae
Sweet treat: Fudge brownie sundae is a superb dessert
RESTAURANT REVIEW Stem and Glory, London

Tucked away in an airy, open square not far from St Paul’s Cathedral and the Barbican is one of London’s newest vegan restaurants. Stem and Glory, which opened in January 2019, is a long way from its unpretentious roots on top of a small yoga studio a 15-minute walk from the centre of Cambridge.

When I first ate in that original branch four years ago, the service was friendly, if a smidgen shambolic, the food was variable, and the decor minimalistic. Its heart was definitely in the right place though, and the timing was perfect for the thriving plant-based market.

A few years later, the owners raised more than £600,000 on Crowdcube and opened its new flagship restaurant in Barts Square; the irony of its position around the corner from Smithfield – the UK’s largest wholesale meat market – is hard to miss.

But I love the setting. The area is large and spacious and a mix of 19th century and modern architecture. The restaurant itself has a light, open feel inside it. There is a reasonably large seating area outside, with a superb, if paradoxical, view of Butchers’ Hall directly opposite. The service, meanwhile, has been reliably friendly and efficient.

Stem and Glory: burger and chips
Reliably good: Burger and chips (plus diner with loud shirt)

The menu consists of around six small plates or starters, ten main meals and a handful of desserts. There’s a burger and chips option, which my companion really enjoyed. Not an adventurous eater, he was a little nervous of the fermented cucumber beforehand, but said it added a really pleasant crunch to the whole thing.

I’ve been there several times recently and have tended to stick with the flavour-rich swede gnocchi. The combination of velvety “gorgonzola” sauce and crisp walnuts is a delight. I’ve heard good things about the baked tofu yakitori, and on my last visit tried the katsu. I’m going to return to the tried-and-tested gnocchi next time, as it lacked the umami punch I was hoping for.

Stem and Glory: tofu katsu curry
Tasty, but… Tofu katsu curry lacks the hoped-for umami punch

I’d also be keen to try one of their super-healthy option lunch bowls on a future visit, if I could overcome the feeling that I might be left hungry at the end of it. The portions in general aren’t over-generous, although this does always leave room for dessert.

Speaking of which, I’ve tried the cheesecake, the sticky toffee pudding and the fudge brownie sundae – all old staples that didn’t disappoint in terms of gooeyness and flavour. I’ve also sampled a couple of their excellent cocktails.

Stem and glory: sticky toffee pudding
Gooey delight: Sticky toffee pudding

Stem and Glory is a great addition to London’s growing array of vegan eateries, both for its food and the chance to visit the area around it.

Location: Stem and Glory is in the City of London near St Paul’s Cathedral

You don’t need to cross a facilitator’s palm with gold to breathe better but breathwork practices can definitely help

Born to breathe: from that first gasp, we know how to do it, but the stresses of modern life mean we often don’t do it as well as we could. Breathwork practices can help. Photo: Jonathan Borba

Breathwork – or doing breathing exercises as a formal practice – is big right now. It means the internet is crawling with “breathwork facilitators” selling lessons in how to breathe better. There definitely appears to be a need for this as it’s widely claimed that many of us don’t breathe properly – often leading to a suboptimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body – and that this is reflected in a full spectrum of modern maladies from stress and anxiety to allergies and musculoskeletal pain.

But one of the most telling things about those hawking breathing lessons is that a key product many offer is training in becoming a breathwork coach yourself.

This is because learning how to breathe better is very easy indeed – it’s one of our basic functions – and once someone has offered you a few tips to practise, there’s nothing more to sell you apart from the prospect that you too might be able to sell breathing lessons.

It’s a bit like a pyramid scheme trying to cash in on a market that’s trending at the moment.

Undoubtedly many of the breathwork merchants out there are charismatic and inspiring, and that is essentially what you are paying for. But most are selling the same core practices – many of which have, in fact, been done by yogis for centuries, under the name pranayama, or breath control.

The key, as with anything you do to improve your health, is to do the work, to simply come back day after day and practise. That discipline, for many, is the hard bit and the thing that an inspiring teacher can help to encourage.

But really, breathwork is simple, relaxing and doesn’t require much time at all, or any money to be spent. It’s simply about training – or, more accurately, retraining – your body to do something it was born to do: to breathe well, which is a natural process.

So where to begin? 

From the belly, via the nose

I’m going to suggest two practices, both of which I recommend doing with abdominal breathing. This simply means relaxing your belly as much as possible while doing the exercises and allowing it to expand on the inales and soften on the exhales. Imagine you are gently inflating a balloon in your belly each time you breathe in, then simply let it go as you breathe out. If you’re not used to this, it might take a little time to feel natural, but stick at it without making too much of a fuss; the idea is to try to use your lower abdomen rather than puffing up your chest as you breathe. Try to inhale and exhale via the nose (unless of course your nose is blocked or it feels uncomfortable).

Practice 1: Coherent breathing

The first exercise is one of the most powerful and simplest forms of breathwork, known as coherent or resonant breathing. To do it, sit in a comfortably upright position or lie down on your back. Then simply slow down and breathe, regulating your breath so you inhale for a steady count of five and exhale for five, repeating this pattern; it means you have have roughly six inhale-exhale cycles per minute, which provides a good oxygen-carbon dioxide balance and regulates the nervous system in a very relaxing way. Go at it for five to 10 minutes a session, and try to get in at least one or two sessions a day.

Once you have practised the pattern regularly for a week or so, you might find it pleasant to drop into it for a minute or two at random moments through your day, sitting on a train, for example, or at your desk while working. Eventually, it becomes a natural basic breathing pattern you fall towards effortlessly at suitable moments – when you don’t need to do vigorous stuff like running for your life, for example – although keeping it up as a regular formal practice is a good discipline to develop.

Practice 2: Box breathing

Another excellent practice is four-part breathing, popularly known as box breathing. It’s often cited these days almost as a US Navy Seal invention, because a former Seal wrote a blog post about its benefits a few years ago, but yogis have been at it for many hundreds of years. It’s a very calming practice and optimises oxygen absorption in the tissues by slightly raising carbon dioxide levels via short breath holds.

To do it, sit comfortably tall or lie on your back. You inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold your breath again for a count of four, and repeat this pattern for five to 10 minutes. At least one session a day is good, perhaps in addition to a coherent breathing session, or instead of. If you’re inclined, though, do it a few times a day.

As you become comfortable with the practice over time, you can experiment with the counts you use for your breaths and retentions, for example going from measures of four to five, six, or whatever feels comfortable, but keeping the measures equal (this is what gives it its modern name, box breathing – four equal sides, like a square, or box).

If you do coherent, or box, or both of these breathing practices regularly every day for a few weeks, there’s a fair chance you’ll feel benefits such as being more relaxed physically and mentally calmer. Definitely worth investigating.

In, then out: just breathe – it’s natural

This might be all the breathwork you need to do – the training effects of the daily formal practices subtly improve your everyday, natural breathing without you having to think about it. But you might find it gives you a taste to explore other practices, of which there are many. You could simply dive into the internet and you’re sure to find plenty of ideas (as well as people telling you breathing is so complicated that you ought to pay them money to learn how to do it).

But if you’d like a more structured approach and to know more about the science underlying breathwork, I’d highly recommend reading James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. It gives a fascinating overview of why so many people breathe suboptimally, and how to improve this via a wide range of breathwork practices. It’s a fantastic foundation from which to explore breathing in whatever directions grab you. Nestor’s website is also a very good resource, including as it does a practical section featuring breathing videos. 

In terms of counting your breath, as in the two practices I suggest in this article, you can do so in your head, not necessarily aiming for pure clock seconds but whatever  rhythm is comfortable for you. You can also use a breath-counting app on a smartphone, removing the need for you to count and allowing you to focus fully on your breathing.

My favourite is called Breathe (iOS or Android); it’s minimal and has no real instructions but is reasonably easy to figure out, and so good that it’s worth doing so because it aids many forms of breathwork, including coherent and box breathing.

Another very good but slightly more limited app, as it’s purely for coherent breathing – which really is more than enough – is The Breathing App (iOS or Android). 

It’s a rare person in the modern world who isn’t affected by stresses and strains that lead to forms of muscular tension that affect the way they breathe. So I believe just about everyone should spend some time every day doing breathwork. 

It’s by no means a panacea, but it’s a very powerful and simple, free way to feel better via a natural mechanism you were born with: your breath. By all means do a course (there are plenty online, both paid for and free, just search), but honestly, either or both of the two simple practices I’ve suggested in this article are pretty much all you need to get some wonderful benefits. 

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor based in East London, currently offering classes online. Details at yogayelvy.com

My dad arrested the Nazi whose daughter became his first wife… How I finally came to share a Second World War history I never appreciated

Karen WY and her father Ronald Walker

A family’s history is wrought from stories, but there comes a point as a kid where you glaze over when your parents tell you the tale of yours. Again. And again. And even though the details might change, as they often do when time colours them, you’ve heard the various riffs so many times that it doesn’t matter, as you simply don’t listen any more. 

Sooner or later, though, once you’ve got a bit of life behind you, you want to know. Maybe your parents have died, and you can no longer ask the questions you want to ask. Maybe you get lucky, as I did, and find a few useful pieces of the puzzle of your past, revealing it to be more interesting than you might have imagined.

My parents and my older brother moved to England from Cologne in Germany before I was born. While my father was English, my mother was Austrian, and the family had only ever spoken German together. Being plunged into an infants’ school in the North West of England in the late 1950s not long after the end of the Second World War can’t have been without its challenges for my brother, who was five at the time.

The legend goes that within two weeks of starting school there, he went from, “Mutti, Mutti, schaut sich die Kühe auf dem Feld an”, to “Mummy, Mummy, look at the cows over there on the field”. Quite how much of a linguistic wunderkind he actually was, I’m not sure, but to help my brother fit in better at school, my parents decided fairly swiftly to make the family language primarily English. 

By the time I came along, when Ronnie was 10, he could still fluently recite any German song or nursery rhyme from his early childhood, but was otherwise a thoroughly English boy with a slight Widnesian accent. 

My parents, both German teachers, would still speak the language together, but now mainly as a means of having private grown-up conversations they didn’t want me to understand, for example when discussing birthday or Christmas presents. However, my natural nosiness and desire to be in on this secret language was impetus enough for me to pick up a working knowledge of it as soon as I could. 

My mother and father had met in postwar Graz in Austria, but the details of how it happened were vague and ever shifting. It depended which of them you asked and what mood they were in. 

In my dad’s standard version, my mum had replied to a small ad he placed in the local paper for a Latin tutor. He needed a good grade to complete his German studies at Graz university. 

In my mum’s favoured story, her stocking suspender had snapped while she was waiting for a tram one day, and my dad fortuitously appeared beside her proffering a groschen in his hand. Apparently twisting a small coin into the top of a stocking to tighten its grip was enough to stop the silk from sliding down her leg.

In both versions the rest was the history I was now part of, and in a sense the details didn’t matter to me or either of my brothers (a younger one had eventually come along to join the clan). 

Karen WY and her father Ronald Walker

Who is truly interested in the story of their parents’ youth, until they’ve lived through their own? Very often, by the time the real questions about your family history occur to you, it’s too late. Which is what happened to me. 

My dad spoke German like a native, and an eloquent one at that. He helped me through my German A-level, and I got a grade good enough to go on and study it at university. I later dropped out and ended up on a journalism course instead. Dropping out wasn’t a problem for my dad – my love of German and my ability to string a few words together were enough to make him incredibly proud of me. 

His support was something I very much took for granted. He died when I was in my early twenties. And then my life sped by, until I reached that point, having finally lived through my own youth, where I was finally ready to be more interested in that of my parents. 

I knew that in my father’s later years, he’d spent 18 months working on a chapter for inclusion in a book, writing about his days as a young man in the Austrian state of Styria just after the war. I also knew he’d joined the Intelligence Corps in 1945, aged 21, and had been married to another woman in Austria. But there was no one left to help me out with the details of the seven years between that and his marriage to my mum.

A few months ago, in the midst of a lockdown clearout of my garage, I came across the original book that contained his chapter – written in beautiful German – plus an English translation he had typed himself and dedicated to his three children. On some level, I must have known of the existence of this, but when I sat down to read it, it was like hearing my dad’s voice for the first time in more than 30 years.

A lot of the questions I had were answered in this chapter. Aged 21, he had become head of the British security headquarters in the town of Weiz , and in this book he recounted the adventures this posting had led to. 

Weiz played a significant role in his history. Part of his job was to hunt down and often imprison former Nazis. In the course of these duties, he arrested both the father and brother of the woman he would soon after marry. His first wife. In fact, he had to write to his future father-in-law in prison to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They were part of the richest family in the town and welcomed my dad into a life far removed from his Warrington childhood.

This account added much to the jigsaw of my family history, but finding it also inspired me to spend some time contemplating how lucky we are these days with the technology we have to share and curate information. My dad died before the internet, but he would have loved it. The research he could have done. The website he would have made. The connections he could have established and re-established…

I decided to honour his memory by publishing the chapter I vaguely recall him banging out on a manual typewriter, and which I found in my garage and finally read. His story is a valuable part of the history of the Second World War, covering an area where there are few first-person accounts. 

As a woman not much younger than my dad was when he died, I also feel that in putting his account out there, I can still do something that would have made him proud.

If you’re interested in reading his short memoir of his time in postwar Austria, you can find it here: operationstyria.wordpress.com

The more you look into the ancient history and philosophies of yoga, the more you see there is no one true yoga

The journey continues: From ancient ascetics seeking liberation to modern yogis in today’s multi-billion-pound industry
BOOK REVIEW The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga’s History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices by Daniel Simpson

In the non-digital world yogis tend to get on with doing yoga. But in the great virtual ashram of the internet – the shop front of a multi-billion-pound industry – yoga teachers queue up to tell you stridently what yoga is or isn’t. Predictably, the version of yoga that they’re hawking is the real thing, usually on the basis of co-opting some ancient philosophical or spiritual authority, while anything else is guilty of lacking “authenticity”. It’s marketing.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit I’ve risked being guilty of this in the past. Pure ignorance. I have since made a point of studying as much about the history and philosophy of yoga as I can over the past couple of years, and the biggest thing I have learnt is that it’s a much wider set of practices, based on a much wider range of philosophies, than I ever imagined.

My conclusion is that it’s absurd to think, as I kind of did, that underlying all the kinds of yoga we see in the world there might be one true, original yogic principle that should inform what we do.

In reality, those of us who practise any form of yoga are doing so as an act of interpreting practices that have evolved for centuries through other acts of interpretation. This is, in fact, one of yoga’s great strengths: that it is constantly evolving, taking on practices and principles here, ditching others there, mixing yet others together somewhere else.

The result is that yoga is an exceedingly wide and amorphous field with a huge variety of practices to suit just about anybody who might be interested. Want to chant and pray? There’s yoga for you. Want to sit and meditate? There’s yoga for you. Want to get really strong and flexible? Want to serve others by doing good deeds? Want to become enlightened? Want magic powers? There’s yoga for you. Want all of the above? Yup, there is, but good luck with that.

If there’s a common thread it’s that yoga is a practice that can improve the quality of your life by helping you to understand yourself better, most often via your body and breath. And as I’ve argued here, there are many yogic paths to that destination.

This abundance of paths is clearly revealed in Daniel Simpson’s superb book The Truth of Yoga. I wish it had been available when I began my research in earnest; it could have saved me a lot of time trying to get my head around tons of complex information most often conveyed in arcane academic language. While it’s wonderful that so much serious research is being conducted into the history and philosophies of yoga, with increasing numbers of ancient Sanskrit texts being translated and expounded upon, a lot of it is a bit of a slog for an ordinary, non-scholar yogi such as me to process.

Simpson offers a good shortcut through all areas of the field with an overview delivered in plain language. He’s both a scholar and yogi, fully at ease with the material he’s conveying, but importantly, he’s also a journalist, so knows how to communicate well with mere mortals. His book is a clearly written summary of the main strands of yoga research, covering its history from its earliest centuries-old incarnations to the global industry it is today, as well touching on the major ancient texts that convey philosophy and practices. Much of the time, he simply presents information directly, as a reporter, but where it’s baffling, he provides a bit of explanation.

It’s an excellent read. If you want a broad, layperson’s view of the ancient roots of yoga and what it has become today, you’d be hard pressed to find a more incisive field guide. It has just the right level of depth not to overwhelm the non-scholar, but has sufficient heft to provide a solid understanding of the material, perhaps revealing particular areas you might want to explore further. I recommend it highly.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga and Pilates teacher based in East London, currently offering classes online. Details at yogayelvy.com

Check out the video below for an interesting discussion with Daniel Simpson on some of the material covered in his book. If you want to find out more about him, his website is at http://www.danielsimpson.info

Netflix’s exposé of Bikram inspired me to look beyond the predator and find a great yoga practice

Bikram Choudhury teaching
Underpanted peacock: Bikram Choudhury guides the faithful from his teaching throne (Photo: Netflix)

The Netflix documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator served to confirm all my biases about Bikram Choudhury, the peacocking, underpanted father of Bikram Yoga, or “hot yoga” as it’s known when not done under his trademark.

You don’t have to see too many clips of him in full flow to note that he’s almost a parody of arrogance, and allegations by a handful of his former students that he raped them suggest a much more malevolent character (he no longer dares show his face in his adopted home country the US, presumably for fear of having to face these allegations, and now plies his trade in Mexico or Spain).

So yes, this documentary confirmed my long-held belief, based on what I’d read and heard over the years, that Chouhury is a nasty piece of work. What I did not expect was to end up inspired to start practising and teaching the series of yoga postures he popularised.

There’s a moment towards the end of the film when it’s revealed that the basic sequence that earned Choudhury his millions was in fact devised by his teacher in his native India, Bishnu Charan Ghosh. It’s made up of standard hatha yoga postures with which just about anyone who’s done any yoga would be familiar. But as I watched the documentary, it struck me that the way they were ordered looked interesting, so I decided to try it out.

I don’t buy into the hot component of the Bikram approach – overheating and over-humidifying your space for such supposed benefits as a flexibility boost, raising the heart rate and, er, “strengthening of willpower, self control and determination through the challenging environment”, to quote one official Bikram affiliate. None of this stuff is necessary to do yoga.

So no artificial heating or humidifying for me, but after only one session working through the full basic sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises – often referred to as the 26+2 – it was clear that it is indeed a superbly structured practice.

You start on your feet with an invigorating blast of pranayama, or breathwork, that centres you, then move through a sequence of standing postures that help to build strength and flexibility, as well as develop balance. You then come down to the ground for a set of prone, supine and seated postures – again, much strength and flexibility work, though less balance is required here – interspersed with restful periods of simply lying on your back and breathing.

The practice ends with another pranayama exercise, before a final rest. It is an engaging journey, from upright to flat on the floor, sandwiched between the breathwork. While the work can be hard, by the time you get to the end, you’re usually deeply relaxed.

I soon found myself doing the 26+2 at least once or twice a week, alongside my other regular practices, and loved it. The fact that it’s a set sequence allows you over time to measure your progress closely, and each posture can be done on a scale from quite relaxed to pretty damn intense, which means you can tailor the practice to however you feel on any given day and that you’re unlikely ever to run out of stuff to work on.

I decided to start introducing the sequence occasionally to my general hatha yoga classes. I was nervous at first, as the practice can superficially appear intimidating, particularly when done the Bikram way, which to my eye looks a little aggressive and is, like a lot of yoga, fixated on the “correct” textbook way to do a posture. This frequently involves trying to get people to adapt their bodies to the posture rather than learning how to make the posture fit the body.

The latter approach – in which the way a posture looks is of no consequence compared with how it feels – is very much the one I take, and I have been pleasantly surprised to find my students consistently love doing the 26+2 from time to time, adapting the work as necessary.

Adaptation: Three variations of standing head to knee pose – note that even in the trickiest postion, my head is nowhere near my knee

A lot gets fitted into a reasonably short period – sometimes an hour, sometimes an hour and a half – and this keeps you fully involved; there’s little room here for zoning out – it’s proper hatha yoga using the body to develop deep presence. The fact that the practice can serve the extremely wide range of people I work with – from children to those in their 70s – is a measure of its quality, and I have since introduced a regular session of it alongside my other yoga classes.

It’s all about adapting. If you go on online and search for videos of Bikram or hot yoga classes, you’ll generally see the postures being offered in a very dogmatic way, with scant attention to adapting them for individual interpretation or expression. This is not surprising, as Choudhury insists that the yoga is done his way; in fact, to become an official Bikram teacher, using that name, you have stick religiously to his rendition of a class via a script known as “The Dialogue”. This can make it very limiting indeed.

The minute you encourage people to adapt the postures to suit their own bodies, though, it opens up into the magnificent practice it truly is and which, I believe, is probably more in tune with its roots in traditional hatha yoga.

My experience with the 26+2 has also been a good lesson in separating practice from teacher. For the longest time, I was narrow-mindedly unwilling to consider Bikram, or even hot, yoga because of Choudhury’s reputation as a dodgy character. How weird that a documentary that confirmed my biases about the man should be the thing that led me towards the practice – or at least my interpretation of it – that he popularised.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher based in East London, currently offering classes (including one featuring the 26+2) online. Details at yogayelvy.com

‘I have learnt how to get all the nutrients I need and, as a vegan, I am the healthiest I have ever been’

Everyday Vegans
A series in which ordinary people talk about living a plant-based life


Our latest contributor, Toni, became a vegan after learning about the horrific conditions of farmed chickens while conducting research as part of her work as a microbiologist

Everyday vegan: microbiologist Toni

My name is Toni, and I am a 26-year-old microbiologist from Manchester. I live with my fiancé, parents and our companion animals.

I first became vegetarian at 10 years old, after watching a programme on TV where someone killed their pet chicken and ate it. After this point, I remained a vegetarian until I was 18.

For several years, I was pressurised by my family and doctor to start eating meat again, as they believed it was related to my anaemia. Looking back, however, I had no sound dietary advice and ate a very poor diet with little to no fruit or vegetables.

At age 18, I regretfully, began to eat meat again and soon found myself much more ill than previously. During this time I felt disgust at what I was putting into my body, and was miserable thinking about the sources of my food.

Aged 23, I was researching antibiotic resistance in farmed animals, and discovered the hellish conditions that “broiler” chickens were kept in. Each bird has less floor space than a sheet of A4 paper, and they have health disorders, and suffer from lack of stimulation and pain from breeding issues.

At this point I became vegan and have not looked back since. At this time, my fiancé was vegetarian, but after showing him videos of the issues with dairy and egg industries he also became vegan.  I can confidently say that I will never eat meat or any other animal product ever again.

After becoming vegan I properly researched how to get all of the needed nutrients, and I am currently the healthiest I have ever been. I have a diet that is full of vegetables – although I do still treat myself to some vegan junk food!

Food shopping for me can be quite a tricky exercise. I have coeliac disease so I cannot eat gluten, and I am allergic to mushrooms, lentils and peas, which are very common vegan proteins. These are more common in gluten-free options, so I do shop around to get the best options from each store I go to. I take time to consider my nutrient sources to ensure my diet is balanced; however, I do not obsess over it.

The initial change to veganism had an impact on how I viewed others, as I believed most people must be as oblivious as I was to the living conditions of farmed animals. I tried to get people to understand how horrific the short lives of these animals were, and was extremely shocked when I found that some people, when faced with the evidence, simply did not care.

Luckily for me, I had my fiancé to relate to, as he felt the same horror as me. I found joining Twitter and coming across other vegans who had the same views as me to be a comfort:

Continue reading “‘I have learnt how to get all the nutrients I need and, as a vegan, I am the healthiest I have ever been’”

Multifocal motor neuropathy wants a piece of me… but I’m fortunate to have the help I need to fight back

Bardo Burner’s co-editor reflects on her struggle with multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN), a rare and incurable autoimmune disease. She has found much to be grateful for, discovering her predicament is not as hopeless as it first seemed

This morning I woke up, picked up the large mug of tea my husband had left on the table next to my bed, and took a hefty slug. No different from many of the days when I enjoy tea after rising, except that this time I used my right hand, my right arm, and a week ago I couldn’t have done that. Around seven years ago I developed a tightness in the muscles of my right arm, a slight ache that increasingly made commonplace activities like packing my supermarket shopping into carrier bags or lifting a spoon to eat soup difficult. At the time I was spending a fair few of my leisure hours hunched over and tapping away on the tiny keys of a BlackBerry phone. I pushed my anxiety about what might be behind my symptoms resolutely to one side, self-diagnosed RSI and reckoned it’d be reversible once I stopped using my mobile quite so much. 

Assuming that it was my fault, I hid my growing muscular weakness, carried on as normal and put off going to the doctor until it was obvious that my arm was becoming increasingly immobile. It took me a year to admit I needed help. I’m right-handed, and as a school teacher this was both my marking and my writing-on-the-whiteboard hand, so it was obvious, even to a doctorphobe like me, that it was time to get this thing fixed. 

I ended up in front of an orthopaedic surgeon, who, after consulting X-rays, an MRI scan and the results of two electromyography (EMI) tests, diagnosed a trapped nerve caused by cervical spondylosis. He repeatedly shook his head in bafflement and mumbled that it was an “interesting” case – never good words to hear from a specialist. He also proclaimed that any operation he might perform had the potential to make things worse, and might well introduce pain into the equation. This sounded like a rubbish deal to me so we agreed to “see how it goes” for a bit, and I taught myself a degree of ambidextrousness that kept me ticking over.

A bit turned out to be a few years. Then one Monday morning last year I woke up unable to lift my right arm. Ever the stoic, I ignored it for three days, assuming, hoping, it might go away, but this didn’t feel like a sprain or a tear. Again, there was no pain, just a total lack of connection between my brain and my arm. 

IVIg treatment as a hospital outpatient
Karen receiving IVIg treatment as a hospital outpatient at the height of the coronavirus pandemic

By Thursday morning that week I was at the GP, and by the evening I was back with the orthopaedic surgeon, who was amazed at how time flew. The first part of our conversation was us confirming exactly how long it had been, and then the scan, EMI test, and strength checks happened all over again. Nothing had changed, except that it quite clearly had. We were about to say goodbye again, him still befuddled by this persistently “interesting” case, when he suggested a neurologist.  A week later, I had a tentative diagnosis of multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN).

I’m a great believer in patients empowering themselves by selective use of Dr Google, but the plain details of this rare disease are not fun reading. You don’t die, which is the good bit, but one immediately stark fact is that as an illness affecting six in every million people, it’s often misdiagnosed for years. As a patient reading about MMN, words like degenerative, debilitating and no cure mean that it’s easy to miss details of the effective treatments that can slow this condition right down. 

MMN is a rare neuropathy characterised by progressive, asymmetric muscle weakness and atrophy. Signs and symptoms may include weakness in the hands and lower arms, cramping, involuntary contractions or twitching, wrist drop or foot drop, and atrophy of affected muscles. It’s an autoimmune disease; a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them. The thought of my body attacking its own nerves as if they were the enemy was disconcerting and I felt sad that my immune system could get it so wrong.

That initial diagnosis was backed up within a fortnight by a week of tests and treatment in hospital. This was on the NHS in March 2020, when it was slowly beginning to have much bigger things to deal with, so I’m grateful for the timing and for the speed with which I finally got some tangible help. The condition currently obliterates the function of my biceps and right shoulder, but I was told this could be eased by Intravenous Immunoglobulin Therapy (IVIg). In essence this is a massive dose of other people’s antibodies, separated from donated blood plasma and used to treat a range of conditions from Guillain-Barre syndrome to multiple sclerosis to lupus. There are other things that can work for MMN, but IVIg is effective in around 70 per cent of cases, and I was lucky that it worked for me.

Within four days of treatment I woke up and had most of the use of my arm back. My googling suggested IVIg might happen every six weeks or so, and I had a second dose a few weeks later. By this point, having had extremely limited use of my right arm for so long, and having been exhausted by the futile and pathetic battle going on inside me, I felt like Superwoman. 

I had regained some significant use of my arm; hell, just being able to lift it above my head for the first time in ages felt like a miracle. I won’t get all of it back – the diagnosis was too long in coming for a condition in which time is of the essence – and I have very little bicep strength, but it’s good enough. My neurologist and I agreed that I’d not have regular treatment, and so mine is on demand. I ask for an infusion when I feel myself needing it. Last time I managed six months between doses. My googling hadn’t suggested so long a stretch between doses was even a prospect.

Last week, at the height of the pandemic, I spent five days as an outpatient after a relapse left me weak and weary. I was tucked away in a remote corner of a large Essex hospital in which one third of in-patients currently have Covid-19. It was where they could safely fit me in. 

I spent this time sitting upright on a small plastic chair as 10 bottles of IVIg were drip-fed into my poor misguided immune system. Normally patients have a comfy chair or bed to snooze in,

Continue reading “Multifocal motor neuropathy wants a piece of me… but I’m fortunate to have the help I need to fight back”