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”

‘I’m glad my daughter is growing up in a world where it’s easy to be a vegan’

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


Our latest contributor, Heather, became a vegan as a result of conducting some health-related research – and coincidentally coming across photos showing the horrific reality of the dairy industry

Everyday Vegan Heather

I’m Heather, I’m 30 and I live in the North of Scotland with my husband and our five-month-old daughter. I’m currently on maternity leave from my job as a visual merchandiser. In the future, I’m hoping to make art or food my main source of income.

Growing up I never felt good about eating meat. I cried my eyes out when I first learnt what meat actually was. As a teenager I was vegetarian for a couple of years. But I gave it up, something I’m pretty ashamed of now.

I have polycystic ovary syndrome and originally started looking into plant-based diets when I learnt they could help ease my symptoms and boost my fertility. Then, that same week, a vegan friend posted graphic photos of what happens within the dairy industry. Me and my husband went vegan practically overnight. It was a nice coincidence that it happened to be in Veganuary, and this month it’s been two years.

I love healthy food but I also love cake and burgers. I find a lot of enjoyment in food in general. I could never go back to eating or using animal products now. It’s not an option.

We do most of our shopping at Tesco for now, but hope to do more soon at a zero waste shop. We also get a few bits from the Vegan Kind Supermarket and Sparkles Eco Shop.

In terms of a balanced diet, I make sure I’m getting a little bit of everything, but I eat a good variety so I don’t feel I need to focus on it too much. Since I’m breastfeeding I do take some extra vitamins, as is recommended for anyone breastfeeding.

I’ve been lucky in that I have a few vegans in my life. I worked with some vegans, and before lockdown we were regulars in Bonobo café. A couple who we’re close friends with recently went vegan too. Also a close family friend and my mum have recently transitioned.

And I’m in a lot of vegan groups online. It’s good to have a network of people with similar lifestyles. I definitely feel I have more in common with vegans than the majority of other people who don’t believe plant-based is the way forward. Veganism pops up in most parts of life in some shape or form.

Everyday Vegan Heather and family

I do want to be involved in vegan activism, but at the moment that’s limited to online. I’m hoping to change that once my daughter is a little older.

Jokes about vegans… you know, that vegans can’t go five minutes without mentioning the fact or they explode… are annoying mainly because of their unoriginality and inaccuracy. I’m usually outed by someone else, or because I’ve been asked about something.

As to the future of the meat and dairy industries, unfortunately I do believe they have one. I don’t think they’ll ever be completely gone.

I think different things work for everyone. Some people need to see the reality of what goes on and others are put off because they think we eat weird food. Through my social media I try to show both that vegan food is just normal good food, and what happens in the industries.

The horror-show videos of the reality of meat definitely have their place and they do convert some people, but they’re a tool to use carefully. I don’t share videos; I try to share the information.

More and more people are going vegan and I’m really hopeful. I’m glad my daughter is growing up in a world where it’s easy to do.

To me, veganism is just about being as good a person as I can. I don’t want to be the reason for unnecessary suffering.

Steve Hagen’s ‘mysterious figure’: cheap parlour trick or a glimpse of enlightenment?

"Mysterious figure" from Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple

Many people say the American Zen priest Steve Hagen’s primer Buddhism Plain and Simple is excellent, and I drifted through its early pages thinking the same. He has a clear, direct style that avoids a lot of the clunky dharma translations that often serve only to confuse.

However, just as he is settling in to his discourse, Hagen feels the need to demonstrate what enlightenment feels like. He offers a picture of a “mysterious figure” (above), which he says is an almost photo-realistic rendition of something everyone will recognise. At first, he suggests, it might look like chaos, but eventually the picture leaps unmissably out at you, and this is kind of what enlightenment is like.

Enticing idea, but, well, I sat there staring at this thing for an hour on the train to work, getting absolutely nowhere. The best I could do was turn it into an interesting meditation on my reactions: one minute feeling like an inadequate fool for seeing nothing of substance, the next a raging head case.

Hagen urges readers to persevere, so illuminating will the big moment be, but kindly gives a page number where the answer can be found. Unfortunately, in an e-book, page numbers are meaningless.

To Google, then, which led me to various sites that revealed the picture was of a cow. Sadly, even having been told this, I still could not see it. Eventually, I stumbled upon a photo online that had been digitally enhanced to emphasise said beast. At last, enlightenment! (I have painted a rather sloppy rendition of a cow on top the picture below; once you know the rough shape of what you’re looking at, return to the unsullied image above.)

Having had to go to so much effort for a glimpse of this cow – which, as Hagen notes, is indeed unmissable once you have seen it – I felt not so much enlightened as duped. At best, the exercise was like one of those weird psychology tests where you get shown a blot and are expected to see a vagina. At worst, it was a cheap parlour trick. It put me off the book, and I got no further with it.

Could this be the intention? Perhaps a meeting with Hagen’s cow is like being hit over the head with a monk’s stick when you’re dozing off while meditating. Perhaps what he is really saying is: stop reading, stop thinking; or, as the first Zen patriarch Bodhidharma put it: “Using the mind to look for reality is delusion.”

Altered image to reveal hidden cow in "Mysterious figure" from Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple
  • This post was originally published on my former blog Cosmic Donkey on July 27, 2014

One of the best options for a vegan meal in Eastbourne turns out to be a traditional seafront pub

Vegan meal for two: burger and chips, sausage and mash, cheesecake, apple pie and ice cream

I found myself in Eastbourne, in the depths of the pandemic, trawling through the ever-useful Happy Cow app for a place to get a good vegan meal.

Even in desperate times, I’d rather plump for a bag of ready salted and a satsuma to keep myself fuelled than give my money to a restaurant with a token plant-based meal on the menu or – even worse – one with “vegan options available, just ask” in small letters.

And on this rainy October night, the choices were looking sparse. Top of the list was the Crown and Anchor, a pub on the seafront. It was local, the reviews were great, and the separate vegan menu including five desserts clinched it.

We booked – as makes sense in these crazy times – and scored the catbird seat, tucked in beside an open fire. From seven main-course meals, I went for sausage and mash, and my companion had the Beyond Meat burger. Mine was superb, and, equally important to me, plentiful. Same goes for the burger; there were even enough chips for me to pinch one or two.

Stuffed as I was, the desserts kept calling me. We had the apple pie and ice cream and the Biscoff cheesecake between us. Both were delightful, with the apple pie being a real highlight for me. A cold vegan Bailey’s Irish coffee was a significant temptation for me, but I resisted. Next time.

The service was excellent and atmosphere welcoming, if coloured by the weirdness of these strange days we’re in. We crowned the evening with a postprandial stroll along the glorious pebble beach a stone’s throw away from the pub.

‘Becoming a vegan has transformed me – I appreciate life more and healthier eating has left me fitter than ever’

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


A serious illness in the family reminded our latest contributor, Jakki, just how precious life is and helped inspire her to become a vegan

Everyday Vegan: JakkiI’m 55 in July, and have never felt healthier or more energised; I owe it all to veganism.

I live with my partner and a teenager at home in South West England. I also have a 27-year-old son who lives further south with his partner and my grandson. In January last year, we found out that my six-week-old grandson was born with a condition that required urgent surgery. This made me realise the value of life, how precious it is.

A few months later I saw a post on Instagram about cow slaughter. Something just clicked and this instantly made me switch to veganism.

The combination of both incidents made me really focus on value of life and the precious gift it is for all beings.

I’ve been vegan just over a year and I know that I am vegan for life now.

It’s wrong that we can take an innocent voiceless being and torture and murder it. I just realised how wrong it is for my mind, body and soul to eat death, if I want to be full of life.

My family have had to adapt with me not cooking meat now at all at home. I’ve also had to accommodate and realise that their transition is still a personal journey after a life of conditioning… like I was, I guess.

I was vegetarian for four years in my teens after my French mother served rabbit and I made the shocking connection between the food and the living creature. I wasn’t fully ready to transition at this age; I just wish I had realised and accepted what I knew it my gut then.

Becoming vegan has been a transformative process in all areas of my life. It’s made me appreciate life more, and I’ve really focused in on my health and adapting and tackling food addictions such as processed foods and sugar as a result.

Veganism is a life process I feel and I am always happy to talk to others and guide them along this path. That’s my way.

Sometimes, I get frustrated that others don’t see what is happening in their lives and won’t stop eating animals, which makes me sad and angry too.

I owe my life, I’m sure, to those beautiful animals. I’ll never stop fighting to save the animals who have no choice and speaking for them with my voice.

If you are interested in sharing your thoughts in our Everyday Vegans slot, please get in touch and we’ll let you know what to do.

To connect with Jakki on social media, check out her Instagram account.