Inspiring lifestyles

The healing power of silence

drop of water

By Helen Preston, counsellor and holistic therapist

Last Christmas, my 20 year-old son bought me a book called ‘A Book of Silence’, written by Sara Maitland. In it, she explores and contemplates the silence she experienced after moving out of the city aged 40.

My son and I share a love of silence, so it was a thoughtful gift. We value silence and how it helps to calm and soothe the soul. In a world where it can often seem like a valuable commodity, it is worth taking a little time to explore silence’s healing power and seeing it for the undervalued resource it is.

Mobile devices constantly bombard us with noise. Music, podcasts, videos, phone calls – earphones in and off we go, isolated in our own little world of chosen sound.

At home, we often have the TV or radio on in the background. Or we talk for the sake of talking when there is nothing to say – and where silence could prove a more powerful and meaningful way to be present.

On the long journey driving him back to university, my son and I talk sometimes, but equally importantly we are both very comfortable being together in silence. We share our space comfortably. By way of contrast, some people I know are uncomfortable with silence and feel compelled to fill it with random streams of thought. Albeit unconsciously, they fear it.

Anyone who has listened to Eckhart Tolle will know that he uses silence or pauses to punctuate his language. I found it a little disconcerting when I first began to listen to his audio work. My mind was impatient for the next piece of information, to hear the next word and grasp the next concept.

The voice in my head judged the silences to be irritating. My conditioned mind wanted a continuous stream of noise. It took time to move beyond this situation and really ‘listen’ to both the words and the silence.

All too often we listen to respond, pass judgement or assess how what we are hearing fits with our beliefs. But if we are only prepared to listen to what we already know, we become stuck and entrenched. There is no room for new concepts or ideas. Eckhart says of silence: 

“To listen to the silence, wherever you are, is an easy and direct way of becoming present. Even if there is noise, there is always some silence underneath and in between the sounds. Listening to the silence immediately creates stillness inside you.” (page 103, ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’, New World Library.)

Man in a forest
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Being mindful

A few years ago, I ran various relaxation and mindfulness groups for teens. During one such session, they were invited to leave their mobile phones behind for an hour and walk in silence with me to a local beauty spot. The idea was to be fully present and to observe the sights and sounds around us.

When we arrived at our destination, we would discuss our experiences. The walk was only between five and eight minutes long, but many of them found it difficult to be in silence. Some giggled, one held her hand over her mouth to remind herself not to speak, and several were unable to help themselves and spoke anyway.

One girl found it easier than the others though. She liked silence and, upon arrival at our destination, shared the fact that she had seen birds, flowers and a cat of which the others had no recollection. She had been quietly present in the moment and enjoyed the experience.

At the end of the sessions, she intimated that she now regularly took the dog for a walk to continue enjoying silence as it made her feel calm, peaceful and relaxed. Although the others initially struggled with the exercise, interestingly they also enjoyed it more than any other form of mindfulness that we practiced.

Certainly, many people find it easier to listen to a guided meditation than to feel safe and calm in silence. It takes time and practice to allow space to creep in between your thoughts, not to follow them as they pop in but just notice to them without judgment and let them pass.

Noise can be a means to help us hide from unpleasant and fearful thoughts, enabling us to avoid our feelings of vulnerability. When we take the time to listen in silence to our inner dialogue though, it is possible to make a choice.

We can either keep beating ourselves up or mindfully change that inner voice from critical and condemning to warm and comforting. ‘You’re doing your best’ is much more positive than ‘you’re an idiot’. But we all run these negative dialogues because we have learned them. It is often someone else’s voice that we hear and someone else’s opinion that we have come to believe over time.

But silence can give us time to weed the garden of our mind, declutter the dark corners in which we hold thoughts of shame and clear a space for the real beauty of our soul to flourish. Imperfection, suffering, making mistakes, failing and feeling inadequate are all part of the human experience. So take a deep breath and listen to the silence, allow it in and become friends with it.

When working with clients, my role as a counsellor is mostly to listen. I listen to the words and the emotions, but also to the silence. Just holding that silence for a few seconds longer than normal can give people the space to access memories, thoughts and images, enabling them to unearth something of significance that would otherwise be lost. And that really is the magic of the healing power of silence.

Helen Preston

Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate. 

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Inspiring lifestyles

Three ways to care for yourself following winter hibernation

By Anita Ramsden, kinesiologist

I love the springtime because of the possibilities and hopefulness it offers as nature never lets us down.

The countryside can look so bleak in winter, but in reality everything is simply resting, restoring itself and conserving its energy. So when the sun starts to shine and the days warm up, everything is ready to burst out with newness and freshness to exploit its full potential.

At the start of winter, I read a blog about how people go within and, like much of the natural world, adopt an attitude of hibernation. It prompted me to think differently about things: Could we be happier if we saw ourselves and our behaviour reflected in those seasonal flows?

Certainly, the cold, grey days have not bothered me as much as usual because I have appreciated lighting the fire and acknowledging that this is a time to slow up, rest and get ready – for spring and growth.

So as we begin to emerge from our hibernation, what do we need to do to care for ourselves effectively? Hydration, movement and a quiet mind are key and here is why:

1. Raise your energy levels by hydrating your mind and body

During the winter, most of us spend a lot of our time inside. But life indoors can be very dehydrating. There is central heating, hot fires and the electromagnetic fields of WiFi networks and mobile phones. Computers and other electrical equipment all produce heat when we use them, but all of these things take their toll on the levels of water content in our cells.

Indeed, according to the Hydration Foundation: “We are 99% water molecules and even a 2% reduction in hydration leads to measurable cognitive loss.” It is certainly a pity that more schools do not realise this fact as reduced hydration levels affect everything from the amount of energy an individual has, to their mood, their ability to concentrate, their hunger levels and their ability to feel joyful.

But the solution is easy: Simply drink more water, ideally eight glasses a day.  Build it up slowly, especially if you currently do not consume that much, or indeed any.

A really beneficial way to start your day is with a big glass (eight to 12 oz) of water, with a pinch of pink Himalayan or sea salt and/or a squeeze of lemon. If you make it the first thing you do, you will give your organs a really good soak and get the hydration message straight into your cells and brain. But do not be tempted to use table salt as it does not contain the same essential minerals as other forms. 

Plants and seeds can also hydrate us too. So add a tablespoon of ground chia seeds to your water and/or daily smoothie. Chia seeds form ‘gel water’, which is what we find inside plants – think of succulents, such as the Aloe vera.

Scientists have also recently discovered gel water inside our cells. This means they can absorb it instantly, giving us a great deal more energy and allowing the water to stay in our body for use rather than going straight through us. Find out more by viewing this TEDtalk by Dr Gerald Pollack.  

A daily smoothie, which includes hydrating green veg, fruit, added ground chia and other seeds and nuts, will likewise provide you with long-lasting hydration – as will eating juicy fruit like apples. But you might also benefit from reading a book called Quench, which was released in 2018. Jam-packed with vital information you may not have considered before, it also provides a five-day ‘Quench’ plan to ensure optimum hydration.

Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

2.Get moving

Once you become adequately hydrated, movement is important to encourage even more hydration at the cellular level. Many of us spend large chunks of time crunched up over our computer at a desk. But sitting in this way compromises your organs, and sitting still for long time periods has been deemed as harmful as smoking cigarettes. Not only is it dehydrating, but as an article in The Guardian once put it: “When you’re sitting, you’re one step from being dead.”

So make sure you get up and move. If you are focusing on hydrating yourself, a positive side effect is that your bladder will remind you to move, which will in turn increase your oxygen supply and improve your blood and lymph flow.

Elsewhere, standing desks have been found to increase productivity and reduce the number of sick days taken – but even just doing head-to-chin and small spinal twists while sitting will help.

Also make tiny, little movements before you get out of bed. When you see cats and dogs stretching as they wake up, they are helping the cerebral spinal fluid flow around the head and down the back, which means they both energise and detox themselves at same time.

In order to prepare your body for spring though, go out to get lunch rather than eat at your desk and take advantage of the vitamin D that the sun will help you produce. Or walk the dog more often, get off the bus one stop early or park a bit further than usual from your destination. These may sound like simple things, but they can make a big difference to your health and wellbeing.  

Spending time outside also aids sleep as sunlight is required to set our circadian rhythms – and our gut microbiota respond to these natural cycles positively too. Even better, spend time outside with a friend who makes you laugh in order to boost your energy levels and release health-giving hormones. It really is about looking for the magic in everyday life.

3. Learn to quiet your mind

Finally, train yourself to quieten your mind using meditation, mindfulness techniques or simply a walk in the park where you focus on nature rather than on what is going on in your head. It is refreshing, relaxing and reboots your thinking.

Moreover, all it takes is a bit practice, and the benefits are huge. By stimulating your vagus nerve in this easy way, you are taken out of a fight or flight response, which physiologically reduces your stress response.

You can do it anywhere and only 10 minutes a day will help boost your mood, your energy levels and help destress you. A really helpful app here is Headspace. Complementary medicine advocate Deepak Chopra’s meditation programme is also great and he has a new one starting at the end of March, so why not give it a go?

Anita Ramsden

Anita Ramsden is a kinesiologist. She is emphatic about affecting positive change and her work encourages wellbeing for mind, body and soul. Anita is also a member of the Kinesiology Federation.

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Cultivating mindfulness to support transformational change

Butterfly on zen Stones

By Laura McAvoy, transformational coach

There are many ways to experience mindfulness and meditation, whether through your own daily practice, within an embodiment tradition such as yoga or Tai Chi, or perhaps as part of a practical approach to stress reduction, to name but a few.

Mindfulness might not immediately spring to mind when you think of transformational coaching, with its focus on speaking and conversation to help you move your life forward. Yet mindfulness and coaching can have a big impact if the two approaches are combined – especially if you are feeling ‘stuck’.

It is an absolute truth that we can make a choice and make a change. Yet, deep personal transformation – the kind that brings significant, lasting and meaningful change – can often feel like a long process.

At times of transition – after becoming a parent, during and after illness or bereavement, in mid-life, during menopause or at certain points in our relationships or work – we can be called on to take stock, to turn inward and ask ourselves: Who am I and what do I really want?

Clients who start coaching work are often on the crest of this wave, seeking answers and with an awareness that something needs to move forward but wrestling back and forth in dilemma. They often feel hemmed-in by life circumstances, unsure of whether they have the resources within themselves to create something new and feeling trapped in circular thought patterns based on indecision.

The aim of a transformational coach in this scenario is to shift that sense of inertia or paralysis by helping to liberate their thinking.

If you are feeling stuck and want to start helping yourself immediately though, it could be useful to explore the attitudes on which mindfulness is based, which is an excellent place to begin. According to Emily Johnston, one of my trainers and a long standing mindfulness and wellbeing coach, mindfulness is underpinned by seven key attitudes:

  1. Non-judgement;
  2. Patience;
  3. Beginner’s mind;
  4. Trust;
  5. Non-striving;
  6. Acceptance;
  7. Letting go.

Sit for a while and sample the flavour of each of these attitudes, before combining them with some simple coaching questions. Doing so should help you shift perspective on your current situation.

Non-judgement

If you have been feeling stuck or as if you are not moving forward, your self-talk is likely to involve an element of judgement.

Ask yourself: How am I judging myself in this situation? Where am I placing blame? How is this judgement serving me in either moving forward or staying stuck?

See if you can ease yourself – even if only for while – into a state of non-judgement. Could you re-tell your story using only factual statements without your ‘inner critic’ rising up? If you are unsure, write your story down and read it back as if it had been written by a friend. What would you say to them upon reading it? How does this approach change things?

Beginner’s mind

This is my absolute favourite. ‘Beginner’s mind’ asks us to view our situation with curiosity and to approach it with an almost childlike wonder and openness as if for the very first time, with all of our preconceptions lifted. In other words, look at things as if they offer a new possibility.

Ask yourself: What have I not explored in my situation? What might I have missed? What other meanings could this situation hold for me? What other outcomes may be available?

Trust

Trust plays a crucial part in helping us make a shift. If we do not trust ourselves, our environment or other people, it makes it hard to be free ourselves enough to make the choices we desire.

Ask yourself: Where does my trust lie? What, if anything, is hindering my belief in myself? Who and what can help to support me?

Non-striving

The idea of ‘non-striving’ may seem to go against most people’s idea of coaching, but it actually sits at the heart of transformative practice. Deep transformation involves a process of unfolding, which entails listening in to yourself and being responsive to what arises, and even changing course if needs be.

Ask yourself: How can I bring a sense of more ease into my life? How can I honour the process in which I am finding myself? How can I truly be present?

Acceptance

Once we see things how they really are and are less clouded by judgement, fear and limiting beliefs, such acceptance can be freeing. It is not only about accepting the circumstances that surround us but also about accepting what is rising within us in terms of our emotions.

The discomfort provoked by some feelings could be too difficult to experience, so instead of accepting them and allowing them to express and dissipate, we supress or deny them. But it might also be worth exploring whether we accept the role that we are playing in what is happening too.

Ask yourself: What, if anything, have I been struggling to accept? What might I need to allow to rise within me? What am I feeling?

Letting go

Letting go is a process that naturally follows noticing and accepting.

Ask yourself: What is ready to be released in my life? What thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, relationships, old patterns and habits are no longer serving me? What will support me in letting them go? Where might more forgiveness be helpful?

By questioning your situation with an attitude of mindfulness, you could gain new traction. The story in your head might not be the ‘whole truth’, so it may be possible to find a fresh perspective by engaging in a mindfulness or meditation practice that suits you.

If this suggestion resonates, it may be helpful to find the time and set the intention to cultivate the seven attitudes of mindfulness within you. Just five to 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a big difference if you practice it consistently.

Laura McAvoy

Laura McAvoy provides transformative coaching and dialogue for women. She also offers group coaching courses, coaching circles and 1:1 work, all of which incorporates mindfulness and meditation. Laura works in Saffron Walden, Essex, and the surrounding area.

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Transformational coaching: Creating space for new possibilities

Woman Juggling Balls

By Laura McAvoy, transformational coach.

All too many women become engulfed in the complexity of family life as they attempt to juggle roles, responsibilities and demands. They often lose sight of who they are, what their desires are and what is truly important to them.

A first indication that a disconnect may have taken place is that people feel flat, generally dissatisfied or ‘stuck’. For some women, this situation can become very uncomfortable, leading either to a numbing and suppressing of that inner niggle, or feeling emotions, such as anger or shame, rising to the fore.

If an individual ends up staying in this zone for any length of time, it can have an impact on their self-acceptance, confidence and resilience, making it harder to break free from a loop of dissatisfaction and inaction.

But this ‘stuckness’ can actually act as an invitation. For, in reality, it is our inner guidance rising up to tell us that something is going on that can no longer be ignored. Something about where we are focusing our energy, time and attention is no longer serving us.

When viewed in this way, the fact we have noticed how stuck we are could almost be seen as a gift – as long there is no self-judgement in the noticing, that is.

This is where transformational coaching comes in as it offers women a way in to exploring the richness of their own power, wisdom and creativity. The aim is to help them tune into their inner guidance, embody their truth and generate significant shifts in their personal and professional lives.

Butterfly on zen Stones

‘Transformation’ is a powerful word, but the work is all about supporting women’s journeys based on a partnership of equality and respect. Women are not ‘broken’ or in need of ‘fixing’ and so their coach does not offer advice. Instead, by means of questioning, reflecting, challenging and space-holding, each individual is trusted to find her own answers. It may sound very simple but it can also be immensely powerful.

By drawing attention to the story a woman tells and gently unearthing old thinking patterns, she is supported to shift perspective and change her beliefs about what is possible. Significant insights usually come to the fore quite quickly and, as a result, she will start to feel less trapped or stale, and instead feel more empowered to move forward with confidence.

I call this being in a space of ‘almostness’. It is a space of possibility. ‘Stuckness’ may alert us to the fact that something needs to change, but when we are willing to accept and relish the openness of being ‘almost’ but not quite there, we often feel empowered to explore things more fully.

The path to clarity is rarely linear though. In fact, it is much more aligned with the circular form of feminine energy. This means that women coming to this work for the first time often feel as if they are being held and understood.

Women can look at their situation, their needs, and how they are being in their own lives knowing that ‘almostness’ is OK. They can spiral around this space, focusing on different angles and perspectives each time until they begin to gain clarity and insight. That is when they will begin to shift – although very often not in ways they had envisaged at the start.

But each client is always in charge of her own journey. How deep any exploration goes and to what extent new thinking is created, or new actions taken, is always the choice of each individual.

Strength

As for me, I am the founder of ‘Open Out’, an organisation that offers transformational coaching and dialogue, group coaching courses and coaching circles exclusively to women. My speciality is in helping competent and capable women, who have got to the point where they want to reassess their lives and feel that they are being called to change – whether that change be physical, situational, emotional, relationship-based, psychological or spiritual.

The coaching experience is often about helping someone return to wholeness, and for many of us that includes returning to the ‘tribe’ of womanhood. But in reality each individual can own any turning point in her life if she notices, engages with, and allows the personal growth that is inherent in each experience.

As a result, I often integrate mindfulness and meditation practices into my work. Mindfulness principles such as focusing on the present moment, accepting things in a non-judgemental way, letting go and the like are really helpful when we are keen to make a shift in life.

But do be careful not to be in too much of a rush to set goals and get to the end point and instead enjoy where you are for now. As the old adage goes, we all have to arrive somewhere before we can depart.

When a woman chooses healing and wellbeing – as is her right – it is often connected with the health of her family, relationships and wider society. I feel honoured to support that reclamation and am always awestruck to see the impact of each individual’s new choices and ways of being as they ripple out in positive ways.

But for anyone who feels ready to start this journey, make sure you find the right coach for you. Coaches come from a variety of backgrounds and have a number of different specialisms and interests, but to ensure your work together is fruitful, it is vital that your relationship is a positive one and you feel their approach works for you. In other words, take the time to find someone who really resonates with you as it will make all the difference in the world.

LauraMcAvoy

Laura McAvoy provides transformative coaching and dialogue for women. She also offers group coaching courses, coaching circles and 1:1 work, all of which incorporates mindfulness and meditation. She works in Saffron Walden, Essex, and the surrounding area.

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Healing approaches

Six common meditation myths busted

ancient-architecture-art-161170

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

Meditation in general, and mindfulness in particular, are constantly in the media these days. It is now considered acceptable practice for dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to improving wellbeing in the office. This means it has truly moved into the mainstream.

Many of us would like to establish a regular meditation practice but may, unconsciously, have various misconceptions about it that prevent us from making it part of our regular self-care regime. Here are some of the barriers I faced and overcame during my own personal journey, which I know are not peculiar to me but common to many:

Myth 1: The goal of meditation is to reach a state of peaceful calm

This is goal, of course. Why would we do it otherwise? But making it our primary goal can mean we end up feeling cheated or a failure if we do not end our practice feeling blissed out and floating on a cloud.

Instead if we make our goal to stick with our practice no matter what arises, a zen state will often occur as a happy byproduct. In other words, feeling calm is a likely outcome of meditation, but if we make it our sole focus we may end up disappointed.

Sticking with the practice regardless of what arises means that, irrespective of any thoughts, emotions or physical sensations that occur, we bring our awareness back to meditating whenever it wanders. If we are focusing on our breath, we come back to the breath. If we are saying a mantra, we come back to the mantra. If the practice is about awareness itself, we come back to being aware of our awareness.

Whether the mind wanders 10 times or 100 times, it does not matter – we always endeavor to bring it back to our practice as soon as we notice what is happening. What really matters is choosing to bring our attention back rather than staying engaged our thoughts.

Myth 2: Meditation should always bring a deep sense of wellbeing

This myth is very much connected to the first one. While we would all love to have a deep sense of wellbeing, it does not always happen.

When Yogi Bhajan brought kundalini yoga to the west in 1968, he said meditation was like taking a mental shower. Our subconscious mind acts like a filtration system, trapping all the emotions, thoughts and feelings we fail to process in our daily lives, before storing them for us.

But our system eventually becomes full. Without a way to clean it, many of us find ourselves in a cycle of manage-cope-breakdown. We tread water until we are unable to do so any more, and mental and/or physical burnout results.

Sometimes when we meditate though, these stored thoughts and feelings are released from the unconscious into our conscious awareness. Put another way, our mind uses the practice of meditation to clean our filters.

This process may feel uncomfortable and leave us having to deal with the strong emotions that have arisen. Such a situation is normal and, although difficult, enables us to process our thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. The cumulative effective of “cleaning the filter” through regular practice is of great benefit to our wellbeing in the long-term and can help break the burnout cycle.

As a side note, meditation may sometimes feel uncomfortable because we have been running in fifth gear all day long, before suddenly asking our bodies to shift into first while our foot is still on the accelerator.

But that is where yoga comes in. The physical practice of yoga prepares the body for meditation. Even just a few minutes of simple stretching and exercise can help our bodies to ease off the accelerator and shift down through the gears slowly, so that we can get the most out of our meditation practice.

Myth 3: When I meditate, I will enter a space of no-thought

Again, this scenario can and does happen but should not become a way to judge the success of our meditation. In my personal experience, thought never stops. It just slows down and becomes quieter, much like turning down the volume of a radio.

Myth 4: I must meditate for at least 20 minutes to receive any benefits

It is true that the more you meditate, the more adept you become at it and the more positive effects you will notice. But as little as three minutes a day is enough to make a difference.

In reality, it is more about the consistency with which you practice than the duration of any given session. Three minutes every day will probably serve you better than 20 minutes once a week.

By meditating little and often, we make it a more achievable goal (most of us can find three minutes each day) and it feels like less of a chore (see Myth 5). It also helps establish our practice as a habit rather than an occasional exercise. So when you find yourself with more time, meditating for longer will be easy.

Myth 5: Meditation is good for me so I should always want to do it

Physical exercise is good for us but a lot of us do not want to do it and will find any excuse not to do so. Meditation could be described as simply exercise for the mind: it takes effort, it can feel boring and, as previously mentioned, it can release difficult emotions.

Humans are creatures of habit for a reason. Habits are efficient – they require a lot less energy output. When meditating, we change the way our brains are wired. While this is ultimately a good thing, we may resist such change because it generates more: changes in perspective, thoughts, attitudes, aspirations as well as in our concept of self and our relationships.

Meditation has the potential to change the way we relate to our entire experience of life, both internal and external, past, present and future. So it poses the ultimate threat for a creature of habit as change is exhausting and can be uncomfortable.

But whether you crave meditation or resist it, if you desire to live a life that is authentic for yourself and the world around you, there really is no better tool to support you in that endeavour.

Myth 6: Meditation is a luxury so I can only do it when everything else on my to-do list is completed

Self-care is not a luxury – it is a necessity. Our mental health and wellbeing should not be an afterthought as it is paramount to our survival.

Society teaches us that we must earn self-care through some mystical formula of paid work, caring for our family and friends, contributing to society and the like. This idea is deeply rooted in a dying patriarchy so please do not buy into it.

If you believe that meditation has the potential to improve your wellbeing, make it a priority by putting it at the top of your to-do list. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself – and, if you decide meditation is not for you, give yourself permission to take care of yourself in some other way.

In an aeroplane, you are always told to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping other people – and while the analogy may be used a lot these days, it is still valid. We cannot help others if our own energy is depleted. Or we can, but we end up being burnt out, which is not a sustainable way to live.

The above is by no means a definitive list though, and I would love to hear about any barriers you have experienced in establishing a regular meditation practice. Feel free to post comments and share your own experiences with myself and the rest of the community here.

sarah stollery headshot

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.