Tuesday, 9 February 2016

My own journey into living more healthily and environmentally consciously

Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

People regularly ask me if I have always been this conscious about health and well-being, and about the consequences of my actions on the environment. The answer is a definite NO when it comes to health, and a 'yes sort of' when it comes to the ecological side of things. There was never much consciousness around healthy eating or healthy living as I was growing up. Both my parents smoked when I was young and my mother still does; both drink; and both eat a pretty unhealthy diet. To be fair, my mum did try her best to get us to eat more vegetables and fruit when we were growing up, but vegetables for me were rabbit-food (I happily borrowed that phrase from my dad who would use it daily), and for nearly every meal I would substitute my portion vegetables with a second piece of meat. That lasted well into my years at university. As to healthcare, my parents blindly trusted (and still trust) their GP and the pharmaceutical industry and would insist on us taking antibiotics for a common cold. I remember having to plead for 3 years with both my parents and my GP to be allowed to see my first chiropractor for the migraines and scoliosis I was suffering from so badly! And I was already in my early twenties at that stage, but they would still not allow it. Both are still extremely reluctant about the path in life I have chosen a few years ago: that of teaching yoga, becoming a health and nutrition adviser, massage therapist, and counselor, after I initially had a very successful 10 year career in academia. On the other hand, both have always been very active when it comes to social justice (my mother was a social assistant, my father a union leader) and have always supported the Green Party. But while they do pay a lot of attention to their ecological footprints in certain ways, there is an incomprehensible lack of awareness and care in certain other ways, which absolutely baffles me.

My upbringing did plant some seeds of consciousness in the sense that I have only ever voted for the Green Party myself, I have always given dasvandh to different nature-protection organisations, and I never got a driver's license, for a large part because I don't want to pollute in that way so I consciously choose to use public transport, my bike, my own two feet, or drive together with someone.


One of the three bikes I have at home - I try to get other people to bike too when they visit

My own journey into more healthy and conscious living started nearly 10 years ago when I started practicing yoga, but at the start the changes were mostly around what I ate and drank. Those who knew me as a university student or pretty much up until my mid-twenties know I used to be quite the opposite of who I am know: I hardly cooked for myself, could eat the same food for weeks, drank loads of coffee, was still an avid meat eater; I used to drink alcohol, smoke, and use marijuana, although I started late with all of this (I was already 18+ and luckily didn't do any of it for more than a good few years). And because I have been suffering from migraines ever since I was 12, there was really not any time when I was not taking very heavy medication to help me deal with them, including a good few years when I was on anti-depressants and sleeping medication. On top of all of that I had hardly any awareness of all the chemicals body washes, shampoos, creams or household cleaning products. (I died my hair red since I was 14 and only switched to natural henna products in my mid-twenties, before I stopped using anything once I came into Sikhi; luckily enough I never used any make-up so my skin got saved from a lot of extra chemicals!)

The changes however started happening when I started practicing yoga. Without forcing myself in any way, the changes just happened automatically as I became more conscious of myself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I stopped smoking marijuana and tobacco and I stopped drinking. After a while I became vegetarian, and pretty much vegan straightaway too. I stopped drinking coffee or black tea and stopped using nearly any pharmaceutical medicines, only using herbs and foods as medicine, as well as Ayurvedic or homeopathic medicines and holistic treatments such as acupuncture, shiatsu, osteopathy, cranio-osteopathy, and yoga. By this time I had started coming into Sikhi as well. A few years later I started eating gluten-free. My physical body became healthier and healthier, I started looking a lot younger than I am, my skin became incredibly healthy (and this is the same person who struggled with acne since the age of 12, had a face like a crater, was a bit over-weight and was incredibly ashamed and self-conscious about her appearance throughout puberty and adolescence, pretty much until her mid-twenties). My reasons for becoming vegan were both to do with my own health and with the impact on the planet -- by the grace of Sikhi and its philosophy, compassion/love for myself and for mother earth became inseparable as that Ek, that Oneness, pervades everything.

Consciousness in the products I used for skincare came quite naturally too. I gradually started replacing store-bought shower gels with natural organic body oils which I apply before I have my cold shower. The few skincare products I would ever use (like a day cream) would usually come from health stores that only sell products not tested on animals, but up until about a year ago I could just as easily go back to buying my products for Poundland for months on end again, sinking back into that state of non-awareness of the impact of these products on my body and on the planet. I definitely never ever thought I would one day start experimenting with making any products myself!

For my cleaning products I would likewise buy Ecover products for times, and then slip back into old habits of just picking them up from the poundstore. That was until last year, when I started eradicating (nearly) all chemicals in the house -- I invested in a terrific water filtering system, I started replacing any plastic containers or objects that come into contact with food with glass or stainless steel, and I started looking into making my own alternatives for all cleaning products (see other posts on this blog).

It's still an ongoing process and there are still quite a few things I want to replace but haven't found a good solution for, but I'm already quite happy with where it has got me. And I'm incredibly happy to have just married an Indian Sikh man who shares this environmental consciousness and who does his own research into how we can live with awareness for our own health, the health of the family we hope to raise if Guru Sahib does kirpa, and the well-being of this planet. He is particularly inspired by all forms of sustainable living and is researching alternative house-building options for us, which we are both incredibly excited about. There are so many amazing alternatives out there! I'm hoping he will start contributing to this blog on that area soon himself :)

So for anyone thinking that they are too old or too much set in their habits to make changes like these, I hope that sharing my own personal journey has helped in convincing you: it doesn't matter what your lifestyle is right now, you can always start making changes towards more health for yourself and the world around you!

Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh

Monday, 8 February 2016

DIY washing up liquids

As food was one of the first areas I started becoming more conscious about, food containers (mainly the avoiding of any plastic coming into contact with my food) and products used to wash anything that comes into contact with my food (i.e. pots and pans, cutlery, dishes, ...) have been one of my main focus areas for switching to natural solution.

I had already switched to Ecover washing up liquids some years back (although the occasional one from Poundshop would sometimes still creep into my kitchen) but around 7 months ago I started looking into ways of making my own washing up liquid. I personally don't use a dishwasher, so I am focusing here on liquids to do your dishes the old-fashioned way: by hand, in the sink. Not having a dishwasher, having quite a small kitchen and working from home also means that I am doing dishes very regularly throughout the day to keep things tidy, so I want something that is quick and efficient.

For a while I simply used white vinegar in a sink filled with water, and I was actually quite happy with the results, apart from heavy duty cleaning. But I didn't like the smell too much, and I missed the soapiness. But for a lot of people, this might be a great thing to try-out.

I then started making liquid out of the soapnuts I already talked about here.
The liquid is quite easy to make: simply boil 50 grams of soapnuts in 1 liter of water for 25 minutes. When the liquid has cooled off, strain the soapnuts out and pour the liquid into a suitable container. This will give you about 500ml of concentrated soapnut liquid. Now pop the soapnuts back into the pan with a fresh liter of water and repeat the above steps 3 more times. You will then have 2 liters of chemical and preservative free detergent.

It does an excellent job at washing your dishes, even very dirty ones. You can also add some essential oils to your liquid (like tea tree oil or eucalyptus oil for extra disinfection and cleaning power, and for better smell). You can use this liquid for the dishwasher too (just put it in the soap dispenser), although I have heard quite a few people say that you want to use it on alternate days/cycles of your machine, as when used for a longer time in a row dishes don't always come out completely clean anymore.
The really wonderfully easy thing about this recipe is that it requires only one ingredient. If you already use soapnuts for your laundry, you don't have to buy any other ingredients, and it really serves as an all-round detergent (just some ideas here).
I used the soapnut liquid for about a month or two, but I kept looking for another solution.

And when I stumbled upon castile soap I was sold, and I haven't used anything else since. (How did I not know about the existence of this amazing product until recently?). Castile soap is actually not soap; it is a vegetable oil turned into soap. Traditionally olive oil was used, but nowadays any vegetable oil can be saponified into castile soap: hemp, coconut, sunflower, jojoba. Please be sure NOT to choose palm oil based castile soap (and avoid palm oil altogether if you care about animal welfare and our planet).
You can buy it made, or you can even choose to saponify your oils yourself at home. There are tutorials on Youtube, and it only takes a few minutes apparently. I haven't tried it myself yet, I buy my castile soap ready made, but might do this in the future to save on more packaging. You can find castile soap in health stores or online.

Lavender Pure-Castile Liquid Soap - 32 oz.Dr. Bonner is the most well-known brand. They mostly use a hemp oil as base (as well as an almond oil base) and they sell an unscented as well as different scented versions; plus they do the liquid as well as soap bars. I now buy a 5 liter one from BiOrigins, based on organic coconut and sunflower oil, and am very pleased with that one.

I use castile soap for a whole range of products now on which I'll blog later, but my recipe for washing up liquid is as follows: I simply mix my castile soap in a 1:1 ratio to water (if you use distilled water, the mix will last longer). And for a large bottle (which I keep reusing) I then add around 20-25 drops of almond oil, 5-10 drops of vitamin E oil (good for your hands, plus it is also a natural preservative), 15 drops of tea trea oil for extra disinfection, and 10-15 drops each of both sweet orange and lemon essential oils for a refreshing smell. Pine obviously works well too.


Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Ecological laundry solutions

Have you ever read the ingredients of and labels on all the different washing powders and liquids out there? Like REALLY read them, and contemplated their effect on you, your family and the environment? Traces of all these chemicals will enter your skin, and thus your bloodstream through wearing the clothes. All of these chemicals enter our ecosystem through the water pumped out of your washing machine. Not to mention all the plastic packaging that you assemble over a year!

(Our use of plastic packaging deserves a whole post on its own, at some point - but please, start doing some research for yourself if you are not aware yet about the detrimental effects on our entire ecosystem and our own health, and try and eliminate as much plastic from your homes and lives as possible. Replace with glass, stainless steel, reusable packaging, etc. Making your own products will greatly help in reducing your plastic footprint.)

So what are good ecological and make-it-yourself alternatives?

If you don't fancy making your own laundry products, there are some really good ecological alternatives out there which save you TONS of money as well.

Last year I purchased an ECOEGG (http://www.ecoegg.com/product/laundry-egg/).


It is a natural detergent without any harsh chemicals, super easy to use, skin-friendly (also for kids and babies) and one ecoegg lasts you a very long time! It's a plastic holder filled with cleaning pellets. I bought my ecoegg that lasts 210 washes for only £9.98 via buywholefoodsonline.co.uk; the one that lasts 720 washes is currently £19.99 on the official website. Just do the math, and see how much money you can save here! You just put it straight into your washing machine, for washes between 15° and 60°, and it really works well. The minus for me is the packaging of the ecoegg and the plastic the actual egg is made out of. But in the long run you still save a lot of packaging compared to other products. And the ecoegg comes with a 10 year guarantee.

More often though, I simply use organic soapnuts or soapberries (Sapindus, or also known as Reetha in India, where they have been used for centuries). A totally natural product, which is very versatile in its use: you can use it for laundry (which is what I use it for mostly) but also as a dishwashing liquid, as a shampoo and body wash, for skincare, etc. etc. AND was used in puratan times to make the patasha (sugar crystals) used in Amrit Sanchaar! (I think soapnuts might deserve a blog post in themselves too at some point...).

Image result for soapnuts

You simply put 4-6 soap nuts in a little hemp cloth bag in your washing machine, and use it for around 6 washes. When the berries are used up, their colour will have changed, and you simply take new ones.
Or if you prefer a liquid, you can boil the soapberries and strain the liquid - this is also the way to make your reetha washing up liquid. (Here are some excellent recipes for its use: http://www.crunchybetty.com/the-mother-of-all-soap-nuts-recipe-resources). The liquid does not last very long though (about 2 weeks) and you will need to keep it in your fridge. I personally prefer using the nuts in a simple cloth bag straight into my laundry machine.
The old berries can be composted - no waste whatsoever, no downsides whatsoever, and totally safe for you and for the environment. 1 kg of soapnuts can be used for up to 150 loads of laundry so it's very cheap too. This would be my number one recommendation to sangat.

For tough stains, you can simply add some soda crystals or borax to your washes, or organic bleach (Ecover does a good one - they also have a good stain remover that you can apply on your clothes before putting them into the washing machine).

Finally and if you have a bit more time, you can make your own laundry detergents from scratch. There are many recipes out there, you can google your way around. The typical ingredients are castile soap, baking soda, washing soda, borax and white vinegar. Essential oils can be added for fragrance and their qualities too. Here is just one easy to make recipe: http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/2009/04/natural-homemade-laundry-detergent/ Later this week I hope to post about other ecological make-them-yourself cleaning products, and they all pretty much use the same basic ingredients. Once you invest in these 5 basics, you're pretty much good to go!

Also do regularly clean your washing machine itself to remove any mold and mildew from the gaskets and dispensers. Vinegar can do the trick if you use it regularly. And once a month, let your machine run empty on its warmest cycle with either 1 cup of baking soda or 1 cup of bleach added directly to the wash tub. This will help keep smells out and keep your tub clean.

Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Sikhs and environmental consciousness - intro to this new blog

Dhan Dhan Guru Har Rai Sahib ji, the 7th compassionate Light of Nanak, the 7th Guru of the Sikhs. 
Their recent Gurpurab (the day They took birth) on 1 February has been the final push to start this blog that I had been thinking about for a long time already.

Sikhs see the Light of the One (Ek) pervading through all life, and they recognise that all life is connected through the cycle of reincarnation. There are 8.4 million life forms (species) on Earth, and we all have gone through those life forms thousands, millions, billions of times. Through the gradual awakening of our consciousness we are again, in this lifetime, reminded of that intricate connection and we start honouring it in our daily life, in the choices we make, in our actions. We strive for a life of righteousness (Dharam) instead of one where we keep creating more Karma.

While the task of all Sikhs is to serve selflessly, that of Khalsa (initiated or 'Amritdhari' Sikhs) in particular is to protect and serve. Not just protect and serve other Sikhs. Not just protect and serve all humans. But protect and serve Dharam (righteousness) and that includes the whole of Creation. 'Raj Karega Khalsa' ('Khalsa will rule the world') means that this consciousness of righteousness, of truth and true living, which is the consciousness of Khalsa (the pure ones), will ultimately prevail everywhere on Earth. 

But is seems like we still have a long way ahead of us. As Sikhs we don't live ascetic lives somewhere withdrawn from the world, trying to change it from the margins. We are right in it, in the muck of it, we are trying to live like lotus flowers, feet in the mud but unaffected by that mud. Yet it is often hard to stay unaffected, to not get drawn into so many unconscious habits that are prevailing all around us. Because of the busy lives we lead, because of financial strains, because of a whole variety of reasons we sometimes end up choosing the 'easier' rather than the more conscious way. Making your own cleaning or toiletry products for example might seem daunting or impossible at first sight - while it doesn't have to be and some are made in just minutes. Choosing the foods that are right for us, for general health or for a particular condition, requires a lot of research and we might just not have time for all of that - so we end up taking medication we might not need, and which then ends up unbalancing/damaging our own health and that of our planet. And just as often we are simply not aware of the alternatives or the natural solutions out there, because nobody has ever told us!

This blog is a humble attempt to touch upon those various aspects. It's not just for Sikhs, and most posts will not speak about Sikhi. But my identity as a Sikh underlies everything I do in life. And it underlies this blog too.

Environmental consciousness is not an 'optional choice' for Sikhs, it is an integral part of our legacy and teachings. Dhan Dhan Guru Nanak Dev ji Maharaj, the first Guru of the Sikhs, already tells us in Japji Sahib:

ਪਵਣੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਪਾਣੀ ਪਿਤਾ ਮਾਤਾ ਧਰਤਿ ਮਹਤੁ ॥
Pavan Guroo Paanee Pithaa Maathaa Dhharath Mehath ||

Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all.

We read this line every morning. Let's start living in the consciousness of it, every day a little bit more. 

May we treat Mata Dharat Mahat, our great Mother Earth, with the same kindness as was shown to us by our Guru Sahib. May that consciousness pervade our choices in what we eat and how we grow our food, in the modes of transport we use, in the choices we make as to what detergents and beauty products we might be using, in the packaging we use or don't use, etc. 

May this blog inspire others, and may those others in turn inspire their families, their communities, etc.
May it become a lighthouse.

Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh.