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Exploring Energy Healing and Sound Meditation

CREDIT: ROY SCOTT/GETTY IMAGES

Over the past two years I got curious about energy work and energy healing. First, I watched a Goop episode on energy healing on Netflix. It explained that by using energy work one can release tension, anxiety, and blockages and tap into unknown reserves of power. I was intrigued by this and the thought of tapping into more energy. At the same time, my friend Sandra and I were participating in an online seminar from New Ventures West called “Year Launch: Becoming Who You Really Are – The Ultimate Human Quest.” Every month we would get questions for reflection and inquiry as well as daily practices to increase our self awareness. These included sensory exercises which were focused on becoming more aware of your body sensations and emotions. Sandra and I started to read up and talk about the realm of energy, vibrations and expanded consciousness and I felt drawn to learn more about it. We were about to sign up for an energy course in the East Bay when COVID shut down all in-person classes. So nothing materialized right away. But life always has its ways.

When I arrived in Hawaii in January of this year I felt the urge to find some sort of retreat – a yoga or meditation retreat – something that allowed me to create more space and stillness in my life. I wasn’t very successful in finding anything as all in-person offerings were on hold. During my search, however, I stumbled onto Sarah Daigle’s website. She offered “energy upgrade sessions” (an intuitive blend of Quantum/Reiki/Hands on Healing, Sacred Sound, Crystal Therapy & Aromatherapy) and “De-armoring” (Emotional and Energy Release). Now that sounded intriguing – and I also wasn’t quite sure what it all meant. As with many things I’ve pursued and explored over the last year I followed my curiosity and intuition. I wanted to give this a try, find out for myself what it would be like and booked a first session.

Fast forward to 6 months later and my work with Sarah has had a profound impact on me. We met every 2-3 weeks and each session followed a similar structure. First, we checked in on areas of my life that I wanted to explore more or feel a desire to shift. I pulled an Oracle card from one of her many fascinating oracle decks and we talked about the message and how it might tie to what I’m exploring. I know, one might categorize this as woo-woo, unproven stuff and that’s exactly how I felt too initially. As our sessions continued I found the messages quite meaningful and was fascinated by how they were connected with the themes I was exploring. I didn’t consider them to be predictions of the future or an absolute truth. I saw them more as messages and questions for further reflection (a great add to any deep inquiry practice). After that, the actual energy session began. I was lying on my back on a massage table, warmly wrapped in a nice comfy blanket. Sarah would put on music, told me to “tune into my body” and be present to the sensations and feelings that might arise. In a nutshell, I felt like I was embarking on a deep meditative experience. Sarah would focus on different parts of the body – a shoulder, my arm, my solar plexus, my neck or head – sometimes holding a spot like in acupuncture, sometimes pushing down her full hand or moving slowly across my body similar to a massage. At times, she would also sing or integrate sound from singing bowls or a huge gong she had hanging from the ceiling.

In my first session, I fell asleep and was so tired after that I needed to take a two hour nap (which I never do). I took it as a sign that I should slow down a bit versus always being on the go and never taking time to rest (a personal tendency I had been exploring already more deeply over the past year). As the sessions went on my experience started to change and deepen. At times, I felt the tension increase and then fade away as she was moving along (especially in my head and neck area), like a huge build up of a temporary headache that then quickly and completely vanished. I felt my feet and hands heat up, my arms tingling, my energy rising or falling into a deeply relaxed state. My senses became more fine tuned. I started to see some colors, especially in the area of the “third eye” chakra, sometimes accompanied by different shapes and images.

My Oura ring recording a deep meditative state during my energy sessions

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact impact of energy work. My linearly thinking, logical mind challenged me initially: “So what exactly am I getting out of this?”. And yet, at the experiential level, I knew it was having an impact. A (for now) unquantifiable impact. The best description that I can personally give is that it is a gradual fine tuning of ones senses – an expansion of awareness and consciousness. Sarah’s work connected well with my existing meditation practice and took it to a whole new level – expanding it from breathing meditation or body scans to noticing energies, vibrations, and images.

Over the course of four months I started to feel more grounded, more connected to the world around me and started to gain more clarity on how I want to live my life. I attribute this to a few influences and experiences:

  • The deep energy work with Sarah, the conversations we had and the detailed follow ups and exercises she sent
  • Feeling more grounded from living in Hawaii and being surrounded by nature
  • My grandmother dying and the sadness and real, vulnerable conversations with my family that followed thereafter
  • Working with my own coach on exploring my past and family history
  • Books I read including “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama and Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance

It’s been a fascinating exploration and one I’m excited to continue. I increasingly believe that if we follow the “breadcrumbs of energy” and our intuition combined with exploring different modalities of self inquiry, the path becomes clearer and life richer and more meaningful.

2

Ka Hana Pono: A magical school that lets kids be kids

Ka Hana Pono School, Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii

As our 6-month chapter in Hawaii is coming to an end, I keep reflecting on the special time we’ve had and how incredibly lucky we were to find Ka Hana Pono, the local preschool that our kids attended over the past half year. First, the school choice was a bit of a wildcard as there are only two full-time preschools in the area and second, that we were able to get spots for both Bastiaan and Lea. I remember when I was googling preschools in Haleiwa and stumbled onto Ka Hana Pono’s website. The photos immediately captivated me – the lush green outdoor garden and playground. Memories of my outdoor adventures as a kid in Austria came to mind. And, they taught the kids about healthy living and eating? Sold! After a brief virtual Zoom tour by Jason aka “Uncle Bison”, the owner and one of the main teachers, I was even more convinced of this choice. This looked like a fantastic place for two young children to spend 6 months. Ka Hana Pono it was.

The meaning of the name itself made me ponder life and curious about how their day-to-day would unfold: “‘Ka Hana Pono’ is a pragmatic set of tools for understanding and making the practice of Pono (= being at one with everything) a part of your daily life. These tools are consolidated into a reference work that combines both the philosophy of personal greatness, with the cognitive skills necessary for maintaining it – a practical guide for mastering the art of living in Pono.” (Source: https://huna-hana.tripod.com). Sounds like a school I could benefit from going to myself ūüôā

So what did Bastiaan’s and Lea’s experience look like in practice?

  1. Connection to nature + pure play. The kids spent the majority of their time outdoors, barefoot, exploring, learning from and playing with nature. They would come home with mud on their feet, their shorts dirty to the point that even the strongest detergent would fail miserably. They had climbed, planted, harvested, swung, jumped, painted (messily), danced and sung. It made me smile to see them at pick up time – their hair dusty or sweaty, exhilarated and tired.
  2. Learning by doing. Bastiaan would have never touched bugs back in California. Now he knows that bok choy stalks regrow if you trim them and put them back in shallow water, he picks and eats berries from local bushes and names (and touches!) all sorts of bugs. The teachers read to the kids and tell them stories grounded in core values like respect and love. While the curriculum (on purpose) isn’t “academic-first” the kids learn core concepts like counting, colors and shapes while going about their gardening activities or games.
  3. Team work and collaboration – teachers as the guides. The teachers guide the kids on activities but let the kids take the lead. The kids learn how to work together, play with each other, and work through conflict. The teachers feel like the wise elder friends that aren’t too overpowering or hierarchical. They make the kids feel seen and heard – each one of them them acknowledged for who they uniquely are. Also, turns out Uncle Bison is a singer-song writer who plays in a ska band. He teaches the kids to play Ukulele and whips out his guitar to sing and dance with the kids during the day.

I must admit that I had a brief moment of hesitation early on about the mainly play-based approach. This brief doubt evaporated quickly as I saw Lea and Bastiaan develop and grow during their time here. Bastiaan in particular became more confident and outgoing. The ability to fully express himself through play and physical activity (he’s a very physical guy) helped him come out of his shell. The close and loving relationship with the teachers led to a huge jump in his social and verbal skills. And our Lea is thriving all around – our little social butterfly could let her full spirit shine and share her light with the many other wonderful children that are now her friends.

Thank you Ka Hana Pono for the special environment you create every day – for the love, dedication, creativity and freedom you provide. We feel incredibly grateful that Bastiaan and Lea could spend this chapter of their lives with you – their time at Ka Hana Pono enabled them to connect with and let their individual lights shine more brightly.

5

Video: Hooping around the world

Our incredible journey has come to an end. It’s been a magical¬†experience on all dimensions – exploring new countries & cultures, spending quality time with family & friends and learning more about the world and ourselves. But our blog wouldn’t be complete without one last video:

“365 days, 6 continents and 1 hula hoop”

Now, we are excited to be back in the Bay Area. Off to our next adventure!

2

Getting out of my comfort zone: Improv Theatre

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BuehnenRausch – Improvisationstheater in Berlin

Do you remember a situation, personal or professional, where¬†you were¬†put on the spot and felt a bit uncomfortable? I can recount a few instances over the years that made my heart jump a bit. Karaoke¬†is one example. I’m not a particularly good singer and having to perform in front of others does¬†make me a bit nervous. Or I remember these first few weeks at¬†Business School where I felt self-conscious about my Austrian accent and hence always felt my heart beat a bit faster before raising my hand in class. But why?¬†I guess I’m someone who likes to be in¬†control. I’m not a control freak but I do like to have a plan¬†and some structure in my life. I’m also someone who thinks about how others might perceive me.¬†I run around with my personal screen, evaluating if I lived up to and ideally exceeded expectations¬†–¬†most of the time my own high¬†expectations. I¬†always admired people who¬†completely enjoy the thrill of the unexpected or maybe just don’t care all¬†too much what others think about them. Wouldn’t it be¬†so liberating if I could stop overthinking in certain situations¬†and just do?¬†So I decided that I want to¬†learn how to enjoy not being in control ‚ÄĒ and decided to take improv theatre¬†lessons¬†during our one-month¬†stay¬†Berlin.

Why improv theatre?¬†Improv theatre means reacting spontaneously. There are a few basic rules and¬†elements that should be reflected in a scene on stage. For example, the audience picks a place, a relationship, a profession, or a¬†tricky situation. But that’s about it. The actors, inspired by the chosen topic, get going. One person starts with a statement, the other builds on it. There is no script just spontaneous ideas that eventually make up the entire story. No play is the same. Everything feels new¬†– and is very unpredictable. This sounded exactly like what I needed!

I signed up for two separate improv courses. One was a weekly 3-hour improv¬†evening class. The other was a 2-day intensive weekend workshop.¬†I might as well go all in! The warm up exercises at the beginning of each session (word association games¬†or¬†word-by-word group story telling) were fun. But then¬†the “easy” part was over. It was time to get up on stage.¬†I was nervous to take¬†the leap and go up without preparing. While some others were kicking things off¬†on stage,¬†I immediately started thinking about the type of¬†character I should or could play. If I¬†at least settled¬†on¬†a few characteristics beforehand¬†it would be easier (so I thought). But there was barely enough time to think! And that’s the whole point. A topic is chosen and then it’s “go”.¬†Plus, even if you have already made up the perfect story in your mind it’s useless. The interaction on stage will take it in a totally different direction. So there I was on stage, my mind racing back and forth between my real me and my “new me”. Somehow, words were coming out of my mouth and I created a little story¬†with my co-player.¬†And parts of it turned out to be really¬†entertaining. We laughed our heads off. That felt really good. At least some potential to build on! But at times¬†I was pulled back into the real world¬†and I was trying to make out the faces in the audience for a reaction.¬†Could I have been more funny? More surprising? More witty? More interesting?¬†So many maybe’s,¬†could have’s and should have’s? Why? Why not just go with the flow¬†and¬†be happy with what has happened?¬†After all, this whole thing is about experiencing something completely new. That’s when I realised that it will take some serious work to lower the voice of my “ego”. The ego looks for validation. The ego looks for a pat on the back. The ego compares and wants to do better.

I left my first couple of¬†lessons with mixed feelings. On the one hand I was proud that I had pushed myself into new territory, on the other hand I thought that I could have done better. But I had the feeling that I was on to something, beginning to discover a new¬†side of myself. As the classes continued I learned about different types of games, how to take on different roles (high¬†vs.¬†low status, different emotional states) and storytelling. All of these elements were aiming at one thing: letting go. Letting go of established¬†thought and behavioral¬†patterns, structures and expectations. My nervousness of “just putting myself out there” decreased¬†with each training session. I must admit that it hasn’t completely¬†disappeared quite yet but I became more at ease with going with the flow and letting go of my self¬†censorship. The more I let go the more I felt present and, interestingly,¬†also more creative.

What’s best about improv is that it is a very collaborative game. The main rule of improv is to let the other person shine. Everything should be approached with a “yes, and‚Ķ”¬†attitude. You always build on what the other person says, if you like it or not. Instead of being the smartest, the funniest or the boldest the main advice in improv is to “do the obvious”. Don’t try to come up with the best or most original idea. If you’d just steam roll everyone else with your, let’s say,¬†smart idea, no story would develop. It’s all about co-creating, listening¬†to and building on each other. That’s when the best stories come to life. Nobody wins, nobody loses. Improv is about¬†appreciating what¬†already exists versus¬†thinking about what’s lacking. That’s a neat concept. Focus on your strengths and not only on your weaknesses. And everyone can do¬†it, regardless of¬†cultural, socio-economic¬†or professional¬†background. Everyone can play, learn and feel good.¬†Seems to me like we all should play more¬†improv games in our lives¬†‚Ķ For me, a journey that’s¬†worth continuing.

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Special thank you to: 
 
4

Hula Hoop Retreat in Bali

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Friends reunion at the hula hoop retreat

Why hula hooping? One could say it all started about 9 months ago in Ibiza, a Spanish island in the mediterranean sea. It was my bachelorette weekend. Teeba, one of my close friends, had organised an incredible three days. And one of the agenda points was a hula hooping session! Back then Teeba, herself a talented hooper already, was toying with the idea of starting her own hoop company in Dubai (by now her company Flowground is a successful hoop enterprise in the Middle East!). We girls were curious to see what it was all about and Teeba was excited to test her hula hoop teaching concept with us. We ended up hooping to music on the beach during sunset. I loved the whole session. It’s like your long forgotten inner child suddenly appears. It wants to play. It wants to learn. It wants to move. Not only was the session fun and a good workout, to me it was also a form of dance. I was hooked. The next important milestone was Teeba’s wedding present to me one month later: a collapsible hoop that I could take with me on our world travels. Over the next few months I kept practicing some basic moves. I got better at it, but to be honest, my discipline faded a bit given other activities that were on Christian’s and my agenda. So when I heard about the one week intensive hula hoop retreat that my girlfriends planned to attend¬†in Bali it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. When would I ever get the opportunity again to spend one week with my best friends, fully immersing myself in the art of hooping. If not during our year off, when then? So Christian, being the incredibly supportive husband he is, and I embarked on a 40-hour journey from Brazil to Bali – and in the process throwing all of our intended travel plans in South America and Africa overboard.

Fast forward to March 2015 and here we are in Bali at the Sacred Circularities hula hooping retreat. Hooping means a lot of different things to different people, so instead of summarising my experience alone I thought it might be more interesting to learn about our individual journeys. Hear directly from Teeba, Pato, Shilpa, Christian (yes, he signed up last minute to the retreat too!) and myself on what it was like.

TEEBA

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Teeba, the chief hoop fairy of Flowground

A WEEK long Hula hoop Retreat. Sacred Circularities. Bali. My Hoop idols. My 3 closest friends (and CSW joining in last minute). A Hoop Community.

I think my brain was going to pop. I probably spent every possible (non-working) moment before the retreat day dreaming about sacred circularities, and probably drooling in the process. I just knew what to expect. It was going to be one of the best weeks of my life, no doubt: full of amazing experiences, lots of learning, and fun times with my closest friends & hoop community. An added bonus: I have never been to Bali before and been dreaming of going there for years, plus I haven’t had a vacation and barely any weekends off in 6 months as I have been so swamped with work.

Ahhhh!!! I felt like I was a kid going into a candy store for the very first time!

What I did not take into consideration is the theme of SCBali 2015, which was the year of realization. I mean… what could that possibly mean?

We start of the retreat on the wrong road literally, winding through rice fields, to arrive 30 minutes late to the opening circle, but once we get there, I feel the presence of that moment and the power of the opening circle as we all introduce ourselves and set our intentions. My intention was to really get to know & indulge in the community. I have always been someone that suffers from what they, and especially Basel [Teeba’s husband] calls ‚Äúhigh expectations‚ÄĚ, but my experience was just on par, including but not limited to:

  1. Insane workshops of balances, wobbles, and scorpions…
  2. Learning… to breathe, send balls of light, finally getting the chest roll, drill twins, and killer combos all the while injuring a toe (a minor injury is a given lol)
  3. Deep thought… and deep laughter moments at workshops, room balcony, bathrooms, lunches, you name it
  4. Amazing performances; and a learning to not chicken out next time and do one of my own
  5. Awakening physical moments of HoopYogini and awakening mindful moments at in-depths of my hoop idols
  6. Bonding with my closest friends, with hoopers all over the world and reuniting with a Canadian family that I never knew before
  7. Bonding with the wildlife: seeing an insect (forgot its name) dance with Caterina, and a snail eating a coconut in slooooo moooo
  8. Private sessions including a mind-opening business coaching by Jocelyn and a flow coaching by Caterina where we develop my own move based on my own flow.

Yet, there was still something off for me. I always remember professor Kaplan saying: Happiness = Reality ‚Äď Expectations. It‚Äôs not that I wasn‚Äôt happy but there was something that was clearly off for me.

I had my realisation at my shamanic healing session with Malaika. I chose to do the healing due to my gastric issues, but came out of it with much more. I go into the session and pull a card called “Goddess of the Earth‚ÄĚ, which indicates the need for grounding, and another one ‚ÄúCore Healing‚ÄĚ, which I guess is self explanatory.

Funny enough, Malaika explains it very clearly in the closing circle as well. It’s as if she read my mind. I have been always the type of person who experiences new things and indulges in experiences, and cannot wait to share it with the world. I have invited 4 of my closest friends who have never really experienced the hoop and its community to join me at the retreat, and expected them to come with the same expectations that I had, which left me very ungrounded for most of the experience. Little did I know, that my lesson was, not only for this experience but for many in the past and in the future, that just being present, while allowing others to experience their own path and go through their own process, will rub off on them and the goodness will spread on its own. And it did.

To my friends, and to the community: we all came in as individuals, with different intentions & expectations… from separate environments, separates lifestyles, separate mindsets, separate communities… completely different lives all together. Yet we all bonded in this one place through each other. Through this process we were able to understand each other more, and understand ourselves more. And we came out as ONE.

At closing circle, Caterina approaches me and tells me that she has been thinking of the move that we developed together and what the intention should be behind it: grounding. With disbelief, I smile at her, share my own realizations, and tell her that my move is now officially called: Goddess of the earth. A move that I always flow with, ground myself with and will always remind me of this experience.

I end with a quote that Jaguar Mary shared ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own Myth‚ÄĚ – Rumi. Now I know what the year of realization means‚Ķ and especially for me, and for those around me. Thank YOU for being part of my realization.

Hoop love,
Teeba Alkhudairi
Chief Hoop Fairy

PATO

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Pato

Sacred circularities‚Ķ I didn‚Äôt know what to expect when I signed up for the retreat in Bali but I knew that I would have the opportunity to spend quality time with the friends I love so much so I was up for the adventure. And it was an adventure‚Ķpartying under the stars until my body had no more energy, getting lost on rice crop fields whilst laughing and hardly seeing what we were walking on, meeting people from all over the world who dance sooooo freely and beautifully with their hoop partners, feeling my body exhausted after full days of concentration and learning, having quality talks with ‚Äúthe birds‚ÄĚ [reference to our group of friends] in the balcony, yummy food, amazing massages ‚Ķ it felt like another world in the world‚Ķ.a world where people dance, teach each other, smile, laugh, where there is time to meditate, to feel free, to recharge‚Ķ.!

I hope the inspiration I got will stay with me to drive me to practice and practice until I can also be one with my hoop. I hope there will be more of this yearly experiences that help me see the many worlds there are in this world.

SHILPA

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Teeba introduced us to the hula hoop quite a few months ago but just like most things I do, I went through phases – couple of weeks where I would really practice and try to dance with it and then long “dry patches” where work/ travel/ general impatience would take over. As a result, I went into our hoop retreat in Bali completely unprepared – like a student that had only read the 1st chapter of a 500 chapter book. Plus all the meditation, healing and spiritual bonding stuff sounded weird to me.

I have always loved Bali but being there with my three HBS “soul sisters” would be an entirely special experience altogether. So even though I knew I was quite out of my comfort zone and my element, I decided on day 1 to let go of my cynicism and just go with the flow.

The entire week and experience blew my mind Рit was so much more amazing than I had ever imagined it could be. In addition to spending quality time with some of my closest friends in the magical place that is Ubud, I discovered a whole new community. A community of people that are the most creative, collaborative and friendly people one can meet. I saw beautifully flowing hoop dance by teachers and students alike. I stumbled my way laughing through workshops and drills, realizing that even though I was learning only 10% of what was being taught, that was already double of what I knew before. I connected with myself and the spiritual world through deep, meaningful meditation sessions and I danced, laughed and ate with both old and new friends. This trip was something else and I could not have had better companions for the journey!

CHRISTIAN

Learning new tricks

Learning new tricks

When Christine decided she wanted to do the retreat, it crossed my mind that maybe I should join her, but I quickly decided not to because hooping isn’t really my thing. However last minute I had a change of heart. I figured that if there’s ever a time to push myself out of my comfort zone and try new things, now is the time as we take a year off to travel and broaden our horizons. And I can say emphatically, I’m so happy with my decision.

My first day at the retreat was very intimidating. Watching the other hoopers around me felt like they could be a¬†Cirque du Soleil troupe and I felt like a fraud being in the same retreat as them. However, each of the other participants couldn’t have been more welcoming to me, helping me to learn the most basic of moves while they learned to perfect some of the trickiest of moves. Throughout the week, I was inspired by each of them and often mesmerised at the fluidity of their hooping.

What’s wonderful about hooping is that, like many other sports and games, one can get into a state of flow and feel an intense sense of happiness as they do it. I’m glad to have discovered this and excited to be hooping.

CHRISTINE

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Myself

When I reflected on the retreat the following words came to my mind: intimated, encouraged, inspired and connected. Here is why.

Intimidated, at first. Encouraged, later. Imagine you find yourself among 30+ people. You know how to keep the hoop on your hip and have a few select tricks in your box. But everyone around you seems to be a professional and puts on an incredible show. Was I at the right workshop? Maybe this was a bit out of my league? My fear, however, was short-lived. Not only did our teachers structure the sessions so that beginners could follow but the whole community was incredibly supportive. Many times during the sessions and at the hoop jams did fellow hoopers, unpromptedly, approach me and offer their guidance and support. It was during many of those interactions when I had my “aha” moments, finally getting the gist of a new trick!

Inspired. One of my personal goals for the retreat week was to continue my journey of “connecting with myself”. Now, admittedly, that sounds a bit esoteric so let me explain. I feel as we go through life we develop a certain picture of “who we are” and “who we are not”. And as part of that we are put into specific boxes, by others but mainly by yourselves. You might think you are the “responsible one, always in control”, “the ambitious one, always focused on career”, “the creative one”, “the adventurous one”, “the worrying one”, and so on. Having had a break from our life in San Francisco, I kept thinking about my own mental picture of myself. Are there any hidden sides that I never explored due to other priorities? What about personal traits that were more pronounced when I was younger that I neglected over time? And that’s where hooping comes into the picture. Every time I hoop I forget the world around me. I am just focused on the movement. In a way, it is meditative, a state of flow. The more I hooped the more I realised how much I love dance. I always liked dancing but I never realised what role it could or should play in my life. When I hoop dance I let go of all my worries and tensions. And with that comes a lot of energy. It’s a release and a recharge at the same time. The other thing that surprised me was how creative one can be with the hoop. Hooping is a way of self expression. Each participant at the retreat had their very own style. Sure, a lot of the tricks are similar, but the way people move is truly unique. Hooping lets your personality and temperament shine through. There are energetic hoopers, graceful and soft hoopers, acrobatic hoopers. It was incredibly inspiring to watch my fellow hoopers and the sheer amount of talent. It felt to me that there is no right and wrong. Hooping encourages you to explore who you are. And with that I got more confident in my own self expression, not worrying about what others might think about me. It’s a very liberating feeling.

Connected, with my friends and the hoop community. One of the highlights of the retreat was spending time with my close friends Teeba, Pato and Shilpa. Being spread across the world, every opportunity for us to connect is special. It was a first for all of us, however, to attend a retreat together. And going through this experience we got to know each other from yet another angel which was very special. The other big revelation for me was the hoop community itself: a diverse set of people with different backgrounds and outlooks on life. Yet, the hoop created an invisible bond. I could have not imagined that this community of warm and loving people would play such an important role on my own personal journey.

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Our Sacred Circularities Group!

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A special thank you goes to:

  • Teeba (Flowground) for introducing me to the hoop, teaching me how to use it and continuously inspiring me to continue this journey.
  • Jaguar Mary and the entire Sacred Circularities team for organising an outstanding program.
  • Our hoop dance teachers Babz Robinson, Caterina Suttin, and Tiana Zoumer for being awesome and incredibly inspiring! You girls rock!
  • All the other amazing teachers who helped create a meaningful¬†experience from further¬†hoop tricks, meditation, yoga, HoopYogini to 5 Elements dance.
  • The SC community for sharing your tips & tricks, laughing a lot, being playful and above all, for sharing your personal experiences.
2

Winging it in Patagonia

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Glacier Grey on our way to an ice hike

Exploring the End of the World (Tierra del Fuego)

It was in the middle of the night when our airplane touched down¬†in Punta Arenas (Southern Chile),¬†a medium-sized, sprawled out city that serves mainly as a military base and hop off point for Patagonia hikers and Antarctica travellers. We had 5 days to spare before our epic Antarctica journey.¬†For some reason we hadn’t really made any plans¬†in advance, which was probably attributable to a bit of travel¬†planning fatigue (it felt much better to play with my nephews in Australia than doing google searches) combined with an increased desire to go with the flow. I guess you could say we decided we’d just wing it. Initially we figured we could just spend the 5 day hanging out in Punta Arenas. However, after one day of strolling through the city, visiting a couple of museums, and stopping by the fish market for ceviche we felt like¬†we¬†had seen it all.¬†That’s when an idea struck us: let’s explore Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago¬†off the southernmost tip off the South American mainland. So we found the nearest car rental place, jumped on Google to book a few hotels, downloaded a map and then¬†set off.

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas

The further away we got from Punta Arenas the more beautiful the landscape became, a mix of steppe and grassland. Guanacos (a type of lama) started to emerge and suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

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Guanaco in Tierra del Fuego

After a day of driving through this beauty we arrived in Porvenir, a small port town. The¬†place had a unique feeling. A ghost town¬†with¬†colourful houses that while¬†looking charming had seen better days. A hint that we were approaching the¬†“end of the world” after all. Leaving Porvenir the next¬†morning the paved roads gave way to dirt¬†and gravel. Slowly,¬†we were winding our way through the rugged nature. Once in a while we saw signs hinting to former gold mines. Bumping along the increasingly difficult dirt track, we¬†realised that we¬†hadn’t¬†seen other cars in a long while. It struck us that our little Renault rental car might have not been the best choice for this terrain. Compared to our Australian Outback adventure where we were fully prepared with a 4wd camping vehicle, this¬†car was so bare bones¬†that it¬†didn’t¬†even¬†have a¬†clock¬†on the dashboard! It also hadn’t¬†occurred to us that we should¬†have stocked up on water or brought something to eat. Plus, Google maps¬†(also not unsurprisingly)¬†had lost¬†satellite connection. With a¬†somewhat uneasy feeling in our stomachs we continued the journey. It¬†was¬†either a choice¬†of going all in¬†or returning. We chose to keep going. And were happy that we did. After 2 more hours of¬†off-roading¬†(I’m still surprised that the car¬†didn’t fall apart¬†‚Ķ¬†turns out French cars are¬†more solid than I thought) we hit the coastline¬†and with it a somewhat better and more frequented road. The day¬†turned out to be a highlight. Little did we know that we would pass by the only king¬†penguin colony¬†in the area. Beautiful creatures!

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Entrance of the King Penguin Park

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King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

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King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

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King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

Hugging the beautiful coastline we continued the journey, passing big farms and a couple of small villages, before turning land-inwards.

Then the landscape changed from steppe into woodlands. Soon we arrived at our accommodation for the night, Parador Russfin.¬†A street sign pointed us towards a reception. To our confusion we found ourselves¬†at the office of a¬†wood cutting factory. Were we at the right place? With my very limited Spanish vocabulary and lots of hand waving we finally figured out that we indeed were at¬†the¬†right place.¬†Tripadvisor had failed to inform us that this place was basically an accommodation for the seasonal wood workers¬†in the area –¬†and the occasional tourist that passes¬†by. Well, we got our fair dose of adventure¬†after all!¬†Dinner and breakfast were served¬†in the factory canteen¬†where we¬†found¬†ourselves¬†amongst workers in blue overalls. Fun things happen if you don’t plan much in advance. The next day we jumped back into our little Renault¬†winding our way back to Porvenir¬†and then setting over via¬†ferry to Punta¬†Arenas. Next day we flew out of Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams to begin our Antarctic adventure. Albeit only spending a few days in Tierra del Fuego,¬†we had gotten a teaser of its rare beauty.

Hiking in Torres del Paine

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Beautiful Patagonia (Chile)

After¬†spending 21 days in the Antarctic cramped on a small sailing yacht, we found ourselves back in Patagonia and¬†ready to move our legs again. This time we were in Puerto Natales as the starting point for 5 days of hiking in¬†Torres del Paine. I was super excited as I had always wanted to hike in¬†Patagonia and everyone who had been there described it as a “must see”.

While most hikers in Torres del Paine come fully prepared with the big hiking packs, tents, sleeping bags and cookers, we were somewhat less prepared. Once again, we were kind of winging it by just bringing along a small day pack with a change of clothes, a few toiletries, a camera, headlamps and Kindles.¬†For one, we didn’t have a tent, mats or sleeping bags with us on our year-long journey. It would have just been too much to carry around the world given our diverse set of activities and and our decision to travel with carry-on luggage only. Plus, Torres del Paine offered several lodges across the main trail, called the W-trek. So we opted for either staying in bunk beds or rented tents along the way. And lastly, the thought of trying to get on with the absolute minimum seemed a good challenge.

The whole week exceeded our expectations. The landscape was just stunning. The sharp edges of the grey¬†stone massif with its distinct granite peaks reaching high up into the sky looked spectacular. As a contrast to the peaks, the well-trodden hiking paths took us past unbelievably clear, ice blue lakes surrounded by¬†scrubland.¬†The lakes have an incredibly bright blue colour¬†due to the fresh glacier water and the lack of sediments and provide a beautiful contrast to the vegetation with its green, brown and yellowish colours. To our surprise, the lodges were well equipped and quite comfortable (apart from the occasional snorer in the mixed dorm rooms). For the most part, the meals (including a bagged lunch) tasted surprisingly good. As advice for the less heavy meat eaters out there, opt for the vegetarian option once in a while. Otherwise, get ready for¬†a filet of meat and rice for dinner ūüôā

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The Torres – the famous three granite peaks

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On the way to Valle Frances

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Valle Frances 

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Hiking in Torres del Paine

Thinking that nothing could beat this stunning scenery, we encountered yet another highlight on this trip, Glacier Grey. It’s a massive glacier that winds its way down the valley all the way into the lake Lago Grey. We had booked a glacier hike and were excited to set foot on this massive piece of eternal ice. Just getting there was a trip in itself: with the dingy across the choppy waters of Lago Grey, followed by a 1.5 hour ascent through rocks. We put on crampons and after a few instructions we set foot on the large ice shield. Surrounded by the high peaks of the National Park¬†with the glacier coming down on one side and the blue lake on the other, this felt like being at the heart of Patagonia!

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Hiking towards Glacier Grey

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Glacier Grey

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Getting ready for our glacier hike

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Hiking on the glacier

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Torres del Paine’s stunning scenery!

One other highlight on¬†our hike was to make friends along the way. Most hikers walk the W-trek from East to West so we kept running into the same people at the lodges. At dinner on Day 1, we set next to a Swiss-Italian couple, Anna and Marco. Marco spoke only Italian but that ended up not being a major barrier for us to communicate. While Anna translated most of our conversation, Marco would at times happily chat with us in Italian, cracking jokes and looking at us expectantly for a reaction. At times we had no idea what he was saying and laughed along with his jokes. It was refreshing to meet someone who didn’t let a language barrier get in the way of connecting with others! Excited about our new friends, we caught up again in other lodges along the way and even hiked the last day together.

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With our hiking buddies Anna and Marco from Switzerland

Halfway through our journey, we arrived at one of the lodges early in the afternoon. Waiting for our rented tent, we struck up a conversation with a couple sitting next to us and hit if off right away. Morena, an actuary, and Sebastiaan, a software developer, were both from Holland. I was intrigued by the fact that they both worked part-time in interesting jobs and managed to take a two-month vacation every year – one month for traveling and the other month for volunteering. Quite inspirational! Over a couple of beers the conversation moved from work-life balance, volunteering and travels to metaphysics and meditation. Before knowing it, the afternoon had passed and we were sharing dinner together.

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Meeting Morena & Sebastiaan at Refugio Cuernos

Sadly, Morena and Sebastiaan were going against the stream on the W-trek, hiking it from West to East. So unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to catch up along the way. Just before we parted ways, however, we figured out that we’d all be back in Puerto Natales on the same night. A double date it was. And even better, it was Sebastiaan’s 40th birthday giving us a good reason to celebrate! We ended up having a lovely dinner and fun evening at Mesita Grande Pizza (great thin-crust pizza, highly recommended). After¬†parting ways that night, I felt confident that somehow¬†the four of us would again cross paths¬†somewhere in this world.

1

Living like Sydney-siders

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One of the main reasons Christian and I decided to stay in Australia for two months¬†was to spend more time with family and friends. Over the last 5 years while¬†we’ve lived in San Francisco, we’ve typically only had time to see our families once per year, alternating Christmases in Sydney or Vienna. This year, we got to spend over a month in Vienna leading up to our wedding¬†which was particularly¬†nice. So adding two full months in Aussie-Land felt like¬†the icing on the cake.¬†Luckily, my sister¬†and her family¬†live in Australia as well¬†and¬†I was especially looking forward to spend time with my¬†two little nephews (Jayden, 3.5 years;¬†Lukas, 18 months)¬†and, vice versa, for them to see their auntie for more than the occasional quick visit. I¬†guess with kids it’s particularly apparent how quickly time passes¬†and how much can happen in just a few months. I constantly had the feeling that I was missing out on some important parts of their childhood.¬†Apart from squeezing in a¬†short Outback¬†adventure we ended up splitting the remainder of the time between Christian’s family in Sydney¬†and my¬†sister’s¬†family¬†in Austinmer.¬†Reconnecting with Christian’s¬†friends from high-school, university and college¬†(i.e., Aussie terminology for student housing)¬†was the other highlight. Our schedule was packed with fun activities¬†from beach picnics, to leisurely lunches, kayaking, hiking, cricket and basketball¬†games¬†and many fun dinners. Not only did I get to know an incredible group of people, I also got a better sense for Sydney-siders,¬†what they do, how they live and what they value in life. At times I felt¬†like being at home in this city, not just a visitor passing by. We did¬†not foresee that we would have such a hard time leaving as our time was up, almost feeling homesick.¬†Here is why:

Enjoying food heaven with great company:

  • Exploring Sydney’s restaurant¬†scene: New restaurants are spreading through Sydney like mushrooms¬†which reminded me a lot about San Francisco. Lots of different concepts¬†with a good mix of Australian/Western and Asian¬†influences. Some of my favourites included Nomad¬†(creative modern Australian dishes, fun & lively atmosphere), Porteno¬†(Argentinian¬†influenced, incredible grilled meats!), Ripples (perfect for lunch in the sun with stunning views of Sydney)¬†and Mamak & Hawker (authentic Malaysian street food brought to Sydney by Christian’s university friend Alan Au). But let’s not forget dessert.¬†There is one spot in Sydney that everyone tells you to¬†go to for real gelato: Gelato Messina. Lines are long but the creative flavour combinations justify the wait. Heaven for ice¬†cream lovers.

  • Indulging in delicious,¬†home-cooked meals:
    • Our travels through¬†Malaysia¬†and China introduced me to the vast array of delicious Asian foods. And our culinary¬†journey continued in Sydney¬†where Christian’s dad Vincent cooked up some traditional Malaysian recipes. I tasted my¬†first “real” congee for breakfast (rice porridge with a variety of condiments¬†prepared the way that Christian’s grandfather grew up with), Rojak (exotic fruit salad with tofu,¬†bean sprouts and prawn paste), and Char Kuey Teow (fried rice noodles).

  • On another occasion¬†Jason,¬†one of Christian’s university¬†friends and true food lover, invited us over for a home-cooked meal. Little did we know that he was¬†preparing a multi-course Korean dinner. Delicious! I’m ready to incorporate some of those Asian flavours into our recipe book.

  • Another treat was an invitation to Sophie’s (one of Christian’s university friends) for lunch together with Lara. Nothing beats good meatballs and a glass of champagne for a leisurely lunch¬†while getting to catch up and¬†play with the kids.

  • A special¬†highlight was catching up with my host family from 14 years ago. Back then I came to Australia for the 2000 Sydney Olympic¬†Games. As part of the experience our group (the Olympic Youth Camp) was split up and assigned to host families for only 3 days. I was lucky to be assigned to the McGrath family in Bowral. A connection¬†that we¬†maintained up until now! An afternoon of good conversations¬†and¬†lots of laughter¬†accompanied by¬†delicious Aussie BBQ and wine.

  • Expanding our healthy food horizon: As a bonus of living with my sister, we also got a full immersion into “very healthy” cooking. Christian and I would consider¬†ourselves to eat fairly healthy but my¬†sister,¬†who has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, took our knowledge to the next level. She has an endless list of easy-to-cook wholesome meals¬†with¬†healthy, local¬†ingredients. I rediscovered home-cooked¬†warm breakfasts that are nutritional yet easy to digest (cooked¬†millet¬†with¬†chia seed puree, fresh berries¬†and some almonds was my personal favourite), how to prepare simple yet tasty dishes (homemade frittata, hand-rolled sushi, freshly made spelt pizza)¬†and how to prepare some healthy desserts (e.g., raw “no cheese” cheesecake, carob balls made out of dates and nuts – no sugar or dairy added). I left Sydney with a long list of healthy eating resolutions. Travelling¬†through Southern Chile and the Antarctic in the past few weeks,¬†I’ve¬†already had to compromise. It’s hard to avoid the omnipresence of white wheat bread here. Well, options are limited at the end of the world¬†ūüôā¬†But¬†the plan is¬†to¬†pick up my resolution when we are back in the real world.

  • Enjoying a 7-course NYE¬†dinner with friends: New Years Eve in Sydney can get crowded out on the streets. So we met up with a small group of friends and enjoyed a home-cooked 7-course dinner¬†with wine pairing! Dishes on the menu included some Australian classics like ocean trout (looks like salmon but tastes¬†MUCH better), barramundi and lamb cutlets. To top off the evening we enjoyed a good glass of champagne while watching Sydney’s spectacular fireworks.

  • Exploring new¬†wine bars¬†& remodelled pubs:¬†Back in the day, it was hard to get a liquor license in Sydney. So typically only larger establishments were¬†able to get a license to sell alcohol on-premise. Just recently, laws have changed to allow smaller establishments to serve alcohol. As a consequence a¬†variety of wine bars have opened throughout the city¬†and are becoming a new meeting point.¬†The added benefit is that the¬†increased competition forced the old establishments to revamp¬†their image¬†resulting in creatively renovated old pub buildings. The perfect mix of old and new! One of those places is Coogee Pavilion¬†on Coogee beach¬†– an¬†old¬†pub turned party parlour¬†which combines a lively bar scene with a restaurant and¬†a game area (life-size jenga and scrabble!). We ended up there twice with Christian’s university friends, on¬†both occasions having a fantastic time.

  • Tasting outstanding coffee: Nothing beats Australian flat whites. Australia has a well renowned¬†barista culture, true coffee artists, that prepare your order to perfection. The consistency¬†of coffee throughout the country is quite incredible.

Taking advantage of Sydney’s beach & outdoor lifestyle: Sydney is unique in that it combines the¬†urban with the beach lifestyle. The¬†city centre¬†smoothly merges with suburban¬†neighbourhoods at beautiful sandy beaches. I can see why people here strive for a good work-life balance. It does make¬†one happy to get up to the rising sun¬†and¬†go for a run on the beach feeling¬†the wind on your skin and hearing the roaring ocean just a few feet away.¬†It’s pretty invigorating to be¬†amongst such a healthy and¬†energetic group of people. My admiration goes especially to all the ocean swimmers out there. Doing 1k+ morning swims in the open water (many of them are legitimate races) is the ultimate level of fitness! On the weekends, the ocean walk¬†hugging the coast from Bondi all the way down to Coogee¬†is bustling with people. One of our outdoor Sydney¬†highlights¬†was a picnic with friends at Tamarama¬†and hiking in the Blue Mountains.

Spending 24 hours alone with my sister: Living on different continents for 10+ years, I couldn’t remember when I had spent a solid number of hours alone¬†just¬†with my sister. Therefore, I took the opportunity to get away and kidnapped my sis to a small town called Kiama¬†just south of Austinmer. Spending a full 24 hours together¬†and having no time pressure for our conversations¬†felt like a rare luxury.¬†I¬†realised that it’s not only family time by itself that matters, it’s also the¬†one-on-one time¬†with your loved ones¬†that enables us to strengthen our bonds and truly understand each other.

Getting a crash course in bringing up¬†kids:¬†We got the full immersion into the life of a young family, living with my sister, Bobby and their kids. I learned how to change diapers;¬†discovered¬†that kids need an endless amount of food;¬†got reminded about children’s endless imagination which caused a daily dose of healthy laughter; witnessed some unique moments (Jayden fearlessly mastering his first swim lessons, Lukas learning to catch a ball – just to name a few examples); noticed that kids are really smart and that you need to be careful what you say because they understand more than you think!; realised that there is no real “off-time” with kids; and how important it is for parents to work as a team and become the most patient people in the world. I must admit that I have a¬†new appreciation for what it means to¬†be a parent, and how much joy those little beings can bring to your life.

Losing ourselves in long conversations over lovely family dinners:¬†Many of our evenings we were reminiscing¬†about the past, discussing our¬†current challenges, and getting excited about¬†future ambitions. Ultimately, our conversations¬†were a reminder that we all¬†grapple¬†with the same questions. What¬†are our priorities?¬†What are we optimising for? What makes us truly happy¬†and how does that change over time?¬†Our stay in Australia reminded me¬†that a big portion of my happiness is linked to spending time with the people I love.¬†I recently read an article¬†about the connection of time and happiness which probably¬†summarises my feelings the best:¬†“Spending time with¬†people you love doing the things you love is the best road to happiness.‚ÄĚ. Also offers some good¬†guiding principles for how to¬†be more happy in our professional life!

SPECIAL THANKS: We are so privileged to have stayed with so many of our friends and family while in Sydney to save us on having to fork out on hotels. For this we send a big thank you (in no particular order) to:
* Jason To
* Bill & Veronica Marriott
* Lara Ette & Greg Kaspar
* Jen Davies
* Vincent Wong and Judy Grey
* Bobby Cheema and Verena Raschke-Cheema
1

Maximising Happiness: 10-day silent meditation retreat

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As Christian and I have begun to learn about meditation, there has been one recommendation that has come up again and again from friends we’ve spoken to and books we’ve read: Do a 10-day silent meditation retreat, a full immersion into the¬†world of meditation. While such a¬†commitment seemed daunting (especially for novices like us), the idea of¬†going all in and seeing for ourselves ‚Äúwhat it‚Äôs all about‚ÄĚ was also¬†appealing. So we went for it and signed up for a Vipassana Meditation course at the¬†Dhamma Malaya Center in Malaysia. It turned out to be a truly unique experience. It was new territory for both of us. And as such it was really challenging (mentally and physically) but also rewarding. It was a personal¬†growth experience. Instead of writing a summary I felt that sharing my stream of consciousness¬†from the 10 days would give a better account of¬†what it was like. Here is what was going through my head (to the best of my recollection):

Day 0:¬†“It feels like the first day of school”

  • We board the bus taking us from Kuala Lumpur to the Meditation Center. Four hours left before Christian and I will start the course. The bus is full with fellow meditators. To my surprise, they are less¬†yogi-like than I expected. Only one girl has the¬†cliched dreadlock-and-pyjama-pants look. This is a relief. I was afraid that this might not be for us and that we find ourselves in a world of serious yogis that dedicate their life to this. For Christian and me it‚Äôs really about¬†learning how to control the chatter in our mind and reduce the stress in our lives without giving up on our ambitions and goals. Along the drive I find myself getting more nervous the closer we get. I can‚Äôt even imagine how I will be able to sit on a cushion for ten straight days. I can‚Äôt even keep¬†still on the chair in my office for one straight hour. This will be painful.
  • As the bus pulls up at the center, we enter through a driveway uncovering a property¬†set among lush greenery, bordering a papaya and palm tree plantation. I think “wow, this place looks nicer than I expected”. I love nature and always find it very calming. This environment might help me get through the next ten days.¬†We roll our luggage to the office and get our rooms assigned. I feel a pang of anxiety in my¬†stomach as I realise this is the last time I will be able to speak with Christian. From now on, women and men will be separated. The only exception is the main Meditation Hall. I am advised to go to the female dining hall for further instructions. I‚Äôm greeted by a room full of women, probably close to 100 in total. I am surprised by the age mix. There are teenagers as well as women in¬†their 70s or 80s. The crowd is radiating a mix of excited anticipation mixed with anxiousness about the unknown. It kind of feels like it‚Äôs the first day of school. Nobody really knows anyone else. Everyone is kind of pretending to look like they’re keeping to themselves but at the¬†same time eyeing¬†everyone else.
  • After registration we check into our rooms. I‚Äôm positively surprised by my room. First, I have a room to myself (which most meditation centres don‚Äôt offer). Second, it‚Äôs nicer that what I expected. Well, it‚Äôs very basic. A small room with a window furnished only with a tiled bench with a mattress and a little stand for personal belongings. Adjacent there is a small bathroom with a shower, toilet, a small sink and two water buckets for doing laundry. I guess you could¬†say it is similar to a prison cell, but I’m happy because it’s¬†clean. After I settle in, I head to the office to drop off my personal belongings. You are not meant to keep anything that could interfere¬†with your¬†meditative¬†concentration and mindfulness. Turns out I have a lot of things to let go of: our iPad, our Mac, my mobile phone, my camera, my Kindle, my iPod,¬†a couple of Lonely Planets, and my notebook. It feels strange to hand everything over. What if I get bored? Ten days are a long time‚Ķ¬†I make my way back to the dining hall. We are about to get instructions on the course schedule. There will be two main vegetarian meals a day (breakfast and lunch) with a tea break at 5pm (with fruit for first time students only).¬†The day will start with a wake-up call at 4am and end at around 10pm, broken up into 1-2 hour blocks of¬†meditation and breaks for eating and rest in between. I do some quick math in my head. This means 10.5 hours of sitting meditation a day! This will be tough.
  • With the end of the instructions the course and therewith ‚ÄúNoble Silence‚ÄĚ officially start.¬†This means no talking, no eye contact or gestures with any of the other participants. The point is to not¬†disturb the meditative¬†concentration that we are supposed to be keeping throughout the day.¬†With that I make my way up to the main meditation hall for our first meditation session. The hall is quite big. It looks inviting with its large white walls and¬†tilted¬†wooden¬†roof. Lots of fresh air is coming in from the large openings under roof. Thank god that there are so many fans! I would have died¬†of the heat otherwise. The lights are dimmed. Square seating pillows, about a dozen in each row, are neatly arranged. The dark blue ones on the right are for us women. Men are on the left on light blue pillows. I find my assigned spot and notice that some other women have extra pillows, some brought extra shawls. I feel a bit¬†clueless. I‚Äôve heard that the prolonged sitting can get pretty painful and people try to support their bodies with extra cushions. There is also the option to sit on a chair in the¬†back row¬† But this seems like cheating. I¬†promise myself that I‚Äôll make it through these ten days on¬†this cushion. I go to the back of the¬†hall and find myself two extra pillows. I’m sure they’ll come in handy eventually. Two assistant teachers, one male and one¬†female, walk in and sit down on two small¬†elevated podiums in the front. They turn on a tape with the first instructions from the master teacher, S.N. Goenka. The assistant teachers will support¬†the sessions and answer questions for students. Our first task: focus on our breath, specifically, the¬†sensation from breathing in and out. With those instructions, we are left to our own devices. I have practiced this type of breathing meditation with Christian before. This feels comforting. Thoughts keep flying through my head but for the most part I am able to focus on my breathing. The hour is over quite quickly and we are allowed to retreat to our rooms. This wasn‚Äôt too hard. That said, this is only Day 0 and the course officially starts tomorrow. With a sense of anticipation of what lies ahead, I stroll back to my room through the dark night.

Day 1:¬†“Is this what meditation feels like?¬†I don‚Äôt know, but it feels good”

  • I hear a loud gong and almost jump up in bed. It must be 4am. It‚Äôs pitch¬†black outside. Didn‚Äôt we just go to bed? The gong seems to go on forever. At least 10 times. They really¬†want us to get up. I roll out of bed and take a cold shower (for hot water you need to fill up your bucket at specific hot water stations). I figure I might as well start this first day refreshed. I feel¬†energised and¬†excited for what‚Äôs to come. As I step outside, I join the stream of co-meditatiors who are on their way through the dark to the meditation hall. Once in the hall, I¬†wiggle¬†around on my cushion to find a comfortable position. Here we go. I focus on my breath. But my concentration¬†keeps getting interrupted. Random thoughts keep coming up.¬†‚ÄúI‚Äôm hungry. What‚Äôs for breakfast today? Who is breathing so loudly close to me? This is¬†disturbing. My legs feel numb. Airplane flying over the building. Birds are¬†chirping. They are quite loud.¬†I‚Äôm hungry‚Ķ‚ÄĚ.¬†I get a little bit annoyed with myself. Why can‚Äôt I focus better? Then I remember what Christian and I had read in meditation books.¬†Acknowledge the thought that comes up but don‚Äôt¬†dwell on it. Let go and softly come back to your breath. This helps. I‚Äôm getting into some sort of flow. Suddenly I hear some chanting. A taped recording of the master teacher. It‚Äôs not very¬†melodic and sounds a bit weird. Maybe it‚Äôs a¬†sign of the meditation session to end soon? I really hope so. My legs are close to falling asleep and I keep wiggling around on my cushion. A loud, vibrant gong announces the end of the session. I made it! It‚Äôs 6:30am. Breakfast time.
  • I quickly get up and¬†suddenly remember that we are meant to be mindful throughout the day. By focusing on each individual activity our meditative state is¬†supposed to continue. I try to walk slowly but see some others rushing down the path to the the dining hall. Aren‚Äôt we all meant to be¬†mindful? What if not¬†enough food will be left when I get there? Seems like they were running low on¬†food at¬†the light dinner the day before. A feeling of stress and anxiety overcomes me. This is ridiculous, I think. Here I am, learning how to take the stress out of my life but obsess about getting¬†enough¬†food for breakfast. While I keep up the slower pace, it feels forced. The breakfast has plenty of food left when I arrive. It‚Äôs also a surprisingly great spread. I fill up my plate and find my assigned seat. The room is¬†filled¬†with the¬†clinging sounds of¬†cutlery and plates. The food tastes good. And to my surprise, I don‚Äôt miss the talking. I¬†stroll back to my room¬†and decide to take a short nap. It seems that only minutes have passed, but here it is again, the gong. Back to the meditation hall for the 8am session.
  • I have three hours of meditation ahead of me! Encouraged by my morning session, I sit down. It‚Äôs the same pattern as in the morning. Batches of good concentration, mixed with batches of lots of thinking. But I‚Äôm never really getting lost in my train of thought for too long. This is good, I think. I keep¬†playing around with my sitting postures. Will I ever be¬†able to sit still for one or two hours? With that, I keep making my¬†way through the morning.¬†The¬†lunch procedure is the same as breakfast.¬†The day¬†continues¬†with another three meditation sessions,¬†followed by the tea break. I feel great throughout the afternoon. The hours seem to go by at a decent pace. I have a lot of energy and feel comfortable with the sitting (albeit, still changing my posture a lot). At one point I feel a vibrant sensation around my head. It feels as if an¬†electric field is surrounding my head. This feels great! It‚Äôs almost as if I‚Äôm in and outside of my body at the same time. Is this what meditation feels like? I don‚Äôt know, but it feels good. I make a mental note to ask the¬†female assistant teacher in the¬†evening Q&A session. The tea break feels like heaven after meditating for so long. One more hour of group meditation before we listen to the daily¬†‚ÄúDhamma Talk‚ÄĚ, a video-taped talk by our master teacher. What a¬†welcome change to watch a video vs.¬†focusing on my breath! The¬†assignment for the next day is to continue concentrating on our breath. The teacher reminds us to not control our breath but rather¬†just observe it. I’m glad he mentions it. I¬†realise that I had been trying to breath slowly and deeply at times to better concentrate. I make a mental note to follow my natural breath from here on.
  • After the talk, there is one more hour of group meditation. I‚Äôm starting to get tired but make it through. I stay for the Q&A session and ask my teacher about my¬†‚Äúelectric field‚ÄĚ experience. Her answer is simply that different sensations will come up as my mind gets sharper. I shouldn’t read into it too much. We‚Äôll learn more about it in Days 4-9. I guess, I have to be patient. But I‚Äôm also a bit¬†disappointed that my experience wasn‚Äôt the sign of the¬†‚Äúperfect‚ÄĚ meditation. I think back to a book I read by Dan Harris about his first mediation retreat and that there is no such thing as a perfect meditation. Every session will be different and the goal is not to sense a particular feeling, be it positive or¬†negative. The point is to sharpen your¬†mind and not get attached to anything. Feeling relieved that the day is over I walk back to my room. I notice the beautifully clear sky with its many bright stars. 9 more days to go. So far so good.

Day 2: “This feels like torture”

  • I‚Äôm¬†already¬†awake when the 4am gong goes off. I feel exhausted. The bed and the pillow are quite hard. I barely slept. My neck is starting to hurt. Also, who would have thought that nature could be so loud? All those nocturnal¬†animals cause a hell of a¬†noise level. I¬†should have brought ear plugs. I go through my morning routine and walk up to the meditation hall. The fresh air is nice and I regain my positive spirits. I‚Äôm almost looking forward to the dimly lit hall. It is very¬†peaceful in there. But already after ten minutes of meditation I know that this session will be hard. My neck and upper back start to hurt. The pain is slowly crawling up into my head. I start to sweat¬†profusely. Changing my sitting posture¬†doesn‚Äôt seem to help. I remember that I should try to stay peaceful. Our goal,¬†after all, is to practice¬†‚Äúequanimity‚ÄĚ, i.e., to neither develop¬†attachment (to positive sensations) nor aversion (to negative sensations like pain). I tense up and slowly start to get annoyed. Why is this experience so different from yesterday? Am I doing something differently? I barely make it through the session. Somehow the two¬†hours go by. I can‚Äôt wait for the breakfast break to recharge a bit. Despite my positive attitude on the next few sessions, the whole day feels¬†like torture. My body continues aching and I am slowly getting a headache. This day seems to be¬†my¬†test of¬†equanimity, I think. And I have eight more days to go! I can‚Äôt get this thought out of my head anymore. How in the world can I endure eight more days of this physical pain? A recommendation from a book on meditation by Joseph Goldstein comes to my mind.¬†“Your promise is to show up and sit. Leave the rest to itself and don‚Äôt try to control it. Take it hour by hour‚ÄĚ.¬†Hour by hour. Ok, let’s go hour by hour then. I try it. And things are getting a bit better. After the afternoon sessions I‚Äôm still¬†feeling somewhat down but a bit more optimistic.
  • We get our next assignment during the Dhamma Talk that¬†evening: continue¬†focusing on your breath. Really, we’re just going to keep doing the same breathing exercises tomorrow? I feel some frustration. When are we going to start with Vipassana Meditation (the main part of¬†the course)? This seems to get repetitive. My impatient self starts to show itself. The question is quickly answered. One more day of breathing meditation will help to sharpen our minds even more. Then we‚Äôll swap to Vipassana on Day 4. I‚Äôm sure there is a good reason for this sequence and duration.¬†At least I hope so.¬†We are also told that as of Day 4 that during three of the sittings we won’t be allowed to change our posture during the full hour. They call this “sittings of¬†determination.” I haven’t yet been able to sit completely still for a full hour. This seems daunting.

Day 3:¬†“Starting to¬†feel like I‚Äôm in the zone‚ÄĚ

  • The morning mediation session on Day 3 is another uphill battle. I can‚Äôt believe it. It seems like my body is playing games with me. First my neck, then my back, now my legs and knees. The pain keeps moving. I try to stay relaxed and focus on my natural breath. This seems to work. Bit by bit my increased concentration seems to come back. My body also feels a bit less tense. At last, some progress. This¬†positive trend continues throughout the day. With every meditation session my concentration gets slightly better. Most of the pain¬†disappears. Even outside of the meditation sessions I feel like I‚Äôm in some¬†sort of¬†‚Äúzone‚ÄĚ. I start to observe my surroundings more¬†consciously (there are¬†some¬†pretty impressive ant streets on this property. And some of the ants are gigantic). I start to¬†truly enjoy each meal, savouring every bite. I‚Äôm more mindful when doing¬†benign tasks, like hand-washing my clothes, focusing on each piece at a time. And I‚Äôm finally able to¬†walk more mindfully as well. It seems that my meditative state continues even outside¬†of the hall. I feel very¬†alert. At the same time I feel very peaceful and content.
  • I also start to experiment with different sitting postures, forcing myself to maintain them for a full hour. It’s hard. But I want to succeed in the sittings of determination that will start tomorrow. I wonder why there was no introduction to “proper sitting postures” to begin with.¬†Shouldn’t that be the basis of every meditation course? This¬†evening we finally get the instructions for the¬†‚Äúreal¬†meditation‚ÄĚ, Vipassana. I‚Äôm excited to kick into the next gear!

Day 4 to 9: “Peacefulness, exhilarating¬†highs, and painful lows”¬†

  • In the following days, we start practising Vipassana. Vipassana is about sensing your body, i.e., you scan your body, trying to feel the¬†sensation of each inch of your body. This exercise has two goals. First, to get an understanding of ‚Äúimpermanence‚ÄĚ. Things inevitably keep¬†changing and through experiencing this with my own body sensations, I‚Äôm supposed to get an understanding of the¬†impermanence¬†of everything. Second, to develop¬†‚Äúperfect¬†equanimity‚ÄĚ. This means to stay perfectly peaceful regardless¬†of the¬†sensation i.e., to not develop any clinging to pleasant sensations and no aversion to unpleasant sensations. Initially it takes me a while to sense every part of my body. But with every session, I get better at it. I notice that it‚Äôs easier to focus on my body sensations than my breath. My mind wanders less and less.¬†The meditation sessions seem to go by much faster. I feel good and am enjoying the daily routine. Not being able to move during the daily three “sittings of determination” turn out to be a real challenge, however. For the first 30 minutes everything is a breeze. Then,¬†predictably, some part of my body starts to hurt. I feel¬†excruciating pain. But I promised myself to get¬†through it and not move. I start to sweat profusely. Is it just hot or am I really working that hard at sitting on a cushion? Again, I feel doubts arising. Why the hell am I putting myself through this? But with every¬†successful session, I feel more proud.
  • Day 4 to 8¬†become somewhat of a¬†blur. When we reach Day 5, I feel proud that I‚Äôm halfway through. But still five more days to go. Yet, my outlook on them is quite positive. I know what I’m capable of by now. I also enjoy the state I‚Äôm in. Everything is very peaceful. The more body¬†scans we do, the more I can feel my body¬†sensations outside of the sessions. When I‚Äôm standing, I feel my feet being firmly grounded. When I‚Äôm¬†walking, I feel my leg¬†muscles moving. When I‚Äôm eating, I notice my specific finger, arm and mouth movements. When I take a shower, the water is more¬†noticeable on my skin. I particularly¬†enjoy lying down in bed during the breaks or at night. My body feels heavy and relaxed on the mattress. I still have trouble sleeping but it seems that my body is resting even when my mind is awake. When I hear the 4am gong, a¬†vibration is going through my body. I have heard¬†people talk about similar experiences with meditation but was always quite sceptical. It sounded esoteric. But here I am, feeling these sensations. And they are pure and real. I start to believe¬†that meditation could help me in being more present. I feel¬†exhilarated. I‚Äôm so glad we are doing this course! But then again, the high that I experience during Days 4-6 comes to an end.
  • Day 7 and 8 pose¬†another challenge. Sitting for 10.5 hours for 6 days straight has a toll on my neck and back. I’m in constant pain. Stretching¬†doesn’t help anymore. Nor does sleep. I’m a bit defeated. Where did all the progress from the previous days go? I really have to fight through some of the¬†session. Eventually I schedule time with my teacher. I want to know if I’m doing something wrong. She diffuses my concerns. Everyone’s body is in pain at the end of such a course. She promises me that daily one to two hour meditation sessions after this¬†course will feel like a breeze. I really do hope so! Day 9 is our last true day of Vipassana. I learn that Day 10 is a wrap up day, with fewer meditation sessions that will be focused on Loving Kindness meditation. Noble Silence will end as well. This means I can talk to Christian again (at least around the dining hall where men and women are allowed to mingle as of then). That’s great news. This will make Day 10 so much easier! I try to give each¬†remaining¬†meditation session my best. As I fall into bed on Day 9, I can’t¬†believe that we almost did it! We made it¬†through.

Day 10: “We made it!”

  • I¬†wake up with mixed feelings. This is the last 4am gong followed by our morning meditation. I will miss the tranquility and serenity of the mornings. At the same time, “we made it” and I am excited to see Christian and hear what his experience was like. There is one question, however, that keeps nagging at me. How will feeling our body sensations help me in real life? How am I supposed to apply this¬†newly learned technique in day-to-day life? I am lucky and get one of the last interview spots with the assistant teacher. She looks at me with an amused smile. I’m probably not the first one asking for a “how to guide”. She promises that by continuing to practice Vipassana meditation and equanimity (no clinging, no aversion), I will start noticing changes. Old baggage (e.g., perceived notions, emotional patterns) will get lifted over time. I really want to believe her but am still¬†somewhat dissatisfied. I buy into the technique of meditation but have a hard time to¬†subscribe to Buddhist religious beliefs quite yet. I need something more¬†tangible. Luckily, she offers me¬†more practical advice. The body scan technique we learned will help me observe my sensations in day-to-day life. For example: If I get angry, I will feel certain¬†sensations¬†arising in my body. Previously, I might have immediately reacted. But with¬†meditation practice, I will get better at observing myself and name different¬†sensations and emotional states. With that I’ll be able to¬†take a step back, think about how I¬†want to¬†respond and then act on it (or not). Responding versus reacting. Now this is something tangible for me to ponder over.
  • Lunch that day feels like a mad-house. Everyone is talking. The noise level seems unbearable. I reconnect with a few¬†people that I met on Day 1. It’s interesting to hear what motivated others to join this course. The range of reasons is broad. Everything from curiosity to serious life events and illness. Slowly, I feel like I’m reemerging into the real world. I¬†realise that I am barely able to talk and eat at the same time. I was so focused on¬†being mindful and present that parallel processing of eating and talking seems¬†overwhelming. I almost have to laugh. I would have never thought this could happen to me. Then I see Christian. I want to tell him all about my experience. But just sitting in front of him and looking into his eyes, I feel overcome with¬†emotions and start to cry. I do not even comprehend why. Maybe¬†it’s because all¬†the tension of the past few days is released at once. Maybe it’s because I feel something special has happened.
  • The rest of the day is broken up into a couple more meditation¬†sessions, packing, cleaning of rooms and community areas and some final go-forward meditation¬†instructions. Day 11 is the¬†official departure day. We have one more night and one last morning meditation session ahead of us¬†before we’ll head back to Kuala Lumpur. Falling into bed that night, I feel peaceful, content and tired.

I don’t¬†know¬†exactly¬†how meditation will influence our lives over the long-term.¬†I do know that¬†both¬†Christian and I went through a unique, personal¬†growth experience. We got a good understanding of the technique and hope that if we keep up the daily¬†practice we will eventually see the benefits come to fruition¬†(e.g., being more present, a better¬†ability to respond vs. react,¬†increased concentration). For now, we do know that we want to continue on this journey and believe that it can just change us for the better.

2

5 decisions that helped make our wedding so special

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Christian and I are still dreaming about our wedding day four¬†months ago. It feels like it was yesterday. I guess everyone feels that way, especially after re-playing in our heads the most special, fun and silly moments a gazillion times in the immediate post wedding days. What surprised Christian and me the most, however, was that we did enjoy every single minute of our big day. No lie. You always hear stories about “there will be moments that stress you out”, “you will miss parts of the wedding”, “it goes by too fast”, and “it’s hard to be truly present”. Yet, somehow, we had managed to enjoy every moment. Sounds a bit esoteric and unreal, I know. It actually surprised both of us as well because we wouldn’t claim we are specifically good at being zen and in the moment. So we reflected on specific decisions that helped us shape¬†this unique day, enjoy it to the fullest and be truly present. Here is what we came up with:

1. We wrote our own ceremony and had our best friends marry us: Very early on, Christian and I knew that we wanted our wedding to be as personal as possible. We didn’t want a person we don’t know recite a text that we can’t relate to. So we made two decisions. First, we wrote our own ceremony. And second, we wanted our best friends to officiate the wedding. To get started, we brainstormed what we’d like the ceremony to be: traditional¬†(at least for certain elements like the entrance of the bride), inspirational, emotional, personal but also a bit lighthearted and fun (with certain elements of surprise for us). We also wanted our family and friends to play an active role. I read through various blogs and stitched together a first draft that we iterated on together and with our two friends. Austrian law posed a minor challenge. You need an official registrar to marry you (friends can’t do that like in the US). Our creative solution was to integrate the registrar into our ceremony, limiting the offical part to the “must have’s” only. Our friends practically led 90% of the ceremony but we’d still be able to get officially married. It was a magical 45 minutes. Some highlights included: having my cousin perform the processional and recessional music on classical guitar; standing next to our best friends “at the altar”, and hearing them talk about the meaning of marriage and surprise us with thoughts from the wedding party about us as individuals and as a couple; personally thanking our parents for everything they did for us in our lives; having two married couples come upfront to give us practical advise about marriage; singing a Beach Boys group song together; saying¬†our own personal vows; and jointly laughing over funny (and wise!) Whinnie the Poo quotes. I’m so glad we invested time in the crafting our own ceremony. The process itself was very fulfilling and it made the ceremony more meaningful and memorable.

2. We started the day separately and only saw each other “at the altar”: The idea of not spending the pre-wedding night and morning together always sounded very romantic. When it came down to practicalities, however, I preferred to take our wedding photos before the actual ceremony so that we could extend our time with guests during¬†the cocktail hour. But Christian wasn’t very fond of this idea. So we went with the traditional path. I’m so glad we did as it made the ceremony even more special. I stayed in the hotel the night before the wedding. Christian stayed in our Vienna apartment. When I woke up, I couldn’t wait to read a personal note from Christian. We both gave each other a short letter the day before. It was early in the morning, the sun was rising, it was quiet. And here I was reading some lovely words from my husband-to-be. It was very special to have this moment to myself, being able to enjoy the serenity of it. Funnily enough, we both told each other in our letters to “enjoy every moment of our special day and be present” and “not bother about little things”. I would think about those words throughout the day and the mental framing made a real difference. Also, having some alone time in the morning with my mum, my siblings and two of my best friends created a special bond. Christian had a similar experience, spending the morning with his best friends. All together the morning created an exciting anticipation for the ceremony. And there is nothing more special (and emotional) than walking down the aisle, seeing your husband-to-be for the first time (and vice versa).

3. We made our first dance a bigger, joint project: Every Viennese Ball needs a Viennese Waltz. We needed to step up our dance routine (or develop one in the first place ūüôā ). Instead of doing a quick choreography we decided to go all in and properly learn how to waltz. Not only did we want to enjoy our first dance but also truly immerse ourselves in the classical ball part of our wedding. So we signed up for 10 dance lessons at Val Cunningham’s Dance Loft in San Francisco. What started as a tactical, goal-oriented venture turned into a really enjoyable process of learning a life skill together. And learning how to waltz was like couples therapy. Personalities shine through, moods impact your dancing. Luckily, Val is a great teacher – a therapist and dance instructor in one! It was a great learning experience about us as individuals and as a couple. And besides learning a new skill, we morphed our weekly dance lessons into proper date nights (that we protected from work committments). Being ambitious and a bit nerdy, we kept up the dance practice after the lessons were over. While we improved the dancing, we also kept telling ourselves that the main point is to have fun at our first dance. So we made the pact to call each other out and make each other smile if we’d get too serious or nervous. And that turned out to be key for our first dance. Knowing myself (I’m not a big fan of performing in front of crowds), I thought I’d contemplate about the dance all day long and get all nervous. But it was just the opposite. I didn’t even think about it for a second until it was about to happen. And I think there were two reasons for it. First, we were pretty relaxed because we knew from our practice runs that we could not only pull it off but also really enjoy it. And second, we also used our little, personal hints throughout which made it even more fun. I was so “in the zone” that I didn’t even notice anyone else. It was a magical few minutes.

4. We got a wedding planner (highly recommended, especially for a destination wedding): Not being from the US (where wedding planners are very common), Christian and I never thought of engaging a wedding planner. Besides it not being in our cultural make-up, it seemed an unnecessary expense. Plus, we both are good at organizing stuff so it seemed unnecessary from an organizational standpoint as well. Two months into the wedding planning things were coming along nicely, albeit slowly. The time difference between Vienna (our wedding location) and San Francisco (where we lived at that time) made coordinating with vendors incredibly cumbersome. Plus, the more we got down to the details of our “Viennese Ball” theme, the more we missed some practical and tailored advice. So we eventually decided to go for a wedding planner. We picked “Hochzeitshummel“, a well established company in Vienna, and worked directly with the owner Susanne. It might have been the best wedding related decision we made. Besides tapping into Susanne’s vast vendor network and getting additional creative advice, it was her deep experience that helped reassure our decisions and put our minds at ease. Working with us in the months leading up to the wedding she was on top of all the logistical details. We bascially just needed to sign off on decisions. More time for us to spend with family and enjoy the pre-wedding weeks to the fullest! Another key part was the day-of coordination. If we wouldn’t have taken a wedding planner, we would have definitely booked a “day-of coordinator”. For one, we didn’t want to ask a family member or friend to take on such a big task but rather have them fully enjoy the wedding and party with us. Plus, having someone professional do what they are trained to do put our minds completely at ease. We fully trusted Susanne to execute on our plan and troubleshoot where necessary. During our wedding day, Christian and I didn’t think a minute about the time or the next agenda point. Rather, we were just living in the moment, relying on Susanne to tell us what came next ūüôā

5. We made a conscious decision to “be present”: Prior to our wedding, we kept asking married couples about their wedding day. Any advice they had for us thinking back to their own celebration? Almost everyone told us “You will get dragged into so many different directions. Try to take a step back, a few minutes, to take everything in because it will go by so fast”. “Don’t worry about the details.” That was some interesting food for thought. Especially for us, as we are both somewhat perfectionists and want things to go according to plan. So in the weeks leading up to the wedding we kept talking about how to be present. And we found that there is really no magical recipe. It’s all about our mental state. While we would do our best in the planning phase, we decided to not think about the execution anymore once the wedding festivities started on Friday (and left everything to our wedding planner). It was a pact. And we stuck to it. We both included a little “be present” reminder in our personal Saturday morning letters to each other. We both reminded ourselves during the ceremony (e.g., to look out over the crowd acknowledging all the people that came a long way to celebrate with us). We snuck away right after dinner for a short 5 minutes stroll around the premises to take a step back and reflect on what was happening. We had our little code words during our first dance to make each other laugh and have fun. All in all, I was really surprised by how well our “pact” worked. In the end it was all about managing expectations. I’m glad we took the advice from others on this point and consciously thought about being present beforehand.

Every wedding is such a unique celebration. There is a lot of advice out there on all the “should’s” and “should not’s”. In the end, it’s all about personal preferences and what matters to you. If I would pick only one takeaway from our wedding, it’d be to “be present and enjoy the moment”. To that end, do any preparation and engage anyone who will help you “be present” on your wedding day, and you will no doubt¬†enjoy this special day to the fullest.

*** Special acknowledgements to all the people that helped make this day special:

  • Wedding planner: Susanne Hummel & Team from Hochzeitshummel¬†¬†
  • Hair and Make-up: Stefanie Lichtenberger from Mist Stockholm¬†
  • Photography: Endre from Birta Photography¬†
  • Flowers & Decoration: Dagmar Mair from Blumenagentur¬†
  • Classical Orchestra: Barbara Helfgott and Rondo Vienna¬†
  • DJ: Axel Becker from Becker Events¬†
  • Dance classes: Val Cunningham from the Dance Loft in San Francisco¬†
  • Classical guitar during ceremony: Gudrun Otten
  • Registrar: Tanja Reifbaeck from Standesamt Moedling
  • Our “co-officiants”: Shilpa Jhunjhunwala &¬†Paul Davison
  • Contributions during ceremony: Molly & Joshua Goshorn, Verena Raschke-Cheema & Bobby Cheema
  • Carrying of veil: Teeba Alkhudairi
  • MCs: Bobby Cheema and Martin Raschke
  • Speeches: Andreas Raschke, Vincent Wong, Shilpa Jhunjhunwala, Verena Raschke-Cheema & Martin Raschke, Paul Davison, Michelle Zatlyn, Teeba Alkhudairi & Patricia Otero
  • GoPro & Drone Video Footage: Basel Dahleh, Dan Abramson and Jamie Sutherland
  • Photobooth: David Abramson (software), Martin Raschke (design & set up)
  • And last but not least: our families and all our guests for making this an unforgettable day!
5

Thailand – Full Moon Parties, Scuba Diving and More

IMG_20141008_173651 While traveling around the world is an absolute dream, one of the tougher things about the journey is that we are constantly on the move. Every 2-3 days having to unpack and repack our suitcases and getting on the road takes its toll. While we had originally planned to use the month of October for a more comprehensive tour of South-East Asia (e.g., Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), we ended up deciding to stick to one place, Thailand, and take it more slowly. Christian had been to Thailand a couple of times before and described it as a laid back beach paradise. I was sold! But before paradise could begin, we had to take a long journey, flying from Bhutan to Bangkok, followed by the overnight train down South to Chumphon and then finally several hours on the ferry, before we arrived at our destination: Koh Tao.

Koh Tao is a small little island off the east coast of Thailand. The reason we chose Koh Tao is to get our PADI Scuba Diving certificate. Turns out the island graduates the greatest number of scuba divers in the world. I liked the place the minute we set foot on it. Barely more than a stretch of beach, the island is laid back enough to feel you’re in a remote place but with enough beach bars and restaurants to explore for a week. Our little hut right on the beach made us feel like in paradise. Amenities were limited (no AC, simple room with cold water shower) but the direct beach access and sunset views were worth the trade-off.

Before starting our scuba diving course, however, we set out for one more adventure. The legendary “Full Moon Party”¬†was happening the next night on the neighboring island Koh Pha Ngan. It’s a gigantic, all-night beach party with several¬†DJs. The event attracts several thousand people every month. We were curious to check it out even though somewhat skeptical based on what we had heard. Lots of young travelers that can go a bit overboard. But, we were already in Thailand. Plus, since our wedding was on the night of a full moon,¬†it was technically our “3-month moon wedding anniversary”. So why not give it a try. The journey there was enjoyable in itself. A nice boat trip and long stroll along the beach in Koh Pha Ngan, followed by sunset beers at a cute beach bar.

We were ready for the party! First, we got ourselves a “bucket”. Literally, a flask¬†of alcohol mixed with a soft drink in a bucket. Admittedly, not my favorite cocktail. Second, some hula hooping on the beach. Really fun with the music, especially in this unique setting. Christian and I got to know people from around the world and danced until the morning hours. Despite our original intentions to make it through the whole night without sleeping, we couldn’t resist to get a cheap room for a 4-hour nap before taking the morning ferry back to Koh Tao. I guess we are getting old ūüôā Overall it was beautiful to dance on the beach under the full moon, however, it’s more of a college-party scene and the music was a bit too mainstream for my taste. I had secretly hoped for a sliver of Tomorrowland¬†DJ tunes. But, all in all, a worthwhile experience.

Back on Koh Tao, we were ready to go diving! The course took 4 days. Christian and I found ourselves “back in school‚ÄĚ: a mix of (entertaining, 80s style) videos, some theory and then the actual dives. Anita, a teacher-turned-dive instructor from the UK, was our dive teacher. Very experienced, great instructor but also really fun to spend time with. Besides getting the actual certificate, I realized how special it felt to become more integrated into Koh Tao’s dive community. Our daily schedule gave us plenty of opportunity to socialize¬†and hear people’s life stories: early morning 5:15am wake-up calls to hit the best dive sites before others, a Tuk Tuk to the pier, boat trip to the first dive site, back to town, out on the water again for more dives in the afternoon, back to the dive shop at around 5pm, followed by evening beers with the New Way Diving¬†crew. The dive masters/instructors all had their own, interesting stories to tell. From different countries, ages, and backgrounds they came to Koh Tao for various reasons: to escape from the stressful corporate world in “the West” in search for a more balanced life, to finally pursue a long-had passion after retiring or to just have fun for a year or two before starting a career. I was contemplating if I could see myself as a dive teacher. Having a boat as an office, spending all day long in flip-flops in the sun and teaching people a fun sport does sound tempting. Yet, I don‚Äôt think it‚Äôs my life‚Äôs calling. Although I must say that both Christian and I got a true appreciation for the sport itself and the technical capabilities needed. On our last dive, having mastered the basics, we were able to immerse ourselves more into the actual experience. The weightless floating. The serenity of the underwater world. The incredibly diverse nature with all its unique shapes and creatures. Like a wonderland. I can see why people can’t stop exploring this magical place. Christian and I are hooked! A new sport we both enjoy.

After our lovely stay on Koh Tao, we opted for a change of scenery (mainly to evade the starting monsoon season on the east coast). Off we were, first to Khao Lak and then to Phuket on the west coast where the monsoon was just trailing off. We settled into a daily routine of meditation practice (more on that in a later post), lots of reading (also mainly on meditation), language learning (Christian is continuing his German practice; I started to learn Spanish), wedding blog writing and video editing, and some exercise. All of that with nice beach breaks, new activities (elephant riding & bathing!) and lots of tasty Thai food in between ūüôā

It’s been really pleasant to “settle down” in Thailand for three weeks after having been on the move for three months. A great way to explore Thailand’s culture while carving out time for our personal projects. More details to come on the latter soon! Stay tuned, C&C