Exploring Energy Healing and Sound Meditation


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.


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 — 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…” 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 … For me, a journey that’s worth continuing.

Special thank you to: 

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, 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 “high expectations”, 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 – Expectations. It’s not that I wasn’t 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”, which indicates the need for grounding, and another one “Core Healing”, 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 “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own Myth” – Rumi. Now I know what the year of realization means… and especially for me, and for those around me. Thank YOU for being part of my realization.

Hoop love,
Teeba Alkhudairi
Chief Hoop Fairy




Sacred circularities… I didn’t 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…partying 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 “the birds” [reference to our group of friends] in the balcony, yummy food, amazing massages … it felt like another world in the world….a world where people dance, teach each other, smile, laugh, where there is time to meditate, to feel free, to recharge….!

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.



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 – it 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!


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.




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.

SC group picture

Our Sacred Circularities Group!


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.

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 “what it’s all about” 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’s 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’t even imagine how I will be able to sit on a cushion for ten straight days. I can’t 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’m 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’s 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’m positively surprised by my room. First, I have a room to myself (which most meditation centres don’t offer). Second, it’s nicer that what I expected. Well, it’s 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… 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 “Noble Silence” 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’ve 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’ll 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’t 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’t know, but it feels good”

  • I hear a loud gong and almost jump up in bed. It must be 4am. It’s pitch black outside. Didn’t 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’s 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. “I’m hungry. What’s 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’m hungry…”. I get a little bit annoyed with myself. Why can’t I focus better? Then I remember what Christian and I had read in meditation books. Acknowledge the thought that comes up but don’t dwell on it. Let go and softly come back to your breath. This helps. I’m getting into some sort of flow. Suddenly I hear some chanting. A taped recording of the master teacher. It’s not very melodic and sounds a bit weird. Maybe it’s 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’s 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’t 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’s 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’t 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’s the same pattern as in the morning. Batches of good concentration, mixed with batches of lots of thinking. But I’m 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’s almost as if I’m in and outside of my body at the same time. Is this what meditation feels like? I don’t 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 “Dhamma Talk”, 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’m starting to get tired but make it through. I stay for the Q&A session and ask my teacher about my “electric field” 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’ll learn more about it in Days 4-9. I guess, I have to be patient. But I’m also a bit disappointed that my experience wasn’t the sign of the “perfect” 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’m 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’m 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’t seem to help. I remember that I should try to stay peaceful. Our goal, after all, is to practice “equanimity”, 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’t 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’t 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’t try to control it. Take it hour by hour”. 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’m 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’ll swap to Vipassana on Day 4. I’m 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’m in the zone”

  • The morning mediation session on Day 3 is another uphill battle. I can’t 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’m in some sort of “zone”. 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’m more mindful when doing benign tasks, like hand-washing my clothes, focusing on each piece at a time. And I’m 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 “real meditation”, Vipassana. I’m 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 “impermanence”. Things inevitably keep changing and through experiencing this with my own body sensations, I’m supposed to get an understanding of the impermanence of everything. Second, to develop “perfect equanimity”. 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’s 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’m 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’m 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’m standing, I feel my feet being firmly grounded. When I’m walking, I feel my leg muscles moving. When I’m 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’m 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.


Maximising Happiness: Experimenting with meditation

maxhap meditation.001Several years ago I was in a taxi caught in traffic, running late to get my flight from Sydney to Melbourne. There was really nothing I could do. When I finally made it to the airport, I rushed all the way to the gate only to see my plane pulling away. I’d missed the last flight for the day so I had to wait for the early flight the following morning. I was incredibly stressed during the whole “ordeal”: stressed out in the cab anticipating missing my flight; stressed out when I arrived at the airport and was told I had missed my flight; and I barely slept that night afterwards as I replayed over and over again in my head the episode of missing the flight, and as a result I felt terrible the next morning when I had to get up early for my new flight. I’m sure many people can relate to a scenario like this in one way or another.

However, I realise now that the unhappiness I felt was entirely my choice. I could have chosen to remain calm during the entire situation knowing that having to get the next flight would have an immaterial impact on my life. By doing so, I would have felt considerably better. Of course there are higher stake situations that can create stress (e.g. related to health or safety), but even then the degree of unhappiness and defeatedness you feel is still a choice. Choosing to be happy (or to not be unhappy) is easier said than done. When we feel stressed it’s hard to simply decide to be happy. What we need are tools that help us in these kinds of situations. Our initial search for such a tool has led Christine and me to meditation.

The promise of meditation
Meditation means many different things to many different people. The way I define it is as a practice of focusing your concentration on an object (e.g. your breath, feeling your body sensations, a mantra etc.) and observing it in a neutral and passive way. There are many reasons why people meditate. For some people it is spiritual and often heavily tied to Buddhism. For Christine and me, the reason to meditate is less spiritual and more practical. Specifically, we see two potential ways this practice can make us happier in life:

  • The first is turning off the voice in your head. This is the voice that unnecessarily creates anxiety either anticipating something or even stewing on something that has already happened. Many a sleepless night has resulted from this form of stress. Meditation is a practice of dealing differently with your thoughts (aka the voice in your head). Rather than allowing yourself to get lost in your thoughts, you learn to turn down the volume of chatter in your head and as a result reduce this form of anxiety.
  • The second way meditation may help is in dealing with a stressful situation in the moment. All too often we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t go the way we want it to and we react in a negative way. In doing so, we make ourselves feel unhappy and generate unhappiness for all others involved. However, we can choose to respond more gracefully, not allowing ourselves to react in a knee jerk fashion, and as a result not generate the same degree of unhappiness. The way meditation is said to help with this is that through practice you learn to assert a level of control over you mind that in the moment you can more effectively control your reactions.

Our journey with meditation so far
Meditation first came up as a topic of conversation on a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul in early August. It took us until mid-September when we found ourselves with a lot of time and not much to do due to a plane delay in Jiuzhaigou, China to start proactively learning what meditation is by reading books and asking friends. Shortly afterwards we started doing 5-minutes of meditation per day, building up to 20-minutes per day by the end of October (with the occassional 45-minute session). And then we jumped in the deep-end: a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Malaysia where we meditated for 10.5 hours every day. But more on that later. Right now we’re doing between 1-2 hours every day.

Results from meditation so far
At this point I’d say it’s too early to tell. As we are right now experiencing one of the happiest periods of our lives, there isn’t a ton of anxiety floating around in our heads nor do we face many stressful situations. But on the odd occasion that we have faced some kind of stress I don’t know if I’ve yet seen a major difference in how we’ve reacted in the moment. A few weeks back we found ourselves getting frustrated with each other when we were lost looking for our hotel in Kuala Lumpur, lugging our suitcases around in the sweltering humidity. Ironically, we were in KL to go to our meditation retreat. Although it wasn’t a big deal, afterwards we had to laugh because it didn’t seem very “zen” to let such a little thing annoy us.

However, if there has been any progress, it’s probably more at the intellectual level than the visceral level. While I still may be falling for the same knee jerk reactions, once I have time to think, I have been able to respond differently. The other day, I was playing with my wonderful nephew, Jayden, pretending to be scuba divers for literally the 12th time that day. I found myself getting kind of bored with the repetitiveness of the game. However, I then realised I could either choose to be bored by the game, or choose to enjoy the moment of playing with a great kid with such a wild imagination. I chose the latter.

Our next steps with meditation
Based on the advice from our teachers at the meditation retreat, we’re trying to do 2 hours of meditation every day. We’ll pull up in the new year to re-evaluate this level of commitment but for now, we’re all in. We’ll report back soon on how this journey plays out.


Maximising Happiness

MaxHap paper

Right now Christine and I are experiencing one of the happiest periods in our lives. Just married, traveling the world… what could be better? One of the many great benefits of our current circumstances is that we have the time to think through the important questions we face as we plan out our lives together. As we’ve been discussing many of these questions they all seem to bubble up to an ultimate overarching question: How can we set ourselves up for lives full of happiness? How can we maximise happiness?

In tackling this question, there have been 3 topics we’ve started exploring:

1. Understanding what makes us happy.
We have a reasonable idea of what makes us happy at a high-level (e.g. being healthy, spending time with friends, success in our career, having a family etc.) but the devil is in the details. For example, I really enjoyed my career at LinkedIn but what exactly did I enjoy? Working at a consumer internet company? Working at a fast growing company? Leading a large team? Ownership over a large business line?… Only by understanding what makes me happy at this detailed level will I be able to properly determine the right next step in my career. Furthermore, another interesting component of understanding happiness is knowing how happy each aspect of life makes us (and over the longer term) so that we can appropriately balance the many competing priorities in our lives.

2. Making the right life decisions.
Understanding what makes us happy is the starting point but then we must also make the right life decisions if we are to maximise happiness. And I can tell you that right now it feels like we have a bunch of important life decisions to make. At the top of the list: Where do we want to live after our travels? What career moves do we want to make? When do we start a family? Not a day goes by when Christine and I don’t discuss these questions. The exploration of them will no doubt be a big part of our journey to maximise happiness.

3. Better dealing with things that can make us unhappy
No matter how well we do in making the right decisions to make us happy, there will inevitably be times when we feel less than happy. Things don’t always play out as expected, and furthermore, many of the happiest things in life require hard work that in the moment can feel difficult. While we consider ourselves to be people that generally have a positive outlook on things (in fact, I’d say Christine is one of the most positive people I know) one can always do better in this regard. Our initial exploration on ways to better deal with unpleasant things has led us to explore meditation. We already have thoughts to share on this topic but we’ll save that for future posts.

Exploring each of these 3 topics will no doubt be a dynamic and lifelong process. What makes us happy today may not be what we find to be important further down the road. And the set of decisions we have to face now will be very different to those even a few years from now.

Our plan is to make this an open exploration and to write on these topics regularly. By doing so we hope that we can share in this journey with our friends, family and all other readers of our blog. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives on this topic too.

More to come…


5 decisions that helped make our wedding so special


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 🙂 ). 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 🙂

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 steps to learn a new language in under a year

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As we travel around the world, Christine and I regularly have encounters that illustrate the opportunities that are unlocked by speaking more than one language. In Turkey, Christine wrote about an encounter with a restaurant owner that turned a simple meal into a wonderful evening of singing and learning about the lives of people in Cappadocia once we discovered he could speak German. A similar thing happened in Mongolia with the manager of a Ger camp we stayed in who similarly could speak German but not English.

I think most of us appreciate how powerful it is to speak more than one language. And yet, so few of us do (more than 75% of Australians and Americans only speak one language [1]). Why is this? My guess is that many of us believe that learning a new language is hard and takes years to achieve. I know that’s how I felt a year ago when I started to learn German. But now I know that this is not the case. In under a year, I’ve been able to get to a level of proficiency where I can watch many German TV shows, have conversations with my mother-in-law and spend 80% of my time with my wife speaking only German.

I firmly believe anyone can get proficient in a language in under a year and it only requires around 30 minutes of practice a day along with some creative ways to incorporate your new language into your day-to-day life. Here are 5 tips that were most useful for me in learning a new language. I’ve had the opportunity to test and refine these concepts with many multi-lingual travelers that we’ve met. Fortunately, each of these concepts resonated and they seem to be broadly applicable, regardless of background or language being learned.

1. Start with Duolingo:

Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) was the primary tool I used to learn German. And it is AWESOME. Most days I spent 30 minutes practicing (or perhaps maybe a more apt verb would be “playing”) with it. Almost every multi-lingual traveler I’ve met not only uses it, but like me, cannot help but sing its praises. To summarize why Duolingo is so great: a) there is a ton of science in the learning method. For example, it draws on research that learning sentences rather than words is more effective; it uses repetition at variably spaced intervals, which is also widely recognized as effective in learning; and it comprehensively covers reading, listening, writing and speaking; b) it’s personalized, identifying areas of weakness to provide greater content in those areas; c) it’s gamified and social which makes learning fun and motivating. ; d) it has a great mobile app which is one of the primary devices in which I used Duolingo (e.g. on the train to work); e) it’s entirely FREE thanks to one of the most ingenius business models.

2. Speak from day 1:

I remember in the early days of learning German that I didn’t feel like I was ready to speak. For example, when my fiancé and I spoke with her parents on Skype I spoke very little, embarrassed that I only knew a few words and afraid I would get things wrong. I had to push myself to get over this. Knowing words and phrases in your new language is great, but speaking them in real world situations is a whole other skill. It requires a level of quick recall and muscle memory that you can only develop by practicing to speak the language.

There are a range of ways you can find opportunities to practice speaking. You can find language meetups in your local town, sign up to websites (e.g. italki.com) that pair people learning new languages, or even just go out in public and spark up conversation with strangers who speak your language like these guys.

However, the best way to practice speaking is to…

3. …find a “Language Parent”:

Have you ever listened to how a parent speaks to their infant while she is learning to speak? What you hear is the parent speaking in simple phrases on a variety of topics, carefully listening when the child speaks, interpreting from broken phrases what the child means and often repeating back what they’ve heard in complete and correct sentences. The child feels completely safe to say whatever they want and to take risks in using their new language. This is probably the best environment possible to learn a language. And that is what your language parent will help you do.

A “language parent” is a term I heard coined in a TED talk by Chris LonsdaleIt refers to someone who is fluent in the language you are learning, who you feel very comfortable around to make mistakes, and who is obviously willing to be patient with you. In my case, my language parent is my wonderful and very patient wife. As soon as I began to learn, we started speaking German together and I was amazed at how quickly we were able to get to a place where the majority of our conversations were in German.

While not everyone may have a significant other to be their language parent, there are other ways to find one. In Turkey I met a woman who intentionally found a roommate that could speak English in order to practice her English. No doubt you’ll be able to find a friend (or befriend) someone fluent in your new language. See if you can make them your language parent!

4. Hammer through the grammar:

A couple of months into learning German, primarily using Duolingo, my language learning hit a brick wall. I was finding that no matter how much I practiced that I wasn’t really learning effectively or understanding the rules and constructs of German sentences. I ended up engaging a tutor for an hour a week for 10-weeks to intensively learn grammar. My time with the tutor essentially consisted of getting a grammar textbook and laboriously going through each exercise until we had gone through the book. It made the world of difference. While for some languages there aren’t as many new rules to learn, for most languages there are some grammatical differences you’ll need to get your head around so I encourage you to bite the bullet, buy a grammar textbook and hammer your way through it. I’d be interested to hear if other people have better (or more fun) ways to learn grammar, but this method worked well for me.

5. Immerse yourself:

One of the most impactful things I did in learning German was using my 3-weeks annual leave to go to Vienna and immerse myself, speaking only German with Christine’s parents and going to German classes each day. I highly recommend this type of experience. That said, even if this isn’t workable in your life there are other ways for you to immerse yourself in your new language. Read children’s books in your new language (and for European languages you may be able to find the CEFR level of the book to assist in matching the book to your level). Watch movies and TV shows (tip: turn on the subtitles for the language you are learning. Often having the words both spoken and written will help you understand what’s going on). Listen to songs and learn the lyrics. Read the world news in your new language. Change your phone settings to be in your new language (warning: there will no doubt be times where this decision will frustrate you, but it’s worth it). These are just a few ways to incorporate your new language into your day-to-day life, and there are surely many others. You just need to get creative.

I’d love to hear from others and their experiences in language learning. I hope these concepts resonate, or better still, are helpful in your current language learning. For those of you who are considering learning a new language, I hope that this encourages you to give it a go!


[1] Quote from US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan in 2010 and 2011 Australian Census