The Life Audit: a workbook that brings you on a revitalising retreat
Michelle Moroney encourages you to be your best self and picks you up when you fall
Michelle Moroney teaching a yoga class during her Cliffs of Moher retreat
Michelle Moroney is squatting barefoot, lighting a row of tea lights that flicker across the floor and reflect in the glass wall of her studio. Outside, the last of the light is leaving the western sky. Down below, past the green fields and dry stone walls, waves crash against the shore. There’s nothing but a sheet of glass between the pouring rain, the Wild Atlantic Way and us. I’m lying on the floor on the comfiest yoga mat ever, called a fluffy cloud, and quite frankly I’d be happy if I never had to get up again.
This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I’ve come here to the Cliffs of Moher retreat to learn more about Michelle’s book The Life Audit. I was half afraid I was going to have my own life audited by her. The book’s subtitle is a “Workbook for a healthier, happier you”.
It’s the kind of book from which I’d usually run a mile. You don’t have to start it in January, and I’m slightly reassured when on page 13 Moroney says that resolutions are desperate words that imply we are not enough as we are. Instead, she quotes one of her early yoga teachers who told her that we are absolutely perfect in every way, with room for improvement.
Moroney wrote the book for people who can’t come on one of her retreats. It’s a distillation of the learning from the past 17 years she has spent as a yoga instructor and health and wellness coach, and informed by her own experiences as what she calls a “seeker”.
In 2004 she was working at a dive centre in Thailand and decided to come home for Christmas. On St Stephen’s Day she discovered that the house she lived in on Ko Phi Phi had been washed away in the tsunami, and many of her Thai friends had been killed.
“It was a huge shock, and there was a lot of guilt,” she recalls. A few months later, she and her husband Michael set up their company yogatraveller.com, and held their first retreat on Phi Phi. “It was a way of giving back.” When she was pregnant with their first child they came back to Ireland, first opening the Little Yoga Cottage and later the Cliffs of Moher retreat.
Back on the floor we’re moving into the first of a series of restorative poses.
“We’re making a shape like a crescent moon or a banana,” says Moroney in a low, calm voice. “We’re using our breath to find ease in a pose. This is how we open our body, not by pushing it but by noticing it.”
When she started giving retreats, Moroney would lead an active morning class and a relaxing evening class. “The more I taught the more I realised the power of the slower class. It’s not just a reward for doing the physical work, it’s where the healing happens.” As she writes in the book, “to me it seems wrong that we treat slowing down and recharging as a luxury. I see it as survival.”
Most of us are living with low-level stress, she believes, and it’s leading to a huge growth in anxiety. “When small kids are feeling it, we know its deeply embedded in our society.”
As we grab a late lunch in the retreat’s double-height diningroom, she tells me that her first idea was to write a recipe book that incorporated her thoughts on wellness (the vegetarian food served is excellent – we’re eating a mushroom crumble that delivers an umami hit). But the publishers convinced her otherwise.
The Life Audit is divided into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year, and begins by taking stock and working out where we need to bring balance into our lives. For people who have investigated the “self-help” genre, the book contains many tools with which they might be familiar, like the Morning Pages from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, the Wheel of Life, and even some tips on decluttering. Chapters include self-reflection, health and wellness, stress and relaxation, thriving in your career, compassion and family, community and friends, play and self-love.
What draws it all together is Moroney’s compassionate and encouraging approach. This is not a book that you read, it’s a book that you do. And at the start she reminds readers that taking control over our lives involves self-discipline. There is work involved. Each chapter is divided into three sections: Explore, Contemplate and Create. Exploring involves answering questions, Contemplate introduces thinking and tips, and Create is about establishing goals about what you want to change.
She’s a big believer in early mornings, but admits that “once a week or so I’ll crawl back into bed or not bother getting up early . . . sometimes it’s good to say f*** it”. That’s not an excuse to give up altogether, and you can build in strategies to try and minimise that risk. Moroney is part of a WhatsApp group of sea swimmers who meet in Lahinch in the mornings. Building your healthy network can help you to keep going.
The next morning she’s at the front of a group of people walking down the steep path to Aileens, the best viewpoint of the Cliffs of Moher. Most retreats include hikes along the spectacular 14km cliff walk from Doolin to Hag’s Head. Time in nature is a chance to feel completely alive. “I love the wildness of it, the drama of the cliffs and the contrast of the soft undulating fields.”
Today it’s blowing a gale and the wind is whipping the waves into a frenzy. She’s in a bikini and shorts, in January, leading the group in their breathing. It’s a taster retreat for the Wimhof method, a way to control the breath and experience extreme cold, which she runs with fellow instructor Níall Ó Murchú.
As they reach their goal at the edge of the cliffs, the group breaks into a horse dance to keep warm, complete with whoops and hollers. The group has also undergone two ice baths as part of their retreat, and that shared experience does create the sense of a tribe. Many of those attending are regulars who come back time and time again.
“She’s the most dynamic person I’ve ever met,” says one. “She practises – not what she preaches, because she doesn’t preach – but what she talks about.”
In the evening it’s cold and windy outside, and the stove in the cosy cottage is calling me, but so is the hot tub I spotted outside the studio. I sink into the water, as a cloud parts to reveal the moon. In this sort of environment, rested, restored and filled with healthy food, it’s easy to feel at one with the world. But slogging through normal life, how do you hold onto that golden thread?
I remind Moroney that during the first hour we met, she was texting people about the following day’s events, organising a memorial service in the studio, arranging her kids’ schedules, talking to me, and eating her lunch. So does she have sympathy for those who might feel that auditing their life is just one more thing on the to-do list?
“Absolutely, but the best thing I or anyone else can do for everyone around them is to look after your health and wellness. I know when enough is enough. I’m busy but I’ll have a couple of hours with the kids now and I’ll be in bed by 10. I try to stay offline as much as possible.” For her, yoga, baths, and swimming daily are some of the ways to get back in balance. “Someone else might be at a phase in life that all they can fit in is 10 minutes a day for meditation and getting a walk in twice a week. But that’s okay. We are our own teacher, trust your gut.” And if you were to boil it down to one thing? “Start small but start now.”
Back in Dublin, I’ve done my homework for January and enjoy the process of delving into the state of my life more than I expect. I discover that it’s not as bad as I thought. I’ve also copied the retreat habit of having a platter of cut-up fruit around the place; you’re much more likely to get your five-a-day in that way. I’m back doing the Morning Pages, journaling to get the day going and clear the clutter from my mind.
I can’t promise that I’ll finish The Life Audit. Life sometimes gets in the way of workbooks. But the tone of the book is a great comfort. Moroney isn’t prescriptive or bossy, but she does give you a kick in the arse every now and again. It feels like a wise friend encouraging you to be your best self, but picking you up when you fall and telling you it will be better tomorrow.
What I can promise is that I’d rip anyone’s arm off for another opportunity to lie down on a fluffy clouds yoga mat, while an Atlantic storm rages outside and a soft, soothing voice tells me it’s okay to do very little except breathe. If I have to audit my life to do it, bring it on.
The Life Audit by Michelle Moroney is published by Gill Books. www.cliffsofmoherretreat.com