Friday, March 27, 2015

Thinking about food...

Once again, our nation seems to be polarizing into the extremes of the continuum... this time regarding eating "healthy." On the one hand, we have a crowd of people who have discovered the amazing health benefits (and apparently every other benefit under the sun) of kale, quinoa, and juicing. On the opposite hand, we have the "average" American who is accustomed to the Standard American Diet (SAD) and likes it. The "averagers" generally have weight issues, and have tried every diet under the sun, but it's been so long now and they're tired of fighting, and they just want to eat what they want to eat and forget the rest. In the middle are the rest of us (me included), who are aware that our diet is SAD and that being overweight isn't healthy, and we are willing to make some changes. But, please don't ask me to completely give up red meat, or chocolate cake, or chips. I'm willing to cut down on those things and eat more plants, but there is very little advice for how to go about it. The advice seems to be "all or nothing." Give up every form of sugar (especially artificial) or die a horrible death. Never eat meat again or live in misery and fat. Yikes!

The following video is from Jon Stewart (who I don't always find funny), and he comments on this very thing (YouTube deleted the 'original' version, but this one currently works!):

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A-Z Challenge - Foods that help me feel better

In my quest to use food to nourish my body and make me feel better, I have tried quite a few new items and other old favorites have come into my regular eating. I have attempted to severely reduce my consumption of non-foods. I try to recognize food as if I were my great-grandmother (who I never met). She was married to a farmer in rural North Carolina, and lived in a dirt-floor house. She would not recognize Cheetos, Cool Whip, or Frosted Flakes. However, there are some limitations to using her as my source: she wouldn't recognize papayas, avocados, or sharon fruit either. But you get the idea. So, when I come across a new food, I think "Would Great-Grandma know what this is?" If so, I try it. If not, I ask a second question, "If Great-Grandma had grown up in ___(Mexico, China), would she know what this is?" If is passes that question, I try it. Otherwise, I read the label to see if it has recognizable food in it; generally I choose to skip it.

So, my subject for this year's A-Z challenge is "Actual foods that help me feel better." These are foods that I eat regularly now, and I have found that they reduce inflammation or increase digestive ability or increase energy or reduce general poundage. Some of them are old "standbys" and some of them are new to me. I hope that you'll get some new ideas for eating some new things, or incorporating more of a particular food (especially plants) into your own diet.

Cheers to feeling better!

I've also found a number of sites that have helped me understand, choose, cook, and eat real foods. Here is a partial list:
  • My Fitness Pal. While I use this for tracking everything I eat (yes, and considering the calories as well), My Fitness Pal also sends e-mails with great advice, recipes, suggestions for both eating and exercise. A very sensible and reasonable resource.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

sitting alone in a room

Here's one thing about relaxation: no one else can do it for you. You can learn about it, you can read about it, you can think about it, but until you do it you'll never reap any benefits. Here is wisdom from one of my favorite wise guys:
You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.                        - Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
Recommended sitting pose

For me, the most important part of this process is that my body calms down. Constant pain causes our "fight or flight" mechanisms to fire all the time! Our adrenal glands get overloaded, cortisol comes to live in our cells, and our nervous systems never get a break. Even at night, sleeping is still pain-filled, and therefore not as restorative as it could me. I discovered that I hold my breath at night as I prepare to roll over. I do this because it hurts to roll over, and holding my breath helps me 'brace' against the pain. And, it's all done when I'm asleep! (I have been able to catch myself doing it while I'm a little awake, and so I know it's true. My dentist has told me for years that I grind my teeth, and I confess now that this is also true... because I can sometimes catch myself doing it.)

Sitting alone in a room is something that most of us seldom do. We are constantly surrounded by people, activities, noise, and "things to do." Even when we have some "alone time," we tend to fill it up with watching TV, reading, housework, and other "things to do." Back to my earlier post ("why don't we relax"), meditation is about BEING and not about DOING. In fact, it is a purposeful NON-STRIVING. Intentionally, I sit or lie down, alone, quiet, calm.... doing nothing and being me. I use Dr. Kabat-Zinn's technique (from "mindfulness") of focusing on the breath and nothing else. When thoughts, feelings, desires, sensations, or plans come to mind... I acknowledge them as thoughts (and therefore not permanent things) and escort my attention back to my breath. I do this over and over again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, every time I can (I wish I could say 'every day'), until my mind begins to calm down. My body calms down. My thoughts no longer rule my waking life. I can think more clearly, be more "present" and "in the moment," and worry less about the future.

But here's great news: the things that we practice while we're awake will become part of the "norm" for our bodies, and will continue as we sleep. So, if we practice deep, slow breathing during the day - our bodies will begin to breathe deeply and slowly as we sleep. If we practice calming our minds during the day, our minds will be calmer when we sleep. This should lead us to more restorative sleep, as well as calmer (and hopefully easier) days!

Try it, and let me know what you think!

Saturday, March 7, 2015


Have you heard this phrase: "mindfulness"? It has become all the rage among health and wellness folks. The truth is that it is not a new idea; it was birthed in Hindu practices and introduced to America in the late 1970's. One of the "fathers of modern mindfulness" is Jon Kabbat-Zinn, and it is his works that have taught me about living "in the present moment with non-judgmental awareness." This book was recommended to me by a counselor who helped me during my first year of chronic severe pain. The title of the book is from the movie "Zorba, the Greek" who describes his life this way:
I'm a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.
The full catastrophe indeed. Wonderful, stressful, time-consuming, energy draining, joyful, awful, everything that life is. How in the world are we supposed to cope with that? Dr. Kabat-Zinn explores that very issue. He founded the "Mindfulness-Based Stress Management Clinic" at Boston Mass Hospital, and this book is from his experiences helping people live with pain and chronic conditions in new and relaxing ways.
My copy of this book is dog-eared, tear-stained, and well-read. It took me an entire year to read it through the first time. Since then, it has been a "continual loop" in my reading. I can only manage a paragraph or two before I have to stop and think about what was written. These concepts (relaxation, being not doing, taking time for myself) were so foreign to me that it took a great deal of time for me to even consider their validity, and more time still to begin to incorporate them into my own life.

I highly recommend this book, even if it takes you a year to read. It is a wonderful new understanding of the power of relaxation. I also purchased the CD of Meditation for Pain Relief, and it has been incredibly helpful for dealing with pain and increased stress in my life.

Meditation is no longer for Yogis and Buddhists alone. It's benefits are for everyone, and spiritual belief is not required. It is not hindered (I'm a Christian, and I look carefully at meditation and other forms of self-talk to be certain that nothing conflicts with the teachings of scripture) nor is it promoted. For Dr. Kabat-Zinn, breathing is the important thing. Calming our minds (by focusing on the breath) and training our powers of attention will help to calm our bodies as well.

My own personal experience with this bears true. How about trying it for yourself?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

kids and cats know how to relax

I love being a cat guardian: cats are the ultimate relaxers. When they DO something, they do it fast and furious (playing, hunting, wrestling). But that's a small percentage of their days. Mostly, they relax. They lounge in the sun; they unwind under furniture; they sprawl on their favorite pillow; they laze looking out the window; they stretch in the middle of the floor.
When cats are awake, you can tell that they are not tense. They're not adding up their lists of things to DO. They're not worrying about how other cats will perceive them. They're not considering their futures or their pasts. They're simply relaxing into the day as it comes.
These are my cats, Ricki and Luci. Most of the time, they're relaxing on their twin infinity-scratchers!
Kids have the ability to do this, too. Although I'm not a parent, I love watching kids relax. When they sleep, for instance, they completely relax. They even go limp. You can pick them up and move them from one place to another, and they'll never know. Ahhh... to sleep like that again!
But, besides sleeping, kids also intuitively know how to relax and enjoy. If we, the parents, are careful not to schedule their lives too zealously, kids will have time to look up at the clouds, to play out fantasy stories with twigs and flowers, to explore streams and puddles, to spin until they fall down, to jump and run and laugh and live.
When was the last time you went outside just for fun? Have you built a snowman in this lovely winter precipitation? Snow Angels? Snow Cream? Did you watch it snow, entranced by the fluffiness of each snow flake? Did you turn up your face and stick out your tongue to catch a few flakes?

Why not? It's fun! And, it's what it happening right now, whether you like it or not. Why not try to embrace it? Why not take advantage of whatever is going on in your life, regardless of your personal feelings about it, and try to find some way to have fun. Some thing to enjoy. Some small tidbit that might be positive in your life, and not negative.

Better still, find a friend to relax with. It doesn't have to be a "big thing" like going shopping or getting a massage. It can be just hanging out together on your deck, or in her living room, or at Starbucks.
One of my first relaxation habits was to make an effort to go outside every single day, for at least a few minutes, and look up at the sky. When I revealed this habit to some colleagues, they were aghast. "What do you do?" they asked. "Look up at the sky." Pause. Then, they'd ask "And?" My answer: "There is no 'and', I'm just enjoying looking up at the sky." Pause. Another question: "Do you pray?" I responded "Sometimes, but that's not my objective. I just want to look up at the sky." For me, looking up at the sky was a way to "stop and smell the roses." Looking at the sky reminded me that I am, after all, quite a small person in the scheme of the entire world. Looking at the sky helps me feel refreshed and better able to meet the rest of my day.
 I encourage you to think about how you might take some time to relax. It's NOT selfish (more about that later); it's SELF-CARE. Purposeful relaxation can help your body and mind slow down (something I desperately need these days).