Death and Isvara Pranidhana

While sipping a cup of fresh mint tea at a local coffee shop yesterday I listened to my friend Julie rant about the unfairness of life and how it doesnt pay to adhere to a healthy lifestyle. The husband of another friend of hers had just been diagnosed with a life shattering leukemia. How could it happen? she asked. He was the healthiest person she knew. He ate healthy. He worked out every day. He didnt smoke. He didnt drink too much. He didnt do drugs, practice risky sexual behavior, or leave his helmet at home when he rode his motorcycle.

Still. The guy was 48 and dying.

Her conclusion was that it doesnt matter how you live your life. We all die. You might as well enjoy it while you can. Light up. Binge drink. Eat crap because it tastes good. Have blatant disregard for the effects of whatever it is youre doing to your body and your health.

Her anguish was palpable. And its a sentiment Ive heard many times. Yep, we all die. No question about that. No matter how healthy you live your life, it will end. Even if you do absolutely everything right the curtain will still come down and youll take your last breath.

But when you die is a matter beating of the odds, not one of absolute certainty. A woman who primarily eats plants within the guidelines of the Mediterranean diet, doesnt smoke, exercises with at least a brisk 30-minute walk every day, and keeps her body mass index (BMI) below 25 severely reduces her chances of sudden cardiac death which accounts for more than half of all heart disease deaths. In other words, your first clue you might have heart disease is when you drop dead, especially in women. The proportion of sudden death from a heart attack that can be attributed to smoking, inactivity, being overweight, and having a poor diet is 81%. The majority of women who suddenly drop dead arent living a healthy lifestyle.

But its the majority, not ALL. You can live perfect and still have sudden cardiac death. Odds are that you wont though.

Similarly, a German study looked at the same four components of a healthy lifestyle and found the likelihood of having a heart attack, developing cancer, or suffering a stroke (the three leading causes of death in the US) increased progressively as people chose to be sedentary, eat poorly, gain too much weight, or to smoke. Those who chose to eat a Mediterranean diet, not smoke, exercise at least 30-minutes a day, and keep their weight down decreased their chances of having a heart attack by 81%, developing cancer by 36%, and having a stroke by 50%.

There are no guarantees. We are complicated creatures with a plethora of genetic, personality, and environmental factors influencing our chances to live and die at every moment. I choose to stack the deck in my favor by living healthy. I enjoy living healthy. Chances are that Ill live longer because of it, but more important to me is quality rather than quantity. Eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and moving my body every day with Yoga and a brisk walk in the fresh air lightens my mood, relieves my stress, decreases the aches and pains in my muscles and joints, and drastically improves my quality of living.

If I develop leukemia tomorrow I wont feel my healthy lifestyle has been a burden or a failure. It might not be a perfect recipe for immortality, but its a good one for a better life and a decreased chance of a premature death. The rest of the chance part requires grace and surrender, the yogic niyama of Isvara Pranidhana.

I think of the serenity prayer asking for peaceful acceptance of the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We are responsible for ourselves and our paths, but theres some stuff thats simply out of our hands. Within a yogic lifestyle, practicing Isvara Pranidhana means being grateful for what we have been given and surrendering to the higher order of the Universe that bends and twists our fate, sometimes in ways that seem unfair and which we cannot understand.

References:

Chiuve, S. E., Fung, T. T., Rexrode, K. M., Spiegelman, D., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., Albert, C. M. Adherence to a Low-Risk, Healthy Lifestyle and Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death Among Women. JAMA 2011 Jul 6;306(1):62-9.

Earl S. Ford, Manuela M. Bergmann, Janine Kröger Anja Schienkiewitz, Cornelia Weikert, Heiner Boeing. Healthy Living is the Best Revenge. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(15):1355-1362.

 

The Temptation of Food

My friend leaned backward in his chair, tapped his belly, and let out a sigh. “I’m as full as a five-day old tick on a dog.”

I’m home in the Midwest, and we love to eat here. Food is abundant, inexpensive, and there’s a wide variety. Golden arches are almost as prevalent as gas stations, and our senses are bombarded with constant marketing messages to eat more now. There’s a new favorite in my family, an all-you-can-eat buffet that just doesn’t stop.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipka advises eating a moderate Yoga diet in several of its verses.

HYP 1:58  A moderate diet means eating satisfying, sweet food for Shiva’s pleasure, while leaving the stomach one-quarter empty.

The Gheranda Samhita gives similar advice.

GS 4:21,22  A measured diet is said to consist of food that is pure, sweet, rich, leaves half the stomach empty, and is eaten with love for the gods. One should fill half the stomach with food, a quarter with water, and leave the fourth quarter for the movement of air.

The Shiva Samhita (3:35-37) proclaims that overeating along with too much chatter, cruelty to animals, and untruthfulness – are things a yogi should definitely give up.

It’s hard to imagine what life was like hundreds of years ago when those words were written, but I don’t think they had McDonalds on every street corner and all-you-can-eat buffets. They couldn’t have had the wide variety of foods available that we have with modern transportation and refrigeration. And still the Yoga gurus felt it was necessary to recommend against overeating.

People love to eat no matter where they are in the world or on a time line. Food is an almost irresistible temptation. It’s instinct to want to eat when it’s available. That’s our basic drive for nourishment.

Our minds, with reason and proper judgment, need to lead. It’s tough not to overeat, especially in our modern culture, but for good health on all levels – mental, physical, and spiritual – we’ve got to stop.

Around the world, we’re all getting fatter. Overeating creates obesity, and that’s killing us slowly through chronic disease.

In the United States, two of every three adults and one of every three children are overweight or obese. The number of U.S. adults that are obese has doubled since 1980 and the number of obese kids has quadrupled since then.

Eating too much is one part of this epidemic. Yeah, it’s more complicated than that. We don’t move as much, we eat way too much refined sugar and hydrogenated and trans fat, we don’t get enough sleep which makes us put on weight, and maybe environmental chemicals are contributing to our tendencies to just keep packing on the pounds.

But we eat too much.

Take the old yogis’ advice. With a Yoga diet, leave at least one-quarter of the stomach empty when you’re refueling.

Be the Witness. Watch yourself and what you choose for your bodily temple and contemplate the why of it.

And surrender. The fifth niyama, isvarapranidhana, asks for surrender to a higher power through the consecration of actions, feelings, and desires. Accept a little in each decision to eat or not to eat.

Neck Pain and Yoga

As I work on the detox book, Im spending hours sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Thats brought back my neck pain – the place I tend to hold tension. Ive got a deeply ingrained bad habit of poking my neck out in front of my body as if my head needs to get closer to the screen than the rest of me. I try to maintain awareness of posture, but I get so absorbed in what Im doing that before I know it Im hurting again.

Thats when I take a five-minute break for Brahmamudra, a set of yogic neck exercises taught to me by a medical doctor at the Kaivalyadhama Yoga hospital in Lonavala, India. Brahma is the Creator personified as a God with four heads. Brahmamudra is a set of exercises involving moving the neck through four different directions.

While I know these exercises work from personal experience, its great that theyve recently been validated in a therapeutic trial published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study didnt refer to the exercises they employed as Brahmamudra, but theyre similar to the classic technique. The doctors found that simple, natural, home-based therapy with stretching was significantly more effective than medication. It was equally as effective as chiropractic therapy – no need to travel and pay.

The authors recommend six to eight sessions of the exercises daily – thats about once per hour if you spend an eight-hour day at the office. The yogic advice from Kaivalyadhama is to close the eyes while doing them and to focus on the throat region where visuddha lotus manifests. Relax as much as possible throughout the series. For each position, hold for inhale-exhale-relax. This comes out to about three seconds for each. Rotate through the set of exercises at least five times.

The first thing is to learn how to retract the head. Almost all of the exercises involve keeping the chin tucked in. Sit up straight (in your straight-backed chair with both feet firmly planted on the ground or in sukhasana or other cross-legged position on the floor), put your index finger on the point of the chin and push back as far as possible until you feel a stretch in the back of the neck. Thats head retraction. Its the first of eight exercises.

After holding head retraction for inhale-exhale-relax, extend the neck to look up at the ceiling while still retracting the head. Then rotate the head to place the chin over the left shoulder while still retracting the head. Then flex the neck as if to put the chin on the chest while still retracting the head. Rotate the head to place the chin over the right shoulder while still retracting the head. Remember to breathe in and out and then pause during each of these positions.

Now bend the neck as if placing the left ear on the left shoulder while still retracting the head. Then the right ear goes to the right shoulder for a similar inhale-exhale-relax while still retracting the head.

Lastly, reach behind the body and clasp the hands together near the buttocks. Pull the shoulders back and the scapula, or shoulder blades, together and down. If on a chair, it helps to sit on the edge. I like to lean forward after a round of inhale-exhale-relax and repeat a breath with the clasped arms raised up and over my head.

Sometimes it feels great to simply sit and hold each position for two or three minutes. That takes more time – fifteen minutes or so – but when I have an accompanying headache from poor posture and muscle tension, it does the trick.

Another thing Ive found helpful is to spend a second round of breath in the left and right rotations with an alteration of tilting the head down to look at the armpit. When doing this correctly, youll feel the tug of an additional stretch.

Please note that these exercises are for tension and strain, not for cervical vertebrae or intervertebral disk pathology. If you have a serious neck problem, see a doctor and/or physical therapist.

Summary of Yoga for Neck Pain:

Seated position with a straight back, eyes closed.

Hold each position at least two or three seconds with inhale-exhale-relax.

Focus on the throat at the location of visuddha lotus.

Rotate through 8 exercises at least 5 times each session, 6 – 8 times each day.

  1. Head retraction
  2. Head retraction with extension
  3. Head retraction with left rotation
  4. Head retraction with flexion
  5. Head retraction with right rotation
  6. Head retraction with left side bending
  7. Head retraction with right side bending
  8. Scapular retraction

References:

  1. Gharote, ML.  Brahmamudra.  Yoga Mimamsa. Vol XXXX No 3&4:170-171. Oct 2008/Jan 2009.
  2. Bronfort G et al. Spinal Manipulation, Medication, or Home Exercises With Advice for Acute and Subacute Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2012, 156(1):1-10.