As a yoga teacher and a doctor I get a lot of questions about health. To be honest I think yoga has taught me way more about being healthy, while medicine mostly has my head wrapped around the finer points of disease. That said, the two complement each other amazingly well, and at the end of the day they clearly agree on the basics. Here are the 5 fundamentals of health where eastern and western medicine share common ground, or at least get out of each other’s way!
1. Food. Food is not the devil. Fake food is the devil! Whether the latest article decries salt, sugar, fat, or meat, they all lead to the same conclusion. Eat real food, as Michael Pollan so wisely said, in moderate proportions. And cook your food yourself as much as you can. If you eat whole foods – fruits, veggies, whole grains, unprocessed, unfrozen, free of preservatives, made by you at home with fresh ingredients – you avoid all of the perils of excess of anything. The major problem with food in America is that much of it is so processed you might as well inject it via syringe into your arm. Because processed food tends to be packed with excess calories, salt, or chemicals, it kicks off an inflammatory state in the body, which is not meant to handle super-saturated nutritional bombs. So eat simply and well, most of the time, and help your body out immensely.
2. Sleep. Get some. Sleep is the time when your body takes itself to the shop and runs the repair software. If you’re chronically not getting enough sleep you’re behind the curve on oxidative damage, a natural byproduct of all metabolism. That damage to cells and DNA builds up, which is how we age. If you are tossing and turning get up out of bed, stretch, do a headstand, lie on your back with your feet up the wall, or meditate. (My favorite is the mantra “here” – just repeating it silently to myself can bring my head back from whatever hang-up it’s chewing on.) But whatever you do, don’t just lie there and struggle. Do something to quiet the mental or physical discomfort that is keeping you up. There’s no rule on hours. You know when you’re getting just enough!
3. Exercise. It’s all about sweat. A lot of yoga and exercise teachers shy away from saying you have to actually sweat, but you do. You don’t change your cardiovascular state or your energetic state if your workouts don’t include sweating. You also don’t get the glorious detox that is one of the main benefits of exercise. So find a way to sweat at least 3-4 times a week. Yoga is great, running, or plopping on one of those machines at the gym. For me a good sweat happens in half an hour, I don’t need to chain myself to a stairmaster all day. But once my shirt is sticking and my nose is dripping that is the truest simplest sign that I’ve moved and moving is the one thing our bodies need the most to be healthy.
4. Meditation. Meditation is about being, not doing. It’s a strange concept for busy people, who, like most of us, measure their lives by accomplishment. But truly, it’s not about doing one style of meditation and certainly not about doing any one kind “right.” It is simpler than that, and while the abstractness of “being” can make it seem hard, just start by seeing if you can sit for 10 minutes every day and be with yourself. Not asking anything of yourself or of your surroundings. Not judging or wanting or evaluating. Follow your breath in and our your nose if this helps you hold your attention. Or don’t. But sit still, alone, and in the quiet, and watch yourself for 10 minutes. This moment of calm self-observation acts as a rudder in life, steadying mind and body.
5. Enthusiasm. I was going to say Love, but Love has all these sticky meanings attached to it. Enthusiasm seems simpler. It’s what one school of meditation I practice teaches as a fundamental. If you can find enthusiasm for anything – life, work, a chore, a problem, your meditation practice, even your irritating coworker – you can find lightness. The mind will hold onto a whole lot of junk that enthusiasm, paired with a little amusement, like a magic wand, has the power to dissipate. And when you dissipate all those whirligig thoughts you find clarity and then, quite often, a way forward. Enthusiasm is like spring-cleaning the storage closet of your head.