You Are, And Are Not, What You Eat

Photo by Cassidy Curtis

A few years ago, I spent 2 months as a raw foodist. The idea of eating that diet appealed to me, because all of the food was so fresh and clean, and it caused me to appreciate the flavors of fresh natural items without sauces or condiments. Ultimately, I stopped for three reasons. First, it didn’t do what I had hoped for the rheumatoid arthritis. Second, it was too difficult to maintain at work-function meals that I have to attend regularly. Finally, I was frequently being very very upset by claims made in the raw food community about health. The basic idea is that all disease comes from one source, body imbalances caused by toxins that we introduce through the body, primarily through food. Beginning with this idea, raw food “gurus” would make claims regarding prevention or causation of all manner of health issues, including the obviously food related, like heart disease or high cholesterol, but also things that don’t have that obvious connection, like all forms of cancer.

Yesterday, I was speaking with a woman who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Recently, as she was eating a wrap that contained some thin sliced roast beef, one of the only things that appeal to her right now, a colleague approached and told her that she was “feeding her cancer,” and that she could provide her with a nutritional consultation to tell her how to stop doing that.

Two months ago, I was asked to review a book about veganism. The text was being re-issued for it’s 25th anniversary. I read the whole book, but it was a struggle due to the claims made in it. The author had made statements that were true and reasonable about a vegan diet’s positive impacts on animals, on nature, and on health. But then he repeatedly went beyond, as far as I was concerned. He made arguments that all health problems relate to eating meat. Cancer of all types and arthritis were both mentioned. Even AIDs was included in that discussion.

Claims like this, as far as I am concerned, are (pardon my language) crap. They represent wishful thinking, with absolutely no credible evidence. They negate completely the value of the science which has isolated causal factors for a wide variety of illness (and no, I am not saying that science is the only way to truth or that it’s always right, but it has to be just as bad to fully ignore it as to fully accept it). They neglect any consideration of all of the environmental factors in life besides food. They are also hurtful, not helpful. To tell someone who is suffering, “It’s your fault because of what you did in the past,” has no utility. He/she cannot go back and fix the past. How is that helpful?

Food matters. It is important. A healthy diet can have very positive impacts for any individual. It can significantly reduce many health risks, create better day-to-day health, help the body fight off infections and viruses, reduce the number of toxins you are exposed to, and make your life more enjoyable.

What it is not is a panacea. It can help, because there are many medical conditions that have been shown to be correlated with diet. But, correlation is not simple causation and a good diet does not provide 100% protection. We don’t have all the control over what happens to us, even if we wish we did. Food, like our behavior, comes back to impact us. You could call it karma. But, there are other things that impact us, like the environment around us, other people’s behavior, genetics, etc. There are raw foodists with medical issues. There are vegetarians with MS. There are vegans with heart problems. Heck, there are vegan marathoners with cancer.

So, eat a good diet not as a fool-proof prophylactic against disease. Do it to keep the body you are in as healthy as it can be, no matter what issues you are dealing with. Eat vegan to show your body, the animals, and the earth love. Do it because it feels right to do it right now, not because of some promise of a perfect future.

About that Letting Go…

Last week, I posted a poem about letting go, something that I’m working on in many ways in my life right now.  In the last week, both of my adult children have, coincidentally and separately, asked me why it is that yoga is appealing or relaxing, given that the poses look so uncomfortable.  So, I’ve spent some time thinking about how yoga, and a raw food diet, seem to be good for me in terms of letting go (not that I’m there, but I think I’m much closer than I would be without).

Letting go of the fruit of action,
the intelligent of unified intuition,
liberated from the bondage of birth,
go the way free from misery.

~ Bhagavad Gita

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us that letting go is about doing what is right because we believe it should be done, not because of the success or failure of it.  This is the yogic principle of detachment.  When I first started practicing yoga, I didn’t “get it.”  Why, I wondered, would I want to detach from things?  Why would I want to lose my joy and my sorry and replace them with apathy?  Why shouldn’t I be proud of my successes and responsible for my failures?  Now that I’m a tiny teeny itty bit more enlightened (small change, microscopic almost), I think I’m beginning to understand that detachment isn’t necessarily an overall state of being.  It’s a process that we have to work through, day by day.  And, it doesn’t mean not feeling our feelings – instead it means feeling them and naming them and then changing how we respond to them, understanding what the values are in the process of each experience (regardless of outcome), and letting go of our judgments of self and need to control.

This is hard for most of us, I think, and harder for some of us.  I’m what some people would probably call a “control freak.”  I’m a people pleaser.  I’m success oriented.  I’m the rule follower and the “good girl.”  I was raised on the value of success and I internalized it to the Nth degree.  When I see what I consider an issue (in any part of my life or the lives of those I’m connected strongly with), I want to swoop in and fix it.  If I can, yay.  If I can’t, I tend to berate myself and obsess over what I can do instead.  More than once in a while, I keep myself up for hours planning how I might solve a particular problem, help someone out, succeed at some task, move “ahead” in something, etc.  It’s been a fruitful way to be in terms of keeping up with my work and developing a reputation as someone who gets things done, but it has been very hard on me psychologically.  Even succeeding at a task causes stress from this frame of mind, because I always wonder – “Could I have done it even better?”

So, where does yoga and raw food come in here?  Well, since the yoga connection is more established, and probably more powerful, let me begin with raw food.  When I’m following a raw food plan, and managing to keep my surroundings stocked well with fruits and veggies so that I’m not pulled from it by hunger, I pretty much stop thinking about how much I eat and judging the calorie content or whether I ate too close together, too far apart, or too near bedtime.  I just eat when and what my body seems to be asking for.  I enjoy the taste in the moment and then I move on.  I’ve noticed that I don’t seem to crave (obsess?) over food that I want in the same way when I’m observing a raw food plan.  Even if I think about something yummy, like carrot cake or pecan pie, I can pretty much just think about it, acknowledge that it would taste good, and then move on.  I don’t find myself in the kitchen eating 12 other things trying to stifle the urge for the one “bad” thing that I really want.   So, for me, raw foodism seems to help me let go, somewhat, of some of my issues with eating.

Now yoga, that’s been the driving force for me thinking about letting go.  As I listened to my instructors and read about yoga and the philosophies and teaching behind it, I’ve been intrigued by the possibility of letting go – of engaging the process without such focus on the outcome, doing what I believe is right for the sake of doing it – not for the rewards that come with it.  This brings me back to the question my sons asked about how yoga can be relaxing when it’s so difficult.  I’ve already admitted that there are times when a competitive spirit creeps into my yoga practice.  So, I’m not going to pretend like I’m all super-yogi with this.  But, during a yoga practice, this is a time of day when I’m most likely to be able to let go of my attachment to a goal and just be there, in that moment, in the process of doing yoga because I think it is good for my body and my mind.  And, interestingly, even though I don’t spend much time in yoga thinking about other parts of my life (which is part of what I find relaxing about it – that is 60-90 minutes where I’m not worrying over job/family/friendship/society), I come out of it thinking more clearly and less judgmentally about the other things happening in my life.  If I do yoga on a regular basis, I seem to be less likely to yell at a child for a bad behavior (which partly goes right back to my desire to succeed – because I’ve obviously failed as a parent if my children are making mistakes), or get upset over others’ negative appraisals of me, and so on.

But, it’s a day to day thing.  When I butt up against something really difficult in life, or a problem that isn’t “mine” but “belongs” to someone I love, it is very hard not to slip into control mode.  And I do.  However, I think I’m at least able to recognize that this is what I’m doing and begin to reflect on the futility of blame and emphasis on outcome.  I do better at acknowledging the pain or sadness, naming it for myself, and working to not judge myself for having those feelings or for my own imperfections.

To hark back to the 70s… I’m letting go one day at a time.

It’s Viral… and I Don’t Mean Media

Last Wednesday evening, I went to bed with a stomach ache.  After tossing and turning for several hours, the fun got started around 2 a.m.  From that point on, I proceeded to be violently ill throughout all of Thursday.  I couldn’t keep any food down, very little liquid, and my head pounded furiously.  It was ugly.  There was even some toddler like crying (and that was just the DH trying to deal with me…).  Friday, I felt somewhat better, but still wasn’t really up to eating and I did a lot of napping throughout the day.  Saturday and today, I’ve added some crackers/toast to the diet and a little fruit.  I finally got up the energy today to manage about 1/2 hour of yoga without getting very ill.   Tomorrow should be better yet, but all of this has me thinking about health and yoga and raw foodism.

According to staunch raw food (natural hygeine) proponents, there is 1 illness and 1 cure.  The illness is toxicity caused by the food and other environmental toxins we encounter in our standard American lives.  They argue that all diseases, of whatever name or characteristic, are simply manifestations of this toxicity, which can be greatly reduced and virtually eliminated by a strict natural hygeine lifestyle, including a raw food diet.  So, if an individual develops an illness while eating raw, the recommended solution is to either water or juice fast, but certainly to continue the raw diet.

While I don’t actually buy into the 1 illness and 1 cure idea, I understand why it might be beneficial to water/juice fast through an illness, but this particular virus made it clear to me that it was not going to work out sometimes.  There are times when the body refuses to digest particular types of food, and many raw items are challenging on the digestion – unless one owns a juicer and utilizes that path.  This suggests that there may be points where raw food is not the best option in recovery.

Drawing from understandings in the path of yoga, the body must be taken care of for the mind to function well.  This means resting when you need to rest, and not pushing the body to exhaustion.  When ill, I assume this to mean that one should wait until the body returns to a state of positive energy before undertaking any vigorous asanas, and that return to practice should be gradual and measured.

The catch here is that when one doesn’t practice, sometimes the muscles and joints become stiff or clinched, making a return to practice more difficult and frustrating and increasing feelings of exhaustion.  Not practicing while I was trying to feel better makes sense from one perspective, but from another, it only makes things worse.

What is the “take away” message from all of this?  I think it may be that even our most “healthy” habits need to be continually reassessed in the face of the realities of the body and mind.  We need to combine concern with long term physical and mental health with attention to the short term.  Sometimes those two points of focus will require different actions, and choices have to be made about what is best.

Be in the body; be in the moment.  What does it require?