Mindful awareness

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Living with Intention

Having been an academic forever, autumn is to me what New Year’s is to most people I know. Autumn is my time to reassess where I’ve been and where I’m going. With that comes reflection on what is my personal mission statement. I consider three values that I want to exude in my thoughts, words, and actions.

The yoga mat is a good place to consider intention. I invited students to set an intention for their practice and to find it there in every asana (pose) during the class. Then throughout the entire practice, I kept prompting them to return to their intention. The intention could be any value meaningful to them, perhaps strength, flexibility, balance, patience, acceptance, compassion, presence, generosity, awareness, mindfulness, the list is limitless.

Identifying the intention is often easy. The difficulty comes when we try to live that intention. It’s hard enough to remember to return to it during a 75-minute yoga class; remembering to live it each moment off the mat seems especially difficult.

Take one of my intentions, for instance: compassion. Sounds like a lovely intention to live by and I’d like to think that I do. But I’m human and from time to time I find myself forgetting to live as the compassionate being I aspire to be. On my mat it might be the day that I feel especially tired and worn out. I don’t feel up to par yet I push myself on my mat. On these days a slower practice of restorative poses or more folds and twists might be in order. But forgetting to have compassion for my body I push through a demanding practice of standing balances, arm balances, and inversions. Then I think – oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be emanating compassion. That probably should start with compassion for myself. Forgetting my intention to be compassionate can show up during any practice as boredom in a relatively easy pose like bhujangasana (cobra pose) or as ambition in a deeper pose such as urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).

I find even more opportunities and challenges to live as the compassionate being I aspire to be when I’m off the mat. That seemingly stupid and inconsiderate motorist driving in the bicycle lane deserves the compassion I intend to convey. But I forget. I’m not mindful of my intent and I resort to my automatic reactions emanating from my anger.( You can guess what those words and actions are; I don’t think I need to be explicit here!) Some days it takes me hours to reflect on my emotions. Other days my practice serves me and I am more aware that the words, thoughts, and actions I had in immediate response to the driver are not representing the way I intend to live. I am able to imagine the driver being distracted by illness or tragedy or just being late for an appointment. I become more aware of the driver’s need for love, acceptance, and respect just as any person desires. I become mindful of all the other perspectives that may contribute to the driver’s actions. I find the opportunity to thank the driver for helping me to live my intention.

Living with intention requires mindfulness and it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding and certainly worth returning to each and every moment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Few Absolutes

True confession – I, the vegan of nearly 30 years, ate a marshmallow the other night. I didn’t plan to. I’d thought I’d just eat a graham cracker as my treat when everyone else ate s’mores. But I actually ate a marshmallow inside the graham cracker for the first time in decades. Marshmallows have more sugar and corn syrup than anything I ever eat, and gelatin which I “never” eat. It tasted ok; it tasted like nostalgia for childhood. It isn’t something I’ll do again for decades, but it was a fun evening and the marshmallow was part of the fun. Following up on my last blog, my choice wasn’t too much or too little, it was just right for the time.

Few food choices should be absolute. Most people know how they should eat but when they eat without being mindful of their choices their diets don’t reflect what they know. A little extra sugar at a party is fine as long as one makes the choice to eat that cake and ice cream mindfully, enjoying each bite, because it isn’t a daily indulgence. Less healthy options can be part of a healthy lifestyle and treats should be included in one’s diet as special, not regular food items.

Healthy diets need balance and moderation. It isn’t accurate to classify foods as either “good” or “bad” with two exceptions. No person should ever consume trans fats or processed meats. The former is indisputably related to heart disease and the latter to cancers of the pancreas, stomach, colon, breast and prostate. Those are two absolutes that should undeniably be avoided. But other food products are not as absolute, certainly not the way fad diets suggest. (Tobacco products are a third absolute as they are irrefutably related to oral and lung cancers and heart disease but it they aren’t food products.)

If it were easy to select healthy foods to maintain a healthy diet, then diet programs and products wouldn’t be a billion-dollar business. Still, informed consumers can make choices and will know to be skeptical about any diet plan that relies completely on absolutes. A program that requires “only” eating their packaged foods is as much a red flag as a program that requires completely cutting out an entire food group such as carbohydrates or eating only raw foods.

A diet that cuts out carbohydrates cannot be sustained so these dieters regain the weight they may have lost when they begin the program. Carbohydrates do not make people fat, in fact, they are necessary for a healthy diet. People gain weight by eating too many calories. People that are overweight tend to eat more carbohydrate calories than are necessary mostly because they are prominent in prepared foods and chain and fast food restaurants because they are inexpensive and easy to produce. Carbs are not bad! They just need to be eaten in moderation as a part of a balanced diet.

Non-fat diets are a fallacy. It is impossible to completely cut fats. Nor should one want to. Fats are necessary to metabolize vitamins. In fact, vitamins in tomatoes are unavailable without added fat. Although trans fats are not good choices, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the forms of canola and olive oils, nuts, and fish are healthy and even reduce risk for cardio vascular disease. Saturated fats in the form of beef and dairy are no more caloric than the healthier fat options but are less healthful and increase cardiovascular risk so should be eaten more sparingly.  

Raw diets are not all good! Many vegetables need to be cooked for the nutrients to be available to humans. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are among the vegetables that offer little nutrition when eaten raw. Raw diets aren’t necessarily all bad, but the diets need to be considered part of an overall nutritious diet, including healthy foods that are cooked to make them nutritious.

With few exceptions, foods aren’t all good or all bad. Most are just right and even less healthful options can be part of a healthy diet when eaten sparingly as treats. Consider a few of your indulgences and plan on fitting them into a healthy lifestyle without remorse.