The Mind Body Spirit Issue
January 26, 2011 | 01:33 PMTaking things for granted is what humans do best.
Our modern lives are laden with conveniences and technological marvels that we tend to regard mostly with a big, fat "meh." But there's nothing we take for granted more than our own bodies. Each of us is an incredible feat of biological engineering, a series of mind-bogglingly complex systems working in perfect harmony, all without us having to lift a finger (and, yes, even the process by which we lift our fingers is pretty damn amazing). And yet for the most part we stumble along oblivious, regarding our physical, spiritual and mental well-being as a tiresome chore that must occasionally be tended to so we can get back to the Spam musubi and home-decorating shows.
But we aren't here to lecture—honestly. We're here to offer guidance, inspiration and support, a roadmap to better health that will make the journey, along with the destination, enjoyable. Not every method or idea outlined in the following pages will work for everyone, but we hope you can find a bit of inspiration, a seed that may grow into increased awareness of and appreciation for, well, you.
Taking things for granted is what we do best—but striving to do better is a close second.
BENT OUT OF SHAPE
Curl your index finger lightly and let its tip caress the top of your thumb, leaving your middle, ring and pinky fingers loosely outstretched. Congratulations, you've just assumed one of the most commonly recognized yogic mudras—the fundamental hand positions said to incite the flow of prana throughout your being (though the action is not always limited to the hands, and the practice not limited to yoga). Called a chin or vitarka or gyan mudr —among other names, depending on myriad finer details—this A-OK shape is believed to stimulate the diaphragm.
Not to brag, but I long-ago mastered this mudra and practice it daily with the deep breathing exercise of chain smoking. As for my yoga experience, the last time I engaged in any semblance of exercise was in October 2009 (seriously), in a coed, all-ages game of Ultimate Frisbee. These two truisms mean I am the best-suited journalist on the MauiTime team to explore the ancient art of yoga. Not only do I have an obvious objective lens, but I'm pretty sure my editor gave me the assignment in hopes it might stave off my death-by-neglect long enough for me to make it through just one more issue.
As a bonus, dear readers, it turns out I have the flexibility of a Festivus pole (on the plus-side, "very high strength-to-weight ratio"), which if nothing else proved to be comical. In this case, a picture would have been worth a thousand words—but frankly, cameras are expensive and breaking one is just not in the budget. Though, seeing as it's been awhile, I did have to drop some dough on yoga duds—i.e. wide-leg drawstring pants, a sports bra and an unfortunately Pepto-pink mat.
So I was all dressed up, but now where to go? On Maui, you can do everything from free yoga on the beach to costly retreats. And yoga is, like, old and has had a lot of time to become a lot of different things. Archaeologists have unearthed symbols in the Indus Valley that date early yogic practices c. 3300 BCE. There are eight major forms of yoga—Bhakti, Hatha, Jnana, Karma, Laya, Mantra, Raja and Vedanta—and from those stem dozens of styles (plus a bevy of contemporary hybridized interpretations and samplings).
Being utterly confused by so many choices, I decided to reintroduce my muscles to movement with a form of Hatha yoga called Bikram (you know, the kind of yoga done in rooms heated to 100-105 degrees). I know, start small, right?
Honestly, the intensity was what attracted me to Bikram in the first place. I love things that come with warning labels, and Bikram Yoga Maui (871-2402) sent me a letter saying, "WARNING: This yoga will change your life. It might even save it. [It] will whip your body, mind and spirit into shape. There's no sugar coating, no lying to yourself and others to make you feel better. Happiness loves truth." I ended up trying a few different styles, from the popular flowing Ashtanga that begins with saluting the sun and jumping into downward dog, to a beginner's class that even I found pretty easy. But of all the tastes in my yoga sampler, Bikram was the one that made me want to come back for seconds.
They promise healthy transformation after just one class, and—though all their classes are geared for beginners—lovingly refer to their sessions as "90 minutes in the torture chamber." I discovered their masochism is no exaggeration, but managed to survive and sure did feel altered in the best of ways.
Upon arrival, Bikram Yoga Maui owners Tony Oliveira and Gina Marinoni gave me a tour of their pristine, spa-like facilities. From floor to ceiling there's a fresh, self-evident air of cleanliness. "Bikram is about cleaning your body from the inside out—on a cellular level," Oliveira explaiend. "So it's important that our place reflect the same cleanliness."
That's a great thing, considering my biggest fear (other than a heat stroke) was what all the inevitable sweat might smell like. Oliveira showed me the innovative solution they use called P.E.M., a poly-extruded matting (that looks a little like angel hair pasta) originally designed for boats that lays atop a linoleum floor—both of which are regularly and vigorously cleaned.
But why intentionally induce extra sweat in the first place? Oliveira explained that heat is what makes Bikram unique, one benefit being it warms your muscles and prevents injury. He said that since our bodies are made up of mostly water, it's logical to cycle it through by the natural process of sweating. "It also stimulates the organs, glands and nerves and moves fresh, oxygenated blood throughout the entire body."
Every Bikram class is standardized (not just at their studio, but anywhere in the world), so you endure the same process no matter where or when you go to practice. Each of the 26 poses is done twice and concludes with a minute of Lamaze-esque exhalations called the "Breath of Fire." For me, the first half with standing poses like Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada Paschimotthanasana—which, among other things, is supposed to be good for "psychotic depressions" and "abdominal obesity"—were the hardest (go figure). My head spun, my knees quaked and everything hurt from the arches of my feet to my eyeballs.
You're supposed to keep your eyes open, but that was the hardest part. I couldn't help but close them every time I thought I was going to tip over, but the class's teacher—a cool gal named Joy who told me she broke her neck in a car accident and in just a few short years since discovering Bikram went from immobile to instructor—would gently remind me to keep them open so as to stay engaged. "You might feel dizzy, you might feel nauseous—that's OK," Joy said. And sure enough, when I stuck to it, I could do it. My eyes uncrossed, my knees steadied, and I focused past the discomfort.
Afterward, it was weird. I was exhausted but exhilarated. I was drenched in sweat but felt clean. I felt like dying and yet hadn't felt that alive in a long time. And weirder still, I no longer felt a master of my so-called Marlboro mudra. Because no way in hell was I going to negate 90 minutes of self-inflicted pain for a three-minute cancer stick (I managed to hold out until the next morning).
OK, so I'm not kicking my old bad habits just yet. But I think I may have found a new bad-ass habit worth sticking to.
SCENT FROM ABOVE
Most days, I'm one deep breath away from a panic attack. One recent evening was especially bad—my nerves were held together by spit and coffee; a sneeze would have painted me across Paia Corner. Stepping into Agua de Flora (aguadeflora.com) changed all that.
The interior is somewhere between a mad scientist's lab and a Victorian-style boudoir. The tables are covered with intricate glasswork, the kind artisans sell their souls to some shadowy god to make. Stored within the glass are amber gold liquids peeking through antique-looking labels. But before I get ahead of myself with, ahem, flowery imagery, let me explain a little about Agua de Flora and what a "scent portrait" is.
Usually, I go to department stores vainly trying to identify the notes within the complicated packaging. Is that ode to alcohol? Maybe sassy synthetic? I can't even make it through a perfume department without my brain pounding against my skull, in protest against olfactory overload. At Agua de Flora, each scent was clear and distinct. To smell a vial of cinnamon was to have its sharp bite on my tongue. If you get the slightest bit dizzy, it's with excitement.
Agua de Flora uses hydro-distillations and hydrosols to create their one-of-a-kind perfume, incorporating fair trade and organic agriculture. Their specific distillation process—created by the world-renowned Jack Chaitman—uses pure silica glass stills and water as the only solvent. By using hydrosols, the materials more readily retain their individual scents and healing properties. All products sold at Agua de Flora use hydrosols and shun synthetic fillers for natural ingredients such as beeswax and jojoba oil. The result is scent portraits, or customized perfume, that cater to your preferences. The evening I visited, co-owner Ashana Sophia Morrow helped create my soon-to-be signature scent.
Morrow has smell down to a science, but expresses it like an artist. Growing up on an organic farm in Massachusetts, her love affair with fragrance blossomed as she travelled the world and was mentored by Christa Obuchowski, the mastermind behind much of Agua de Flora's perfumes. Morrow's education in scent is far from over—she says she continues to learn something new every day. She also works with Ryan Hornbeck, a devoted bodyworker, who uses distillations and oils in his healing sessions.
Perfumery, as described by Morrow, is a combination of alchemy, music, cooking and unadulterated joy. Each component is considered on its own, but also in conjunction with others. A single note is just one part of a labyrinthine whole and with expertise and perhaps a little luck, they work together to create a complex harmony.
With Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background, and the drone of Paia traffic outside, I tentatively began my scent exploration. Prior to the session, Morrow asked about smells I prefer, my background and even my diet. This narrowed down the selections, as well as tailored the scent. On a wooden table, Morrow laid out 30 or so glass vials, with their labels facing away from me so I wouldn't have any pre-conceived notions about a scent before I experienced it. This was especially the case when I smelled a rich, almost musky and definitely spicy aroma—which turned out to be vintage patchouli. "Patchouli is misunderstood," Morrow explained.
She spoke of each scent like a good friend, explaining history and medicinal purposes, reading brief excerpts, saying which scents would complement or overpower one another and helping me identify subtle differences. An orange is just an orange, right? With gentle encouragement, I was able to appreciate the surprising sweetness of bitter green orange, the richness of blood orange and the acridity of sweet orange.
Smell plays a huge role in our lives. Olfaction and emotion are both regulated by the limbic system, meaning smell can immediately induce memory or emotion recall. For example, the aroma of cloves, with its cloying sweetness, will forever remind me of pretentious hipsters. In contrast, when I sniffed a vial of vanilla, I nearly cried; to behold such a beautiful concentration was the closest I'll be to heaven. I remembered the feeling of falling in love and old adventures. A deluge of memories came to me as I sniffed my way through the session, all the while whispering the promises of new ones.
It's important to recognize that a scent will smell different in the bottle than it does on your skin; perfumes react to temperature and body chemistry. And over time, a scent blooms and matures. My own portrait (which I am tentatively calling Eau de Awesome), smells of cinnamon in the bottle. When applied to the skin, notes of sandalwood join the chorus. Given time, the woodwinds of citrus appear with the steady percussion of vanilla. Faintly, you can catch touches of vetiver and magnolia.
By the time I finished my 90-minute session, my whole mood had changed. I felt new, uplifted and ready to face the world. I left Agua de Flora smiling, almost giggling, and erratically smelling myself. Being Paia, it meant I blended seamlessly with the regular crowd. Except, of course, I smelled amazing.
RIDING THE MACRO WAVE
I like to think of macrobiotic cuisine in radical terms—as a way to shrug off the pressure of the corporate food structure. So much of what we eat is controlled: by the government, by convenience, by mass production. Really, macrobiotics is more of a philosophy than a diet, but the idea—basically vegetarianism with a twist—is said to deliver serious health benefits.
Strolling through a modern supermarket, it quickly becomes apparent that Americans prefer scientists to chefs and cooks. Pre-packaged, artificial food is everywhere, drowning out simple ingredients like beans, whole grains and fresh vegetables. It boiled down to a simple question: do you want to eat something created in a lab, or grown and prepared by human hands? Given how many people answer the former, it's no wonder we struggle with health issues like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
It all makes sense—but can I get off the white bread? Has my palate been permanently damaged by hot dogs and canned green beans? To get an answer, I delved deeper into the idea of macrobiotics and consuming what farmers grow locally, exchanging bad eating habits for good ones.
Chef Leslie Ashburn, a macrobiotic chef and educator on Oahu, calls it, simply, "a whole-foods, plant-based diet" that "will help support local farmers, build the economy and protect the environment." And, Ashburn adds, it can save you money, too—even if the food is a tad more expensive. "Our financial resources are often diverted to purchasing stimulants, depressants, sleeping pills, pain killers and medications to alleviate the symptoms from an unhealthy diet," she says.
I first heard of macrobiotics when a family member came down with cancer and it was suggested as part of the treatment. Macrobiotic followers are thought of as practitioners, almost like a religion, more than just a group of people with similar eating habits.
Though it was refined by the Japanese, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates is credited as the first to use the word "macrobiotics," stemming from makro meaning large, great or long, and bios meaning life. And the diet centers on one of his more famous quotes: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food."
The basic rules of thumb are to eat locally, seasonally and organically and to include fermented foods. Michael Pollan, author of many books on eating, adds a wrinkle in his Six Rules for Eating Wisely: "Don't eat anything your great great great great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." Pollan also advocates shopping at farmers markets.
Eating seasonally means knowing what fruits and vegetables are in season where you live, an art long forgotten in this age of refrigerated shipping containers. According to the Hawaii Seasonality Chart, right now we have avocado, citrus, rambutan and strawberries as well as cabbage, corn, sweet potato, sprouts and mushrooms. Seems like plenty to work with.
It can also mean eating with the seasons. In the winter, soups, stews and warm dishes are what the body needs, even here in Hawaii where the weather changes subtly. In the spring and summer lighter, cooler and raw foods are recommended.
"The key to eating well is taking what you like and making it into a healthier version," says Chef Ashburn. "There are no rules for what you can and can't eat." She says eating meat—or not—is a personal decision, but "there are recommendations based on current research related to how animal food is more frequently linked with illness."
Baby steps: I wanted to try just one day of purely macrobiotic eating. Ashburn suggested a breakfast of sprouted grain English muffins with scrambled tofu and fruit jam. Lunch possibilities were falafel in whole wheat pita or udon with tofu and green salad. Dinner was French white bean stew, sweet potato salad and artisan bread. The surprise was the chocolate cake. Sweets made with natural ingredients are not shunned, but rather eaten sparingly.
Far from intimidating me, that list of options made my mouth water. I won't promise I'll never eat another packaged potato chip, but if I am what I eat, I think I want to be more like a macrobiotic practitioner.
When it comes to getting healthy, there's few steps you can take that are as effective and immediate as tossing your cigarettes in the trash. But don't fret, this won't be a finger-pointing, holier-than-thou lecture about the harmful effects of smoking—you're already well aware of those.
And, if you've ever tried to quit, you're probably also aware of the fact that none of the so-called "substitutes" are anything close to the real deal. Enter the electronic cigarette, a battery-operated device filled with liquid nicotine that mimics the physical and tactile sensations of smoking, without the tar or carbon monoxide. The buzz on e-cigs is spreading rapidly across the globe, and for good reason. Many people who try the device say it's an effective quitting tool—and actually manages to replicate the pleasure of taking a smoke break.
Makers of the products claim that there are no carcinogens in the e-cig, compared to the traditional cigarette, which carries roughly 4,000 chemicals. Instead, it uses ingredients like Propylene glycol (also known as vegetable glycerin), which is FDA approved and commonly used as a food additive, as well as water, nicotine, a scent that emulates real cigarette flavor and a membrane to suspend the ingredients.
Meanwhile, reports released by the FDA state that some electronic cigarettes do contain carcinogenic ingredients like diethylene glycol, the poisonous compound found in antifreeze. As with any product, do you own research and contact the makers directly to see which ingredients are being used in their products.
Most e-cigs have a 2 to 3 piece design: a filter cartridge with a tiny plastic piece inside that holds a cotton-like sponge with the liquid nicotine solution, an atomizer unit that the filter cartridge slides onto, a rechargeable battery and charger. The atomizing chamber is the part that creates a vapor-like smoke, just like a real cigarette though not nearly as smelly or invasive to those around you. There's even an LED at the tip that glows when inhaling.
The starter kits typically include 5-10 refillable cartridges with varying levels of nicotine, from 24 mg (more than double what's in the average cigarette) to zero mg (for when you're really over the addiction and just want the habit).
Now let's cut through to chase—you want to know if this new gadget really mimics the taste and feel of a cool menthol, rodeo Red or a hippie Spirit? First, unlike nicotine patches and gum, electronic cigarettes are designed to be fun, as evidenced by the range of favors: coffee, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, menthol and absolute tobacco. Everyone's experience will be different, but many smokers say it's a remarkable approximation.
One local resident, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke about her experience with the e-cig and how it led her to quit a 10 year nicotine addiction—in a matter of months. "I loved the warm sensation, oral stimulation and ritualistic comfort the electronic cigarette offered me," she said. "I didn't enjoy it as much as the real thing, but it satisfied me enough to keep me away from the real thing—until I lost my drive to smoke altogether."
There are hundreds of online retailers carrying the product, with prices ranging from $60 to $240. And there's a store in the Queen Kaahumanu Center in Kahului called Dream Electronic Cigarettes that offers basic starter sets for $85. Instead of refillable cartridges, they offer 10 ML bottles of VJuice.
The VJuice come in a variety of flavors including cotton candy, bubble gum and, for the tough guys, Camel and Marlboro. They charge $15 per bottle, which should last 2 weeks for the heavier smoker—equivalent to two-and-a-half cartons of cigarettes. And that can add up to health in another important place—your wallet.
"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast." - Oscar Wilde
Dear Benjamin Franklin, with his infamous dictum "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," branded the night owl—the other half of the circadian lifestyle—as somehow guilty of moral incertitude.
However, if you want sanity in your life, know who you are as a sleeper—a lark or an owl—and simply accept your nocturnal biology and that of your partner. Leave the moral-indulgency clause alone.
Larks (those who spring from bed in the early ayem with rabid enthusiasm) often do feel morally superior to owls (late-nighters who burn energy into wee hours and are asleep when the roosters crow). But research suggests genetics may have a good deal to do with it.
Stanford University sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot theorizes that a mutation on chromosome 4—the "clock" gene—plays a big role in your preference for morning or evening life. Larks may seem gruesomely alert and perky at unconscionable hours, and owls seem moody, a bit lazy and rhythmically off balance, but neither is really true.
He says both larks and owls show a normal circadian rhythm, but their cycles differ, with owls' cycles peaking about 2 hours later than larks'. This difference occurs in all physical cycles, including the daily rise and fall of body temperature and the increase and decrease in various hormones. It's simply biology.
According to Michael Smolensky, Ph.D. and Lynne Lamber, authors of The Body Clock, Larks and Owls report the following in terms of alter-ness, productivity, mood, temperature, sleep and wake patterns, etc. Look and see where you may fall:
[Larks to left / Owls to right]
Most Alert: Noon/ 6pm
Most productive: Late morning/Late morning, and late evening
Most active: Around 2:30pm/Around 5:30pm
Best mood: Between 9am and 4pm/Steady rise from about 8am-10pm
Temperature highest: Around 3:30pm/Around 8pm
Age: Most persons over age 60/Most college students and 20-somethings
Bedtime: Go to bed 2 hours earlier than owls; fall asleep faster/More variable bedtimes; stay up later on weekends and holidays
Wake time: Awaken at desired time/Awaken about same time as larks on workdays, 1-2 hours later on days off
Use of alarm clock: Don't need it/Need multiple alarms
Temperature lowest: Around 3:30am/Around 6am
Quality of sleep: Lifelong, sleep more soundly; wake up more refreshed, usually 3.4 hours after temperature minimum, daily low point on body clock/Lifelong: get less sleep; wake up sleepier, usually 2.5 hours after temperature minimum
Nap: Rarely take more and longer naps/ fall asleep more easily in daytime
Mid-sleep time: Around 3:30am/Around 6am
Favorite exercise time: Morning/Evening
Peak heart rate: Around 11am/Around 6pm
Lowest heart rate: Around 3am/Around 7am
Mood: Mood declines slightly over day/Mood rises substantially over day
Morning behavior: Chatty/Bearish
Evening behavior: Out of steam/Full of energy
Meal times: Eat breakfast 1-2 hours earlier than owls/Often skip breakfast; eat other meals at same times as larks on work days, 90 minutes later on days off
Favorite meal: Breakfast/Dinner
Daily caffeine use: Cups/Pots
Shift work adaptability: Work best on day shifts/Work best on evening shifts; tolerate night and rotating shift work better
Travel: More jet lag/Adapt faster to time zone changes, particularly going west
Peak melatonin secretion: About 3:30am/About 5:30am
Either way, whether lark or owl, you will still need the similar required amount of sleep—about seven to eight hours. And if you try to push yourself too hard against your nature (getting up early for owls, staying up late for larks), you won't be well-rested even with that number, say sleep experts.
If you must make an adjustment, experts say what will help are tricks that reset the biological clock as when trying to counter jet-lag: get outside in the sunlight early after awakening; have a warm breakfast (a meal many owls skip) and exercise earlier in the day rather than later in the afternoon or evening.
It's best, of course, if partners are paired alike—two larks or two owls—because they innately understand each other's rhythms. But if you're not, the best course of action is to stop judging, being irritated by it, feeling or dispensing guilt—and, most important, trying to alter yourself. This last activity causes much useless stress.
Of course, if you're an owl and must wake early for work, you can, as mentioned above, accustom yourself to the circadian change. But if you still don't spring as peppy as other 5am'ers, even after years of trying, accept that it's just fine. (It's interesting; few larks ever feel the need to work themselves over into night owls.) Accept that your partner is just fine the way they are, too.
I know this one through experience. I am without a doubt a night owl; my mother, the ultimate lark. All during my school years I suffered in stunned silence as my mother would enter my room, fling open the drapes, and shout, "Good morning! Isn't it a beautiful day!" after having walked several miles, made breakfast and had hours of productivity.
She'd regale me with stories from all the other larks she gabbed with on her walk. Unconscious, I'd hide until she shut the door. Why? Probably because I believed larkishness was better than owlishness, and who was I not to be taught this lesson? That all changed when I got to college and learned the art of late to bed, late to rise makes a wise woman whatever she wants.
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