Attitude of Gratitude

leaves that look like heartsHappy Thanksgiving to you!

I have chosen to stay away from social media today as a way to enhance my mindfulness practice and focus on gratitude. But I wanted to say a quick hello.

There’s so much to talk about at Thanksgiving time: food, eating habits, family, and even politics (I urge you to check out this thoughtful post from Desire Yoga that manages to tie in the troubling events in Ferguson, MO with the themes of Thanksgiving and yoga).

However, all I want to do today is to repeat to you what my favorite doorman, Carlos, shared with me last night, after I asked what he’d be doing for Thanksgiving.

Carlos smiled and said, “Every day is Thanksgiving.”

Rock on, Carlos.

May you all have a mindful evening filled with gratitude. And may you continue to live in this rich spirit of thanks tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that…

 

 

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Get Grounded

Stand up and energetically plant your feet down into the floor beneath you. Close your eyes and try to feel all “four corners” of each foot: the ball of the foot on the big toe side and the pinky toe side, the inner and outer edges of the back heel. Now take a step — very slowly — while keeping your attention on the soles of your feet. Now take another. And another. Very slowly and deliberately, feel each foot planting into the earth.

Maybe speed it up. Can you maintain your focus even at a quick clip?

The average person walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps a day. That’s three to four thousand opportunities to mindfully connect your body to the earth and get grounded, every single day.

Check out this affirmation by JoyThruYoga.com about planting down, getting grounded, and feeling all the good stuff:

I am grounded | MIndBodyPlate

My Lips are Sealed

my lips are sealed | MindBodyPlateI’ve been running in the mornings with my husband, and I’m trying something new. I’m trying not to breathe through my mouth.

Come again?

I’m trying not to breathe through my mouth. In fact, I’m attempting to sustain my morning runs breathing in and out through my nose and my nose alone.

Specifically, I’m utilizing a style of nasal breathing called ujjayi pranayama or ‘victorious breathing’, a slow and controlled style of yogic breathing which produces oceanic (or Darth Vader-like) sounds due to a slight constriction of the throat. Why? Well, it’s an experiment.

It’s based on some research I heard about, research conducted by Ayurvedic physician Dr. John Douillard in his book Body, Mind & Sport: the Mind Body Guide to Lifelong Fitness and Your Personal Best.

Basically, when you participate in strenuous exercise and start huffing and puffing through your mouth, your brain recognizes it as the same kind of breathing you do when you get surprised, or stressed… or scared. And it registers that you might just have a reason to be stressed or scared.

running huffing and puffing | MindBodyPlateNasal breathing, on the other hand, allows for deeper diaphragmatic breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — in other words, breathing through your nose makes you feel less stressed. It lowers cortisol levels. It sets you up for ‘rest and digest’.

And I want the very act of running to feel relaxing to me. I never want running to feel any more strenuous than a few sun salutations. I don’t want any small part of my subconscious to think that there’s something wrong when I hit the pavement at 6:45 AM every morning, that I’m running from something, that there’s an emergency. Because ultimately I think that will sabotage my goals. In some small way, I think it will set my mind against doing it.

When I was a kid, and let’s face it, pretty much up until the age of 25 or so, I hated running. And it wasn’t just because my cheeks turned a particularly Irish shade of beet red when I exerted myself. It was because it felt awful.

And I think it felt awful because it was something I just didn’t do on a regular basis. I rarely ran for fun, let alone for relaxation, and then all of a sudden, my PE teacher would bark out orders to run a mile, and my body was like, exsqueeze me? So infrequently was I asked to run, that whenever I did it felt like torture. My body wasn’t prepared for it, so it felt like death.

And the more I came to associate running with, you know, feeling like death, the more my distaste for it grew.

I’m trying to rewire that distaste. I won’t settle for just feeling proud because I pushed myself to run and I did — I want to want to run, because it feels good. I want every cell of my body to feel joyous when I run, so for now I’m breathing through my nose.

Now I can’t run as far or as fast when I keep my lips sealed, but I know that’s not permanent. My endurance will get stronger and stronger. Two years ago I ran a 10k, achieving something I never thought I would or could do, and it was a very proud moment for me. My next goal is to run a 10k while breathing through my nose.

breathe deeply kitty | MindBodyPlate

So if you’re not a runner, or even an aspiring runner (which is okay, by the way), how does this all apply to you?

Start paying attention to the way you’re breathing when you engage in any kind of activity. Even just walking to the car or the subway. If you find that you’re taking shallow, non-diaphragmatic breaths, or even holding your breath, you’re not alone; it’s pretty common. Spend some time thinking about the subconscious messages that kind of breath could be sending to your brain.

Imagine the deep, slow, relaxed and luxurious breaths you take when you’re, I dunno… getting a massage. What would it be like to breathe like that throughout the day? Or while you were exercising?

I’m interested to hear from my more experienced runner friends. Do you have a pattern of breathing or an approach to breathing that makes your experience more enjoyable or otherwise fruitful? Can’t wait to hear about what works for you!

T is for Thinking (That’s Good Enough for Me)

Do you ever think about how you think?

This is the topic explored by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his New York Times Bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, Kahneman illustrates that we have two distinct systems responsible for the way we think: System 1 is quick, intuitive, and often emotional; System 2 moves more slowly – it requires deliberate effort and is more logical.

When a drug addled homeless guy bum rushes you out of nowhere with hands outstretched towards your boobs and in a split second you somehow dart out of the way just in time without getting hit by a yellow cab – that’s System 1 in action. When I ask you to multiply 137 and 14 right now in your head – that’s System 2. Got it?

Encre L. Marquet Ad by Eugène Grasset

Encre L. Marquet Ad by Eugène Grasset

The answer’s 1,918, if you’re interested.

So it turns out that when the deliberative System 2 is busy, the impulsive System 1 has more of an influence on behavior than it might otherwise. In fact, a slew of psychological studies illustrate that when people are preoccupied with a “demanding cognitive task” they become more susceptible to temptation. Kahneman explains,

“Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority. While your attention is focused on the digits, you are offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and a virtuous fruit salad. The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits. System 1 has more influence on behavior when System 2 is busy, and it has a sweet tooth.”

So why is this important?

Because it illustrates precisely why we tend to make poor food choices when we’re overtaxed and why relaxed mindfulness can help us make better choices in order to maintain a healthy weight.

Making positive choices for your body and mind requires mental effort, and those efforts can be easily thwarted when your brain is preoccupied with other demanding cognitive tasks. One of the ways we can override that tendency is by pausing to take stock of our present reality. When we do, we make sure that our impulsive System 1 doesn’t run off to the races (with an entire cookie jar).

columboSo how about a real life scenario: here I am sitting at my desk trying to finish this blog post. I’m struggling a bit, because now I’m at the part in the blog where I have to make a cogent point and wrap it up nicely. I can tell that it’s asking a lot of my System 2, the part of my brain that requires deliberate effort. Not coincidentally, I can’t stop thinking about the Kale Oatmeal Raisin Cookie in my purse across the room (you guys, it’s actually sinfully good). See, while System 2 is preoccupied with this damn post, my instinctual lizard-brain (System 1) is like, “I’m sooooo tired and annoyed at all of this thinking. I need some quick energy. Yeah, something sweet would be just purrrfect. K thx.” And I’m not gonna lie: that voice is making a TON of sense right now.

But if I push back from the computer screen for a moment, if I set up my meditation bench and come back to myself, if I just breathe and take stock of my present reality and needs… I may give my System 2 a chance to speak up and offer its two cents. And it may say something like this:

“Hey SKF, I know that cookie sounds really good right now, but you just finished a big lunch of red quinoa, braised purple cabbage, garlic roasted tomatoes, hard boiled egg, and pumpkin seeds. It was such a delicious meal, and it was really filling! Actually, you don’t feel all that hungry right now. But you probably will in 3 hours or so! And won’t that be a lovely time to enjoy your cookie?”

OMG you’re totally right, System 2! I’m not even that hungry, not really. But I was getting kind of overstimulated finishing that blog. I’m so glad I took some time to relax and recharge!

What a paradox that mental health involves so much talking to yourself like a crazy person.

The takeaway, I think, is that this ‘two systems’ knowledge can help us identify why we’re having certain cravings at certain times. And the more we understand our cravings, the more agency we wield in our food choices.

talking to yourself like a crazy person | MindBodyPlateAnd guys, I’m literally only 10% done with this book. Hopefully, there will be some more MBP-worthy gems to share in the future. Yay!

Whatever you do, don’t try to meditate

Have you ever taken time to meditate or sit quietly in the hopes that it would help you through a stressful time, only to find yourself even more wound up afterword? What went wrong?

Or how about this: have you ever said something along the lines of, “I’d love to meditate more often, but I’m just so bad at it. I can’t get my mind to stop thinking about things!”?

buddha statue - MindBodyPlate

Well, I’ve been reading an excellent translation the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali by Chip Hartranft, and he has something to say about the process of stilling the mind that I think addresses some of these meditation issues pretty well.

Hartranft tells us that, “as we sit in stillness – meditation – we inevitably find ourselves struggling to acquire more power over some aspect of our lives. Without necessarily knowing it, we are trying to feel happy or to conquer a physical or emotional problem or to become more attractive to others or simply to do a better job of meditating than we did last time. Each of these types of effort arises from attachment to previous thoughts or actions. Even our desire to let go of all this is mired in concepts about what letting go should feel like or what it might bring us.”

In other words, it’s natural for us to get somewhat tangled when we attempt to still our mind, because the very act of trying to still the mind is – paradoxically – the opposite of stilling the mind.

So what the heck are you supposed to do when you meditate, then? I mean, if you can’t try to still the mind and the mind is going crazy, with thoughts zigzagging across your consciousness like a bad laser show, what then?

Luckily, Hartranft doesn’t leave us hanging.

He explains that “exerting the will to arrest or blockade thought… [is] unlikely to succeed though certain to perpetuate suffering.” Instead, he says, one should try “repeatedly relaxing back to the ever present object. Concentration (dhāraṇā) builds spontaneously as the yogi softens and opens to experience, not through steely attempts at mind control.”

Did you catch that? When we meditate, our aim isn’t to do anything at all; our aim is to relax into the present moment, to stay soft, and to open to experience

That means just noticing those thoughts as they ping pong inside your head – just noticing them: hm, isn’t that interesting. That means giving yourself space to be “not good” at meditating. That means accepting that there is nothing wrong with whatever you are experiencing at this very moment.  And again in this new moment. And again in this one. And again and again.

Not so intimidating after all, when you break it down like that.

So, whaddya say? You up for 5 minutes? xo

I don’t believe in portion control

That’s right – I don’t believe in portion control.

Now hold on a second, don’t go running to the Cheesecake Factory just yet. I’m certainly not saying we should consume volumes of food irrespective of our dietary needs, it’s just that I’ve got a bone to pick with the concept.

throw away your food scales - MindBodyPlate

Abandoned food scales.

It’s the phrase that gets under my skin, more than anything: portion… control.

To suggest that a person practice portion control infers that they are inherently out of control and in need of some external constraint. As if, left to their own devices, they would inevitably gorge themselves to death. As if they would be foolish to trust themselves.

The irony is, the more stringent we are with imposing these external constraints, these portion controls, the more likely we are to binge uncontrollably. It’s as if the approach itself has some sort of sinister boomerang effect. The more you think you need portion control, and the more you try to wield it, the more likely you are to need it.

Why is this? A big part of it, I believe, is that forced restriction separates us even further from the possibility of intuitive eating in a culture where we are already so desensitized to our hunger and satiety cues.

Now for those suffering from food addiction, it may be the case that externally imposed restrictions serve as helpful training wheels, for a time. But sooner or later, if you really wanna feel the wind in your hair, you gotta take off those training wheels and trust that you’re not going to fall. I’m not saying this will be easy, by any means. Cultivating a relationship with your intuitive appetite is just like any new relationship: exhilarating, frightening, confusing, and requiring time, attention, and serious commitment.

But it’s easy enough to begin. Start with making a habit of checking in with yourself every few minutes before, during, and after you eat. That’s all – just check in. And once you’ve become accustomed to making that kind of space, you can start to ask yourself more specific questions.

For instance, “How hungry am I on a scale of 0-10, with zero being not hungry at all and ten being starving?” You might even practice getting curious about what kind of hunger you are experiencing (Physical? Emotional?) or what it is specifically that you’re hungry for ( Lasagna? A hug?).

And while hunger and fullness seem to be on opposite sides of the same spectrum, they most certainly are not. Though their interplay suggests otherwise, they exist on two different spectrums entirely. You can be physically full but still hungry for more, not very full but lacking in appetite. And therefore, you must also ask yourself, “How full am I on a scale of 0-10, with zero being not full at all and 10 being uncomfortably full?”

Hunger Fullness Scale - MindBodyPlateAnd you must keep checking in with these questions, not just before you chow down, but also after the first few bites, and again after the next few, and again and again. What seems tedious at first will, over time, become more second nature as you build a bridge toward intuitive eating.

“That’s a lot of work,” you may be thinking, and you’re absolutely right. I’ll probably continue to work on it for the rest of my life. But if you can learn to tap in to the inherent wisdom of your body, to its highly tuned sense of exactly what and how much it needs to stay in balance, you’ll never have to diet, restrict, or use “portion control” ever again. And that seems well worth the effort.

 

Recession-proof Self-Care

If you’ve known me for long enough, you’re aware that I have one very concrete goal in life: weekly massage. When the day comes that I can afford to hit up my local spa every Sunday for 90 minutes of essential-oil-infused, deep-tissue bliss, I’ll know I’ve really made it.

Unfortunately, now is not that time. Every few weeks I can maybe manage one of those 5 minute neck rubs at the noxious smelling nail salon, but other than that, I just don’t have it in the budget.

One of my go-to excuses when I’m stuck in a self-pitying funk is that it’s just too expensive to practice self-care. I mean, when I think of the things that make me feel relaxed and happy, my mind goes straight to massage and shopping for new clothes. Or shoes. Or anything offered at Anthropologie.

But that’s a croc! I mean, it really is just an excuse. It’s me being too lazy to come up with more affordable, more readily available self-care activities. The great news is, there are so many ideas that fit this bill. So I’ve started a running list of self-care ideas that I keep on my cellphone. That way, when start to feel dark and stormy, I have an abundance of strategies right at my fingertips to help me see the light.

Creative self-care: makeup play time!

One of my favorite ways to practice self-care is to bust out my old art bin filled with a makeup collection several years strong (a lifetime ago, I was on my way to becoming a makeup artist). I take a seat at my heirloom vanity, where I imagine my grandmother sat and looked at herself many times before, and I just… start to play. The key here is that I’m not getting ready to go anywhere – no one may see the final product, and no one needs to. It’s just me and my brushes as I start to paint, using my face as the palette. Sometimes, makeup play time turns into imaginary photo-shoot time, wherein I take a few selfies and tinker with them in a photo-editing program. When it’s time to take the makeup off, I mindfully massage coconut oil into my skin (it’s a great makeup remover), and then wipe it all away with a warm washcloth, moving gently over my face and décolletage with a great deal of care.

So that’s my makeup play time idea. True, it’s a little image-centric, so it might not work for all people or all moods; but the point is, it’s totally free. You don’t even have to leave the house!

I have a client who told me that nothing feels as good as changing the sheets on her bed. “It takes a little bit of effort,” she explained, “but when it’s done, and I snuggle into those crisp, clean, new sheets…” She paused. “I feel like I’m in heaven.” This absolutely blew me away. What a totally creative idea for self-care! And most of us think of changing our bed sheets as a chore. I left that session realizing that my options for creative self-care were truly infinite.

Other affordable self-care ideas include:

  • Create a friendship pyramid. Though I’m fairly certain this idea originated as a social skills worksheet for the special ed classroom, I think it’s a fab idea for us all. Grab some paper and a pencil and start filing in your friendship pyramid as a reminder that you are surrounded and supported by loved ones, friends, family, and community.
  • Make some music. Pick up that dusty guitar, plug in the ol’ keyboard, grab the nearest kazoo or even a red solo cup, and start making noise. The key here is that there are no expectations. Open your mouth and see what comes out! Express yo-self.
  • Give yourself a non-manicure. Listen to some soothing tunes while you remove any chipped polish, clip, file, and buff your nails. Next, add a few drops of essential oil to a big bowl of warm water and soak your hands for a few minutes – dare to get pruny. Afterwards, slowly and methodically massage an oil of your choice into your fingertips and cuticle beds. Take your time with this. Hell, massage all the knuckles as well. You can do this anywhere, and it feels amazing. When you’re all done, wipe away the oil with a warm washcloth and thank your hands for all of the amazing work they do.
  • Pick up an affordable hobby. One that has nothing to do with your job or any other pursuit that makes you feel stressed. Something that’s yours alone. Years ago, before I started this blog, I began tinkering with photo-editing programs and became somewhat of a graphic design enthusiast. It felt totally enriching and really helped me to zen-out. Now, of course, that passion has become a part of what I do here at MindBodyPlate, so on to something new… perhaps I’ll teach myself to knit!
  • Fall down the inspirational quote rabbit hole. Go ahead and Google the term inspirational quote. Oh, just do it. Click on something – anything – and start reading. Found one that you really like? Copy the name of whoever said it, and next, do a Google search for all of their quotes! You can go on and on like this. As long as you watch your posture and jaw tension while you’re parked in front of the computer screen, this free activity can be absolutely invigorating and uplifting.
  • Massage your face. The first time I pressed my fingertips into my cheeks and jaw line, it was a revelation. The human face has at least 42 different muscles, and they get used all day long! For most of us, facial tension is at an all-time high, and a little bit of love up there can go a long way. There are a multitude of tips and how-tos for facial self-massage online, but you needn’t even look at them. Just wash your hands and start poking around. What feels good? What doesn’t? What feels not-so-good but it’s probably just because of major tension so you should keep going anyway? Play with different strokes, different rhythms, using different parts of the hand. Use oil or don’t. Whatever anxiety you may have about clogging your pores will be vastly overshadowed by how amazing you feel afterward. I’m telling you – don’t hesitate. Try it today!

Do you have any recession-proof ideas for self-care? Let me know what works for you. Let’s start a virtual database of easy self-care ideas!

MBP Daily Three: When Your Lucky Underpants Don’t Help

MBP3 IS A SERIES DEDICATED TO WALKING THE WALK. WHAT ARE 3 THINGS YOU’VE DONE TODAY TO NOURISH YOUR MIND, YOUR BODY, & YOUR PLATE?
calvin and hobbes lucky rocket ship underpants

From Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Woof. Some days, you’re just so, totally down in the dumps. I knew a girl who called it “going to her dark place.” Luckily, the MBP Daily Three is a tool you can use to pave the way toward a better tomorrow, no matter how you feel today. It’s easy to remember: just check off one thing you’ve done today to nourish your mental health, your physical health, and your nutritional health (mind, body, and plate). The MBP3 might not turn your whole day around, but a little bit of self-care today may do a great deal of good in the long run.

Body: My handsome, bearded husband took the day off for a doctor appointment. Though he practically had to drag me out of the house, we ended up going for a short run through the neighborhood together. My brain was doing this weird thing where I thought if I couldn’t go run a 10k, then I shouldn’t run at all (being a perfectionist is really special sometimes). In the end, I just had to strong arm my way through that resistance and get out there. And don’t think I forget for one second how lucky I am to have a partner who can kindly nudge me in the right direction when I’m getting in my own way.

Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista

Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista

Mind: Our new neighborhood in Brooklyn is home to this cool little business called Sycamore Bar & Flower Shop. It’s, well… a bar attached to a flower shop. They’ve got all kinds of beautiful moss and ivy creations hanging in glass terrariums in the windows, along with gorgeous and unique flowers littering the mason-jar-filled space. After our run, we stepped inside just to have a look around. There was something about taking in the delicate beauty of some of those little succulents and air plants that demanded mindfulness. And practicing mindfulness helped lift my mood. Maybe we just ducked into a little bar and flower shop, but in some way it felt like a tiny trip to some sort of Midsummer Night’s fairyland, and it shook up my day in just the right way. It’s interesting how the smallest things can affect one’s perspective.

Plate: Finally, we stopped at the health food store, and I pulled up a recipe for red lentil coconut soup that I’ve been eyeing on Pinterest for a while. I took my time perusing the store, an enjoyable pastime for me in itself, and gathered the ingredients to make the dish. The truth is, I may not even make it tonight; I may just not have it in me. But I’ll be able to make it tomorrow. And somehow, just knowing that I have all of the ingredients to make such a rich and healthy meal makes me feel more at ease.  No matter what happens, I know I have some rewarding nourishment coming my way.

Will you tackle your MBP Daily Three even when it seems like a futile undertaking? Who are the people in your life you can turn to for a gentle nudge in the right direction? Let me know in the comments below, and have a lucky rocketship underpants kind of day.

The Pendulum Effect

Foucault pendulum hanging in Milan’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy of Ben Ostrowsky.

Foucault pendulum hanging in Milan’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy of Ben Ostrowsky.

I find myself talking about pendulums pretty frequently. Why pendulums? That Foucault could use one to demonstrate the earth’s rotation is pretty cool, but I usually reference them because they serve as the perfect metaphor for so much of what I talk about with my clients. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton was talking about the physical laws of motion, but I find it interesting to view our mental, behavioral, and even physical shifts through this same lens.

The universe is always seeking balance, often in ways beyond our control and outside our periphery.

When you pull a pendulum really far in one direction and let go, what happens? You can bet that it will swing really far back in the other direction. A big shift begets another big shift. And we can find this rule of balance playing out in our day to day (or month-to-month, as it were)…

A Tale of Two Months

February was an extremely stressful, obligation-filled month for me, jam-packed with intense emotional growth and periods of distressing uncertainty.

In 28 short days, I turned 30, celebrated my partner’s birthday, celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, juggled multiple jobs alongside 20 hours a week of yoga teacher training, hosted my parents during their visit from California, became a certified yoga teacher, braved the New York City rental market to find us a dream apartment (after our first one fell through), packed up our lives in boxes, moved to a whole new borough, and then unpacked those very same boxes, all amid freezing weather and one winter storm after another.

Needless to say, by the time March rolled around, I felt tired. In fact, I found myself struggling to stay motivated. Midway through the month, I even started to get a little down on myself. What was happening to me? Why did I feel so lazy? Then it hit me:

Well, DUH.

Of course I feel like I’m swimming upstream against a current of relentless lethargy. Of course it’s all I can do to go through the motions and cover the essentials. Of course all I want to do is eat and drink and enjoy the casual company of good friends. Of course my immune system is compromised. Of course I watched all three seasons of The Borgias in two weeks.

This is my body’s way of creating balance, of carving out a period of rest and recovery. This is my body’s response to February. This is the pendulum effect in action.

Macrobiotics* and the Yin-Yang of Food

Have you ever had too many salty foods in a short period of time and found yourself wrestling with intense cravings for sugar not long thereafter? This is your body seeking balance through appetite, and it’s a pretty obvious example of that pendulum swing.

Turns out, there’s an entire dietary approach that concerns itself with balancing the energies of food. The Macrobiotic diet pulls from ancient Chinese philosophy, asserting that every food item falls somewhere on a spectrum of energy, from yin to yang.

Different foods may be more yin (as in sugar) or yang (as in salt). Some foods exist near the extremities of this spectrum, containing high amounts of one kind of energy (red meat, for example, is strongly yang), while other foods fall towards the center and have a more balanced composition (leafy greens, for example, are faintly yin, and root veggies contain just a hint of yang).

yin yang food chart

Someone who follows a Macrobiotic diet seeks to balance out the yin and yang energies on their plate. The best way to do it? Not to swing the pendulum too far in either direction; in other words, to eschew the foods with extreme yin or yang energies, choosing instead those items which are relatively balanced: fruit, sea vegetables, leafy greens, round veggies, root veggies, beans, legumes, grains, and white-meat fish.

I don’t follow a strictly Macrobiotic Diet, but I do dig the idea of seeking harmony on my plate, and I definitely know what it’s like to experience a balance-seeking backlash in my relationship with food.

The Inevitable Backlash of Deprivation

According to researchers at UCLA, the average person who diets for six months will lose five to ten percent of their starting weight. Great! Except that’s not the whole story. Within five years, one-third to two-thirds of those who lost weight on a diet will regain more weight than they lost. There’s that pesky pendulum effect again.

Your body is a finely tuned, highly functioning machine, but it’s not always in cahoots with your intellect. For instance, when you decide to try that fashionable juice cleanse, your brain consciously acknowledges that you’ll be dramatically reducing your caloric intake for a short time. You’re fully aware that you’ll probably get a little hangry or euphoric, but that it’ll all be over in a matter of days. Everything will be fine! It’ll be more than fine – you’ll be glowing by the time you’re through!

But the thing is, your body doesn’t necessarily get the memo. As far as your body is concerned, you were going along fine, enjoying your abundant 21st century menu, when – all of a sudden – your caloric intake was cut in half, there’s no fiber coming in, what happened to the healthy fats, and ohmygod, this can only mean one thing: FAMINE!

Do you know how the human body responds to famine? To semi-starvation? It shuts down any nonessential activity to conserve energy. Immune function? Forget it. Reproductive capacity? As if – we can’t make a baby when there’s hardly enough fuel for one! Moreover, when your body is faced with semi-starvation your metabolic rate drops. It slows. And when you begin eating regularly again, it doesn’t necessarily speed back up. The pendulum has already swung to the other side.

Keep in mind that this juice cleanse example is a bit of an exaggeration. The effects of caloric deprivation take a few days at least to register in the body as an emergency situation. In fact, some research suggests that intermittent fasting may benefit overall health. But for chronic dieters or those suffering from eating disorders, this is no exaggeration.

I suffered from anorexia nervosa for a period of time around the age of 12, then began binging and purging a handful of years later. I had pulled the pendulum of deprivation to such an extreme, that by the time I was in college I felt helpless in the face of my compulsive urge to consume everything around me.

My particular brand of deprivation, so indicative of the “fat phobic 1990s”, was that I denied myself any form of the macro-nutrient fat. Many years later, a nutritional counselor asked me what type of food I binged on the most during my struggle with bulimia. “I don’t think there was one type,” I answered, “I feel like I binged on everything: ice cream, cheese, creamy pasta, doughnuts, pesto crepes, and peanut butter.” She stopped me. “Don’t you see? Those foods do have something in common: fat.” She was right. They were all foods high in fat. How’s that for a pendulum swing?

the cosmic pendulum

Not Quite Equilibrium

So how do we mitigate the destructive arc of the pendulum effect? How do we find balance in the areas of appetite, energy, and mood?

Well, let’s look to the metaphor for answers: a pendulum is never completely still. Even at rest, it is always moving, ever shifting, oscillating back and forth, but imperceptibly so. Just like the pendulum, we never seek to make our lives static, to be happy all the time, or relaxed all the time, or militantly controlling of our diets so they never stray from “perfect” equilibrium. We welcome these shifts, because they a part of being alive in a human body.

And yet, we wish to minimize the extreme swinging back and forth. Which is why we turn to mindfulness. The more in-tune we can become with the subtleties of our moods, patterns, and habits, the more likely we’ll be to notice a swing before it gets too extreme. And we can take a further cue from the Macrobiotic camp: if we aim to steer clear of extremes altogether, we automatically limit the extent to which those appetite, energy, and mood swings can get out of hand.

So let’s take another look at the way my February and March went down: what’s clear is that I have a tendency to push myself too hard until I reach a breaking point, at which time I go through a period of lethargic withdrawal. If I can integrate more mindfulness moving forward, perhaps by scheduling a 10 minute meditation break in the middle of every single work day (no matter how much there is to do), I’m less likely to burn out by the end of the week. And if I can limit my overall obligations and be more realistic about what I can get done in, say, a 28-day period, I’ll be even less likely to crash.

Basically, it’s about being kinder to myself and becoming more successful in the process. After all, two months of working at approximately 78% productivity is better than one month at 98% and the next at 2%. I’m not looking to eliminate my natural ebb and flow, I just want to keep the massive swings to a minimum.

In what ways do you experience the pendulum effect in your own life? Have you noticed it in others? How often do you stop to notice your dominant tendencies, and what would it mean to consciously cultivate a little bit of the opposite? Let’s take a cue from the universe and strive in the general direction of balance, whatever that means for us. After all, the other shoe is going to drop eventually.

scales

*Mine is a crude representation of the rich and wonderful world of Macrobiotics. For more information, check out The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics by Jessica Porter.

References:

http://www.kushiinstitute.org/what-is-macrobiotics/
http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/dieting-does-not-work-ucla-researchers-7832.aspx
http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/food2/UID07E/UID07E11.HTM
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-intermittent-fasting-might-help-you-live-longer-healthier-life/

You’re perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement

MindBodyPlate Snowflake

You’re perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement.

— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

It’s the 31st day of December, and fluffy snowflakes are beginning to fall outside my apartment window. 2013 is coming to a close, and like so many others, I’m preparing for a night of introspection and champagne.

You’re perfect just as you are …and you could use a little improvement. My teacher shared this zen quote in yoga this morning, and I’ll be taking it with me to the party tonight as my own private mantra, to be remembered in between lively conversations and lighting wish papers on fire.

MindBodyPlate Snowflake 2

On this day when most of us are thinking about resolutions and goal-setting, let us remember to be gentle with ourselves amid self-improvement.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty that I want to work on in 2014. My need for approval and to be “liked” by others has dominated my existence for as long as I can remember. It most definitely played a role in my eating disorder, and I suspect it’s also at the root of what others have criticized as my lack of authenticity. I suppose when you’re living to please everyone but yourself, even the most sincere expression can seen disingenuous.

Now it would be easy for me to say, “THIS is what I’m finally getting rid of in 2014: that damn need to please!” It would be a much greater challenge to softly acknowledge that character trait, observe that it’s not serving me, and then try to love it anyway.

MindBodyPlate Snowflake 3

Yet that’s just what I’m going to do. Because if I condemn this quality that must have served me at some point in my early life, then I’m sending my subconscious the message that there’s something wrong with me. And there isn’t. However, if I can find real love and compassion for the part of me that needs external approval, then it stops the cycle of self-punishment and frees me up to create a more beneficial pattern.

So when you finalize your New Year’s resolutions this evening, I challenge you to acknowledge that you are already perfect just as you are. Cultivate love for those parts of yourself that you perceive to be imperfections. Thank them for helping you navigate the world thus far. And then, sure – set a goal or two. Because all of us perfect souls could use a little improvement.