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/

What Is Yoga?

Well, in the midst of finding and preparing to move into a new apartment, I have certainly neglected to keep up with my blogging. What a wonderful lesson for me to ponder at a later time, when I’m not going coo coo bananas out of my mind with stress. In the meantime, I’ve decided to politely decline my ego’s offer to beat myself up mercilessly for not being committed / hardworking / passionate / professional / [fill-in-the-blank] enough. No thank you, Ego! I’ll do better next time, and that’s all I can do. But thank you for your concern.

This weekend is a bit crowded. In the next four days, I:

  • celebrate my 4th wedding anniversary
  • turn 30
  • graduate from my 200 hour yoga teacher training
  • pack up my whole apartment
  • and move from Queens to Brooklyn.

And let’s not forget that I’m knee-deep in season 2 of House of Cards, which needs to be squeezed in here and there, obviously. It’ll all get done, I just have to take it one breath at a time.

Source: Jack Affleck, Affleck Photos

Source: Jack Affleck, Affleck Photos

I’m feeling especially proud as I enter into this last weekend of yoga teacher training, and I thought I’d share some thoughts about it today. Below are two short essays, both entitled What Is Yoga?, that I wrote over the course of my training. The first was written just as I embarked on the program, nearly five months ago:

My earliest understanding of yoga was that it involved a system of physical postures which, when practiced regularly, were shown to benefit both the mind and the body. In other words, I thought yoga was all about asana.

A few years back, when I began practicing regularly, my conception of yoga shifted to include a subtle spiritual practice involving improved communion – or union – between mind and body.

By the grace of my teachers, I’ve come to see yoga as an all-inclusive life philosophy, a spiritual and physical practice, a way of approaching life that seeks to quiet, still, or master the fluctuations and compulsions of the mind.

 The beauty of this definition is that it includes my former understandings of what yoga is and then expands upon them. Yes, yoga is about postures (asana) and control of breath (pranayama), but it is also about universal codes of behavior (yama), self-purification by discipline (niyama), the conquering of sense-driven conditioning (pratyahara), and varying levels of concentration, meditation, and consciousness (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi).

 My early impression that yoga strengthens the mind-body connection is also reflected throughout the canon of yogic learning. For instance, the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence, applies to the self as well as to others. Therefore, yoga teaches us to avoid harshly criticizing our bodies and to work toward accepting the truth (satya) of our physical form with loving acceptance. Dedication to asana under the influence of aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and santosa (non-comparing) can help us to take pride in our physical abilities without judging or identifying with them. In other words, it encourages self-worth without the trappings of pride. It cultivates a more harmonious relationship with The Self – body and mind.

These revelations about yoga have cracked my world wide open and created so much room for new study and growth (svadhyaya). I’m sure my definition of yoga will continue to evolve, but I’m grateful for the understanding I have now.

The next essay is something I scribbled down today, and though it’s vulnerable, messy, and impulsively written, I wanted so deeply to share it with you here.

When last I wrote a short essay entitled What Is Yoga? I spent a great deal of time integrating all the fancy new Sanskrit words I was learning and crafting calculated paragraphs to please my teachers. The whole thing was rather intellectualized, rather academic… rather hollow.

And so this time around, I’ll be opening no reference books, nor reviewing my notes to make sure what I’m saying matches up with past lectures, nor even spending much time re-reading and editing this final product. This one comes from the heart.

So what is yoga? Yoga is an age-old life philosophy, the practice of which enables us to yoke – to rejoin, unite, and unify – our individual selves with the greater whole. This means different things to different people. For some, yoga enables them to feel closer to the Source, the Greater Intelligence, God. For others, yoga may help to bridge a painful and hard-to-pin-down gap between mind and body, or between the mind-body vehicle and an enduring sense of self, sat-chit-ananda, being-consciousness-bliss.

What I know in my bones is that yoga is more than asana. Yoga is a soft pillow that comes up to meet you wherever you are and helps to carry you that last impossible mile. Yoga is medicine for mind and body. Yoga provides the guard rails on this confusing, emotional, and wild ride called life. Yoga is introspection, pratyahara, and svadyaya, but it is also community, and selfless sharing, and exuberant bhakti! Yoga is everything. And I’m so grateful that I can continue to journey into its depths.

Interesting to read them side-by-side, yes? Does any of it ring true to you? Or have my musings made it all seem more muddled and confusing than ever? What is yoga to you? Please let me know in the comments below.

Hope y’all have a fabulous weekend. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be a Brooklynite! xo