Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sweet Santosha

Salve NIP,

            I hope everything in your life is going well. Though I’m exhausted and eagerly awaiting the coming spring break from school, I have no real complaints to lodge. Life just keeps surprising me and it only seems to get better. Not only was I selected to be my school’s Teacher of the Year, I recently received the title of Healthiest Person in Tampa Bay from I hope that when the story airs on the radio and debuts online that it will help others realize that they too can achieve their goals, whether they be weight-loss or personal growth oriented. As with any worthwhile pursuit, it takes patience and persistence. Now that Erin and I are certified yoga instructors, our new project for this year is to learn Spanish together. Nosotros estámos aprendiendo español y estudiamos diario. We did about 45 minutes worth of studying today, on top of taking Cleo on a couple of nice walks, running a few errands, and doing work for school. Much of the time today I kept reflecting on how genuinely happy I am. But the more I reflected on my happiness, the more I realized it was directly related to my contentedness.

            If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have told anyone that the worst thing in the world one could possibly be is “content.” In my youth, I equated being content with lying down and dying, that contentment meant giving up. Happiness, as the Founding Fathers had informed me, was to be pursued. There was no guarantee that I would ever receive it, but it is a necessary part of the struggle. Now that I’m “40ish”—as my beautiful wife dubbed me the other day—I think the pursuit is misleading. It seems that happiness is a by-product of pursuing greater ends and, all told, not much of a pursuit at all. If anything, it seems that happiness is a lot more easily found if we are willing to sit still. My happiness has grown incalculably from becoming more content with my life each and every day. The most absurd part of it all is that the less I want, the more I have. Once I learned to appreciate the abundance in my life, my contentment—and by extension my happiness—began to truly bloom. One of the niyamas or “personal observances” on the yogic path is santosha, which is often translated as satisfaction or contentment. To me, it is the most important of the five because without it we can never achieve even a moment of mental clarity. Our culture constantly bombards us with messages that if we don’t have this or that we are utter failures in one sense or another, but it is our job to always remind ourselves that we already have untold wealth in other forms.

            If I were to enumerate all of the things that I have that are directly responsible for my contentment, none of them would be things at all. Not in a material sense, at any rate. I am married to an incredible woman who is “the bedrock of my being,” as I recently told her in a poem I wrote for Valentine’s; I have an amazing family who continually supports me in all that I do; I have an awesome job at a great school, one that supplies me each year with a fresh batch of young minds with whom I do my best to positively influence; I have a great schedule that allows me to discuss issues that I am most passionate about. I’m sure the list could go on for much longer, but you probably understand by now. As I share with my AP Human Geography students almost every day, we live in a developed country and so we really shouldn’t complain when we don’t get what we want because almost every single one of us has what we need. Heck, if you’re reading this right now, it means you’re online and have access to a computer—something that 75% of the people around the world can’t do because they’re still practicing subsistence agriculture to feed their families. The curious thing about those people, though, is how happy they are. Perhaps they know no better because they don’t live in a consumption based economy (yet), but they sure know how to focus on what they do have: clothing on their backs, a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and love in their family.

            What more could we ask for, NIP? Nothing. And it’s not because there aren’t other things (whether intangible or material) that can enhance our lives—it’s because asking is in essence wanting, and wanting only prohibits the fostering of contentment. Focus on what truly matters in your life and constantly work on reducing what you perceive as a “need.” Thoreau’s dictum of “Simplify! Simplify!” has spurred me on for the last few years, always leaving me to ponder, “what else can I eliminate from my routine?” The more I strip away the frivolities, the more I recognize the abundance in my life from which I had been distracted. A lot of people want to be rich but they don’t realize that they already are. It doesn’t take much. Just a willingness to cultivate our sense of contentment by constantly being grateful for what we have. Believe me, happiness will pursue you.

In gratitude,

- Ryan

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Slow Down

How’ve you been, NIP?

            It’s been a while since I last discussed physical health, and I wanted to do so today because of the interest in “The H Diet.” A couple of months ago, our school newspaper did a feature on me in an effort to promote healthy lifestyle choices. Since that time, many co-workers and students who have heard about “The H Diet” (that’s what the student journalist titled her piece) but missed the article have asked me what the diet entails. And while the list is actually quite short, it’s not so much about what I do or don’t eat—although that is a crucial aspect to some degree—it’s more about taking the time to invest in better eating habits in a number of ways. The easiest way for me to describe the secret to the way I eat is simple and can be expressed in two words: slow down.

            The first step to making this commitment is realizing that changing one’s diet isn’t about a short-term weight loss goal but rather a long-term health commitment. By and large Americans hear the word diet and think it is a tool to shed those unwanted pounds for aesthetic value. While this certainly affects our self-image, it’s perhaps best to focus primarily on our health instead of our weight. If you’re in for the long haul and want to better your eating habits overall, losing the weight will come naturally. As I mentioned in a much older letter (“Exodus”), the more I learned about agribusiness and our industrialized food system, the more I eliminated certain ingredients from my diet. Therefore, “The H Diet” is simple in the sense that there are three “must avoids”: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Oils, and Enriched Flour. If you want to know why those are so bad for you, NIP, just consult the aforementioned letter. The other items on the list are the “try-to avoids”: artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors…basically anything artificial. So how does slowing down help us? By reading labels. The first step I always suggest to anyone is to begin reading labels. If it has any one of the three “must avoids,” just eliminate it from your diet. Yes, this means you’ll probably never be able to open a bag or a box again and start munching, but most of those foods that are highly processed are only empty calories anyway. The other tip that I have in this regard is that if it has more than 5 ingredients (except for complex carbs like breads or pastas), you probably don’t want to eat it. People often scoff at this idea asking “what does that leave me to eat?” Primarily a whole foods diet, really. You know, stuff that grows out of the ground rather than being made on an assembly line.

            The second step to slowing down is taking the time to plan and prepare your meals.  Far too many people rely on fast food. Not only is it extremely detrimental to your health, it impacts your wallet too. Most people believe that fast food is cheap and convenient when in actuality it’s neither. I’ve done the math and on an average day Erin and I eat 3 good meals with snacks in between each of those meals for a total of $15 or under. A couple could easily spend that much on two “value” meals at a fast food restaurant—and that’s only one meal! Additionally, preparing meals allows you to have leftovers, which typically translates to an even lower food bill. Many naysayers tell me that they simply “don’t have the time” to which I counter with “if it’s important enough to you, you’ll find the time.” The fiscal part of the equation, though, wins over a lot of people—especially people living on a strict budget. The other refutation I often hear is that eating organic food is too expensive. Again, this is a fallacy for several reasons, not the least of which is conventional food is effectively subsidized by all taxpayers, only rendering the illusion of it costing less. Most Americans eat far too many calories as it is, and if one were to eat the right proportions and eliminate wasteful spending on junk/snack/highly processed foods eating organic foods can fit within most budgets. Plus, as I always tell my students, you can still make better choices with conventionally produced food (e.g. why not have an apple rather than a bag of Cheetos?).

            The third step is my favorite: it’s actually slowing down while you eat. Not only will this allow your stomach time to send the “I’m full” signal to your brain, but you’ll end up eating less food overall. But more importantly, if you’re eating mindfully it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Many psychologists and nutritionists agree that the vast majority of eating disorders stem from stress and/or emotions. Americans turn to food for a sense of comfort rather than fuel. But you can have both, to be honest. While I primarily see it as fuel, I take comfort in food too. In fact, I relish just about every bite I eat—especially my peanut butter and honey on whole wheat sandwich. Without fail, I eat this every single day during the workweek for lunch. Not only is it inexpensive (about 85 cents per sandwich, I’ve calculated it), it’s filling and delicious. I usually begin my lunch by taking a few deep breaths and thinking about the sandwich, admiring the texture of the wheat bread, the aroma of the sandwich as a whole, and considering all that made the sandwich possible—from the sun that grew the wheat, the farmers who raised the peanuts, the beekeepers who procured the honey from the hives, to the delivery people who bring it to the store. This entire web of interconnectivity makes me deeply grateful for a simple sandwich and only enhances the experience when I take that first bite. A student caught me looking at my sandwich in this way one day before eating it and he asked me if I was saying grace. I responded with “sort of” and told him about mindful eating and since that time he said he’s been doing it too. Even something as simple as slowing down while we’re eating can make all the difference.

            We live in a society that is always scurrying around looking for quick fixes, but the real remedy is to actually take our time. Slowing down is not only crucial for our eating habits, but our overall health as well. Changing one’s diet should be a gradual process because healthy living is a long term goal, not something that can be found in a pill or a frozen Lean Cuisine entrée. Students, co-workers, friends, and family have seen my before and after photos (you can see them on the “Genesis” letter) and cannot believe how different I look. What I wish I could truly share, however, is how I feel physically. Once I gave up eating fast food and highly processed “food” completely, I noticed a tremendous difference in the way I felt. It’s hard to put into words what eating well can do for you, NIP, so I’ll leave you with the same challenge I give to anyone else—try it. Try to slow down for 30 days by eliminating those ingredients, preparing your own meals, and taking the time to appreciate your food while consuming it. The people who have gone on to actually change their diet for a month all told me how much better they felt. See for yourself—what else have you got to lose?

Here’s to your health, NIP!

- Ryan