Apr 19, 2012

My Take on Weight Loss - Be Sensible. Be Happy.

I am inspired to write this post today after reading an article on the blog of an Indian author. I have not read her book(s), so I don't really know much about her as an author, but I've only just been following her blog and this particular post of her's has compelled me to write.

The subject of weight loss is very close to my heart. Food, nutrition, exercise (you know the whole story) are concepts I've worked hard at, failed, tried again, failed again for many, many years. I have lost oodles of weight and put it all back again. If anything, I've learned a lot from the process. I've even learned to make peace with the situation, as is evident if you read a previous post of mine on food and eating habits.

Img Credit: Helga Weber

Before I go any further, I'd just like to clarify that I am by no means a 'thin' person as defined by society. I may be called chubby, fat, or even obese, depending on individual perceptions. I choose (well, at least I try hard) not to classify myself; I am what I am. I have made my peace with the fact that my body structure dictates how I look and not the latest trends (did you know that size 0 is no longer fashionable?). I always have been and will be a curvaceous woman. That is the truth. 

So coming to this author's article, she's penned down a few (long list of) strategies for herself to be able to lose weight. Reading it made me sad, because I have been down that road. I've written such lists too, tried to be strict with myself, tried to force myself into a certain type of behaviour, but it never did work. Much later did I realize that my entire approach was wrong. Now, I mean no offence to this writer, because her list might actually work for her, and I hope it does. Some of her points are quite sensible, but some I can't bring myself to agree on. I'd like to do a sort of response to her thoughts, based on what I've learned through my experience. I may be wrong, I may be blinded by my perceptions too, so please feel free to disagree with me. 

Today, my approach towards health and fitness is very rational and sustainable. Here's what I think/do/follow:

1. Calories

The concept of calories is very logical and scientific. It's mathematically correct that if your body's BMR is 1500 and you eat less than that, you should be able to burn the deficit in a certain number of days. However, this is not the only factor governing what your body chooses to burn or store. There are additional factors such as hormones that work their magic too. Did you know that there was a week when I pigged out on potato chips and my body burned it all? And there was another time when I was on a strict diet and actually put on weight. 

Img Credit: nutrition education

It's important to realize that if your body wants to store fat, it will and if it wants to burn it, it will. The body has its reasons for functioning the way it does.Your best bet is to be sensible and feed it with healthy/wholesome food, eat when you are hungry, and stop eating when you are full. Playing the calorie game is too stressful. It's better to learn to pay attention and understand what your body needs.

2. Sugar Cravings

Let's face it. Many of us are addicted to junk/sugary foods. So am I. I have spent years trying to control myself like a mad woman. But control only makes it worse. There was a time when I did not touch sweets for an entire year. You'd think that would have helped me. Yes, I didn't put on any weight. But when when the year was up the cravings got so huge that I ended up pigging out big time. 

Img Credit: tanvach

What we need to do is get to the root of the issue here. I watched a documentary called 'Hungry for Change' that explained it pretty well. It is really not our fault, we are not bad for craving sugar and fat. In reality, we are genetically programmed to do so. Where there is fat, there is survival - is the law of the jungle. It's just that hundreds of years ago, there was less fat to eat and more (physical) work to do. Today, the fat is everywhere, in abundance, and we don't really have to lift a finger most of the time. It's not wrong that we crave sugar, it's wrong that we have so much of it around to eat. That is unnatural. Don't blame your palate or yourself for being a foodie. Everybody is one. Things like food and sex are naturally meant to be pleasurable, in the interest of the protection and procreation of life.

3. Saying No

Does not work. Even observing a 2-year-old will teach you this. The moment you say 'no', you know you want it all the more. It's fundamental, really. We always want what we can't have. So forget about saying no to seconds, no to leftovers, no to that divine chocolate cake, no to anything you love. Instead, concentrate on saying yes. Say yes to carrots, yes to beets, yes to greens and also to other vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, pulses, eggs, nuts, seeds and dried fruit. This is another concept I got from 'Hungry for Change'. Focus on what to add, not what to remove from your diet. Abrupt changes and fanciful diets are very difficult to maintain in the long run. Instead, focus on building good eating habits for life. Understand what your body loves.

Img Credit: achichi
Allow me to illustrate. M and I first put oats into our lives for breakfast. We didn't focus on improving any other meal. It was just oatmeal for breakfast, day in and day out. We hated it, we cribbed about it, we even craved and had some puris once in a while. But then we always kept going back to the oats. After about 3-4 months, we started to health it up a bit more by adding nuts, pumpkin and flax seeds and dry fruits to it. It tastes so yummy today to us that we don't really want to have anything else for breakfast. Plus, it's so easy to make and it keeps us very energetic. Now that the morning meal is taken care of, we have moved on to dinner. We're trying to incorporate Jowari Roti (Millet flat breads) into our night-time meals. It's not easy, as expected. But we're working on it.

Img Credit: needoptic

The concept here is that eventually you are filling yourself with so much of good food, that the bad foods will be automatically pushed out. It won't happen in a day or a week or a few months even, but eventually it will. And when they do go out they will mostly stay out. You will be able to have just a bite of cake and stop at that. It won't be a struggle anymore. 

After having said all this, I don't think I need to explain why the 'starve now, eat later' strategy will never work. Telling yourself to stop now and eat once the weight is gone will not work. You know why, right?

4. Exercise

From point number 2, we understand that two things about our lives are different from the lives of our ancestors. The first is the abundance of food, which we've covered. The second is the lack of physical activity. Our muscles are just not strong as they can be. Many of us are at bad levels of fitness.

So what's the solution? I don't know for sure, but I can tell you this: again, you are at your body's mercy. Some people lose weight if they simply walk to the market and some don't even after slogging at the gym for hours. Exercise is not magic. It will not guarantee that a certain number of kilos will be shed off for sure if you exercise for so many hours, so many times a week. And yet, it is important to get plenty.

Img Credit: synergybyjasmine
What kind of exercise to do? How many hours to do it? I would say that the same principle applies here too: listen to your body. Start off slow, don't be over ambitious. Avoid saying, 'the wedding is in three months and I have to lose 24 kilos so two kilos a week.' It doesn't work that way for most people. The most important thing is to fall in love with your physical activity. If you're crying to go to the gym, it may work but it's not going to be sustainable. If you hate walking, you're probably not going to do it for the rest of your life. Take up the activity you enjoy most and is easy for you to make time for in your busy schedule.

Listen to your body: in time you will understand when it is tired and you have to stop, when you can push it to go that little bit more, and when you must keep it moderate. A work out session must leave you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, not beat up. Plan to exercise for a lifetime, not just until you lose weight.

5. Stress/Emotions

This is something I'm still trying to figure out myself, so I'm not going to pretend like I understand how to deal with them. I do know that of course, they play a huge role in a person's health. I also understand it's a vicious cycle. Bad foods (lack of nutrition) make you cranky, and crankiness makes you reach out for bad food. Adding more nutrition may be a good place to try and start to break the cycle.

Like I said, it's all still a work in progress, I'm still learning as I go but this is what I've been able to figure out so far. I'm not in a hurry to lose weight, to reach any 'number', and I am really tired of wanting to look like someone else. It's out of this sheer tiredness that I gave up - not working on myself, but I gave up on those ridiculous and impossible expectations. I don't want a thin photo on my fridge, I don't want to compare my body with anyone else's. I don't know if it'll work, but I'm certainly a happier person for it.

Do you have anything you'd like to share or add?

Apr 13, 2012

Books || JAYA ~ Devdutt Pattanaik

It was through the episodes of Business Sutra on YouTube that I first came to know about Devdutt Pattanaik. His in depth knowledge of Indian mythology and an uncanny ability to apply those stories to our present-day situations made the series an extremely interesting watch. Of course, I had to read all about him immediately, and when I found out he had authored books too, I was excited. A medical doctor by degree and leadership consultant by profession, Devdutt Pattanaik's true passion is mythology. Among several books authored by him is Jaya - a retelling of the epic Mahabharat. I've never been much of a mythology enthusiast but I must say, "Jaya" is truly un-putdownable.

Until I read this book, I must admit that I had only read the story of Mahabharat in bits and pieces. I knew the main characters, I knew the basic story line, etc., but I had never read it in depth with an intention to reflect on its wisdom and apply it to my life. Having said that, Jaya was a good place to start. The book touches upon the entire story without going into too many details, it manages to give a good glimpse of what the epic stands for along with any underlying symbolism. Devdutt Pattanaik's narration is in simple English, his style of writing is pretty smooth. He also provides footnotes to each chapter/story with his interpretations and thoughts. These footnotes make a lot of sense and provide deeper perspective into the characters and their lives.

The Mahabharat as narrated by Dr. Pattanaik, to say the least, is a fascinating tale. He starts with a brief description of the original author of the epic, Vyasa, as well as its original structure. The epic consists of 18 chapters, and a total of about 100,000 verses. The chapter about the gambling match where the Pandavas lose all their fortune alone has about 4311 verses. To read and make sense of all those verses written in an ancient language is extremely difficult for someone like me, so it's books like Jaya that I rely on. I know there have been several retellings of the Mahabharat so far, but this is the first one I've read from cover to cover, so do spare my enthusiasm for the experience. 

Summarizing or reviewing the book would be of little use, since it in itself is a summary of a much larger epic. As I went through the book, there were several little points of 'wisdom' that I stopped to ponder upon.  Some of them I even earmarked for future pondering, since of course, there is no end to introspection. Perhaps several other blog posts will arise as I return to the timeless wisdom of the Mahabharat time and again. But for now, I will list out a few things that really got my attention. 

  • It occurred to me as I was reading this book, that the Mahabharat is not very different from present-day fantasy novels, but for its epic proportions. Of course, I'm putting all religious significance aside. No blasphemy intended. Undoubtedly it is a tale of great wisdom that one can learn several things from, but there are also present within it all the elements of fascination associated with the fantasy genre. For instance, the misunderstood/rejected hero - Karna. And of course all the creatures, some of which are friendly to humans and some that are not. Dr. Pattanaik points out:"The Mahabharat is populated not only by Manavas or humans but also by a variety of beings such as Devas who live in the sky, Asuras who live under the earth, Apsaras or nymphs who live in rivers, hooded serpents who talk called Nagas, forest spirits called Yakshas, warrior-musicians of the woods called Gandharvas and brute barbians called Rakshasas."
  • But then again, it would be a wrong to call the Mahabharat a mere fantasy novel, because it is also a lot like real life. Characters change. They evolve. They learn things. And yet, they forget their lessons and make mistakes. Krishna advises Arjun before the battle of Kurukshetra that the war must be fought for Dharma, out of a mere sense of duty. He understands it then, but it soon becomes personal for Arjun after the death of his son. And at the end of it all, the story is not just about who won the war. The Pandavas may have won, but the story doesn't end there. The true ending is when Yudhishtir, the eldest Pandav, wins the battle over his own anger, his own prejudice, his own self. 
  • A recurring theme in the Mahabharat is that of karma. What is most striking thorough various stories is the fact that what seems like bad luck could end up as good luck, and what seems like a fortune could actually bring ruin later. Dr. Pattanaik observes, "No one on earth can foretell the consequences of any action, however wise he may be." Also, not every good deed brings positive consequences and not every bad deed brings negative ones. For it is impossible to even distinguish between bad and good. A deed that benefits one, may cause a deep loss for another. Such is the ambiguity of life and karma. 
  • The conflict between varna-dharma (taking up the vocation of forefathers) and choosing one's own path in life is another theme that is brought out through the epic. In various instances, those who digress from their family professions have various motives to do so. For some it is desire (Karna), for some vengeance (Drona), and for some (Krishna), it is mere duty - doing what needs to be done. 
  • The Mahabharat is not filled with just beautiful women who please men. The words of Chitrangada, the ugly warrior princess, as she reveals her true self to Arjun, truly speak out to me: "I am not beautifully perfect as the flowers with which I worship. I have many flaws and blemishes. I am a traveller in the great world-path, my garments are dirty, and my feet are bleeding with thorns. The gift that I proudly bring you is the heart of a woman. Here have all pains and joys gathered, the hopes and fears and shames of a daughter of the dust; here love springs up struggling towards immortal life. Herein lies an imperfection which yet is noble and grand."
  • "Vyasa keeps asking what makes a woman a wife. It emerges that it is civilized society with its laws of marital fidelity that makes a woman a wife. But in the forest, there are no rules. Can a woman still be a wife? It is evident through the story of Jayadhrata that neither society nor forest can make a woman a wife; it is only the desire and the discipline of man that can do so."
  • The importance of travel is highlighted in the Mahabharat. Of course, not the kind of sightseeing and luxury travel that we do these days. But travel as a means of exploring the world, and also one's inner self. The 12 years spent by the Pandavas travelling through forests was an important period as it changed them in many ways. They met with Rishis who told them stories, they meditated in caves, "saw the sun rise from sacred mountain tops" and bathed in holy rivers and lakes. "The journey gave them a fresh perspective on life." 
  • Draupadi's beauty: "Even though she is innocent, her beauty arouses all men who end up wanting to hurt and humiliate her because she is chaste and unavailable." I can correlate this to a few women I have known in real life. 
  • "That which deludes you to be unhappy can be overpowered by another delusion that causes greater unhappiness." This beautiful truth is explained in the story of Gandhari, who is mourning for the death of her 100 sons. In a moment of extreme hunger, she comes across a sweet mango and forgets all about her sons, even using their carcasses as a stepping stone to reach the fruit. This is the power of maya.
  • The last chapter is particularly profound. I cannot go into it entirely as it would take very long, but here are the last lines of the book: "Let us all have faith. Let us all be at peace - with ourselves, our worlds, and all the rest there is."

And sure enough, as I closed the book, I felt an incredible sense of peace within me. Reading about the turmoil and conflicts faced by various characters, what happens to them finally in the scheme of life, and the very nature of life itself; it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Often one worries over small matters in life. Epics like these put everything back into place, into perspective. Into peace.