Paleo and the Silver Bullet

Paleo and the Silver Bullet

As I sit here nibbling squares from a Ritter Sport candy bar – dark chocolate with hazelnuts, my favorite – I can’t help but think of my book purchases earlier today at The Book Spot on Road Nine here in Maadi, Egypt. While there are good arguments as to why I shouldn’t have bought three paperback books, new, especially at a predominantly used bookstore, the point of reference for this blog has to do with just one of the books: Paleo Diet Made Easy. Paleo and chocolate and, I’m afraid before the evening goes much further, a glass of red wine. That might constitute a self-portrait.

Dare I say I shrink from silver bullet remedies? I’ve received them my entire life, beginning with Sunday school. ‘Believe in God and go to Heaven.’ Then at the military school: ‘Get in shape and be a dominator.” Then in college they came in fast and furious, terminating, for my generation, with: ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out.’ The rest would come as a matter of course. In fact, you can fill in the blanks with any ideal you wanted. My favorite involved the word perfect, which seems to adhere to all silver-bullet remedies. First, there was Guru Maharaj Ji, the 14 year old Perfect Master. Next was Henry Hollingsworth, a fellow back-to-the-lander in West Virginia in 1977 who told me, following the news that his father had decided to underwrite law school for him – new car included — that he was fairly well done with the rural life anyway. He had, he confessed, while standing in the forest one day outside his dilapidated family shack, experienced ‘perfect knowledge.’ Don’t you know it’s hard to receive such knowledge second-hand?

The paleo diet, along with other health directions that go under one rubric, strikes me as a silver bullet remedy. Of course, it can be critiqued scientifically until it struggles beneath the weight of a hundred qualifications about its claims. But that’s not a good reason for ignoring everything it says. What does seem worth ignoring is the bromide-ridden simplistic reduction that promises us that if we go in one direction, all will be vouchsafed. If this one direction had worked for everyone who tried it, then the diversity among us would have been cleared up a long time ago. We would be One World as an adolescent might imagine it. All holding hands, all with tight waists, all filled with radiance behind the third eye.

While I was perusing the Health section at The Book Spot, run by a Muslim woman from Iceland – run like a work of art, I must say – I saw another book promising to give me health tips based on my ‘type.’ I could feel my flesh crawling. You mean mesomorph and so forth? I didn’t look. However, the idea that I fit into a type has always made me want to raise my fists. Can we be individuals? Can we? Is it possible to wrestle with the angel of health, so to speak, and come up with our own best practices, the ones that suit our spirits, our temperaments, our bodies, and, perhaps, other aspects of our being that we are still trying to find words for?

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The Allure and Revelation of Yoga

I started practicing yoga in Baton Rouge in the ‘80’s. A Welsh woman, Nancy Broadhead, taught hatha. I can still see her seated immaculately – something I still struggle to do – speaking in an intimate but never cloying tone about the asana, or posture, that she was leading us to try. After all these years, Nancy is still my model. She didn’t pretend she had a perfect life. At the time she was between marriages, the studio was barely supporting her, the car seemed to be living in the shop or at home, stalled. Yet once she was seated in the studio, she was the true leader. Those other things fell away. She was completely there. She wasn’t avoiding the potholes in her life; she’d managed to create a space outside them. That’s what I want. I have a thumbnail supply. How did she get the rest of it? That’s what I want to know. Is it a matter of genes? Was she just born with less anxiety, less fragmentation-as-life-structure? Probably. Did she have a better body for yoga? Certainly in some ways. She was small, not especially long-legged (which makes certain postures more available). She was naturally flexible, as were most of the women in the studio – those who weren’t carrying too much weight. Most of the men (all three of us) were bound by heavy muscles that kept us from touching our toes or making seated twists without raising the far sit-bone off the mat. Probably Nancy hadn’t pounded her body five days a week for three months a year playing American schoolboy football (though she may have played roughly in other sports like field hockey or soccer).

But of course she’d been trained as a yoga instructor – in Wales, I think. I often wonder just how much difference such a course can make in a person’s mental outlook as well as in opening up the body to more flexibility and available strength.

I am hooked on Rodney Yee DVDs and his downloads from iTunes. For one thing, I live in Cairo and once I get home from work, I’m often exhausted. The commute is long; the air is (guaranteed) polluted. I have trouble going to a gym or even the good yoga studio, The Breathing Room, that exists here, even though it’s walking distance. Also, Yee recorded yoga programs from ten minutes to an hour and a half, so I can pick the length of workout that I think I’m up for. Sometimes I run one program after the other. I fast-forward through the settling down stage. Something I’ve been learning, just this week, from a new program (for me) – Yee’s Core-Centered Yoga – is how subtle yoga can be. Yee refers to conversations in the body. With his thumbs in his armpits, he takes his collarbones up, exaggeratedly, then asks us to notice that part of the back, just above the kidneys, is now jammed down. He then moves to something like a hulking gesture making the shoulders roll forward and holding his hands together far in front of his body: it’s the exact opposite posture from bringing the collarbones up. He has us go back and forth with these extremes, gradually finding the center between them, something that has to be maintained through conscious control throughout the yoga workout. Once I went through that single tape of workouts and listened – really tried to listen, not just to imitate the postures – I felt as if I’d learned the secret to a lot of what yoga was about. I felt that I too might have a chance to be like Nancy. Maybe not exactly the same. But you know what I mean. Balanced. Aware within herself. In fact, after this one Rodney Yee tape, I was able to do certain postures to a much more successful extent than had been the case. To pin down those subtle interplays within the body, to locate certain muscles and ligaments and bring them into conscious control. Exciting! After all the sports orientations that my body has been dragged through, this yoga practice allows my body to have a voice: ‘Get to know me. I can be your friend. I can help you with the rest of your life.’

What is StrengthSearch all about?

I am on a two-road journey. I hope the roads will end up flowing together. I’m not sure they will. That’s the nature of the journey – a word I hate, it’s become so sodden with sentimentality. But I don’t know what else to call the endeavor I’ve been absorbed with – mostly part-time – for the past three or four years. It’s a journey toward health of my body and toward the integration and awareness of what I will have to call my spiritual life. I have no religion. Or I have bits of every religion. Spiritual growth was not my goal, ever. Still, I’ve been discovering that if I want to reclaim the body that I’ve been so nonchalant with, I might also have to spend some time in an expanded awareness of that body.

No doubt some of you will readily identify with this moment. Although age is not a factor in such identification, I have to say I’ll soon be 68. I don’t feel as if I’m going to die tomorrow – my family is long-lived, almost to the point of being a burden to contemplate. Nevertheless, I can smell the urgency – is that the odor of time?

My goal in this writing is to keep track of the often wandering experiences I’m having with my workouts, with what I’m absorbing from various health sources, and the nature of my spiritual/body workouts and the uphill climb that I now know I’m on.

For the record, I have been practicing yoga, without much passion or resolve, for 30 years. I hope to get into the reasons for that ambivalence. Maybe I’ll turn over some stones that I need to look at. I also taught myself to swim, by imitation, about 20 years ago and have kept up with this exercise even though I often view the pool as a symbol of drudgery. I wrestled in high school and in college, without enthusiasm. I hated getting in shape, of almost throwing up in practice. I had sports acumen and was often a winner, but the really fun games – Babe Ruth league baseball and summer league softball just after high school – dropped out of my life. From 23-30 I backpacked, mostly in national parks, mostly out West. I have always enjoyed long walks, but I hate to walk in that athletic way. I refuse to pump my arms, even if it feels good. By nature I am a wanderer. I leave the path without knowing it. Only now I’m a wanderer who’s trying to find, if not a path, at least a focus. I want to reclaim a still viable body – one that’s been ill-kept at times – while at the same time wondering what’s in store for me if I decide to get more serious about yoga. I’ve researched yoga schools in Bali and India. Expensive! Horribly scheduled for a working person! But it’s time to make large decisions. Maybe I need to spend the money. Maybe my job will have to do without me for a few months. Maybe I need to borrow against my retirement funds. I can’t work my current job forever, and don’t want to, yet I want to do something for a good number of years to come. What I want most is to bring out what my life has mostly been about already – a passionate involvement in all manner of arts and service. But no, those goals, once announced, don’t do much for me – forget those goals. I want deeper feelings. I want satisfactions that I’ve never been disciplined enough to pursue. I want to become strong enough to become the person that I sometimes think I can be. Right now I can just barely envision that person – fit, integrated, in tune and in rhythm with life’s deeper pulses. Sometimes I see this person from a long ways off, like one of those rock climbers hanging onto a crag with one hand, no ropes visible. Sounds like an advertisement but it isn’t.

Need I say the obvious? I have loved ones depending on these decisions. They are waiting, still letting me discover myself, even at this late stage.

John Verlenden

Cairo, Egypt