Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dealing with Life’s Transitions

Last Sunday, I attended a Unitarian Universalist (UU) service. Although I do not attend as often as I would like, when I do attend I always find that a veil is lifted on some issue that I have unconsciously buried deep within myself. 

In the UU congregation of Oxford, Mississippi, there is no “preacher” who expounds for an hour on some moral or social issue and expects no exchange of ideas. The Oxford congregation leaders usually find someone who has something meaningful to share. This Sunday did not dissappoint. The speaker was a recent Ph.D graduate and long time UU member who took a position at a University in South Africa. Accordingly, his talk was about transitions. He spoke eloquently about his long fear of change and how his coming major life transition is probably similar to many of the member's experiences, and after his talk he opened up the floor for others to offer words of wisdom. Many hands went up and there were great thoughts, and moving experiences that ranged from death of a loved one to job change to people who love change. I left with a flood of life affirming thoughts. 

Later that day, I reflected on the suggestions and realized that many people suggested that having some kind of an anchor was extremely beneficial to ease the discomfort of entering a new stage of life. At the time the anchor wasn’t the one that stood out, but as I ruminated the idea of an anchor started to resonate more and more. Then I realized that I indeed have an anchor myself and didn’t even realize it. 

My anchor is a sacred space. Since I was young and being bullied at school (sorry for the cliche but it is the truth) I started taking karate and I found this outdoor space to practice. It had a concrete bench with a tree attached and if you looked at it in the right light you could transport yourself to a tranquil asian garden. I would come home after school, run and change my clothes and start training. That was one of the few places I felt safe! 

Many years later as an adult, I moved to Mississippi, which was pretty hard on me, not because I was being bullied but because it is just about as different a place as an Italian-American from Brooklyn could live. So when visiting my wife’s family I felt really alone and separate. Something inside me beckoned me in to the woods. I instinctively found a spot and began to practice Tai chi. Over time, I changed the landscape a bit to facilitate my practice, and voila, a sacred space was born. 

Then Hurricane Katrina wiped it out and I thought it was lost and my practice was scattered throughout other parts of the land but settling no where. During Easter weekend I cut a path deep into the pine forest and found the spot where my wife’s great grandparents built their first house (pictured). I was going to do an archaeological dig to find farm tools from the 1800s. 

After clearing a 20’ x 30’ patch of land and prepping for the dig I realized that there was something deeper than archaeology calling me. I dropped my tools and started doing Tai chi. Instantly, I felt at home. I returned at 6 am to celebrate Easter sunrise to consecrate the new space. Now that I had a sacred space again, I realized that it is not just about the space but it is actually a vessel that allows me to fill it with sacred movements. Those ancient footsteps that were passed down from generation to generation of scared and vulnerable people, who knew how to adapt to scary places. Thousands of years later their calming messages still soothe my soul wherever I go.

The funny thing is that I never really acknowledged that my sacred space was an anchor, or more accurately, a coping mechanism for stressful places and times. I always knew I loved the woods and doing Tai chi in the woods was for me its highest expression and I even considered my practice sacred but I never completed the circle until those wise people at the UU congregation led me there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

New Definition For Tai Chi

Tai chi originated in China as a martial art before written history. It is usually described as a mind-body practice that is sometimes referred to as "moving meditation.” Many people say "dance-like" when describing it. In fact, whenever I describe Tai chi and use one of these popular descriptions I inevitably feel that I am doing an injustice to the creators of Tai chi. 

Legend has it that the creator of Tai chi, was a Taoist monk called, Chan San Feng. He developed a set of 13 exercises that mimicked animals movements and focused on the cultivation of internal energy, often referred to as "Chi," or "Qi," as opposed to brute strength. According to the legend, Tai chi came to him upon watching an eagle attack a snake. He noticed the snake was coiled and evaded the eagle with an elusive soft power, nothing like the muscular force that the eagle used to attack. Frustrated, the eagle left and from that encounter we have a series of movements and postures that have taught millions around the world that soft power, not brute force, can bring one many benefits.  

In 2007, a national survey, found that 2.3 million U.S. adults practiced Tai chi in the past 12 months. One Google search on "how to become certified as a Tai chi instructor?" yielded 490,000 results. The average cost was around $500 to become a Tai chi instructor through an online course and certification. Other organizations require one to attend workshops with many different levels from beginner to advanced. This will cost quite a bit more, especially adding in flights and lodging. To be sure each credentialing body has their own unique spin on the definition of Tai chi.

There are many definitions of Tai chi out there. Below are the most commonly found in the academic literature. 

Common definitions of Tai chi: 



I have found over the years of my own practice and teaching others, especially older adults that the above definitions are incomplete. 

My definition of Tai chi: 

Tai chi is a method of training that was developed thousands of years ago by people who understood how humans fit into their environment. Its main focus is training the body and mind to coordinate, integrate, and synchronize the timing and intensity of body parts to move in unison with a high level of attention paid to gravity and other environmental influences to achieve the highest out put of energy with the least input.  

Why propose a new definition?

For me the answer to this question lies in my years of studying the Yang Style Secret Family Transmissions complied by Douglas Wile. I have owned that book for 17 years and often refer to it as a reference. There are many passages I could quote but the two that really inspired me to seek a new definition of Tai Chi are The Meaning of The Civil and The Martial in T’ai Chi, and The treatise on Before and After Acquiring the Ability to Interpret Energy in T’ai Chi

These two passages explain why Tai Chi holds the place in our society that has been deemed by health professional as an excellent exercise for older adults. It shows that ancient Tai chi practitioners really did understood that aging is imminent and that perfecting biomechanics, and many bodily processes, like kinesthetic senses, breath, internal awareness are essential functions of Tai chi. Those sections also point out that just focusing on the martial aspects or winning fights would be short lived. The earlier definitions speak nothing of the deep internal work and prescient awareness that these masters had of the body. I hope mine offers more of a nod to the early creators of Tai chi. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Follow the Money

Sometime in October, a friend and I had a discussion about the cost of fruit and veggies. So I became interested in my monthly food expenditures. I created a spreadsheet and fastidiously recorded my family's food purchases for the month of November 2014. Yes, I included Thanksgiving purchases as well. I figured it wouldn't skew it that bad because we shared a meal with a large extended family and all pitched in.

The main finding, fruit and veggies are pretty damn expensive. We eat a lot of fruit, I must have spent about $50 on apples alone. As I continue this process I will break it down further to see where the most costly purchases are coming from. Another thing I need to add to my spreadsheet for December is caloric amount per item.

When I Look at the amount of meat our family of four consumes it seems really low. If I had added each item's calories to my spread sheet it would give me a more accurate measure to compare what we are purchasing/consuming for their dollar value?

All-in-all, it is interesting to see where the money goes and the amounts you eat. I really thought I consumed a larger amount of meat and alcohol.

The revealing bit that is hard to swallow is when I compare our family's expenditures with this gallup poll. "WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans report spending $151 on food per week on average. One in 10 Americans say they spend $300 or more per week and, at the other extreme, 8% spend less than $50."

Even though it is from 2012 and food prices have risen, I am still spending out of my place on the totem pole. The next question I have to answer is are my expenditures economical and healthy. Then I can find out if healthy food is only for the wealthy. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why I am passionate about Epidemiology! 

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds." from The Letter from Birmingham Jail written on April 16, 1963, by MLK.

Over the past few years there has been a strong push for Libertarian ideas in the public arena using constant hyperbolic speech about the rights of individuals. Although, every policy, before being enacted, should face rigorous scrutiny about individual rights, we should keep in mind that if individual rights always win we will get blind-sided by disease.

That is why epidemiology (methods to understand the distribution of disease, exposures and behavior) are so important to society. They confirm the idea put forth above by MLK. Epidemiology teaches us that people are not independent agents walled in and isolated from disease.

One of the important lessons we have just learned from Ebola is that you can not block out disease by isolation. We need to use all our analytic methods to understand how disease travels. So  keeping people together and listening to them is essential to our individual survival.

One last message, if you feel like there are exposures, like GMOs, Vaccines, Fluoridation, etc that are not being addressed to your satisfaction then get together and ask for better information. Please don't poo poo on the medical field or create some elaborate conspiracy theory. If there TRULY is an effect, the tools in epidemiology can demonstrate it much more powerfully than saying the whole system is corrupt!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dietary Alchemy and Gluten Intolerance

Dietary alchemy is my name for healthy eating that is based on research about the Mediterranean Diet and participation in my own Italian cultural traditions. I use the term, alchemy to reference an earlier time where most diets focused on traditional food and balance;  a time before processed foods came into the world and seduced people away from whole food diets with the promise of convenience and more free time. 

Today, many people claim to have gluten intolerance. You see gluten-fee on labels every where these days, even on beer. Now, let's clarify something right away, I am in no way doubting the validity of Celiac's disease, but this has gotten to a point where everyone is saying they have a gluten allergy. A blurb From a new age blog, entitled, 10 Signs You Are Gluten Intolerant, estimates "that as much as 15% of the US population is gluten intolerant." Always ready to jump on the next fad regardless of epidemiological reality, adds the fear factor, " Could you be one of them?" 

Even though many of the issues in diet-related diseases are really complex, the gluten intolerance issues seems to simply amount to the consequence of a country without a connection to whole foods that is overly dependent on corporate foods and more importably a loss of how to prepare food.

In 2012, the USDA reported that American diets are out of balance. Americans are overeating meat and grains and under eating fruits and veggies. In Dietary Alchemy that "diet" is the way to make a brick in your stomach. Seriously, try this experiment in your kitchen, add some chopped meat, some refined white flour, or a little sliced bread, then a smaller portion of water, and maybe a little portion of broccoli. Your outcome will be a solid brick. Of course, your stomach can't digest that. That "thing" is not for eating, it is for making a shelter. That also explains why Americans are addicted to soda drinks, like Coke, they need a strong bubbly acid to break up the glue they just created in their gut. 

Conversely, take those very same ingredients but change the proportions by adding a lot more veggies, some fruit and a small portion of meat and grains and many will see that their body can digest gluten.  

A word of caution, I am not talking to people who have been diagnosed with a serious problem. The people I am addressing this article to are those who "think" they have a gluten intolerance after they thought they were allergic to meat and became a vegan, then realized all along they were a paleolithic hunter. Admittedly, I have been there, too! 

Now, this is where Diet Alchemy really comes into play. Once you understand your body and how not to make bricks from food you can take charge of your food processing and even start to add in fermented foods. 

Fermented foods are foods that have Lactobacillus , our microbial partners that have aided our digestion through the ages. Modern food tried to kill them off with processing and preservatives but researchers are now finding that we need them. People can purchase them in a pill form but it is way more enjoyable, cheaper and fun culture your own. 

The greatest thing about Dietary Alchemy is that you take charge of the process of feeding yourself and exploring the amazing world of your body, your digestive tract and food.  

I have made sauerkraut, kimchee, preserved lemons and I try to eat something fermented everyday. 


Here are some links to recipes: 



Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Checking Your Blood Pressure Does More for Your Health than a Blueberry Smoothie

When I was a very small boy I saw my grandmother have a heart attack. I remember her children, my mom and her brothers, frantically rushing to get her in a car to drive her to the hospital. That was the last memory I have of her. Needless to say, it made a lasting impression on me and our entire family.
The CDC estimates that 68 million people have high blood pressure in the United States. For some perspective Heart disease kills almost 19 times more people annually than guns, and that includes all gun deaths, even suicides and accidents.
I read and write something about about health everyday and there is much more hype around super foods and high-intensity exercise than simply getting your blood pressure checked.
Research Trip India, 2009
I cannot stress how important it is to check your blood pressure. Not checking your blood pressure is extremely risky. One way to think about your blood pressure is that it measures the health of your heart and arteries, which are the highways that transport food and oxygen to every part of your body. Your heart is the engine that makes that happen. Said another way, in the dark ages, when king a wanted to attack an enemy’s castle they would block the routes in and out of the castle so no food or supplies can enter. The people inside would starve or surrender. If your organs and other vital parts of your body are blocked from getting food and oxygen they would die. If your blood pressure is high that could mean there is a disruption somewhere along the highway. 

This dysfunction can be the result of too much fat and inflammation in the arteries or problems with the heart muscle itself. This indicator of a problem can lead not only to a heart attack, it can also cause permanent scarring of your kidneys, loss of eye sight and limbs, as well as other problems. So waiting on checking your BP or not treating high blood pressure with lifestyle change and/or medication is doing long-term damage to your vital organs and they call them vital for good reason. 
To repeat, my main argument here is that keeping up with your health indicators through a spreadsheet is far more beneficial than eating blueberry smoothies. I think many people forego checking because they are afraid that they will have to make drastic changes to their diet and lifestyle. I love food, tasty food, and I can say that small changes to your diet and a little exercise go a long way. The bonus is that if you make those small changes early, inspired by the knowledge of your BP, then you can still eat many of the foods you want. If you wait and you will have to make drastic changes in a short period of time.  
Sometimes I think what my life would have been like if my grandmother were alive. Her death left a weak spot in our whole family, in fact much of our family became estranged after her death. So help keep your family together by staying healthy and checking your blood pressure often. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Win-Win with Purple Sweet Potatoes

Recently, I was in a local fruit and vegetable market, informally known as Liz and Frank's, where I usually purchase ingredients for our family meals. Since, I cook most of the meals in our home, and try to make as much as I can from scratch, I’m always looking for new ingredients. I embrace the challenge of turning mundane weeknight meals into an adventure. As a health researcher I am always thinking of ways to increase health in not only my family’s life but also the state that I live in and love, Mississippi. 

As I was rummaging through the market bins, I stumbled across an oddly colored sweet potato. I didn’t have to think twice; I grabbed 4 or 5 and put them in my bag. My first thought was to roast them. I ran into a friend and fellow cook there, and we spoke about this new ingredient. He said he had used them in a sweet potato gratin and that they have a lot more starch than a regular sweet potato. He also suggested that I may have to cook it longer than an orange- colored sweet potato. 

My first attempt to was just to roast them and explore their flavor. Then I would base my next dish on the taste and texture. My first impression after roasting was that they are way less sweet than regular sweet potatoes. I would say more like a cross between yucca and an orange sweet potato. They paired really well with the garlic mayo I mixed up for a dipping sauce. So this is a healthy food that tastes really good—my kids wolfed them down. 

The next recipe I made was a bit more work than simple roasting. I searched the internet and found 3 recipes that I combined: Emeril’s stewed pork and purple sweet potato recipe, Rick Bayless’ pork tinge and another from Food and Wine mag. I love stews and find them perfect for a family of four, especially in the winter time. It was absolutely delicious, and again, my kids devoured it.

I hope that next Thanksgiving my wife will let me substitute typical orange sweet potatoes with these purple ones for her very sweet, traditional Southern sweet potato casserole.

I also researched the health benefits of the purple sweet potato. They contain anthocyanins, like blueberries and other blue/purple fruits. Anthocyanins are powerful anti-oxidants and have been associated with a healthy diet. Purple sweet potatoes are a starch healthier than most, and they retain the anthocyanins after the cooking process more than their blue and purple fruit cousins. This has led many health researchers to believe that they are a “super-food.” They’ve been included in all sorts of foods, from drinks, candy, and desserts in many  parts of Asia.

In my local area, there’s a need for economic opportunities and for more healthy foods. Vardaman, Mississippi, is known as the “Sweet Potato Capital,” and at this time of year, you can hardly drive through many parts of the state without seeing pickup trucks overflowing with sweet potatoes that farmers are selling on the roadside. Purple sweet potatoes could be a big benefit to both local farmers and the people in Mississippi, which suffers from the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the US. If my kids inhaled them before other tempting items on the table, then maybe people with diabetes or other children who need to eat healthier might find them a tasty, affordable food.