Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Advances in Diet/Fitness studies

Chest-thumping aside, what advances have been made in the last few centuries in "disciplines" of Yoga or Ayurveda?  The same Asanas, more or less the same breathing exercises, and yet the Indian middle class is notoriously unhealthy.  The trifecta of lifestyle diseases: High BP, Cholesterol and Diabetes has spread to epidemic proportions in most Indian cities.  This despite our self-congratulation about our "healthy diet" (it is anything but), and our Ramdev-esque acrobatics and nail rubbing in the morning.

Yoga and Ayurveda are somehow considered disciplines invented by some holy sages with long beards.  So they attract veneration rather than scrutiny.  We remain resistant to western methods of fitness and continue to regard Yoga as the best of the best.

Having studied and taught Yoga at many places in India, it is my conclusion that it is little more than stretching and calming exercises.  Vigorous and muscular yoga is primarily an innovation when Yoga was to be marketed to the west.  Yoga as it is practiced in India is geared towards joints and flexibility, and perhaps balance.  It is not a recipe for strength or for cardiovascular health.

Our dietary experimentation, once again in the footsteps of holy men, has been severely limited.  Gandhi experimented with not having milk, Morarji Desai tried something a little different, and Indian diet continues to be rather traditional and resistant to evolution.  Perhaps the fact that most meals are cooked at home, and families eat together has something to do with it.  Also, poverty.  Fitness is an activity or an interest available to a person who has achieved a modicum of prosperity and can choose what to eat and to spend an hour or two everyday exercising to become fitter.  Such a class of people used to be just elites in India, only now the middle class is getting to that level of prosperity.

(There are other obstacles too.  I wanted to buy an Olympic weightlifting bar for myself in Hyderabad.  There was no place which was selling it.  Most sport shops were carrying dumb bells weighing at most 15kg.  There were no locally produced good quality gym accessories or diet supplements.  I ended up buying ON Gold Standard Whey for $18 per pound in India.  It costs $9 per pound in the US.)

Contrast this with the plethora of innovations related to diets and fitness regimens in the West.  We might decry their "immoral" culture, but there are so many choices available to a person seeking to become fitter and to eat better in the West.  Most of them are well-known or are detailed in an inexpensive book.  There are of course marketing schemes peddling wonder weight-loss drugs and lose-30-lb-in-30-days miracle weight loss programs, but there are hundreds of valid programs and regimens available.

Go to any modern gym, there is a bewildering array of choices (including Yoga!).  There are new cardiovascular and weight training machines being invented and assimilated, and new understandings about our metabolism, cardiac health and muscle gain are driving ever fresher training routines.

Just consider the various programs available for strength training: Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5x5, PHAT, Doggcrapp, WS4SB, 5/3/1 variants, German Volume Training, Convict Conditioning, Greyskull LP, Crossfit, ...

Similarly, in diets, one sees juice diets, vegan diets, gluten-free diets, lactose-free diets, Paleo diets, bulking/cutting programs, Atkins (low carb) diet, and so on.

Even if I don't follow a particular program, I am happy to see innovation in fitness and diet, and I wish people in India, who can afford it, start taking fitness and diet seriously and get healthier.

Our traditional medicine and exercise regimes may not be the best for all aspects of our health.  I find that Crossfit comes the closest to describing the goals of a great fitness regime.

I have taken this list from
1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance- The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
2. Stamina - The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
3. Strength - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
4. Flexibility - The ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
5. Power - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
6. Speed - The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
7. Coordination - The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
8. Agility - The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
9. Balance - The ability to control the placement of the body's center of gravity in relation to its support base.
10. Accuracy - The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Two Brothers

Once upon a time, in a mountainous village in Yangon, there lived two brothers.  They were almost similar in age, and similar in temperament.

Both lost their tempers easily, were direct in speaking about what pleased and displeased them, and did not keep any feeling unexpressed.  They considered patience and tolerance to be a form of dishonesty.  "Better get it out" was their motto in life.

They were both members of the village council, and had married the twin daughters of a rich landlord of the neighboring village.

It so happened one day that a monk was passing through that village on his way to the town of Hiegu.  The monk stopped at the door of the house where the two brothers lived and asked for some water.

Only one brother was home, and as he offered water to the monk (it being a custom to never let a monk go hungry or thirsty), the monk lay down on the door step for some rest.  The monk seemed a little tired from his long journey.  Having nothing else to do that day, the brother sat down with him to keep him company.

The monk did not say much, but towards the end of his rest, he put his hand on the head of the brother who had brought him water, and quoted a verse from the Dhammapada:

"By effort and heedfulness,
discipline and self-mastery,
let the wise one make for himself
an island which no flood can overwhelm."

The brother, as the story goes, was thunderstruck by this utterance.  A few days after the monk had left, he became a student at the local monastery.  He became a diligent meditator and re-oriented his entire outlook so that no external event, no "flood", affected his poise and state of happiness.  His happiness was to be be found within and external joys and sorrows were to mean nothing to him.

The other brother continued to be the way he was.

After many, some say twenty, years, the monk was again passing through that village.  The meditative brother recognized the monk instantly, and after greeting him, sat down with him.  After washing the monk's tired feet and offering him food and water, he asked for permission to ask a question.

The monk nodded, and asked him to say what was on his mind.

The meditative brother almost erupted:

"O master, you had passed on to me a great wisdom.  But it has brought me nothing but harm.  I am happy in every circumstance, so nobody cares for my happiness.  I am not pained by ridicule, therefore rowdy children think nothing of ridiculing me and throwing rocks at me.  I am not after material pleasures, so my family at my home gives me nothing good to eat.  Everybody eats a proper meal but I eat the leftovers.  I do not go after women, so I have had no affairs, whereas my brother has tasted the affections of many a dissolute woman.  I am patient, so I am the last to be attended to at any event."

The monk removed his head scarf and looked at the brother's moving lips.

"It seems that the impatient, the short-tempered, the unhappy, the lustful, the easily-offended, are treated better in this world than men like me, who always patiently smile and do not let anything affect their poise.  Even with infants, the mother feeds him first who cries the loudest.  The unhappy seem to be profiting in this world, and happiness seems to be a disadvantage."

The monk sat still and looked into the brother's eyes.

"My brother has a wife who takes care of him despite his philandering, but my wife nags me no end.  My brother commands more respect and riches, whereas I live from one day to the other.  My brother is praised and showered with gifts, whereas people think of me as of no consequence.  My brother wins every argument from me because he loses his temper and because I want to keep the peace in the house."

"O master, what kind of a world is this where to be happy and wise is thereby to be ignored and uncared for?"

The monk dropped his gaze to the ground and continued to sit still.  He hadn't said a word till now.

After a rather long time, he looked up and said:

"Of course it is true that the body part which is hurt and in pain gets the attention, whereas one is not even mindful of the healthy part.  To be of this world, you have to be unhappy.  Some of Buddha's students advocated "showing" unhappiness while being happy inside, but Buddha disagreed with this. He considered it dishonest manipulation, as well as an ineffectual one.  People can see if you are really angry or just showing it.  To be self-sufficiently happy in this world is a recipe for failure.  Why would anyone do a favor for you if you are already happy?  This world cares about feelings of pain and pleasure.  This world regards someone who doesn't care about pain and pleasure as someone who needs no care.  If you have no needs, then nobody will meet those needs."

As the monk was getting up to leave, an extra robe fell from his knapsack.  The brother threw away his own clothes, wore the ochre robe and said, "Thank you, master."  They both, now monks, left the village, never to return.

The worldly brother inherited the meditative brother's property, made his wife his concubine and maid, and otherwise lived in prosperity till the end of his days.

The meditative brother, it is said, died in the Khayan monsatery, many years later, of a cold-related ailment.

The Pleasure of Opinionating

Among other uses, gossip affords us the pleasure of judgment and opinion.  To talk about others is to invariably engage in evaluating their acts.

"What a creep!", "Such a slut!", "Of course he would have said that,", "she deserved it,", "That's not fair.", "Lucky bastard." ...

When one's social circle is not wide or interesting enough to provide this pleasure, one can turn to mass media or social media.  TV serials, all over the world, excel in this.  The pleasure of judging characters in a movie is relatively mild, because the movie is soon over and one doesn't have to wonder for long what happens to this or that character.  On television, however, the settings are more familiar, the characters are slowly developed, and the situations are more intimate (friend, mother-in-law, business associate, dinner outing, bedroom fight).

After having seen two US TV series ("Mad Men", and "House of Cards"), I am convinced that "drama" on television means creating situations in which some egos clash, some outrageous act or word is involved, and in which we are asked to feel some sympathy or antipathy towards a character.

To judge others is no small joy.

That is also the reason why Reality TV, live competitions (x-Idol, Who wants to x Whom?, etc.) are so addictive.  You are made the judge, and it's a heady trip.

That's why most people can't seem to enjoy non-judgmental cinema or literature.  "What's the point if I don't get to approve or condemn?"  Post-modernism is strictly for those who are getting their fix elsewhere, say, by condemning the lesser mortals who find their pleasures in Jerry Springer.

This is also why reading news which is unrelated to one's life is such a prevalent pastime.  The reason tabloids, including Times of India, are booming and real journalism is declining is because in the absence of an active family or community life, we are turning to news for stimulation and intimate gossip, instead of information or elucidation.  The more shallow the news, the easier it is to have an opinion about it.

Opinions about shallow stuff are almost instinctive.  One doesn't have to think about them too much.  Involved discussions, about privacy or global warming, are boring.  Nuances are for nerds.  The pleasure has to be quick for it to win.

The pleasure of watching criminals, trials, sentencing, police chases, emergency rooms, infidelity in action, is now big business.  Media executives have elevated knee-jerk reactions to an art-form.  I am not sure if these shows are scripted, but it is a genius of media depravity to capture on camera, and then sell, people's emotions about their sex lives.

That is also why celebrity news is so incomprehensible at first glance.  An intelligent human must think it is a waste of time to read about who has had a wardrobe malfunction, or where Kim Kardashian is having her baby.  One can scowl, shrug and move on, but understanding requires effort.  Why does celebrity news and gossip continue to flourish?  In what way does it make the lives of humdrum drones less empty?

I think celebrities evoke a measure of envy, jealousy and a desire for ruin. Very little of it is admiration.  So, when they see a candid shot, or hear about a drug haul, or read about some divorce, or see a nip-slip, it makes the drones happy.  "Their lives aren't that perfect, after all!"

The most newsworthy celebrities aren't those who are toiling at their art.  But those who have nothing to show in terms of art, and everything in terms of spectacle or loudness or chaos.  Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Sherlyn Chopra, Rakhi Sawant, Chris Brown; the bottom of the barrel, in other words.  The more chaotic their life, the more interesting it is to read about it and to shake one's head.

The appeal of opinion-based social media websites and engagement frameworks such as Yelp, FML, AmIRite, news comments, comments on blogs, reddit, Quora, Liveleak, is not just that they keep us informed.  Most of them offer no useful information.

Their primary reason for existence seems to be that they offer us space to express our opinions.  "With nobody else to listen to us, might as well click upvote/downvote, or publish my likes and dislikes for the world at large!"

Humans have a need to opinionate and to be counted for their feelings and thoughts.  In the absence of meaningful engagement with the community and public institutions, vacuous channels of opinionating occupy the turf.