Thinner, Calmer, Stronger, Richer
It started, as most great things do, with all-you-can-eat Chinese Hot Pot. A friend ordered fresh tofu to put in the pot, and as it was unlimited, I was happy to try it. Now, I'd had tofu before, plenty, and even liked it when it was in various Asian cuisines. But that day, pulling it out of the steaming miasma of volcano hot red broth, something in my brain twitched. I have no idea why, but I went from "oh, tofu's fine, I'll eat it when it's given to me" to "OH, I need more of this in my life, as often as possible". Something about the creamy texture combined with the spicy Szechuan peppers made me crave it. I flagged down the waiter and got two more plates of it. I may have shared with my friends, but I also may have gone all Golum-like with my precious tofu. No records exist to confirm or deny that experience.
Almost immediately I started adding it into my end-of-the-weekend batch cooking dishes that I ate throughout the week. I investigated new recipes featuring my new favorite ingredient, but mostly relied on Asian flavors from Thai, Chinese, and Korean food. My grocery bills also went down, without more expensive meats to buy, which made hitting my savings targets even easier.
Now, I knew that for years my eating habits had been, let's say, less than disciplined. Large portions, fried foods, plenty of sugar. I described myself as an Epicurian; my goal was to experience any luxurious taste I could. I also hadn't been exercising regularly. Not a great combination for health or weight. When my best friend from childhood died of a heart attack at age 35 this past November, I knew I didn't want to hasten my own demise any more than necessary. I'm sure this, at some level, helped spur efforts to be more healthy. The fact that I was loving tofu and healthier food was dovetailing nicely with the fear of my own mortality.
Then a good friend of mine had a falling out with her yoga buddy. I'd never done yoga, but I knew my friend liked it and so I volunteered to be her new yoga partner. She was doing DDP Yoga, and showed me a very inspirational viral video of how this program had helped a man who was pretty broken from injuries related to being a paratrooper in the first Iraq War to shed not only his braces, but over 200 pounds and walk (and run and do headstands) unassisted when his medical prognosis was that he'd never do any of that again.
As a person who has always said that I am "as flexible as a 2x4", I definitely did not have a narrative that I could do or enjoy yoga. I'd never even been able to touch my toes. Yoga always kind of reeked of patchouli and crystal healing and woo-woo nonsense, which put me off. DDP Yoga, developed by a former professional wrestler who had been pretty broken by that "sport", took a lot of the woo-woo out of it, and gave the poses more masculine names in an effort to re-brand yoga for people who were weirded out by the spiritual aspects of it.
The videos, which we followed in my apartment, were hard. Many of them had me dripping in sweat, and there are still some poses that I can't do, and plenty of others that I'm not very good at. But the second time I did it, I had a revelation. While I'd always thought of myself as someone who wasn't flexible and didn't have good balance, I'd also never really tried to develop those skills. With practice, I could totally become a person who had good flexibility and balance. It was totally a "growth mindset" moment, and one I felt really encouraged by. And sure enough, two weeks into the program, for the first time in my life, I touched my toes.
More than that, everyday movements became easier. This was an issue I'd had when I had tried weightlifting or riding a stationary bike in the past. Those skills didn't transfer to my daily life. But with Yoga, almost immediately, I could see my life taking less effort. I could bend over and pick things off the floor without groaning. I could hop out of chairs. I could lean over and conference with students without straining. Sticking my head under the sink to rinse out my mouth after I brushed my teeth stopped being unpleasant. The benefits were real and tangible.
One of the less tangible benefits that I'm still trying to suss out was a change in my stress levels and mindset. I'm significantly calmer and imperturbable. My job and my school have been much more stressful this year, but as I did more yoga I noticed myself feeling less overwhelmed, even as those around me had frequent blow-ups. I feel bulletproof to the slings and arrows of daily life.
Apparently, yoga lowers your cortisol levels, which is your stress hormone, as well as lowering inflammation in the body and a host of other mental and physical health benefits. Feeling this happen within a week of starting was shocking and made me stop and think about this as a practice with massive benefits to many areas of my life.
Another aspect of this has been my lack of desire to drink alcohol lately. I'm officially doing a No Booze March experiment, but I had been cutting back on drinking for a while. In February I only had 3 drinks, and I just didn't want to drink as much as I used to. I'm not sure if this has had concrete benefits, but I know that when I drink I don't sleep as well, so without drinking, my sleep has improved. By the end of March I had only one drink the whole month. My sleeping had improved, as had my skin, but how much of that was from not drinking, I don't know.
At this point, there are so many changes going on in my life, it's impossible to know what is causing which effect, except for the increased flexibility (which is definitely the Yoga). This is fantastic for my health and mental well-being, but not so great for the scientist in my brain that wants to know which things are making me feel like this. I know I'm losing weight, but is it because of the yoga or the new diet? Probably both, but all I know is that all my pants are falling off me now and my love handles are harder to grab, mostly my hands just graze them and keep going, whereas before they had their own strong gravitational pull.
And it's not stopping! I've realized that I really like the vegetarian cuisine I've been making and have resolved to try to be as much of a vegetarian as I can be, without being doctrinaire or denying myself a steak every now-and-again. The idea of being a "Freegan" appeals to me greatly! To do this, I'm going to try new vegetarian recipes for my weekly cooks in a more concerted effort, instead of just having it sort of happen. Today I found and saved NINE new vegetarian recipes I'm totally excited to try! If I make one a week, that's 9 weeks of vegetarian cooking. It doesn't even feel like a sacrifice. I'm legitimately looking forward to it. I'm not going to call myself a vegetarian, but for the last month, most of my meals haven't had meat in them. I love that this is bringing me into contact with a whole new type of cooking and eating and allowing me to be creative again. It's a lot easier to be vegetarian when you WANT to eat cool new recipes that are delicious and healthy, but just happen not to have meat in them.
Not a resolution, but a new obsession, a new developing identity.
It's so easy to have a resolution that just peters out. Life gets in the way, you get sick, a million things can happen that pull you off the path you know you want to go down, back to easier, familiar territory. A book I read recently that has helped me along this journey is "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. He breaks down the research on how to start and keep good new habits and how to break bad ones. One of the key ways to stick to "a brand new you" is to build the new behavior into a new identity. That new identity is based on values, and will help guide your decisions and behaviors when you're faced with challenges that could knock you off your new path. For me, including "healthy", "vegetarian", and "yoga practitioner" into my identity has felt like snapping puzzle pieces together to create a new picture of myself. It's a picture I like. More importantly, it's a picture I think can continue to guide me into a better future. Hopefully a future where I can pick things off the ground without groaning.
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