Saying ‘Yes’ and Unlocking New Worlds

on Nov 18, 2012

Washington DC, Montreal, the Catskills, Boston, Brazil, Killington, Boulder, the Adirondacks, Puerto Rico, and Moab. The past year has been filled with new experiences, travels, and adventure. But it was not by accident. It required stepping out of comfort zones and flipping upside-down the very way I approached life.

Brazil – this is where it starts. I made almost no plans for this trip. I’d be there with friends from my capoeira academy and would go along with whatever they did. I’d for long wanted to become comfortable with personal travel and experiencing things by just going with it. Until then, I’d been an intrepid planner and became easily unnerved when plans weren’t in detail or when they became unravelled. This trip was just what I needed. On the way there, I missed a connecting flight after landing in Sao Paulo and had rearrange my pickup (this required figuring out a complicated phone system by asking around for help in Portuguese). Upon meeting my friends in Bahia, they asked if I was interested in a capoeira workshop that night. Of course. They then said that its location was a little sketchy and that locals told them “don’t get shot” (it turned out fine). The rest of my time there required handling such uncertainties, especially given the nature of ‘Bahia time’, where things move at a relaxed pace.

Boston – my bus lands an hour or two late. I’d miss the first group roller blading event. A past me would have been upset at ruined plans. But hey, the weather was beautiful and there was a new city waiting to be explored on skates. I dropped off my bag with the event hotel concierge and made my own skating “event”. The ad-hoc planning was rather appropriate. I’d purchased my bus tickets just two days earlier (despite “planning” to attend this event well ahead of then) and would not figure out where I’d be sleeping until that night. There is a method to this madness – I call it just-in-time planning. There’s two parts: have a rough sense of options ahead of time and act on them at nearly the last possible moment. For example, I knew that I could reach Boston by train, bus, or car and didn’t really worry about which until the trip neared. Likewise, I figured I’d be able to stay with some skater friend (I’m fortunate to have many) who has extra space or a patch of floor, or at worst I’d just sleep outside. I asked around and it worked out. Better yet: the good skater friends I stayed with became great skater friends.

New York – this flexibility and spontaneity spreads into my typical weeks, making them not so typical. I used to be a real stickler about making my usual weekly events, like the groups skates or martial arts class. Doing so paid off handsomely with my skills flourishing but this limited new experiences. Another flip: I began to miss usual events to explore new activities, new places, new friendships, and often all of the above, and learned a great deal about life and myself. I still really hate to miss a capoeira class here and there, but I know it’s for opportunities of great personal growth in self and open mindedness.

Each experience lends to build future experiences. Saying yes to one thing that is out of one’s comfort zone makes it easier to say yes to other things. Knowing that you can splice together a plan at the last second removes worries about how things are turning out and lets you enjoy each moment at the moment. Flexibility leads to profound experiences as unexpected details fill themselves in.

P.S. I really missed writing these posts. I hope my absence in writing is understandable. It means a lot to me when friends tell me that they liked my last post or ask when they’ll see the next one. Life’s been full of surprises lately – I hope to have some more writings for you soon 😉

Avoid Illness by Making Your Body Resilient

on Dec 18, 2011

It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.

Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.

The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.

Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.

We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.

The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.

As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!

The Quickening Generation Gaps – Can You Keep Up?

on Sep 12, 2011

“Kids these days, with their this and their that and the way they’re always doing that and this.” It’s a common mantra stated by the elders of the time – a fact of life for hundreds if not thousands of years. Who can blame them, though? It is often the case that the older folks making these remarks grew up in a world different than the one of the kids. Humans continue to advance – the kids will grow to adults and soon face a world vastly different than the one they’ve grown up in.

But something has changed in the last generation. The people that make these remarks now include individuals that are as young as 25 years. It’s outrageous how so many young adults are left totally perplexed about the behavior of people just 10 or 15 years younger than them. Again, who can blame them? We are in the midst of an incredible technological revolution – a consequence is that generation gaps are taking far less time.

Let this sink in – it’s a rather scary implication for anyone over the age of 20. It means that you’re already falling behind on technology. This is a bold claim and you can choose to accept it or deny it.

Most people fall into the latter, conforming to the pattern of dismissing what the youngins are doing. They’ll say that it’s stupid; that the kids addicted to some technology or another and not using it correctly; that things were better before all this complexity. In many respects,these claims may be right, but that isn’t the point. The kids foreshadow the future. They indadvertedly dictate how technologies evolve and be used.

If you’re in the former category and understand that what the young generations are doing is significant, you stand a chance at not becoming a dinosaur. There’s no guarantee though. Keeping up is no easy task considering the speed at which technology is advancing. Still, I offer a few hints:

Be open minded to the way you see people use technology – especially so if it’s in a manner that you find surprising. That goes double if it’s something that affects a large percentage of a generation. Try to understand the dynamics across the population. Be aware of how young people are not using technology – what have they found as inessential? Understand the viewpoint that the generation has. When a fourteen year old says that the iPad is better than a laptop because it does more, you get a world of insight.

But wait, isn’t there a risk in following the thoughts of people less experienced in life? Yes, there is much to wary of. The young folks will make many mistakes due to their naivety. But there’s still a lot of value in their world view if for one reason: they are not colored by the past; they have no allegiance for what existed before them – they only see the future based on the technology of the present.

This doesn’t mean that the teenagers are off the hook though – because it’s now not uncommon to see a two-year old legitimately interacting with devices like iPhones. Can you imagine the technological savviness such individuals will have when they’re older? Can you imagine what the world will look like through their eyes? We’ve all got our work cut out for us if we wish to keep up with this. The next few years and decades will be either more interesting or massively confusing – and it hinges on whether you’ve kept up.

Why I Sleep on a Wooden Board

on Aug 29, 2011

Yes, I sleep on a plywood board – as part of an apparently successful experiment I began four years ago. At the time, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. But I expected that it would be good experience to help build character and hardiness. So here’s what I’ve learned after four years:

  • I find it fairly comfortable – more so than a mattress
  • The pressure from my body weight is very soothing
  • The pressure also provides relief for sore muscles – which is a typical state for me given the amount of physical activity I do
  • It’s left me more adaptable – when I travel, a sleeping bag and slab of floor will do; no need for a mattress
  • It’s more pleasant in the summer because it doesn’t trap body heat like a mattress – it does require more blankets in the winter, however

A few notes:

  • I’m not sleeping directly on the plywood itself – at minimum there are sheets and perhaps a blanket between me and plywood
  • At first, I slept only on my back – this was an adjustment because I never did this before – but I’ve since come to sleep on every side
  • It’s not particularly comfortable to sleep directly on any bony parts

As mentioned, this is an experiment, albeit a long one. I don’t intend to sleep on plywood forever. Still, I believe a good bed is one that’s very firm. There’s a new experiment planned – sleeping overnight in a hammock. Let’s see how that works…

The Adapting Magic of Our Muscles

on Oct 25, 2010

What’s easier to climb up: 100 feet of stairs or 50 feet of a gradual incline? For most people, it’d be the latter, but as I learned firsthand in a recent hiking trip, our bodies can adapt in strange ways through regular training.

A few months ago, a couple of friends and I went on several challenging day hikes in Yosemite National Park. The first day was a hike between Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which involved moderate elevation gain through gradual slopes. Still, my legs were feeling wiped out on the return hike. And this hike was supposed to be the warm up since the following days would feature significantly greater elevation gains.

The second day was the hike up to Half Dome and it began with gradual inclines. My legs were already feeling it. Shortly after, upon reaching the Vernal Fall, we were faced with a whole lot of stairs carved into the stone (that explained how we’d be covering so much elevation). As I walked up the stairs, I noticed something strange – it was eerily easy. And that I wasn’t walking up the steps – rather, I was running up 2 steps at a time. Was it that my legs were warmed up or was there something more going on? Perhaps it had something to do with the way my legs were shaped from my everyday physical activity (inline skating and two forms of martial arts).

The third day was more grueling as we hiked up to the Upper Yosemite Fall and across to El Capitan, where some portions of the trail have alternating segments of inclines and stairs. At this point, my legs were pretty worn out from the previous days of hiking. Upon coming across inclines, I slowly struggled my way up with my legs in pain. Then as the trail switched to stairs, I was sprinting with all the energy in the world. That is, until I the trail became a slope once again.

My suspicions were confirmed: my legs were clearly faring very well on steeper segments, such as stairs, and badly on less steep slopes. In essence, the steeper portions require a hiker to bend the knee more and use a full motion of the leg. This was a very familiar motion for me, because in my skating technique and my martial arts forms I get into a low stance and use my entire leg for the technique at hand. My legs were not only used to this motion, but were quite efficient at it from years of training. The less steep slopes, however, require the hiker to use just a small portion of their legs, and this motion is typically easier. This was certainly the case for one of the friends I was hiking with. He was fine on the gradual inclines, but the stairs proved to be challenging (and I surmise that this is the case for most people). Yet for me, the situation was drastically reversed. My body had been transformed from years of training to provide efficiency in very different circumstances.

The big takeaway from this experience is that our bodies are very good at adapting to specific circumstances. It was obvious from my experience that my muscles had become very efficient in motions generally considered difficult. And vice versa – that my body was less efficient at smaller movements that most people find comfortable. It’s certainly something to think about when training oneself and in facing physical challenges. What style of activity are you training? What is your body becoming naturally better at? In some ways we may be able to face seemingly difficult challenges with ease and, in my case, be humbled by challenges we’re not accustomed to.

The Misleading Meaning of ‘Enriched’ Flour

on Mar 20, 2010

In many food products you’ll see the term enriched flour. This applies to grains such as wheat, corn, and rice. You’ll also see the addition of reduced ironniacin, and other B vitamins. This is all very misleading but, ironically, a good indication that the food has been processed.

When a grain is processed, it loses quite a lot of its nutritional value. When food companies first did this with grains, people became very sick and developed diseases. It was quickly noticed that processed grain was nutritionally deficient. The government stepped in and stated that food companies were to add back the missing nutrients. Hence they were enriched. While the quick-to-occur diseases were halted, there was no determination on the long term effects of processed grains. Decades later, we have a society afflicted with widespread obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

The fact remains that in processing grains, the food is broken. Even returning specific nutrients to the food can’t account for all that was lost. The mechanics of food and health is a complicated thing on the level of nutrients. So next time you’re shopping for grains, avoid the enriched stuff. Go for the whole grain. It’ll make a mountain of difference in your health and wellbeing. If you don’t find whole grains palatable, slowly introduce it into your diet and you will adjust to it and even come to enjoy it.

Ease Yourself into Physical Activity, But Be Sure to Sweat

on Mar 6, 2010

So you’d like to get into better shape but perhaps you’re finding it a bit daunting or are concerned with whether you’ll stick with it. If it’s been a while since you’ve done serious (as in, enough to get you sweating and feeling sore afterwards) physical activity , then start off easy. Your body will need to readjust to the motions and intensity. By starting off slow, you minimize the shock factor. If you happen to start off intensely, then your whole body will be utterly sore and things will be very painful. This on its own isn’t a bad thing (assuming no injuries occur from such a drastic change) but you might be less inclined to continue with the training. Now of course this doesn’t mean take it so easy that you don’t break a sweat. You should be pushing it enough to be sweating and feel sore later on. A workout, after all, requires work, though hopefully it’s something you enjoy (or come to enjoy over time, which often happens). Over time, you should ramp up the physical activity as your body (and your attitude if need be) will get used to the change.

We’re Great at Adjusting – Use it to Your Advantage

on Feb 25, 2010

We’re actually very good at ‘getting used to things’. Our minds are built to see things in a relative, or comparative, manner rather than on an absolute scale. Our bodies and behaviors also adjust and can change their set-point (much like setting a thermostat) and redefine comfort zones. We’re often not aware of how strongly this works because it takes time, and sometimes a lot of it. Likewise, gradual changes work better than drastic ones since it’s easier and quicker for us to adapt to smaller changes. You can leverage this to reach goals or take comfort in knowing that some challenge will become easier.

So suppose you wanted to eat better. Well if you typically ate processed food and moved on to real food, your body is gonna put up resistance to the change. But only at first. Over time, your mind and your body (including your taste buds) will make the adjustment. At some point, you’ll actually really enjoy your new diet and will become disgusted with process food (this has happened to me and others I know).

There are a couple of things to consider. One is to take things gradually. This limits the mental and physical resistance you’d have to deal with. The other thing is to keep all this in mind and have a proper attitude. Accept that things will take time so you have to keep at it. That things may be uncomfortable but they’ll get easier. Remember that this is progress to reach an respectable goal. And take comfort in knowing you’ll adjust to the new changes and they’ll become your new ‘normal’.