Sunday, September 6, 2009

Uncharted Territory

This fall we’re entering uncharted territory. While that’s true for each and every day, we’ve largely shielded ourselves from this reality with the safety and security of our routine. Every so often, a hurricane, earthquake or tornado interrupts our routine, and it’s interesting to see what portions of our old routine is regained, and what sloughs away in the transition.

The H1N1 virus is our portal to uncharted territory in the coming months. We have no idea what may transpire – perhaps this is exaggerated like Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction, or we may be looking down the barrel of an epidemic. We have no idea, nor do we have much control. While our public health officials are working diligently to stave off a full-blown epidemic, the tools seem undersized for the task at hand.

I’m reminded of a tooth-brushing lesson hosted by my elementary school some 35 years ago. A community dentist came into our school and class-by-class, taught us the proper brushing technique. After an informative filmstrip, we went to the cafeteria to practice our newfound mastery of the toothbrush. The infrastructure was a bit flimsy (many of the boys struggled to spit into the paper cup), though we all managed to learn something. I believe my lesson may have run contrary to the stated goals of the program, though it’s lasted for decades.

After we brushed our teeth, the dentist handed us a red tablet to chew. While this red tablet likely contained dyes outlawed along with DDT, they were a common aspect of children’s dentistry in the 1970’s. It was said that the red-color would only stick on bacteria that you hadn’t scrubbed away. The goal was to brush your teeth and have no red-color in your mouth after chewing the tablet. Nobody achieved the stated goal. Even Alicia, the most thorough kid in the class, looked vaguely ghoulish after her tablet. We all erupted in peals of laughter – it looked like Halloween. Alicia had mastered printing, she could color within the lines and even her burgeoning cursive was readable. Despite this precocious attention to detail, Alicia’s teeth were streaked with red.

The bacteria demonstrated themselves to be formidable foes. If they could survive the perspicacity of Alicia, they could certainly survive the furtive lunges of my brushing technique. It was apparent that something besides brushing was keeping my teeth from rotting away, though it would be many years before I’d investigate this observation.

To stay healthy, the condition of the host is more important than the virulence of the pathogen. Words to this effect have been attributed to Louis Pasteur, the father of antibiotics; and there’s a lot of truth to the statement. We have little control over the external world, though we can change our reaction to the events that occur in our own life. We can scarcely disinfect our homes, schools and workplaces to be germ-free, any more than we can brush ourselves to bacteria-free mouths. We can, however, practice habits that build our inner resistance to disease. For the coming cold and flu season, there is a lot that’s out of our control. In the face of this reality, how do we increase our odds of staying healthy?

Building a healthy immune system is one of the most powerful strategies for staying healthy. A healthy system is naturally resistant to illness, regardless the tenacity of the disease. Now is the time to start building your immune system – before the cool weather sends us back indoors.

The “Five E’s” of a healthy immune system are all part of the Yogic lifestyle:
• eating a nutritious diet
• enough rest
• exercise regularly
• engage in healthy relationships
• embark on the spiritual path

A regular practice of yoga postures helps to keep the body limber and the lymphatic system in good shape, which is a key component of the immune system. Without the benefit of a pump (like the heart), the lymphatic fluid quickly stagnates. Yoga asana keeps the lymphatic system healthy by stretching and strengthening each part of the body.

The Yogic lifestyle generally leads us to eat healthier and more nutrient-dense foods. If the body is well-nourished, it will be more robust and resistant to disease. Similarly with rest - when we’re well-rested, we’re generally more cheerful and clear-headed. This same clarity and competence is revealed in the immune system when we’ve obtained sufficient rest.

Humans are social creatures, and the message we may hear from the well-intentioned health officials is to isolate ourselves - from germs, from disease, and thereby from one another. Scientific studies repeatedly show that people who stay active in their community live longer and healthier lives. While we may fear communicable disease, we’re likelier to stay healthy when we engage with our community. As we enter this upcoming cold and flu season, may our hopes carry more energy than our fears.

Lastly, we are a triune of body, mind and spirit. If any aspect is neglected, the other aspects wither. The power of prayer in healing is a timeless truth that I myself have seen in action in my own life and the lives of my students. When we’re stressed, it’s often tempting to let this part of life fall away. Even if it seems like there isn’t enough time to accomplish anything but the bare necessities, be sure to pause for even a few moments to reflect on your place in the larger world around you – your immune system will be much stronger!

The old Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" is certainly applicable to our current age. We can modify our external circumstances to a certain extent, though it’s our inner life that holds the greatest potential for change. While washing hands remains an intelligent approach to managing the spread of disease, consider avenues to fortify your internal resistance to disease. There is little to lose, and much to be gained!



Patricia said...

I love your comments regarding the lymphatic system, a part of the body that doesn't get discussed much, except in yoga class! Yoga is helpful for folks who don't get much exercise, especially the overweight, so I developed a program just for us curvy gals and beefy guys: Big Yoga®. There are other programs for those who are chair bound, (Integral Yoga®) the disabled, and the inflexible (Mukunda Styles's Joint Freeing Series). I encourage everyone who hasn't been to the gym lately to go to the mat! You don't have to be thin to enjoy the benefits of Yoga!

Tracy said...

Scott, I'm curious when you mention the lymph system if you have worked specifically with anyone with lymphedema & yoga...sounds interesting! Great article too : )

Beth said...

I absolutely love your blog. You are very poignant and always remind me of the importance of my practice and how it is interelated with everything in my life.
Thank you!

Deb said...

Nursing a cold & & thankful it's not the flu - - BIG, (make that HUGE) reminder to pay attention to diet & rest even when busy.

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