Next Sunday, December 5, is when I will plunge into my first half marathon. I do not have an idea, as yet, what I am getting myself into. There are days when I feel I am not sure whether I will be able to make it. After my 3.6k run yesterday and the struggle I went through with my breathing, I wondered whether I should even head out to Pune at all in this week?!?! I guess life is about walking into uncertain alleys and lanes, and, in the process, we might just bump into ourselves and turn into something different from what we were …
Why run a half marathon? The purpose of this blog post, as much as the purpose of my first half marathon, is my deceased grandmother and her no longer present knees. Next Sunday, December 5, I run not only in the memory of my deceased grandmother, but as a prayer for zillions of grandmothers and grandfathers out there who mean so much to this world and to their grandchildren. This run is my hope that people understand that each one of our lives is a gift and as much as we ought to enjoy our gift, we also have a responsibility to care for it.
On 7th October 2010, I lost my dearest maternal grandmother. In the first half of 2005, she underwent her first knee cap surgery. She underwent rehabilitation through physiotherapy thereafter, though I still remember how much she grumbled her way through her life in the first few months after her surgery. Last year, she was advised that she must get her second knee operated for knee cap surgery. The docs perhaps made it sound that it was natural for the second to follow the first, just like elderly people are often advised to undertake cataract surgeries in their second eye after the first one has been operated on. In February this year, my grandmother went through the second surgery of her knee cap. After the surgery, she did not recuperate. Physiotherapy did not work and in fact, she developed complications in other organs of her body. When our family sought second, third and fourth opinions with various doctors, we found that my grandmother had high blood sugar and that she should not have been operated upon in this condition. We also later found that my grandmother had osteoporosis and that her bone density levels were not that good. The doctors who operated on her never let us know this (and we are not even sure whether they themselves cared to check before they operated on her). We were also informed that infections during surgeries commonly occur and that my grandmother’s body had started producing antibodies following the surgery because she had contracted internal infections. In the months that followed her surgery in February, my maternal grandmother ran through various courses of disease, unease, good health and all kinds of ups and downs. Sometimes she showed signs of great recovery and we felt terribly hopeful for her. At other times, she just went downhill, as if gravity were acting on her like it did on the apple that fell on Newton’s head. Eventually, after a series of complications and immense suffering, she passed away. My family and I can of course rationalize her painful death as karma, something we all have to pay for in our lives. But, it also remains, that destinies and karmas are not irreversible – everything in life has a second chance, everything in life comes with choices. It is a matter of becoming aware that there are choices in every situation and that however hopeless a situation may appear to be, there are glints and gleams of hope – it is only a matter of “seeing” them in the haze of anxiety, sorrow, pain and worry ….
When I got back to Bangalore after my grandmother’s funeral and last ceremonies, honestly, the cause of my grandmother’s death and the pain and suffering she went through did not really play on my mind until, one day, as I was passing by Bannerghatta Road, I noticed a couple of hoardings put up by Fortis Hospital which had a picture of a long stairway and it said something to the effect of ‘why suffer the pain in the knees when the solution is at hand’. Basically, this hoarding was an advertisement for knee related surgeries that Fortis was offering. When I first read the captions and made sense of the advertisement, in a way, I felt concerned because it occurred to me that just as we naturalize many problems and diseases in life, it is possible that medical practitioners are suggesting that knee-related problems are ‘but natural’ in old age. I had also found that in recent times, some of my friends, including my own sister, were diagnosed with thyroid imbalances during their pregnancies. At least two of them were told that it is ‘natural’ to have thyroid imbalances in your body during pregnancy. I thought to myself, really? natural? since when? why? how? But I don’t think many patients care to ask these questions to their doctors because they assume that the doc knows best. And even if and when they do raise questions, not all doctors are aware and sensitive enough to answer these questions – sometimes, they just ask you to shut up because they know best. Another example of naturalization is: as you get old, your health goes downhill. Surely, there are deteriorations and wear and tear that happen in our body as we age, but definitely, our good/bad health in old age is the outcome of how we maintained ourselves in our younger ages. There is no taking away from this fact! (though of course there is always scope for miracles in life). I still remember my teacher from my first Vipassana course who had explained to us how he was 75 years old then (9 years ago) and he had no heart related diseases, no cataract, no ill-health. He attributed his good health to his daily practice of meditation. He claimed the same for his wife who was present on the last day of the course with us.
(When Aditya Kulkarni, co-runner from Runners High, informed me about the marathon in Pune, I did not know that I would run the course with this thought for my grandmother and for grandparents in this world. I have found it very hard to reconcile with the fact that people run for causes. Since I started running this year, I have run because I am the cause for which I run – if running can help me transform myself in very small ways, I am already adding to the pool of hope, change and energy that accumulates and spreads out in the universes we inhabit. I am still not pretty sure whether I am running my half marathon in Pune because of a cause … that’s another matter to debate. For now, let’s turn to why I am writing this post.)
So when I registered for my Pune half marathon, I thought I wanted to do this also because of what happened to my grandmother and to create awareness about the problems with knee surgeries in old age. I was fortunate to be referred to Dr. Rajat Chauhan who explained to me some of the issues related with knee problems and precautions to be exercised with exercise. Essentially, he pointed out that it is too complicated to tell people about whether they should or should not get knee surgeries. There are various factors which influence people’s and even medical practitioners’ decisions about knee related surgeries in old age – whether the patient has the financial resources to rehabilitate with/without surgery, whether the patient has blood sugar or other diseases, age, etc. Hence, I was treading a difficult, and perhaps a dangerous, territory by writing about the hazards of knee-related surgeries and whether to get into these or not. Dr. Rajat instead suggested keeping a sharper focus on health and healthiness in the write-up. I also had the opportunity to think through his suggestion and check on my own resources (time and skill) on what I could do in the time that passed between our meeting and this post. I realized that perhaps, a more influential way to reach out is to write the way I write (and the way I am), and so, this post!
So what do I want to say in this long-drawn post? I guess I just want to talk of health and disease, largely based on a number of experiences that I have accumulated from my life and from the lives of several people around me. As I pointed out in the beginning of this post, each of our lives are a gift and as much as we should enjoy this gift, we also need to care for it. And caring can start at any age, just like I have been caring and uncaring of my health and my life in the by-gone decade of my 20s and this one of my 30s. Health and life are not disconnected. In fact, they are fundamentally connected as has been reinforced by different traditions of medicine ranging from nature cure to modern medicine. We are what we eat, what we think, how we do things and the perspectives we hold on our lives and our worlds. And all these are amenable to change once we get in tune with our lives. Sometimes, we need a jolt in the form of disease to know what good health is and how precious it is. At other times, life throws the opportunity at us to know of the value of health through others’ experiences of ill-health. Essentially then, health, in general, is something that enables us to experience a full life and to enjoy the various connections and relationships that make up our lives.
How good health? There are many prescriptions for good health, and what I list here are not trademark to me. Let me try and recount them quickly:
- Change the salt you eat. Switch to rock salt or sea salt and if you are too afraid to give up the packaged iodized salt, include both in your diet by using one in one dish and another in another dish. My nutritionist friend, a very wise one at that, had advised me during my mother’s phase of bad health that Indians do not need the high quantities of iodine that are advertised by packaged salt companies. Also, try rock salt or sea salt for yourself and compare the flavour with iodized salt – I promise that you will find rock salt much easier on the fissures of your tongue than iodized salt which feels like it is cutting the tongue sharply.
- Use different kinds of oils in your daily diet, preferably cold-pressed oils. We are used to eating refined oils which are advertised as good for our health. But, as with all refined food products, the process of refining removes the good qualities from the products and what we get in the end is perhaps something which contains little to zilch nutritional value. Cold-pressed oils are good because they do not burn as easily refined oils at high temperatures. As you would know, once oil burns, it releases chemicals and becomes carcinogenic, thereby increasing the risks of ill-health for our bodies. Also, adding varieties of oils in your cooking, introduces your body to more diverse elements of nature. A friend recently suggested that instead of the oils, try doing the seasoning in foods with the oilseeds themselves – peanuts, sesame, onion and flax seeds, among others – again, a good suggestion!
- Prefer jaggery/s over refined white sugar – it is known that refined white sugar is acidic in nature and because of these acidic properties, it harms the teeth and other flows and systems of the body. There are a variety of jaggery available in the market, especially if you live in Bangalore and Kolkatta, including palm jaggery which are rich in calcium and iron.
- Always eat fruit on an empty stomach and not after a meal (except for papaya). Eating fruit after a full meal causes the food to ferment in the stomach and this process is not good for digestion and absorption of nutrients from the foods you have just intaked.
These are the four fundamentals of diet that I have known with both, my experience as well as with others’. I will not tell you here whether you should switch to vegetarianism or eat only organic foods or whole pulses. These are choices that you have to make depending on your personal resources. What is important to bear in mind is that whatever you eat, in general whatever you do in life, balance is essential. So do things in moderation rather than hit the extremities. I agree that processed meat available in the market is horrible because the poultry are raised in conditions that you would not even want to know about. But, as my wise nutritionist friend notes, if your body craves for a pizza or a chicken burger, or a chaat, go for it because if your body is asking for it, it will also digest it. But along with all this ‘junk’, as it is commonly referred to, remember to eat your fruits, nuts, veggies, lean cut meats, and if possible, rices other than the polished white rice variety. Drink enough water, though it is still debated how much water is enough for the body. At the end of the day, it is important to maintain the ph balance in body i.e., the acid-alkaline balance, so that the composition of your blood (mainly the salts and the calcium) is maintained and that your blood does not have to draw out calcium from your bones (one of the fundamental causes of reduction in bone density and weak bones).
On exercise, it sure is a very good thing, but it is also easy to go overboard and berserk with it. Therefore, moderation here is also good. I run because Runners’ High makes it a lot of fun and at the same time, our coaches emphasize on the importance of foot drills, stretches and cross training to stay injury free. At the same time, running has given me the strength to face tough situations in life and gain a different perspective. For each one of us then, different forms of exercises work/don’t work, in diverse ways. Basically then, it is for each one of us to figure out what works for us and what does not work for our bodies and constitutions. To figure this out, we each need patience, faith, trust and the ability to discern when to intervene, how to intervene and most importantly, how much to intervene.
Finally, foods, exercise and meditation are mutually inter-related. It is known in different traditions that we are what we eat and how different foods affect not only our bodies, but also our minds and our spirits. Each of these elements helps us to get in tune with our lives and in tune with everything else around us. It is all a matter of taking the time off to care for ourselves. And, it is really never too late to take stock of our lives, and to change. I have known my own parents who do not exercise and who do not necessarily lead ultra healthy lives, though they have certain habits that have stood them the test of times. But my parents meditate regularly and keep perfecting their faith in what they believe to be god and goodness. And, most importantly, their life experiences, including the toughest and the worst ones, have gone a long way in inculcating in them the value of equanimity – the ability to face every moment of life with calm and coolness.
I think I gotta end this long drawn out post here. All I can say, once more, is that our lives are gifts to us and to others around us – make the most, do the best and the worst, live life to the hilt and at the same time, take time to care, introspect, reflect …
P.S. The title of this blog post may sound very cryptic. But it is perhaps most basic and fundamental. I started listening to a song of the same title done by a band named ‘Garbage’ when I began writing here. I realized then that the trick in life is really to keep breathing, whatever the situation. You can take the title of this post to mean faith, equanimity, radical-ness, rootedness, etc, etc. It’s all yours!