Exactly a year and a half back, we were wheeling in our son into the emergency OPD for a bone-deep gash he suffered on his forehead. While I noticed that he was as cool as a cucumber except a few sporadic oohs and ouches, the neighboring pediatric ward was resonating with heart-wrenching cries of a toddler being needled with a vaccine booster dose!
From an “Ouch!” to “Oh my God”, pain has made you remember your mother and, your belief in the almighty stronger, atleast a few times by now. For one it could just be a stubbed toe to bring the roof down while for another, only after 20 broken bones will you hear a yelp. Ofcourse there is always an intrinsic personality of individuals that make them perceptive and reactive to pain in contrasting ways, but could a scientific possibility be ruled out?
That wriggly curious worm inside didn’t let me rest in peace till I could fill the blanks up. We all have the same pain receptors (nociceptors-in technical terms), the same neurosensory pathway, the same nerve endings and the same god-damn cerebral cortex, yet we differ in our response to pain. Why?
Pain is the Protector!
Pain is extremely important. Yes, you heard it right. Pain is uncomfortable but it is the foremost signal given to the body that it needs protection and healing. If you lose sensation to pain, you are at a greater risk of losing your life.
Don’t confuse threshold with tolerance
Pain Threshold and Pain Tolerance are two completely different things. When I say I don’t feel much pain if I accidently hurt my thumb while chopping vegetables, I have a high threshold to pain: which means I start perceiving pain as a discomfort only at a higher intensity. So I need my whole thumb to be chopped off my palms to finally bawl out in pain! At the same time, I can perhaps feel immense pain with a severed thumb yet can bear it till the cows come home! That would define my tolerance to pain. The diversity in phrasing these two aspects of pain determines the response to it.
To simplify this, “it doesn’t pain that much” tells about your threshold to sense pain; and “it is paining but I can manage” tells about your tolerance to pain.
“I cannot explain how much that pains!”
“Come on, be brave!”
Your psychological state has a direct impact on your perception of pain. The knee doesn’t hurt as much as your heart does. And all those baffled hormones and neurotransmitters are making your more vulnerable and less tolerant to even a pink prick.
“I ran the marathon despite a bad Achilles heal!”
Not that they are born with nociceptors with super-human power, but because they develop the tolerance with will power and consistent endurance exercises. Exercise is known to manipulate the neuroendocrine system, making it, if I can say, tougher and resilient. Another reason to get those limbs moving and muscles screaming!
“Boys don’t cry!”
While one school of thought swears by the tremendous pain-tolerance capacity of women owing to their intrinsic child-bearing attribute, others do not accept any refutation to men being the stronger ones. Going by biology, I will have to very reluctantly admit (my double X is not liking this admission!)) that women do have slightly lower tolerance and threshold to pain because of less natural painkillers like endogenous opioids and circulating beta endorphins. Women are what their hormones tell them. Their sensitivity to pain varies across their menstrual cycle and unfortunately women are more likely to suffer from chronic pains later in life than men do. Sounds outraging but it makes sense.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily make men more tolerant. (I admit once again that I have a strong feminist streak!). There is a deep rooted conditioning that men are subjected to as young as toddlers and boys of basically braving every onslaught without any hint of expressed pain and sadness. (But then, aggression is allowed! Rather expected!). This psychosocial conditioning is a major reason why boys grow up into men who take risks, brush off injuries and say “I am fine” more often than women!
When Tolerance Turns Toxic…
Extreme threshold and tolerance to pain is not a gift of god everytime! It can be a huge deterrent to your health and wellbeing. Not allowing your body to feel pain in its natural acuity and chronicity can confuse your body’s fundamental healing process.
Pain can make you and break you too. But to brave the pain, we need to feel the pain first. It is undoubtedly a blessing to be able to bear pain and yet come out victorious, physically or emotionally. Nevertheless, sensitivity to pain can be modulated. If you fall on the lower side of the scale, there are more than enough ways to increase your threshold and tolerance. But if you are on the other side of spectrum, you have some task to do before you are faced with a bigger monster!
A grade 3 boy whom I used to tutor many years back was a perennial sneezer; and he had this incredible skill of somehow making the precious droplets land exactly on my forearms making me smell like an peeved up Halyomorpha halys (stink bug) all through the evening! After 18 years of that experience, I decided to nose-dive into this phenomenon. Well, literally!
Sneezing can be pretty annoying; but offering a stinky sneeze to someone will surely not fetch you ‘bless yous’ ! That three inch of protrusion right between your eyes has a lot of sensing to do. Your nose picks up odours from every fleck floating in the air but did you imagine it smelling its own excretion? A stinky sneeze is for real. We all emanate diverse odours with sneezes, some just about to avoid any embarrassment while some that can put a skunk to shame!
A malodorous sneeze definitely embarrasses you in public but it poses something proverbially deeper than what meets the nose! The smell of your sneeze can indicate underlying pathological conditions.
The winner’s trophy goes to none other than your bad breath!
Your breath has been a crowd repellant off-late and you have been stuffing a whole line of mentos down your throat, but to no avail. Sneezing causes saliva droplets to escape and chaperone out your dirty secrets through the nose.
Bad breath or halitosis traces down to compromised dental hygiene and very often, smoking. Periodontitis, dental cavities, tooth decay and unclean tongue are the most prevalent causes of halitosis and consequentially add a sour putrid odor to your sneeze. And if you are the one who can kill humans with your breath-bomb, then one can only imagine how explosive your sneeze can be!
The second greatest culprits causing you embarrassing foul sneezes are those hollow cavities sitting inside your skull, the sinuses. Allergies or bacterial/viral infections, especially chronic ones, cause stagnant nasal and sinus secretions to turn obnoxious and foul-smelling over the time. If you are a regular visitor to your doctor for sinusitis-related problems, be prepared to host some evil sneezes on your neighbor!
Snuff with Sweetness!
“Honey, your sneeze stinks.” You just managed to get rejected by your honey boney’s kiss, thanks to mr. bad breath. But what about are sneezes which smell of honey??! It is difficult to catch a sweet smell unless there is a night jasmine bush growing through your nasal mucosa. But if you manage to feel any sugary-sweetist or honey-like essence in your sneeze, there may be a possibility of diabetes or related complications like ketoacidosis lurking right under your nasal bridge! See a doctor and get that damn dragon under control.
Smoky is not always sensous!
The name says it all. Trash those cigrarette packs rightaway. You may have gobbled up 5 mints to drive the stench away from your breath but one sneeze, and your daddy will know what you have been upto.
Face it, if your saliva smells lousy, your sneeze will not smell like vanilla! And whether you like it or not, your sneeze can tell out all your secrets. It may be a transient condition and a timely remediation can save you from lifelong embarrassments. So next time get your olfactory neurons on double duty and observe if you can sniff any unpleasant whiffs!
Anxiety can get the better of anyone. You can lose concentration, develop gastric ulcers, graduate towards depression, get aggressive, pick at people or worst, pick at your own skin! Yes, you heard it right, pathological skin picking exists and is serious psychological disorder. If we look around keenly we will find almost every third person biting nails (onychophagy), breaking their acnes, chewing on their skin (dermatophagy) or picking at it. Such habits, which are often ignored as silly disgusting ones could be a consequence of stress, depression and anxiety. Also technically known as Excoriation disorder or dermatillomania, skin picking falls under the umbrella of Obsessive Compulsive disorders. It is as noxious a habit as substance abuse and can be shockingly fatal too if not treated with behavioral or pharmacological interventions.
As teenagers, we used to enjoy cracking acne and pimples on not just our own faces, but our friends’ too! It pained us like crazy after the first rupture, and the second, yet we would somehow find a deep satisfaction and pleasure in continuing to do so till our faces got sore with hemorrhaging eruptions! Skin picking was not alien to us, just that we didn’t know that it was a disorder. As young children, it was easier to break habits because we would invariably have our parents standing with whips around us, or perhaps small life bumps didn’t throw us off-guard. But as we progressed in age, our lifestyle, socioeconomic factors, interpersonal relationships, work pressure and lack of support turned our stress level into an ace tennis shot that could not be returned! Be it as gross as alcoholism and substance abuse or as subtle as biting nails and picking skin, more than often, psychological habits become untenable to break.
Your first reaction to someone earnestly picking at his skin would be to stop him. Next would be to find it repulsive and perhaps vanish from the sight. But any kind of revolting response from you would not deter the picker to stop. This is plainly because it is a compulsive action. There is a clear lack of control over the urge to pick since the act gives an initial sense of pleasure till a point a peeled skin breaks and a wound starts to stare back. Not that he is unaware of it, oh hell yes, it pains! The wound bleeds and soon invites infections to grow into purulent lesions, disfigurement and turn into septic tanks!
If you are an ardent skin picker, we are going to find your brain telling you things like these (in exact order of events!):
The neuroimage film of a picker will be as clean as a non-pickers. But the images will definitely show minor or major changes in brain activity for those suffering from acute/chronic anxiety disorders and lack of motor-inhibitory control. To say it in simpler terms, picking has been considered just a by-product of an underlying monstrous process and a shoulder to lean on. Yet, its severity in most of the cases has compelled experts to treat it as a primary disorder since it comes with distinct clinical features and an outstanding incident rate. Increased and constant dopamine concentration has been seen in pickers, which clearly indicated the compulsive intention to derive pleasure in picking despite pain receptors screaming at them to stop!
Pick your food to stop picking!
This crucial aspect always goes underestimated and unnoticed.
Appease the Hercules
The only therapy for picking is treating the cause.
Skin picking can be as traumatizing as any other pathological condition; and it being catastrophic to the limit of turning fatal is alarming.
A 51 year old was wheeled in to the emergency for a possible stroke. On closer examination, a deep gash splitting right through her dermal layers and exposing her cranium was revealed. The neuroimages indicated an intracranial infection which caused her intense dizziness and headache for days before she collapsed.
With a history of severe acne and an uncontrollable urge to pick at them first with a sewing needle and finally with a knitting needle, she finally landed herself on a cruise close to death!
As I was rummaging through substantial information for this blog, reading this case report set my panic button on and I just managed to rip the cuticle off my index finger! I need a band-aid as much as the pickers need aid. And if you are one, leave your skin alone and grab your sanity back!
“With the power of pen and a good cup of tea, you can write history!”
It took me a full mug of tea to come up with this quote. Gradually I have come to accept that it is indeed a palpable physiological requirement of a creative mind to be constantly fed with motivation…via the gut! Whether staining ink on paper or straining fingers on keyboard, writers will always keep one hand free to grab their cup of motivation. My steaming motivational mug, either empty or half full or brimming, is of tea. Yes, Tea it is; and not even an apocalypse can come between my tea and me.
Writing needs copious amount of creativity and concentration. A beverage that can give the much-required nudge is always welcome. And what better than tea can give that luxuriant punch. For some, it is coffee but coffee comes with an overload of caffeine. Brewed tea has 4 times lesser caffeine than coffee making it a much safer stimulant to rely on.
Chemically, caffeine is similar looking to, but an antidote to Adenosine, the sleepy hormone. Adenosine binds to its receptors and causes drowsiness and caffeine essentially exploits its structural similarity with adenosine and blocks its activity. So it basically confuses the neurons and prevents drowsiness. Alert and awake, isn’t that how you feel after hoisting down a cup of tea?
Tea not only keeps you alert and awake but it also relaxes you. While excessive caffeine through coffee can give you periods of jitters, tea with its controlled caffeine concentration and a welcoming burst of antioxidants, prevents mess-ups and erratic changes in focus and concentration. Unlike coffee, tea doesn’t give a rush. Its effect is more sustained and for a longer period of time. And isn’t that exactly what a writer wants?
Alpha wave to make you crave
Did you know that even if you are not asleep, just shutting your eyelids can change the entire pattern of brain activity? Alpha brain-waves or neural oscillations are rhythmic patterns of electrical neural activity in the brain which originate in states of wakeful relaxation, poise and calmness. These alpha waves are known to be triggered and enhanced by an amino-acid L-theanine which is found abundantly in tea leaves. (And that is how tea gets its botanical name Thea sinensis!) Tea thereby, owing to its bounteous theanine content, offers that relaxing and calming effect much needed by writers for processing and translating thoughts onto paper. So next time you see a writer on his couch, with his eyes shut and fingers clutching to a mug of tea, you know that most stunning piece of art is about to be penned down!
If you are a tea lover, you have just picked earth’s most diverse beverage for your taste buds! You name the flavour and you have it. The beauty of tea is in its subtlety and the ease with which any flavour can be infused along. You will be surprised to know that writers change their preference for flavors depending upon the time of the day, essence of their write-ups, seasons and mood. A close friend who writes travel and food blogs kept me intrigued for the longest time about this amazing collection of flavored tea bags decorated on his desk. “I need my strong black oolong for the rainy days documenting anthologies of global African movements and perhaps just a simple masala cutting chai on a midnight-highway-drive to gather my thoughts” he said, finally quenching my curiosity, as he sipped away his wild berry-hibiscus tea blogging about ancient kitchen hacks for contemporary cooking!
The stimulation and alertness tea offers is a bonus that no writer would want to refuse. But every good thing comes with a disclaimer. Tea, like any other caffeinated beverage can be a victim to addiction. And caffeine addiction can be deliciously convenient to happen! A cup or two daily does no harm but habitual frequent tea consumption can turn the tables for the writers. Which is why we often see creative people hanging around with habits like smoking and excessive caffeine consumption to keep their cortex hyper-activated and drown away professional downfalls which comes naturally with any creative profession.
The rescue ‘tea’m!
Writers have a tough time balancing the flow of creative juices with professional churning. Pressure to create and lack of sleep are writers’ biggest nightmare! And as hard as they may try, this can be mentally crippling. For this reason, the collection of infusions in their cabinet for that critical submission deadline or a short trip to the tea stall down the street to drive away the blues of a rejected verse, tea is always to rescue. Haters can burn, but the truth prevails that nothing on this planet can un-fog the right cerebrum as impeccably as a refreshing cup of tea can!
That, it is hard to get a beverage as stimulating as tea, stays irrefutable. As an aspiring writer, hours of stagnancy makes me often swivel with hunger pangs. Especially later afternoons and evenings drag painfully long without something to munch on; and tea is my batman. Tried and tested, it is an excellent substitute for all those unwanted junk my body wants to gobble down. And a handful of blueberries and almonds to go with tea, can keep a writer’s focus and memory in place. As I sip on my cup of nectar and close my eyes, the double dose of alpha waves prepares me for my next blog.
Are you already mo’tea’vated enough? If not, pour in your precious infusion and say cheers to a writer’s elixir of creative immortality!
“I know there was someone lurking behind my wardrobe. He was there to harm me. I would at times feel his presence right next to me, and sometimes sitting right on my chest. But I couldn’t scream or move or run; as if I have been seized and chained with a boulder on my chest. My vocal cords, my limbs, my back felt paralyzed. And then I would finally wake up to see nothing and no one! I feel like my body and mind can't figure out if I am starting my morning routine or in somnolence and I end up stuck kind-of halfway!” she explained to her psychotherapist, for whom she must be the 50th patient coming in plagued and distressed with this experience. Of every 10 of us reading this, 4 would have experienced something similar atleast once in our lifetime. Sleep paralysis is indeed a very common experience inflicting 40-50% of human population.
How is it like being sleep paralytic?
If you have experienced atleast 6 out of the following symptoms, you definitely belong to that 50% population:
Before science took over, humans who experienced these symptoms were believed to be taken over by demonic forces! Lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown lead people to practice exorcism over sufferers of sleep paralysis which ended up only exacerbating their already vexing psychological state. It was only later in 1928 that a British neurologist, S.A.K. Wilson evolved the concept of sleep paralysis in his dissertation, ‘The Narcolepsies’, rubbishing the age old version of paranormality and nighttime satanic invasions.
And with several wavering theories around it, two that have been conclusive about pathophysiology of sleep paralysis are:
Sleep paralysis is scary, to say the least. The intense experience of fear of being harmed and the inability to protect yourself while you lie on your bed, feeling incapacitated and breathless makes this an extremely draining experience which can continue even after one is awake and stay on through the day.
Did you know that these common lifestyle factors can make you more prone to sleep paralysis?
1. Consistently insufficient sleep or irregular shifts Sleep well, at the right time and for atleast 6 hours a day. Maintain the circadian rhythm of nighttime sleep and daytime wakefulness to ensure regulated cortisol levels.
2. Eating heavy and sugary meals before bed
Cut down on your meal size at night. And for sugar, a complete NO! it is not just excessive carbs but also too much protein to compensate can be tumultuous on your system. Save them for earlier in the day.
3. Persistent stress or psychological conditions Postpone your visit to a dentist but make sure to fix one with a psychotherapist/counsellor or psychiatrist. Your mental health comes foremost. Chronic stress may lead to undesirable psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, to name a few. These play havoc on your sleep quality rendering sleep paralysis inevitable.
4. Sleeping on back
Trivial as it may sound, your sleeping posture has a big impact on your sleep quality. That does not mean sleeping on back is a direct risk for experiencing sleep paralysis but it increased the likelihood of it, especially if other factors are playing alongside.
5. Substance abuse or excessive alcohol consumption
A leading case study of alcoholics who had a 10 year history of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms had recurrent bouts of sleep paralysis which frayed from acute chronic to mild moderate and eventually to complete absence once they were de-addicted and rehabilitated.
If you already have stress-related issues or even minor sleep disturbances, occasional alcohol consumption too can trigger sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is multifactorial. It is a cumulative consequence of two or more factors affecting your lifestyle. But the good news is that it is completely curable. Once narcolepsy is ruled out, (since it is partly a genetic disorder and requires intense medical intervention) other parameters can be concentrated on. More than often, simple lifestyle changes can complete abrogate your distress, but in acute chronic states, medical intervention (anti-depressants, SSRIs) may be required.
You are your k’night’ in shining armour
Fight the Fear
The alien abductors: many psychotherapists call that apparition sneaking into your bedrooms every night and promising to come again tomorrow. Fear is a natural defense mechanism to face a danger. But when it is constant, it turns crippling. Sleep paralysis is exactly that. It unarms you because your mind is vulnerable, discomposed and unsettled. The devils we experience with our eyes closed trace back to how we dealt with the demons with our eyes open. The demons being our mental health, and lifestyle.
What’s more, once your lifestyle and sleep is sorted, your fortress is ready and the Sleep-Satan can try sneaking through someone else’s door because you will be too deep in slumber to open yours!
I have a corner in my home dedicated to monsoon. The leftover unread books, a couch, a footstool and a flask of tea! My concept of a perfect rainy day. But at the same time I need the douse of sunlight to energize me and get my limbs into action!
Human-environmental interactions are fundamental to existence. Change in seasons can have amazing effect on our sense of being and wellness. It is intriguing to see how we perceive and respond to seasonal shifts. While some thoroughly enjoy staying indoors watching the rains wash their windows, others get hounded by gloom and edginess just hearing the showers beat their roof. The prospect of house-arrest panics them and they cannot wait for the sun god to bless them. From mood to food, all are target to the revolutionary movement of earth which brings to us seasons packaged with some enticing deals.
The ‘rise’ and ‘fall’
Seasons follow a striking pattern to characterize our mood and behaviour. We feel seasons the way our brains do. Every body has a unique way of processing change in temperature, humidity, wind, atmospheric pressure and solar radiations. But one thing that stays universal is our psycho-endocrine response to sunlight and temperature. Sunshine is very intimately connected to mood. Exposure to sunlight gets your vitamin D into action that promotes serotonin synthesis, the quintessential mood lifter; concomitantly, reduced exposure triggers release of melatonin and lowers serotonin production that gives you that distinct drowsy feel along with lack of appetite, motivation and sexual desire. So your incessant procrastination to hit the gym during monsoon and winter has its explanation right here! But there is one thing there is a silver lining in the dark clouds.
But, while ample sunlight is lighting up your mood, rising mercury during summer is making you quietly cross the line from animation towards aggression. Temperature is like the guerilla warrior on stealth mode. A little tweak from behind the bush and you are ambushed! A group of volunteers for a neuroendocrine study, experienced lowered memory, reasoning and heightened speed, irritability and aggression when their core body temperatures were raised slightly to 38.80-39.05 degrees C. Well, you couldn’t have had a better excuse to being hot-headed than this! The way climate affects us has its root lying right in the cerebral cortex. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real; a psychological condition taming the most receptive and sensitive of us, if not getting the worst out of us!
When seasons turn sensational
Sensations that provoke excitement and energy are inherently associated with all that the mighty star does to our body. Not just our mood, but also our food choices, intimate habits, and interpersonal interactions change considerably with changing seasons. Would it be surprising to know that people like to flirt more, go on ravishing dates and explore their sexuality just as much they love the aroma of pastries and lavender more on sunny days?
I don’t think there is any one human who wouldn’t have craved for buttery, fried and cheesy foods as cold December waves set in. Your body’s innate mechanism to store fat reserves for insulation against biting cold, summer is just as real a phenomenon. As the winter solstice dips our serotonin, we find ourselves furrowing in our couch drowned in a bowl of soupy gooey macaroni!
When humid and cold atmosphere is inclining you towards reading, cooking and solitude, spring in turn is giving you perfect reasons to wipe the dust off your griller and barbeque skewers and indulge in sumptuous weekend brunch with your besties! Nature knows the tricks to keep us animated and up for the next change, to ensure we brighten up on the sunny times and prepare for the rainy days too!
But this cannot quash the perks of a rainy day. They say the smell of rain or petrichor (atrributed to the earthy aromatic compound geosmin produced by certain bacteria in the slushy soil) can reduce stress by 60% and make you feel all utopic and empathetic. You are twice as more likely to be the agony aunt to your friend on a misty evening over some piping hot coffee than on hot humid days. See there, dark clouds do have a silver lining!
Seasons, mood and food are as umbilically connected as you to your mother. There is no escape! Sunny demeanours, cloudy minds and stormy relationships: the capriciousness of climates has metaphorically ruled our lives! The only external factor that strikes without a sound, (ofcourse except the lightning thunderstorms!) integrates with our gastronomic, psychosocial and interpersonal behaviour to say the least. So when our mothers used to say, “Go out and play”, they already knew their meteoro-psychology subject too well to dispute!
Walking backwards on life’s journey is surely discouraging but on a jogger’s track, it is terrific!
Walking backwards or retro-walking takes the benefits of conventional walking a few notches higher. The British Journal of Sports Medicine cannot stop raving about this unconventional exercise to upgrade your fitness quotient after the subjects of a few studies showed remarkable improvement in their strength, balance and endurance within 6 weeks of commencing.
The biomechanics of reverse walking is what gives it an edge over others. Conventional forward walking or jogging or running use semitendinosus and semimembranosus tendons and the long head of your biceps femoris forming your hamstrings and the gluteus muscles, which together help rotate your knees and extend your hips. Retro-walking gives a whole new range of movement by using quadriceps and calves to generate motion and also interdependently strengthens your hamstring further. 15-20 minutes of reverse walking gives a more intense and comprehensive workout than you would otherwise attain through an hour of brisk walking.
The retro-walking mutually relies on and delightfully offers benefits out of three main aspects:
You have to rely on your ability to judge the relation between a space you cannot see and your movement. And if you do not have any, you will soon develop some with lightning speed!
‘Tread’ing with caution
The dilemma every jogger or walker lives with: treadmilling or ground-walking. Treadmills are like the harbours; safe and secure. But that is not where the ships are meant to be! Treadmills make your motion easier and predictable.
Nevertheless, though you are sure to get some peripheral support walking on a treadmill, you are equally prone to getting sore on knees and ankles with the parallel belt movement assisting you. When you walk you walk under gravity, not parallel to it. So, if you are looking at long term benefits, hit an open ground. Flat or inclined, natural surfaces are gentler on your joints and at the same time more challenging.
Retro to Rescue
Retro-walking is an excellent rehabilitative exercise for knee and back injuries and even for some motor-co-ordination disorders because it allows a safer stretch-shorten cycle of muscle-tendon units and conditions them uniformly.
Every fitness enthusiast will have a colourful history of injuries and jolts to talks about; some of which they continue to live with because all those months of anti-inflammatories, painful sabbaticals from workouts, home remedies or physical therapies gave up on them. It is perhaps time to start treading backwards.
You will be surprised to see your Achilles heel ready to tango and that stubborn back spiraling through intense vinyasa asanas with ease of a river!
Adding a fresh twist to your regimented workout schedule and getting bigger benefits wouldn’t be a bad deal at all. Alone, or with an exercise buddy, this exercise may at times take you down but will never let you down!
Birbal’s khichdi did take an eon to cook, but for sure, it was the tastiest one in town!
Sitting at the dingiest corner of old Lucknow, watching the dum biryani’s eternal rendezvous with a 100 year old hearth chanced me a perfect analogy of the popular Akbar-Birbal tale. Intrigued to the extent that my stomach forgot it needed fuel, I set forth to decipher what was taking a simple mixture of rice and meat, ages to turn into a cuisine. An eighty two year old chef, a ‘khansama’ as they call him, working there for the longest possible part of his life that his 80+ old memory could recall, replied to my curious inquiry very matter-of-factly in his impeccable syrupy urdu (which I am translating for obvious reasons!), “this dum (steam cooking) takes time to happen. You see that handi (pot)? It first tastes the ingredients, measures the moisture, weighs the nutrition and then uses all this information to cook for you. All this takes time. Sit at ease; Have a cutting chai till your biryani gets ready.” So it was not the flame, it was indeed the pot that tendered me the yummiest biryani of my life!
What takes exactly 2 whistles to cook in my pressure cooker, took half a day to emerge from the earthen pot. But what we have been scraping out of the cooker is nowhere even close to what alighted on our plates from the handi! That day, I leanrt two things; 1. nobody can make better biryani than the 82 year old khansama, and 2. all that cooks, is not vessel! My respect for earthen pots has escalated manifold... Not just for the love of biryani but for the amazing benefits of cooking it hoists.
Slow and steady wins the race
This old axiom befits clay vessel-cooking. It is slow, and steady too. My first hands-on with a clay pot was although not as grueling as I thought it to be, nevertheless a firm test of patience. From the time I put it on the stove (unfortunately I could not get a wooden hearth for action) till I served the biryani for lunch, I could have finished 4 laps of triathlon!
Every conducting material carries thermal inertia: ‘the degree of slowness with which the temperature of a body approaches that of its surroundings’. Metals have it very low while clay pots have it high. Unlike metals, which are super-quick in conducting heat, earthen-wares take their own sweet time. They take up heat slowly and distribute it uniformly throughout the vessel, trickling across every fleck of the ingredients. Slow heat dispersion cooks food slowly, yet steadily and uniformly making sure no part of your cuisine is under-cooked or over-cooked.
What goes in, stays in
The 2 most vital parts of any food commodity are its 1. nutrient content, and 2. moisture content. Earthen or clay vessels are extremely porous in nature; and porosity goes complementary to circulation. Due to their high permeability quotient, the cooking mechanism is propagative and distributive. Heat and moisture inside stays circulated and evenly distributed to every ingredient. It is not surprising that preparations from a clay vessel are very supple and ductile, to say the least. Slow and consistent heat keeps the food, especially meat and fibrous foods, tender and soft, at the same time retaining their nutrition and quality intact. Try out a biryani or a pulao (for the veggies pinching their eyebrows on this biryani-dominated blog!) out of a clay pot and may be another from your nonstick; the remarkable difference in taste, aroma and succulence cannot go unnoticed!
The ultimate acid test
Not always do diamonds cut diamonds; we need a saw at times. Clay due to its alkaline nature, is the best material to combat highly acidic foods. The acidity of meals from clay vessels is easily kneaded while cooking and the food stays soft on our digestive system.
Better than butter
Again, porosity of clay locks moisture and grease inside till the end. It keeps oil well spun with the food and prevents it from evaporating. Which means, the need to addition of any extra oil or butter is slashed . You will be surprised to see your oil rations plummeting in a few weeks with clay vessels at your service!
Burnign the midnight oil
Clay pots work harder and longer than anyone else. But rarely will you be served with a burnt curry! Our biggest worry while cooking is exactly this; a moment away from sight, the food in even our best non-stick pans burn out in anger! But clay promises to never let you down. Clay particles absorb heat to bind to each other but do not let any organic material to stick. Simultaneously, circulating heat waves through the pores prevent overheating of surface and prevent charring. Like the proverbial candle, being clay isn’t easy too!
Quality isn’t expensive; it is priceless.
Buying my first clay pot after the inspirational encounter with mr.khansama was an experience; and shocking too. “Something that can bring out the best a biryani could ever be, cannot be so inexpensive!” I chuckled to myself as the polite potter packed my pot carefully in newspaper.
Earthen-wares are the easiest to manufacture because they do not need any expensive establishments or labour. Potters are everywhere and so are their skills. Usually clay vessels and containers are found at any potter’s hub and can even be made-to-order according to your specifications. They are economical and a break now and then does not tweak your budget much. Yes, we need to follow a bit of procedure to temper a clay pot before use but once done, you have a friend for life!
Earthen for our Earth
Needless to say, nothing can be greener than clay! It is ubiquitous, natural, environment friendly and absolutely recyclable. Teflon coatings and even aluminum for that matter are extremely harsh for not just our surroundings but our tummies too.
What goes around, comes around
We are not just surrounded by the 5 elements, but we are the five elements. Whether it is food cooked in an earthen vessel or water stored in one, our internal is constantly co-existing with the external, in the most utilitarian way. You cannot go wrong choosing the naturals because they are sustainable, healthy and consistent. When it comes to our food, it is not just what we eat but how it is cooked, that affects our system. Clay is one of the most versatile materials to mould into and the friendliest one to practically all kinds of food we eat.
We have an entire street named after the potter’s community here in Bangalore. Yet I ended up at a local fair to pick up my first clay pot, blame it on my poor sense of nativity! Approach your local potters to pick your pieces. It is always a better idea to help artists directly than through retailers. Glazed or unglazed, you are sure to get your desirable vessels and a big smile to thank you for your helping hand!
I could almost taste birbal’s khichdi in my mind after my first morsel of biryani from the clay pot I picked. While my seventh standard moral science period imparted profound moral injunctions from Akbar-Birbal stories, this experience taught me an entirely different lesson from Birbal's khichdi escapade:
Give back to the planet what it gives you, and more than often, cooks for you!
Human race has invested over half a decade on ergonomics and spends on an average, 72 hours selecting a chair to perch on. But did we know that humans in the first place were not designed and conditioned to sit on chairs?
This may sound like someone just pulled a chair from right under your buttocks as you were about to sit! Arching this analogy into reality, if this makes you land hard on your hips and you are to continue sitting on the floor with your legs crossed, would you survive for 1 hour without shifting your legs twenty times, cringing and cursing?
Cross-legged pose or the Sukhasana: the function is in the name! the easiest of all postures, sitting in which should give us a relaxed, calm and tempered feel. But surprisingly, 6 out of every 10 people we know around find it extremely arduous to sit cross-legged for a prolonged period and atleast 2 of them cannot sit in this posture at all!
Homo sapiens are born basic. Like any other animal, our bodies and instinctive traits are designed to sync with nature. To be able to sit cross legged comfortably, a) our pelvic muscles should be flexible and b) without exceptions, our spine should always be kept erect. Spine functions primarily to give an erect stable posture to the body and in partnership with our hips and legs, it braces our centre of gravity. And Sukhasana is the 2nd most gravitationally compliant asana, to say the least. (shavasana stays undefeated on the first place!)
The Seat of Wellness...
The 'Sukh' of Digestive wellness
One aspect, and largely the most important one, nobody cares for while eating is the focus and attention we give to the food on our plate. We are either engrossed in watching television or plain chit-chatting with family and friends while the hands mechanically thrust food down our alimentary canal . Little do we know that the way we focus on food at hand determines how it will be digested, metabolized, absorbed and excreted. Sitting on ground helps us focus more on the morsels and allows us to relish our food slowly. It is impossible to eat too fast sitting in this position. Try it to believe it! Additionally, the back and forth movement of your body activates abdominal muscles as you eat and signals the brain to induce secretion of digestive enzymes/juices. And all these processes together make you feel full quicker. Anybody habitual to this way of eating will have rarely overeaten or complained of gassy bloating and acid reflux!
The 'Sukh' of Postural wellness
Your spine. Again. Water cannot flow through a bent pipeline. So can’t your energy, through a flexed curled spine! Sukhasana is synonymous to good posture. You have to put it in practice to achieve an appropriate posture and after a while, sitting with an erect spine becomes as involuntary as breathing.
The 'Sukh' of Skeletomuscular wellness
Remember our grannies from the time when there were grinding slabstones and no dining tables? There were no gyms either. And they were fit as fiddle. Ever wondered why? Synced with nature, their bodies were self-reliant, and joints in full range of motion through the day. The problems start when we underuse our joints and make them rust. Cross-legged posture is perfect to keep the hip flexors moving and agile. The joints stay well lubricated and are less susceptible to degenerative diseases striking unwantedly early in life!
The 'Sukh' of Circulatory wellness
Resources. Supplies. Our body needs a lot of it in the form of food, and energy to metabolize that food adequately and ultimately provide us with energy. The 100,000km long chain of blood vessels are our body’s transport vehicles. And like any other system in the body, our digestive system needs energy to function. Sitting cross-legged activates our circulatory system to work harder, pumping in more blood to aid faster digestion.
The 'Sukh' of weight control
The very activity of sitting up and down is extremely beneficial for keeping your joints in full range of motion, muscles moving and fat getting burnt. Besides, the back and forth movement while eating also keeps your abdominal muscles in constant ambulation. Accompanying these dynamics, is our digestive system steadfast in boosting our metabolism. With an active body and a blessed metabolism at our service, what more can we ask for!
The 'Sukh' of Humility
We are born of nature. The most fundamental aspect of human life is its connect to the 5 elements of nature from the time it is born from water to the time it perishes into either the earth, fire or air. Sitting on the ground does exactly this. It makes our body and mind attuned with the earth below, the sky above and all the elements in between. Humility is nothing else but absolute acceptance of the spirit that it primarily belongs to nature and that the only way to a holistic attunement is submitting to it. Now we know, why eating, praying and spiritual practices have always been recommended sitting in Sukhasana (and very often vajrasana for the same reasons). Basic.
The 'Sukh' of longevity
Just the way a collective conscience of humans helps build better societies, the collective conscience of all the benefits of sukhasana mentioned above converge into comprehensive wellbeing and vivacity. A capable body and a dynamic mind directly influences longevity. So start sitting down to stay up for a long life!
Sitting cross-legged on the ground for activities like eating, household chores and even chat sessions with family and friends has been a way of life for ages and still prevails in many cultures and families. It is almost in our genes! So why are we not doing it more often?
There are many motivated ones out in the fields; the regular yoga doers, health conscious, sporty and active ones who still find it difficult to experience the pleasure of the sukh-asana. Don’t chase unrealistic goals. You cannot achieve a padmasana without being able to sit in sukhasana comfortably. Go slow and with the flow. Keep, this will tweak the difficulty level to the next notch by switching to vajrasana. And as you feel thunderbolt getting easier on your body, slide down to virasana, the hero pose. Padmasana stands on the highest pedestral. If you are able to execute these 4, you surely have a pelvic flexibility and agility to envy!
The little pleasures of sitting cross-legged are achieved with really big muscle! Concentrate on building upon their strength and agility. And once you are able to sit in sukhasana comfortably, just keep sitting! Try to work around stationary activites, eat, chat or relax sitting in this position or in thunderbolt consistently to reap the maximum benefits.
For, lies herein the wisdom: As you Sit, so you Rip!