All posts by Sonja Shah-Williams

National Curry Week

So this is National Curry Week- a strange concept to me in many ways, not least of all because there is actually no such thing as curry in India. Every dish has its own name, and no meal is seen generically as ‘curry’, which is simply an English term for Indian food. There are various explanations as to how the word came to be used by the British, and indeed by many others around the world. It is most definitely a borrowed word, possibly from kadhi or karhi, which is a  soup like dish made with a gram flour (chickpea) based thick gravy, and spices. In some regions of India, pakoras (vegetable fritters) are added to the kadhi, a bit like dumplings might be added to broths in South East Asian cuisines.

My mother grew up in the north western Indian state of Gujarat. There, the food is traditionally vegetarian, and tends to be slightly sweet and spicy. It is also as Ayurvedically balanced as one can get, with most everyday meals comprising all 6 Ayurvedic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. This means that one is left feeling satiated, and cravings are kept at bay.

My love of Gujarati food is as deep as a bottomless well; it is unwaveringly moreish, and it nourishes my soul with every mouthful. When I eat my mother’s food, I am at once transported back to my early childhood, to a time when my world was safely contained in a small house on a quiet, Yorkshire street. It evokes the sounds of my family’s chit-chat, my dear late father’s (he would have been 89 today) dulcet tones calling his three children to the supper table, whilst my mother brought to our plates, gifts  of dainty, just made, hot,uniquely Gujarati chapatis, dripping with toffee- scented ghee. These were her speciality; perfectly round daily offerings of mother love.

Our meals always consisted of chapatis, a dal or kadhi, a vegetable dish or two, some pickle or chutney, and rice. Rice is eaten last in Gujarati homes, and covered with any of the vegetables and dal or kadhi that are left, often with some home made yogurt, and everything is mixed thoroughly before being eaten.

So I want to offer you, for this week of appreciating Indian cuisine, my mother’s delicious Gujarati kadhi, because it is the only ‘curry’ we have ever eaten in our household.

Serve poured over a bowl of basmati rice with some yogurt and spicy pickle.

To serve 4:

400ml plain yogurt

2 heaped tbsp gram flour

600 ml water

An inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated

2 small green chillies, seeds removed and sliced lengthwise

1 tbsp jaggery

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1tsp black mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

20 fresh curry leaves

1 tsp asafoetida

Salt to taste

A big handful fresh coriander leaves, chopped.

Method:

Put the yogurt and gram flour into a large pan. Using a hand or electric whisk, beat them together, ensuring they are properly mixed, before slowly adding the water and continuing to whisk well. Next add around 1.5 tsp salt, the ginger and chillies, and jaggery. Put the pan on a medium heat and bring to the boil, stirring continuously to prevent the yogurt and water separating. Once boiling, lower the heat to minimum and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes.

Turn off the heat.

Now, heat the oil in a small saucepan, and when it is hot, add the mustard seeds. Once they fizzle, add the cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves, Put a lid on, as it will spit. Put the kadhi pan back on the heat, before pouring the oil and spices over. Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes.

Serve hot with the fresh coriander atop.

 

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The Lived Experience

There is a general feeling in the global ether that things are imbalanced. There is an uneasiness and a consensus that those with power seem to abuse it, whilst the rest of us voice our concerns amongst ourselves, yet somehow cannot find the collective force required to effect change.

I recently read a dissertation on the complex causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. This truly horrific fire in a tower block of public housing flats in Kensington, London on 14 June 2017,  took 72 lives, and destroyed many more. The premise of the dissertation was that some lives matter, whereas others don’t, and in the case of Grenfell, it is suggested that the residents were simply not valued enough for their voices to be heard.  They felt unsafe in their own homes.

Last month I attended a fascinating symposium on food policy, where the theme was ‘the lived experience’. The wonderful speakers have all conducted research that goes beyond statistics and delves deeper into the actual experiences of those who are affected by a particular circumstance. The theme of the day got me thinking about life’s challenges and how we might tackle them.

Of course, numbers matter, but they do not give colour or narrative to research. In order to create an environment where change can take place, we need to understand what makes people do or feel something, and how they actually experience it. We need to ask questions and listen to voices. This is as crucial to the research process as statistics are, particularly if change and betterment are what we are seeking.

A recurring topic of conversation at the moment is childhood obesity.  We know that roughly 1 in 5 children are obese by the time they leave primary school. That in itself is a shocking statistic.  However, I do not believe that we should tackle this phenomenon by creating more statistics alone.  We have recently seen in the media that the target for reduction of sugar by 5%  in many foods including  biscuits, yogurts and sweetened drinks has not been met by food manufacturers over the past year. If statistics were an easy solution, then surely each and every manufacturer would have achieved the 5% decrease? They must all know how the maths works.

Some recent research into secondary schoolchildren’s  food consumption choices at lunchtime, used the ‘lived experience’ methodology. Through individual and group interviews, focus groups,  observation, online surveys and ‘go along’ techniques (going where participants go), understanding of  actual experience( rather than just statistics) was achieved. This kind of valuable research could help to influence future policy making.

It is time to tackle issues with a multi-dimensional approach, because life is not always black and white. A child who eats unwholesome, processed, sugar- laded foods is offered them initially by adults. But adults equally require more  education and  understanding about food consumption and health. Childhood obesity has arisen through a failure to educate the whole of society about health, wellbeing, food choices, exercise, and more. We are all at fault, but it is also a result of our evolutionary shift. We are now so removed from our original human existence as hunters and gatherers who lived in small groups, eating only fresh foods and working together for the good of everyone, that it is hard to imagine life could ever have been this simple.

Bernie Sanders, the US senator, recently wrote an article in the Guardian about the immense global imbalance of wealth. The article states  that we live in a world where “a tiny handful of incredibly wealthy individuals exercise disproportionate levels of control over the economic and political life of the global community”.

This is true; the six richest people in the world now have more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. Shockingly, he goes on to say that those individuals who own billions live in countries where their fellow human beings suffer from appalling poverty, a lack of decent housing, clean water, and nutritious food.

It is quite disturbing to witness the contrasting malnutrition of the west and east of the globe. Malnutrition refers to both not eating enough nutrients and eating more nutrients than one needs. So, we face a double crisis, a global inability to eat well, caused largely by the massive imbalance of wealth distribution.There is no need for a single human being to go hungry, but equally no need for them to eat too much. Meeting in the middle would be a great start.

Kensington and Chelsea, the London borough in which stands the blackened edifice of Grenfell Tower, is one of the wealthiest boroughs in London. However, the social divide weeps like a gaping wound. The average price of a property is around £2m, but many homes there are worth several million pounds. According to analysis, the council has built fewer affordable homes than any other London borough since 2014, and has been accused of failing to maintain existing homes.

So why this seeming lack of care? Are we humans too self obsessed, self-concerned and selfish to value others’ lives and empathise with their situation? Is there a global unspoken rule that those without wealth do not matter because they are not able to pay for their own worthiness?

Had the voices of the residents of Grenfell Tower been heard, perhaps those that hold the power and the means to effect change would have understood their experiences  a little. The residents attempted many times to communicate their concerns about the safety of the building, but they were ignored or even told they were being a nuisance.

‘The lived experience’ approach could be applied to all areas of societal betterment. This type of research is vital to the understanding of individual and group behaviour, because people are not only a statistic, and should therefore not be seen as such. We must see ourselves as change makers, and begin to behave as equally worthy human beings whose collective purpose is to live well in every sense of the word.

In my Ayurvedic workshops and consultations, I aim to teach others the importance of a multidimensional approach to living well. So, healthy nutrition alone is not going to give us complete health. Likewise, regular exercise alone will not do so. Listening to participants’ narratives and their histories, their hopes and  desires, as well as their feelings about their relationships with themselves and with others, paints a  full picture of their holistic health status. The key is to understand what is out of balance through listening to their own words.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and currently the wealthiest person in the world, employs thousands of people cross the USA who often work long hours and many of them earn such low wages that they rely on food stamps. This is simply wrong. I wonder whether he, or his senior colleagues have ever taken the time to talk to their staff, and to ask them about their lives.

There is a movement to be created, in order to redress the imbalances in society, but ironically, many of the change makers need to be those who currently hold power in their hands. Because, without the voices of the wealthy and powerful, the world has become hard of hearing. It is morally right to now address the inequalities we see in every area of society, to truly listen to each and every voice, and to seek the most equitable human existence we can find.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

serendipity

It is always around November that I find myself reflecting on the past year, and how events have shaped my thoughts and ideas about the world we live in.

When the madness of Christmas descends (whether we want it or not, it slaps us in the face), I find I am almost too exhausted with it to allow myself emotional head space. So November seems to be an appropriate juncture, the calm before the storm, when I can reflect on the past few months and the lessons I have learned, but also look forward to planning ahead.

2017 has been a year that has cemented my deep love for, and immense belief in, Ayurveda. This is a medicine system that can benefit every single person on the planet, and every time I hear of new discoveries in medicine about cancer, or diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, or any other chronic disease for that matter, the research always echoes the Ayurvedic perspective. I find myself shouting at the radio and asking why it has taken people so long to realise whatever it is that has come to light from the research.

Recently, there has been a surge in interest about turmeric, a trusted Ayurvedic root that has been known for centuries to contain many health promoting components. Western researchers are now in agreement that curcuma longa  may have antiseptic and anti inflammatory properties. It indeed does, along with many other beneficial constituents, and all this information is written about in both ancient, as well as more modern, Ayurvedic texts.

Clinicians and laypeople alike applaud these findings; big Pharma expeditiously manufacture and market turmeric capsules to appeal to a world that still believes that only a pill will do, and  the food industry jumps on the bandwagon and adds the gorgeous deep yellow powder to every possible meal and drink, including coffee!

The health and wellbeing industry is making a mockery of our intelligence, and we are allowing it to. Health is free if we manage most of it ourselves, and it need not, indeed should not,  be a multi million pound  industry.

Turmeric is an essential cooking spice in every Indian household, and so I can safely say that most Indians have been ‘taking’ it every day since childhood. And that is how good health practice begins, and becomes part of us. We are what we eat and food is the best medicine we can take.

We only seem to take traditional medicine seriously if an element of it is picked out and labelled fashionable enough to create a short term frenzy in the media. Turmeric is having its moment, but soon it will give way to a new favourite.

Having had these thoughts swimming around my mind for the most part of this year, and feeling the strong desire to spread the message of Ayurvedic healing,  a strange, serendipitous event occurred in the most unlikely setting. I was visiting a friend in her beautiful shop, and having mentioned the word Ayurveda as we were talking, I found myself being approached by a lovely woman, a kindred spirit with whom it now transpires, I share many ideas and interests. She asked if I was in any way associated with Ayurvedic medicine, as she had, only the day before, been telling a girlfriend that she wished to have an Ayurvedic consultation but didn’t know where to find a practitioner.

“Here I am,” I told her.

Once we began talking, she explained that she loves the philosophy of Ayurvedic medicine, and that she runs wellbeing retreats in Europe and the UK. Fate had conspired to bring us together, and before I knew it, we were agreeing terms on a collaboration. This means that as of next year, I will be working with small groups of people, teaching and consulting about Ayurveda. Although it has always given me satisfaction seeing individual clients benefiting from my advice, I believe that medicine should be moving away from the traditional paradigm of attempting to fix what is clearly broken, on a one to one basis, and towards a preventative model that comes about through educating as many people as possible about the importance of their own holistic health.

A good place to start addressing one’s wellbeing is on a holistic retreat. When we are part of a group of like minded- people, we are able to learn and put into practice what is being taught. During this time we begin to see the almost immediate benefits of eating regular, balanced meals, practising yoga or pilates, walking in nature, decluttering our thoughts and breathing properly. Without realising it, we are actually practising a form of preventative medicine, taking back the responsibility for our own bodies and minds. Without the usual distractions such as technology. noise, traffic, pollution, ready meals, and overcrowded city life, we can de-stress and stop the constant movement required for urban living.

Chronic stress is an example of a modern day syndrome that requires us to remove the accumulated causative factors, not take a tablet. Stress is a vitiation of vata dosha, the dosha that, when out of balance, can bring fear, self doubt, coldness, loneliness, isolation, irrational and irregular behaviours, hostility and insomnia. If we are feeling the effects of stress on a regular basis, we will identify with some of the abovementioned symptoms.

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to take back control and responsibility for our health. It is not the responsibility of anyone else. We must take the time to address the issues and slowly but surely, rid ourselves of the habits that bring us out of mind and body equilibrium.

Although I find it frustrating when I see clients who want to improve their health but find it too overwhelming to know where to begin, it increases my desire to spread the word of Ayurveda further, and to teach people to understand its amazing philosophy, as well as provide the tools of this medicine system to more people. We need holistic health now more than ever before, so that in generations to come, people will benefit from the first, and only true holistic medicine system still in existence.

We are still living in a society that frowns upon traditional medicine systems that believe in individuals managing their own wellbeing, and favours the modern paradigm of prescription drugs.

But because ill-health often has simple causes- diet and lifestyle being the main ones, and the effects often take years to accumulate to a level that reveals symptoms, it slowly creeps its way towards us, and when we least expect it, it pounces.

And we cry, “how did that happen?”

We still seem to be convinced that ill health is the foe; the one that singles us out as its opponent. We then set about fighting the enemy and attempting to banish it from our bodies and minds, as though it is a separate entity. But sadly, the enemy is often ourselves. Some illnesses, such as genetic disorders, are obviously beyond our control, but many of the chronic diseases of the modern world are caused by preventable factors.

Homo Sapiens means ‘wise man’.  We are a wise species, bestowed through evolution with Reason and such capability, yet we are still fumbling around in the dark when it comes to basic concepts of health.

We must all find the tools for self management when it comes to our health and wellbeing. Ayurveda provides logical advice based on thousands of years of efficacy about every single aspect of how our bodies and minds function and why they malfunction. It then explains how the causes create the effect and sets about re-balancing what has gone awry.

So, what have I learned from the past year? That serendipity works her magic when things are meant to be, and that we sometimes need to allow events to show us we are on the right path. I have understood that my passion for my work is not going to abate, and so I must continue to utilise that passion as effectively as possible, by teaching others what I believe to be true.

And now the planning begins, and the year draws to a close.

Happy 2018 and I hope you get to follow your goals.

Growing

Thankfully, we are seeing some warm, sunny weather in the UK this week, and temperatures are creeping up to the mid-twenties. The midpoint between spring and summer leaves us little confidence in storing away our warm clothing because once we have completed this annual ritual, we are often still presented with quite chilly days which we simply cannot survive without donning a jumper or two.
There comes a time though, in late spring during a week such as this, when the weather forecasters assure us that summer is truly on its way. They promise rising temperatures and high pressure, and suddenly life feels good.
We are so dictated to by the weather in this country, that we spend vast amounts of energy on planning and unplanning events around it.
I have recently come to find delight in gardening, an activity I have never before had much time for. I have begun to create a cottage garden in the small, urban space at the back of my house.
Early on in the year I was busy helping to prepare the soil, weeding, digging, fertilizing and so on, in order to render the soil nutrient -rich, and to provide optimal growing conditions in which nature’s delights could thrive.
Once spring arrived, I planted perennials and annuals along with lots of my favourite vegetables, salad leaves and herbs, and I have recently added some pretty, edible flowers too. I feel quite giddy with excitement.
It amazes me that I have never before been inclined to grow my own, especially considering my healing profession and my love of cooking, as well as my need to nurture. But the beauty of the human experience is such that we are continuously evolving and learning. We accumulate our interests, and even our skills throughout our lives, and only when the time is right.
The pleasure this new interest is giving me is immense, and I seem to have acquired a certain knowledge of plant names that makes me both proud, and equally annoyed that it has taken me so long to do so. My predilection for looking after others has often left me little room to nurture myself, but now that I have my plants, I am giving them plenty of TLC, but my goodness are they reciprocating!
Each morning, as I open my door and step into the garden, I am presented with wonderful sights- a newly opened flower or two, or a lettuce plant whose leaves are ready for picking. The colours and shapes before me make me smile like a child let loose in a sweet shop, and I marvel at Nature’s brilliance.
Suddenly, the seasons matter even more than ever before, and I worry about whether there has been enough rain, too much rain, too dry a spell or whether the wind has forced her way into my precious garden and damaged my beloved ones. They are all my children, these plants, and like any child, no one will love them or worry for them quite as much as their own parent. So it is I who must tend to their needs, feed and water them, and it is I alone who truly worries about their future.
There is surely some truth in the idea that we come to gardening at a certain stage of our lives. Nurturing is ingrained in the human psyche, and when we reach a certain age, whether we have had children or not, we are biologically inclined to continue to nurture. In middle age, we are somehow finally ready to accept, after years of denial, that we are part of, and not separate from, Nature. And so we lean towards her a little more, and begin to create a mutually respectful relationship.
My desire to grow my own is also linked with my horror of the unnecessary waste of food, heavy plastic packaging, and of eating produce that has travelled across the world to get here. Now I can look forward to making meals using vegetables and fruit I have grown myself only inches away from my kitchen.
The spring season is a wonderful time to observe Nature in her prime. Everything is looking so perfect; the trees and other plants and flowers are abundant, and home grown food is starting to ripen and be ready for eating. Summer allows us to reap the rewards of our hard work in the garden, and I relish the thought of adding gorgeous home grown tomatoes, radishes, beetroots, leaves and herbs to my salads. However, with careful planning and planting, I should be able to grow food and flowers that will be available to admire and eat right through to the winter.
Ayurvedically, gardening allows us to reduce elevated vata dosha, which is predominant in today’s fast-paced, goal-driven and stress-filled society. It provides the positive qualities of kapha dosha- slow, calm, smooth, soft, sweet and nurturing. One is surrounded by smooth and soft textures in the garden, and the sweet quality is seen on our appreciation of its beauty. I have already described the nurturing quality that it provides. Modern medicine now agrees that gardening is good for the soul, and that it goes a long way towards alleviating depression and anxiety. So much so, in fact, that some GPs are now prescribing it for patients to improve mind health.
The lovely thing about growing your own is that it is available to everyone. With limited space or only a windowsill, and with minimal cost, one can still successfully grow a few herbs, maybe some tomatoes, and gorgeous green lettuce leaves.
Self-sufficiency need not be confined to growing our own food, but it should apply to all aspects of our lives, where possible. Why are we so conditioned to rely on others to tend to our needs?
Some years ago, I watched an amazing, uplifting television programme presented by the gardener Monty Don, about urban gardening in Havanna, Cuba. There, people have begun to grow their own food where there was once wasteland. It came about as a consequence of desperation and poverty, but the positive effect on both individuals and society has been tremendous. The programme has stayed with me because it illustrates how urban gardening should, and could be part of society for many reasons- better health, economics, protection of the environment, spiritual nourishment and a sense of purpose. Here’s the link to a clip of the programme. It would be great if we could encourage our privileged society to adopt this wonderful concept in the UK.

Happy growing.

Communication

Happy New Year!

How many times have you said that so far in 2017? Was it said from the heart or was it said automatically because that is what one ought to say in the first month of a new calendar year? How many of us have said things that we either did not mean or did not mean to say?
I am fascinated by the art (and it is an art) of communication and how it shapes our actions and behaviour patterns.
In all areas of life, communication should not be quantitative, but rather qualitative. In other words, it is not how much we speak to others, but the quality and sincerity with which we speak.
In our modern, fast paced and disposable society, we often lose sight of the impact of our words, or lack of them, on others. Unfortunately, this can lead to all kinds of problems and misunderstandings.
Communication begins from the moment we arrive in the world and is initially taught by our mothers. It is a mixture of soothing, reassuring words and gestures, carefully imparted and quickly absorbed into our core being. Breast feeding is the first form of communication we experience that is both essential and primordial, providing us with valuable nutrients without which we would wither away, and the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally by someone who has nothing to gain from this selfless act. The connectedness between mother and child through the act of feeding replaces the umbilical link that ceases once we are born.
If we stop and reflect on communication, and look at statistical evidence of people who develop mental health issues or severe depression, we find most of these problems begin prior to age 18. The issues are often linked to a lack of family stability or to parental absence or indeed to lack of communicated love.
Research shows that those people who were given unconditional love and acceptance during childhood are better able to cope with adversity in later life. When these initial emotions are left uncommunicated, we are left feeling unrooted and vulnerable.
We have all seen footage of orphanages where babies and small children are left in their cots for hours on end and never held. This devastatingly cruel twist in their fate leads them to being subjected to chronic stress and thus psychologically damaged almost beyond repair. Had they been held, stroked, talked to, smiled at, loved, or at least been offered loving gestures by those who were supposedly taking care of them, then their future may have been a little brighter, and more stable.
Talking to strangers is seen as….well, strange. Certainly in the UK, the culture of keeping oneself to oneself in public places means that the palpable silence on public transport creates a collective feeling of unconnectedness. Wouldn’t it be better if we exchanged a few words or at least made eye contact with one another? A smile, a comment about the weather or how crowded the train or bus is would go a long way toward increasing gross domestic happiness.
There is a definite culture of pseudo communication now, since the advent of the internet and social media. Sadly, my feeling is that while there have been many benefits of being able to connect via mobile phones and emails, the truth is that we need more, not less face to face communication to feed our souls. We are incredibly social beings and although it is great to be able to ‘get hold’ of one another via our phones in an instant, or during an emergency, there is no substitute for a hello or goodbye hug, a real ‘getting hold’ of one another and spreading the love.
There are many people who find it difficult to communicate with ease face to face. They cannot look others in the eye or instigate a conversation. Often these are the people who lean on technology to provide them with a feeling that they are communicating and connecting with others. Facebook, for instance, can allow us to create friends and interest in others’ lives that is seen as relationship- building. It makes us feel that those we have befriended online know us.
Not so!
Many teenagers who suffer from depression attribute their symptoms to the pressures created by social media to create virtual lives that are seemingly perfect. They watch others on social media platforms and compare what they see in image form with the truth of their own lives, which leads to a huge sense of not being good enough.
When I was a teenager, there were local discos and youth clubs where one could spend time hanging out with friends, having conversations and slowly getting to know the people we are socialising with. Youth clubs have all but disappeared, discos conjure up nostalgic images of a white -suited John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever’- now slightly dated, I agree, but how lovely. Discos were actually just extensions of youth clubs, with a bit of dancing thrown in, and the beauty of spending time with friends was that real conversation was the only choice, due to the absence of mobile phones. Ironically, mobile phones can actually hinder conversation, allowing us to switch off from our immediate surroundings and appear ‘unavailable for comment’, heads bent downwards facing the screen. In the era of pre-mobile phones, even heated arguments outside the youth club were real; they connected us to one another, and they didn’t end with a convenient text message telling the supposed wrong party what we thought of them. They were, for they had to be, sorted out face to face.
If we look at any area of society, the key to success and equilibrium is communication. When there is a lack thereof, things tend to go awry. We talk of talks breaking down, on- going, drawn out negotiations between two parties (how much can there be to say?), communication breakdown leading to divorce. We have political parties writing endless reports, often taking years to complete before new policies can be created or decisions made. We seem to have a need to over-intellectualise all areas of our societal makeup, when very often what would shift things in a speedier and more positive way, is a good, honest conversation.
When we communicate from our hearts and with the right intention rather than to provoke or to hide our truth, we allow others to see and understand us. We show our confidence in exposing who we truly are rather than the version of ourselves we want people to see.
Most arguments are caused by confused communication and retaliation which is designed to protect our fragile egos. We accuse, abuse, we become defensive, and we confuse. We often do not say what we are really feeling during an argument, because we all have a well-developed self- protection mechanism that refuses to reveal the fear and vulnerability we are feeling. How exhausting!
We need to accept that every one of us is vulnerable, fragile and fearful. We somehow carry ancestrally, the need to self -protect in order to survive. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest seems to echo in our subconscious and leads us to surround ourselves with hard armour.
Ayurvedic medicine offers fantastic insight into communication. In Ayurvedic teaching, it is said that we all need healing and this can only come about by bringing awareness to our emotions and feelings. We have to take full responsibility for our own healing rather than holding others responsible for our misery. In other words, the pain we feel is within us, it is part of us, our creation, and not caused by others. Once we can learn to accept this, we can begin to communicate better and share our true selves with those both in our lives and on the periphery.
In my work I often speak to clients who book an appointment for a particular health issue, but I soon realise during the consultation that the real issue is entirely different. I understand that it can be difficult to share deep and often personal feelings about one’s physical or mental health, and so I allow them the space to feel comfortable enough to open up. It is my duty to communicate clearly to them that I am on their side and that I can only truly help them if they speak as frankly as possible. In business and in our personal lives, the best outcomes happen when clear communication from both sides occurs.

Happy New Year again, and I mean that sincerely.

Diwali

Today is the Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist festival of Diwali, which dates back to ancient times and is mentioned in Sanskrit texts. Diwali is a celebration of the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana from 14 years of exile after Rama had defeated King Ravana.

It is believed that in order to help the three to see the path back from the forest, people lit lamps all along it. The lamps symbolised the sun, which is the cosmic giver of light and energy to all life.

During Diwali, people come together in celebration; they wear newly bought clothes, and prepare for the days ahead. They clean and decorate their homes, light candles inside and outside, and busy themselves visiting and receiving family and friends, and eating meals together. Fireworks light up the skies and the temples are full of worshippers giving thanks to various deities including Laxmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity (of all kinds) and Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.

The themes of this celebration are compassion for others, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.The candles remind us of the significance of inner light over spiritual darkness, right over wrong, and self inquiry. Diwali asks us to ‘see’ the good in all aspects of our lives.

I remember as a child the air of celebration and joy during Diwali. My parents, siblings and I would spend the time visiting our ‘family’ of friends (our actual relatives were all back in India), and we would take offerings of freshly cooked food and Indian sweetmeats (which represent the sweet nature of the occasion) and celebrate the joy of life.

I have always felt that the symbolism of Diwali and its message is universally applicable and does not require a ‘religious’ leaning from anyone who chooses to embrace it. It is a time for cleaning the mind and clearing negativity and darkness and making room for compassion for others. Charities are given donations during this time, and even soldiers at the International Border (between India and Pakistan) give each other sweetmeats as a gesture of goodwill.

I believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, and  sometimes feel we have simply lost sight of the path. We are all of us, after all, seeking the very things that Diwali represents- not many of us would argue otherwise- but we do need  a reminder from the traditional celebrations that can be found in all religions and cultures to remind us of this fact.

In my Ayurvedic consultations, I too often see clients who have lost sight of themselves, perhaps travelled down a dark path and become lost and confused. Once we lose clarity in life, we tend to make choices that do not serve us well. So, we may eat the wrong foods, lead a frenetic lifestyle and get involved in unhealthy relationships. The state of confusion causes a cascade of events that can see us spiral out of control, and this then leads to ill-health, both of the body and mind.

The ancient festival of Diwali is incredibly pertinent today both for the individual and for society. We should all stop and think about how we can use its message in our own lives. As I reflect on what it means to me, I can see that when I work with my clients, all I have to do is to light the path  so that they can find their way back.

Happy Diwali.

 

 

 

A world gone mad

What is it with the world?

There seems to be a very obvious downward spiral in human behaviour patterns at this moment in time, and it is making many people reflect on where we are heading  societally and as a species. We are a confused lot, we humans, with a dichotomy of desire for self -improvement and progression, versus self- sabotage.

Our behaviours do not make sense.

We are seeing the increased terrorist activities of those who are either openly associated with terrorist groups, or clearly deranged individuals who claim to follow the ideologies thereof. Globally, we create wars that lead to millions of deaths, yet we are constantly in peace talks with other nations.

We have recently seen unprecedented events within the political framework of the UK, with the Referendum and its aftermath! The two main Parties fight amongst themselves in a manner frequently associated with the school playground, and the blame culture has become de rigeur- yet both ‘sides’ apparently want the same thing- a better society for us all.

We are seeing similarly unprecedented levels of chronic illness, particularly obesity and its related diseases, skipping along hand in hand with the ‘clean eating’ movement and the campaign for the reduction of sugar consumption. We see hospitals and schools selling junk food to the sick or the young, dangling sugar-laden empty calorie bait inches from their vulnerable mouths. In hospitals, young and blissfully unaware ancillary staff, bless them, are seen wheeling trolleys along sad, soulless wards, offering tempting ‘treats’ such as  fizzy drinks and  jumbo sized chocolate bars symbolically labelled ‘get unhealthy fast’.

There is a huge rise in polypharmacy (the concurrent use of multiple medications) and we are seeing more A&E admissions due to the adverse effects of multi drug interactions, yet this phenomenon shows no sign of abating. GPs are happily prescribing medications for every illness reported to them by their patients,and when these produce side effects, they simply prescribe another medication to deal with them. The more medications one takes, the higher the risk of adverse effects, which ironically can be higher than the risks caused by the underlying illness!

It is absolutely not the fault of GPs as individuals, because we know that most clinicians want nothing more than to help their patients to get better, BUT what polypharmacy is doing  is actually harming the health of the very people we wish to heal.

We educate our children by hothousing them, over-testing them at every opportunity, teaching them that anything below straight A grades is a not acceptable, and that a highly retentive memory is the only measure of intellect, and the golden ticket to the future. And if they have less ability to memorise notes? We throw them onto the heap marked ‘not good enough’. We are showing the children we pin all our hopes on that passing exams is the only way they will be able to find happiness. Our education system uses the slogan ‘one size fits all’ and it is damaging our children in more ways than we care to admit.

Sadly, a recent study published by a children’s mental health charity suggests that almost one million children between the ages of 5-15 have mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression, and the figures are rising. This problem seems to have been exacerbated by the very educators on whose expertise our children depend. The study found that things have got worse in the last 20 years.

An NSPCC study found that academic worry accounts for the biggest cause of stress for nearly 50% of children, who feel under pressure to contribute to their school’s standing in the league tables, as well as looking for parental approval. However, as a society, what are we actually doing about this? Endless studies and findings are almost pointless if they do not lead to action.

We are over- fishing and intensively farming, causing greenhouse gas emissions to increase exponentially,leading to climate change and global warming. Animal agriculture is the main cause of ocean devastation, water pollution, deforestation and species extinction, but we continue to turn a blind eye to all of this, we carry on consuming far too much meat than is a) good for the planet and b) good for our health!

We are suffering from collective stress

There is something about collective behaviour that seems to cause the inherent goodness that most of us have individually, to dissolve. We seemingly have the capability to switch from the good that is Jekyll into the dark that is Hyde as soon as we associate ourselves with collective patterns of  behaviour in society.

We know that stress leads to many associated illnesses. Surely we can see that collective stress has left us with a chronically diseased society.

Ask an individual if it is right to feed the sick or vulnerable unhealthy food, and not many people would answer yes; ask a parent if they wish their child to become so stressed that they become ill, and we can safely assume the answer would be no. Ask a GP if they wish to over- medicate their patients with potentially lethal  combinations of toxins that could seriously damage their health, and they would be shocked that they had even been asked such a question. Do we want to destroy the earth’s ability to sustain our species? Of course not.

Yet collectively, we seem to be willing to accept these sets of circumstances, and it is a terrible indictment of our species.

It is absolutely staggering that we expend vast amounts of our collective energy on being the actual cause of the effects we are almost blind to. We express shock when we witness the result of our actions, yet we choose to maintain the status quo.

So how do we change, and do we want to?

Many people would agree the time has come for a huge societal shake up, because the aforementioned circumstances are not looking like they are about to go away anytime soon.

I remember the impact Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man had on me when I studied it at school. Published in the early 1700s, it consists of philosophical thoughts on man’s place in the universe and suggests that man is not the centre of all things. Pope believed that the limited intellect of man cannot see  and accept that there is an order to the universe,and therefore strives to control it.

This view somewhat echoes the teachings of Ayurveda, which stem from the wider Hindu philosophy. We are the microcosm and therefore rather insignificant when seen in relation to the macrocosm. What seems to have occurred is the increase in the belief in our own significance, and  our thinking is coming from the ‘lower mind’ or the subtle ego. Our thirst for power, riches and fame, for raw survival, is feeding that lower mind and preventing us from accepting that there is a universal flow, an intention that is being blocked by collective egocentric behaviour.

We have developed in many ways technologically, but this only serves us well in the short term. The desire to constantly develop technological aids to our everyday lives means that we have less to do and learn, and thus, in evolutionary speak, we diminish the need to improve and adapt our behaviour. We are operating in survival mode, and trampling on those around us in the process. Our minds are almost slowing down in this regard and we are unable to ‘feel’ the distant future. Our emotional intelligence is trailing  far behind our technological improvements,  and consequently,  long term societal issues are not even being addressed. ‘Feeling’ our place on the planet like our ancestors did would mean our brains would be able to think ahead and our behaviour would adapt accordingly.

Perhaps when we realise that we are only a tiny part of the bigger picture, we will be collectively humbled into behaving with more compassion towards each other, and towards the planet on which we so depend for the survival of our species.

Only then will we see this self inflicted sickness abate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homelessness

“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

I recently went to a screening  of a film called Time Out Of Mind with Richard Gere playing the central character. This gentle and beautifully shot documentary-style movie is about a homeless man struggling to survive on the streets of New York City and trying to mend his broken relationship with his daughter. Initially, the American Gigalo Gere seemed implausible to me as a homeless person, but after the first 20 minutes  I was transfixed, and already reflecting on the impact that this deeply wretched situation would have on anyone.

After the film there was a Q&A with Mr Gere himself; I discovered that he has spent many years highlighting the plight of homelessness and campaigning for society to do more to address it.

During the making of the film, Gere decided that neither did he want to provide a back story to his character  George’s life, nor did he want to ‘prepare’ for the part. Learning this only after watching the film makes his portrayal of George extraordinarily real and moving.

He explained that when we know a history, we make judgements about a person and their circumstances, rather than seeing them in the ‘now’. He wanted the viewer to simply observe the reality without knowing the circumstances that led to the protagonist becoming homeless.

Home symbolises so much and gives us an identity in society. We are used to asking people where they live, how long they have lived there, who lives with them, and so on. This gives us a snapshot of their world and reassures us that they are safe and warm, both physically and emotionally. It is the ‘norm’  after all, to have a roof over our heads.

The film has stayed with me and I often find myself recalling scenes from it and experiencing a sense of disquiet. There is a tenderness and vulnerability to George, as he tries to piece together the fragments of his brokenness and take small steps to regain his place in the world.

As an Ayurvedic Therapist, the aim of my treatment programmes is to rebalance people holistically and ensure they have come away with the tools to manage their own health and well-being.  My clients know too well that I also focus on the health of the mind, because without healthy thoughts, we don’t always make the best choices. But what if someone’s mind has been so deeply wounded by horrifically painful childhood experiences?  How do they erase those images and maintain clarity of being? How do they succeed in leading a relatively normal adult life, when normality has never been allowed to imbue their psyche?

As I watched the film, the realisation that what I do is exclusively focused on the fortunate few in society troubled me. Yes we all have issues but most of us have support networks and solid foundations and as such our issues are often nothing more than minor and manageable irritations of the human condition. With a little help, they can be dealt with.  All of the components that work together to create health and well-being are removed when people are without an actual home and support network.  Those who live on the streets think not of exercise or wholesome nutrition, of stress- relieving meditation or breathing techniques, or any other form of healthy lifestyle strategy. They are continuously in survival mode and their luxuries are food and warmth.

Gere suggested at the Q&A  that those who live on the streets long term  suffer a type of post- traumatic shock syndrome; they experience a shut down of the senses and a numbness which is clearly evident in their haunted expressions. He believes that it is very difficult to crawl back up from this dark well of despair.

Homelessness seems to be on the increase; recent statistics published by the Department for Communities and Local Government suggest that  just over 3500 people were sleeping on the streets of England on any given night in the Autumn of 2015- a 30% increase on the previous year.  This is a shocking fact for a country considered to be the world’s 5th  largest economy.

How to address homelessness is a conundrum, as is the case with many societal issues. There are several interrelated factors, but one thing is clear in my mind, there will most certainly be a root cause, separate from the other consequential ones.

Tackling deep problems in our communities requires going back to the very roots and ensuring that they are healthy. I believe that one of the fundamental requirements for building robust and unshakeable psychological well-being, is healthy and loving relationships  from the outset in life.

Most homeless people declare that a lack of unconditional love from parents or guardians was the main cause of their lack of a home as adults.  Isn’t this very often the same root cause for murder, physical and sexual abuse, for drug and alcohol addiction and depression? The list could go on, but when are we going to create a society that puts its resources into long term measures to help prevent the many traumatic childhood experiences that shape the adults we become?

One study on the childhood circumstances of homeless men and women backs up my instincts- a myriad of adverse childhood circumstances appear to be related to later risk of homelessness in adults. Problematic role models, damaging psychological experiences, family dysfunction, and household strain all seem to contribute to the inability to develop a network of caring social ties.

I believe strongly in the power of education; surely we should be investing time in educating society about the importance of healthy family relationships? It is not easy, but we can find a way if we believe it is for the benefit of a psychologically healthier, more compassionate world. Giving a homeless person some spare change will provide them with the means to buy a hot drink, and may help to alleviate our guilt as we make our way back to the safety and comfort that is our home, but we still need to address the long term goal of removing the root causes that lead to homelessness.

So it seems that unless we tackle poor parenting by adults who are unable or unwilling to show unconditional love to their children, unless we teach  key subjects such as  parenting, morality, compassion and equality in our classrooms from primary level onwards,  there will always be a sector of society where the foundations were never allowed to be strong, and we all know that without solid foundations, homes can come crashing down.

 

 

 

 

 

Changes

It has been a surreal start to 2016 and one that has made me reflect on the human condition more than ever before. I have concluded that the reason for this is partly because of recent sad events, but also because as one gets older, one tends to question the meaning of life and events more often.

After what had been a fun and chilled New Year’s Eve with dear friends, January began with the rather abrupt return to routine but equally, with the usual promise of new beginnings. One Monday morning I woke to hear the news that one of my musical heroes, David Bowie, who had only days earlier presented the world with a gift of a brilliant new album, had died! He had vanished off the face of the earth. I was shocked, bewildered and confused. This ethereal Starman whose music and presence had held me captivated and mesmerised for so long, had returned to the planet whence he came.

Only 9 days later, and again without warning, the lovely, sweet, kind and gentle husband of a very dear friend, a man about whom I had talked only days before, because his throaty laugh and beaming smile were so reminiscent of my above-mentioned hero, suddenly and unexpectedly died and vanished too. He was also a hero, to his beautiful six year old daughter.

The stark and painful reminder of my own mortality had arrived in a double- dose. I could not be of any help, of course, in giving David Bowie a fitting goodbye, but I was determined to help my dear friend to plan and deliver a funeral that celebrated and captured the true essence of the man she had shared her life with. As funerals go, I have to admit that it was an amazing event filled with love, gratitude and laughter- and he would have wanted the laughter!

Loss associated with bereavement is only apparent to us because we love and attach ourselves to others as we journey through our lives. We cannot feel this loss unless we feel love. It is also the emotion we most wish to avoid; the many other emotions we experience are not associated with finality. Anger comes and goes, as do envy and greed, but they do not sit with us forever- in fact they help to teach us to become better, happier human beings and to learn how to invite them to visit less often. We come to realise that they are futile and unbecoming. Not so with loss, for it hangs around dark, eerie corners; loss is an opportunist waiting to pounce and penetrate our core; a nagging, gnawing reminder of the frailty of the human condition.

We are constantly reminded that life is short and that we must seize the moment, but most of the time we are all too busy with the minutiae of our existence to stop and appreciate those who make it all worthwhile.

When we are faced with loss of immediate family, the structure that is our life comes crashing down, and all we can do is to carefully start to rebuild it brick by brick. As with all structures, it will take time to take shape again, but take shape it will- although with different contours. Life cannot remain the same shape for too long, for it is as restless as a sea storm. It comes with its ebbs and flows.

Changes in our lives are many, and I believe that as we get older, we come to accept them more readily and arrive at a deeper understanding of the laws of nature that govern all life.

In Ayurvedic philosophy, we teach others about how to nurture their health and wellbeing and ride the tides of change. Ayurveda sees change as negative only when it is not addressed. If our eating habits or lifestyle choices bring negative consequences, we have to change them to redress the imbalance. We can do this through understanding the key principles of Ayurveda. We need healthy minds as well as healthy bodies in order to tolerate changes with humility.

With healthy minds and bodies, we are far better equipped to deal with change. When someone we love dies and the change is too severe to comprehend, we can in time, look at the positives that can be achieved through this loss.

David Bowie had time to accept his imminent demise and decided to do what he did best and so magnificently, to write and record a legacy to the world, his album Blackstar.

Sadly, my friend did not have any warning of his untimely death, but his partner is determined to take on all the projects they had planned together, and with the help of those who love her and loved him, complete them the way he intended. She will ensure that their beautiful daughter, a fabulous combination of them both, will always remember her Daddy’s Bowie smile, his deep belly laugh and his unquantifiable love for her.

And that can only be a positive.

RIP two heroes.

 

 

 

 

 

Roots

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness” – Alex Haley

I am fascinated by the concept of ‘roots’; there are many meanings of the word, but the sentiment is the same – roots must be strong and stable, roots are where we come from both geographically and symbolically, roots are earthy, nourishing, nutritious vegetables, the root is where we find the answers and the reassurance, because it is where everything begins.

I recall a piece I once wrote about my mother and her roots during a memoir writing course I took.  She, and many thousands like her, made the difficult and traumatic transition from India to the UK in the late 1950s.  Hers had been a sunny, hot, dusty world, one full of extended family, noise, colour, laughter, of small, shared spaces and tolerance.  The new world she found herself in was cold, grey, foggy, quiet, lonely, and devoid of all that was familiar. She was uprooted, rather prematurely, before she had had the chance to become the person she was destined to be, and she had to learn a different way of being.

As a result of this transition, she had to replant herself, like an exotic non- indigenous flower, into the earth of a new, seemingly hostile landscape, and wait and hope that her roots would take and provide her stability.

Did she make a successful transition?  Of course! With grace, resolve, deep inner strength, the love and devotion of her husband, my father, and eventually, through the bonds she made with her new network of friends, all of whom had been through the same uprooting.

My mother feels that most of her roots are still embedded in Indian soil.  This was her Land, where her family remained, and still remain, after she had left. When she goes back ‘home’ every winter, she becomes a very different person. She is more confident, more assertive and outgoing, and more self -assured. She finds a comfort there amongst her family and old friends that seems to remind her of the carefree days of her youth, when life was a little more predictable and uncomplicated.  Going back to her roots reattaches her to the identity she left behind all those years ago and with this nourishment, she flourishes. Maybe this is because she misses the old traditional ways of the world and her memories of it lie in India, the country where she was born, raised and educated. Even though India, and for that matter, the world, has changed unrecognisably, I am not sure she wants to accept it has. The innocence of a time gone by has remained ingrained in her mind.

We all require roots, stability, support and nourishment from the places where we find ourselves and the people who surround us. Without this groundedness, we feel adrift, rudderless, alone, and confused. We need to know where, and to whom we belong.

People who are adopted often say that they sensed something was not right in their lives and that they did not feel like they truly belonged to their adoptive parents and family. This feeling of not belonging can occur even if those who are adopted are surrounded by good, loving people. The roots that have been severed are unable to nourish themselves fully without being attached to familiar soil.

There are many people in the world who are becoming displaced due to war and aggression. They are being uprooted in every sense of the word, forced to flee their homes and countries, often becoming separated from those they love and from whom they have learned stability. Most of us cannot begin to imagine the horror, the heartache, and the level of fear and desperation that these people have to accept as part of their everyday lives. It is not an uprooting like the one my mother experienced, for hers was out of choice, although not one she would have made had it not been for my doctor father’s desire to spread his medical wings and settle in the UK.

Everything is relative, and there are many circumstances that lead to people becoming uprooted,  but the common thread of what it means to have roots, remains. It is vital for our sanity, our peace of mind and our ability to be who we were destined to be.

In Ayurvedic philosophy, the root is hugely important, because Ayurveda treats the root cause of disease, rather than just getting rid of the effect. If the cause is not eliminated, then the effect will return. This is why we do not necessarily need to know the name of a disease to treat it. In modern medicine, we like to give names to diseases and prescribe a suitable medicine, but I feel that this can almost hinder the process of attempting to eliminate the cause.

In Ayurvedic medicine, we always look at qualities. The qualities presented and seen during illness are brought back to their correct levels during treatment. So, if  Vata Dosha (see previous musing, ‘Ayurvedic Medicine’) is vitiated and it has increased in quality and quantity enough for the person to be showing symptoms, the ‘like increases like and opposites decrease each other’ Ayurvedic principle means that successful treatment requires increasing opposite qualities. This is the rule regardless of the name of the illness.

As winter approaches, it brings with it the qualities of Kapha- cold, damp, heavy, slow, dense, static and sweet. Kapha ailments include congested colds, coughs, sinus issues, bloating, water retention, lethargy, weight gain, excessive sleepiness, depression.

In the winter, ‘heating’ foods should be increased in order to keep the body warm and reduce Kapha symptoms. We should aim to increase the use of chillies, ginger, garlic, coriander, leafy green vegetables, lentils, barley, and keep biscuits, cakes and puddings as occasional treats. Sweet food is Kapha promoting. Basmati rice is good, rye bread is too, but wheat consumption should be kept to a minimum. We should try to avoid raw foods and salads at this cold time of year; we should be choosing warm over cold.

Kapha season displays the same qualities,  so we need to ensure we are wrapped up, our heads and ears are protected from the cold and the wind, and that we are surrounded by others. Kapha vitiation can lead to depression and loneliness. This is not the time of year to isolate ourselves from the world!

Below is my mother’s recipe for curry of Aubergine and fenugreek (methi) leaves. It is perfect for the Kapha  season, as it is high in fibre, low in calories, therefore filling  without being heavy on the digestive system. It contains vitamin C, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Aubergines contain flavanoids which have been shown to reduce cholesterol and maintain heart health.  Methi is a Kapha reducing food, and it also excellent for blood sugar reduction.

My mother learned this recipe when she was a young woman, still attached by the roots to her homeland.

Enjoy!

 

CURRY OF AUBERGINE AND FENUGREEK LEAVES 

Ingredients:

2 medium aubergines

A bunch of fenugreek (methi) leaves (available at Indian grocers)

1 tsp black mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

 A pinch of asafoetida

A pinch of bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp sunflower or rapeseed oil

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp each of ground cumin and groun coriander

1 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp chopped fresh ginger

A fat garlic clove chopped

1 tsp jaggery (Indian sugar- available in Indian grocers)

Pre-preparation:

First of all you need to prepare the aubergines to get rid of their high water content and concentrate their flavour. Remove the stalks but leave the skin on (it contains the fibre), cut them into 1½ inch (4 cm) chunks. Then place them in a colander and sprinkle them with salt.

Put a plate on top of them and weigh it down with something heavy, then put another plate underneath to catch the juices. Leave them like this for 1 hour. Finally, rinse them and  pat dry with kitchen paper.

Rinse the methi leaves and chop off and discard the stalks and any yellow leaves. Pat the leaves dry.

Method:

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the mustard and cumin seeds, with the asafoetida.  Once they are popping, add the ginger and garlic. Fry for a minute or two before adding the methi leaves, the bicarbonate of soda, and a little water. Mix for a couple of minutes and add the aubergine and salt, to taste. You may need to top up the water a little if it looks like it is too dry. Let it cook for about 20 minutes until the aubergine is fairly soft, before adding the turmeric, coriander and cumin powders, and allow to cook for another 15 minutes or so. You want a gravy that has incorporated all the ingredients well. When cooked, add the jaggery (the sweetness counteracts the bitterness of the methi). Finally, check the seasoning.

Serve with flat breads and basmati rice, with a small amount of plain yoghurt on the side.