The Body Speaks

by Elaine Howley 2

Recently, I went on a long weekend retreat at a respected yoga and health center here in Massachusetts. I was there primarily to support my mom, who was attending a grief management workshop that she found enormously helpful, possibly even life changing. I was tempted to join her in the workshop, but worried that if I participated in such a program, I might end up backsliding; grief and the ongoing management of depression is a tricky subject for many of us, so instead, I opted to try an Ayurvedic cleanse that was going on at the same time as my mom’s workshop.

My leaning towards a nutritional program was also motivated by recent health developments. At my last physical, my doctor was alarmed by my blood pressure. It’s often been up and down over the years, but never quite this high (138/86) and that was enough for her to suggest I see a dietician and get a little more serious about losing some of my “Channel weight.” (More on what that is in a future post, but suffice to say, being well insulated can be an enormous advantage when swimming long distances in cold water. Think about it—have you ever seen a skinny beluga whale?)

TomatoAt my doctor’s urging, I visited with a dietician. I generally have good eating practices—incorporating as many vegetables and whole foods as possible. I buy organic when I can, and I generally try to avoid the center aisles of the grocery store. I’m not militant about it, but after having been vegan for a month back in 2011 to research a magazine article I was writing (another tale for another time), I’ve been much more conscious of what I’m putting into my body and how that relates to what comes out in terms of energy, vitality, performance, and of course, end product.

Given that my month being vegan had been such a refreshing experience that left me feeling brighter, lighter, and younger, I guess I was expecting a similar boost after this weekend cleanse. I signed up hoping to have a relaxing time and maybe to gain some insights that would further help me along my journey to healthier living.

The program materials supported this notion, indicating that I’d feel revitalized and attuned with my inner self. It promised delicious sounding “nourishment” in the form of organic juices, grains, and savory broth.

However, after having completed the program, which I found exhausting, I have to say, I’m glad this was only a three-day cleanse; they also run five-, seven- and 10-day cleanses as well, and good lord, I probably would have died in that time period. And I’m only exaggerating a little with that statement; I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have lasted much longer than the three days I did. The food was beyond gross and difficult to choke down despite being hungry. As the weekend went on, it became clear to me that my electrolytes were seriously—possibly even dangerously?—out of balance by the end of the program. Neither during nor after the completion of the program did I perceive any benefits from this physical suffering.

The first thing I did when I got home was make up 24 ounces of Ultima Replenisher, an electrolyte drink mix that I use whenever I swim. Within about five minutes of sipping that beverage, the headache I’d had for three days vanished without a trace and I began to feel human again. It seems to me that while this type of cleansing has worked wonders for other people, it’s simply not the right approach for me, and so I move on to other things.

Although I didn’t get the physical lift I was hoping for, the weekend was not a complete waste. We did a few exercises that I found helpful that can be applied in other contexts, particularly as they relate to athletic performance and enjoyment of what our bodies can surprise us with from time to time.

The first of these was practicing “mindful eating.” This is where you turn off the television and move off the couch and into the dining room for meals. There, you actually talk to your partner, children, pets, yourself, what have you, instead of being droned at by the television and thus distracted from what you are eating. You pay attention to every bite and savor it when eating mindfully, making a connection with what goes in and how you feel after it’s gotten there.

Taking that notion a step further, during the workshop, all of our breakfasts were consumed in silence to further help us hone in on the feedback our bodies delivered as we ate. Though this practice sounds a bit monastic, I found it to be unexpectedly and remarkably enjoyable.

Another aspect of mindful eating is to simply slow down. The presenter encouraged us to put our forks down between bites and actually chew every mouthful until it became liquid. It makes sense; digestion begins in the mouth with the incorporation of saliva, and the reasoning goes that you will gain better nourishment from well chewed food than from wolfing down big mouthfuls at a time. The stomach can only do so much to break down what we put into it, and giving that food a head start before it gets there makes for easier digestion and better nutrition.

Elaine Howley

I am now trying to be mindful of eating more slowly and pausing between mouthfuls to savor the flavors and to help my body get all the nutrients it can out of everything I eat. The added benefit of eating this way is that it gives the brain time to catch up to the belly in realizing that it is full and doesn’t need any more food. Slowing down is hard in our 24/7 nonstop society, but eating is an ancient art and should be honored. My husband and I are now making an effort to sit down together to dinner every night at the dining room table, well away from the couch and television where we have usually taken meals together.

The second practice that I found interesting was writing a letter to my body. When the presenter first suggested we do this, I thought, “Seriously? How hippy-dippy can you get?” But then I reminded myself to not be so quick to judge and to give the exercise a fair shake. After a short meditation in which we were instructed to focus in on our bodies and what they were trying to tell us, what we’re grateful for about them, and what they want to achieve, we were instructed to write what we had heard. I was surprised by what words flowed from my pen:

Dear Elaine,

I’m glad that you are trying to eat better. I want you to continue that and continue losing the stress, and maybe some of the weight as well. I know it’s not easy, but I have to work harder when you’re stressed and carrying that extra channel weight, so I feel like maybe it’s time to make some changes. Together, we can find happy yet. Oh, and don’t forget: Keep swimming.

            Love,

            Your Body

Once we had finished that piece, we were instructed to reply to our bodies using a similar meditation technique and guidelines for what to focus on. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Body,

I’m grateful to you for all the great adventures we’ve had together. Swimming all those Channels and other long swims sure has been fun, hasn’t it? When we get home, I promise to watch the sugar and the beer intake and to continue eating well. We’ll work on the stress side of things together, too. And don’t worry; we’ll definitely keep swimming.

            Love,

            Elaine

This exercise was a simple thing, and dare I say a little silly, but it did make me stop and think about the relationship between mind and body and how critical it is for the two to be in harmony and working together for good health and optimal output. It’s an integrated whole system, with two, sometimes-competing parts that need to play well together. We all put a lot of demands on our bodies and our brains every day, and anything that helps the body and the mind communicate more readily is probably a good thing, even if it seems a little ridiculous as we’re doing it.

So I challenge you, dear reader, to give mindful eating a try and look for ways to make a connection between brain and body. I don’t think it’s necessary to eat tasteless gruel and clear broth for days and then, when worn down by hunger, write yourself batty-sounding letters to get to a place of peace and connection, but if that’s what works for you, go for it. For everyone else, I suggest simply tuning in, slowing down, breathing, and approaching food with the respect it deserves. ‘Cause it does deserve some serious respect, seeing as it’s the fuel that lets us have all these amazing adventures, sensations, tastes, and journeys that we are privileged to enjoy.

As for me, I will keep trying to slow down and listen to my body. Apparently, it knows some things my brain hasn’t caught on to yet.

Elaine Howley is a former Division I collegiate swimmer and ocean lifeguard who began competing in long-distance open water events in 2006 on a dare; she hasn’t looked back since, and only trains in the pool when the New England weather turns really beastly. A recent convert to the roller coaster that is ice swimming... more »