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I’m writing this with some homemade cookies and a coffee complete with milk. Dairy, wheat, caffeine, sugar, it’s all there and it’s glorious.
I’ve been in rebellion mode for a month now. Two months of austerity in Ubud came to a crashing close at the Writers and Readers Festival where the arrival of the literary elite pushed away my health experiments and made way for wine, coffee and cake.
I was meant to introduce things slowly, check one by one to see what, if anything, I was allergic to. Instead, I went to an opening party, saw free wine and cake and said “f*ck it” to the whole darn thing. Free wine in a country where it costs at least $25 a bottle, coupled with my favourite of all foodstuffs?! The diet had no chance.
But did I regret it?
Had it caused discomfort, perhaps I would have done, but as it was I felt fine. There were no terrible reactions as the kinesiologist had predicted. In fact, a month later and it appears I am not straightforwardly intolerant to any of what he said I was. That, however, is not to say its all good for me.
I still get bloated from time to time, too much coffee drives me into a frenzy, and an overload of sugar gives me a headache. Sometimes milky tea makes me feel sick, other times it doesn’t. Almonds occasionally make my mouth itch, but I drink their milk every day with no effect. Rhyme and reason are not forthcoming and I suspect my varying reactions to food are a complex mixture of tiredness, hormones, mood, attitude, exercise, expectations, routine and the quality and combinations of the foods themselves.
It’s not simple, but another thing is: I feel good.
My health is not perfect in the true sense of the word – I have polycystic ovaries, am prone to outbreaks of spots and sometimes get symptoms that suggest IBS – but it seems health is rarely perfect for most people. We all have little malfunctions that become a part of our lives. We do what we can to improve, but for the most part, we go on living. We get on with it and we cope.
When being healthy becomes unhealthy
My Don’t Knock It Til You’ve Tried It experiment in Ubud brought these health complaints to the forefront of my mind. The more I was told what was “wrong” with me, the more wrong I felt. These small complaints seemed like large impediments to a “whole” life. It felt imperative that I sort them out. Moreover, I was told I could sort them out. Perfect health was in my grasp if only I listened to their advice. The problem was, everyone’s advice was conflicting. The more things I tried, the more confused I became. Ironically, looking back at my life, I believe the single biggest influence on my health is stress – and becoming obsessed by my health in Ubud was stressful.
I started to see my spots as a signal to the world that “this girl is not taking care of herself”, but I was looking after myself better than ever, eating healthily and exercising every day. On the days when my skin was clear, people would congratulate me: “Look at your skin, you’re glowing. The diet is clearly working.” And then the spots would return, with no change made to my diet or exercise. It seems the climate was more likely the culprit, exacerbated by hormones and a motorcycle helmet chinstrap. I’m not saying that nutrition or fitness has no effect on the skin, but to correlate them simply isn’t always helpful. In fact I’d say it’s the opposite, just as it is with weight.
It made me think of lifestyle magazines, an impassioned subject that makes me fume. It’s a tired but still relevant complaint that the images flaunted within them create unrealistic expectations that leave people chasing an elusive ideal that leads to nothing but feelings of inadequacy. I recently rejoiced when hearing that there’s a lobby to get all digitally enhanced photos to be labeled as such. Comparison is a harmful habit, let alone when done against lies.
Those lies or misrepresentations are also perpetuated in health magazines. Yoga publications create the impression that all people who practice yoga can become lithe and glowing with health. There are no spots or bulges to be seen. Articles on diets in women’s magazines are similarly accompanied by images of radiant beauties, smiling with satisfaction. But that particular model wasn’t necessarily following that diet. Perhaps she had some other secret, or perhaps it’s down to genes.
Similarly, the reason why one person following a particular diet ends up glowing while another ends up ill, may also be down to genes or one of the other myriad variables that make up life. Theories like Ayurveda and Chinese nutrition tackle these differences with diets for different types, but their specialization in Indian and Chinese bodies doesn’t necessarily translate to other cultures. I’ve tried both and while I tend to favour them over fads, and did see benefits from elements of both, neither resulted in that elusive perfect health.
Body, mind and spirit
When I started the Don’t Knock It Til You’ve Tried It experiment, my focus was more on the esoteric, spiritual practices, but quickly came to encompass this wider issue of health. It all goes hand in hand – it’s what holistic health is about – body, mind and spirit. It’s too early to digest and share the lessons from the entire experience. I tried more than twenty different therapies, from family constellations to ecstatic dance and tantra, and I learned a lot, both about the world and myself, but I also left Ubud frustrated and relieved to have a break from all of it.
I was tired of the evangelical approach many people take to health. Because something worked for them, or they heard about it working for someone else, they believe it will work for everyone. After five months of this, my mind is still open, but alarm bells ring whenever I hear a promise of health. Some swear by raw food, others say its harmful with a basis that’s irrelevant to today’s bodies. Flyers around Ubud declare that a shot of wheatgrass is equivalent to 2 pounds of vegetables, but this “fact” has never been proven. There are claims of cures for cancer, diabetes, and every illness in-between.
The problem with scientific studies
The most common defence of such claims, and one that makes me exhausted as soon as I hear it, is: “Studies have shown it to be true”. The problem is, when you drill a little deeper, many of these studies are inconclusive, based on tiny sample sizes or lack of scientific controls (for those interested, here is a great article on interpreting scientific claims). During my time in Ubud, I delved into so many studies and conflicting anecdotal evidence that I ended up feeling as though I knew far less than when I started. I also did a university course in nutrition, which resulted in much the same. What works for one person will not always work for another. That’s all I know for sure.
The influence of the mind
Within alternative health, there is an added and even more elusive factor when it comes to the pursuit of health: the belief in intention and energy, and that negative thoughts or life events lead to negative health.
It’s commonly accepted in today’s world that stress can affect our health, but a crude simplification leads to dangerous judgments of culpability. The spots on your face are not only seen as a result of your nutrition and lifestyle but also the state of your mind. Some have even taken it so far as to link particular ailments to particular life patterns. They say grief leads to asthma, taking on too much responsibility as a child will give you polycystic ovaries, and caring too much leads to breast cancer.
The allure of stories
We’re sensitive beings, often hungry for stories that help make sense of life, but these unproven, anecdotal, and somewhat fear-mongering theories often to lead to nothing more than guilt and paranoia. One women spoke to me of how surprised she had felt when her sister got the breast cancer their Mum had died from. “But she had done so much work” she said, referring to diet, energy healings and meditation. “It shouldn’t have happened to her”.
But sometimes these things just happen. Why does one twin get cancer and the other doesn’t? Why can one person eat ten brownies every day and never get fat, while someone else subsists on salad and struggles to stay a healthy weight? I don’t think the answer is simple, and I have found my own exploration of health, both physical and mental, to be nothing short of mind-boggling.
I’ve also found it tiresome. It led to self-absorption, guilt and paranoia, none of which I aspire to. There are some things I will stick to from my explorations, most coming down to common sense. Regular exercise makes me feel good, obsessive exercise doesn’t. Too much alcohol is destroying, but some here and there is fun. Gorging on cakes is ill-advised but enjoying a few is one of my life’s best pleasures.
I will also meditate, do yoga and endeavor to be as mindful as possible – for I believe those things keep me sane.
Ultimately for me, life is about being the best version of myself I can be, and that mostly comes down to actions – kindness, compassion and love. Looking my best is simply self-serving and best taken out of the equation, but feeling my best is more complicated – it undoubtedly affects my actions, but it’s not always about eating the food with the least fat or the drink with the least sugar. It’s also not always about doing something “worthwhile” rather than indulging in the TV. Occasionally those things feel glorious.
In pursuit of balance
I guess it comes down to balance, a balance that’s unique to all. Life isn’t simple and living it is like navigating an ever-changing map on kaleidoscopic roads. There are signs along the way but it’s a riddle to know which ones are meant for you.
In Ubud, I tried wholeheartedly to uncover my path, to explore the various signs and choose which road to go down. I had hoped for a definitive answer but was left with more questions than revelations. Many emerge from the same processes with convictions and apparent truths, but while I learned a lot, I didn’t emerge with a faith in any one theory. I saw the appeal in believing, but a dose of skepticism was always in my way. Some say that skepticism is holding me back, others say it keeps me grounded. I’m not sure, but I remain open-minded either way.
I’ll keep my “Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it” hat on, but for now the experiment is going on hold.
My learning thus far:
Do what feels good, don’t do what feels bad, and remember that the distinction may change day by day.
Don’t Knock It Til You’ve Tried It
After noticing that the sight of Western spiritual seekers in Ubud stirred an urge within me to scoff, I decided to challenge my own cynicism and try all the esoteric offerings the town had to offer. I learned about energy, danced ecstatically, went to a channeler, lay on a crystal light bed, squirmed with discomfort, and heard some wonderfully wise words – all of which is written about here on the blog. I also went to and tried many other things which I haven’t yet written about – sound healings, tarot readings, medicine journeys, holographic kinetics, ayurvedic cleansing, acupuncture, tui-na, breath of bliss, electric massage, family constellations, tantra, NAET, water healing, watsu and more! As you can see from the post above, I’ve reached saturation point, but I have plenty more to share. Rather than also saturate this blog with more posts on the subject, I am thinking of making my experiences into a book of short stories. I’ll let you know as soon as I make some progress on it, and do let me know if it sounds like something you’d be interested in.