Let’s talk about ... your experience of obesity.
New Year Resolutions (That Quiet Place)
It’s that time of year again. Celebrations. Bidding farewell to the year gone by. Reflecting on what it was like. Making plans for the year to come.
The fitness industry looks forward to January. It is one of their biggest revenue spinners. We are flush with the hope that a new year inspires. We set fitness goals and make resolutions around improving our health. Sign up for gym memberships. Sometimes these good intentions last. Sometimes they don’t.
Have you ever had that feeling? Made a New Year’s resolution to improve fitness, work on your health, lose weight and so on? Only to find that it is June already, and your new Nikes are as pristine as they were the day you bought them. If yes, read on, you may find something that speaks to you.
I have struggled with obesity since I was a child. In primary school, the standard-issue school belt wouldn’t fit me. My parents had to purchase the high-school student size separately. Medical check-ups were a particular kind of hell. My weight would be nowhere near the average range, it would be at least 20 kgs heavier. I would dread my classmates laughing at me, and so I would wait until the end to weigh myself. Those of you who may have struggled with childhood obesity or have obese children know the pain I am talking about.
Thankfully, my mother decided that enough was enough. She enrolled me in swim classes at the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre, one of the top swim centres in the country if not the whole of Asia-Pacific. I loved it.
I loved it so much that not only did all the excess weight melt away, but I also went on to become a competitive swimmer. A few years later, I was captain of the Karnataka women’s water-polo team at the National Games in Imphal, Manipur.
My teenage life was a happy blur of training sessions. In the summer, we trained three times a day. In all seasons, we showed up at 5:00 a.m. to warm-up on the running track. At 5:30 a.m. we were in the water, come rain, shine, or the chill of 1990s Bangalore winters. (Have you ever swum in a deep pool when it is pelting with rain? The water envelopes you from all sides. You are immersed in its quiet depths from below. At the same time, you experience its fury from above. Time and space fade away. There is nothing but that moment. There are no sounds from the land to distract you. Just you and the water. It is pure action-in-inaction, meditative bliss.) I became athlete-fit and body positive. I even appeared on a television show, and somehow managed to find the time to top my school as a state ranker in the Class 10 board exams. Life was great! (or should I say, going swimmingly well 😉)
Then came the Law
Then came law school. From intense physical activity multiple times a day, to next to none. And all the glories of hostel food. ‘Vegetables’ meant things like deep fried bhindi. No fibre or anything raw. Many of you will know exactly what I am talking about when I talk about hostel food! I slid a little way down the slope. Gone were my athlete levels of fitness.
5 years of legal education later, I began my career. I lived all over the world, first in the Netherlands, then in Bombay, then in the United States until I finally found my way back to my hometown of Bangalore. I was clear about the kind of workplace I was looking for. I wanted to work with very smart people, do excellent work, and have time for my fitness regimen. I remember my interview so clearly. I was asked if I had any questions. I said yes, I must go to the gym every day, will I be able to do that if I work here? (The answer, I am happy to say, was a resounding yes).
Fitness, then, has clearly always been a priority for me. How then did I end up weighing a whopping 108 kgs? Yes, you read that right. 108 kgs is what I weighed in 2019. Here I was, a triumpher over childhood obesity, an athlete, over-achiever, star performer, superwoman, call me what you will (I have been called it all). And I was back where I started. How was I different from that child in 4th grade shuddering at the sight of the weighing scale?
From that scary place at the bottom of the proverbial barrel two years ago, I have now lost over 20 kgs. The number is less important than how I feel; how much energy I now have, to devote in every area of my life: work, home, fitness, writing.
How did the weight go? What did I learn?
How I lost all this weight is equally as important as what I learned about myself in the process.
As lawyers, we live in our heads in a world of words. Our professional world really is about carefully constructing our words, on paper, on email, on text, in meetings, negotiations, arguments, while reading, while analysing, while writing, in person, on the phone, with a range of communication electronics, not just with face to face. When you think about it, we are master communicators with the outside world. We have just forgotten how to communicate with our own bodies.
We are so socialised into our profession that we lose touch with our bodies. Why do some former athletes put on weight? Because we don’t listen to our bodies. Food is a big part of an athlete’s life, and for swimmers even more so. As many of you may know from your direct experience, there is something about swimming as a workout that makes you hungrier than any other sport does. And after a while, even if you have stopped swimming, vast quantities of food become a crutch. Something you rely on even when you are not hungry, because it makes you feel good. Because it may even remind you of the good times. Especially when things are happening that don’t make you feel so good. Stress, in other words.
Our professional lives these days can be enormously stressful. It becomes easier to dull the pain with a gooey chocolate cake or a mac ‘n cheese (insert your favourite poison here).
Think about it. Where in your life are you using food or any other addiction, really, to blunt some stress or the other? Most people will just tell you to stop doing it. I am not going to say that. That is the easy part, that you already know.
This is the interesting part, right? We already know everything we need to do to get the outcomes we want. Yet, we don’t take action. We are happy to live inside the patterns that we know, don’t work. Why? Isn’t this so glaringly obvious? Yet we can’t break out of the spiral? Why, why, why?
The answer that I have found (and it may be different for you, I encourage you to find yours, nothing is as potent as the discoveries you make on your own) is because we don’t know how to listen to ourselves. Nobody has taught us this skill. Not in school, not in college, not in the fancy foreign universities we spend an arm and a leg to attend.
It gets curiouser and curiouser, as Alice says in Wonderland. Not only do we not listen to our bodies, we don’t know that we are not listening, because we live so much in our heads! With this level of disconnection from the body, learning that listening skill seems next to impossible.
Is all this sounding like a trip into la-la land? Don’t worry, I am landing right back down into the world of practical tips and immediately actionable suggestions.
Breath as the Bridge Between the Mind and the Body
Believe it or not, it is quite easy to start listening to what the body is saying. Once you get the hang of it. Getting the hang of it does require effort and patience.
It all starts with the breath. The breath is a bridge between the body and the mind. One that we pay hardly any attention to. Making friends with the breath is like having your own personal bodyguard protecting you and on duty 24/7/365. Ready to help you listen. To take the wisdom you already have, from pure gut feel into powerful action. From the unconscious mind, to the conscious; and from there, to action.
You can start by spending five minutes a day watching your breath. Sit down in the same space at roughly the same time every day, and just watch your breath. The mind will wander. It is alright. Bring it back gently. Keep the spine straight. Place your hand on your stomach and feel the gentle rise and fall of the abdomen, as the diaphragm does its blessed, much overlooked work. Exhale. Exhale. Exhale. Inhale, and receive. Make it smooth, make it circular, make it beautiful.
(If this doesn’t work for you, there are many other techniques you can try. You can mentally count numbers in the inhale and exhale. You could find breathwork audios on YouTube that you could play alongside. One of my favourite techniques is to repeat mentally as I exhale, ‘Empty, empty, empty.’ And then as I inhale, ‘Receive.’ Have some fun with it. Figure out what you like, what works for you.)
Over time, you will find that the pounding of thoughts, reduces. To continue the swimming metaphor, the rain stops battering you from the outside. You can access that quiet, deep place inside.
That Quiet Place
That Quiet Place helps you. Your best friend and bodyguard, it will ask you: do you really want those deep - fried donuts, or is it because you are stressed about the number of documents still pending? Do you really want that samosa or are you just upset because of that conversation?
That Quiet Place gives you the power to stop displacing. We displace our emotions about one thing into something else. And we never give ourselves the time to understand what exactly these games are. Games that we are playing with ourselves, constantly. Games that in the long run, are ruinous to our health.
Watching the breath, understanding this bridge, hanging out with this friend and bodyguard, helps us become more self - aware. The first impact is on our health.
How can the Quiet Place help you at work?
The Quiet Place is much more than just an aid to better physical health, though. It is the path to improved cognition, clarity in thinking, empathy, and a range of other benefits. In a nutshell, the quality of your life improves dramatically on all levels, in all areas.
Discover for yourself, also, the dramatic positive effect watching your breath can have on the quality of your own work. On the quality of your thinking, your analysis, and your writing. The effect it has on the quality of your interactions with your clients, your colleagues, your subordinates and bosses, your workplace and hopefully ultimately the industry.
What effect? I am deliberately going to leave that unanswered so you can find out yourself. If this has piqued your curiosity. Don’t believe a word I am saying, experiment on your own.
Can you give yourself the gift of 5 minutes a day to watch your breath?
New Year Resolutions
Go ahead and make those resolutions. Do you need to knock off a few kilos? (I do, another 20 kg, and I am making the resolution now. Hold me accountable, people!). Reverse chronic conditions? Diabetes? Hypertension? Give your knees a break from lugging around your weight? You can, easily.
Just don’t expect the fitness industry to do it for you. Don’t think that the diet – exercise mantra is the only one you must chant. Be willing to invest the time to get to know yourself, understand your own body, what makes it tick. Find your own Quiet Place inside.
Finding the Quiet Place is what makes the weight loss sustainable. This is how you ensure the weight you have lost, stays lost. It doesn’t find its way back to you. That Quiet Place helps you love and accept yourself the way you are. That is a big part of what makes the weight melt away (counterintuitive as that sounds).
It’s how you stop waving goodbye to your personal trainer with one hand, and reaching for that bagel with cream cheese, with the other.
Haven’t we all done that? I certainly have. I may still do it, and so can you, occasionally. Except that now I can relish the taste of cheese without needing the bread. Even if I choose to have the bread, I may enjoy a few mindful, well – masticated bites. I don’t need to finish the entire bun, or reach for another, or wolf down the entire pack.
My fellow morbidly obese friends will know exactly what I mean.
It all starts with the breath.
Let the magic begin.
P.S: If you are interested in how I did it, you can read the story of the first milestone (10% weight lost) here. There’s even a little video at the end: https://novoliver.in/how-the-science-of-4-pillars-saved-neela-from-spending-her-hard-earned-money-on-medical-bills/
P.P.S: Thanks to Malavika Prasad for helping with insightful comments on the first draft.
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