Thursday, April 29, 2010

this week's yoga practice

My yoga practice hasn't been what I wanted it to be this past week. Between working on my own papers, preparing for teaching a Master's level special education class, and grading students' work in said class, I have not made the commitment to practicing more yoga.

Why is it that it is during those times when I need yoga the most that I do it the least?

I have been attending a kick-butt vinyasa class on Monday nights, and practicing on my own the rest of the week. The problem is, my home practice becomes quite variable, depending on my time management (or lack thereof).

At the very least, just practicing a few sun salutations gets the blood flowing and the breath regulated...a few long, deep yin yoga stretches for the lower back and hips (great after sitting at the computer for hours on end)... and of course there's savasana, or corpse pose. If there's one thing I should commit to, it should be 5-10 minutes of full relaxation in savasana.

My father always used to take naps. Even before he retired and was working full time, he would carve out a half hour out of his work day to shut the door of his office, put on his eye cover, and take a nap. Then he would face the rest of the day, feeling refreshed and re-energized to get all the work done. Doesn't napping increase productivity?

I would say that savasana can increase productivity too. It's about taking a break to clear the mind and bring the body back into balance.

I've been trying to remind myself to get up every hour or so to do a few stretches -- to wring out my shoulders after being hunched as I type, to lengthen the spine and hamstrings in downward dog, to open up the lower back in a deep, relaxed forward bend.

But I have to admit that I sometimes neglect savasana. Whether it's the worry that I might fall asleep and end up dozing off for an hour, or the difficulty in giving myself permission to relax. Not a good thing.

Yoga teachers do say that savasana is one of the most difficult poses. It sounds ironic, because don't you just lay there, close your eyes, and breathe?

But in savasana, we try to be completely relaxed, yet conscious. In savasana, as in meditation, thoughts may come and go but the mind just observes without reacting or attaching. And that's the challenge that takes practice.

The mind is a challenge. It's in the mind where I hear all this self-talk: "oh, I have to do this... I have to remember that..." etc, etc.

I remind myself to focus on the breath, to bring me back to that place of stillness and clarity. That place where the breath is the only thing happening right now. It's not easy! It's not easy to let go of the inner scheduler, the inner taskmaster, and most of all, the inner critic.

I find that one way to replace that self-talk is to silently recite some words or mantras. Or even a simple phrase on which to focus the mind. Like "let go".

Inhale, "let."

Exhale, "go."

So I try to let go of worry. Let go of the negative self-talk. Even just for 10 minutes. And when I come out of savasana, I never regret it.

How do you practice savasana? I'd love to hear.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

food elimination chronicles

Ok, so I gave up all dairy products last week. I dutifully recorded everything I ate onto a file on my computer, and recorded whether or not I had a headache, including the time.

I still had headaches, often in the evening.

So I'm not giving up on food headache triggers yet, but now I'm thinking that my headaches are EYESTRAIN-related. Since they have been happening towards the end of the day, after a LONG day of looking at the computer (and ironically, here I am, past midnight, BLOGGING. Hmmm.)

A newfound friend/long-lost distant cousin "found" me on facebook recently, and due to our mutual interest in yoga, healthy living,  and nutrition, we've been exchanging messages back and forth over the past couple of weeks. With her education and experience in nutrition, below was her advice for an elimination diet to find out the culprit behind my headaches:

Week 1: give up wheat (GASP! There goes my bread...)
Week 2: give up soy (There goes my soy milk; but this is ok since I like almond milk.)
Week 3: give up dairy (There goes my parmigiano-reggiano. A little tough, but not too bad.)

Ok, so for the next day or so, I will be slowly finishing up the rest of my bread so I can start going wheat-free on Wednesday. Hello, rice and barley. Thank goodness for my Filipino roots because I LOVE rice. I have to be careful about other sources of wheat though such as seitan (which I really don't buy much of anyway, as they seem to be heavily processed) and even soy sauce (which I have occasionally and sparingly with veggie sushi). But I have wheat-free tamari and Bragg's liquid aminos as alternatives, so that will be ok.

Surprisingly, she didn't mention chocolate :)
(Thank goodness for dairy-free dark chocolate)

AND she didn't mention nuts and nut butters :)

Also, this comes at a good time... it's almost the end of the semester, and being headache-free would definitely be a good thing.

More soon...

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

nutrition evaluation

I've been having weird headaches lately. I think it started last week. They are not full-blown migraines (thank goodness), just slight nagging headaches. And the pain has been very tolerable - it's really been more a bother or an inconvenience rather than the kind of pain you get from a migraine. I try not to take any medicine for it except for this aromatherapy essential oil remedy that comes in a little roll-on bottle, which I bought from this vendor at a farmer's market in Cincinnati last year. (Since I have moved away from Cincy, I was happy to find out that I can order online!)

So this has prompted me to evaluate my everyday nutrition to see if there are certain kinds of food that have been triggering my headaches. It's been a while since I've taken stock of what I am eating. I think I have a fairly balanced diet of mostly whole, minimally processed foods (with exceptions, like soy milk and cheese) when I think about it over the course of a week -- of course it's not perfect, and I know I don't get everything I need in one day. So for me, thinking about it in a weekly time frame is a bit more forgiving than thinking about it on a per day basis. Because knowing my interest in all things food, I can easily get obsessive about this.

So here's my self-disclosure...

My vegetables throughout the week would be any one of these organic dark leafy greens: spinach, swiss chard, and kale. I eat dark leafy greens most days of the week, probably 5 out of 7 days on average.  I usually steam or lightly saute them in olive oil, season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and sometimes a dusting of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano and/or a small handful of toasted pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds. Or I get my vegetable serving in a veggie soup, like lentil vegetable soup, spinach soup, red pepper soup, pea soup....

photo taken at the Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

So hopefully I have that area covered. For carbohydrates, it's usually a slice of bread (either my own, or this nine-grain bread from this place), or granola (my own) for breakfast. And for lunch or dinner it's either brown rice, whole wheat spaghetti, whole wheat couscous, or quinoa. Maybe about once a week or once every two weeks I would have white basmati rice just because it's SO GOOD with Indian food, which I love. Occasionally I have wheat or corn tortillas with a Mexican dish.

For protein, it's usually legumes. I love beans. It's got lots of plant-based protein, fiber, and folate. It's cheap and SO good for you. Cannellini beans for Italian-inspired dishes; black beans for Mexican or Cuban dishes; red kidney beans, yellow lentils, or red lentils for Indian dishes; regular brown lentils for lentil soup; French green lentils for cold lentil salad (because this kind holds its shape unlike other lentils, so they're great for salads); chickpeas, fava beans, or baby lima beans for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. Beans and beans and beans. Yum. I tell you, one of my simple pleasures in life is shopping at the bulk section of natural foods stores to get this stuff.

photo taken at my neighborhood natural foods store

I almost always start with dry beans instead of canned unless I'm pressed for time. A tip for non-seasoned bean eaters: Add digestive herbs or spices like epazote (for Mexican dishes), bay leaf, or add a small strip (about 2-3 inches) of kombu to the cooking water. Even if I am used to eating beans, I still cook it this way - the spices add flavor anyway. (Except for kombu, which has a mild, fairly neutral flavor, so it's good for pretty much any recipe or cuisine, I think). Just a side story, I once had some "omni" friends over for dinner, and I served them a Tuscan cannellini bean dip as an appetizer, then we had a chickpea stew. I think I ran out of kombu then. I tell you, I did not hear the end of it from my friends when they called me the next morning about their digestion issues. I still haven't heard the end of it to this very day. :) None of the food bothered me though, as I eat legumes several times a week.

I also get protein from nuts - I always have bags of raw nuts in my freezer: almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts. I also love natural nut butters -- peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter. Lately I've been stirring a little vanilla extract, maple syrup or honey, and ground cinnamon into almond butter. It's indulgent!

Fruits are usually the basics: bananas, apples, oranges, grapes. I also like Medjool dates and dried figs, but I don't really treat them as fruit but more as dessert! Fresh figs are awesome too, but they are not in season yet. Occasionally I would have papaya or kiwi if I find good ones. Now that spring is here, I'm excited about the strawberries and the summer berries. (Wish I could have Philippine mangoes which in my opinion are THE. BEST. MANGOES.)

Calcium. Yikes. This is what I might not be getting enough of. I do drink soy milk, but one 8-ounce cup only gives you 30% of daily calcium needs. And I don't think I even drink that much in a day unless I make a smoothie with it. I put a little bit in my Earl Grey tea every morning and afternoon, but not much more. Sometimes I'll switch it up with almond milk for a different flavor.

Every now and then I might have plain organic yogurt which I just sweeten myself with a little honey or agave nectar. Or I have a couple of slices of organic sharp cheddar with my toast in the morning. Occasionally I'll have grated parmigiano over my vegetables or pasta. Once in a while I'll have Greek feta (from sheep's milk). So I may not be getting enough calcium...But, calcium is also in green vegetables (I think??). I'll really have to think about my calcium intake because my genetics are not in my favor in terms of bone density.

Chocolate. Being in its own food group (in my world), of course this deserves mention. I usually get a dark chocolate bar (3-4 ounces) and make that last all week. I eat a square or two after lunch and dinner. Or I might have a dollop of this chocolate hazelnut spread with fruit for dessert. I will say that I usually have more chocolate on weekends ;-) Especially if I made a fancy dessert (my weekend food project).

Dark Chocolate Orange Pots de Creme

Sugar is usually from any one of these: demerara or turbinado sugar, local honey, or agave nectar. I try my best to avoid white refined sugar but of course there are many hidden and not-so-hidden sources of this kind of sugar, such as fruit preserves, which I have with toast in the morning. This "Four Fruits" one is my favorite. But I'll take the white sugar in here over aspartame or sucralose, or worse, high fructose corn syrup.

I don't really buy eggs much, unless they are organic or from a local farm. I eat it once a week on a weekend brunch (thanks to A's omelets).

The other thing I'll need to reconsider is my omega-3's intake. Fish is a good source of omega-3's, but since I don't eat seafood I'll have to up my intake of flax and chia seeds. Any other ideas?

Every once in a while (about once a month) I'll have this intense craving for these salt-and-vinegar flavored, kettle-cooked potato chips. There's just something about that salty and tangy flavor combination that hits the spot. Ugh. There. Confession done.

So overall I think my diet is...ok. Again, it's not perfect by any means, but I don't want to obsess about it too much.

This week I am cutting out dairy products to see if that is triggering my headaches. I have not been getting headaches since I eliminated dairy. Next week I might cut out chocolate (so if I'm grumpy you'll know why) for a few days and observe.

I'll just wait and see...

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

when life gives you blisters...

... go barefoot!

Today, as with all good-weather days, I walk 20-25 minutes from my apartment to the College of Education building. Which is great, especially when you factor in the power-walking pace with a load of what feels like at least 10 pounds in my backpack (with my laptop, a notebook, files, a book or two, a water bottle, and a few snacks, of course). And today my meeting was scheduled in a different building on campus, which added another 5 minutes to my walk.

I was wearing what I thought were trusty walking shoes. I made it to my meeting with just some slight friction bothering my left pinky toe. Before heading back home, I decided to put a Band-aid over it. (Did I mention that I have a mini-first aid kit in my backpack too? Must be my control issues. But that's another story.)

So walking back home.... "trusty", my shoes were not. I thought these "sporty" maryjanes were made by a brand known for comfort??? Come to think of it, I realized that I usually wear these shoes with opaque tights in the fall and winter and toe-socks in warmer months. But today I did not, because when I tried my toe-socks with these shoes, they just kept slipping. I made it about halfway through my walking route and sure enough, the friction resulted in this blister on my left pinky toe. And I could feel more friction in my right pinky toe as well. At this point I was no longer power-walking as I usually do. Five minutes later... I could not stand it any longer, so I decided to take my shoes off and go barefoot. Yup. Walking on the sidewalk, holding my shoes with one hand and my jacket in the other.

So I slowed down my walking a lot. Became aware of where I was walking, to not hurt my feet. I walked slowly, and noticed more wildflowers growing in the grass and through cracks on the sidewalk.

I felt the warm sunshine and the cool breeze on my skin. And best of all, I walked on patches of tickly grass, feeling the soft, cool earth under my bare feet.

I've come to the conclusion that grass is meant for barefoot walking. And I highly recommend doing it every so often when you have the opportunity.

PS: Interestingly, on my walk today, one of the neighborhood kids called out to me: "Konichiwa!!!" I must look Japanese. ;-)

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

spring blossoms

I spent the last week nursing a baking burn on the heel of my hand, which happened during my no-knead bread baking session. It prevented me from practicing downward dogs and chaturangas during my yoga practice. Instead, I took the time to slow down, practice more yin yoga forward bends and hip stretches, and take more walks with my camera. I love walks anyway... especially this time of year.

Here are a few photos from my recent walks.

whisper-pink blossoms

in transition

reaching upwards

to be sun-kissed

in an endless blue sky

"When it's over, I want to say: 
All my life
I was a bride married to amazement."
- Mary Oliver

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

choose your poison... responsibly

An interesting article on "chocolate's bitter truth" - the unethical, slave labor practices in making chocolate.

Click here.

Glad they endorsed Green & Black and Dagoba chocolate, because I consume both of these quite regularly!

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

work/life balance

I had a recent conversation with a friend of mine who just went back to the Philippines for a 2-week visit. Now this friend is a highly intelligent, high-achieving, yet personable and fun-loving person. If there's someone you want who can get the job done (and more), she's your go-to gal. This girl can really WORK.

She talked about how laid-back the culture is back home. How our people know how to have fun (heck, we are the nation whose people can sing and dance at a citizen-organized revolution to impeach a president).

This is what I love about our culture. People know that family comes first. Work can be left in the office. After that, time is spent with family and friends. It's about family and relationships. After leaving the workplace, time is spent relaxing, doing leisure activities, whether at home or elsewhere.

But perhaps my view of life in my home country is skewed now. My parents are retired and enjoying life to the fullest, travelling like crazy, exercising, taking naps, and most of all, taking care of themselves. So I know my parents, by virtue of the life stage they are in, are not "representative" of the average person living there. But even people my age back home, who are building careers, seem to know the meaning of leisure and rest. And know where to draw the line between work and personal time.

In my conversation with that friend of mine, we realized how different life is here. I've lived here for almost 7 years, she for longer than that. We talked about how our work becomes our life. And no wonder we're under stress. "Duh". It's not rocket science.

How do we value our work? Work can be "just" work, or work can be a passion. Whether it's teaching children, balancing accounts, designing a product, or whatever it is you are committed to. When we love what we do, we pour all our energy into it. But ideally, we also have to allow ourselves to rest, so that we can greet the next day and continue our work with renewed energy. We owe that to our work, but more importantly, we owe that to ourselves. The fact that I say ideally is ironic, because shouldn't periods of rest be a given and not an ideal? But in this current economy, for many people it's not enough to just call it a day at 5 pm.

Is work a means to an end or an end in itself? We say we work the way we do to improve our quality of life.  And by quality of life, I mean work-life balance... I mean physical, mental, social, and emotional health. Does working the way we do increase the chances of having a better quality of life? What does it mean to have a strong work ethic AND work-life balance at the same time?

I'll have to ponder on those thoughts for a while. In the meantime, I'm going to take a break, take deep breaths, and practice some downward dogs and child's pose.

Then I'll have to get back to work.

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Friday, April 2, 2010

i dream in chocolate

Imagine smooth, creamy, bittersweet dark chocolate, with a dollop of lightly sweetened creme fraiche, and the slightly chewy bits of candied orange peel... or you can check out this recipe for Chocolate-Orange Pots de Creme (a fancy French name for chocolate pudding).

I LOVE dark chocolate and orange together. Whether it's the subtle flecks of candied orange peel in a chocolate bar, natural orange extract in hot chocolate, or in this heavenly dessert, the combination is just amazing.

Ed. 4.10.10: I have to admit that I REALLY do dream of food. I had a dream in which I was planning a dinner party, back home in my family's garden. I even had the menu planned out. 
Anyway...So I finally made this chocolate pots de creme... and it turned out wonderfully. Deep, intense, but not overly sweet chocolate flavor thanks to this really good bittersweet chocolate. And candied orange peel FROM SCRATCH. Real whipped cream, not the kind from the squirt can. My electric mixer is still in storage so I made whipped cream BY HAND. I'm either a crazy baker or just plain desperate. ;-)
But, it was all worth it. I was in chocolate heaven. And best of all, I was wide awake.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

spring soup

I realized that I'm a soup kind of gal. I love the comforting feeling you get from soup - whether it's something you made yourself, or a soup that someone else made for you. Whether I'm healthy, or feeling sick. Soup is a great way to make a nutrient-dense meal. I love the scents in the kitchen as the soup simmers on the stove. And I also love the creative process behind soup: take a look at the content of your fridge and pantry, and then throw some ingredients in a pot, and make a good soup come to life.

It's been fairly warm this past week, but I was in the mood for a light, springy soup.

Here's what I ended up with:

Pea Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon Earth Balance, or unsalted butter
half an onion
2 stalks celery
about 4 cups vegetable broth
one bag of frozen green peas, thawed
salt and pepper
a little lemon zest
fresh thyme (chop the leaves from 3-4 sprigs; use less if using dried)
plain yogurt - I LOVE this yogurt from Kalona Organics*

Heat olive oil and butter. I like using both for soups, because butter has such a low smoke point and burns faster, and the olive oil helps slow it down a little bit. Saute the onions and the celery until soft and fragrant. Add the broth and peas. Let it come to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, lemon zest, and thyme. Blend until smooth with an immersion blender (I love these things). Alternatively, you can also use a regular blender - just blend it in smaller batches.

Stir in a couple of tablespoons of plain yogurt at the end. I think creme fraiche or mascarpone cheese would be good too, but yogurt was the only thing I had, and I wanted to use the last of it.

It turned out REALLY good! It was so simple, quick, and easy yet so flavorful. The green peas tasted sweet, and I think the hint of lemon and thyme brightened it up even more. Lemon and thyme go so well together, I think, because thyme has some hints of lemon flavor/scent. The texture was really smooth and silky as well, thanks to the hand blender. Not to mention its beautiful shade of green.

In hindsight, I wish I had garnished it better with a dollop of yogurt on top and maybe some snipped chives to make it more photo-worthy... but I couldn't wait to eat it. :)

*Note on the yogurt:
Cultural Revolution yogurt from Kalona Organics is my favorite - it's creamy goodness. Well, it is a whole-milk yogurt, but I promise it's worth it. Fat-free yogurt just does NOT do it for me... nor does the overly sweet (read: high fructose corn syrup), artificially-fruit-flavored "fat-free" yogurt. Cultural Revolution yogurt is a bit hard to find, but Greek yogurt is great too and more readily available in most stores.
Yes, this yogurt is so good it deserved an * for further elaboration. :)

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