Help those suffering in the Horn of Africa

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You are also involved

It seems to me that over the past few months, an awful lot of confusing, and potentially problematic events have been taking place worldwide. Everything has been happening very quickly, and luckily, there is people who is opening their eyes to the new needs of the world. There are some voices which are starting to make noise, voices calling for a change, voices of people waking up and realizing that society is coming closer and closer to a breaking point.

It's true, social justice nowadays feels more like a privilege, rather than fact; never before has the world been in an unhappier condition.   Being blunt , we cannot afford to continue doing things in the usual way  -- we are playing with a time bomb and if we don't do something now, it is soon going to burst in our hands.

Many countries around the globe are going through or have recently gone through elections, and people seem to be increasingly showing a generalized discontent with the way things currently are. These last couple of weeks in my country have actually been very interesting -- students, and young adults all over the place are going out on the streets to make an unprecedented statement: "We will not be take lies from anyone anymore". Some people opened their eyes and did not like what they saw, hopefully the youth is starting to realize that the problem has always been in their hands, and that it is better to stand up and do something, than sitting down cursing and waiting for things to be magically solved. It makes me happy to think that awareness is happening.

While these efforts are a big step towards having the world we need, there is still a long way to go. Politics are very important, but they are not the only front to cover. We still need to realize there are other contexts where we need to get really involved. In a world where some people get to choose what they eat, while others die for not having anything, we have to focus on a cross-functional approach. This means that everyone gets to play an important role in the process for finding an integral solution to the problems of today. Every single person is necessary.

As a possible solution, I believe we all need to re-check our hierarchy of values as self-gratification and self-indulgence seem to be favored all the time. We like to praise ourselves, we want quick success and recognition no matter what, we want to get there, we want pleasure, we have a cult for ourselves and our addictions, and the rest is completely irrelevant.We choose based ont what's best for us, and not what's best for everyone.

We no longer need an education aimed at solely pursuing success, but an education which underscores finding a dialogue between success and values such as solidarity, empathy, coexistence, love, and respect. We need to stand up for our beliefs, and we must put our energies in making the world a better one. This current model is not getting us anywhere but to destruction, there is enough hatred in the world, and we are already killing each other in order to survive.  We have to open our eyes to see that this, is really threatening our kind.

 Get up from bed everyday with the intention of generating smiles. Always think that this is all in your hands, you also make the politics, you are part of the world, and your actions make an important contribution to it, don't ever think of yourself as a separate entity. Stand up from the couch, and join the world in its awakening towards happiness!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Lighthouse

I apologize for being away for some months already! I have been very busy managing my last days in college: there are many things to plan, and many other things to organize. In addition, I just figured that I need to moderate the comments that are left in my posts more often.

This video came to my hands thanks to my mother who e-mailed it to me yesterday. I accidentally had deleted it from my inbox, and if it wasn't for my mom's insistence, I would have never seen it!

This time it's me urging you to see this beautiful composition. I won't say anything else in order not to spoil it. Don't be ashamed to shed a tear :)


Saturday, February 18, 2012

The new manhood

There are many things to expect from a real man. A real man should be strong and never cry. A real man should be brave enough to tackle a bull and kill it with his own hands. A real man has an uncomplicated mind. He must never show his heart. A real man must drink, swear, and fight, and God forbid a man dares to feel -- a feeling man is a pusillanimous one. That's it, real men are never weak, they fight their problems through, and go to war. Is this really what the world needs from a man? What happens to the quiet man, the man with the subtle, yet sublime gaze, that one who owns a wide heart, and can be moved to tears? And how about the man that stands up for the weak one? Is the man whose intent is directed towards love less of a man? Is he any less courageous?

In the past, courageous was the man who embarked himself in a dangerous adventure, the man who knew how to fight, the man who was not afraid of crushing another being in order to take what he wanted. A quite physical and noisy understanding of courage.

 It was in the middle of destruction, and pain that this man realized that supremacy, strength, and dominion had nothing to do with manhood. Everything which this man had created, everything what this man believed, was brought down to ashes and blood everytime he tried to prove his manhood to others. He realized that he has to face challenges which are slightly different from those of the past, the ghosts who threaten him are not the ones he thought, he is a man who knows better, a resourceful man who has had the chance of learning from the mistakes of the past. This new man is aware that there is no need for crushing anyone, he is a man with eyes wide open to a reality which no longer considers violence a way of showing his true value.   If  this is all true, if there is indeed a new man, why is it then that he is still clinging to this old and boisterous image? Why is he still trying to demonstrate his superiority?  It is as if the old man was in the way of asssimilating the new paradigm and getting ready to do housekeeping to throw away those old habits.

 It is a fact that there is a new real man on the way, a man who will not need prove his supperiority, a man who knows that courage is the ability to sacrifice himself to protect the things he believes in, not his strength to impose himself, a man that never neglects his heart, nor the heart of others. The distance that he will need to travel to get here will only depend on the old man's ability to open his eyes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Our Invisible Weapons

It is enough to turn on the TV, read the news, or even open the window, to realize the misery in which many people live. Our world includes pain, fear, sadness, and loneliness, among many others, some of them natural, but many others inflicted by us, and very often causing more violence. Seeing all this, we might feel the urge to know if there is anything for us to do to help, and there sure are many simple, yet effective things to do.

Even if sometimes, for some of us, the war zones, famine, hunger, and despair appear to be distant, every single one of us, near or far, has a fair share of responsibility in each and every conflict happening. It is unlikely that anyone of us has intentionally caused the famine in the Horn of Africa (to name just one problem), yet there are still many things that we can do to mitigate this huge problem, even without having to donate a single penny (which is also very useful, and widely appreciated). The point here is to ask ourselves if the actions which we do, day to day, contribute to make things better or worse. The reality, whether we notice it or not, is that the things which we do in our very own microcosmos have a huge impact on a larger scale.

Orit Sen-Gupta, in her Little Book of Yoga, writes a quite simple, yet insightful section on the whole non-violence, or non-harming concept.
"Himsa, which literally means hurting or harming, is an interaction between two or more participants. The person hurting, and the one being hurt are both bound by the same element -- pain.
The act of hurting isn't an isolated phenomenon, but rather it is part of a chain reaction. The hurter was probably hurt before and is acting out his pain. The one who is being hurt now will probably in his turn inflict pain on another. This never ending chain of pain and suffering has to be brought to an end for everyone's sake."        
 She further explains that, as most of us know, Gandhi himself, practiced this notion of non-violence, but his message had two sides: not allowing the other to inflict pain on you, but also not allowing the other to inflict pain on himself. Non-violence also involves protecting ourselves from hurt.

What I like about Orit Sen-Gupta's insight on non-harming, is this notion of interconnection between one another. It is as if harming was similar to a tennis match, when the ball is on our side, we might want to skillfully hit the ball, and that can have two different outcomes -- being answered, or scoring and being served a few seconds later. In either case, the game will continue until the end.  Whether we answer back or not, is entirely up to us. Breaking this chain is what Jesus meant when he talked about "giving the other cheek".
[...] In a hurtful situation, whether thought or spoken or done by you to another, or by another towards you, or by you towards yourself -- be determined not to hurt, but to act to stop this hurting. [...] When another hurts us, it is often due to the hurts that he has suffered in the past. Understanding this creates within us a distance which allows us to act. Perceiving the whole situation with wide caring eyes, we try to stop it with as little pain as possible for all involved.
 Everything we do or don't do contributes a little bit in the making of this peaceful place we all crave for. Even if it would be really wonderful if we could all go with food supplies and share a few moments with the hungry, there are people sitting next to us at this very moment who could use a little comforting, people who suffer discrimination on a daily basis, people who go through hell because of an addiction, lonely people, sad people, people in need... By offering our shoulder and opening our heart to someone, by not answering to the calling of violence, by breaking the circle of hatred, by learning how to really give, we are already making this world a happier one. Rather than this being an imposed rule that makes us feel guilty every time we break it, non-harming is more of a goal -- an intention.

As citizens of the world, we take part in every decision, and it is all in our hands. We really need to try to make it our responsibility to avoid the shedding of tears.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Marvelous and Dangerous tools.

Today, I woke up to find both my twitter and facebook walls covered with a myriad of posts by several different yoga institutions expressing their discomfort towards an article (see here) published in the New York Times titled "How can Yoga Wreck Your Body". And, even if I seem to agree to some extent with many insights given by Mr. Glenn Black, I also think that the whole publication is highly biased, sensationalistic, and somehow manipulative. In my opinion, the article introduces the topic in a neutral fashion, but ends up satanizing the whole practice and painting it like the perfect recipe for disaster. 

As a result, I would like to shed some light on the issue with my very limited experience on yoga. The first thing that is necessary to clear is that yoga can be indeed a very dangerous practice, that is a fact that any seasoned practitioner should know, and every teacher must keep in mind. Any respectable teacher would never disagree on that. Yoga is as dangerous as sharp scissors. Scissors are a very useful tool, but you would never dare to run with them, nor would you scratch your back or poke someone's eye with them! Any useful or powerful tool is as harmful as the benefits it produces. Think of nuclear power, fire, medication, and even food!  Getting injured or not will depend mainly on you and the use you give to your practice.

I remember a few months ago, when I was practicing with my study group back in Utrecht, after our lunch break my teacher called us back into the room to address this very same issue. She kept repeating that yoga was a sharp tool which could be very harmful. She emphasized that teachers should always be aware of their students' physical and psychological limitations as there are parts of the yoga experience which are not for everyone. Even meditation, which is usually regarded as inoffensive, should be approached with a great deal of care by people who suffer from certain psychiatric conditions, and teachers should NEVER encourage their students to leave their medication.
In summary, The NY Times article was not "breaking news", there are however a few simple points to take into consideration when practicing yoga.

1. Self Assesment
I would be lying if I said that I started yoga just for the sake of it. Most of us get initiated into this beautiful practice for the wrong reasons, such as being fitter or improving our health. Still, you have to keep in mind that yoga requires discipline. There are many injuries in yoga which come from practicing inconsistently. The real yoga happens outside the studio and beyond the mat, so if you are just looking for an alternative to spin class or aerobics, then maybe you should look for something else. 

2. Teachers
There is a never ending list of teachers of many different personalities and different schools of yoga. Some of them have years of experience, while others are newbies in sharing their little knowledge. Teaching yoga is a GREAT RESPONSIBILITY, and requires vocation, not everyone is cut to be a yoga teacher, and it is important that you identify this. One of the first things that you need to do is establishing a positive connection between yourself and the teacher. If the teacher is too sweet, too talkative, too tough, too methodical, or too soft for your taste, then you should probably find another one. There are many things to consider when choosing a teacher: Is that teacher concerned about your safety? Is the class too crowded and the teacher is too busy to pay attention to everyone? Is it clear to you the way the teacher delivers feedback and instructions? The body is a reflection of  many daily habits. You can see quite a lot about your teacher's style through his or her body. Keep in mind though, that there are no perfect bodies! One last thing to think about is your teacher's commitment to the yoga practice: A gym teacher who knows a bit about stretching is not a yoga teacher. Look for someone with a complete background in yoga who teaches something which he fully understands. If you are not liking a teacher, do not stay until you are injured, you are not bound to any person.

3. Each body is very different.
It is very important to realize that there is no such thing as a "complete asana" as those beautiful pictures that we see in yoga books. There is nothing written when it comes to how far into the posture you should go as long as you listen to your body: simply lifting your nose from the ground in cobra pose as a beginner is exactly the same as going deep into a backbend. Also, there will always be things which your body won't be able to do, and some others you will find much easier than most of the people. This may be due to several anatomical variations which we might not be aware of: some people have larger tarsal bones which won't allow their ankles to produce a deep flexion, and some shoulder joints are not able to fully rotate. Personally, I have a condition in which one of my sacral vertebrae is not fused and works as an extra lumbar vertebra. I found out about this when I developed sciatic pain as a result of an irresponsibly deep and messy forward bend. Nowadays, I am very careful with forward bends. It's OK if I can just tilt a few degrees while the lady next to me would be able to lick the floor if she wanted to. An advanced yoga practice is unrelated to how far you go, but how in your body you are. Going into a painful place is not being in your body.  

4. Follow the rules.
Even if the concept of a "full asana" varies from body to body, there are certain things which your body must do in each pose. For example, when practicing Uttanasana (Standing forward bend), many people seem to think that the goal is touching the floor no matter what. That is completely wrong, as the goal of Uttanasana is only to stretch the hamstrings by taking the sitting bones towards the ceiling. It is completely irrelevant if you can only touch your knees, the floor, or even put your head on your shins, if you are not following the basic rules of Uttanasana, then you are not doing Uttanasana. When sitting in meditation, the instruction is to sit with a neutral back, you might choose to use a chair or the wall as long as you are not sagging or collapsing your back. The shape and the form of the posture are not important, only how well you understand the rules of each asana.

5. Individual practice.
Serious yoga teachers tend to be insistent about a personal practice at home. Practicing at home, even if it's just a few minutes a day is very important. Do keep in mind that you must never attempt to go into advanced practices without the help and supervision of a teacher. Take it easy at home, do not try to do the same stuff you do in class. In addition to this, when you are in class, try to think of it as a personal practice done in group. The only thing that matters is what you are doing, do not get competitive, it doesn't look right, and that will only lead you to a big injury.

6. Advanced stuff.
Yoga is an everchanging practice which is progressively constructed. I don't believe anyone can master yoga. As such, there are postures, breathing techniques, and meditations which should only be approached by people who have built the foundations of those practices. While we should always face our fears, we should never try something we don't feel ready to do. Again, listening to your body is key. Sometimes just watching others, or going into the preparatory steps of an asana is just as fun and illustrative as the asana itself.

7. Analyzing your practice.
The pain caused by an injury, and the pain you feel after workout are very different and we must learn to distinguish between them. When your practice is over, assess your body, there should be no tensions or painful sensations. Places like the knees, other joints, the lower back, and the neck should never hurt. This will be the best feedback to you. Yoga must be a tool for improvement, not something that causes you distress.

8. Soft eyes and empty mind.
One great thing I learned from one of my teachers is the concept of soft eyes and empty mind. When we are too worried or tense, it is possible to see it in our faces. Relaxing the eyes in order to have what Dona Holleman calls periphereal vision (you won't be able to focus a point, but you will have a broader picture of the world) and unwinding your mind will take you to a more conscious practice in which you will be more in your body, more able to follow the rules, and less prone to injuries.

Each and everyone of us has a handful with our bodies. It is only our responsibility to take care of it. When in class, listening to your body, following instructions, and being conscious of your limits will greatly reduce the chance of being injured. Still, sometimes there are accidents and unforeseen situations which might get us hurt, but this can happen in any place too. 

I really wish everyone who practices yoga to have a very pleasant and responsible practice free of worry. I hope nobody gets lost in the shapes and forms of the asanas and strives for a deeper understanding of their bodies. Do not fear yoga, as yoga is just a tool, fear what you make out of it!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Of old and new waters

It is already a year that I was writing something similar from the City of Utrecht in the Netherlands. It is amazing how fast time goes by, and it is also amazing to realize how many things it takes with it, and how many things it brings along. It is as if we were swimmers in a river of time. I like to think of time as a river in continuous flow (even if for some this sounds cheesy), and as a river, time is never the same, and neither are we the same swimmers. 

Very often do we think that we are skilled swimmers and that we master the currents only to be thrashed about and smashed by treacherous waters. It is then when the river can take some of the stuff we were holding on to. Some other times, along our way, we find other very pleasant swimmers who want to tag along our course. In short, swimming through time is quite a life changing adventure.

For me 2011 was quite a year. I had the chance of spending the first half studying in the Netherlands. Staying completely on my own in such a country where I knew nobody was a very enriching experience and made me realize quite a lot about myself. I am certainly not the same person who was writing something similar a year ago. I do believe however, that everyday is full of newness, of opportunities, of blessings to be discovered, and we should not wait until January 1 in order to commit with something, still, as a society, we have marked this day as a reminder of how far we have swum, and I do believe it is a great moment for us to stop for a while and look around and question ourselves.

During 2011, many remarkable changes occurred in my life. I had to face some of my worst fears by myself, and I had to say goodbye to a very important person, but also I met new people, some good, some bad, and some excellent, I learned many great things, I had second chances, and I experienced feelings that I have never felt before. 

Here I am, a few hours away from this thing which we call the end of 2011, and still alive. Many blessings I had before are still with me, and I happened to receive some great new blessings throughout the year. I don't know what I did to have them, I really can't answer why me, all I can do is thank God for giving me these opportunities, and promise that I will try to the best of my ability to make the best out of them. I am also a bit nervous, just like many of us, about what might be comming in this wild river, and while it is impossible to know, the one thing to do is to surrender, to hold God's hand tightly and trust that we are built to resist the worst of the rapids on this river.

It is for sure none of us swimmers are the same swimmers as the year before, that is why I want to thank each and every single one of you people for contributing in any dimension on making me who I  am today. I wish that every single one of you and every person on earth, has one great 2012, full of awareness, of health, and the best blessings from God. We are all responsible for that since we swim on the same waters. Let's try to make of 2012 the best year so far for every single person, let's be catalysts of a world with less sadness. One tear less in the world during 2012 will already mean an enormous progress.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The things in your food!

This week I decided I would change the tone of the usual pitch of the blog to address a topic which seems to be interesting for many people. Even if we all have our very own preferences and beliefs when it comes to our food choices, most of us look for good quality options.

Unfortunately, food quality is a very elusive concept as it is often confused with consumer preference. While food quality is influenced to some extent by consumers' preference, food quality involves much more variables which may be invisible for most of us. Such factors include the processes used to stabilize the product and extend its shelf life, the additives, ingredients, and nutrients which might be added to give the product certain properties.  All these, however must be always reported on the product's label. Knowing how to read a label will shed some light on the product's quality giving a very broad idea of everything that is behind the product.

The purpose of this post is to offer some guidance on how to read a label, and to inform about some tricks that companies use to praise their products.

Even if regulations regarding food products and their labeling vary from country to country, they share many similarities. Most of them include a list of ingredients (which might offer more or less information), and a nutrition facts table as well as all the information regarding the producing company, the net content, the alcohol content, the expiry date, and the batch number.

The nutrition facts table must always include the portion size, the amount of portions per package, and the energetic content of the portion (also known as calories [kcal]).
Nutrition Facts Label, taken from
If you are someone who is concerned about his energy intake, you can pay attention to the size of the portion you are eating and make a ball-park estimate on the amount of calories. For example, any given chocolate usually contains around 500 kcal for every 100g, and you ate just a couple of pieces of the whole 100g bar. You do not need to weight what you ate, just approximate it! Let's say those pieces weight at most 10g, that means you ate 50 kcal. The number of calories is calculated differently in every country, but it depends on the amount of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins in the product, the rule of thumb goes like this:
1 g carbs = 4 kcal
1g protein = 4 kcal
1 g fat = 9 kcal
1 g alcohol = 7 kcal 

Carbs are found in almost every food product and are usually given in Total Carbohydrates which is divided into Sugars and Fiber. Sugars are the simplest type of carbs and are used mostly as sweeteners. Sugars include fructose, glucose, and the standard sugar that you put into your coffee. Sugars are very important for the body as they are the first source of energy. The cells in the brain can only use sugars in order to survive. A no-carb diet will only damage your brain, and put your body into stress, however it is a fact that most of us consume much more sugars than what we actually need. Fiber is a generic term for all the carbs (and other substances) that are not absorbed in the guts, but are great for asisting the food along their transit through the intestines. It has been proven that people who have fiber rich diets have healthier lives! Still, most people do not eat enough fiber. Vegetables and whole cereals contain quite a lot of fiber. The difference between the sum of sugars and fibers and Total Carbohydrates include all the rest of the carbs which the body can absorb and breakdown into simple sugars. Some carbs like starch can be used as thickening agents, and some of them can even form firm gels.

Protein is found mainly in products of animal origin, cereals, and some other vegetables. Protein deficiencies are often quite harmful and might even be deadly. Proteins are chains of smaller components called aminoacids. The body does not absorb the whole protein, it first breaks it down into it's smaller components. The body uses these aminoacids to build up new proteins such as certain hormones, muscles, antibodies, and other stuff. Proteins vary in nutritional value depending on which and how many of the 20 different aminoacids they have. Only under extreme situations such as famine, does the body use protein as a source of energy. In order to confer certain properties, sometimes protein is added into a product. Some proteins can help to create a stable foamy product like ice cream, a firm gel like gelatin or even to mix oil and water.

We have grown to believe that fats are the bad guys, however this is far from truth. While the excessive consumption of fats is definitely going to cause severe damage on the long run, fat deprivation can result on a very painful dead. The truth is that the body uses fats for everything, cell membranes are composed by fats, the lungs absorb oxigen through a fatty layer, many hormones are fats, and still there is myriad of other uses. Fat is also an energy reservoir, once the carbs are gone, the body will start using the fat deposits in the body. When the energetic needs of the body are all covered,  the excess of sugars will be converted into fats. Most of the fat deposits in the body come from sugar excess! Fats are found in animal products, nuts, some cereals, and two fruit (olives, and avocado). In food, fats tend to give lots of beneficial sensory traits. Fat improves texture, mouthfeel, and flavor. There are many products used to immitate the effect of fat in the food, however there has not been a single product that can reproduce all the sensory experience given by fats yet!! When a product is rich in fats, you will usually find in the ingredients label some antioxidants which will prevent fats from decaying and forming rancid flavors.

Among all the many nasty effects of alcohol, there is still another downside which still remains unknown: is almost as "fattening" as fats themselves! Alcohol calories sometimes are called empty calories because the body ends up transforming most of the alcohol it into fats without giving it any use. Just to give you an idea of how caloric alcohol is, when you drink one glass of whiskey, it is as if you were eating a sandwich, two glasses of whiskey are the same as eating a little bit more than a LARGE Lindtt chocolate bar completely, while every glass of vodka is a slice of white bread!! (See the source in spanish)

Something else you might find written in the Nutritional Facts Label is the vitamin and mineral content. Minerals do not have any caloric input but are necessary for the body. The most common mineral in food is sodium that comes from salt. The excessive consumption of salts lead to many problems which derive from high blood pressure. Just as with the sugar, most of us consume much more salt than needed! Vitamins are a very diverse group of substances which assist the body in many metabolic processes. They are classified into Vitamin A, group B, C, group D, group E, and group K. Vitamins of the group B, and C are non toxic as the excess will end up in your toilet, however excessive consumption of vitamins A, D, E and K can be quite harmful as they can accumulate in the body. 
Next to the content of any of the aforementioned components is the percentage of the daily intake. This number will tell you how much of the total daily amount of any of these ingredients you have consumed in that portion. Let's say you ate something that had 5 g of component X, and that is 20% of the daily intake. That means you still have to eat 25 g of component X during the day in order to reach the optimal 100%.

Maybe the most important part of a label is the ingredients label. Here you will find every ingredient added into the product in decreasing order, all the ingredients at the beginning are the most important, while the ones at the end are in a very small proportion. Some ingredients are compound, and in some places it is not necessary to disclose their composition.

I hope this has given a good insight on the things that are contained in your foods. Soon I might post something related with the ingredients label.
Have a great time :)