Painful Discoveries for the Curious Soul

By JiJi Russell

There I sat, nearly two weeks into a back injury. Precious little accomplished during my days off work for the holidays. Oh, the drawers and closets that I was going to organize. The meals I’d make ahead; the new crafts I’d do with the kids. The exercise! Not much of that happened. And my back still ached.

We all want to start off the New Year with revived energy and a new plan for ourselves, right? This spontaneous and severely painful injury was not complying with my plans in the least. Even so, I could not help but retain a spark of curious optimism. The inner journey on these days beckoned me toward new spiritual growth. In wintertime, during the coldest of days, during the constant being in my family, it’s as if a hush blanketed me, my mind revealing some of the gifts of meditative training. A new perspective emerged. (It has to do with God and the nature of the Universe, but I’ll save that conversation till we can meet for tea.)

For now I thought I would share with you some of the resources that have made a deep and lasting impression on me in my perpetual quest for physical and spiritual truth. Some of these came to me early on, some more recently. They all hold a special place in my personal mind-body-spirit enfoldment. Yours to explore if you wish.

1) Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness, an introductory book on yoga by instructor Donna Farhi. This terrifically written and illustrated book never ceases to reveal some wonderful insight into the practice of yoga. No matter that it was the first book on the topic that I ever read, cover to cover, 14 years ago.

2) The Harrow and the Harvest, music by Gillian Welch. Because whatever challenges I face, I know that they ain’t quite like the stuff of this brilliant artist’s deeply moving songs.

3) Geosjoy.com, the website of Geo Derick, a Berryville-area clinical herbalist and health coach. Find recipes for delicious healing foods like Turmeric Chai Tea. Discover hand-crafted herbal tinctures, salves, and teas that Geo makes herself from the best stuff on Earth. Find Geo’s picks for trustworthy brands and suppliers for a D.I.Y. approach to natural health.

4) The Bhagavad Gita. Don’t stop reading here because you can’t pronounce it or it seems inaccessible—it’s Bhuh-guh-vudd GUEE-taah. This ancient poem from Hindu literature (circa 500–200 B.C.E.) provides intriguing spiritual instructions for any seeker of God or the Divine. It describes, with a stunningly contemporary perspective, the nature and essence of God; the inner conflicts of man; and the value of aspiring to a truth that surmounts any trial or tribulation of Earthly living.

5) American Primitive, poems by Mary Oliver. Who else could describe the “First Snow” with such contemplative vision, as in the opening lines of the poem by that name:

The snow

began here

this morning and all day

continued, its white

rhetoric everywhere

calling us back to why, how,

whence such beauty and what

the meaning; such

an oracular fever  . . .

Happy New Year. Here’s to vibrant health . . . and something to keep you optimistic even when your plans for yourself fall through.

Author’s addendum, Jan. 9: The back problem disappeared nearly as fast as it came on. I applied a deep yoga stretch, coupled with targeted breathing and meditation. After about five minutes knocking at the edge of pain, the compromised sacroiliac joint re-adjusted, and the pain dissolved. That was three days ago. All is still well.

Find A Healing Place

By JiJi Russell

As I talked to friends, colleagues, family members, and even near-strangers last month, I noticed the potency of our emotions as we traversed the holiday season together. There is so much to bring forth: the social events; the finding and offering of gifts; the meals we prepare and share; the charities where we offer our time or money; events at our churches, our schools. It seems we want to do so much in such a short timeframe. And even if it’s in the name of good causes and fun times, it can often deplete our reserves. It can leave us physically and emotionally spent.

In last month’s article, “Give Yourself a Gift,” I offered five short practices that might help bring greater balance, energy, and/or clarity to you during the hustle-bustle of the season. The focus was inward.

This month, as we enter a new year, we focus on reaching outward—to the places where we worship, play, and serve others. These are our healing places. When we unite behind a shared cause or interest, we have an opportunity to offer support and direct our creativity and skills toward a positive end. Finding time to spend in our groups is as important as finding time to spend alone. In addition to helping others, it cannot be overestimated for its ability to uplift ourselves.

For me,  there’s my office team, which is involved in a plethora of community service efforts; the book club of like-minded moms, who enjoy good food and lively discussions together; a wondrous women’s healing circle I am part of, which takes me further along my own path to understand the powers of healing. All of these groups offer a bright spot in my life, and can give me a boost when I feel depleted.

This is a fine time of year to think about the groups that are meaningful to you. It does not matter how formal or informal these groups may be. Group involvement raises me up personally and, I believe, helps me be a more compassionate and caring person. Simply being part of a group can bring you closer to your innate joy—not to mention the good we do for our community when we do something together.

If you feel a little disconnected—to the point where it’s hard to imagine how to connect, think about where you already feel the most attraction.

If you attend church, chances are there is a group in your church that serves the elderly, homeless, disabled, or other people. Often, simply offering your time and compassion is all it takes to make a difference. There are many community groups who also help in this way. If you are interested in the study of the Bible or other spiritual texts and traditions, you might find or form a study group.

Share your talents with others who enjoy a particular medium or creative expression—or learn something brand new to you. From quilting groups, painters clubs, singing ensembles, there are so many ways to express your creativity in community. Check out the schedule at Opus Oaks in Berryville for starters.

Or find a group of people who share a common interest. Are you a collector? A Civil War enthusiast? Are you a sometimes stamp collector; or do you enjoy foreign languages, old movies, sports; cooking, or gardening? Sometimes our solitary pursuits are the perfect avenue to finding others and enjoying time to discuss, share, and work together.

In the various healing arts-related roles I play in my life, I see and hear of so much suffering. The suffering of any person always poses difficult questions for the one affected and the ones who bear witness. What can we do to help bring some relief? What have we learned? How shall we move forward? It seems we cannot ever “know” the answers until we experience difficulty, either directly or in a support role.

As the pace of life and the challenges become ever more complex—both personally and as a community—I believe it is incumbent upon us to create more positive “handles” to hold onto. It helps to recognize the power of support within groups of friends, family, co-workers, church members, all uniting behind causes or ideas that raise us up. Would we be more stable if more people did this? Would we look out for each other more frequently? Would we experience more joy in life? Would our collective emotions rise up?

I believe the answer is, “Yes.” I hope you can find or create a circle of healing, service, prayer, or meditation—a positive place for you and your group members to do good things.

Have fun discovering (or re-discovering) what makes you feel happy and connected. And may your work together echo outward into our community and the world.

Give Yourself A Gift

by JiJi Russell

This time of year, we can find ourselves reaching beyond our own limits. Before the holiday season picks you up and sweeps you away, take some time to give yourself the gift of a little inward attention.

The philosophy that underpins yoga offers a system for taking care of the “whole” person. So often we identify with just one of our dominant traits or a particular role we play. How limiting this can be. The yoga tradition encourages us to joyfully accept our complexity.

This tradition likens each person’s nature to sheaths, or layers. Not so much a concentric layering idea as a fluid, multidimensional tapestry of interconnections that influence one another to form who we are. These sheaths, the koshas, range from tangible to subtle.

The anamaya kosha deals with the physical body. Food, exercise, and movement all affect this part of our composition. This layer is often the easiest for people to identify.

The pranamaya kosha refers to our energy body. Do you ever notice your ups and downs in energy? These shifts come about due to many factors: what you eat; how well you sleep; emotional situations. Recognizing our quality of energy is the first step toward improving it, and perhaps directing it to achieve what we need—such as clarity or health.

The manymaya kosha deals with the intellect, or how we take in and process information; how we sense the world. Our perceptions can influence the world we live in. As Steven Flowers, my teacher in Mindfulness Meditation, has said, “We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” That idea alone might give you enough to contemplate for a day or more.

The vijnamaya kosha refers to our deepest values, the stuff that forms our personality and way of making choices.

The anandamaya kosha brings us to our spiritual self, the place of our heart. When we can channel more energy and intention to this place, it is said, we can find deep joy and connection.

The koshas in practice

I offer here a brief practice for each kosha. Each can be done individually, for perhaps five minutes, or as a set. If one practice, or a particular kosha, resonates with you, it might be the one for you to focus your attention on for now. Each practice could affect all five koshas—they are so interconnected that they often overlap and intersect.

Anamaya kosha. The hatha yoga practice and many other forms of movement offer a mindful inroad into the physical body. Try this simple movement and breath exercise:

Stand with your feet wide apart, about the length of one of your legs.

Reach out into the whole sole of the foot, stretching all the way from the hip to the pinky toe.

As you inhale, raise your arms out to the sides and then up over head.

Then exhale, and lower your arms.

After about three times, let your arms remain at shoulder height, so that they are reaching outward into the space beside your body, much like your legs are. Imagine yourself in the shape of a five-pointed star as you reach upward into your head, outward into your arms and hands, and downward into your legs and feet. Breathe deeply through your nose for two to six breaths as you hold this pose. Gradually inch your feet back together, and rest.

 

Pranamaya kosha. Try this “equalizing breath” to calm your nervous system.

Sit with an elongated spine so that your chest and belly are “open” and not collapsed. This will offer more space for your breath to enter and fill your lungs.

Close your eyes and take a few breaths without trying to make any changes to the way you breathe. Attempt to breathe in and out through your nose whenever possible, as this stimulates the more quieting aspects of the nervous system.

Observe the number of counts or seconds it takes you to inhale and exhale.

Gradually, without straining, attempt to equalize the number you count for the inhalation and exhalation. For example, inhale as you silently count to four; exhale as you silently count to four. This focused way of breathing can help to relax the nervous system, the mind, and perhaps even muscular strain.

 

Manomaya kosha. One way to stimulate your intellect is by occupying the busy mind with a sound, such as a mantra. You can make up your own by selecting a word that holds important meaning to you, such as “love” or “peace.” Or, you can take an ancient Sanskrit mantra for a spin. Sanskrit is an ancient Indic language. It carries strong “vibrational” qualities that have the power to “set the mind free” from conditioned habits, according to the late mantra scholar Thomas Ashley-Farrand in his book Healing Mantras. The combination of a mantra’s literal meaning and its vibrational quality, scholars say, can affect positive, healing changes within one’s core.

The mantra “So’ham,” which is pronounced as “SO HUM,” translates as, “I am that.” The words provide an opportunity for us to look within to find our own truth. According to Ashley-Farrand, some of the ancient texts say that So Hum is the subtle sound of the breath itself. Whatever word—or mantra—you choose, sit down and take a few deep breaths as you “say” the word or words silently to yourself. Try this with a timer for five or more minutes.

 

Vijnamaya kosha. One way to access your deepest personal values is to ask yourself a question. Use this moment as a curious inquiry about your values and whether you are living according to them. Sometimes, even a slight incongruence in values and lifestyle can create friction, frustration, or even worse: lead to bad decisions.

Sit quietly and ask yourself, “What is my highest value?”

Next, “listen” for the responses you may “hear.” You might jot down what comes to you.

Ask the question again; wait and listen. The answer might change as you allow yourself time to ask it again honestly.

Ask one final time.

Make note of this value. Now, if you choose, you can try to align yourself with it more mindfully.

 

Anandaymaya kosha. Prayer can bring you inward to your most compassionate self. It can also ripple positively outward into our world. If you have a favorite prayer from your religious or spiritual tradition, take it on as a practice.

Sit and contemplate the words of your prayer or blessing (or even a poem) for five minutes.

If you would like to try something new, and fitting for the season, I offer you the Prayer for Peace from
The Oxford Book of Prayer.

 

Prayer for Peace

O God of many names

Lover of all nations

We pray for peace

in our hearts

in our homes

in our nations

in our world

The peace of your will

The peace of our need.

 

By trying to be “more of yourself” this holiday season, maybe you can avoid feelings of stress or the sense of being over-committed, and calmly face whatever challenge might come your way.

A Friendly Medium for New Flavors

Homemade Pizza

A Friendly Medium for New Flavors

By JiJi Russell

Few comfort foods rival a fresh pizza, hot out of the oven. Taking its place as a great diplomat in the hierarchy of foods, pizza crosses boundaries of age, geography, and social status with ease. Simply put: Few folks can resist a good pie.

Judging by consumption levels, pizza ranks as one of America’s top comfort foods. According to data from The Pizza Marketplace, 93 percent of Americans eat at least one piece of pizza per month. Furthermore, the group estimates that three of the five billion pizzas sold each year worldwide are sold here in the U.S.

In my perpetual effort to “healthy up” a favorite dish, I thought I’d take something that many people consider tasty to begin with, and alter it to serve our nutritional needs even better. Pizza offers a friendly medium for those who wish to broaden the palate and “eat more vegetables.” If you make a homemade crust, just about anything will taste good on that freshly-baked pie.

Lately I have been making a homemade pizza crust with my children on Friday afternoons. This was my solution to becoming progressively less enthused about the weekly pizza dinner, which had been promised to the kids. Before we went fresh, I would buy a thin, prepared crust from the grocery story. I would load a large crust with sauce, veggies, and light cheese; the kids would make their own smaller versions, usually with just sauce, cheese, and sometimes pesto. The whole thing had become very ho-hum. Once we started making the crust, though, the meal and the process were both transformed into something fun, creative, and delicious.

For several years now, I have been known to add secret, nutritious ingredients to my children’s foods, in the form of purees. Several cookbooks out there specialize in this style of cooking, which does, indeed, make for delicious and satisfying dishes (see “Resources” below). I have found in my nutrition coaching experiences that even adults who tend to be vegetable-shy in their diets like these “sneaky” foods. For the record, I do reveal my sneaky ingredients to those who eat them . . . after the food has been gobbled down. It’s my little way of encouraging a friendly attitude toward things people did not think they would like.

So, my idea is to offer you a simple homemade crust; a few nutrient-dense sauces; and a suggestion for toppings and cheese. If you have some kitchen helpers and/or can do a little preparation ahead of time, the process won’t take too long, and the homemade goodness might surprise you.

Diplomatic Pizza Ingredients

· Tomato sauce pureed with white beans

· Dollops of pesto-spinach puree

· Lightly-sautéed vegetables of your choice

· Shredded “Mexican cheese blend” and/or other more adventurous cheese like Asiago scattered about

If you want to add meat, I suggest cooking up some of Smith Meadows’ breakfast sausage links, and slicing them thin: kind of like a mini-pepperoni, but better. (See “Resources”).

Here’s the How-To (time-saving tips included):

Leave about three hours from the time you want to eat your pizza to begin making the crust. The making of the crust is easy, yet the time required for the dough to rise takes a little planning. Be creative with your time. No one says you can’t cart that dough around to after-school soccer practice if you need to have it handy when the time comes to “punch it down.”

Make your sauces the day before your pizza debut. The same day is fine, but will require more time in the kitchen. Ditto for the vegetables you plan to use. Chopping them in the morning and having them ready to toss into a skillet will save you time at the end of the day.

Tomato sauce for base:

Take your favorite tomato sauce; add a little tomato paste; add some canned, rinsed white beans (like cannellini), and puree them together.

Proportion suggestion: 1 cup tomato or marinara sauce (fresh or canned); about two tablespoons of tomato paste; about 1/4 cup canned, rinsed white beans such as cannellini.

Puree until smooth. Find the consistency that you like, and write down your proportions so that you remember for next time. If you opened a whole can of tomato paste, freeze the remainder in a Ziploc bag for your next pizza. Try adding your leftover cannellini beans to top a salad; or puree and add to soups, stews, and/or sauces to amp up the nutrients density.

Pesto-spinach puree:

Take a jar of prepared pesto, add some chunks of frozen spinach, and puree.

Proportion suggestion: about three tablespoons frozen spinach (estimate the spinach by cutting off chunks of packed, frozen spinach after letting it sit out on the counter for about 10 minutes so that it’s easy to chop). One tablespoon of prepared pesto (Smith Meadows makes a delicious one; the grocery store offers various canned versions).

Vegetables:

To save time, chop them the day beforehand, or early in the morning of the day that you intend to use them. Think of seasonal veggies, if available. And/or go with some great standards: mushrooms, black olives, bell peppers, broccoli, etc. Once they are chopped, you can easily give them a quick sauté before placing them on the prepared dough/crust.

Cheese:

The Mexican cheese blend that’s available shredded in the dairy aisle offers a quick and easy option, and a little change from standard mozzarella. Add a little shredded Asiago, parmesan, or small chunks of goat cheese for more intense flavors.

Once you have the prep complete, let your creativity flow. Roll out your dough, and enjoy the non-circular shape it becomes. Brush with a thin layer of olive oil. Spread a layer of your enhanced tomato sauce on top. (I use a very flexible, perforated rubber spatula to do this, but the back of a spoon works too.) Dollop the pesto-spinach puree around, making beautiful emerald dots over the red sauce base. Scatter your sautéed veggies, add meat if you wish, and finish with your choice of cheeses. I typically go heavy on the veggies and light on the cheese.

Of course, if you are making pizza with children, you can give them their own dough to roll out. Help them enjoy the weird shapes that form. It’s all part of the homemade effect. The tomato sauce and the pesto-spinach puree offer more of a nutritional bang than straight sauce would. And, maybe children and adults alike will experiment with new vegetables and flavors when packaged so nicely in the goodness of a homemade pizza pie.

Resources:

· The Sneaky Chef, a cookbook by Missy Chase Lapine

· Deceptively Delicious, a cookbook by Jessica Seinfeld

· Smith Meadows farm just outside Berryville makes homemade marinara sauces, pestos, and more: SmithMeadows.com

 

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, is wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She teaches a children’s yoga class at the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville. Reach her at holisticpath.jbr@gmail.com.

 

Easy Pizza Dough

4 cups King Arthur all-purpose flour

1 cup warm water

1 packet Rapid Rise yeast

1 1/2 tsp salt

2 Tbs olive oil

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. With a spatula, stir in olive oil and water, adding more flour if necessary to handle the dough. Kneed for 2 minutes, then set aside for 2 minutes, then kneed for 30 seconds. Form dough into a ball and place in a bowl coated in olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap. The dough will double in size in 1 to 1.5 hours. When ready to bake, cut ball into 3 or 4 pieces and roll or hand-shape the dough to desired size. Add toppings and bake on a sheet or heated stone at your oven’s highest temperature (heat the stone for an hour). —From Cook’s Illustrated

Yoga: A Practice for the Ages—and for all ages

Yoga: A Practice for the Ages—and for all ages

By JiJi Russell

Have you ever said to yourself, “Wow. I wish I would have known/done [fill in the blank] back when I was younger”? A lot of yoga students over the years have expressed that sentiment to me when they take up the practice of yoga. The statement reveals the possibility of remarkable discoveries and changes we can make when we slow down and listen to our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Of all the nagging “coulda, woulda, shouldas” that I can dream up, one thing I do feel grateful to have found at just the right time was my yoga practice. In truth, I think any time is a good time to begin yoga. The practice has followed me (or I have followed it) through many life stages, and it still captures my attention almost 20 years later. It is the most adaptable mind-body practice that I have yet to encounter in my [certain number of] years immersed in holistic wellness. To highlight some of the many oft-recited benefits of a regular yoga practice: improved focus and concentration; decreased anxiety; greater strength, flexibility, and balance; better sleep; more energy; a heightened spiritual connection; and even better digestion.

When I began a yoga practice in earnest in my 20s, I felt invigorated to find a full-body workout that offered something “more” than just a good sweat for me; something that stuck with me longer than simply the time I spent on the mat. The practice seemed to trickle into my life in the most curious ways, as it so often does for those who stick with it long enough to make their own discoveries.

The very first yoga class I can remember attending took place in the 1980s in a church recreation hall. The scene was typically Jane Fonda-esque for the times, women wearing headbands and leotards, with a smattering of funky vinyl mats spread around the room. I gladly threw my legs over my head into the “plow pose” that evening (not a pose I would ever recommend for beginners) and overall had a pleasant, if a little bit weird time (I was a teenager, after all).

It wasn’t until about 10 years after the church hall experience that I began taking a regular yoga class. The place was New York City, and the teacher was a lovely French woman named Sophie. I enjoyed her voice and her matter of fact delivery. “Dees pose will correct your digestion.” Not that I really cared much about my digestion at that point. But it was an interesting factoid that I must have filed for later on, because now I can’t stop thinking about good digestion. It’s a vital part of feeling well and energetic. But I do diverge . . . .

Fast forward through five years of dedicated study as a student of yoga, followed by an intensive yoga teacher training at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and I find myself today about to close my 11th year of teaching. As I reflect, I feel no less convinced of the abundance of gifts that yoga can bestow to the aspirant. It does take consistent time and effort—no one but you can do the practice for you—but the rewards keep me, and thousands of others, coming back to the mat time after time.

As the regularity of my practice in the last six years has been whittled down quite significantly due to family and work obligations, I’ve been able to experience firsthand how many of the benefits I enjoyed while maintaining a daily practice have, indeed, slipped away. I try not to be too hard on myself, realizing that having to demote the priority of something that I love so dearly and then to beat myself up about it amounts to a double insult. Instead, I often look to the timeless philosophy that underpins the yoga tradition to guide me. The philosophy, like the daily practice, seems to have a super-elastic power to stretch into past and future generations and yet remain relevant. And so I do still arise at 5 in the morning several mornings a week to do my yoga.

After all these years, the place I’ve come to with my practice took even me by surprise. I wish now to hand this great tool for living down to the next generation, our children. I believe that these times we’re living in present great and mounting challenges to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Since yoga, over thousands of years, has successfully woven in and out of numerous cultures and religions, it offers a great playing field for the expressive, curious, and playful nature of a child. It also offers something I believe we all, in some way, desire, which is permission to slow down and find peace within us.

Learning to tap into the power source of the breath; how to hone the mind’s focus; how to nurture the joyfulness that we find in the company of friends and loved ones: this is the stuff of a children’s yoga class. Yoga, at its best, brings the practitioner—old or young—into a more meaningful connection to oneself and awakens one’s connection to nature and the greater community of humankind.

In this hurry-up-and-go world we live in, giving our children a little time out might go a long way to uplifting the hearts and soothing the minds of our next generation.

As the Barns of Rose Hill expands its community-oriented offerings, look for new yoga class offerings, including an adult class on Tuesday evenings and my class, “Yoga Yah-Yahs,” for elementary school-aged children, coming October 1. The kids’ class will offer an opportunity to “get the yah-yahs out” while we discover the natural rhythms of our bodies, breath, and energy. With a sound tapestry of world music, we will move in and out of beats, rhythms, yoga poses, and stillness. Each class will end with a quieting down period, into the practice of “savasana,” or deep relaxation and meditation from the yoga tradition.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at holisticpath.jbr@gmail.com

Resources for yoga adult yoga classes in Clarke County

Turi Nevin-Turkel: anandaverve.blogspot.com

Clarke County Parks and Recreation: http://www.clarkecounty.gov/parks/parks-and-recreation.html

For information on Yoga Yah-Yahs, for 5–11 year olds, see barnsofrosehill.org/events or call 540-955-2004.

Sugar Awareness

Sugar Awareness

A Mighty Step Toward Better Health

By JiJi Russell

Lately I’ve been spending a little time looking at sugar. I’ll admit it: I love the stuff; always have. I feel certain I come by it naturally, because both my parents and my children seem to carry the sweet tooth gene as well. At this age and stage, at least my palate has matured to the point where I prefer the richer notes and complexities of pure cane or rapadura sugar, molasses, or raw honey. I would gladly choose any of those over plain old white sugar. But I’m not fooling myself: When it comes to added sugar in foods (that is, any amount of sugar not occurring naturally in, say, a piece of fruit), the human body still doesn’t thrive on a boatload of the stuff, whether “natural” or “refined.”

But here’s the real problem: We’re swimming in sugar in this country. Almost 26 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with diabetes—nearly one in 12 people, according to the American Diabetes Association. And with many maladies like inflammation and heart disease often linked to sugar, we need to do better. A little sugar awareness might go a long way, for those who care enough to shine a light on this often hidden Achilles heel of the American diet.

If you can cultivate greater sugar awareness for yourself, you also might help a child, a parent, or a friend to pay better attention and make better choices that will offer a positive long-term impact on his or her health. When I started really looking at the sugar of things, and simultaneously learned more about the depth of the obesity crisis in our nation, my own little discoveries motivated me to curb the impulse to go for the sweet fix—which is saying a lot for a long-time dessert lover.

Many, if not all of you, know that processed foods (just about anything that comes in a can, container, carton, or wrapper) usually contain more sugar (and/or salt) than their fresh or non-flavored counterparts. Let’s start with Greek yogurt. Everyone seems to love it. The texture and protein boost are hard to beat. But, sadly, so many things that are touted as “health foods” contain a mountain of sugar. In this case, eight ounces of Chobani peach yogurt will deliver 25 grams of sugar. Let’s put that into perspective. The World Health Organization suggests that a person limit sugar intake to 10 percent of total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet (more than most women need), that equates to a maximum of 50 grams of added sugar a day. Fifty grams of sugar equates to about 200 calories.

Okay, say were going to make that Greek yogurt the only sugar for a given day, but later on in the day you eat a great lunch—a towering salad with homemade dressing—one of those tasty and virtuous creations that hit the spot. And so, you thought you just might allot yourself a little treat in the afternoon. How about a Starbucks iced cinnamon dolce latte? That’ll add another 34 grams to your sugar account. Now you’ve surpassed your 50 grams for the day without a proper dessert course.

It sure does seem to add up quickly. Consume a soft drink, a Vitamin Water, a container of juice, or a sweetened tea, and you might just drink down your 50 in one huge gulp.

If you think you might tend toward a little extra sweetness in the diet, here are a few things you can do to initiate greater awareness, and perhaps reduce your sugar load. Start small, taking baby steps to re-train your palate can work. One important note: I do not recommend artificial sweeteners as a healthy alternative to sugar (I will address them in another upcoming article).

  1. Start by adding just a little less sweetener in the places you usually like it: coffee, tea, cereal, etc. Add just a tad less today . . . then tomorrow . . . .
  2. If there is an unsweetened version of a food item you eat every day, such as yogurt, choose the unflavored/unsweetened item, and add your own extras, like fresh fruit plus a small amount of sweetener. The same could hold for cereal or granola. Go with unsweetened and add your own.
  3. Eat fruit—the original dessert—especially during summertime when the choices are abundant. Whole fruits, while often rife with natural sugars, also offer fiber, which helps to slow down the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream. Many fruits also pack vitamins, antioxidants, and other good nutrition to boot.
  4. If you love soft drinks, try to substitute one of your fizzies a day for plain seltzer water mixed with a splash of juice. Add some slices of lemon and/or lime for a festive twist.
  5. Like baking? Try eliminating about a third of the recommended sugar in a recipe for baked goods. Things often taste better with less sweetener, anyway. Other flavors will come through. There is a whole genre of recipes that utilize pureed fruits to bring sweetness to baked goods, rather than extra cups of sugar or sweetener.
  6. Encourage your favorite restaurant or bakery to offer a lower-sugar version of your favorite treat. It never hurts to “vote with your fork.”
  7. I know someone with a “no sugar before lunchtime” policy. Try that. It might cut out a lot of unnecessary sweets and, at the same time, push you to find a more nutritious and energy-sustaining breakfast.

 

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at holisticpath.jbr@gmail.com

 

Americans Love Their Sugar

A look at the sugar wallop of some favorite consumables.

  • 12 ounces of Pepsi or Coke: about 41 grams
  • 21-oz (medium) chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s: 111 grams
  • Panera Apple Crunch Muffin: 49 grams
  • 20-oz bottle of Vitamin Water: 33 grams
  • One Caramel Kreme Crunch donut from Krispy Kreme: 30 grams

Cheryl Ash: Positive Powerhouse

Cheryl Ash: Positive Powerhouse

by JiJi Russell

Spending some time with Cheryl Ash is to experience a balance of opposites: She’s sophisticated yet folksy; bohemian but fully grounded; confident yet self-effacing. When I sat down with her at the Barns of Rose Hill on a recent Saturday afternoon, she gave me the impression that she’s come by each of these qualities quite honestly in the many roles she has played over the last half century.

Like many of us, Ash seeks balance in a world full of competing priorities and demands. A wife, mother of two, and grandmother of two, she’s quick to point out that she has chosen to live the way she does. Her abundant family and professional roles find her serving as executive director at the Barns of Rose Hill; living with and attending to the daily assistance of her elderly mother; and managing, alongside her husband, the farm where she grew up—to name the top three.

Ash recognizes that these days present a cluster of challenges around maintaining health and fitness: “The metabolism slows; the occupational demands increase . . .” Perhaps her earlier career in bodybuilding and fitness has helped to fortify Ash’s resolve and dedication to the challenges of today.

In 1986, Ash was the first place winner in the West Virginia State National Physique Committee Female Body Building Competition. She left the bodybuilding scene, however, “just when things started to become unhealthy for women,” she said, referring to the loss of stature of the feminine body image in deference to large, sculpted, more masculine muscle development.

Ash seems to have gracefully repurposed her energy and skills from the fitness industry, where she has taught classes and managed and owned several health clubs over the years, into the many and diverse roles the Barns and the workload of rural daily living require.

As the Barns’ executive director, one of only two paid roles there, Ash finds herself spending long work weeks, sometimes as many as 70 hours, tending to the myriad tasks involved in running operations for a nonprofit organization.

Her days, in which her home and work responsibilities seem to overlap, begin about 6am., with the care of dogs, barn cats, and a goat at home on the farm. Between daily vacuuming and spot mopping at home, to keep her mother’s respiratory issues at bay, and many housekeeping duties at the Barns, Ash serves as a veritable “house mum.” She launders sheets and makes beds in the Barns’ guest quarters, does dishes leftover from events, and more.

These tasks appear to be a labor of love for Ash, who said one of her favorite parts of her Barns’ role is “pampering the artists.” She would love to find a grant to support greater artist hospitality at the Barns, recognizing that life on the road can be arduous for musicians—and a little comfort when the artists land in Berryville is so well appreciated. Between the vintage clothing grab bag for artists, occasional birthday parties when birthdays coincide with performances, and other personal touches, Ash has earned the adored “Mom” title by many visiting artists, according to Logan Van Meter, a volunteer and former employee at the Barns.

In between housekeeping duties come meetings (one to two a day) at the Barns, voicemails, emails, performer vetting, performer contracts, the electronic newsletter, events calendar, ticket presales. And of course, the performances themselves, which translate into nights that do not end until midnight, perhaps up to three times a week.

Anyone who has been following the growing explosion of arts that characterizes the Barns of Rose Hill must surmise that someone around there is doing some serious heavy lifting. The infectious enthusiasm of Van Meter would pin the prize on Cheryl, if only she would accept it. Throughout our conversation, which was punctuated by playful banter between Ash and Van Meter, Ash kept diverting the spotlight from herself to other players who make things tick around the Barns, including Kelli Hart, development director, and a host of dedicated volunteers.

One word kept coming back into the conversation I had with Ash when she spoke of the challenges of balancing her many roles, her own needs, and a voracious interest in the arts. She came back to a description of the feeling she returns to each morning when she rises.

“There’s such serenity to wake up on the farm I grew up on, looking out at the Blue Ridge, the trees, the garden,” she said. “And knowing that my mother is growing stronger and healthier with each day. We have temporarily closed up our home and moved in with her to be there when she needs us. In spite of our work schedules, we try to create as much normality as we can.”

Indeed, Ash believes the garden played a role in a miraculous recovery that her mother, Jane Barb, recently made from grave illness. While she was in a critical care unit suffering from respiratory failure and connected to three different machines, Ash and other family members started talking to Barb, who is 77 years old, about getting the garden going for the season—what they wanted to plant, and other matters of the home.

“It was amazing,” Ash said. “The color just started coming back to her face.” Ash seemed to believe it only when her mom wrote “I love you” on a tablet her daughter had handed her, after 14 days of limited communication and doctors’ doubts clouding her chances for survival.

“She’s an extremely positive person; I don’t think she could have done that if her mind hadn’t helped her,” Ash said. “She’s definitely an inspiration to me.”

And Cheryl Ann Ash, too, relies on the power of positive thinking to maintain balance and composure even when life gets busy. Now, if she could only get back to her exercise program (teaching Spinning again ranks as top fitness goal), she might feel like she’s really accomplishing something.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She can be reached at holisticpath.jbr@gmail.com

Ask + Listen + Borrow = a Formula for Finding Vibrant Health

Fining Your Own Path

By JiJi Russell

I want to offer you a “story starter.” The idea comes from kindergarten classrooms, where teachers ask newly reading and writing students to continue a given sentence or fragment. The starter might be something like, “When I am really hungry . . . .” The student creates the rest of the story, sometimes drawing an illustration to go along with it. The starter provides a gateway into creative thinking and writing.

The story starter I offer you should serve as an inquiry for you, not an intellectual or mechanical exercise. It will require some thought, perhaps some dialogue with someone close to you—maybe some writing. Most of all it will require you to cultivate awareness of what you are doing to contribute to or detract from your overall health each day.

The Back Story

I recently aged into a new decade, while also working my first full year for American Public University System as the wellness coordinator serving more than 2,000 employees. My story of health and those of many people I have gotten to know at work have helped me recognize an old maxim: good health is a participatory process.

Sure, some people are born with a more robust “health account” than others, but taking time to discover and honor your own unique blueprint for achieving optimal health holds many rich rewards. Good health can offer you an enhanced ability to bring greater energy and positive contributions to your family and friends, your community, your work, and the causes you support.

After 12 years working in alternative health and wellness practices, I have observed that when people accept primary responsibility for finding their own source of health and vibrant energy, they tend to be more successful at fulfilling health-related goals. I’m not suggesting a completely “go it alone” strategy. Indeed, sometimes a veritable team of helpers is needed. For my part, I have leaned on the guidance and therapies of chiropractors; a health coach; an herbalist; spiritual teachers; physical therapists; an acupuncturist; my parents; my husband; and others. I also have learned by working with such a diverse group of people that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. This is why personal inquiry—your story starter—is so important.

It’s the Little Things

Sometimes health inquiry and discovery is a wonderful exploration; other times, particularly during health crises, it can be wrought with frustration and setbacks.

Personally, the last twelve months have been more challenging than any other year of my life. I have had to dig deep to cultivate practices and habits that are most supportive to recovering my energy, patience, and stamina. I’ve learned wonderful things along the way, and have come into contact with some extraordinary people through the work I do. I have learned that those who want to find true, deep health often have to work hard to bring it to the fore. They have to make lifestyle changes; they have to develop new habits; they sometimes have to let relationships go if they are not supporting their greatest health.

It is not one peak experience that establishes or reestablishes good health. It is what we do every day. It is the way we eat; they way we connect with others; the way we sleep; the way we approach our work. It’s all the little things that matter. All the little things can, and often do, lead to a large shift toward a higher plane of health and wellness. In my work, I often refer to a quote I once heard, one often linked to Zen Buddhism: “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Do you get up in the morning with a mere 20 minutes to shower, dress, eat, and prepare yourself for the day? Does the rest of your day reflect this truncated way of “doing”? This is but one example of how you might start thinking about your life’s details in order to reveal the larger story of your health and wellness. If you trust that you are the one who can best reveal your own path to vibrant health, start your story today (see sidebar).

Your Story Starts Here

Begin with a question: What is one thing I can do to improve my health? If this seems too vague or complex, you can simply frame the question around your energy level and focus on today: What is one thing I can do today to improve my energy level?

Ask yourself the question either mentally or aloud, and simply listen for a moment while you take a few deep breaths. You might jot down words or images that come to mind. After the first idea or ideas come forth, ask yourself the same question again. See what comes. You might discover repeated words or images from your first round, or something completely different. It’s all okay. Just “be with it” for a few deep breaths.

Once you find one or two words, images, or concepts that you can accept, create a positive statement for yourself that utilizes this information. Repeat this statement in the morning, afternoon, and evening every day until you feel you have integrated it into your life.

Need help? Put the question to your partner, your best friend, a trusted health provider. Or, find someone around you whom you admire for his or her energy and way of living. Ask what works for them. See where that leads you. The idea ultimately is to find your own path, but the entry point can surely include borrowing good stuff from others.

JiJi Russell, a writer, yoga instructor, and Integrative Nutrition practitioner, currently serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She can be contacted at holisticpath.jbr@gmail.com.

The Family Supper

One Little Meal, One Momentous Accomplishment

By JiJi Russell

Try this little experiment: Close your eyes, and ask yourself, “What’s for dinner?” See what kind of response the question elicits for you. If you experience anything akin to stress: a racing mind, body tension, anxiety, agitation, or difficulty breathing, this article’s for you.

Creating nourishing meals every day, at the end of the day, can challenging. After all, most of us have been working all day, many of us outside the home. Our modern schedules and demands can deplete our energy and enthusiasm for this important time of the day called “dinner” or “supper,” when many families come back together with great hopes and perhaps expectations of relaxation.

I have been working outside my home for almost a year now,  having transitioned from at-home mom to professional mom. When I gather my youngsters and head home after work, I have the most noble desire for a truly enjoyable dinner, from prep to table.

As a nutrition coach who has worked with people struggling with food-related complications, I know the importance of eating well. I also have been a yoga practitioner for 16 years, and an instructor for 11. In the Ayurvedic tradition, yoga’s sister science from India, it is taken for granted that one’s health is absolutely bound to one’s digestion. And even with all that immersion in healthy lifestyle learning and living, the question of “What’s for dinner” too often confounds me.

Julie Harden, a mother of four girls between 20 and 12, grew up in a family that ate dinner together every night. “That’s my ideal,” Harden said. “but that has not happened.” Between the work schedules that she and her husband maintain, the girls’ various sports and activities, and visits to her mother who lives in Winchester, evening time compresses.

Recently, Harden saw an opportunity. Her 14-year-old daughter Grace loves to cook and bake, and is reportedly quite good at it. At the same time, the teen Harden girls are health-conscious—leaning toward whole foods and healthy eating habits. So the Harden parents asked Grace if she might like to take the task of cooking dinner as one of her family chores.

Grace took the job.

“We live on a farm, with chickens, alpacas, dogs, and cats, so some of the other chores might not be as attractive,” Harden said. One recent day Grace asked her mom to bring home some good French bread. She had made homemade chicken salad with nuts, grapes, and celery to put on the baguette—and a fresh fruit side salad. Sometimes simplicity tastes so good.

Maryam Tabatabai, a healthy eater and great cook, is a wife and mother of two boys (ages five and seven). Here’s her principle when it comes to dinner: “There’s no magic. You have to put away the pressure, and replace it with preparation.”

Indeed, her workday as a doctor of pharmacy puts the squeeze on Tabatabai’s schedule, and she has taken it upon herself to become a better planner. She not only plans the family’s meals—sometimes up to a monthof menus at  a time—but also plans takeout or eating out into the schedule to eliminate last-minute stress on busy days.

Another more subtle tack Tabatabai takes is to discover foods with her children. They love olive oil, she says, so she will incorporate it as a dip or into a dip. Her children, and many others I’ve heard about over the years, like to dip. Why not blend up something nutritious, and let them go at it?

Ultimately, the pragmatic Tabatabai follows the wisdom of a pediatrician, who said that if children have opportunities to understand how hunger feels, they’ll eat. If you have children of your own, and can discover where that “sweet spot” lies between a healthy appetite and a meltdown, use that information wisely.

In my family, I’ve started a regular practice of laying out small dishes and bowls, containing chopped vegetables and nuts about 30 minutes before dinnertime. Those “crudités” are there for grazing during dinner preparation, so that my children (ages 4 and 6) are not sugaring up the bloodstream with quick-absorbing foods like crackers and fruits. If they munch down so much chopped fennel and pistachios, that they don’t eat as much dinner, so be it. At least they’ve gotten good fiber, protein, and fats.

Onlookers to dinner at the Shinabery home might find something surprising: dancing. Marci Shinabery,  a wife and mother of a five-year-old boy and twin seven-year-old girls, recalls with enthusiasm the meals she ate with her host family when she studied abroad in France. During these long, multi-course meals, lasting up to two hours, the only reason one got up from the table would be to dance or use the restroom. Back in Berryville, the Shinabery family does eat together “pretty much every night,” while the music rolls. They have experimented with the multi-course style of eating, and enjoyed it, but found it impractical for every day. Sometimes they dance, though.

Like Tabatabai, Shinabery puts a lot of stock in planning. She does the shopping for the week every Monday, and prior to that, sits down to make a meal plan. She tries to pull in one new meal every one to two weeks for variety, and she involves her children in the process of making and setting up dinner.

Involving children in the kitchen has been cited in numerous books and articles as a way to encourage healthy eating habits that stick. In my family, I always invite the kids to help during dinner prep time. The rule is, they can either help me out or move out of the kitchen and keep themselves busy. It’s actually working. Usually one child will take me up on the offer, and then I determine which of the five or so tasks I have to do (washing, slicing, squeezing, mixing, etc.) would be the best fit. I don’t mind the mess at all, as long as we’re having fun.

Recently, we were expecting a babysitter to arrive. She was going to eat with the kids while my husband and I went out. Suddenly, my son got very busy in the kitchen. About five minutes later, he had prepared a beautiful vegetable appetizer for our guest. It was such a thoughtful expression, featuring a lovely combination of chopped and shredded carrots, with some nuts, all arranged in a flower-like pattern on the plate.

Shinabery, who is a stay-at-home mom, consults her activities for the week in order to take note of busy evenings—a PTO meeting, for example. For those nights, she plans ahead for a slow-cooker recipe or plans one of her “go-to meals,” which take little more than pulling a few ingredients out of the freezer and pantry, and tossing them together.

Shinabery designates one of her children a “helper” for each day. This child sets the table and does various preparation tasks like spinning the salad or turning on the blender. The helper gets to determine where everyone sits that evening, a role accepted with much satisfaction, says Shinabery.

“I think when the kids are involved, it holds you more accountable to getting something on the table,” Shinabery said.

So, take comfort that others find something as simple as preparing one daily meal a challenge that deserves much attention and consideration. We all want to do what’s best for our families. May we find our own special formula for success . . . and stress reduction at the dinner hour.

JiJi Russell, a writer, yoga instructor, and Integrative Nutrition practitioner, currently serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She can be contacted at holisticpath.jbr@gmail.com.

 Dinner Strategies

Combined Wisdom from Cooking Moms, JiJi Russell and her Aunt Jane Turner

Make up a weekly menu. Make your grocery list from there.

Plan “momentum meals” that can easily roll from one day to the next, like chicken on Monday and rice and bean burritos with shredded chicken on Tuesday.

Double or triple recipes when you can, and freeze leftovers.

Use carry out and/or prepared foods as “add ins” for busy days so you don’t end up relying on them.

Create a short list of quick-prep meals that you can crank out in a pinch.

Plan the days’ meal in the morning.

Cook on weekends.

Involve children in making food. Mushrooms can be cut with a butter knife!

Re-think your idea of sides and main courses. Simply put out a bunch of bowls and plates with single, healthy options that don’t involve a lot of preparation. For example, carrot “matchsticks”; brown rice with a sauce or seasoning; celery spread with peanut or almond butter.