What is health?

by admin on December 20, 2009

What is health? I was thinking about that the other day, as I watched a young person (I think it was a“tween”) walk to school, gulping an energy drink. I can’t imagine that’s good for anyone to drink, let alone a young person who’s off to try to learn at school. I also thought about the concept of health when I tried to run the other day and due to running too far after taking a month-long break from running ( the “too much too soon” syndrome) it was all I could do to walk/run around my regular 5-mile route. Did I feel healthy? No. Was it healthy to do what I could? Yes, I would say so. But instead of feeling healthy, I was discouraged.

There is a lot of talk these days about health, based on anyone’s reading of the headlines. The energy being devoted to trying to pass a universal healthcare bill of some flavor is a testament to the state of our nation’s health. Articles about how overweight we are, how diseased we are with ailments that are due to unhealthy habits, television shows dedicated to watching those who are overweight struggle on the path to losing weight, efforts being made to improve the quality of food in our restaurants, our schools  and our grocery stores. Books, movies, television shows, articles, the popular media loves this topic. But yet, the focus remains on our physical health, for the most part.

A great deal of my energy this past year went into looking at my financial health. Despite the challenges of the economy, and, in large part due to them, I was forced to devote a large amount of time to scrutinizing my personal finances. Cutting back on things, creative ideas to save money, staying in, teaching more yoga (which I don’t mind, really) were all things that I have done to try to impact my own personal economy. I’ve lived with the debt I had, but tried desperately not to add to it, all the while, trying to whittle it down. Now, if I did not, and I kept spending, and increased my debt further, is that healthy? Can you be in great physical shape but carry tons of debt and be considered “in good health?”

Then, there’s the Tiger story. I will spare you the details but honestly, you’d have to be living in a bubble to not know what I’m referring to. Certainly, you’d say that despite Tiger’s knee surgery, he made his way back to health and was stronger than ever on the course this year, both physically and mentally. He looked strong and he was mentally tough, as he faced his competition. But, as things became clearer and his “social activities” became known, we started to get a better picture of who this man really is. Or, at least, what he did in his private life (to some degree—we’ll never know the whole story). Certainly one would wonder why someone would put so much at risk—you can’t deny there’s something psychological at play there—so again, the question “is that healthy?” Is living a life of wild abandon, with no sense of personal integrity or responsibility, despite excelling at your sport, healthy?  Probably not.

So, what does this all mean?  Health is more than just how the outside looks. Maybe this is obvious to you, but I just think it bears repeating. Health is the culmination of our nutrition, our physicality, our spirit, our state of mind. Our health relies on all the parts of “us” working in synch, in partnership, in such a way that we not only look healthy on the outside, but are healthy on the inside. When we focus on just one part, and neglect the others, we refuse to accept the fact that we’re a systemic entity with lots of working parts that need to be oiled, well-functioning and happy.

And what of this “happiness” part of health? Can you be healthy and miserable? I would certainly say yes. We’ve heard stories of models, athletes and celebrities that probably look healthy and are healthy from a medical standpoint, but who, by their own accounts, are miserable. The pressure to exercise, look good on the outside and project an “image” of health certainly weighs heavily on someone and would lead to stress and unhappiness. But happiness is such a challenge in this world of pressure and stress. So, how are we to attain it?

I won’t say that yoga is the answer, but I would say that it’s a start. Health, in many ways, is a matter of the habits we have. Our habits around eating, sleeping, exercising, taking care of ourselves, our personal relationships, our attitudes about money, our habits around working, personal cleanliness, stress management. Habits are doing the right thing, consistently. In Buddhism, it’s referred to as “right action” and we know it when we do it. It’s saying “no” when it’s right for us, living in moderation, thinking before we speak. It’s taking action to help, assist, reach out, support. It’s being humble, moderate, strong, and passionate. So, how do we develop these skills? How can we ever get ourselves on the right path?

Creating healthy habits starts with one thing. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s got to begin with something. Eating well, practicing yoga or some regular form of exercise, sitting down with your finances and creating a budget. Any of the areas of your life afford you the chance to create a healthy habit. And once you begin to develop good habits in one aspect of your life, you develop the fertile soil to develop healthy habits in other aspects of your life.

Now, I won’t say that yoga and meditation is the answer. But I can attest thru personal experience and that of many of my friends and colleagues, that it’s by far one of the most effective ways to develop a the necessary mindset around habit setting. Yoga is a habit you develop maybe in part, because you want to get healthy on the outside, but due to its meditative affects, it will also create a foundation to health on the inside as well.

Whatever you do on your path to health, remember that it’s a process. It’s a life-long journey, but one that is worth taking.

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