Vipassana Meditation – Part Three: The course at SCVC & my experience there:

The Facility:

The SCVC is situated close to Joshua Tree National Park. It’s extremely hot and dry in the summer and gets a little chilly in the winter months. Students are encouraged to dress in layers, and bring warmer clothes in the winter, even though it’s in California. The desert nights can get quite cold.

I was pleasantly surprised by the standard of the quarters at this facility. I had expected a very basic level of quality, knowing that the center is 100% funded on the charity of past students. Clearly their generosity and gratitude towards the center is huge. The center has high quality amenities including many individual private quarters with built in bathrooms. Some quarters were shared dormitories, but these were also more than adequate. Everything has been thoroughly thought out to give you the best experience. I’m not saying it’s a 5 star hotel. But what you get is exactly what you need to be distraction free and focused on your task. There are noise free toilet lids, soft closing door mechanisms, separate air conditioning for each room so you can control the temperature for your own comfort at all times. Cushions, mats and blocks are provided for meditation in the main meditation hall, but you can use your own if you wish. The main hall would get cold during group meditations. Many of us would bring sweaters and shawls to wrap up in, as well as socks, then remove them all after sessions.

Men's Quarters at SCVC
Men’s Quarters at SCVC

There’s a ¼ mile nature trail on each of the men and women’s sides of the center and walking it is encouraged during rest periods. The trail is full of protected nature. Exercising is not permitted on the course, so stretching one’s legs on the trail is almost a necessary contrast to the hours of sitting in meditation. The animals on the trail are incredibly friendly and not threatened by humans. Rabbits, snakes, chip monks, lizards will all walk with you fearlessly. Doves and bats have made their homes in the roofs and trees around the residences. It’s a refreshing change to see untamed wildlife living so care free around humans.

SCVC Kitchen
SCVC Kitchen

The food was pretty good and a lot of options were provided, all vegetarian. I prefer to eat a vegan diet, and there was always plenty for me to choose from. Meals containing dairy, nuts and gluten were labelled. I was able to avoid wheat and dairy the entire time without feeling hungry or malnourished. Meals included Lasagna, kitcheree, burritos, noodles, tofu steaks, cake desserts, soups, stews, curry and every day there was a salad bar, breads, cereals, fruit and a large selection of soft beverages to choose from.

Difficulties during the course:

It is apparently normal for at least one person to give up and leave the course. Our course was no exception. Someone left on Day 2. Many others became overwhelmed at various stages throughout the course, packing their bags and trying to leave, only to be talked out of it by the teachers.

My partner Rick reports that he really wanted to leave on Day 2, but found the muster to suck it up and get through it. By day 4 the benefits he was getting stopped any further thoughts of leaving early.

For me, I didn’t feel the urge to pack up and leave, but I did have trouble on numerous occasions mustering enough enthusiasm to drag myself to each of the group meditation sessions. Day dreaming, and wandering thoughts, not to mention falling asleep at times made it challenging and frustrating.

Our schedule everyday looked like this:

  • 4am Wake up bell
  • 30-6.30am Meditate in hall or in room
  • 30-8am Breakfast
  • 8-9am Group meditation
  • 9-11am Meditate in hall or room according to teacher’s instructions
  • 11-12pm Lunch
  • 12-1pm Rest
  • 1-2.30pm Meditate in hall or room and/or teacher’s interviews
  • 30-3.30pm Group Meditation
  • 30-5pm Meditate in hall or room according to teacher’s instructions
  • 5-6pm Tea
  • 6-7pm Group Meditation
  • 7-8.15pm Teacher’s discourse
  • 15-9pm Group Meditation
  • 9-9.30pm Group Meditation and questions
  • 30-10pm Rest and lights out.

That adds up to over 100 hours of meditation. By the 5th day, it was encouraged to practice “noble stillness” during group meditation, meaning trying your hardest not to move an inch during the sessions, working through discomfort using the tools given to us. By around Day 4, most people were aching all over and having trouble sitting in any position at all. The Day 5 rule really helped create focus and by day 6 almost everyone was practicing in complete stillness.

I have been nursing a Psoas injury that was making sitting on a floor mat particularly painful. There were others like me with pre-existing injuries. We were allowed to sit in a chair as needed. I had to be mindful not to use the chair at the first signs of discomfort and only use it when my injury became unmanageable.

Another difficulty came with withdrawal symptoms for reading, writing and media. I found myself reading the back of my Vitamin D bottle, curiously interested in where it was from and anything else it said in small print.

Being left with one’s own thoughts is a daunting experience. I equate it to solitary confinement of sorts…but with guidance on how to best get to know your own mind. Some days I would sit and cry during rest times, through sadness, frustration, and sometimes through happiness. It was definitely a very emotional journey, full of self-reflection, self-realization and self-discipline.

My most profound experience came around Day 4. Our meditation mats in the hall were close to one another, and rules as they were, we were not allowed to touch anyone else. So everyone carefully stepped over everyone else’s mats to get to theirs, and stretched themselves out around each other’s spaces to get comfortable as needed. Nursing my injured joint, I would stretch my leg out a lot in front of me to avoid exacerbating my injury. The girl sitting in front of me would knock my foot, reach back and grab it from time to time while adjusting herself and almost stood on me numerous times. I started to become sensitive to this behavior, getting mad at her for trying to hurt me, and in my head purposely trying to make me feel like I was being an inconvenience to her, despite her having plenty of room. In the 3 days that this happened, I became more and more annoyed by her behavior, calling her names in my head, making up stories about where she came from and what an awful person she was. During meditation I started imagining scenarios where I could call her out on her about her behavior.

It was around this time that my hip joint was getting especially painful and I had asked for a chair. Despite getting my chair, I still wanted to sit on my mat when I could, but developed an aversion to sitting behind this girl. I really didn’t want to be anywhere near her. I started feeling like she was causing me to not get any benefits out of my time meditating. I became very frustrated that my mind could only think about what was going on between us. I got so angry that those thoughts started to become violent, and with no other outlet, verbal or otherwise, I started day dreaming about punching her in the throat UFC style. My thoughts had grown wildly out of control and I felt I wasn’t getting anything at all out of the course, rather regressing. I went to my teacher to ask to be moved to avoid the distraction and find focus since my violent thoughts were starting to disturb me. My teacher smiled and said “no”. My descriptions of violence and anger didn’t faze her at all. She explained that it was perfectly normal and expected to start having these types of thoughts. That this was one of my sankharas surfacing. She told me that I needed to stay sitting behind her and work through my sankhara to understand it. She also commented that this girl and myself would probably end up being best friends by the time we left the course.

I went away and contemplated this discussion, slightly peeved that I hadn’t gotten my way. That evening, Goenka (who teaches via video in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ban Khin, having died some years ago) started talking about these types of thoughts and sankharas and what they meant. Every evening his discourse was so profound to me, that it was like he was reading my mind…. But truthfully, this fact speaks volumes about the structure of the course and the predictable nature of the mind. In essence it’s a scientific method of understanding and controlling one’s mental faculties. But I digress. Geonka’s explanation described everything that had been going on in my head with this situation. I retired for the evening realizing that I had created this situation and manifested conflict, anger and upset in myself without cause. That I had been doing this with so many things in my life that my stress levels had become intensely high for no good reason. So many of my worries and conflicts were unnecessary and only hurt myself, no one else.

The next morning during group meditation, I changed my thinking. I used my new found knowledge to step away from my emotions about my situation and see things as they were. I realized that the girl in front of me was having a really hard time sitting still and focusing. She would fidget a lot and move around in frustration. She couldn’t get comfortable no matter what she did. I realized that what I had perceived as animosity was actually just frustration. All the anger that I had developed melted away. Half way through the day, she grabbed a kneeling bench and was precariously trying to balance it on her foam floor mat in her space so that she could sit on it. It was really unstable. She started trying to shift her mat forward, encroaching on the space of the girl in front of her, seemingly because she knew I used the space behind her for my outreached leg. In this moment, I broke my vow of non-communication momentarily for the sake of her comfort. I reached forward and grabbed the kneeling bench and put it over my foot, behind her mat, where it could sit on the sturdy floor. I looked up and smiled at her mouthing “It’s fine”. She smiled back at me with a look of relief on her face, giving me a thumbs up. Suddenly, this girl who had been the devil’s right hand in my mind a day ago, was a nice, well intended person who, just like me, was trying her best to get through the challenges of the course.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to have experienced this during my course and have the opportunity to address this thinking that had been weighing me down for so long. Now I’m back in the real world, I’m applying these lessons and making new observations every day. Rick and I have great conversations about behaviors and emotions that we’re noticing that were too subtle to realize before our training. We’re definitely able to process our emotions and thoughts so much more effectively. We are able to be present and have become better versions of ourselves because of it.

New friends
New friends

Day 10 was a special day where we were allowed to talk to our fellow students. It was a really interesting day, learning about people that we had been living, eating and sitting with for 9 days in complete silence. You inadvertently make up stories about who they are and what they do simply from observing some physical attribute about them or some physical action they have made. How wrong we can be about people. It’s an interesting exercise in perception. The girl who sat in front of me in the hall turned out to be more like me than I could have imagined. My teacher was right. We are now friends.

The journey is so different for everyone that experiences the course that I can’t tell you what the experience will be like for you, and it would be remiss of me to try to explain the method to you, simply because I don’t have the training to do it, and to teach it incorrectly would be an injustice to you. I can only recommend the course whole heartedly no matter what walk of life you’re on.

The course is 100% free, and everything is provided for you. Just bring bedding, towel, toiletries and enough clothes to last 10 days. No laundry services are provided but you can hand wash and hang your clothes outside. There’s no obligation to donate money at the end. They actually encourage service over payment to help you grow spiritually. The center staff are all volunteers who have taken the course, and no one, including the teachers are getting paid a penny. Even the facilities are provided as donations in money and time by skilled workers. You can  sign up for amazonSmile to have a portion of the money you pay for goods bought on amazon go to your Vipassana center, at no cost to you.

I can tell you that we are now strong practitioners of this meditation method and will most likely return to do the course again.  If you have any questions about the Vipassana course, I would be happy to respond if I can. IF you have questions about the practice, there’s lots of information on their site about the theory, practice and history of Vipassana, and I recommend you check it out.

If you’re at all interested in enlightenment, happiness, brain training, or meditation for mental or physical reasons, this course is the real deal. The course has given me the tools to deal with anxiety, depression, attachment, anger, and also to more fully experience happiness and love.

My life has become so much more vivid since finding Vipassana. I am so grateful for the experience and wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go.

Vipassana Meditation – Part Two: Rules for Faith & Practice:

Faith:

In this part of my report on Vipassana, I’m focusing on religion. Talking to friends about the course, it is easy to see the apprehension of others in deciding whether or not Vipassana is for them. Most conventionally religious individuals are unsure of trying such a practice, not wanting to interfere with their beliefs or other daily religious practice.

The Vipassana website describes the practice in full. Here is the first paragraph to give you an idea. Check out the site to read more about the history:

“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.”

Emphasis should be made on the term “non-sectarian”. The roots of this practice have been passed down from Buddha…. But let’s be clear for those who may not know. Buddha is not a God. A Buddha is a human-being who has reached enlightenment. Gautama was not the first nor the last man to achieve this feat. There are branches of Buddhism that promote God/deity worship and types of meditation that have been adapted from the pure Vipassana practice to include prayer, chanting, objects of visual focus and mental markers to focus the mind. Vipassana is none of these things. It is the plain and simple physical practice of meditation without such distractions, allowing observation of one’s own body and thoughts.

Vipassana centers do not expect you to convert to Buddhism or denounce your current faith to practice, and they don’t turn away anyone because of faith. But they do ask you to put aside religious practice of any kind when you come to the center in order to experience the benefits of Vipassana, as well as not to distract others. If your mind is distracted with prayer, worship and faith, you will never fully experience the benefits of the course. On completion of the course, teachers help those with faiths to incorporate their new found practice in a way that isn’t counterproductive.

Goenka also is very clear at the end of the course to mention that it is not imperative for you to believe in everything he has taught during the course. It is for you to take away the parts of the teachings that resonate and work for you. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to dive into the deeper teachings. There’s no pressure or commitment, no obligation whatsoever … but in giving the course a fair trial, I found that 99% of the teachings have given me the tools I need to evolve my mind/brain continually from now on. I can’t express how valuable the course has been to me personally, and to my partner.

Vipassana’s Strict Rules:

The rules are in place to help you and everyone else reach their fullest potential on the course. You can find a full list of the rules on the Vipassana site including special vows called Precepts that one must commit to at the start of the course, but in short, here are some of the bigger rules from my perspective:

  • You MUST stay the full 10 days.
  • You must put aside all religious practices & prayer for the 10 days.
  • You must not wear religious paraphernalia.
  • You must not lie, steal, kill or engage in sexual misconduct during your stay.
  • Men and women must remain separated at all times, and have their own sides of the center to conduct practice, eat, walk, etc. A male and female teacher is assigned for each.
  • Students must wear modest and comfortable clothing. No revealing or tight fitting garments, including shorts, leggings or tank tops.
  • No talking, no physical contact, no eye contact with any individual during your time at the center. You can only talk to the teacher during set interview times to ask short and on topic questions about the practice. You can also talk to the male or female manager that presides over the residences for the course should there be any issues.
  • No phones, internet, writing, reading, drawing, taking photos, listening or playing music. Emergency contact info is available for you to be reached by loved ones while you’re there.
  • You must eat the vegetarian cuisine provided and only eat during set meal times at 6.30am and 11am. A snack of fruit and tea is given at 5pm for new students, but old student repeating the course are encouraged to forego this extra snack. The only exceptions are for medical necessity.

As a grown adult, some of these rules seem a little extreme, but about half way through the course I started appreciating how important they were to allowing everyone to focus without distraction. Silence and being left to one’s own thoughts really forces you to address your feelings without reacting to them. Having no entertainment to distract my mind, I was able to focus 100% on being present and experiencing my emotions as they happened, observe them in silence, and understand myself.

On the last day, we were allowed to talk to everyone, and immediately meditation sessions became much more challenging to get into. My mind became filled with thoughts and emotions about conversations I had just had and what they meant in terms of my present and past. Just interacting with people provided a distraction large enough to split my focus during meditation that I know I would not have been able to get past earlier in my training.

In the final installment of this three-part report, I will talk more about my experience, and specifically the 29 Palms location I attended.

In short though, if the rules of Vipassana concern you, I urge you to consider that the course is only ten days long, and there’s nothing you can’t be without for 10 days that isn’t provided on the course. God and your church will still be there when you’re done. Your job, worries, family and friends will all still be there in 10 days, but you’ll just be better at dealing with them when you get done.

If money is an issue, or time. Consider doing Vipassana instead of going on vacation. For my partner and I, the course gave us a refresh that no cruise or tropical vacation has ever done. Not only did it recharge us, but it gave us the tools to continually top up that charge indefinitely. The course was free and donating at the end isn’t required. There isn’t even a weird uncomfortable request for donations leaving you feeling like a douche at the end. They spend more time encouraging you to come back and get more benefits than they do on trying to get you to donate. There’s no catch, no further commitment, no expectation of further involvement or obligation.

Vipassana has been a life saver for me. I had begun to think there was nothing out there that was truly altruistic, gave tangible results and could make an actual difference in my life. I can’t express to you how thankful I am to have found Vipassana and to also have discovered it with my partner. Finding this technique together has been so much easier to maintain than it would have been if only one of us had taken the course. We are able to discuss our experience and thoughts about it all and support each other in keeping up our daily meditation. It means a lot to our relationship to have been able to share the experience together.

Vipassana works well if everyone in the family practices it. The course encourages families and couples to do the courses together, even though they separate men, women and children. Children actually have their own special course separate of the adult course. At the end of the course I spoke to several participants who told me they had done the course many times before, some of them as children. It seems that with each time you take the course, you get something new out of it, no matter how far down the path of enlightenment you are.

Vipassana Meditation – Part One: How the course benefited me:

Six months ago in frustration, I posted on Facebook to all my friends, “Does anyone know of a retreat that teaches meditation without religion that isn’t an over-priced relaxation spa?” To my surprise and delight, two acquaintances responded, “Vipassana”. That was all it took. I started researching it immediately and soon had secured 2 spots on the Vipassana meditation course in Twenty-nine Palms, CA. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

My partner Rick and I completed the 10-day New Student course. For the first time in my years meditating and seeking some level of enlightenment, happiness and contentment, I can finally say I have found a practice that yields physical and mental results that last beyond the practice session itself. I’m truly amazed at how simple and powerful Vipassana meditation is and am recommending it to anyone and everyone that will humor my discourse on the subject. Let me tell you more…..

Vipassana Center, Twentynine Palms, CA
Vipassana Center, Twentynine Palms, CA

For myself, I have been drawn to meditation as a way to curb my fierce type A personality, filled with fire, anger, frustration and impatience. For my partner, he has been drawn to meditation to alleviate his chronic anxiety issues for which he takes a couple of different prescribed meds. In the past, various meditation practices have helped us to find clarity and peace of mind during the actual practice itself. This has been a welcomed break from the constant barrage of thoughts, emotions and psychosomatic symptoms that manifest from mental stress.

I don’t know what I expected to happen on the Vipassana course, but I’m delighted to tell you that both Rick and I experienced a level of lasting clarity, calmness and contentment through learning this practice. Our physicality has also reaped immense benefits from it. Rick hasn’t needed to take his prescribed meds since coming off them on the course. He’s also stopped biting his nails, which he has done for about 30 years incessantly. His mind is clearer than ever. I am so much calmer than before, so much so, that a stress hump between my shoulder blades has almost disappeared. We’re working more efficiently than before, with much more focus, and we are enjoying our free time with more presence, making every moment much more intense and vivid.

The course gives guidelines to practice after leaving the center, and we’re trying hard to incorporate the recommended hour in the morning and hour in the evening every day to maintain the benefits and progress even further with our practice.

We have both had huge revelations about various issues in our lives that manifested during our time at the center. According to the practice, these are called Sankharas and are deeply carved scars that cause aversion or attachment. These lead to unwanted emotions that cause pain and suffering. Through Vipassana practice, these issues come to light for each individual and one is able to subjectively deal with them. It seems that for Rick and I, our most prevalent issues surfaced incredibly fast and resolved themselves, lifting a weight from our shoulders. Through deeper and consistent practice, other sankharas continue to present themselves from the depths of our psyches. Clearing all one’s sankharas is part of the goal of the practice, since one cannot become enlightened if one still has aversions and attachments or cravings.

S.N.Goenka
S.N.Goenka

Vipassana new students HAVE to take a 10-day course to begin practicing. It’s like bootcamp, a crash course or as Goenka, the teacher calls it, “Vipassana Kindergarten”. One can only really get the benefits from immersion in this way. After you have done the 10-day course, you’re allowed to take 1 day, 2-day, or even 40-day courses if you wish. There are also meditation groups and workshops, but without the basic understanding you get from the 10-day course, it would be difficult to get any benefit from just these sessions alone.

I can only equate the experience to something like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. You’ve seen pictures, you’ve read the details about how vast it is, and you’ve watched footage of aircraft flying around its immense depths… but there’s nothing like walking up to the edge yourself and seeing it with your own eyes. I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking “Wow, I knew it was going to be big, but crap, I didn’t realize just how immense it would be now that I’m here looking at it.”

I’ve read many books on meditation, I’ve practiced under various masters and gurus who claim to have some level of enlightenment and wisdom to offer me. But I always felt that there was a level of mysticism involved in enlightenment that made it somewhat unattainable and magical. All of the tools that I was given to help me meditate became automated processes that I went through in hopes that somehow, one day, the light of wisdom would eventually pierce through the veil of emotions and thoughts that plagued my mind. With Vipassana, by the fifth day of the course, without any mysticism, only practical and tangible instructions, I started feeling incredibly in tune with my body and emotions. Deep issues started to surface. With help from my teacher and understanding of the practice I was able to work through and address them. I had many “oh wow” moments like this. Moments when everything suddenly seemed to make sense, and I finally thought to myself “So THIS is how it’s supposed to feel”. I finally understood through experience.

I also know now that this is why it is so important to commit fully to the course and the strict rules of which I will go into in Part 2 of my report. Without full commitment, you can’t experience that “Wow” moment where everything clicks and you finally understand the goal and the way to get there.

I highly recommend checking out the links I’ve provided in this post that give you more information about Vipassana and the location I went to. The organization has many venues where you can take the course, all over the world. Check it out for a location near you.

Crunch Salad with Pan-fried Steelhead Salmon & Asparagus

This is one of my favorite Pescatarian meals. I make variations on this meal frequently, using different salad ingredients, and different types of fish, with different spices or marinades. Rick is great at grilling fish, and I am the veggie wiz, so between us, we prepare and serve this meal in about 20-30 mins.

If you live in South Bay, CA area, I highly recommend a little restaurant in the Rolling Hills Plaza called Fish Bonz that makes an awesome,  reasonably priced version of this. More nationally, California Pizza Kitchen’s Roasted Veggie Salad with Sauteed Salmon is equally delicious.

Ingredients:

  • Kale
  • White Cabbage
  • Radicchio
  • Pea Sprouts
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Asparagus
  • Steelhead Salmon pieces
  • 1/2 tsp Turmeric
  • 1 tbsp Tandoori Masala Powder
  • 1/2 tbsp Garlic Powder
  • 1/2 tps Red Chilli Powder
  • 1/2 tps Ginger Powder

Prepare the Salad:

Finely chop the kale and radicchio. Then grate the cabbage. Toss with sunflower seeds and pea sprouts in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Cut asparagus and set aside for later.

Marinade & Fry the Fish:

Prepare a marinade by mixing a teaspoon of ground black pepper and salt with turmeric, tandoori masala, garlic, red chilli and ginger powders in amounts listed above. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and about 2  tablespoons of water. Blend until mixture is smooth. This will make enough marinade for about 3 portions of fish.

Chop the fish into rough pieces. This gets more marinade on the pieces, for more flavor. You can use right away, or leave in the fridge over night to get a really full flavor. If you eat dairy, you can replace water in this marinade with milk or yogurt to give a creamier marinade.

Heat a pan on medium and add olive oil. Pan fry fish until pieces are fully cooked. With pieces like this, you can easily test how well they are cooked by using the blunt edge of a spatula to push a piece apart. If it falls away easily, it is fully cooked. Small pieces will cook very fast, so don’t walk away from your pan. Over-cooked fish is rubbery, so a big faux pas in my house!

Sear the Asparagus:

Once the fish is cooked, use the oil left in the pan to sear the asparagus. The fish oil and marinade soak into the asparagus wonderfully and really finish off this meal.

Stir Fried Salad

One of my favorite meals that my mother used to make us growing up was stir fried cucumbers. You may find this strange, but salad actually tastes wonderful cooked! Here’s my spin on a Chinese style stir fried salad. The ingredients are mostly picked for their crunchiness, but if you want, you can add things like spinach to the mix. Anything you like really!

Ingredients:

  • 1 red onion
  • 1 cucumber or 2 baby cucumbers
  • 1 large tomato
  • 1 cup of snow peas
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive Oil
  • Fresh Basil

Instructions:

Cut all vegetables up into very small pieces/slices. The key to a good stir fry is cutting things up very small. This way, they cook very fast, leaving more flavor and crunchiness, and without over cooking the nutrition out of everything.

Heat oil. Saute chopped onion for a mintue before adding the rest of the vegetables to the mix. Stir fry for 2-3 minutes on high.

Add salt, pepper and fresh basil to taste.

Serve!

Fusion Asian Porridge

This recipe is a fusion between an Indian style Kitcheri and a Chinese style rice porridge, or “jok”. I love both dishes, and sometimes combine them to make the best of both.

Ingredients:

  • Cup of brown rice
  • Cup of Mung Dahl
  • Teaspoon of Turmeric
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Baby salad greens
  • 2 eggs (optional for non-vegans)
  • Sesame oil
  • Soy Sauce

Instructions:

Bring the rice and dahl to a boil in a large saucepan of water. Then let simmer for a couple of hours, keeping an eye on the mixture and topping it up with more water as it starts to thicken up. Don’t cover it completely, as it will over flow, but partially covering it will stop it steaming dry.

You can speed the process up by cooking it in a pressure cooker. It should take about 20-30 mins to make it this way.

Speed the process up either way by replacing the brown rice with white short-grain rice. But note that the brown rice provides more nutritional value, so is worth the wait if you have the time.

Add turmeric, salt and pepper as the mixture simmers.

In a frying pan, slowly saute the sunflower seeds in olive oil until golden brown, taking care to stir well so both sides of the seeds brown evenly. When browned, set aside to cool.

When the porridge is cooked, the rice should be broken down and the soup should be thick and milky. At this point, crack two eggs into the mixture and stir. If you’re vegan, just skip the egg part.

Once the egg is fully cooked, add lots of salad greens and remove from the heat. Fold the greens into the hot porridge allowing it to wilt gently. Don’t over cook it by leaving it on heat.

Serve the porridge hot, topping with sesame oil, sunflower seeds and soy sauce.

Enjoy!

The Trouble with Folic Acid

We’ve all been told to supplement with Folic Acid by a doctor, nutritionist or other health professional, especially if you’re female and trying to start a family. As a woman doing just that, my fertility specialist as well as my general practitioner both recommended I start supplementing. Both recommended Folic Acid as an 800mg per day supplement, in addition to fortified foods and natural sources.

However, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that Folic Acid isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So here’s the quick down low on what’s really going on, and why you probably should throw away those Folic Acid pills and multivitamins.

Folic Acid was first synthesized in 1943 and became mandatory in food fortification in 1998 in the USA, after being believed to prevent neural defects (NTDs) in newborns. It has since become a staple supplement for all women of child baring age providing support for red blood cell development, reducing levels of homocysteine in the blood, and supporting the nervous system. Instances of NTDs have indeed gone down as a result of all this Folic Acid making the rounds. Other signs of Folate deficiency are:

  • Anemia
  • Soreness/ulcers on the tongue
  • Skin pigment changes

However, when you ingest Folic Acid, it undergoes a process of reduction and methylation in the liver. Taking in too much of this supplement leaves unprocessed levels of it in your system that may cause harm. Studies from countries that do not fortify food with Folic Acid conclude a link to Folic Acid and numerous cancers, including prostate and colon cancer. Additionally, excess unprocessed Folic Acid in the system appears to mask vitamin B12 deficiency. In studies, combined B12 deficiency and Folic Acid overdosing has led to diagnosis of cognitive decline and anemia. Check out this article by Chris Kresser for more details:

The little known (but crucial) difference between folate and folic acid.

So what’s a girl to do? It turns out that Folic Acid is the synthetic version of Folate. Folate is the term for a group of water soluble b-vitamins otherwise known as B9. It is the natural tetrahydrofolate derivative of the supplement Folic Acid, and is found naturally occurring in food, unlike Folic Acid, which is an oxidised synthetic compound. Am I hammering that point home yet? Folate is naturally occurring and bio-available when ingested, Folic Acid is neither.

This article from Paleo for Women, claims that Folic acid cannot cross the placenta to the fetus, the way natural folate can. So a Folate supplement would benefit your unborn child too.

Natural Sources of Folate:

Romaine lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, turnips, cauliflower, beets, lentils, chickpeas, all types of animal liver, greens, parsley, okra, mushrooms, lima beans, papaya, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, raspberries, squash, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, avocado.

…and here’s a nice article on Foods high in Folate on healthline.com.

Solgar Folate
Solgar Folate

If you can’t get enough from your natural diet, you can still supplement with Folate. There are many brands making a Folate dietary supplement. My favorite is Solgar’s Folate 800 MCG (as Metafolin). I use this product as it is suitable for vegetarians. Here’s a link to get it on amazon.com .

Look for the terms “5-methyltetrahydrofolate” or “5-MTHF” on the bottle. Avoid labels that just read Folic Acid, and avoid multivitamins that contain Folic Acid too.

Water Fasting for Health – The down low.

As an ex-athlete, Personal Trainer, cancer survivor and Yoga fanatic, I encounter lots of comments and questions on the subject of fasting from friends and clients, and want to give you a little insight into my experience with this as an avid faster myself.

Why fast?:

Fasting has had controversial reviews over the years, mostly from Western thinking industries, as is the case with fitness professionals, whose goal it is to drive that metabolism every waking moment of the day, with small meals frequently to maximise your calorie burning potential and make sure your body doesn’t eat up that precious muscle tone you’ve worked so hard to get. Of course, these are all valid and accurate things to do, and I myself recommend doing all of it, most of the time.

But about twice a year, it’s good to reset that immune system and give your body a chance to flush out toxins, repair itself, produce new cells and start fresh. That’s where the fast comes in. New scientific studies are emerging reporting that fasting “kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection”. Check out this article from the British Telegraph on the findings.

Something fasting is NOT about, is weight loss. Weight loss inherently happens from a fast, but it shouldn’t be the reason you are fasting, and fasting should not be attempted if you are underweight, or fighting illness. Suffice to say, after you have fasted, it’s likely you’ll gain back every pound you lost in short order once your diet has been reinstated. Using fasting as a way of crash dieting is dangerous and foolhardy.

Fasting is linked with improvements in mental clarity, as well as boosting or resetting your immune system and reducing cell inflammation – a major factor in fighting things like cancer, hormonal issues and digestive concerns.

But what about my precious muscle tone you might ask? Aren’t I going to hit that caveman starvation level, rock bottom metabolism that everyone talks about? Isn’t my body going to shut down? Not to worry. The benefits of fasting are amazing. Although it is true that you’ll experience SOME muscle loss during a fast, the rate at which it happens is insanely slow, at 0.2kg per day after full Ketosis is reached (at around 3 days). You need to have some level of body reserves to be able to fast and endure muscle loss. If you’re too thin, a competitive athlete or body builder, a water fast might not be for you, and you should probably consider other options like a juice fast. Check out this article for more details.

Basically, for the minuscule amount of muscle tone you will lose in a short water fast, you’ll get so many more benefits. Water fasting 48hrs for women, and 72 hrs for men initiates Ketosis, a fuel burning system your body converts to in times of glucose shortage. Our brains and organs need glucose, usually stored in the blood, supplied by daily intakes of food to maintain our bodies. During a fast, the body switches to using Ketones as a fuel source instead. This happens already during high level workouts, and also during sleep in non-fasting individuals. It’s a naturally occurring process. It is recommended that you fast between 3-21 days for optimum results. Below 3 days, and your body won’t have reached Ketosis. After 3 days, every added day you fast allows your body to consume more dead cells and junk to convert to fuel, cleaning your body. Once you stop your fast, your body will create fresh white blood cells, resetting your immune system.

If you want to learn more about fasting, I recommend Dr. Fuhrman’s book, Fasting and Eating for Health, available on amazon, from which the second article above has also quoted from.

Before your fast:

Since everyone is different, your preparation and activities during a fast will vary, but here’s some tips from my own experience with it.

Choose a time to water fast when you won’t be under high stress, working a lot, under intense physical stress or subject to lots of social events. Your body’s response to fasting can include feeling weak, feeling exhilarated, having no energy, having lots of energy, sleeping better, having insomnia, finding mental clarity and needing to rest a lot. Until you’ve done it yourself, you won’t know what to expect. Apparently, if you are especially over weight, you experience increased levels of energy. I myself experienced weakness and lethargy most of the time during my first fast, but the second time I did it, I experienced clarity of mind and no feelings of hunger for 4 days. My body didn’t purge as expected either. I basically had a pretty uneventful time of it, and just worked, walked my dog and did Tai Chi throughout the fast with no problems.

Other side effects I’ve experienced are fat loss with improved muscle tone, decreased bloating, and lowered cell inflammation. I also believe that with my history of cancer, the resetting of my white blood cells is crucial to my longevity.

Prepare for fasting with fruit and veg
Prepare for fasting with fruit and veg

For my first fast, I chose to fast Friday-Sunday, to avoid social activities or stress. BY my second fast, I chose week days, so I could eat on the weekend. It’s largely psychological, so pick dates that you know are going to be easiest for you and your schedule.

Before fasting you may want to prepare a little. You can graduate into your fast by eating only fruit and vegetables for 1-2 days prior, or even just freshly prepared fruit/veg juices. But you don’t NEED to do this. I think it helps to eliminate at least meat/dairy a day or so before fasting, so your body isn’t so in shock when you drop to just water.

During your fast:

Definitely stay away from food related things. You’ll find yourself wanting to eat your face lotion if it smells nice.

Try to stay busy. Read, meditate, go for walks. Just don’t talk about food! There’s nothing worse than trying to fast if you live with other people who are not fasting. Your sense of smell becomes heightened and the smell of any food whatsoever becomes the best thing you’ve ever smelled. It becomes a moment by moment battle to stay on goal with the smell of delicious food wafting around hours after it has been cooked.

Don’t brush your teeth with toothpaste and don’t oil pull. While on a fast, don’t put anything in your mouth that will stimulate your digestive juices. Brush with water and floss with non-flavored products. This is probably the most unbearable part of fasting for me. My mouth feels horrid. For the first 2 days, it just feels dirty. It is reported that after 4-5 days, your body starts expelling toxins through your skin and mouth. You can experience boils and your tongue will go white with gunk that your body is eliminating. After a couple of days of this, it goes away, and you begin to feel fresher and very alert.

Don’t take a hot bath. I’ve experienced doing this myself, and there are reports of similar responses from others describing dizziness, blindness, palpitations, nausea and shortness of breath. The experience is all temporary, but not pleasant, so best to avoid.  If you do experience this, just lay down, take deep breathes and ride it out.

DRINK LOTS OF WATER. Your body will start to die if you don’t drink enough water! I can’t stress this enough. Water is needed to flush out the toxic waste your body is producing. You also need it just to survive. Sip water constantly throughout the day if you can. I like to heat up water and drink it as if it is tea. My partner enjoys ice water. It’s said room temperature is best, but do what feels good to keep you on track.

Fasting can make me feel a little nauseous at times. Drinking water can make it feel worse. Usually this means I’m doing a lot more cleaning in my body than usual, and I need to stick with it. If I’ve been getting any acid reflux and heart burn, the nauseousness seems worse during the fast. It does however eliminate the acid reflux and heart burn once I return to normal, and my bloating subsides.

Exercise if you feel like it. I exercise gently, as I am generally weak in the legs during a fast. I stick to walking and Tai Chi. My partner will run and walk. He tends to be someone who feels pretty awesome on a fast. You can aid ketosis during a water fast by exercising, so it is worth doing if you have the energy. I suggest you don’t over-do it until you can safely say you understand your own body’s response to fasting.

Listen to your body’s signs to end the fast. Despite how your energy levels feel, your body may tell you when it is time to stop. Let’s not mistake this with your mind’s lack of will to continue. Understand the difference in yourself. Don’t fight your body when it lets you know to end it.

After your fast:

On completing your fast, it is important to gently reintroduce your body to food. Remember, your usual fuel burning systems have converted. You need to give your body time to change them back.

Drink freshly squeezed orange juice
Drink freshly squeezed orange juice

On day 1, drink something like freshly squeezed orange juice to give yourself a good vitamin hit, and introduce your stomach to regular fuel again. Do this first, and wait several hours, continuing to drink lots of water. Then introduce other fruit and vegetable juices throughout the day. Listen to your body. You may be able to convert back to solids by early evening.

On day 2, you can return to solids. I recommend sticking to fruits, vegetables and decaffeinated teas. I enjoy baking a plain sweet potato to sooth my stomach as it gets back to work again. I also like plenty of miso soup, as it is thin and gentle on my stomach.

On day 3, you’re back normal….whatever normal is for you.

If you’re considering a permanent change to your diet, like converting to vegetarian or vegan, doing so after a fast can be a great time to do it. You’ve cleaned up your system and reduced your habitual cravings already, making it easier to stick to your new dietary goals.

If you failed to reach your fasting goals…..not to worry, there’s always another chance to try again in a few months. And the next time around, you’ll know more about yourself, so you’ll be better prepared.

Good luck and enjoy the experience.

 

Review – Art Naturals.

I decided to review Art Naturals for you today because I’m continually impressed with their products and am now using several of them. This company have not asked me to write this review. My blog isn’t anywhere near popular enough to warrant enlisting me for such a thing anyway. I’m writing this simply because good brands need recognition!

Art Naturals Argon Oil Organic Conditioner
Art Naturals Argon Oil Organic Conditioner

I first came across Art Naturals when looking around for hair conditioner with organic natural ingredients. I choose a different brand almost every time I shop because not many of the natural brands are actually effective conditioners. After trying Art Natural’s reasonably priced Organic Argon Oil Conditioner at $14.95 with Prime on amazon.com I was so impressed with the quality, that I started buying other Art Naturals products.

This conditioner is so potent and thick, that I watered it down when the bottle got half way empty, which has made it last a long time, with just as much conditioning impact. In fact, I recommend you do this, as it started getting difficult to push the conditioner out the bottle. I felt like a kid again, trying to hit the back of a glass Heinz Ketchup bottle, patiently waiting for the contents to eventually make its to the neck and onto my plate….but this conditioner is even more dense and thick.

Art Naturals Vit C Serum
Art Naturals Vit C Serum

After loving the conditioner, I ordered some Vitamin C serum, to use under my face lotion. I’ve been using an expensive spa brand at $60 a vile. The serum does wonders for my skin texture and quality, but at $60 a vile, wasn’t so wonderful on my bank account. So Art Naturals to the rescue! Art Naturals Vit C Age Defying Serum retails on amazon.com for $10.95 with Prime shipping. It’s the same size as the $60 brand I’ve been buying, and also contains the same additional ingredients of Amino Acids, Hyaluronic Acid, Vit E and Ferulic Acid. The serum feels very similar to it’s spa equivalent and has been giving me the same results. Once again, I was really impressed at the quality for the price point.

Art Naturals Oils
Art Naturals Oils

But today, I decided to write this review because my Art Naturals Essential Oils pack arrived. I ordered the Art Naturals 3-Piece Lavender Oil Set with 10ml Lavender Oil Bottle and 10ml Signature Zen Bottle, 4 fl. oz selling at $14.95 with Prime, a little cheaper than it costs on Art Natural’s own website at $18.00 with free shipping, though this is still a reasonable price. I bought this to use on a lavender/flax seed eye pillow to help me sleep and repel spiders and other bugs while I’m sleeping. I don’t use artificial chemicals and sprays for insect repellent and I don’t believe in taking prescription drugs to aid sleep. Oils are my go-to option for many mild symptoms and ailments, like congestion, aches and stress, as well as insomnia. Recently I’ve been using DoTerra Oils. This brand is exceptional, with quality products and a huge range of proprietary blends. But their prices are very high. They claim incredibly high standards of oil, and high potency, so this is their reason for high prices. Although their products are wonderful, I feel their prices are too high to make their value worth while for most people’s budget.

Art Naturals packaging
Art Naturals packaging

So, following the success of my Vit C Serum, I decided to give Art Natural’s Oils a try. My package arrived in the usual amazon packaging. When I opened the shipping box, this little box was inside. This beautifully designed, high quality, recycled box. I was pleasantly surprised and couldn’t wait to open it.

When I looked inside, I was delighted at the attention to making sure my oils arrived intact and in perfect condition. The bottles were packed in custom formed foam, including the pipette. I’ve snapped these images to quickly show you how well the viles were packed.

Art Naturals packaging inside
Art Naturals packaging inside

Usually oils in this price range arrive in a small, flimsy, cardboard box that is exactly the same size as the bottles themselves, offering little cushioning. These are usually wrapped in a piece of bubble wrap or a padded envelope, but never arrive so carefully and beautifully presented. It was a touch I couldn’t help but be impressed with, as a designer.

I immediately tried the Signature Zen oil and was treated to a wonderfully refreshing blend of Citrus, Rosemary and Lavender. The Lavender Oil on it’s own also smelled fantastic and is perfect for using on my eye pillow. Since this oil came in such a large bottle, I’m also able to indulge with it and use it in an oil burner for extra relaxation mode.

Art Natural’s website sells their entire range of products and claims that they’re 100% organic and made in USA. They have an ambassador program and a money back guarantee. Definitely a brand worth checking out!