I’ve lived in China for 18 years, but I didn’t start taking my health seriously until 2008, just after the Olympics. This had nothing to do with the Olympics, though, and everything to do with the fact that I suddenly found myself in my mid-30s, choked by the Beijing smog, and staring reality hard in the face.
Fortunately at that time I had a good friend – Dangerous Dave – who was into mountain biking. He used to go to Xiangshan almost every weekend. One time he invited me along. ”Why not?” I had an old beat Giant mountain bike, and so one Saturday in mid-July we rode to Xiangshan from Dongzhimen. I made it that far. Halfway up the mountain I was pushing my bike and wanting to die.
“Why do people do this to themselves?” I asked Dave at the Passby Cafe in Nanluoguxiang after the ride was over when I was at a point of exhaustion I didn’t even know existed. I don’t remember his answer. But the next weekend I went out again, by myself this time. Eventually I started to get my legs under me. Fast forward to summer 2015 and I am finishing the famously long, arduous climb of Col du Tourmalet, one of the most celebrated Pyrenees climbs of the Tour de France. This was my third major climb in three days. 问题不大. Since 2008, I’ve done an Olympic distance triathalon and four half-marathons, the last three under 2 hours. I’m in pretty good shape.
But that was just the outside. It was only in 2014 that I began the next phase of my wellbeing journey, that of the mind. And I owe a lot of that to my previous company, Octave, and the new things I was exposed to there.
Like a lot of people, I approached the whole mindfulness / mind-body / qi / prana thing with some skepticism. One of the first things I encountered at Octave was the importance of breathing. We had a physio on staff – a German guy – who explained the mechanics of breathing and led us through a few breathing exercises. That’s where you deliberately inflate different parts of your lungs. The oxygen you bring in through breathing fires the trillions of cellular powerhouses which make life possible. Shallow breathing means less oxygen which means you are slowly starving your body.
But that’s not all. Deep breaths drawn into the abdomen have an immediate calming effect. The breath, I finally figured out, is the lever that unites mind and body. It’s not magic. There’s science here. Breathing is an automatic function – you don’t have to think about breathing in order to do it. But you CAN think about breathing in order to do it. It’s the place where you can insert yourself in the homeostatic process of your body. It gives you some tiny semblance of control and control brings a sense of peace.
I have since come to the tentative conclusion that most negative energy – depression, pessimism, anger, suicide – stems from a lack of control. And I don’t mean stuff like being low man on the totem pole at the office, I mean control over yourself. And when I say control over yourself, I don’t mean total mystic mastery of the mind, I mean ANY control at all. That is, I believe, where humans sit right now – pawns in chess game that takes place pretty much entirely inside themselves, though the rules probably did not entirely originate there. We make decisions, yes, but are they really decisions?
After breathing I tried yoga. I always knew I would, but figured only “when I got old.” Fortunately Octave has had some really great yoga masters. I was really lucky to have a session with Alvaro Esteban a few months after joining. It was a yin yoga session, a much different type of yoga than your hathas and ashtangas. Yin yoga is all about holding poses for long periods of time – deep stretching, basically, that’s aimed at the fascia, or the connective tissue. Wow. I was hooked.
The bath of chemicals released from the fascia during the practice creates a euphoric relaxation that I had never experienced even after a long bike ride on a beautiful day. I have been doing it pretty much once or twice a week ever since. My hips, my quads, my knees are much more loose and flexible now. And of course putting yourself in these kinds of poses for extended periods of time is another way to learn control. I doubt I would have ever discovered yin yoga without Octave.
Once I started to see that I was more in control of my life than I ever had been before, I began to make some changes. First, I cut back on carbohydrates. I ate more, smaller meals. And I try to eat dinner earlier – around 5pm – to give my body time to digest. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, just ramp up the energy levels. Time and the energy to spend it productively are the only two real resources anyone ever has in this world. Simply digesting food diverts large quantities of energy away from other activities.
I’m not totally there yet. Booze is still the major barrier. I do so enjoy a happy hour beer or three, especially on a pleasant summer evening. Cutting out booze would almost certainly boost my energy levels way up. But then it’s such a personal pleasure. Again, it comes back to control. “Today, yes, a few beers. The next two days, no.” This level of self control – which does’t even seem to be very profound – is still very difficult to achieve for most people.
And I’m nowhere near where I want to be in controlling the mobile phone addiction (yes, I firmly believe it is nothing less than an addiction). Even though it’s central to my work, I waste way too much time on it. That’s a fact.
One area where I have made some important strides is in daily schedule. I have succeeded in almost completely re-orienting my life from after-work to a before-work. In other words, I’ve become what I never ever thought I would be: a morning person.
It all started January 1st this year. On that day, the first day of the New Year, instead of staying up late for a New Year’s Eve party, I actually got up really early – like 5am – seeing the last dregs of the party night, watching the Shanghai streets stir to life and witnessing the sun rise over the Bund. That was pretty magical. And ever since then I shifted my personal schedule to get up really early every day (like 5:30am) and then go to bed whenever I feel tired at night (usually like 10pm). That gives me 2 full hours of the day when my mind is clear, my energy levels are high and the environment is quiet with minimal distractions. That’s when I find myself at my creative best. The hours after work? Forget it, work is so exhausting – who has energy to do anything at night except eat, maybe watch a movie, sleep?
And then this year I started getting into mindfulness. I had heard a lot about it and what it can do, but I had never given it a proper try. I finally did having sessions with three of Octave’s mindfulness coaches – Arunima Sharma, George Hu, and Olivia Xiao. The stuff works. It’s not an answer to all your problems and I don’t think I would rely on it to cure colds or cancer, but a half hour doing a short mindfulness journey is all it takes to start feeling different. And isn’t that the whole point? To feel different, to be different, to open up, to shift, to grow, to find out what your destiny holds, and ultimately to unlock the possibilities you have inside you.
Mindfulness is just a door. You still have to walk through it.
And then finally I was very fortunate to try meditation at Octave with Tara Herron, one of the most experienced meditation guides in Shanghai. It was from her that I realized that yoga as a practice was initially developed as a way for people to prepare their bodies for the rigor of meditation. It was from her that I learned that each time you meditate, it’s the first time. It was from her that I learned the meditative tradition is one of the world’s truly great intangible cultural heritages.
I also learned the importance of closure, of closing the practice. There’s a bit of mumbo-jumbo about grounding the vibrational energy which meditation (or yoga or mindfulness or any intense activity) exposes. But even more importantly, it’s about gratitude. All of the stuff we learn and try and benefit from came from somewhere and someone – many someones. Closing the practice with a small gesture of prayer is acknowledgement of their effort and struggle over many millennia of human existence. Ultimately it’s validation of the fact that you are not alone in any of this.
But even the mind part is just a step on the ladder. In the end, for me, genuine wellbeing is nothing more than long-term creative engagement with the world. Take in what’s out there, give back your opinion of it. Rinse repeat. People who try to go beyond that into some realm where even creativity is too base a pursuit in my opinion are dangerous.
Creative output is your legacy. It doesn’t have to become part of the canon, it just has to be honest. That’s enough. All that other stuff is just luck.
My Final 5 Health Tips
1. Learn to breathe – can’t overestimate how important it is
2. Always wear comfortable shoes – it’s amazing how so many people simply don’t
3. Try mindfulness / meditation – for real, you owe it to yourself
4. Yin yoga – the bomb
5. Be creative – paint, write, draw, DJ, do stand up comedy. Aside from loving and being loved, what else is there a rich, meaningful, rewarding life?