Sunday, November 16, 2008

An island in the ocean

“Why do you do yoga all the time? You want to live to be 150, isn’t it? Why? What would you do at 150… all alone while your friends, your loved ones, perhaps even your children and grand children have all gone? Not worth it!” Thus spake Kakoo (uncle) – let’s call him Dr Kakoo…

Dr Kakoo happens to be my favourite uncle in the neighbourhood and he’s seen me grow from the toddler who chased after a butterfly (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with being gay; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Sir David Attenborough and Steve Irwin do pretty much the same thing on TV) into a professional gadfly. And ever since the time he suggested I might want to reconsider my decision of running away and joining the circus as a four-year-old, I’ve always found his advice timely and pertinent.

But this time, I begged to differ...

I was sitting in his living room, following up on an after dinner chat, while a replica of the Mona Lisa stared down at us from luminous white walls. He insisted that life was worth living only till about 80 (Kakoo’s in his 70s) or so and beyond that, it is but a listless wait for the end to come. And since reaching that limit, going by current gerontological standards, was a more likely statistical possibility than not amongst middle-class Indians, why bother with the mind-numbing stress of a workout for a few more years of life?

But that wasn’t all. Dr Kakoo had seen one of his aunts, a lovely loving lady, a kind pious soul, live long into her 90s. And he had seen the loneliness of her last decade which was spent mourning the loss of many who ought to have waited for her, but couldn’t… Whenever I met her, I was touched by the warmth and affection that seemed to cascade from her being, but what struck me most was the aura of quiet fortitude that seemed to envelop her. And in that sense Dr Kakoo is right. Longevity can be as much of a curse, as it is a boon. “ I don’t want to see what my aunt had to…”, he said, “And I don’t want to become a disfigured and worthless lump that is kept alive as a relic (a dynamic and successful intellectual, Kakoo has too much pride to allow himself to be reduced to that). I wish we could invent a tablet which once ingested, will ensure good health for the next decade or two and then on a random preset date (unknown to the individual), burst while asleep and euthanise us painlessly…”

‘You don’t need a tablet and you don’t need a preset date,’ I said. ‘Kakoo, don’t you think one could possibly be happy and healthy well into one’s ninth and tenth decade too? All the stuff I do is not so that I may live long, but so that no matter how long I live, I live healthy…’ Kakoo seemed willing to consider, and finding the iron hot, I told him what Kenshin, a Japanese tourist I’d met last year in Bharatpur, told me about a magical island between

Japan and China where he’d spent his early years – an island called Okinawa. In the north of this island, on the beach stands a monument that declares to the four winds and the waves the ethos of its people – “At 70, we are mere children and still young at 80; if at 90, the ancestors beckon heavenwards, ask them to wait… for we might consider proceeding only after 100” – an ethos that every Okinawan strives to emulate, for the people here live longer, healthier lives than anywhere on earth. Their average life expectancy is well into the 80s (while India’s hovers around 60 and the United States’ in the mid 70s). More significantly, Okinawans suffer greatly reduced incidences of cancer and coronary heart disease. What fascinated me was Kenshin’s account of a number of nonagenarians and centenarians, both men and woman, who not only live healthy, but in fact, active and vigorous lives… gardening, hiking, swimming and fishing…

I got back home and did some research and here’s what I found out about the Okinawans and their template for living a long, healthy and fulfilling life… here’s what I found out… Diet: A Penguin publication calls the Okinawan diet “the healthiest diet” in the world. They have a low calorie diet that is high in vegetable and fruit content (almost 10 daily servings) high in whole grains, with a generous sprinkling of soy and fish protein, legumes and omega-3 foods (you could get your daily dose from cod-liver oil tablets at the pharmacist’s or if you’re a vegan, wait till you can find some supplements made from sea algae (the primary omega-3 source). And they drink lots of green tea and jasmine tea. Just as importantly, they avoid red meat, junk food, egg yolks, alcohol, tobacco and sweets like the plague.

Exercise: Almost every Okinawan follows an exercise regimen like tai chi or yoga, or at least a regulated physical activity, and in fact becomes more regular and consistent as he grows older.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their belief in ikigai – ‘a sense of purpose that makes one’s life worth living’, and supportive family groups. This sense of purpose and responsibility seems to give them a reason to go on living while many of their counterparts in other latitudes have lost theirs…

And it’s not just the Okinawans, (I had written about the Abkazhians in a previous column), for there are many such communities around the world whose shared values have contributed towards healthier, long-lived communities and families and not just individuals.

So eat right Kakoo; don’t be lazy and please exercise; and share this lifestyle with friends and family and stop worrying about being infirm or lonely… it’s bound to work. Just ask the Okinawans…..

the slip stream

Living it up… and out!

The 2007/2008 Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program lists Iceland at the top. It would have been funny, had it not been so tragic, that this top-ranking ‘happy’ country was overnight declared bankrupt in the wake of the recent recession, leaving Icelanders at the mercy of the IMF. However, it couldn’t turn around another fact, not overnight, that they have the longest living people on earth. The explanation partly lies in the Index itself, for the HDI picks off human development measures largely in terms of life expectancy and adult literacy levels, and that is still theirs to cherish.

Owing to the social structure, lifestyle and diet of the Scandinavian countries and Japan (Okinawa is a part of the Japanese archipelago), these countries share the longevity credits with Iceland. Proximity to the sea and availability of sea food replete with nutritious fatty acids and proteins are believed to help. Besides, cold climates are known to be physically salubrious than the hot or humid climes. Close family ties, as in Japan, or remarkably reduced hang-ups about marriage and ‘moving-on’, as in Iceland could be another. After all, the world’s first elected female president was a divorced, single-mother Icelander!


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