SINGAPORE (May 22): Never has there been a time when mind, body and soul is in need of so much care and attention. Still, wellness resorts around the world have not welcomed a single guest for months now as the Covid-19 pandemic rages. One such place is the Sangha Retreat in Shanghai, a fully immersive health and wellness haven that taps into western and eastern methods as well as technology to treat its guests. The retreat is also part of the Octave Institute that designs wellness programmes to help guests find peace and harmony.
There is no denying it, our mental health has been challenged when the world went into shutdown with travels cancelled and ‘stay home’ became the mantra. Still, Options reached out to get some sense of what we need to do to make sense of the chaos around us. The retreat’s life coach Grace Zhu, nutritionist Gaby Luo and head of Ayurveda and Yogic Science Dr Dhanraj G Shetty gives us the answers.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND YOGA
Ayurveda is the science of life and is considered as being simultaneously a science and a philosophy, dealing with all aspects of our well being be it physical, mental, emotional, social, environmental and spiritual. It is a health system based on harmony with nature and strongly advocates healthy lifestyle for promotion of health and prevention of diseases.
Dr Dhanraj G. Shetty (pictured, left) maintains that health is not something to be attained but a totally different way of living. He says that the ancient Indian wisdom has many meaningful words for health and one such word in Sanskrit is Swastha, where “Swa” means health and “-stha’ means to stabilise or establish, giving the word the definition that stabilising within ones’ self is health.
Dhanraj comes with 25 years of clinical experience in Ayurveda medicine. For over six years, he worked as Chief Ayurveda Consultant and Iyengar yoga instructor at Kare Ayurveda and Yoga Retreat in Pune, India. He was handling various medical conditions through natural methods of Ayurveda treatments, massages, herbal medicine, detoxification, diet and yoga therapy. He was also instrumental in designing and implementing one-month courses in Ayurveda and Yoga.
Our minds are constantly bombarded with news about the pandemic. How do we bring stillness in this difficult time?
The problem is not about the pandemic but about constantly updating ourselves or being bombarded on the negative side of the pandemic. I think it is high time that we start looking at the positive side of this pandemic. For example, hasn’t it united the world like never before? It has questioned our erratic lifestyle, our boundaries, our power and our ego. Life goes on, so why not look at the positive side of it?
One cannot bring calmness and stillness because they are fruits of a loving labour, they just bloom on their own. At this point in time, we need to prepare or nurture an environment that can bear us these fruits of calmness and stillness. Please remember, what we reap is what we nurture. So now, let us all nurture our beautiful nature — both internal and external.
Do you see mental illness being one of the byproduct behaviours caused by Covid-19?
People have lost themselves, Covid-19 or not. We are digging our own graves as we insatiably seek wealth and power. Sanskrit has a beautiful word for health, it is called Swastha.
How should we divide our time as we work from home? What is a good timetable to follow?
If you love what you do, it does not matter whether it is work, home or work from home or timetable or no timetable. Love what you do — be it work, family, home or any menial routine and you will notice that all these questions will dissolve on its own.
Do you recommend any breathing exercises we can do while we are stuck at home?
Breathing is a bridge between the body and mind and there are plenty of such exercises in Yoga like ABC (always breathe consciously) and sectional breathing. These are very refined practices and must be learnt before practicing and if one has learnt yogic breathwork, this time should be taken as an opportunity to practice.
Others can spend a few minutes daily to consciously breathe deeply. For example, sit in any comfortable position, keep your spine straight, close your eyes and consciously inhale as deeply as possible and exhale as slowly as possible. Initially, one can do it for a couple of minutes or so and then gradually increase the duration. Do it at least a few times in a day.
More than the breathing practices, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to understand oneself and change for the better. Just try sitting silently doing nothing for one hour or so; if you cannot do this for a full hour, perhaps try at least for 30 minutes. Let thoughts come, notice how rapid and random they are. At the end, write down all the thoughts that you can recollect and later read them, you will realise how crazy they are. If we want to change, we have to understand the madness of our thoughts. Just sitting, doing nothing or simply being is more valuable than any activity.
Can you recommend some yoga poses we can do to still the mind before bedtime?
If you are looking at calming down the mind before bedtime, then I would not suggest any postures. My preference would be to do some special breathing techniques or a simple meditation. Most importantly, just before sleeping, be grateful for everything in life — the good and the bad.
EATING RIGHT, STAYNG HEALTHY
Nutritionist Gaby Luo (pictured above) recommends we eat five to seven servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits a day. She says that while multi-coloured vegetables and fruits rich in vitamins are important, physical activities and sun exposure are also good to activate our immunity. Above all, Luo believes that a nutrient-complete diet is the only key to a better immune system. Luo is a registered dietitian in Australia and China. She obtained her master’s degree in food science from the University of New South Wales and a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Sydney.
Luo is also qualified food safety and quality inspector, compounded with her technical knowledge of food science which cut across her expertise in human nutrition. Before joining Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute, she spent six years working in the Australian food and nutrition industry.
With work from home becoming the new normal, we tend to reach out for junk food. How do we stop this?
People tend to eat junk food mainly because they feel not fully satisfied or simply bored, very rarely is eating junk food the real need of your body and mind. Making your three main meals satisfying is the keystone of your daily food intake. My personal experience is to eat plenty of nutrient-dense vegetables during main meal occasions (of course, also consume other types of foods), and to have some low-salt clear soup until I am 100% full. Then normally I will not have any cravings for snack for the following four hours, before the next main meal comes.
What essential foods should be in our refrigerators to help us cope with the situation?
Starchy and root vegetables. In some extreme cases, energy and water-soluble vitamins are the first substances we lose, and therefore, starchy and root vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, yam, taro, squash, carrot, onion radish, unlike the leafy vegetables, they can be safely stored in the fridge for a very long time. They contain the key water-soluble nutrients and certainly, a good amount of calories as well.
What is a simple yet nutritious salad we can make at home?
I recommend a chickpea and roasted pumpkin salad, which is very easy to make, nutritious and importantly all the ingredients are easy to buy and safe to store in this special situation. The main ingredients are chickpea, roasted pumpkin, celery and red capsicum. This colourful salad is a great source of most of the nutrients you need for your immunity with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and sesame oil dressing to taste.
Physical activities might not be ideal now as most public parks and beaches are closed. What can we do as an alternative?
There are many indoor physical activities we can do at home. No matter what kind of exercise you choose to practice, remember the two key purposes:
1. To improve your cardiovascular health, so to reach at 70% of your maximum heart rate.
2. To eI personally recommend yoga and indoor aerobics for exercise, and Qigong practice for restoration.
How do you stay active and eat the right foods at this time?
I follow a 16:8 intermittent fasting routine during this time. But it does not mean that I am on a diet. I simply skip the normal light breakfast, instead, I have a well-structured day and very fulfilling brunch at around 10am, and then a nutritious dinner before 6pm. I eat about 1,600 calories per day which satiates my energy needs, and this dietary pattern allows me to keep a constant body weight during these few months at home. Given that I have almost no outdoor activities and eat a lot of grains and starchy vegetables that I normally try to minimise, I think it is a good pattern for keeping me robust.
YOUR MENTAL STATE
To take control of our lives, life coach Grace Zhu (pictured above) recommends we practice the “REM” strategy. “R” stands for “regular”, meaning we should maintain a regular schedule to give our minds a sense of certainty. “E’ stands for ‘entertainment’, which encourages us to watch movies, listen to music and “travel from home”, which asks us to close our eyes and visualise ourselves in our favourite location by recalling all the sensory perceptions of the place and immerse ourselves in it. Finally, “M” stands for “meaningful”, which calls for us to do something meaningful every day, such as cooking, reading a new book or acquiring a new skill in order to give us a sense of achievement.
Zhu is a National Consultant Psychologist Grade 2, a registered hypnotherapist and psychotherapist. At Sangha, she offers life coaching, psychological consultations, short and long term as well as open-ended counselling, psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, psychodynamic therapy, object relations therapy and appreciative inquiry coaching.
She specialises in working with clients experiencing emotional, behavioural and relationship issues, including anxiety, relationship issues, parenting issues, work stress, traumatic and negative childhood experiences, sleep problems, bereavement, self-growth, identity and existent issues.
What is the REM strategy based on?
It is based on my psychological understanding on what the human mind needs. There are multiple theory systems regarding this in the psychological field, from the classic Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the more recent Anthony Robbins’ Six Human Needs.
We know that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that we need to satisfy those basic needs. Otherwise, we will feel anxious. Certain needs in the hierarchy are more primitive than the others. For example, physical and safety needs are more basic than social and ego needs. The top two needs of the Six Human Needs are certainty and variety , which are particularly difficult to be satisfied in a time like this. The strategy that I called “REM” is specifically prepared for this. “Regular” (R) is for the need of certainty, “Entertainment” (E) is for the need of variety and “Meaningful” (M) is for the need of growth, self-esteem, and self-actualisation.
How does one practice REM while being mindful of the pandemic?
The need for certainty seems to be a luxury instead of a basic need at times such as this. We don’t know when the pandemic will be over, whether we or anyone we love will be infected, or how it will influence our life and career after it’s over. A lot of uncertainties, stress, or even chaos is present. Thus, maintaining a regular daily routine is critical, for it will not only benefit our health, but also give us a sense of control and let us feel safe at this particular period of time. Meaningfulness is crucial at any period of time. During self-quarantine, most likely you can no longer do the things that you value or give you a sense of achievement. It seems every day we just eat, sleep and scroll through our phones. Under these circumstances, we tend to feel emptiness or even depressed. Therefore, we should try to do something meaningful every day. It can be studying, cooking, reading a new book, acquiring a new skill or even organising your sock drawer. Anything, as long as it gives you a sense of achievement. It is best to set a series of small goals for yourself and fulfil these every day. It will let you feel good about yourself.
Share with us your very own REM practice. For example, what do you listen to or watch when it comes to entertainment?
Every day I get up no later than 8am to prepare breakfast, because my husband will be hungry by then. I also ask my daughter to be up before 9am on weekends because it’s good for her circadian rhythm. Lunch is served at 12pm each day, dinner at 6pm, bedtime at 10.30pm. Years of experience from my family led me to believe that a regular family routine is the most important thing for the good health and academic achievement of children. While I will take a couple of hours to read or study both in the morning and in the afternoon, plus one hour of meditation after lunch, I will take the rest of the day for entertainment, including preparing meals, baking cakes or watching TV (such as Criminal Minds, Mentalist, and The Big Bang Theory). Time in the evening is almost always used for the family to gather and watch TV.
What have you learned about yourself since the pandemic started?
A few interesting self-awareness moments. One of them was that the things I didn’t do before was because I didn’t want to do them instead of not having time to do them. I thought at first that staying at home all these days, I could finally have enough time to clean the kitchen, mop the floor, and rearrange my clothes. Then one day, I realised that two months had passed and I didn’t do any of these! I was amazed by this finding and, surprisingly, didn’t feel guilty about it. I accepted that I am this kind of person, less organised. The good thing of being aware of that is that I will no longer blame myself or my busy career for not doing those in the future.
What made you become a life coach?
As a surgeon who went through eight years of medical school and a researcher with years of therapeutic antibody development, I thought I was well-equipped to help people. But 12 years ago, I was a volunteer facing a group of orphans from a large earthquake — I found myself completely useless. Sitting with the kids, I did not dare say a word as I was worried what I said might further traumatise them. Since then, I switched my field to psychology and coaching. More and more I believe that a healthy and happy person should be well-balanced in body, mind and spirit, so I have devoted myself to promoting holistic wellness. That was why I joined Sangha Retreat three years ago, which has the perfect ideology for me.