While eyeing a piece of parsley lying next to my extremely healthy “Bento Box” (Japanese-style lunchbox) in Shin-Matsuda, Japan, recently, I remembered that old adage: “the parsley is the healthiest thing on your plate.” Considering all the lovely little portions of rice, miso soup, seaweed, green salad laced with cucumbers and carrots, and fish in the form of shrimp, salmon, and trout in front of me, I thought, “Well, not right now it isn’t.” Is the parsley the healthiest thing on your plate right now? Probably. Especially if it is a plate of fish and chips or a burger and fries. By now we know that green is good. Green is probably the best for us in the vegetable world, next to orange and yellow foods like squash.
In my early twenties, I received a four-year education in macrobiotics while managing a little whole-foods grocery store and bookstore with a macrobiotic bent. Macrobiotics is a wholefoods approach to eating that is heavy on vegetables, rice, beans, and fish. It was developed by Michio Kushi – a Japanese educator who introduced macrobiotics to the US in the 1950s, laying the foundation for the wholefoods industry. While working at the store, I learned about vegetables I’d never seen before: kabocha squash, burdock root, daikon radish, ginger root, kale. Condiments included pickled ginger, umeboshi plums, wasabi, shoyu, tamari, and gomashio. I can identify various seaweeds, from kombu to hijiki, nori to dulse. I have to credit my Canadian mother on the “dulse-awareness” I had from early childhood, since she was from Nova Scotia where they ate bags of dulse like some Americans eat bags of chips. (Canadians also eat French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds. Hopefully, there is a sprig of parsley on that plate.)
Macrobiotics is all about balance, heeding the Yin and the Yang, recognizing acidic foods versus alkaline foods, drinking only purified, alkaline water around the 8 or 9 pH-range. I was 22 years old when I ingested this information and this type of food. It was at this same time of life that I took my first yoga class while on a four-month trip to New Zealand, where my then-husband and I worked on organic farms. More education was had on organic food, the propagation of kiwi trees, the drying of flowers for retail sale, planting garlic, and learning about various herbs. I learned to knit left-handed from a German woman we stayed with, whose husband would till their farmland with a couple of Clydesdales. We spent two weeks working at a holistic fasting retreat center. My mental clarity felt clear and sharp. But somehow, despite the fact that we hitchhiked everywhere and walked everywhere else, I gained ten pounds in those four months. I blame the fish and chips we gorged on between farm-stays. (Zero parsley on the plate.)
The parsley that is nestled as garnish in the healthy bento box of yoga is inner peace. Inner peace is the nut, the nugget, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the winning lottery ticket, the top of the mountain. Yoga gives us lovely little portions on the plate – flexibility, strength, confidence, ease-of-being, breath-awareness, mental clarity. A peaceful mental state is one of the grandest blessings of life. It is our natural birthright. As babies we come into the world with it, but we somehow lose the condition along the way to adulthood. How do we get it back? How do we reclaim a mind that is calm, strong, clear, and peaceful? Meditation. How can we sit comfortably still long enough to get proficient at meditation? Yoga in the form of asana – the postures.
A fantastic question to ask yourself when trying to make a decision about anything is “will doing this thing disturb my inner peace?” If the answer is “yes,” then don’t do it. Of course, this is easier said than done. The practice then becomes listening to the answer you receive and acting accordingly. Consider how much happier we might be if we filtered our life decisions through this question of “will it disturb my inner peace?” This job, this relationship, this trip, this home, this purchase, this whatever-it-is. Often, the answer comes slowly, so we have to wait it out. That’s good news – because then we must practice patience. In my experience, the answer comes rather quickly as long as the question is asked with intent.
It is a far-reaching shift to allow our mental health to be one of if not the most important thing in our lives when it comes to health and happiness. I am of the “Gen-X” generation, a generation so radical that we didn’t have a name – just a letter. Mental health wasn’t talked about when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. Any kind of mental illness that people had usually didn’t have any treatment beyond seeing the psychiatrist or psychologist – which was not a trendy or readily accepted practice at that time, so they had to try to cope with it themselves. Medications weren’t as delicate or as effective back then. For instance, the use of Ritalin and Adderallweren’t used widely until the 2010s. Unless a mental illness or condition presented with a physical pairing like convulsions, numbness in a limb or some type of psychotic episode, we used television, hard-won teen lines, sex, drugs and alcohol to deal with these issues.
Mental health, thankfully, is much more accepted and dealt with now. It's out in the open. We can feel more comfortable than we used to not only reaching out to a therapist for help, but also feeling comfortable talking about that therapy experience with friends. I am a big advocate for educating people through the sharing of our own experiences - it is so important that we remain actively open and honest with others because it is mutually beneficial to do so. Meditation is so much more than an adjunct therapy for mental health. With meditation practice comes less reactivity. With less reactivity comes less stress. Meditation keeps us in tune with ourselves, the present moment, and our earthly "reality." It is also a practice we can turn to in crisis. Like the healthy parsley on your plate, you have meditation there to consume at any time as a therapeutic advocate in your life. With just a closing of the eyes and a bringing of stillness to the body, you are on your way to better mental health.