Tag Archives: lifestyle

Indian Couples Plan Their Own Big Fat Indian Wedding

Indians all over the globe are binge-watching the new Netflix series, The Big Day. The series focuses on big fat Indian weddings in exotic locales and I could not get enough! The Valentine‘s day launch was on point to woo the romantic notions of thousands of couples who put their own wedding plans on hold because of the pandemic.

Traditionally, marriage entailed matching horoscopes, a pinch of haldi, kumkum, chandan, coconut, dates, seven steps in front of the fire, a mangal sutra, and good luck. Over time and much thanks to Bollywood, weddings are a $50 billion industry in India. Indians love big weddings. Even some Americans desire to be married in the Indian way because Indian weddings are colorful, extravagant, and over the top.

When I was getting married, weddings used to be a family affair and the festivities revolved around setting a budget. The bride’s trousseau (sarees, jewelry, home goods) was collected from the day she was born. Once the wedding date was set, the house buzzed with decisions about the invitation card, venue, light display, music, marching band, caterers, and gifts for the groom and his family. No wedding planner was hired. Friends and relatives chipped in to prepare for the wedding. The bride and groom were not involved in deciding anything once they said yes. Everything was decided for them. They spent their days floating on clouds and fantasizing about their lives together.

I got married in the Pink City of Jaipur. Rajasthan’s havelis and mahals added to the charm. Colorful attires, music, and delicious cuisine set the mood. I wore a red and gold tissue saree I bought from Kala Niketan. I did my own makeup. My mother’s Navaratana necklace adorned my neck for good luck. My dad blew his budget because the groom’s family invited about three hundred people last minute. But he dealt with it, without flinching an eye. 

The Big Day, produced by Conde Nast India, is about avant-garde millennial Indian couples and displays the megabucks put into the Indian wedding industry. This gives us an escape out of our surreal, locked-down Zoom reality and into an extravagant social engagement. Six lavish, pre-COVID Indian weddings in exotic locales, with “breaking barriers” bridal looks, decor, food, and flamboyance!

One of the couples from the Netflix show, The Big Day.

The weddings are different because, in a rather unconventional twist, the millennial couples are in charge. They seem to have choreographed the entire ceremony to meet their style and personal flair. The couples tell us their back story. Their meet-cute, their courtship, their choice in engagement rings, their proposals, their challenges, their families’ reaction, and most importantly, the wedding preparation.

Some broke tradition by snubbing certain subversive traditions which seem to denigrate women like kanya dan and mangal sutra. Others embraced tradition by effortlessly accepting to live with extended families. There was a lot of emphasis on cross-cultural unions including a poignant gay marriage.

Some dialogues and vignettes pull at heartstrings: The Hindu priest who married two men dressed in lungis to recreate a Chennai custom said: “Hinduism is a way of life”. That sentiment brought so much solace to the newlyweds that they danced together.

I was floored with the destination of a Kishangarh fort and loved the incorporation of Sarson (Mustard) flowers and sprigs of Bajra. The use of floating sanganer block printed fabrics was a very creative idea. Everything was locally sourced and repurposed. The couples planned their wedding with such a great eye for detail, working tirelessly with vendors and creatives. The Baby boomer parents were there to offer support, happily or grudgingly, as they watched them choreograph their own wedding. 

I hope these newlyweds live happily ever after. I am hooked and will definitely watch the next episodes! My only question is – did the savvy millennials foot the bill of The Big Day?! 


Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Sewa International’s Volunteers Walk for Health

With the aim of promoting an active lifestyle and physical and emotional wellbeing, Sewa International volunteers in Atlanta, Houston, and the Bay Area in California welcomed the new year by walking five miles and resolving to stay fit and healthy.

Organized as part of Sewa’s “Know Your Healthy Self” initiative, this event encouraged participants to walk, run, or practice Yoga wherever they were with no restriction on time or location. Over 150 people took part in the event on Saturday, January 2.

Encouraging Sewa families to embrace a positive attitude and work continuously for their and others’ health by motivating each other to exercise, Sewa International President Arun Kankani sought to draw the curtain on 2020 — a year that was challenging and stressful.

Four Elements of SELF

Participating in the walkathon in a park near Sewa’s office in Houston, Kankani emphasized the four elements of Sewa’s SELF program – SleepExerciseLiving in the present, and Food and diet. About 50 people participated in the event at the venue and 20 people joined it virtually.

In the Bay Area, the walk went virtual given the COVID-19 situation and 50 people participated. They walked in their neighborhoods over two weekends and reported their status online. Sewa Bay Area Chapter coordinator Guruprasad said the first 50 registrants of the event would get Sewa T-shirts in the mail.

In the Atlanta program held at Rock Mill Park, Alpharetta, GA, Dr. Prasad Garimella, a Pulmonary and Critical Care expert explained how Sleep, Exercise, Living in the Present, and Food (S.E.L.F) help fine-tune our body and mind for longevity. Through a “car and brake” analogy, he explained how these elements are the four pillars of a healthy lifestyle. 

More than 50 people took part in the Atlanta event which started with Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), a popular set of yoga postures that provide well-rounded exercise to the body. Later they all enjoyed a five-mile walk on a sunny afternoon.  

Sewa International’s Atlanta chapter started the SELF program in November last year by organizing a webinar titled “Find your newSELF: The Transformative Power of Exercise” by the Triathlon Coach and Clinical Psychologist Dr. Harvey Gayer.


Sewa International, a leading Hindu faith-based, Indian American nonprofit organization, has extensive experience in disaster rescue, relief, and rehabilitation operations having responded to 24 disasters in the US and abroad. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, Sewa volunteers helped in the rescue of nearly 700 people, and have served thousands of affected families since then through their case management service. Sewa raised over $3 million for Hurricane Harvey recovery, Sewa continues to rebuild houses and greenhouses that serve as a means of livelihood. Sewa International has also rendered relief in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2018 and Hurricane Imelda in 2019. Sewa teams in the San Francisco Bay Area continue to build and donate tiny homes for those rendered homeless in the California Camp Fire of November 2018. 

Among its other accolades, Sewa International has been recognized by Charity Navigator – the premier nonprofit rating agency – as the number five among the “10 Highly Rated Charities Relying on Private Contributions.” Sewa has for the last three years continuously scored the topmost-rated 4-star from Charity Navigator and has earned perfect scores for its Financial Health and Accountability & Transparency

For more information on Sewa International and its activities, please visit http://www.sewausa.org. For more information on Sewa International’s efforts to support communities nationwide during the COVID-19 crisis, please visit https://sewausa.org/covid-19.

Happiness- Zac Durant Photo

Can I Find Happiness?

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.

I believe I’m a reasonably happy person, whatever that means. Sure, I’ve had ups and downs and dealt with disappointment, failure, illness, stress, loss, grief, and death. Most of us have. In retrospect, however, I’ve been mostly satisfied and content, felt good about things and stayed positive. Is that happiness? I wasn’t certain I had a good answer – until now.

On the flip side, I clearly know when I’m not happy. I was not happy through my failures, in stressful situations, and when I lost loved ones. I’ve grieved. I’ve cried. I have felt alone. I was anything but happy then! We read and hear a lot about unhappiness these days. I often see people around me who clearly are not in a frame of mind that I would call happy. 

I thought about all this and began to ask: what is happiness? How does one become happy? Can one acquire happiness and stay happy? I’m here to share the results of my research and reflections with you.  

I began by looking up happiness in the dictionary.

“The state of being happy,” it read.

So much for dictionaries! The word ‘state’ in this definition was a clue, however. After some more reading, I concluded that we typically use the word happiness to describe a mental or emotional state that derives from our perception of our circumstances at any given time. We assign a value to that perception; when this value is positive, we are ‘pleased’.

Our feelings move into the spectrum of pleasant emotions, somewhere in the range from being satisfied or content, through a feeling of joy, to intense pleasure. By this definition, we can be happy one instant and unhappy the next. The change from a happy to unhappy state occurs at the speed at which our perception of our circumstance changes. Material gains fuel a feeling of happiness for a while but can soon feel hollow. Adding that second scoop of ice cream to my bowl satisfies my urge for dessert, and makes me happy until I think about its impact on my blood glucose level! We can be in a ‘state of happiness’ for a few fleeting moments until our perception alters.

While this conclusion is not very reassuring, we shouldn’t downplay the importance of this kind of happiness. It’s good in general to be in a positive or ‘happy’ state as often as we can, provided that state is not the result of misperceptions. We also need to understand this kind of happiness, and its role in the context that I describe next.

Another way in which we often use the word happiness is to describe something other than a transient emotion or state of mind; we use it in the context of our overall well-being.  This is a different ‘state’ of mind that relates to our assessment of where we are now, or where we are likely to be at some future point in our lives; we use the word in the context of our life satisfaction.  Happiness flows from a feeling of accomplishment. This subjective assessment of our state of life is central to driving our ‘state’ of happiness. By altering our assessment, we can arrive at a different conclusion.  

Does that mean that we can choose to be happy? A choice made by adopting a different view or perspective of our circumstances?

Book: The How of Happiness
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

A review of scientific studies provided further clues. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Psychology at UC Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, is a leading authority on this subject. She has studied happiness, and how and why it can shift over time. While happiness is defined in different ways for different people, she says, it is “a combination of frequent positive emotions, plus the sense that your life is good.

Geneticists and neuroscientists have shown that genetics and heredity play some role in determining “baseline happiness” and subjective wellbeing.  For instance, around 50% of cases of major depression are attributed to genetic causes, while the rest stem from psychological or physical factors. The general consensus in the scientific community is that your happiness is only partially determined by your genes; most of it comes down to lifestyle and other environmental factors that you can control.

What are the factors and how do you control them?

A branch of psychology known as Positive Psychology provides answers. Coined by University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Martin Seligman, one of the influential thinkers in this area, Positive Psychology studies the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond just surviving to flourishing.  Researchers have identified several key ‘elements’ of a good life and practices for improved life satisfaction, wellbeing, and happiness: build healthy relationships and learn to express your thoughts and feelings. Cultivate kindness. Exercise regularly and adopt a healthy diet. Do what you like doing and pursue a goal – find your ‘flow.’ Discover spiritual engagement and find meaning in life. Identify and use your strengths.  Adopt a positive mindset: be optimistic, practice mindfulness, practice gratitude. Learn to forgive. Get involved in community and service.

Happiness is not a goal; it’s a life-long process that is in our control.

Happiness takes work,” says Professor Laurie Santos, Head of Silliman College at Yale, “You don’t just hear about the science of happiness and instantly feel better. You have to change your behavior. It takes effort every day.”

The quest for happiness dates back more than 2500 years to Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and others. In his fascinating book Hiding in Unnatural Happiness, Devamitra Swami points to the teachings of the Srimad-Bhagavatam that happiness “comes to the completely enlightened, self-realized soul.” Today’s scientists are rediscovering much the same insights!

If we look outward in our quest for happiness, we are looking in the wrong place. We will find lasting happiness only if we seek it within ourselves!


Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. He is also a columnist for India Currents.

With sincere thanks to Zac Durant at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.

What Is Your Friend?

Covid-19’s social distancing protocols have resurrected and increased social connections. It looks like we all have an uptick in the frequency of video calls, large chat groups, and increased social media activity. I know many of us are now in touch with college groups, school groups, family groups, cousin groups, children’s school groups, neighborhood groups and so much more. There really was no reason for any of these interactions to have not taken place earlier – the infrastructure, technology, and people were always there. Only one thing seems to have changed – the incessant demands of the clock on our time. 

For some, caring for younger people or older people in their care, Covid-19 has been doubling difficult. But for several others, Covid-19 has presented us with a curious dilemma: Finding ways to spend time.  Covid-19 has affected people in several ways, and in recent chats and calls, one trend seems to be emerging: What is your friend?

A few months ago, one of our aunts was visiting and the family had gathered around for a day of fun, and laughter which she invariably ensured was there around her. 

“What is your day like Athai (Aunt)? How do you pass time?” I asked.

This is one of the questions that I pose to those of the older generation often. I know boredom and loneliness can be a big problem for some people. However, there are a few in the older generation who somehow manage to retain their vibrant joie-de-vivre as they age, so that they are not just occupied but keep themselves happily occupied and stimulated. 

“I am occupied enough, “ she began. After she told us in loving detail of time spent with her family, particularly grandsons, she said with a smile, “I practice what I want to teach later in the day to my students, and I find the time flies past. Music is really a friend.“

It was true. I remember visiting this Aunt and heard her humming and practicing a particularly tricky song that she wanted to teach her students later that day. She was trying it as she cooked & cleaned and it made for a comforting background while we went about our day. 

Many I know find it heavy-going after retiring from their busy lives. Some find solace in the demands of religion, others find themselves watching a lot of television. A few, though, find ways in which to keep themselves intellectually stimulated and happy. These people seem to be the kind of people who are not only in touch with their Eternal Selves, but also nourished and sustained it. They are the ones who quite unwittingly spread joy and happiness around them by virtue of being happy with their own state of being.

Mary Oliver’s, Upstream is a book of many marvelous essays. The essay, Of Power and Time, talks about the three selves in many of us:

The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. 

The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executor. 

Then, there is the Eternal Self: the creative self, the dreamer, the wanderer. 

The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. I completely identify with that. I am decades away from my childhood, but I can dip into it like I only just grew up.  Everything felt keener and sharper as children, and that is part of the reason why The Child Self never really leaves us, I suppose. (Probably the reason why I forget the name of the person I met yesterday, but remember the names of my friends from when I was 5 years old)

The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executor. The one, in short, that most of us find ourselves trapped in for the most part of our lives. This is “the smiler and the doorkeeper” as Mary Oliver so elegantly puts it. This self I am familiar with: metaphorically the whirlpool, the swift horses of time, the minute keeper.

“This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.”

The social, attentive self’s surety is what makes the world go around as she says.

Then, there is the third self: The Creative Self, the dreamer, the wanderer.

“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary, it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

The essay goes on to explain the regular, ordinary self in contrast to the creative self. The Creative Self – the one that is out of love with the ordinary, out of love with the demands of time or the regular routines of life, is concerned with something else, the extraordinary. This is the self, she says, that makes the world move forward.

“The extraordinary is what Art is about. No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures it is seldom seen, It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes its solitude.”

Finding something that makes us want to do something without tangible rewards is the most gratifying thing in the world. Not all of us can lead the life of an artist, but we each can devote small amounts of time consistently to find an artistic pursuit that sustains us. It may be in the creative process in things as varied as tinkering with wood or analyzing the ebb and flow of economic market conditions. 

The essay ended on this note:

“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.” – Mary Oliver

The Aunt who said “Music is a friend!” gave to her creative spirit time and power. Covid-19 has given us the unique opportunity to pause and evaluate what we do with our time. Some have exceeded themselves on the culinary front, some others with photography, some have taken up gardening. I find it refreshing to see the Creative Self reviving in so many of us who have given in to the power of the time-bound social self for so long.

What is your friend?

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

Top Tips For Relocating To Qatar

With its high salaries, zero income tax, and glamorous lifestyle, it’s not surprising that Qatar is one of the hottest destinations for expats. Here are some top tips to help you prepare for moving there.

Get ready to embrace the heat

One of the biggest challenges expats face when moving to Qatar is acclimatizing to the intense climate. Temperatures can peak at around 50 degrees Celcius in summer and levels of humidity can reach around 40-60%. But you shouldn’t let this put you off, because every building has air-conditioning and there are numerous hotel pools to cool down in.  

Take advantage of the excellent healthcare 

Qatar boasts one of the top 5 healthcare systems in the world which is great news for expats. And because all employers in Qatar are legally required to provide healthcare for their employees, expats should be covered from day one. They can either access state healthcare services at a subsidized rate or buy private health insurance to access excellent private facilities and cover any costs not met through public healthcare. 

Remember to dress conservatively 

Qatari society is heavily influenced by Islamic customs, so expats should dress conservatively when out and about in public. Men should avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts in public places and women should avoid wearing revealing clothes that don’t cover their shoulders and knees. It’s also important to respect local etiquette when it comes to greetings and general behavior. 

Be aware of the strict laws on drugs and alcohol

For most expats, drinking alcohol is a normal part of life, but in Qatar, there are strict laws to abide by. Drinking alcohol or being drunk in public are offenses and drink-driving and other alcohol-related offenses can result in imprisonment, fines, or even deportation. That said, alcohol is still available at licensed hotel restaurants, bars, and certain clubs and expats should carry their Qatar ID or passport with them. The use and selling of recreational drugs are illegal too, and offenders can face long-term imprisonment, heavy fines, and deportation. 

 

YouTube is the Desi Mood

We gave up cable TV over seven years ago and thanks to sites like Netflix, Amazon Video, and HBO Go, we haven’t missed it at all. But, the real treat that resulted from cutting the cord is that it pushed me to seek information and entertainment on sites such as Youtube and Vimeo.

As I am sure most people know, Youtube is a universe of an endless variety of shows, shows that cater to the most niche of interests. 

For example, my son sent me a link to Primitive Technology, where a man who builds small structures using only the tools and materials that would have been available in pre-industrial times.

Primitive Technology

A friend sent me a link to Grandpa Kitchen, a channel of a man in South India who, seemingly single-handedly, cooks food outdoors on a massive scale, and feeds disadvantaged kids. As she put it, “He is so cute… his wrinkles have wrinkles!”

Grandpa Kitchen sharing Banana Pancakes

Finally, there are art and craft channels that feature everything from rangoli made using forks and bangles to reusing old newspapers to make Ganesh Chaturthi decorations. 

Watching these and other videos provides a mental health break, a creativity inspiration boost, and  pure entertainment. Even if I cannot do any of these things, it feels good to know that such creative people exist and also that the technology exists to make it available to me for free (or for the price of internet connectivity). Indeed, I would go so far as to say that at a time when the news is filled with grievances and acrimony, which in turn lead to feelings of helplessness or cynicism, videos such as these as well as their easy availability offer a sense of hope and possibility.

~~~

Sometimes I need a culture or nostalgia fix–something that is as familiar and comfortable as a walk in the old neighborhood. The collection on Youtube is vast and I wouldn’t presume to offer a comprehensive survey or even a “best of” list. However, I have found some videos and channels that I recommend repeatedly to friends and acquaintances. So, I am doing the same for the India Currents community.

Old Bollywood songs: remixes, re-recordings, new voices

  1. S. Qasim Hasan Zaidi: A Pakistani professor of engineering and an accomplished musician, his channel has videos of him playing and singing old Bollywood songs. 
  2. Mayuri: Russian performers who love Indian dance and practice it with uncommon grace. I especially like their rendering of “mera naam chin chin chu” and “na moonh chhupake jio.” 
  3. Within India, a great revival of old hits appears to be in vogue. Pran Katariya’s channel features many accomplished singers, among them Anil Bajpai and Sangita Melekar. Similar groups have sprung up in many Indian towns and cities. 

Web series

  1. Sumukhi Suresh as the Maid is sassy and authentic.
  2. Tech conversations with Dad are funny and heartwarming.
  3. Episodes of “If apps were people” are original and hilarious.

Aam Aadmi Family is like Everybody Loves Raymond, but set in contemporary India and featuring quintessentially Indian situations. It features the middle-class Sharma family consisting of the parents, their two young adult children and Mr. Sharma’s elderly mother. What makes this show remarkable is that the situations are completely believable and the characters are as likeable as the people from one’s old neighborhood. This, even while the show breaks down stereotypes through its gentle sense of humor.

So, for example, the grandmother is not orthodox at all and is completely up on the latest lingo used in texting and other apps. The daughter breaks up with her boyfriend and upends the “girl-viewing” ceremony. The grandmother never misses an opportunity to gently jab at her daughter-in-law. These and similar situations are presented with a quirky and light touch. And then, of course, there are the quintessential Indian situations such as the ever-present, well-meaning neighbor, and the relatives and friends  who drop in unannounced for tea. For me, watching an episode of Aam Aadmi Family is like a quick 20-minute trip to India without leaving my house.

The show is truly innovative when it comes to its ad model. Each episode has a passing mention of a product or service, such as a mutual fund or diabetes-friendly oil. The advertisers deserve credit for sponsoring such creative and enjoyable shows and for delivering their message in a refreshingly subtle way.

Another show that revolves around Indian family life, but pushes the envelope in doing so is “Permanent Roommates.It features Mikesh and Tanya who have had a long distance relationship for several years. When the series opens, they have moved in together and Tanya is pregnant. Alternating between serious and funny, the series offers a what-if and believable depiction of situations that would have been unthinkable a few years ago and are probably unthinkable even today except in a cosmopolitan metro like Mumbai. 

For interesting short films I recommend channels such as Pocket Films, Whistling Woods International and Terribly Tiny Tales. For stand-up comedy there is East India Comedy and various comedians performing under the Canvas Laugh Club banner.

As a bonus, here are links to two short films that have very unexpected endings: “Rishtey and “Jai Mata Di

What did you think of the above suggestions? What would you recommend? Do post in the comments. In the meantime, happy watching!

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. 

Focus Right, Focus Your Mind

As the last of 2019’s shadow disappears below the horizon, we begin to think of the horizons that we have created for ourselves. Thus commences another resolution season: a parade of inspirational Twitter posts, old to-do lists fished out of dustbins, and a genuine — albeit temporal — attempt at self-improvement. While I’m sure we’ve all checked off the islands we want to visit and listed the fresh kale-based whatever we would like to try, our resolutions often miss the most critical component of personal development — mental wellness.  

Taking care of our mental wellness, and even recognizing that our emotional well-being is as important as its physical counterpart, can be difficult or unmanageable. But our mental health follows us wherever we go. This invisible energy molds our ties with family and influences our relationships with work. That’s why our objective to lead balanced, healthy lives shouldn’t leave our inner selves behind. 

No matter what heights we want to reach this year, it’s absolutely necessary that one of our resolutions is to take out some time for ourselves.  Amid a barrage of personal commitments and career responsibilities, we often leave behind our old hobbies. While the abandonment of former interests can be a healthy part of self-growth, it’s also symptomatic of a cluttered schedule and a tired mind. Challenges that don’t involve money or grades — the classic incentives — may actually prove to be more fulfilling because they represent an ardent and emotional commitment. Setting aside some personal free time for the occasional trek up Mission Peak or a weekly pottery class reminds us of who we are, and provides the essential reward to our demanding work hours.

This year, my personal resolution is to keep a journal. In the bottomless sea of extracurricular activities, SAT scores, and social media updates, I have often sacrificed self reflection and character-building just to stay afloat. And I’m not alone in this deluge of academic responsibilities; most teenagers in the Silicon Valley barely get eight hours of sleep, thus navigating a thin line between textbook toil and exhaustion. Perhaps that’s why the experience of jotting down what comes to mind is almost cathartic, as it relieves the weight of my suppressed emotions. Evenings with my journal have yielded an unexpected wave of short stories, poetry, and flash fiction —  creative outbursts that I simply can’t explore while memorizing a syllabus. The routine struggles of a high junior seem much more feasible when I can dedicate just a sliver of my day to directionless, free-flowing imagination. 

For the resolution lists that seem to be on the longer side, it’s equally important to consider the way that we set our goals. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being ambitious, but an overwhelming set of tasks ahead can lead to self-doubt and denial. Rather than kicking off the new year with three presentations, a home renovation project, and a rigorous new gym routine, try staggering your goals. Unrealistic expectations of our work ethic or our natural abilities spell an imminent, self-fulfilling cycle of inferiority and inefficacy. Abstract resolutions that seem unattainable need to be broken down into subcategories and intermediate deadlines so they can turn into realities, rather than burdens on the backs of our calendars. 

The “new year, new me” mentality is less focused on turning us into the person we would like to be. Rather, our best years are spent appreciating and cultivating the people that we are. And emphasizing our mental health on a day-to-day basis plays a pivotal role. Taking a step back to introspect might seem like a watery, insignificant thing — but self-analysis helps us discover the goals that we need, rather than the things that we want. So as the roaring 20s finally open their endless jaws, our expectations of our work, fitness, and family won’t swallow us whole. 

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

Why Nothing is My Favorite Meal of the Day

Let’s talk about one of my favorite meals….a delicious plate of nothing. Prep time is zero minutes and physical and mental health benefits are unlimited. Nihaal Karnik, a third year medical student at Ross University School of Medicine, writes about his personal experience and reviews some of the latest research on a topic close to my heart, intermittent fasting (aka IF).  Don’t miss some of my thoughts at the end on how I have used IF personally and clinically.

Overview
I just finished working from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Yup, the ever glamorous lifestyle of a medical student. The last meal I ate consisted of 2-3 hard boiled eggs I scarfed down as I ran into the hospital; because, even at 5 a.m. I am considered late for a day of work. I’ve arrived home only to see an empty fridge and realize no restaurants are open. I need to eat. I’ve read every blog post, seen every interview, and even heard from doctors that I should be eating every 4-6 hours. I mean I cannot possibly miss this meal, right? Not necessarily. Skipping a meal or two may not be the worst thing for me. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that missing meals (fasting) may be to my benefit.

Intermittent Fasting (IF) represents a unique approach to nutrition. The approach intends to burn fat and produce muscle when combined with a proper exercise regimen. The name underscores basic principles of the program: fasting for intermittent periods of time.

Research suggests a wide number of benefits: potential protective benefits against various cancers, fat loss, muscle building, curbing hunger cravings, as well as increased insulin sensitivity (refer to other posts on diabetes and insulin resistance). This article aims to introduce readers to IF while providing some basic background on the principles of this model. Hopefully this read encourages our audience to research IF and explore the possibility of incorporating IF into one’s own daily routine.

Basic Principles

The basic principle centers upon caloric restriction for extended stretches of time. The idea behind this is two fold:

1) It falls in line with ancestral diet principles and

2) Induces hormonal responses that promote fat burning, muscle building, and overall well being.

The majority of blog posts and literature surrounding IF introduce it to us in the context of paleo dieting. The average cave man did not always have a fridge full of food to satisfy his primal hunger. Instead he went through cycles of feast (eating) and famine (fasting).

Incorporating an approach that keeps the body in between a fasting and fed state is a natural extension of our ancestral diet. Excessive feasting serves as a major contributor to the variety of metabolic symptoms that plague society, today.

Furthermore, hormonal changes govern IF’s effectiveness. The key hormone discussed here is Growth Hormone, a natural hormone that regulates metabolism and is released by the body during the following phases: starvation, extreme/intense exercise, and rest. It is involved in muscle synthesis as well as lipolysis (fat breakdown). Proponents of IF outline that fasting states induce the release of extra growth hormone—thus helping to promote simultaneous fat burning and muscle growth.

Potential Benefits
In addition to the obvious benefits of muscle mass development and fat burning IF has a number of potential benefits.

These may or may not include:
1. Satiety (feeling nice and full). This may seem counterintuitive but studies show even alternate day fasting (see more below) may promote satiety.
2. Diabetes. Promising research shows that IF may be an effective alternative to calorie restriction and weight loss to prevent diabetes. More research is pending and the authors themselves conclude more research is needed to make definitive conclusions. However preliminary reviews of IF as a way to combat diabetes are promising.
3. Help combat eating disorders by tackling restrictive eating and body image issues.
4. Cardioprotective (hearty healthy) benefits. New research suggests IF may even protect the heart and lead to weight loss.

Models of IF
The basic idea of IF may be simple enough. However, for those who may seem intimidated by the challenge of fasting, don’t worry. A number of IF techniques exist to appeal to beginners and experienced fasters alike.  Literature suggests most people may feel uneasy for the first 7-10 days. So, if you decide to partake in this new regimen do not be discouraged by mild irritability or uneasiness with the adjustment. Although the idea of fasting may be simple, readers often wonder what to eat during prescribed meal times. The theory of IF does not mean one can eat whatever they desire during his or her feast period.

Adherents still need to incorporate healthy eating habits (e.g. non-processed foods, loads of fresh veggies, and good hormone free/free range meat).

For instance, if I were to eat a meal or two during my feast window, it may consist of a huge spinach salad with grass-fed beef, avocado, and a healthy dressing. Or, I may decide to have some fresh fish with steamed veggies. The point is that the feast period does not mean one can instantly hit the closest drive thru window since there was a prolonged fasting period.

Below is a small list with brief descriptions of some of the more popular ways individuals may approach incorporating IF:

Alternate Day Fasting—One of the more popular methods. Proposed by Dr. Varady of the University of Illinois, the diet aims to offer patients a more inviting approach to fasting. Instead of incorporating a daily fast, the diet asks patients to fast every other day. Varady recommends 500 calories during one meal every other day. Her research, although young and ongoing, is quite promising. Patients who abided by this approach were a) more likely to continue this diet long term and b) actually restricted calorie intake on their regular/non-fasting days. Researchers theorize they restricted calories on non-fasting days since their bodies became adapted to the new approach.

12/12—A great approach for beginners. This simply suggests that patients have a 12 hour fasting window, and a 12 hour feasting window. A popular schedule may be to fast from 7pm to 7am.

18/6—A variation of the 12/12 model: here patients fast for 18 hours and feast for 6. One schedule maybe to eat only from 1 p.m.-7 p.m.

Occasionally missing a meal—Some people just listen to their bodies and skip a meal from time to time. Proponents of this model suggest not forcing a meal may help curb binge eating and be beneficial when periodically used.

Conclusions
Intermittent fasting represents a new way to approach caloric restriction. Although research concerning the metabolic benefits of this approach is promising, larger studies are needed to support clinical claims. Those interested in the diet should definitely research more about the topic. Combining this approach with a proper diet may offer individuals a way to achieve new body and metabolic goals.

So, at 10 p.m. at night I have two simple choices. I can go to bed and enjoy the potential benefits of my fast. Or, try to get a quick meal given the annals of conventional wisdom. As I mentioned earlier, it may not be a bad thing to skip this particular meal. Enjoying the perks of integrated fasts may make me a bit stronger, leaner, and hopefully a wiser medical student…though I guess the literature is still pending on that last wish.

Dr. Ron’s Clinical Insights on Intermittent Fasting
I am personally using and prescribing intermittent fasting for selected patients. However, many of my patients are coming in with significant micronutrient deficiencies and weight gain from under eating, overstressing and over exercising. Often these are women. I don’t initially recommend IF for these patients. I need to make sure these patients are well-nourished to replete these missing nutrients and we have to work on stress reduction and life balance which are top priorities. Eating more frequently may have to be initially implemented to replace key nutrients. Once we restore nutrient deficiencies and any hormonal and metabolic imbalances and patients start feeling better, they can then incorporate IF into their lifestyle plan. IF used in the right context can potentially increase lifespan and reduce inflammation. However, adding IF to a nutrient-deficient diet can make matters worse and I have seen inflammatory markers and body weight actually increase as a result.

For individuals who are eating a very high carbohydrate diet, adding IF may backfire since it can generate extreme hunger followed by compensatory binge eating. You need to first fix your eating habits, with a focus on adding healthy fats, proteins and more plants, which will act as a natural appetite suppressant. Once your body and metabolism are prepared, then IF can be used effectively. I have busy patients who generally skip breakfast already, thinking they are fasting, but then they overeat processed foods and excess carbohydrates later which worsens their weight and underlying health issues.

Finally, I highly recommend you fast with a purpose that goes beyond just weight loss and achieving ideal body composition. In most cultures fasting is a selfless act devoted to some higher spirit, rather than the somewhat egotistic pursuit of ideal body composition.  Just reflect on the list of fasts undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi if you need inspiration to selflessly skip just a single meal.  If the word “fasting” sounds too spartan, just call it “meal skipping.”

Try fasting for a departed relative, your favorite god, a specific life goal or higher purpose, etc. I personally have noticed that on IF days I can think more clearly, exercise longer and stronger, and meditate with greater focus. There are times I do use it for somewhat selfish purposes. For example, I use it strategically for important meetings and presentations as a cognitive performance enhancer. It beats caffeine or stimulants since its natural and you avoid the inevitable “crash” from stimulants.  If I knew about it in my earlier life, I would have used it for school exams. Today’s students flood their systems with sugar and caffeine…just think sodas, frappuccinos and energy drinks, which are staple fuels for kids today.

Giving IF a higher purpose will make it more effortless, will allow us to practice selflessness which all of us can benefit from, and in the end, you will still enjoy the physical and mental benefits.

Ronesh Sinha, M.D. is a physician for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation who sees high risk South Asian patients, he blogs at southasianhealthsolution.org, and co-hosts a South Asian radio show on health.

First Published in 2015.

Skyrocket Your Energy Level

Do you ever watch a group of kids at play and wonder where they get all that energy? If you were able to bottle all that vim and vigor, you would make a fortune selling this elixir at offices in early afternoons or at the juice bar in the local fitness center.

You are not alone when you get that sagging feeling in the early afternoon, or when you just don’t have quite enough oomph to finish your exercise routine.

There has been a proliferation of energy drinks and “healthy” granola bars in the market, as the solution to replenishing that empty fuel tank.

However, most of these highly sweetened liquids and foods use sugars to give your body a quick energy boost. The catch is, not only do you exhaust the sugar-supplied energy very quickly; it also slows your metabolism down and can further hinder you’re the progress towards your fitness goals.

The good news is, there are a number of other things that you can do to increase your energy levels…naturally. Some of it has to do with shift in dietary habits, while others involve lifestyle changes, and then there are exercises that immensely help fill up your energy reserves.

Dietary Energy Boosters

Reduce your sugar consumption
Sugar causes energy fluctuations that contribute to fatigue. Eat foods and snacks that are high in protein and good, complex carbohydrates, the source of energy.

Increase your iron intake
An iron deficiency is responsible for much of the chronic fatigue. Eat foods that are high in iron and take a good, natural iron supplement.

Drink lots of water
A dehydrated body tires easily, so stay hydrated with frequent glasses of water.

Eat smaller and frequent meals
Large meals, particularly lunch, will contribute to that groggy feeling in the early afternoon. More frequent meals stabilize insulin levels and keep your metabolism up throughout the day.

Eat brain food
Consume healthy fats like those in fish and green leafy vegetables to boost your brain function and provide energy.

Eat healthy snacks
A snack of protein, complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables will keep your blood sugars at a consistent level all day long. Protein combats fatigue and builds muscle mass to appear toned.

Whole grains take longer for your system to metabolize and give a steady supply of energy, not the quick, short-lived burst that sugars supply.

Enjoy your cup of coffee but don’t over do it. The initial rush from caffeine is not long-lasting and will leave you fatigued and dehydrated.

Eat lots of fiber
Fiber promotes satiety and the slow release of sugar will give you sustained energy throughout the day.

Lifestyle Changes for An Energy Boost

Practice deep breathing
Breathing with your abdominal muscles will increase your oxygen intake to improve your lung capacity and increase overall stamina overtime.

Start your day with a big breakfast
Your body needs a jump-start in the morning and a good, well-balanced breakfast rich in protein and complex carbohydrates is the best way to start the day and feel fresh for a long time.

Stop smoking
Smoking depletes oxygen and in turn reduces stamina to leave you feeling fatigued.

Sleep with the sun
Sleep hormones are linked to natural light. Going to sleep early helps you awaken naturally without requiring an alarm.  If it is still light outside, create the illusion of darkness by using heavy curtains to block off sunlight and streetlights, switching off laptops, cell phones and other gadgets to prepare your body for a restful night of sleep.

Read before going to bed
Establish a sleep ritual like reading before retiring. It helps block out other noise in your mind and helps you fall asleep faster.

Avoid sleeping with pets
Pets on your bed will disturb your sleep if you keep bumping into them. So get the dog and cat to sleep in their own beds. That way everyone wakes up feeling fresh.

Exercises That Provide Energy Boost

Get up and stretch
It is important to take a break to stretch from sitting down for too long to maintain a good blood flow to your body and brain. Stretch your body out will keep you from sagging into lethargy and bad posture.

Have a short morning workout routine
This will shake off your sleepiness, rev up your metabolism and get your blood flowing for most of the day.

Play competitive sports
Playing a sport requires thinking and will spark your mental energy. Desire to win and winning provides adrenaline rush to keep you feeling youthful.

Go for a brisk, short walk after a big meal. It will aid digestion and avoid feeling bloated.

Try doing the following to beat drowsiness. Remove your watch, and stand straight. Extend your right arm slightly, palm down. With your left hand, rub the right arm firmly from wrist to shoulder. Rotate palm upwards, and rub firmly from shoulder to wrist.

Repeat this until ten repetitions are completed. Reverse and rub the left arm with the right hand.

Stand straight with feet slightly spread. Raise your hands to shoulder height, elbows bent at 90 degrees, palms facing down. Start shaking your hands very fast with your wrists relaxed. Do this for a count to 100.

All of the above will help restore your energy and awaken you.

Puja Mukherjee, is a certified fitness trainer, who woke up one morning to drop everything in the pursuit of her passion for fitness. She says the best part about her job is to liberate her clients from their preconceived notions about fitness and see them be dazzled. Follow her at www.getmeanmuscle.com.

The Sandwich Generation

The elderly Indian man wanders through the neighborhood, talking to himself and pausing uncertainly every now and then. His clothes are soiled and his eyes are vacant. A neighbor, observing him from behind the blinds of her living room, sighs. This is the third time in 10 days that she has seen him outside, unaccompanied and obviously disoriented. The old man lives next door. His son and daughter-in-law are away at work, their children in school. The neighbor knows that no one will be around till 5:30 p.m. She reaches for the phone to call the police.

Ill and aging parents. A heartbreaking reality that most of us will have to cope with sooner or later. The inevitable reversal of roles, as the hands that once deftly buttoned our shirts and led us confidently across a crowded street, now reach out to us for help in perform­ing the basic tasks of daily living.

It is estimated by the U.S. Administration on Aging that a full 25% of all households in the country are involved in caring for a family member, usually a parent. While the number may not be quite that high in the South Asian community, it is nevertheless increasing rap­idly, as more and more families are choosing to bring aging parents and relatives from their native countries to live with them permanently.

Four generations of an Indian-American Family
Four generations of an Indian-American Family

Typically, the caregivers are adult children with kids of their own, often known in the media as the “sandwich generation”—caught between childcare and elder care. Research has shown that almost 65% of women in this country will have to deal with extensive or partial elder care issues.

 Chandra Deshmukh, a Marin County resi­dent thinks that “sandwich” is an apt descrip­tion of a person in her circumstances. “I have two little kids and a father who is often in hospital with complications from diabetes,” she says. Her father lives in Houston, Texas with her older sister, and Deshmukh has already flown to Houston three times this year to help with his care “dropping into my husband’s lap the kids, their homework, din­ner and piano lessons.” She says she has learned to live with a constant sense of guilt, feeling inadequate at work and incompetent at home. “There is this nonstop worry in my head that I am not doing enough for anyone—my kids, my husband, my employer, or my father, whom I am very close to,” she adds.

According to Rita Ghatak, a Palo Alto­ based psychologist and specialist in elder care, guilt is a very common feeling among adult caregivers. “The feeling of helplessness and guilt can be overwhelming at times and in trying to take care of everything themselves, these women, (and most of the caregiving is done by women aged 35 to 50), fail to look after their own needs,” she says. Ghatak knows, because she has been there herself. For 14 years, she was a long distance caregiver to her parents who lived in India. In that time she flew to Delhi 16 times to take care of, first, her father who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and then her mother who suffered a stroke in 1995. “I was completely stressed out,” she remembers ‘There were times when I was so tired and worried that I could not think straight. I wanted to be in both places at the same time.”

Ghatak is also CEO of Older Adult Care Management (OACM), a private organization founded over 15 years ago, and considered a pioneer in the field of elder care. The organiza­tion provides a comprehensive care program for adults through quality home care services like trained health aides, family counseling, case management services, and elder care education. OACM has virtually no South Asian clients, because, Ghatak says, they are largely unaware of the variety of elder care resources available in the community. “It is not that they want to be ignorant, it is just that they do not know where to go for the informa­tion. Sometimes a parent’s illness catches us unawares and we are unprepared to handle it,” she says. Lack of information led to less-­than-desirable situations like the one de­scribed at the beginning of this story. In this case, the elderly man was referred by the police to the county-run Adult Protective Ser­vices. In turn, OACM was contacted and Ghatak ended up sending an information packet in the mail to the caregivers. She never heard from them but she hopes that the family was finally able to get some help and take care of their father.

When it comes to taking care of one's parents, most adult children are lost in a maze of emotional and logistical issues
When it comes to taking care of one’s parents, most adult children are lost in a maze of emotional and logistical issues

When it comes to taking care of one’s parents, most adult children are lost in a maze of emotional and logistical issues. Some dis­eases like dementia (a common form of which is Alzheimer’s disease) or Parkinson’s disease, both of which are on the rise worldwide, according to the World Health organization, make home-based caregiving especially diffi­cult. Still, how can one send a parent to an outside facility? Will that not amount to aban­donment? How would the parent take it? What about the cost: emotional and financial? Decisions like these are hard to make and even harder to justify to relatives and siblings who are watching from the outside.

Using trained help, strangely enough, is one of the last options considered by many South Asian caregivers. “It is expensive but more importantly it could be seen as pawning off your responsibilities,” remarks Deshmukh, whose has just succeeded in persuading her reluctant sister to hire a door-to-door service to take their father to the doctor for regular appointments. However, using trained help could ward off potentially dangerous situa­tions. “If I had to do it again, I would definitely use trained help,” confirms Inderpal Grewal, a full time professor and mother of two little girls living in El Cerrito. Grewal had just given birth to her second child when her mother, who suffered from acute rheumatoid arthritis came to live with them. To Grewal, it was spotting the little things that could prevent the bigger things from happening that drove her crazy. “I was always worrying about things. Are the bars in the bathroom safe? Is the house too cold? Is the bed okay?” she says. “In spite of all this my mother caught pneumonia, be­cause we had not kept the house warm enough. Old people are more fragile than they appear.” Subsequently, her mother went to live with another sibling in Connecticut where a home health aide came to look after her needs several times a week.

Taking care of a parent can create stress and awkwardness between siblings.

Rashmi Rustagi is a stay-at-home mother of four in Palo Alto. Her children range in age from 5 to 15 and take up much of her energies and time. Rustagi’s parents live with her. Last year, her mother suffered a stroke and became almost bedridden, needing con­stant care. The subject of who would be the main caregiver came up often at family dis­cussions with the other siblings. Though each of them make financial contributions towards their mother’s health care, Rustagi feels that she was chosen because “most often it is the sister who stays at home or is the wealthiest who gets to take care of the parents. The others plead work pressure, or lack of space or money.” Rustagi feels a little taken for granted because she ends up putting in so much more effort and time than her sisters and brothers do. Lately, she says, she has taken to keeping a log of the time she spends looking after her mother’s needs like taking her to doctor’s appointments, or the physical therapist. “Not the expenses, mind you, just the time,” she hastens to add. “And one of these days I am going to show it to my siblings just to let them see for themselves how much effort it takes to just keep things going.”

To many South Asians, taking care of a family member might mean flying half way around the world several times a year. As Ghatak testifies from her experience “it takes a heavy toll on your family life.” Even so, bringing the family member over to the U.S. may not be a logical solution because of the high cost of health care and the emotional cost of uprooting the person from her native cul­ture. In addition to this, says Grewal, the person often finds herself confronting a racist health care system in America, “one that believes that most immigrants are out to rip off the system.”

Pradeep Joshi, a co-founder of the Indo­American Community and Service Center (IACSC), and a commissioner serving on the Senior Care Commission of Santa Clara, agrees that seniors who come over from India have to deal with isolation and a loss of empowerment. “And without MediCal, healthcare is prohibitively expensive,” he stresses. “A recently passed immigration law states that those seniors who immigrated to the U.S. after October of 1996 are not eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or MediCal. This will definitely have a negative bearing on family decisions to bring a parent over.”

All too often, the “sandwiched” adult, torn between making time for the kids and the parent, feels like the rope in a tug-of-war game. Ghatak suggests a few simple guide­lines to make the task easier. Planning ahead is the essential key to elder care management. Confront the situation and talk about it and if the parent is capable, involve him or her in the decision. Scope out the services available in the community, clubs, recreational centers, senior centers, and groups that the parent might be interested in joining. If the parent is handicapped or suffering from a debilitating disease, look into the possibility of hiring home care aides. And above all, make time for yourself, to exercise, socialize, rest and main­tain recreational outlets. Lack of proper care of oneself might lead to stress-related illnesses like chronic headaches, ulcers and depres­sion.

With over 200,000 South Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is inevitable that senior support networks are springing up within the community. Apart from sporadic activities organized by the local temples, mosques and gurudwaras, the Icse in Santa Clara runs an excellent senior program that stresses independent living. The Center hosts lecture programs, yoga classes, computer and writing courses and a variety of social activi­ties for South Asian seniors from day outings to cultural programs.

Looking after a relative or parent can be an enriching experience and the ultimate expression of love and compassion from one human being to another. Deshmukh’s children are learning this valuable truth as their mother packs her bags for yet another trip to see their grandfather. In the Rustagi household, life is just a little richer, as grandparents and chil­dren learn to share their living space and their experiences with each other. “It finally boils down to this-there really is no right or wrong way to do things. Accept your limitations and just do the best you can,” states Ghatak.