The Gift of George

This holiday season, remember:   Your good health is the best gift of all! 

“Why are you saying, “Do you mind moving your leg?” I don’t mind. I want to do this. I love to do this.”  These words are gifts from my good friend and yoga student George Benson, who practiced yoga with me regularly until a week before he passed away in August, at the age of 96.

George’s determination to keep up his strength and live life to the fullest, despite limitations due to an internal issue last year, inspired all of us at Camarillo Yoga Center.  How could anyone think of complaining about a little physical effort to stay in good shape, while George made it clear he was not to be babied at 96, and that his lifelong exercise and nutritional discipline had provided him excellent health well into the years when many are in sad decline?  His puzzlement at the idea that someone would mind doing whatever it takes to be in good health was an insightful commentary on the changes in our physical culture during the decades of George’s life.   

As a young man in the navy, George began working out with weights, and continued an active life, swimming, hiking and running, until he developed a back issue at 86, and found yoga at Camarillo Yoga Center.  Many years of strengthening, and working at jobs involving physical labor had caused tight muscles; George discovered that with a dedicated stretching program, his back pain was relieved entirely, and he became a fixture in our classes.  At an age where many would give in and give up, George, as he always said, “played the cards he was dealt,” and made the effort to live with gusto into his nineties.  At his memorial service, George’s daughter told us juicing was not a new fad in their lives- her dad bought massive bags of carrots for juicing in the 1950’s!  A vegetarian for 65 years, George eschewed sugar and junk food, but loved to eat and delighted in healthy, tasty recipes, many with vegetables from his own garden, prepared by his beloved wife, Joyce.  George was always quick with a joke, and his love of life was infectious. 

In contrast to George’s active, healthy life, statistics show that today, only 30% of adult Americans take part in exercise of any kind!  Not surprisingly, 35.7% of adults and 30% of children are obese, and these numbers are growing rapidly.   Having been a teacher of yoga and movement for adults and children for over forty years, my experience is that fewer people tell me they enjoy moving their bodies, and working up a sweat. I regularly hear that perspiring or being warm “makes me uncomfortable” and “I really should exercise, but I just don’t like the feeling.”  Additionally, we think of fatty, fried or sugar laden foods as treats, and “make ourselves” eat fruits and vegetables. 

When did it become a burden to move our bodies the way nature intended, and to eat foods nature provides without draining them of all nutritional content? When did we lose sight of the gift of good health?  

One clue is to look at the major labor-saving technological changes in the span of George’s lifetime:

  • The industrial processing of food, and the spread of fast-food eateries (White Castle, the first drive-in restaurant, was founded in 1921.) No longer do we expend energy growing and cooking our own food, disconnecting us from food as a product of our own efforts.
  • The rise in purchasing power of Americans who no longer had to make things, but instead buy them. 
  • The widespread use and promotion of pharmaceuticals as a way to deal with physical discomfort. Why change your diet, when you can take a pill?
  • The rise of an automobile-based way of life, to the extent that we even drive to the next store in the parking lot.
  • The introduction of radio and television- losing ourselves in the lives of others, instead of living our own lives, including being outdoors in the elements.
  • The IT revolution, which enables us to live our lives virtually. With the whole world at our fingertips on a screen, why move at all? 

My belief is that the “progress” which has allowed us to be more “comfortable” and have more leisure time, has weakened our bodies and our minds, and taken away the gift of effort, of sweat, of overcoming obstacles through our own application and persistence over time.  We look for easy and fast at every turn, and fall prey to gimmicks that tell us on every level that we can look good and feel good without having to do anything at all.

The holidays are nearly here. While we shop online for more stuff, “treat ourselves” with holiday sweets and overeating, and create back pain driving far and wide, let’s remember George, and what is really important-

  The best gift you can give yourself, your family, and the world, is a healthy you.  Let’s change our minds about what we “mind” and what we enjoy.  Let’s get strong and proud of it. Start small.  Enjoy a walk with a loved one.  Ask for a bicycle for Christmas.  Take pride in the “effort” it takes to wash some blueberries for breakfast, or create a meal that’s healthy and tastes good.   George taught me that a life well-lived requires effort, and that the effort itself can be joyful! 

Joy to all this holiday season!

 

First published in Camarillo Life Magazine, December issue, 2013