Worship and workout
Whether or not you are religious, there are activities in religious places that can be incorporated into your daily routine in healthy ways. You can kneel in a mosque and bend forward into a shashankasana or hare pose for a wonderful backstretch. Prostrating yourself before the gods (the south Indian namaskaram) is a great exercise because you have to squat, bend, stretch your back and rise up again. It involves multiple muscle groups. Do this, oh, about 30 times for a great cardiovascular workout.
Personally, my favourite is what south Indians call thoppu karanam, or what is now called “super- brain yoga”. Here is what you do: Cross your arms and hold your earlobes while going up and down. As children, we were taught to do this in front of Lord Ganesh, but I find that doing it while standing in a cubicle also works.
It became famous for a while when a YouTube video proclaimed that doing this would increase your IQ. Why do you think Indian children are so good in math? asked the video. It is because of this age-old practice of massaging and pulling your earlobes while you go up and down.
Whether or not this is true, I find that religion offers great scope for exercise. Most of our temples are high up on a hill, and you have to climb some 200 steps to get to the sanctum sanctorum. While you’re there, you circle the deity several times; prostrate yourself; and sit cross-legged on a hard floor. All this is great. The same thing applies to a church or mosque. You kneel, bow and walk.
Since this column is not just about physical stuff, let me also emphasize the mental and spiritual. I used to be an atheist and then became agnostic; and now I am not sure where I fall in the religion-spirituality spectrum. I believe that all religions offer a path to divinity. Studies show that faith and spirituality give great emotional strength not only in times of crisis but also in terms of goals. A.R. Rahman prays before composing every song and look at what he has accomplished. For these reasons, I am now trying to figure out a way back to god. Communing with the divine, either by visiting religious places or incorporating prayerful acts in your life, offers strength and solace. My only message vis-à-vis this column is that you make it physical as well as spiritual.
Take sitting in church and listening to a sermon, for instance. Sure, pay heed to the words, but also—and yes, I am serious—fidget. Move your legs continuously as the words wash over your consciousness. A study, published in August in the American Journal Of Physiology—Heart And Circulatory Physiology, showed that tapping your feet while sitting for extended periods could reduce the risk of heart problems. In a news release, the study’s lead author, Jaume Padilla, a professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the US’ University of Missouri, said: “Many of us sit for hours at a time, whether it’s binge-watching our favourite TV show or working at a computer. We wanted to know whether a small amount of leg fidgeting could prevent a decline in leg vascular function caused by prolonged sitting. While we expected fidgeting to increase blood flow to the lower limbs, we were quite surprised to find this would be sufficient to prevent a decline in arterial function.” That’s right. Fidgeting improves heart function.
Clearly, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t exercise. But if you are on a plane, for instance, you could fidget a bit. It won’t hurt anyone and will actually help. I cannot help but end with a pronouncement: By the grace of God, may you prosper physically, mentally and spiritually.
Shoba Narayan goes to the temple, church and mosque, not necessarily always to pray. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at Shobanarayan.com, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.