El-Oh-El

So my mom and I went to the Cancer Overcomers Support Group meeting last Saturday organized by the Volunteers at the Union Church. My days which I mostly spend either at home or at the hospital have become uneventful over the past few months so you could just imagine how excited I was to have a reason to set foot in Makati. I expected the typical support group set-up where you would listen to others share their stories of coping with and surviving you-know-what. While we were held up by the one-way streets we passed through, I took the time to rehearse my would-be monologue in my head whilst figuring out a way to inject an apology in there for being late. Finally, we reached the church. As we entered the hall, we were startled by the noise of people engaged in heavy laughter. I had to do a double take because I thought we were in the wrong room for it sounded more like Kevin Hart’s stand up comedy gig than anything else. Thankfully, one of the volunteers saw us walk by and confirmed that we were at the right place.

You could tell that we were bewildered by all the laughing. We felt out of place and just plain confused. The confusion was self-inflicted because we were late and missed the introductions so we had no choice but to laugh along like we knew what was going on. It was such a relief when the facilitator prompted us to stop from the mass hysteria so that he could speak to us in silence. It appears that he was the resource speaker for the day and that the meeting was not the pow-wow that I envisioned. Then I remembered the flyer that the lady at the registration table gave me and glanced at what it said. It bore the guest speaker’s name and title in bold letters – Paolo Trinidad, Renowned Laughter Advocate and Trainer. Laughter Advocate and Trainer? That’s a first. I knew right there and then that it would be an interesting two hours.

Paolo went on to talk about Laughter Yoga, a global movement led by Dr. Madan Kataria from whom he received his training. Laughter Yoga is done through the performance of “exercises” that require minimal physical effort. We walked around, flexed our neck and jaw muscles, clapped to a rhythm and chanted “Ha” repeatedly while flashing gum-bearing smiles. For it to be effective, the “laughter” must be done in such a way that it allows your diaphragm to vibrate. So if you plan to do this, laugh with deliberate force resonating from your abdomen.

According to the proponent, Laughter Yoga offers a spectrum of benefits – from an increase in the ever elusive happy hormone serotonin to lowered levels of cortisol aka the stress juice. Sounds sketchy I know, but there are actual case studies done to prove the efficacy of the practice. Norman Cousins, as described in his book  Anatomy of an Illness, even went all out by just laughing and injecting intravenous Vitamin C to cure his ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis affecting the spine that he suffered from for years. He claimed that 10 minutes of laughter (he loved watching Candid Camera) a day gave him relief from the pain and helped him achieve complete recovery. He went on to research how human emotions affect biochemistry to heal diseases normally associated with stress.

You may ask, “What if there is nothing to laugh about?”. Fret not, for according to the principles of Laughter Yoga, the brain does not recognize the difference between a genuine laugh (one that is induced by something funny) from a premeditated laugh. So in this case, faking it is just as good as the real thing. Furthermore, starting out with an intentional laugh will cause you to eventually have a lighter mood which makes the laughing feel more natural. Just try not to do this in a public area where Laughter Yoga may be a foreign concept if you do not want to be thought of as coo-coo.

Paolo led us through exercises throughout the session and I can honestly say that I felt lighter and more energetic afterwards. Seriously, I was smiling the entire day and I noticed how relaxed I felt. But if you ask me, I would not brave the road to recovery with laughter alone just like how Norman Cousins did it. That may be too radical for me. To the hard core believers of Laughter Yoga, the adage “laughter is the best medicine” is more than just a cliché. For them, laughter is the actual non-metaphorical medicine. So if I could give a piece of unwarranted advice to those who wish to try this out, it is that you chime in with your trusted physician first before you ditch your prescriptions. Always remember that taking chances with your health is no laughing matter.

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An Open Letter to a Dysfunctional Wanderlust

Hello, My Love.

Did I catch you at a bad time? Are you daydreaming about that tropical beach getaway again… the one that you should have gone to 5 SUMMERS AGO? Or maybe it’s that road trip with your friends that you missed last May that you’re obsessing about this time. You knew putting that off was a bad idea. You were looking forward to that trip to Lucban all month long and even troubled yourself to prepare an itinerary. But no, you bailed on your travel buddies the last minute.

At the Pahiyas Festival, Lucban, Quezon
At the Pahiyas Festival, Lucban, Quezon

You know what, I will not even rub it in. I will not tell you how exhilarating it was to jump off the cliff at Ariel’s Point and plunge into cool turquoise waters. Or how a relaxing full-body massage by the beach at the setting of the sun ruined all other massages for me after that. Don’t get me started on the mind-blowingly delectable local food offerings we devoured during the Pahiyas Festival (I could eat Pancit Habhab all day, everyday). I sent out a record-breaking number of tweets gushing about what I had for lunch that day. Nope, I will not even go there.

Not for the faint of heart. Photo taken from Ariel's Point website.
Not for the faint of heart. Photo Credits: Ariel’s Point

But I don’t want to be so hard on you. I shouldn’t be very quick to judge because I were you not so long ago. I knew in my heart that I long to travel and experience the world but for some insane reason, I just did not go. I came up with all sorts of excuses… I don’t have the time or I am too tired or I don’t have enough saved up or It might not be worth my while. I could pick and choose from all possible excuses and know that I have used them at some point. I find it quite contradicting to be perfectly honest but silly as it may seem, it was my situation for a very long time… longer than I cared to admit. I wanted to travel but I stayed in one place.

For so long, I hid my wanderlust behind thick curtains and lived off the exciting trips of other people. I read travel blogs, watched lifestyle shows and rummaged through Facebook photos of my friends going on expeditions all around the world and wonder about the fun they had. The worse was when I would go on a sadistic fit and plan an entire trip only to cancel it because… reasons. It went on for so long that it took out the curiosity that I used to have for this lovely planet.

The good news is that this is not totally irreversible. Wanderlust is like glowing embers. The slightest gush of air can easily turn a spark into a blazing fire. The smallest of efforts, so long as it is planned according to your liking, will lead to something greater.

Do this now, will you. Take baby steps by clearing out an entire day to go on a trip to a nearby tourist spot, somewhere that you know you will enjoy and ideally not more than an hour or two away from you. My default is Tagaytay. It’s especially picturesque during sunny days when the greens, the yellows and the pinks at Sonya’s Garden are so intense. The local foodscapes would almost always make you want to be in places so be sure to visit a tried and tested restaurant or two. Save the unfamiliar hole-in-the-wall for another day. Plan to do an activity besides just drive by and eat. Visit a heritage site or spend some time taking pictures of people bustling their way around. If this trip does not invigorate you enough, go on another… and another… and another… and another… until it does. These sampling portions are aimed at preparing you for your next big serving of travel escapades.

Postcard worthy pathway at Sonya's Garden
Postcard worthy pathway at Sonya’s Garden

So you see, our case isn’t really hopeless. All we have to do is to embrace our inner wanderlust and empower ourselves to go on that trip. Screw the reasons… just go already. And when you go, go with all your heart.

XOXO,

A Recovering Dysfunctional Wanderlust

Not all those who wander are lost. - J.R.R. Tolkien
Not all those who wander are lost. – J.R.R. Tolkien

To Learn with my Left Hand

I was 14 years old when I first learned how to bake. I gathered enough guts to use the gas oven quite easily because the manual was pretty straight forward and my mom was always on stand by to offer me tips. She was very eager to help out I guess because she was so afraid that I might blow up the kitchen if she left me unattended. I just started reading cookbooks then and saw a great Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe – ideal for novice bakers. It called for flour, eggs, butter, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract, semi-sweet chocolate chips and a little elbow grease (I didn’t have a KitchenAid until I graduated from high school). The first few attempts were nothing short of a disaster – burnt, tough and missed the mark by a thousand miles. I had to make several batches looking over the recipe close to a hundred times before I could confidently serve the fruits of my labor to anyone willing to taste them. At that point, I started tweaking the recipe to appeal to my finicky eaters. One of my sisters wanted her cookies chewier than usual so I turned to Alton Brown’s scientific approach to baking and used more brown sugar in my chewy mix. I have baked and ate my weight in cookies throughout the years I have been making them but it’s quite surprising how I still learn something new about these darn good treats to this very day (Just recently, a friend shared that she adds a touch of Garam Masala to her dough for that warm, exotic finish).

Learning something new, for me, is unnerving. While I excitedly anticipate an amazing outcome after picking up a new trick, there is a cloud of insecurity looming close behind that the practice of the skill might not work out as planned. Studying the cookie recipe for the first time whetted my appetite but nobody prepared me for the devastation that came with burning the batch and producing paperweights instead. It threw me for a loop because I was certain that I followed the recipe to the letter. I guess most people shudder at the thought of having to learn something new because of the fear of messing it all up. This was true for me that I waited a while before mustering up the courage to give baking another go.

Just like writing with your non-dominant (in my case, left) hand, learning can feel deliberate at times as well. It calls for your conscious effort and your full attention – you study, you observe, you inquire, you think. I didn’t understand why I kept burning my cookies even after properly weighing and scaling the ingredients so I literally kept a close eye on every batch as they baked. Soon after, I noticed that the lumps of dough on the sheets placed at the back of the oven melted faster than the ones in front. Having seen that, I switched the sheets halfway through the time required for a more even cooking. Still, the cookies came out slightly overdone. This was when I invoked my mom’s counsel and asked what the problem might be. As an experienced baker, it did not take her long to figure out that the oven was warmer than necessary. Turned out that the temperature knob of our old-timey oven was not as reliable as I have expected. So I invested in an internal thermometer and I have been baking perfect cookies since then.

I came across a quote that says we learn something new everyday if we pay attention. Carrying this out can be a challenge for most of us considering that we already have a lot going on. But if we decide to keep a closer look at our busy days, we might see that there are many opportunities for learning stuck between the crevices of our daily grind. You may have been struggling with heavy traffic traveling via the route you have known for years and taking that alternate course may very well be the answer to your woes. You’ll never learn that unless you deliberately turn the other direction. Similarly, I may have not been able to reach the satisfaction of baking the best cookies on the face of the earth (that’s a bit of an exaggeration) had I been unwilling to study my mistakes and make the necessary adjustments. It will feel awkward and uneasy – very much like writing with your left (or right) hand – but the rewards of pursuing new learning can never be matched. I intended to learn how to bake, but I also gained understanding of oven temperature troubleshooting that made the difference between a paperweight and a tasty cookie. This was made possible simply by learning with my left hand.