There is a popular saying in yogic circles: No mud, no lotus. The lotus flower, viewed as a spiritual symbol in Eastern religions, represents being grounded in the earth while aspiring towards the divine. It grows in muddy water, its petals blooming from the murkiness to reveal beauty. “No mud, no lotus” is an analogy for life’s sufferings, of which no one can escape; the recognition that even suffering has a purpose in our lives, if only we pay attention. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, “No Mud, No Lotus,” states, “Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
This past week, I played in the mud for a few days, doing an Ayurvedic cleanse to reset my digestive system and do a little self-exploration. In Ayurveda, we do cleanses to balance our doshas. Doshas are three energies that define a person’s makeup. These three doshas also apply to times of each day, the seasons of the year, and seasons of one’s life. Ayurveda teaches that food is medicine and that when one of our doshas is out of balance, we can help bring it back in balance through diet and lifestyle adjustments. A cleanse jumpstarts this.
I must clarify that I did not decide to do this to lose weight. There was no scale or measuring tape involved. It was an experiment to see what would happen, physically and emotionally, if I deprived myself. It was three days. And it was life changing.
So here’s what I did. Three Days. No caffeine or alcohol, warm water and herbal hot tea only. My nourishment came from Kitchari, an Indian “stew” made from rice, mung daal beans, ghee and spices. This I ate three times daily: breakfast between 6 and 8, lunch between 11 and 1, and dinner between 5 and 7. No snacking and no food past 7PM. That’s it.
Amazingly, I wasn’t starving. But much happened. From the very first day.
What I didn’t expect was the sadness. I’m no stranger to this, as I have struggled with depression for several decades. I am fifty-three years old and things are changing: my body, my family (my husband and I will be empty-nesters in five short years), my friendships, my marriage. It’s a lot. All of that came to the surface and felt very raw. As a friend who did the cleanse with me so accurately stated, all emotions were “right there.” To add to this, there was the fogginess. Oh, the fogginess.
Without the distraction of food – because we really do spend a lot of energy around food: shopping, planning, organizing, cleaning up – you have time on your hands. You have time to be with your thoughts, good and bad. I realized I felt, in a word, old. All of my self-conscious doubts about my appearance, i.e. how “old” I look, rose to the surface. Yes, at fifty-three, I still struggle.
One of yoga’s many lessons is being with what is. Through practicing asanas, we learn to be with our bodies as they are in the moment. Without judgement, we move through poses, noticing where we’re tight, where we feel the pose. We practice kindness and non-judgement towards ourselves, recognizing that all bodies are different, and that each day our body feels different. There is no “right” or “wrong,” just what is. This is intentional. As we practice this on the mat, we learn to transfer these lessons off the mat – when we’re not in a down-dog pose, when we’re standing in line at the grocery store, or dealing with a difficult situation. Like a three-day cleanse.
So when these emotions arose, I was prepared. I didn’t push them aside or try to rid myself of them. I accepted them with compassion towards myself and without judgement. I allowed myself to be sad. I asked for help. Not to say this was easy, mind you, but…no mud, no lotus. It’s not called “a practice” by accident.
On the second day, I awoke very disconcerted after a fitful night of sleep with very vivid dreams that left me melancholy and questioning my life. Deprived of my beloved coffee, the low-grade headaches I endured the day before returned in spades but blessedly weren’t constant. Throughout the day I strangely felt glimmers of clarity and joy mixed with fatigue and boredom. Naps were my new bff. I felt anger dissipating. Anger towards time, towards my husband, towards strangers, towards myself. I felt kinder, in and out.
I even had this moment of sheer gratitude driving home from a movie, windows down, cranking “Hey, Jude,” past fields of kids playing baseball under the lights, surrounded by their loved ones watching. A beautiful summer night. I actually thought to myself, “Everything is amazing.” Something a depressed person NEVER says.
That night, I endured another fitful night of sleeping due to pain in my hips/buttocks. This was not soreness. A middle-of-the-night Google search revealed that a lot of people experience this with fasting, but interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive medical explanation. My mind immediately went to yoga (isn’t that the answer to everything?). In yoga, the hips are a place of deep release, a place in the body where tension is stored and some say unresolved emotions, as well. The analogy often used for the hip area is the “junk drawer” of emotions, where they make their home if they’re not processed.
Dr. Peter Levine, author of, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” says “…traumas stay with us, as a frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. Our hips are like a bowl, then, catching and holding the residue of a trauma or a prolonged period of stress.”
Was my body processing past trauma? Unresolved emotions? Or was it just caffeine withdrawal? I’ll never know, but I do know this: after three days of cleansing, I am a new person. I have no idea if I lost weight and don’t care. What I learned was far more gratifying.
I learned that I am in charge and basked in the satisfaction of someone achieving a goal. I learned that my body is amazing and incredibly smart. I learned that taking care of myself and paying attention to what I put into my body is critical to my physical and mental health (yes, we all “know” that, but I felt it). I learned the importance of listening to what my body tells me because it knows. I learned that I really don’t need all that much food and to eat only when I’m hungry. I learned that I’m okay, to ask for help, and that “being with” emotions, uncomfortable as that is, is the best way to process and learn from them. When you’re tired, rest. A nap does wonders for the body and mind.
When I was able to resume eating and drinking, again, I craved fruits and vegetables, not pizza. My first cup of coffee was beyond lovely, but I didn’t have a desire to have a second. Alcohol has lost its grip, too, for now. The nearly constant ache in my shoulder is gone. My mind is clear, my depression is at bay, I am looking through rose-colored glasses. My “junk drawer” is organized. My yoga practice is stimulating and meditation is fruitful.
Not bad for seventy-two hours in the mud.