Yoga and Bodies on Fire
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | March 21, 2021
When grandma visited, grocery bags came with her. She’d spread the contents out over the kitchen counters and rifle through the cabinets to find suitable bowls and pans. Then she’d wash her hands and get busy baking. She always made our favorites: Apolonia Blahunka Angel Food cake (named after her church friend in Cleveland), chocolate Texas Sheet cake (named after…Texas…I guess?), and a traditional Slovak poppy seed roll.
One familiar ingredient that emerged from her bags was the mid-century trans-fat favorite – Crisco – yikes. She put it in everything she baked.
After making sure the house was sufficiently stocked with blood sugar spiking treats for her grandchildren, she’d sit at the table and rub her aching hands – which were knobby and twisted from arthritis.
Eventually, grandma died of heart failure.
I think human beings love to find the culprit, love to our point fingers at the cause. So, there’s something satisfying in claiming that Crisco killed my Grandma.
But human beings are also complicated – and the reasons we get sick are complicated too. To be fair, my grandmother lived a long, healthy life. She baked with an exquisitely unhealthy trans-fat product– but she also ate a lot of fresh, whole food. She was active, busy, and sharp as a tack – AND she happened to have arthritis and she happened to die from heart failure.
For years the medical community blamed diabetes on sugar, heart disease on fat, depression on genetics.
Now we know that many chronic conditions are inflammatory disorders which may be associated with epigenetics. Epigenetics helps us to understand that while a person may have some genetic marker associated with a disease, whether or not that gene gets switched on is largely due to challenging familial, social, and environmental factors.
Chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death – the World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled them the greatest threat to human health. More than 50 percent of all deaths result from inflammatory diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and autoimmune and neurodegenerative conditions.
So, the questions are: Why does the body set itself alight? And what can we do about it?
There are a number of reasons the body uses inflammation – to kill bacteria, fungi and parasites, to destroy toxins, to address autoimmune disorders, and to eradicate repeated acute infections, just to name a few.
But the rabbit hole goes deeper.
We really can’t divorce chronic inflammation and immune function from the condition of the nervous system. And, research suggests that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) influence the developmental trajectory of the nervous system and set people up for chronic inflammation, and the related chronic diseases, later in life.
Stretching may contribute to a reduction in inflammation – check out these interesting studies by Helen Langevin and her team at NIH and from Chenchen Wang at Tufts University.
Langevin’s team gently stretched lab rats (she said that they loved it, BTW), and although it was primarily to see if stretching could resolve acute inflammation (it did) the team also suggest that gentle stretching may have a positive effect on chronic inflammation as well.
So, asana practice may be useful in this context.
If you have read this far, I doubt you need another evidence-based reason to practice yoga – but your friends and family might!
Grandma’s Crisco habit was probably not the best thing for her arthritis or her heart, but it was also probably not the only factor. She was a loving person with a warm heart and a desire to care for all around her. She had a strong social network and a big happy family and she loved cooking for us all.
She baked with love in her heart and we internalized that when we scoffed down her treats. While diet is one important factor in health and well-being, we can’t blame everything on it, not even on a blue can of white gunk.
in loving memory of Helen Weber
- Berrueta, L., Muskaj, I., Olenich, S., Butler, T., Badger, G. J., Colas, R. A., Spite, M., … Langevin, H. M. (July 01, 2016). Stretching Impacts Inflammation Resolution in Connective Tissue. Journal of Cellular Physiology, 231, 7, 1621-1627.
- Furman, D., Campisi, J., Verdin, E., Carrera-Bastos, P., Targ, S., Franceschi, C., Ferrucci, L., … Slavich, G. M. (December 05, 2019). Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nature Medicine, 25, 12, 1822-1832.
- Morgan, N., Irwin, M. R., Chung, M., & Wang, C. (2014). The effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system: meta-analysis. PloS one, 9(7), e100903. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100903
- Pahwa R, Goyal A, Bansal P, et al. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2020 Nov 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
- Vital Signs Fact Sheet: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) pdf icon[865 KB, 2 Pages, 508]
CDC’s Vital Signs fact sheet featuring ACEs and their negative impacts on health as well as education and employment opportunities later in life.
Please check out my free class, Chair Yoga for Your Brain and Nervous System (you’ll also receive a stick figure script!)
WEATHER THE STORM:
A SUBTLE® YOGA GUIDE FOR BUILDING RESILIENCE
Cultivating Calm in Times of Crisis – A Subtle® Yoga Tool Kit
Discover how to help your students get through this crisis… by gaining an incredible skill set from the comfort of your home and within a few hours!
Subtle Yoga for Greater Nervous System Resilience and Brain Function
Download my FREE Yoga class video - plus script and stick figure cheat sheet today! Try something different! Help your students focus on their nervous system, not just their hamstrings!
Stay Up To Date!
Sign up for our newsletter.
You have Successfully Subscribed!
We would love to hear from you!
Please wait while comments are loading...
Your blog has a serious subject. It is always enriching to read. It also always makes me laugh. Brilliant!
Thank you Kristine, my Mom used Crisco as well. I’m guilty I have a small can in my pantry for biscuits. I only make once a year!!! Thank you for the insight. Great blog.
I love this story. I hope that I convey to my family not only that food is medicine, but that it is relationship, love, memories and experiences. I can just picture your grandmother come by in and owning that space!😊 Health is no just on thing, is it. We want the magic bullet, a quick fix to our issues, but it is many things woven together that create a healthy, whole life. Beautiful. Thank you!
Yes so true Kendra – and that was my grandma for sure – she owned the space! I love that!
Thanks Kristine, yet another thought provoking blog. Educational, informative, useful and with humour. In the UK my mum used Stork margarine for baking and lard for pastry and frying!
Thanks Denise and oh boy, today I wouldn’t touch Grandma’s cakes with a barge pole, but at the time they were perfect!
This is such a great blog and such important information to consider. Thank you!
I just love this article! While we may like to blame our diets and diseases on our parents and grandparents, it’s so interesting that science shows that there are so many factors involved. Chronic stress and inflammation is really a big one in our modern culture. Thanks so much for sharing science from a real human perspective!
The timing of this post is uncanny- I had an intensely vivid memory of my grandmother’s ever-present box of Wondra flour over the weekend while doing breathwork!! It not only brought up the feelings of love and safety I experienced with her from childhood, but also a parallel to the white patriarchal culture of my family of origin- Wondra flour is as white and inflammatory as it gets… Not what I was expecting to surface during pranayama, LOL!
Wow, Thanks Jen. I love these kinds of coincidences – which they aren’t – because everything is interconnected of course. On another connected note, I have been reading Toni Morrison’s book The Source of Self-Regard, which is a collection of essays. She reinterprets the white whale in Moby Dick to be the cultural bane of whiteness – the albatross around our collective cultural neck – something that really couldn’t be discussed openly at the time. It’s fascinating, powerful and sad. I can imagine Ahab as an arthritic old man – Inflammation is clearly biopsychosocial.