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.
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.
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