I recently visited Kerala for the first time and learned some life lessons by observing the culture and lifestyles of the Keralites. From the moment I landed in Calicut, I was mesmerized by the luscious greenery surrounding me in all directions, and the sense of serenity and tranquility that engulfed me. I soon realized that this peaceful air emanated not just from the abundance of nature, but from the people themselves. I began to closely observe every person, situation and event that came before me. From my observations, I learned that this society knows something about how to live -- they practiced what we learn in theory, and it was evident everywhere I looked. I picked up a few health tips, and felt compelled to share these simple practices often overlooked in the west.
Keralites remain calm, poised and peaceful in many situations
The first thing I noticed while staying in Kannur, a small city in the north part of Kerala, was the unchanging look of peace and calm in people's faces. From the rickshaw driver making his way though serious traffic to the perspiring nurses at the hospital where I worked who barely took a minute's rest, everyone, I mean everyone, was calm, collected and remained undisturbed, regardless of the conditions surrounding them. Daily in the small hospital, patients would come forth every hour for treatment. They would take a seat on the hard bench out front, and wait for an attendant to admit them. Some patients sat for hours without even a glance of acknowledgement from hospital reception. They sat with poise, undisturbed, as if they had chosen to spend their day like that. No one was on their phone (though they had them), no one looked for a newspaper to read, no one even gently asked when their time would come to be seen. I used to observe them as I worked, and repeatedly I'd request one of the attendants to go and address the waiting patients. I imagined myself sitting there...I would last about 5 minutes before I'd get up and inquire about my turn. Then I'd find something useful to do with my time. The thought of having to sit and wait for hours, doing nothing, (not even doing pranayama), was unsettling. I would certainly become uneasy. (I recall the waiting area at the DMV.) But after observing day after day, I began to notice something about them. They didn't seem to be "waiting" at all.... they were just Being. They had come to the hospital for a purpose, and they left the rest to be seen. They had faith that the right would happen when it was due to happen. And they sat, completely detached from any expected outcome. As a typical American, I used to approach some of the patients, apologizing for the wait. They would look at me in bewilderment, yet they understood my English.
In another scenario, a careless rickshaw driver hit the car I was driving in, a new car clearly prized by my hired driver. He demanded the rickshaw to pull over as he pulled his formerly spotless car aside and walked over to the other man. I was excited - I was about to witness a Kerala street fight! My driver and the other man were in disagreement - but in the most unusual way. Their expressions were not changing and their voice never got loud. There was no aggression. No one stopped to observe. Instead, they were each narrating their interpretation of what happened and how they were going to deal with the dent. After about 15 min (much to my disappointment) both drivers calmly took back to their seats and continued forward. No fight. No drama. (If this was my native state of Punjab, there may have been a complete all-out brawl, with other drivers, pedestrians, neighboring cops, and dukaan-wallas included, giving me many video-worthy moments!)
Keralites have learned, perhaps through cultural norms or tradition, that it's just not worth losing our peace of mind over most of what life puts before us. Peace equates to happiness. And to be happy means to live. They clearly demonstrated this.
That's the first health tip I made permanent note of and still think about every day.
Keralites are simple people valuing personal comfort and self respect over show
Another quality I observed in Keralites is the simplicity with which they lived, dressed, ate and entertained. For example, one will notice right away that Kerala dress is similar across the populations - men in soft cotton lungis and pressed linen shirts, and women in sober-colored, cotton saris. One gold chain and a simple bangle was all the adornments. The dress was the same regardless of social or financial status. At one point while on my morning walk, I saw a shiny silver Mercedes parked on a driveway with engine on. I noticed the owner stepping out of the vehicle, and I took a moment to observe the dress of the Keralite owning such a fancy car. He wore a fresh white lungi and half sleeved crisp shirt. A few minutes later, a man came out of the house and sat in the back seat, wearing the same kind of dress. He was the actual owner. The former was the driver. There was no way to differentiate the two based on appearance. It was beautiful and refreshing to see. I witnessed this over and over. At the hospital, we had to ask patients their income level (low income patients received free medicines) because there was no way to judge who was rich and who was poor. It was amazing to see that Keralites with an abundance of wealth had no need or desire to change their humble ways for the sake of demonstrating their achievements to others. I don't know if humility is their objective, or that they value their personal comfort more, choosing a soft and airy lungi over a handsome pair of constricting jeans, but I did see that Keralites associate simplicity with happiness. It was evident also in how they lived and how they spent their free time. They live simply and enjoy simply, regardless of how much money they have.
While there was so much beauty to be seen in Kerala, there was also the somber evidence of prevailing disease. The Kerala diet has changed, and the rate of illness such as diabetes, hypertension, heart problems, etc is on the rise. Kerala surpasses all other Indian states in diabetes, much to my surprise. In my next article, I'll explain what I saw and why it's happening...and what we can learn from the new, punishing Kerala diet.