Health Lessons Learned in a Buddhist Monastery

by Sarah Healthy LivingComments: 26
Buddhist Monastery in Kyoto, Japan

Shortly after I finished graduate school in December 1987, I embarked upon a life changing trip to Asia.   I spent most of  my time in Japan and thoroughly immersed myself in this culture so vastly different from my own.    At that time, there was no internet or cell phones.    As a result, outside of the major cities, Japan was still very much a closed society to foreigners.    So much so, that when I visited some of the most remote northern areas of the country, my friends and I were constantly followed in the streets by curious residents and children alike!

Everything is different in Japan, from how you eat and what you eat to even how you go to the bathroom!

I found all this change refreshing, exhilarating as well as horizon broadening.   Eager to see as much of the country as possible, my friends and I purchased open tickets to the Shinkansen (bullet train) and proceeded to go just about everywhere that had a train station on Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four main islands and also known as the Mainland.

One of the most amazing places I traveled to was Kyoto, formerly the imperial capital of Japan and home to some of its most ancient architecture and history.     Unfortunately, shortly after I arrived in Kyoto, I came down with a nasty case of intestinal flu.

Desperately needing to rest and recoup for a few days, I took refuge at a Buddhist Monastery that offered overnight accommodations to foreigners wanting to experience authentic monastic life.    Only a few tourist rooms are available each night, and I was very fortunate to get one immediately upon inquiring.

One of the requirements for staying at the monastery was attending temple at 5:30am each morning with the monks.    Following a service primarily consisting of traditional Buddhist chanting, breakfast was served for monks and tourists alike in the very simple, dining area.

I stayed for several days in the monastery and thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet as well as the tranquil grounds and enchanting gardens that the monks lovingly maintained.

The monks as I observed them were certainly a healthy bunch and their faces were shockingly so unlined that they looked no older than 25 or 30 at the most even though most of them were well over 50.   The tranquility of monastic life certainly agreed with them, of that, there could be no doubt!

Could it be that there were other factors at play in the monks’ physical youthfulness as well?     While I am sure there are many reasons why the monks are so startlingly young looking despite their age, here are the three primary things I noticed in my sojourn at the monastery:

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

The monks were very careful to go to bed early each evening.   As I recall, lights out was no later than 9-10pm.    Of course, going to bed at this time provided the monks with a full 7-8 hours of sleep before the bell tolled to get ready for morning temple at 5am or so.

Hours slept before midnight are some of the most important.   I’ve read in several places that some researchers consider that each hour of sleep before midnight counts as two hours of sleep after midnight!     No wonder going to bed early and rising with the sun results in such a refreshing, energetic start to the day!

Moreover, going to sleep no later than 10pm ensures that you will be in a deep sleep cycle around 11pm – 1am or so when many body systems are detoxing, recharging, and recovering from the previous day’s activities.    Being awake at this time can cause toxins to back up in the liver and have a negative impact on health over the long term.

Proper Breathing

Obviously, one of the activities that comprised much of the monks’ time is meditation.   The goal of meditation is to still the busy activity of the mind and to tune into one’s intuitive and creative nature.   For some, this is a spiritual exercise and for others, a mechanical one to achieve improved relaxation and health benefits.

There are 5 types of brain waves:  Alpha, Beta, Theta, Delta, and Gamma.    During meditation or controlled breathing, Beta brain waves, the ones associated with thinking, problem solving, and stress, decrease considerably, while Alpha (active, peaceful rest), Theta (dream sleep, deep relaxation, or daydreaming), and Gamma (highest mental state and alertness) brain waves increase.

If the monks are able to consciously reduce stress by actively reducing Beta brain wave activity during the day and increase brain waves associated with relaxed creativity and a very high mental state, it’s no wonder they physically manifest less effects of aging on their faces!

How can a busy person possibly implement these techniques?    Learning to breath properly will go a long way in this regard.   Taking short breaks during the day to take a breath or two deeply through the nose for 8 counts, hold for 4 counts, and exhale slowly for 8 counts (ideally in a “Darth Vader” type of throaty exhale that will stimulate the vagus nerve and the relaxation response) is all it takes.      Many Yoga or Pilates instructors teach proper breathing as part of their classes, so incorporating this type of exercise into your schedule can assist you in learning this technique.

The vast majority of people breath improperly with shallow, “chest” breathing and this contributes significantly to rapid aging through oxygen deprivation and increased stress on body organs.   Learning to take brief breaks during the day for only a minute or two to breathe deeply and properly can make a world of difference to the long term effects of stress on the mind and body.    The importance of this simple habit was very apparent to me during my stay with the monks.

Breakfast of Champions

The Buddhist monks I stayed with were vegetarian but not vegan.    Despite their vegetarian lifestyle, animal based foods (just no meat) were incorporated into meals with regularity, especially breakfast.

The typical monk’s breakfast included steamed vegetables, a cup of fish broth, and a poached egg.    The interesting thing about the poached egg is that the white of the egg was cooked, but the yolk inside was completely cold and raw! Isn’t this in line with what research has borne out .. that the egg yolk is most nutritious raw but the egg whites should be cooked if consumed regularly?    Egg whites contain a glycoprotein called avidin which binds up biotin, one of the B vitamins.   In addition, the egg white contains antinutrients similar to those found in beans and nuts that can interfere with protein digestion and cause gastric distress.   Cooking inactivates the avidin and other enzyme inhibitors, which may explain why the monks traditionally cook the whites but not the yolks!

It wasn’t until I read Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride MD’s book Gut and Psychology Syndrome that my experience at the Buddhist Monastery came flooding back to me and I realized how amazingly healthy the monks’ breakfast truly is!     Not only does a breakfast like this optimally prime the digestion for an energetic, highly productive day with no drag as would happen with the heavily grain, sugar and caffeine based Western breakfast, but it also is the type of meal that optimally feeds good digestive flora and starves pathogenic bacteria and yeasts in the gut.

In addition, the practice of consuming fish stock on a daily basis provides glandular boosting properties as fish stock is traditionally made with fish heads which includes the thyroid gland.

This is the type of meal that, when consumed regularly, prevents and heals autoimmune disease!     No wonder I didn’t see any of the older monks walking around with canes or walkers.    They all had a spring in their step and were clearly not suffering from arthritis, fibromyalgia, or any other joint/muscular based degeneration.

Not only did their faces look young, but their bodies were young as well!

Traditional Lifestyles Have Much to Teach

Although my stay with the monks in Kyoto was brief, the memories of their healthy habits have lingered in my mind for years.    While I’m certain there were other contributing factors to their health and youthful demeanor, their practice of early to bed/early to rise, proper breathing, and a no carb breakfast which included easy to digest raw animal foods and digestion priming fish stock were no doubt important factors.

We Westerners can learn many health lessons from this traditional manner of living!


Sources:  Meditation Gives Brains a Charge, Washington Post

Broth is Beautiful

What’s the Story With Raw Eggs?

Comments (26)

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  • mezzo

    If you poach the eggs slowly and keep the heat down you should be able to manage to get the whites cooked and leave the yolk raw. You have to watch the pot (awareness…) and catch the right time when they are done. I do the same with boiled eggs – I like them soft-boiled and the yolk is always still quite uncooked when I eat them.

    February 11th, 2011 5:20 am Reply
  • Joann

    Fabulous post, Sarah. Thank you. I enjoyed the additional references/links as well. I’ll be giving fish stock a try as soon as I find a reliable fish monger in the ATL area.

    February 10th, 2011 6:10 pm Reply
  • Lisa

    This is a lovely post, beautiful photo and I’ve already forwarded it to a friend who would love it as much :) I worked thru college and as a night nurse burning the midnight oil for several years and now have to rebuild my health. It’s all such a learning process and I can do many, but not all the things that are recommended in my “re”education. I would dearly love to live in a place where I could find the foods I need! We will get there! Thank you Sarah.

    February 10th, 2011 4:44 pm Reply
  • Joanna

    I wonder if they poached the egg in the fish stock? I’ve never poached eggs before. I’m just now trying to ease myself into runny yolks.

    February 10th, 2011 3:37 pm Reply
  • Kelli

    I’ve been trying to learn how to mediate. It hasn’t been easy (as its never been easy for me to relax)! But I’m trying to get my emotional state udner control.
    I’ve always been fasinated how in other cultures people live to such ripe old age completely without “modern” medicine or western culture. It just goes to show you that it is possible!

    February 10th, 2011 2:50 pm Reply
  • Cynthia

    I feel more tranquil just reading this! The picture I am sure helped as did the breathing instructions. Great post, dear Sarah.
    Cynthia in Sarasota

    February 10th, 2011 11:35 am Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      Thanks Cyn, I sure wish you lived closer so I could give you a hug more often! :)

      February 10th, 2011 3:18 pm Reply
  • rebecca huff

    how interesting! How do you think they cooked the egg whites, yet did not end up cooking through to the yolks? Thanks for sharing! Rebecca

    February 10th, 2011 9:36 am Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      I have no idea, Rebecca! It was a shock, I tell you, when I bit into that poached egg and the yolk was completely raw inside!! LOL This was LONG before my understanding of the benefits of raw foods, I can assure you. I was pretty grossed out. I wish I could have found out how they did it, but they didn’t speak English anyway so it wouldn’t have helped to ask! :)

      February 10th, 2011 9:47 am Reply
  • Relaxation Techniques For Stress

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    February 10th, 2011 1:13 am Reply
  • Jaima

    Hi Sarah,
    How do you freeze your fish stock? I’ve heard glass mason jars sometimes break.

    February 9th, 2011 2:27 pm Reply
    • Sarah Smith

      There is no problem with freezing in glass so long as you leave enough space for the liquid to expand when it turns to ice. So leave at least an inch at the top. I’ve been freezing stock (and soup) this way for years with no problems.

      February 9th, 2011 3:22 pm Reply
  • Megan

    I love learning from other cultures! When I was in Spain I really really enjoyed eating fresh fish regularly and fresh fruits & vegetables. There was very little packaged food we ate and while I still occasionally sought out “American food,” I felt super healthy while I was there! I’m sure the afternoon siesta helped a bit too.

    The point about going to sleep early (and helping your liver detox) really hits home to this night owl! I stayed up so late so often during college and now I feel my poor liver is paying for it.
    It has truly been a revelation to me in the past year that a nourishing diet & a change in lifestyle can do so much good for your health.

    Question: I have chicken broth available regularly. How does one imbibe it in the morning? Warmed on the stovetop, or cold straight out of the fridge? What is most nourishing? And how long do you think chicken broth is good in the fridge? (I usually freeze large portions, but keep some available for more immediate use in the fridge.)

    February 9th, 2011 2:19 pm Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      Hi Megan, the fish stock was warmed in a cup. That’s it. Stock lasts about a week in the fridge.

      February 9th, 2011 3:45 pm Reply
  • Jo at Jo’s Health Corner

    Wow. What a great experience to stay with the monks. I always wanted to experience something like that. We Westerners can learn a lot from traditional like the monks.

    February 9th, 2011 2:05 pm Reply
  • Angela

    Very interesting. I’ve been learning a lot by reading your blog and have been slowly decreasing the sugars and grains in our diet. Thanks so much

    February 9th, 2011 1:01 pm Reply
  • Linda

    Every time I read about meditation I wonder what it must be like. I just can’t slow my mind down. Thoughts are always going through. Even when I try to clear my mind I have to think to myself, slow down, don’t think of anything, slow down. And the next thing I know more thoughts are running through it. How do you do it?

    February 9th, 2011 12:54 pm Reply
    • Joyce

      You WILL also be able to slow your thoughts down if you practice the type of breathing that I referenced above. The exercises are very easy and provide great results. Meditation is very difficult for most people, so the best place to start is with the breath. We all have to breath! !(And you can do these almost anywhere). I have experienced the same results from these breathing techniques as I have from meditation. “Ujjai” actually means Victory, and in this case it means Victory over the MIND!

      February 9th, 2011 2:45 pm Reply
    • Sarah Smith

      It takes practice, and even still there are days when my mind won’t slow down enough. But it is still worthwhile to try, and you can still see benefits to meditating even if you’re not perfect. One tip I read that has really helped is to count to 10 breaths, then start over and count to ten all over again. It gives your mind something to focus on (the number you are counting). And then be patient with yourself, not admonishing. When your attention wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.

      February 9th, 2011 3:21 pm Reply
      • Linda

        Thanks for the tips. Now I just have to remember to try the deep breathing.

        February 10th, 2011 3:53 pm Reply
  • Joyce

    Please see the attached study about the positive effects of Yogic breathing exercises on your body. This study is specifically about the results of doing the Yogic breathing techniques (Sudarshan Kriya ) as taught by The Art of Living ( Sarah is referring above to what is called “Ujjai” breath (not sure if it has 1 or 2 j’s) ; I’m sure it must be on YouTube somewhere, and is an Integral part of the AOL practices.

    FYI: The Art of Living has the largest volunteer organization in the world!

    February 9th, 2011 12:39 pm Reply
  • Soli

    I wonder how easy it would be to stay in such a monastery now. And let me say I am just a little envious that you got to do such a trip, I have yet to make it to Japan but love the country and culture. People over here could definitely learn something from the monks, even though we seem to fetishize them being semi-vegetarians (at least to perceptions in this country) without looking at the entirety of their diets.

    February 9th, 2011 12:08 pm Reply
  • Rita

    Yes, those Buddhist monks have a lot figured out.

    February 9th, 2011 12:08 pm Reply
  • Sarah Smith

    What a wonderful post! I’ve been learning about meditation and Buddhism techniques recently as being a stay-at-home mother has really made me aware that I need more self-relaxation techniques. Of course, I’m not able to get away to any retreats (nor do I even consider myself a Buddhist, but am open to anything that helps bring more peace and calm into our home), but I’ve found that even reading about Buddhist techniques can have a great impact on my daily life. I especially like the books “Buddha Mom” and “Buddhism for Mothers”, as they give great techniques to use in normal life. And the breakfast of the monks sounds delicious!

    February 9th, 2011 10:47 am Reply

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