Today we’re joined by my good buddy, Dr. Pedram Shojai—The Urban Monk. You’re going to learn how to improve your health, happiness, and well-being using the Ancient Wisdom of the East.
Pedram is the founder of Well.org, movie producer, Taoist monk, and doctor of Oriental medicine. Also, he loves pumpkin pie.
On this show, you’ll learn:
- How to reverse adrenal burnout
- Why Pedram gained (and how he lost) 15 pounds of flab
- Why you don’t need to give up pumpkin pie if you want to be healthy
- How to use ancient wisdom to keep up with the unique demands of the modern world
- PLUS, how to sleep when you have kids!
PEDRAM SHOJAI: THE URBAN MONK
Abel: Pedram is the founder of Well.org, producer of Vitality and Origins, host of Health Bridge and Urban Monk podcasts, master herbalist, Qigong master, and doctor of Oriental medicine. I had the pleasure of appearing in his documentary, Origins, to talk about The Wild Diet. Speaking from experience, I think Pedram’s favorite food is Pumpkin Pie.
Specifically your pumpkin pie, Abel.
Abel: Because it’s the best pumpkin pie in the world. We’ve been working on that recipe for years.
Pumpkin pie was always my comfort food. I could destroy a pumpkin pie any time of the year. Then it got to the point where dairy sucks, gluten sucks, there’s too much sugar in it and you can’t enjoy the food that you love… and you [Abel] helped me hack that. Thank you for that.
Abel: Some people get the idea that if you want to be healthy, you can’t eat grains, sugar, nuts, nightshades… you get overwhelmed and crash out because you feel like you can’t live anymore. But there’s always a way to make food into medicine. It breaks my heart to think you can’t eat pumpkin pie because you have an egg sensitivity, for example. But when you get a closer relationship to your food, you realize you can make whatever you want.
My oldest kid is almost two and he’s a monkey, he’s running around breaking things. I could either say “no” to everything, making his world restricted with bumpers around it, and create a world where he’s constantly suppressed. Or I could Judo-flip that energy and say, “Let’s do this!” And turn his world into something awesome.
Abel: Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about what you do and who you are. You’ve been a practitioner of health for a long time and in different ways. You know how to turn those knobs and fix yourself. Can you give us a brief background? Who is The Urban Monk?
I was pre-med at UCLA and was interning with heavy duty doctors, and I looked down the barrel of their lives and I realized… you’re miserable dudes. I’m walking down corridors of hospitals wondering where all the life is… then I’m in taking Tai Chi classes and feeling the life coursing through my pores, and I’m thinking…
“Here I am in the halls of health care seeing nothing but sickness and despondent people. Then I’m in the park doing Tai Chi and I can actually feel health, and I can transfer health through my palms.”
I was done. I couldn’t stay on that wagon. I transitioned into becoming a practitioner of these things. I found a Taoist abbot, a Kung Fu master, and before I knew it I was a Taoist monk.
I started transitioning to becoming a doctor of Oriental medicine, and I started walking the earth. I was in the high Himalayas when I realized I needed to be back in the world.
I was told by one of the guys, “You don’t belong here. You’re a regular dude. You speak good English, get out of here.”
I came back and started trying to help people.
The Urban Monk was really born out of my folly—trying to get busy L.A. urban working people to try all the mystical stuff that helped me. Guess what? You don’t have an hour and a half for yoga and then two hours to meditate and then jump in a salt bath. You don’t have time for that. It’s a decadent lifestyle because an ascetic renounces the world.
If you have a car payment and a cell phone bill, if you have anything that holds you to real life down here, you don’t have that kind of time. So how do I translate the wonderful stuff I learned into the busy life of someone who can use it?
My focus for the last 20 years has been to bring the mountain down to the city.
Abel: One of the cool things about your book is you approach people with their unique stories from so many different angles. It’s always a different person, but they’re suffering from the same thing. What’s at the root of our problems?
Compression of time, being caught in a velocity that we can’t sustain with our consciousness.
It’s tumbling down the white water of life and not being able to be mindful throughout the day. Thinking that we’ll be able to take some sort of break, like on Friday or on vacation or in retirement, to catch our breath.
It’s wrong to think that you should double click meditation once you’re already freaked out, versus it being part of your operating system.
Throughout the day you should say to yourself, “Dude, you’ve got too many windows open. Let’s shut some down.”
Abel: In a metaphorical sense, we all have too many windows open. As humans, it seems like we can’t handle that. When you look at our brains, you can see those problems in an MRI machine. What is it about meditation that can help that?
It’s about understanding what you’re doing in a given moment so you can throttle back and stick to doing one thing at a time. In the martial arts, I’m not blocking sixteen punches at the same time, or I’m going to be punched in the face. I’m blocking one punch at a time, it just looks like I did it all instantly.
But that’s the hallmark of the illusion of multitasking that we’re all falling for. Thinking we can do multiple things at the same time instead of executing on individual items effectively and then looking like a master because it looks graceful.
Abel: You ask professional athletes or musicians how they did that incredible thing, and they’re like, “I don’t know.” The brain doesn’t work like that. You don’t engage the rational part of your brain when you’re performing on the highest level. It’s really about putting in the practice first.
What can people do to incorporate the practice of mindfulness, whether they’re lifting weights, driving in L.A. traffic or writing an email? How can you combine this ancient world of knowledge with the present one of chaos?
Everything you do is an opportunity to practice the central premise of these Chinese philosophies… it is called cultivation. I can sit here when my appointment doesn’t show up and get angry and check Facebook for the hundredth time today. Or, I can say, “Thank you. You just gifted me five minutes to catch my breath.”
Then I just take a couple breaths, feel what’s happening in my body and check in. You can even do this in the car—just don’t close your eyes—but you can breath and focus and concentrate in the car.
Abel: People will say, “I can’t meditate because I’m not wearing LuLu Lemon,” or whatever other bumper they put around it. It doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s about just catching your breath when you’re lifting that weight, thinking about your bills, or even talking to your buddy.
You’re breathing, you’re focusing in, and every cell in your body is behind one another in the execution of this task which lines up your energy with your consciousness and the fibers on your muscles. So, you become more focused, more agile and you become more connected.
That whole mind-body-spirit connection actually exists.
Talking to professional athletes, they start developing this sense of spirituality. They’ll say, man when I’m in that flow I feel so connected to everything. I can hear the guy 50 yards down coming my way and I don’t have to look to know where he is. What is that?
It opens up your perception because you’re stepping in and using your body as we’ve used it for hundreds of thousands of years.
All of our instincts connect us to the present moment.
Now we have a hundred million things pulling us out of the present moment. That’s the crisis of modernity. Our attention is being splintered, so we’re sitting there trying to catch our breath wherever we can.
Abel: One thing I love about hanging out with you is that you’re always focusing on recalibrating stress. I try to do that, too. When you’re racing a mountain bike down a mountain, you can’t be thinking about email or anything else because you’re about to die if you hit that tree. Same thing in martial arts. It’s a recalibration of stress, and you talk about it in your book.
A lot of us are operating at this buzzy higher level, and we’re freaked out all the time. What is it about those old-school “stressful” things that snap you back into reality?
Stop number one is: Lower abdominal breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system response. You’re either in fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest. What that means is that I have the pathway to my own ancient circuitry that forces my nervous system to chill out. It works on healing and building muscle, relaxing and doing the things I should be doing way more often, yet I forgot to do it… and I never remember it in my busy day.
The narrative of the world is “you can rest when you’re dead.” The narrative is that weakness is all around you and you’re supposed to work harder than the other guy… and frankly, that’s like smoking crack.
Everyone is smoking crack in some way, whether it’s in the form of excess caffeine or pills that push us to go beyond our bodies’ productive capacity. Then we wonder why our bodies start to fail on us. We wonder why our cortisol is making us store fat and then we’re like, “I go to the gym, I eat paleo. Why can’t I lose weight?”
I do corporate wellness consulting. We’ll go interview a bunch of people about what’s going on with the company. And the moral of the story is, these guys are working their employees too hard.
Then you have go back to the guy that hired you and tell him, “You gotta chill out. You’re killing them.” Then it becomes a negotiation about the economy and how we run things.
I can’t fix the whole economy, but I know how to fix a person by teaching them how to keep their finger on the dial of that burn rate. You can burn up, or you can be there for your family five years from now.
Abel: There’s an element there that’s so deeply human. When I was doing Krav Maga martial arts a few times a week, I was never so relaxed as I was after I got punched in the face.
I was done, then I got in my car and drove home. I’d get cut off in traffic and be like “ahhh.” It’s like Fight Club. You get punched in the face and you laugh because it just snaps you back into what it means to be human.
We think that our cell phone bill that went over in bandwidth and cost us an extra $40 is stress. Try having someone punch you in the face. I call that recalibrating your stress bucket.
It could be mountain biking, martial arts, jumping out of a plane. Something to put perspective back on those survivor genes. All that petty nonsense starts to be reframed into just that.
A warrior doesn’t worry about the small stuff. A warrior doesn’t worry about anything—they can’t afford the luxury.
Abel: That’s the other side of meditation. Turning everything off and going into yourself. What are some things people can do to start to recalibrate stress?
I do this for 2,200 companies, so I have a lot people to practice with. What I’m having my employees and students do is this: You set your watch to beep every 25 minutes, and you take a five minute break. During that break you’re going to do ten reps of something: squats, PiOs, pullups, pushups, stretch out, go for a walk. Take a break, take a breath, and come back in.
That’s 800 reps during the day. Even if you work for 8 hours and you’re one of the fortunate people that can make it to the gym for an hour, there’s studies that show that doesn’t work off the effects of sitting all day.
You’ve shut down your legs and the circulation of the energy protection capacity of the big muscles in your legs. You have a crunched back and crunched posture.
Instead, refuse to be that still water. Move throughout the day. Do little things all day, throughout the day. People who are doing this are going for the coffee pot less, craving sugar less, and making better food decisions.
This will bring back your active metabolic rate which brings up your resting metabolic rate. After a couple months, not only are you feeling better, your mood is better, and you’re burning the weight. When you go home and you’re not wiped out, you have the energy to be there for your kids, your spouse, your family, or for that reading you’ve been wanted to do.
You don’t feel like you’re washing up on the beach of life hoping you can make it ‘til Friday. It’s one of the most revolutionary things you can do, and all it takes is to have your watch beep at you.
HOW TO HACK YOUR SLEEP (EVEN WHEN YOU HAVE KIDS)
Abel: There’s a distance between knowing what to do and doing it. When I worked in a big consulting firm, the running joke was that we needed to hire ourselves because the business was a mess. When you had your first child, Sol, life got ahead of you. You kind of fell apart. You gained some extra weight, you weren’t sleeping well, there was a lot of stress. How did you get back on track?
I’ve never met a health guru that doesn’t have a story like this, but I’ve seldom met a health guru that tells a story like this. Let’s be human.
I was running everything according to plan. As a guy who had never had a kid, you don’t realize what a hurricane class 5 can do to your town.
I’m in the middle of a movie launch, I’ve got all sorts of stuff going on. We had this kid, and I did not throttle back on my work life at all. Suddenly I had this crying child waking us up multiple times a night. Then a few months into it, I start wondering why I’m getting fat.
I was running out of the steam that I had taken for granted… I spent a couple months not sleeping. This is the beginning of the end for a lot of people.
They start not feeling well. You don’t come back and the show must go on, then you have your second kid and third. Next, something happens at work or you go through a divorce. That’s where pharmaceutical companies start to show up and smile. You don’t have time for this, just take this pill. Then you start taking that slippery slope down to reliance on drugs and not ever feeling like you used to.
I studied with the Dalai Lama, I’m a doctor, I have the answers. But then life walks up and punches you in the face and you’re like, “Oh, darn.”
I am a lot more sympathetic toward parents now, and I owe it to my family, myself and my world to figure this out. So I started looking at everything I knew to put my life back on track. You can’t run your life the same way expecting similar results when life changes.
I started hacking my sleep. I worked on light and dark cycles, keeping the bedroom cooler, worked on getting the kids to sleep and all the things that go into taking a proactive position. It’s like having a leak in the plumbing, you have to fix it or it’s going to flood you out.
SHOULD HUMANS HIBERNATE?
Abel: You have a strategy that’s like a winter hibernation. How does that work?
Today is my last day of the year before I go down. I will spend the next two weeks cuddling with my family and getting sleep at every turn. I don’t apologize for being lazy in the winter. Don’t feel like you are a wretch for taking that time.
The holidays are now about running around, fighting for parking spots at the mall, and going to red sweater parties, spending money on crap you don’t need, making sure bankers are still rich and China is putting mercury into the environment… and all this B.S. we are doing in honor of Jesus’ birthday.
It’s amazing to me how much crap we put ourselves through and how exhausted we are at the end of the year, for what? During hibernation time. During the time we are biologically programmed to rest, catch our breath, let ourselves restore and repair so we can enter into the spring with some energy. This is a very Taoist practice, and for me it’s worked incredibly well and for thousands of my students.
Just have a culture around hibernation and relaxation:
- Hang out by candlelight
- Spend more time in the dark
- Stop watching TV at night
- Spend time by the fire reading a book
- Hole in
- Spend more time with loved ones in a less hectic way
I promise you, you’ll know in the spring how good that was for you. People will find they have more spring in their step. All I needed to do was what my body asked me to do, instead of taking a double espresso and pushing through.
Abel: We’ve been trained in that regard. You go to the best school possible and you do all the extracurricular activities to get in. You have to sacrifice sleep, friendship, relationships. You get there and then you keep going. You get a job and work really hard. And your vacation is drinking as much as you can through the wee hours of the night, sleeping a little during the day. You wake up hungover, then spend the day doing event after event to take photos in Paris and Tokyo. You never stop to catch your breath, to find your center, and to really look toward the future as a whole person again.
How do you get that out of your head and your habits when it’s been indoctrinated?
If you never go to Paris, it’s also a shame. But there’s a time and place for everything.
Take time when you’re tired to catch your breath, then when the sun is out make hay.
I love life and traveling and a good party. There’s a time and a place for it. When you find yourself exhausted, taking a 14 city tour of Europe is probably not the answer. That’s where the Bahamas comes in, or a camping trip. That’s where a staycation comes in.
Having the dedicated time to chill out and recover… once you’ve given yourself that, then the world is your oyster.
I love to experience places, just walking in the streets, feeling the time signature of the place that I’m at. Wherever we go, especially as Americans, we carry our own unique crazy time signature. We take that and infect the time and place we go into instead of allowing the time there to resonate into ourselves so we can feel the different vibration of the land and the people we are visiting.
Hacking time is a really important thing we‘ve lost. Time is one of our most incredibly valuable allies, once we learn to breathe into it. We are all caught in crazy time. We don’t know how to slow it down, which comes back to meditation—one of our most amazing tools that comes down from thousands of years of helping us turn that dial.
Get out of fifth gear. We have other gears and meditation is really about learning how to pop in that clutch and find the different gears in our consciousness and understand that it’s not all “go go go.” Once we get that, then it enriches the breadth of who we are and who we can be with other people, who we can get along with, and how we can spend our time in a way that nourishes us.
HOW TO LOSE 15 POUNDS BY TWEAKING ONE THING
Abel: Go back to the earlier experience you shared about losing that sleep… You were able to lose fat during the process of regaining your health. What were the little hacks in your own dietary habits at that time?
You start robbing Peter to pay Paul. Once you’re tired, you start justifying that cup of coffee in the morning. I didn’t really drink coffee until my first kid—this thing showed up that changed my life and in comes this chemical that was really helping in the short term. It was like a high interest credit card that someone gives you in college, and you use it to go buy beer and then the bill comes.
So, I started using coffee as a temporary fix, but what I didn’t realize (and I knew better) was that coffee started skewing my adrenals and my blood sugar and I started craving sugar and carbs. It changed the profile of the fuel I was consuming by the nature of spiking up that cortisol and driving into my day. Then I realized… oh, oh, oh, this is bad. It took me a couple months to catch on.
I cut off the carbs. I added more protein and fat. I cut off the coffee, started green tea and then throttled back on caffeine. The weight started dropping off and I started exercising again. I was still getting little sleep but I was able to sustain my lifestyle and get back into the gym.
I added heavy weights and built up the natural energy production capacity my body.
We are really good at producing energy and fuel in the right way. But we get into the western diet and the stagnant lifestyle and we start self-medicating with stimulants. It really throws us off.
I put on 15 pounds, but it started coming off pretty quickly once I realized caffeine was the trojan horse that got within the city walls.
Abel: What was it about coffee? Some people (like me) can do it in a conscious way—where you’re not drinking a pot and at the wrong time. What do you recommend?
For me it was much more understanding what it is as a medicine. Tylenol is great when you need it, but only take it when you really need it. I’ll have a cup of coffee now and again. I just don’t want to be in a cup-of-coffee-a-day type of lifestyle.
It’s the same thing with alcohol. I just finished a gong where I did no grains, no added sugar, no alcohol for 100 days. I felt great and had all sorts of stuff going for me!
I’m not an alcoholic, and I’ve since added alcohol back, but I’m still no grains and no sugar. I’ll go out to a party and have a couple of drinks.
I keep it in my life because it’s not disruptive.
With coffee, you just need to know what you’re doing. You can swipe your credit card, but you better have the money to pay for it. If you’re just swiping and you don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from (i.e. you’re just charging up with caffeine because you’re not sleeping) that’s where people get into energy debt slavery with coffee.
If you don’t know when you’re going to catch your breath, then you’re in big trouble.
Abel: A lot of people are just drowning—they think there’s no hope and they want to lean into it but there’s a better way. How do you help?
People come in spinning like a cyclone. I’m the end of the line guy, where they’ve seen every expert in the world and they’re like, “Help me! You’re my only hope.” No pressure.
Usually the answer lies in simplicity, not further complexity.
You say you want to exercise. Let me see your phone? You’ve booked everything else in your life, but where’s your exercise?
We are terrible at making and keeping appointments with ourselves, and then we complain about our self care falling apart.
When most people get to me, they’ve broken so many promises to themselves that every single thing they say they want to commit to ends up being something that proves to them further that they’re a failure… because they also don’t follow through with that. It creates a gap between your intention and your word.
If you say you want to go to the gym, then book an appointment to go to the gym for that half hour at lunch. When something shows up that wants to crowd out that gym time, you have to say NO.
If you’ve said yes to something that’s personal care, you have to say “no” to the thing that wants to crowd it out. We’ve become so terrible at saying “no” that we get overwhelmed.
Let’s look at all the BPA and phthalates and garbage in the environment that’s crowding out your cells, your physiology, your endocrine system that’s making you fat and unable to think clearly and let’s go back to real food.
When was the last time you were out in the sun? Let’s get outside, let’s get moving, let’s eat food that came from the earth and let’s start simplifying our commitments and realize you’re not going to build the Eiffel Tower in a week. But if you really want to build an Eiffel Tower, you can dedicate the next ten years of your life and get it done.
What are you doing today and in the next thirty days to get it done? By really slowing down, you can do a lot.
For those that know me, I do a lot. I’ve got multiple movies, TV shows, books—I’m a busy dude, but I’m never the guy that’s panicky or stressed out because I’m doing one thing at a time. And I’m doing what it is I set out to do. When those things are done, I move on to the next thing.
WHY YOU SHOULD CUT GRAINS FROM YOUR DIET
Abel: You mentioned your gong. It’s basically a commitment to yourself for a defined period of time. You also brought up fasting from grains. It’s actually a very ancient practice to free your soul from the grain demons. Can you talk about why you would ditch grains for that period?
When you look at grains, the plant has evolved to surround the seed with antinutrients so animals don’t eat it. What it does is slow down our digestion and cut enzymatic activity. So, take those and mill and refine them and eat them day in and day out, then you wonder why you can’t poop. You wonder why the inflammatory origins of the body start in the gut, why your joints are aching and every time you run it hurts and you can’t do it.
I’m not running marathons—if you want to eat some pasta and run a marathon that’s your business. I’m lifting in the gym, and I don’t need that type of carbohydrates. Not many of us do. Very few people who are super skinny can get away with that. Most of us are building inflammation and putting on fat when we eat grain. There’s a whole thing in Chinese medicine of cursing people by cursing their grains.
It’s a funny theory, but arguably the first example of biological terrorism and sabotage is Moses poisoning the grain silos of the Egyptians and giving them all ergot poisoning (moldy grain). The eldest sons all got ergot, which puts you into a hallucinogenic state and you get really sick.
It’s easy for grains to go rancid and get messed up with mold—the biology of the husk already slows down metabolism… if a grain says, “Don’t eat me,” then what are we doing in our culture? I just do better without grains.
If you think that sounds crazy, then don’t tell yourself you’re taking them out for the rest of your life. But you can do anything for 30 or 100 days. Then if you find you feel better, it’s a bonus for you!
Abel: What did you replace grains with?
I ate more vegetables. I’m not paleo exclusive. I think legumes are good—soaking and cooking lentils are a great vegetarian protein source. I eat grass-fed pastured meats and fish. I upped my vegetables and plenty of coconut oil (not a dairy guy) and lean meats.
I was not hungry. I was not moody. I don’t need caffeine to get through my days. I had a baby a month ago and I’m fine. The proof’s in the pudding.
If you take out the grains and take it easy on the stimulants, start moving big muscles through the day and learn to calm your mind, you find it doesn’t take as much energy being you.
Now you can reinvest that energy in your dreams and aspirations and all the good stuff in life that we always complain we don’t have time to get to.
WHERE TO FIND PEDRAM SHOJAI
I’m really proud of my book—The Urban Monk. I get to speak like I speak. I cuss, and do what I want to—the potty mouth Urban Monk.
It’s about diet, sleep, and it’s full of really important hacks and eastern wisdom that I found actually work for thousands of people throughout the years. People have read the book and love it.
Abel: Can you leave us with a simple exercise we can use to turn down the noise?
When you start feeling the noise boot up, you can feel it in your shoulders starting to rise. Stand up real quick and just shake your body. Inhale, exhale, and shake out the whole body as you exhale. Do that for like two minutes and you’re like, “Whoa, cool.”
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Do you meditate? What other strategies do you use to slow down and bring mindfulness to your day. Leave a comment below to share with us.