Self-help guru Deepak Chopra on genetic health and his six pillars of wellbeing
How are you feeling today? For many of us, being able to answer "pretty good" seems like a personal victory. But Deepak Chopra - the spiritual guru with the bejewelled spectacles who counts Oprah Winfrey as a bestie - says we need to raise our expectations. The aim? To leap into "radical wellbeing". So, what does that mean exactly?
"Radical wellbeing is beyond just good health," says Chopra, speaking from his office in California. "It's a state where you're constantly experiencing a joyful, energetic body; a loving, compassionate heart; a restful, alert, reflective mind; and then, most importantly, lightness of being, carefreeness and joy. Those qualities result in a great body and mind expression, automatically."
Our phone call is scheduled for five o'clock on a Friday evening - a time of the week when many people feel exhausted. Is it really possible to live with all of these qualities when we are overstretched, overworked and at the end of our tether? "I can only say that has been my life," says Chopra.
"I know a lot of people who have the same experience of life, too. So, yes, it is possible."
Deepak Chopra, who has been dubbed the "prophet of alternative medicine", is a physician who trained in neuroendocrinology - the study of brain chemistry. He has devoted his career to exploring the link between mental and physical wellbeing. He taught Elizabeth Taylor how to meditate, has holidayed with Oprah Winfrey in India and, according to Lady Gaga, helped her to "embrace my own insanity".
This month the author of more than 80 self-help books will visit Australia to host a two-day conference in Melbourne on the Neuroscience of Enlightenment and the lifestyle choices that can, he says, radically boost wellbeing and even reverse genetic ageing. His latest book, Super Genes, examines the "epigenetics of meditation and self-directed biological transformation" - basically, how certain healthy habits can influence our DNA and reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's.
Chopra is a good advertisement for his own product. This year he will celebrate his 70th birthday. "Which is shocking," he says, "because my biological age is probably 35." He puts his inner youthfulness down to "good, peaceful sleep every night; a little bit of meditation every day; healthy emotions like love, compassion, joy and peace of mind; movement - at least 10,000 steps; and, finally, good nutrition."
The pensioner - if you are to go by his chronological age - gets up at 5am every day to meditate and then does a yoga class. He follows an ayurvedic diet and used to be a "heavy meat eater" but now prefers a vegetarian diet with a little seafood. He believes that "the biggest enemy in people's diet is inflammation", and so advocates foods that fight inflammation such as berries, tomatoes, ginger and turmeric.
Although Chopra's sentences are populated with New Age jargon such as "inner being" and "deeper consciousness", he backs his beliefs with medical research undertaken by the Chopra Foundation, a centre where "science and soul co-exist" and which funds trials into alternative therapies.
Unlike the common stereotype of New Age thinkers shying away from technology, he is never far from his smartphone and always travels with his Dream Weaver, a light and sound machine that he claims eases the wearer into a meditative state. On Facebook, where Chopra has more than two million followers, you can take a virtual reality tour of his office. He even has his own Xbox game in which the player has to navigate through various energy chakras.
"Technology is neutral and you can either be its master or its slave," says Chopra. "I would say, set aside time every day for technology, just like you should set aside time every day for relationships, mindful eating and sleep."
His latest project is a wellbeing app called Jiyo. It features how-to articles about self-growth but is also a social platform. You can follow "people like you" and post "insights" you experience on your wellness journey. This isn't about posting gym selfies - although they're sure to feature. He believes people should be more open about their emotional coping mechanisms, whether it's how they've overcome insomnia or learnt to meditate without drifting towards thoughts about their shopping lists.
"It's good [for friends] to meet once in a while to talk about these things," he says. "Or you can do it now by creating your own [online] social network."
Chopra is a proud father and grandfather. He recommends that women read a memoir written by his daughter, Mallika Chopra. Living with Intent chronicles her attempts to find spiritual contentment as an overwhelmed mother. He has also co-authored a book with his son, Gotham, about the circumstances that "pushed us together in adulthood".
Does he have any advice for parents who want to raise happy, healthy children? "Before the age of five, or even 10, children follow your example," says Chopra. "Children will not listen to what you say but will watch what you do. It's a phenomenon called mirror neurone. We learn by imitation."
Let's be realistic. Trying to improve fitness, nutrition, sleep and emotional wellbeing all at once might be over-stretching it. So, which healthy habit would he prioritise? "Take a few minutes every now and again during the day," he says. "Just do something really simple: observe your breathing. It's a good place to start for those with very little time."
As we finish, I wish him a good evening, not doubting that he'll have one. Does Chopra ever have a bad day? "I don't ever feel stressed," he says which is partly due to a special night-time ritual.
"Every night I sit in bed and I review the day like I'm watching it on a video screen and I'm the main character," he says. "I do that for about three minutes and then I say, 'today is already a dream' and I let it go. I don't hold on to anything, ever. That means I'm always emotionally free."
The six pillars of wellbeing
Deepak Chopra's latest book, Super Genes, tells how lifestyle shifts can help you reboot your health at a genetic level.
• A typical modern diet is very likely to cause inflammation, which research has linked to many chronic diseases and obesity.
• To reduce inflammation, add prebiotics - substances that buffer the body from inflammation - such as oatmeal, pulpy orange juice, bran cereal and bananas to your breakfast.
• Consume probiotics - foods that contain active bacteria - once a day for gut health. These foods include active yoghurt, pickles and sauerkraut.
• Eat mindfully - eat only when you're genuinely hungry and stop when you are full.
• Reduce snacking by eating only one measured portion in a bowl; never eat straight from a bag or packet.
• Three factors generally lie behind the problem of chronic stress: repetition, unpredictability and a lack of control. Think of a dog barking outside your window; you don't know when it will end and you have no way of stopping it.
• Decrease background noise and distractions at work. Also, avoid multitasking by dealing with one thing at a time.
• Leave work on time at least three times a week and don't bring work home. Leave the office at the office.
• Avoid people who are sources of pressure and conflict. Even normal office behaviour, such as forming cliques and gossiping, is a source of stress that has the potential to be emotionally devastating.
• If you struggle to deal with negative emotions, ask your doctor about cognitive behaviour therapy.
• The secret to exercise is this: keep going and don't stop. It's better to be active all your life at a lower level, rather than to be at a near professional-level in high school, say, and then stop completely.
• At work get up and move around once an hour and devote half your lunch break to movement, even if it's walking around the block.
• Be in nature more: go outside for five to 10 minutes three times a day.
• Acquire more active friends and join them in their activities. Plan a shared exercise activity with your spouse or friends twice a week.
• Make leisure time more creative – think beyond TV or internet.
• Volunteer to help the needy with housecleaning, painting and repairs.
This will serve as both exercise and a morale boost.
• Meditate every day for 10 minutes.
Sit with your eyes closed in a quiet place, put your attention on the tip of your nose and focus on the sensation of your breath coming in and out of your nostrils.
• Don't look at meditation as an aid for the bad days you experience ("I'm feeling good today, so I don't need to meditate"). It should be a lifelong practice.
• Take 10 minutes out of your lunch break to sit alone with eyes closed, preferably outside in nature.
• Notice what a relief it is to take big deep breaths when you are upset or nervous, and how ragged your breath becomes when you are anxious or stressed.
• Join an organised meditation course in your area. Search for meetup.com to find local groups that meet all around the country.
• Make your bedroom as dark as possible. If total darkness is impossible, wear a sleep mask.
• Drink a glass of warm almond milk, which is rich in calcium and promotes melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
• Experiment with herbal teas associated with good sleep such as chamomile, valerian, passionflower, lavender and kava kava.
• Explore abhyanga, a self-massage technique that uses warmed sesame oil, lightly massaged into arms, legs, neck and torso (go to YouTube to see tutorials).
• Don't ignore insomnia. In some studies sleep disorders have been associated with triggering Alzheimer's disease and are also associated with high blood pressure.
• Take responsibility for your feelings. Wellbeing depends upon happiness, yet most people don't really make that connection.
• Write down five specific things that make you happy and, on a daily basis, do at least one of them.
• Set a "good news policy" at meal times, whether it's the radio station you choose to listen to or the topic of conversation around the table.
• Explore a time in your past when you were happy and learn from it, whether that means re-embracing an old hobby or getting in touch with an old friend.
• Become comfortable with delayed gratification – consider how your choices will make you feel in the future as well as today.
Edited extract from Super Genes by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi.