January 18, 2011

Veg out: the yoga schmoga flexible un-diet.

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” ~Albert Einstein

Have you ever thought about giving up meat? For a day? For a month? Forever?

Since the early 90s, I have experimented with diets and “lifestyle changes” including, but not limited to, the Atkins low-carb diet, pescatarian, raw vegan, fasting, secretly eating meat and openly eating meat. After growing up in Texas eating brisket, burgers and fajitas, I rather arbitrarily decided to try vegetarianism in the fall of 2001 when I was enrolled in hatha yoga teacher training. I thought, “Hey, why not give it a whirl?” I have chosen to remain (mostly) vegetarian, because, to me, the pros outweigh the cons. Give it a try and you’ll see — the vegetarian diet is an integral part of a healthy, moral and mindful way of life.

No matter what you are eating, from pork to pancakes to plums, the absolute #1 greatest ever yoga schmoga un-diet “rule” is to eat with complete mindfulness. Meaning: chew slowly, put down your eating utensil between bites, take small bites, taste the food fully, and (perhaps most difficult of all) only eat when you eat — don’t watch TV, surf online, tinker with your phone, or even read. Just eat.

The traditional yogic diet is lacto-ovo-vegetarian, meaning milk and eggs are allowed in moderation. Drawn from the tenets of an ancient system of Indian medicine called Ayurveda, yogic nutrition values foods that are full of prana, or life force. Healthy, happy vegetarians eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes — foods as unprocessed as possible. Eating processed vegetarian food that is full of unnatural additives and preservatives is no healthier than being a die-hard meatatarian. Vegetarians and omnivores alike need to eat garlic, raw or steamed vegetables and fruit like pineapple, papaya, mango, and banana, as these foods give us essential enzymes for digestion.

Another great reason to explore vegetarianism is the yogic philosophy of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In mainstream veg vernacular, ahimsa is known as animal rights. The idea is that cows, chickens, pigs and even fish should not suffer miserable lives or torturous deaths purely for human pleasure. All animals feel pain and express aversion to it. Yes, I understand the philosophical argument for humans hunting animals for their meat. But do you kill your own animals to eat? Let’s face it: the vast majority of carne in our world is produced in giant, corporate-run factory farms that mistreat animals.

Beware: the vegetarian diet requires discipline and forethought. Our society is addicted to fast, packaged food with little to no nutritional value. As you can imagine, the food situation is even worse here in Central America than in the United States. Upon moving to Guatemala City in 2009, I gradually, lazily started to nibble on the occasional piece of meat, which was easy because 97% of restaurants put bacon, beef, or lard in everything. Then I bounced back the other way, and made a weak attempt at going vegan last year.

As long as I prepare my own meals, all is well. I no longer buy eggs or cheese at the grocery store. But when I go out, I just don’t want to try that hard to altogether avoid them. Hence, I am a vegetarian who indulges in the occasional dairy-liciousness. And if I am out volunteering in the campo and am offered chicken and rice for lunch, I’m not going to turn it down. That would be rude, and I would be very hungry after all that hard work.

If you cling to your identity as a “vegetarian” or “vegan” or whatever, you’ll probably experience unnecessary guilt and self-deprecation for eating meat or dairy, however seldom. I spent years secretly swiping turkey after Thanksgiving dinner because I hadn’t eaten it openly at the table, but I still craved the tryptophan. I go through long phases in which I have no desire for meat, but when I do feel tempted by it, I ask myself why. Do I simply need more protein? Is it comfort? (I notice the desire to eat meat crops up when I am in a self-piteous and/or self-destructive mood.) Laziness? Or a genuine desire for meat?

So, why do you eat meat? Habit? Taste? Tradition? Societal or familial pressure? Self-destruction? Mindfulness is paying attention to your motivations and intentions (and everything else too). If you’re interested in exploring the vegetarian lifestyle, a great way to start is by eliminating meat one or two days per week. See how you feel. Try it for a whole week, or maybe even assign yourself a a ten-day challenge. Remember: to be a successful vegetarian, you do need to plan ahead and prepare healthy meals for yourself.

Each one of us and our society as a whole benefits when one more person chooses better health, higher morals and mindfulness through the vegetarian lifestyle.

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