Which Came First: The Yogi Or The Vegetarian?

2 02 2010
sanctuary cow

photo: jill ettinger

By Jill Ettinger

The longer we live, the more we ought to come to appreciate hypocrisy. Not as a flaw, mind you, but as an inherently human trait in all of us, void of any failing. We change our minds, our tastes, and our beliefs as we come to deeper understandings about the changing reality and our place in it. Opinions and actions can transform in an instant after being exposed to a perspective we’d not thought of before. Change of heart can happen at any time to anyone—even those with the most stubborn egos—and that’s perhaps more beautiful and interesting than it is deceptive.

There are few things I say definitely about myself, avoiding the pointed fingers of those who will view my personal adjustments through a condemning lens. From the very innocent changes, such as outgrowing a favorite band in high school, to more shocking shifts like (heaven forbid) voting for a political party I’ve previously pledged not to. Yet there are those things, those preferences that have become rooted in my daily routines. Like bands I loved indisputably in high school, these practices may indeed one day disappear completely, but for most of my adult life they are the closest I have come to truly identifying myself: I am vegan. I practice yoga.

As far back as I can remember, eating animals was a disagreeable concept for me and I went through all the phases a budding vegetarian goes through. It wasn’t until I planted myself in a natural food café as a line cook that I learned to fend for myself in a world of McNuggets and Big Macs. My diet and my world altered in a profound way and I never looked back. Yoga too had a way of creeping in after what seemed like years of being present, however undefined. Both practices became a path, though not a purpose. Like my vegan preference that sent me to work in a café so I could cook learn to for myself, I made the trek to an upstate NY ashram to become a “teacher” of yoga for no other student’s benefit than my own.

At the ashram, we were served a strict vegetarian diet void of heavy spices or sweetness. While many students had a difficult time adjusting to the food, I found it to be full of flavor and satisfying. It varied only slightly from my regular dining at home. I was reminded of all this while reading this bemusing article by Julia Moskin in the NY Times last week. Ms. Moskin peers into the only-in-America yoga ‘practice’ of “Yoga for Foodies,” where students follow yoga class with gourmet meals in the studio, slurping up soup on the sweaty mats they just downward-dogged all over.

Moskin also tackles the interesting subject of “meat-eating yogis.” Like much of India, most of the founding fathers of yoga promoted a  meat-free diet rich in fruits and vegetables to augment the austerity of the physical practice of asanas (yoga postures). Ahimsa is the yogic practice of committing not to harm another. Yet the definition of that commitment (especially for many modern Americans) does not necessarily translate to vegetarianism, let alone veganism.

As someone who followed a vegan diet before beginning a regular yoga practice, it was a step I gave little thought to until those days in the ashram where I heard the moaning of my fellow classmates craving pizza and burgers. At the time, I recall feeling as though my famished classmates “weren’t getting it.” That clearly their inability to adopt a vegetarian diet to further their yoga practice meant they had no real practice at all. It’s easy now to admit my naivete, but back then I was convinced there was only one answer. And what has become clear to me nearly a decade later is that being convinced of anything—especially of what yoga “means”—is not yoga. Not really. Yoga is you. It’s me. How we perceive and react to our world is our own versions of the practice because we can’t practice it as or for anyone but ourselves.

The rigidity and dogma of yoga or any spiritual practice is there for us to use as a way to unravel our own understanding of who we are, and who we are while doing those things. The moment we become attached to it, is the moment it stops having any meaning. I came away from the ashram realizing the whole wide world is an ashram. The practice is always about what I choose. I recall listening to a story told by the devotional singer, Krishna Das, that in Buddha-like effect said the bank robber must rob banks just as the doctor must heal. Neither is right or wrong, they simply are. Taking sides on the meat-eating vs. veg-eating yogis is a choice, just as choosing a diet is to all people who eat.

There’s a yogic mantra “Lokha Samasta Sukinoh Bhavantu,” which roughly translates to “may beings every where be happy and free.” Obviously, we must first understand what it means to be happy and free for ourselves before we can make any sense of what that means to any other being. For some, that sense of happiness may include eating meat. And while that’s not a reality I can personally relate to, I do understand that hypocrisy is little more than a process of understanding and assimilating more of the world than we previously identified with.

The yoga “industry” is a booming $20+billion dollar a year business. There are many practices in the current state of yoga that Swamis of yesteryear could probably never have fathomed, including eating meat. But something tells me that more than anything, they would be delighted to see that so many people are taking steps toward personal transformation in a world that needs yogis, perhaps more than ever before.

Leading by example is valuable, especially to those willing to follow. What’s right and wrong with the food industry and the practice of eating animal products is everyone’s responsibility, yogis or otherwise. Yogis have a long history with dairy, enjoying it as a food and using it as a devotional offering. I remember refusing to participate in a puja (worship) ceremony at the ashram because we’d have to pour milk over a statue. I saw the store bought milk jugs sitting next to the beloved deities that represented purity and austerity. Having seen what goes on in large-scale dairy farms, I knew this “offering” was anything but what it was to represent. Now, I wonder, if maybe that isn’t the point after all. By gesturing with something so far from what it used to mean, we cultivate deeper meaning within ourselves.

Someday, surely, everything will all make sense. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, we must do what it is we are called to do.


Dear America, Are You Really Going To Eat That?

6 07 2008

Dear America

By Jill Ettinger

While much of the globe is constantly faced with scarcity, disease and starvation, the Western world insists on self-inflicted suffering via those American Dreams we’ve got our chubby fingers so tightly wrapped around. As strange as it may be to comprehend, many Americans are literally starving themselves through gluttonous over-indulgence. Author John Robbins (Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution) has noted that there are equal numbers of people in the world (roughly 1.2 billion of each group) suffering from diseases related to poverty and from diseases of affluence like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. There are different ways to skin a rabbit, as the saying goes — and leave it to Americans to discover that apparently even stuffing it works.

Unprecedented calls to action to “be green” are sending mixed messages and leaving consumers confused about their choices. Hybrid cars, energy credits, and recycling are mainstream topics while perhaps the biggest way we can make a difference for ourselves, our families and our community is in the foods we eat — or don’t eat. Many people in the world still grow and harvest their own food, and they have an innately organic relationship with what they put inside their bodies, yet Americans need a decoder ring for navigation through super market aisles (which can be found at the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms cereal oddly enough…).

The packaged product revolution has made a lot of people rich and a lot more seriously unhealthy. Corn syrup and refined sugars have had such an obvious, gross effect on humans, yet we as a nation seem stunned, paralyzed by the trend that’s feeding on our children like a parasite. And while the Whole Foods Revolution is sweeping the nation, it’s catering to an obvious audience and creating more questions about what’s really safe to eat in this country.

Read the full post on Reality Sandwich here

Einstein, Atheism and One Big Bowl of Rice

20 05 2008

By Derek Beres

On Sunday, the NY Times website listed two articles back-to-back in the Science section that, at first glance, seemed unrelated. In terms of content, that is true; in terms of how we understand and experience the world, they are too close for anyone’s comfort.

The first was titled “Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000.” Much to the surprise of everyone involved in the auction — twenty-fives times the original estimate, in fact — a 1954 letter that Albert Einstein wrote to philosopher Eric Gutkind pulled in close to a half-million dollars. The text had been circulating online, with Einstein citing the Bible as pretty naïve and childishly superstitious. He did not outwardly deny the existence of a god figure, but did say such “is too vast for our minds” — a claim that aligns him more with agnosticism than atheism.

The second article in the section was titled “World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut.” It uses a recent agricultural tragedy in the Philippines as an example of what is occurring globally: there is not enough money to back proper research and planting procedures to stave off droughts and, as this piece discusses, insect damage. One such bug is the gnat-sized brown plant hopper, which recently destroyed large rice crops that feeds an already-impoverished population. The tragedy is that it could have been avoided, had the money been given to scientists that could have bred a more resistant crop.

There are too many “could haves” in the world right now.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.

Stuck in the 80’s: High Fructose Corn Syrup’s Survival Tactic

5 04 2008

By Jill Ettinger

The 1980s were a strange time in America. I turned nine just a month after Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term. I remember my parents explaining we had a new president who used to be an actor. How would he do his acting now, I wondered. My mom had just started working full-time, after my parents’ separation, and although we had a live-in nanny, my siblings and I spent a lot of our time unsupervised.  We were spastically enthusiastic about all things pop culture, discerning our likes and dislikes as they were delivered to us through radio, Solid Gold and peeling through copious stacks of Teen Beat with Cheetos residue on our fingers.

By early 1982, our dad had cable television in his apartment, where we’d spend weekends packing in as many hours watching MTV as he would allow (which was many; Pops is in the TV business, and was just as curious as we were). I soon developed an unrelenting ritual of begging the folks to take me to the mall every weekend so I could do my best to convince them that looking just like Madonna was tantamount to me not falling off the face of the earth. (If only we had Tevo back then, I could have paused the “Borderline” video and counted exactly how many black rubber bracelets one must wear.)

As the “brought to you by the 80’s” culture penetrated our country (like a thick splinter stuck in the foot), a line began to fade where artistic expression became muddled up with corporate agendas. Coca Cola launched a clothing line. I (gasp) owned crest toothpaste earrings. I remember clearly the moment of glory (?) when I purchased them, deciding that they would absolutely define me as some sort of rebel. (Against what I still don’t know.) But it was during Benetton’s bourgeois branding experiment that I was shaken into another reality. When they launched their shamelessly self-promoting line of rugby jerseys – which bore their name boldly across the chest – my father refused to buy one for me. “You’ll look like a walking billboard. They should pay you to wear something like that.” His point was shattering, too true to ignore.  My reliance on corporate agendas began to turn into suspicion.

If identity was defined by what we do or do not wear, then I saw too that important designation relating to what we eat, as it literally is what we become. My body was made of Starburst, Cap’n Crunch, Lemonheads, Twix Bars, Doritos and of course, Pepsi. Sometimes a 7-Up or Sprite would do, but nothing was ever as delicious as Cherry Coke. Maybe Dr. Pepper. Our mom tried to get us to drink juice and other beverages, but they too were just as sugar-laden as the sodas, only less obvious about it.

By 1984, Coca Cola’s famed “secret formula,” which had been virtually unchanged for one hundred years, replaced its number two ingredient with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The shift, like many as they occur, was regarded as just another advent of technology – modern science making lives better and easier. Microwavable brownies and high fructose corn syrup, that’s good modern day Jetson’s living. Syrup made from corn even sounded better for you than just plain old sugar. That stuff makes you fat and your teeth rot. Our family like most hardly gave it a consideration. Though my parents both were “diet” soda drinkers, the taste was too bitter for us kids, and we’d complain until we got to drink the sweet stuff. Obviously  we weren’t the only children who felt that way.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century where HFCS is considered to be the main source of calories in America, and one in three children are likely to develop Type II diabetes. Those same corporations that made us sick by hiding this stuff in virtually every packaged/processed food are now the same ones trying to normalize the disease in hopes that we don’t stop getting it, but rather just learn to live with it.

HFCS has long been touted as a “natural” sweetener by the Corn Refiners Association, but a look at the ballooning waistlines of our six year olds (and its other unhealthy effects) are clearly unnatural. The FDA, who has deflected regulating the term “natural” in the wake of strict organic regulations, are now raising a red flag in the food business, saying that HFCS is not natural and should not be allowed as an ingredient in products that make natural claims.

We’ve recently seen trans fats begin to exit our diets, with some cities banning it altogether. But Coca Cola? It’s an American institution for heaven’s sake. It’s not as simple as just reformulating back to sugar. There’s a huge, thriving corn syrup industry that needs to make record profits every year. So what will happen now that the FDA is suggesting more discrimination be used in marketing HFCS?  How crafty will marketing get to continue to invite people into serious health problems?

One thing I remember most fondly about the ’80s brands (before my disdain for corporations set in) was how needed and loved they made me feel. They were really open about their dependency on my measly allowance. Yes, lonely bag of Skittles, I will buy you and make you part of me. Don’t look so sad. Just keep tasting good for cheap and making cool commercials that look like my favorite videos. As I read this article on Jay Z and Live Nation “reinventing” the music industry yet again, I couldn’t help but think that maybe they should all quit beating around the bush and put the cards on the table with Coke, Pepsi or Taco Bell. (Roca Wear could be Coca wear … ya dig) Heck, those brands are already paying for placement in music videos and sponsoring tours anyway. All they need to do now is get MTV to start showing videos again and it’ll be just like the ’80s never left.

The Sinner’s Dilemma

31 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Christian ideology is as American as store-bought apple pie and rising oil prices. Whether or not one calls themselves a Christian, our culture has adopted beliefs and behaviors espoused by this doily-trimmed dogma. Media and marketing outposts deliver suggestive invitations guiding Americans into these “guilty pleasures” and abashed self-serving rituals. We collectively covet the seven “deadly” sins we’re supposed to be avoiding.  Whether (1) gluttonously consuming foods we know are decadently destructive, or having one-too-many drinks after work while we (2) wrathfully or (3) enviously judge and ridicule our bosses, employees, co-workers, spouses, friends and neighbors to boost our own (4) pride, or we (5) greedily pile into shopping malls (a.k.a. corporate-mega-churches), excessively spending on meaningless junk that we then take home and sit around staring at like (6) sloths while choosing to ignore the many ways in which we could be making the world a better place. But none of our offenses are as un-Christian as the American rated-X obsession with (7) lust – that evil pleasure-dome where sinners line up to burn in eternity. (Please stand clear of the V.I.P. line for politicians only.) This is not happening on occasion, but all the time. It is the American Dream: indulge, and then of course, renounce and condemn.

The anonymity of the Internet has opened up a world of sexual predation once requiring brazen acts much too bold for many to consider. Internet pornography is the largest and fastest growing segment of the World Wide Web. The days where the only options for adult entertainment were found in seedy, dark adult video stores and strip clubs have transformed themselves into polished websites just a credit card click away from every turn-on imaginable. But thanks to the Church, sex has transformed itself from a basic human behavior into confession-worthy infatuations and that awfully unfitting word “naughty” preceding what is most often anything but.  And though we are now connected in ways never before possible through technology, it is also isolating, creating seclusion and delusions about the organic world we are an intrinsic part of. Humans are social creatures. Though sexuality can be explored anonymously, there is nothing like the real thing.

Energetically, sex and sensuality revolves around the female form. (Certainly that’s not true for everyone, but we are a largely heterosexual society, you know, perpetuating the species and all.) The odalisque exploitation of this powerful force results of the inability to control it – as men are wont to do. Ripened sexuality has become glorified so massively, defining the merit of women that a qualified-but-aging female presidential candidate will surely lose because nothing lacks power like a woman who is deemed un-sexy.

So what is sexy, exactly? Strip clubs are home to some of the unhealthiest, over/underweight, drug addicted/alcoholic women, yet men still pay to see them naked. This is how powerful female sexual energy is – even in its most vulgar deviations, men are still drawn to it.  Women reduce themselves to fit into contrived categories of sexy through elective surgery, excessive dieting, cosmetics and so on. Much more so than men, they define themselves by their desirability. That’s not to say being – or rather feeling – sexy isn’t a good thing, it most certainly is a significant human experience, but it is not something defined by bra or waist size.

If women have evolved to understand this sexual energy, then it is no surprise that it has come to be used to our advantage. This goes for the drug addict as well as the corporate ladder climber. These self-serving exploitations occur constantly but go largely ignored, rather, accepted and expected. HOWEVER, as soon as a woman uses that energy to deliver a powerful message, like a group of vegan strippers in Portland have done, criticisms fly out of control. Feminists are outraged at these women  (and the club owner, a vegan for over 20 years) for using their bodies to stand for an important cause, while the regular old stripper whose only “cause” is herself appears to be of no concern.

Portland is a progressive, vegan-friendly artistic community. Its laid back sensibility is an idyllic backdrop to a counter-culture seeking respite from the frenetic corporate world and the exploitations of women so often used in big business. As forward thinking as Portlanders seem to be, this rally against sensibly using sexiness obviates that bigger issue rampant in our sinful nation: Guilt.  It happens every time the food issue is put on the table. Americans are fastidiously obsessed with sterilizing their homes and over-medicating the smallest ailment, yet they can’t seem to let go of eating infectious disease-causing “food.”  They rally behind hot dogs and twinkies even though study after study reveals health and longevity are largely linked to predominantly plant-based diets.

Though not conventionally sexy, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk learned to capitalize on other women’s mainstream sex appeal early on in her animal rights endeavors. “Lettuce ladies” wearing nothing but green leaves where bikinis should be or super models and sexy stars like Pamela Anderson going naked in anti-fur campaigns to garner attention for the un-sexy plight of animals in captivity. It has worked incredibly well – PETA is the largest animal rights organization with close to one million members worldwide.  Their controversial choice of using sex appeal in many of their campaigns strikes a nerve with feminists, preachers and (apparently) confused citizens.

While there are still places in the world, in this country even, where people grow their own food, not just a little herb garden or tomatoes, but the whole meal, Americans for the most part are oblivious to food without packaging, no nutrition fact boxes, no price tags, but real, fresh whole foods eaten as a form of sustenance and survival. This can and should be pleasurable, but as food is first and foremost fuel, it’s got to have a nourishing value to warrant consuming. At least that was how humans related to food until the last century. Put a can of Pringles in front of a Moroccan shepherd and eating them is probably one of the last things he’d consider. Food in America, like sex, is defined and controlled by corporations. Companies invested in our addictions and diseases are obviously interested in their being an association between things that are bad for us being indispensable. It’s why we cycle between binge eating and dieting, idolizing sexuality in others while one in two marriages in this country ends in divorce.

If we want to break this cycle and stop punishing ourselves, we’ve got to start asking those questions that make us tense up. What’s sexier: A woman eating a greasy hamburger or biting into a juicy summer peach? Is there really something un-masculine about eating vegetables?  Certainly men will find the woman with fruit on her tongue more appealing than a chunk of gristle, so why then would he assume a woman finds it sexy if he were gnawing on the leg of a helpless chicken? It never got weird enough … Hunter S. Thompson said that. Well, what’s weirder than eating things that are making us sick and being repulsed by healthy sexy women?  Maybe the only thing weirder would be to stop doing it.

The Feng Shui of … French Fries?

2 03 2008

By Derek Beres

Long known as mavens of turnover – all fast-food restaurants could really be termed” In & Out” – one California McDonald’s recently bucked long-held trends in annoyingly bright lighting and uncomfortable bench seats for a little bit of Asian serenity. This NY Times piece spotlighted a Los Angeles-based store that recently consulted feng shui experts in designing an atmosphere conducive to staying around and hanging out a bit – with its own McCafe selling expensive coffee beverages.

The problem (as if there were just one) is that the form does not fit the content. There is nothing relaxed about fast food, from the service and product to its effects on your digestive system. Everything about it screams urgency, and to try to parlay a fashion trend into big business of this nature is to continue to mask a wolf in cow’s clothing. Not that this is at all surprising. Remember, there is such a thing as a McVeggie Burger.

It is interesting that such a chain would test drive new digs like this, but it speaks as much about the social uncertainties of their products as it does the blatant and misinformed reality of their product. The term “health” is not as ambiguous as some would like us to believe. Salads with iceberg lettuce and dressings made of eight different types of corn product will not wipe out the lethal meat product that’s the main course. The same goes for the atmosphere. Disguise and deception in the food industry is old indeed; this latest “innovation” should be seen for what it is, before the practice too becomes commonplace.

The Skinny on Being Fat

9 02 2008

By Jill Ettinger

One of the most startling realizations in John Robbins’ book, The Food Revolution, is that there are equal amounts of people in the world dying of starvation as there are from obesity. Though the two conditions might seem as far apart from one another as any two human ailments can be, they are in fact two sides of one coin: malnutrition.

Eating is an indelible human necessity. While we have evolved tremendously, adapting to new environments as the world and time changes, our need for regular intake of sustenance has not altered. Our relationship to it however, has.

In 1908, the British Pensions Act was passed (the Social Security act passed by Roosevelt here in 1935), creating what we now know as the standard retirement age of 65 – a time for rocking chairs, grandchildren perched on knees and looking back on what must have seemed like a long life. But at the turn of the century, the average life expectancy was only 50. Diseases we now treat effortlessly were often catastrophic. (Medical breakthroughs like the discovery of penicillin happened in 1928.) Back-breaking labor was more commonplace, so people worked hard and lived fast. Overall health of the American family was impressive, though. People were far more active a hundred years ago; the concept of “empty calories” was inconceivable. Those were the days when children walked uphill five miles in the snow without any shoes to and from school. You get the picture.

Time changed things and our relationship with food began to be modified accordingly, but it still resembled ancient ways more than our present condition. Choices weren’t available, like mocha frappucino soy lattes; there was just coffee or tea. Fried eggs or boiled – either was fine as long as they nourished a person. Most people weren’t too skinny or too fat, and those that were, well, most likely suffered some disorder that caused this imbalance.

Fast forward to now and it’s a much different world. For one, life expectancy is soaring. Despite our decreasing quality of food, we have an abundance of drugs to keep us going. Scientists have learned that the human body has the potential to live well over a hundred years. Sixty-five might soon be the year people get a college degree rather than retire. Boomer experts like Ken Dychtwald predict an incredibly impressive world of possibility for the aging. Even as we stand in the face of the climate crisis with its potentially catastrophic complexion for New Earth, humans still have an inherent physical opportunity to enjoy long, enriched lives.

But we’re not.

What was referred to as “adult onset” diabetes is now more commonly known as “Type II” because it is affecting our children at epidemic rates. Many point the finger at culprits like high fructose corn syrup, which entered the US food chain in mass quantities in the 1980s – the same time obesity rates began to climb. There’s also the abundance of trans fats (which are now being eliminated by many manufacturers and banned in progressive cities), processed flours and dairy, hormone-altered animal products, which in turn affect human hormones and metabolic function. Food, our necessary source for vitality, strength, acuity and overall survival has increased in variety but decreased in value. This divergence has built empires with egregious marketing budgets, creating the sanguine spokesperson – a picture of health that espouses the benefits of eating things that common sense would tell us have anything but positive long-term effects.

As the persuasive powers of advertising have inclined America to live this unsustainable lifestyle, people elsewhere around the world have little to no food. Everyone has seen the tragic photos of starving children – distended bellies barely supported by legs that bare no muscle, just skin and bone. It’s a horror, to say the least. While people starve to death in one corner of the world, Americans eat voraciously and are never quite full or healthy. The glutton dies from “diseases of affluence,” as Dr. T Colin Campbell calls them in his seminal book, The China Study. Afflictions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes are all rooted in eating too much while nourishing too little.

It’s a compulsion to be nourished that creates hunger and sharpens our senses in order to satisfy it. Whether we’ve supplied our body with enough vitamin, mineral, protein, fat, carbohydrate or fiber is another story. In most cases, we have not. So that means the body keeps eating, searching for nourishment in the Wonder Bread and Big Macs. But all it finds is empty calories that feed on the body like a parasite. Obesity is not a disease of gluttony, but one of starvation and ignorance.

Pandemic levels of obesity have hit America hard all over, but particularly in the south, in states like Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. Marketing agencies for the food giants that cause these diseases also promote diet products that are supposed to reverse them. Though pounds may miraculously melt away, the caloric restriction is not combating the real problem of malnutrition. Eventually the cycle repeats.

It’s appalling to see this news that Mississippi is considering legislation that would enlist restaurants to monitor patrons weight and yes, turn away customers considered to be “gluttons.” That would be like telling a starving woman in Cambodia she is anorexic. Shouldn’t legislation be passed that empowers the people with healthy choices? When will Sizzler be considered as dangerous as a loaded gun?

[As soon as I finished writing this, my brother randomly sent me the above video. Couldn’t ask for a better example.]