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

Buy Organic, Buy Local, Buyer Beware

6 04 2008

By Derek Beres

Whenever possible, I buy organic. This is not just confined to food, but extends to any materials, clothing and household products I can purchase. Yet like many consumers, I am often confused by the available choices, as it has become harder and harder not to buy organic. Like many important terms, once the economics of the idea prospered, it became a vague and often meaningless adjective.

This is not to say that there isn’t integrity in adopting a lifestyle by which you know that the least possible environmental damage is being done in the manufacturing and growing of your purchase. I’ve worked and been around enough people and companies in the natural foods and sustainable living world to know that good intentions abound, and ecological promises are oftentimes followed through. There are a lot of people fusing philosophy and economics in creating a sustainable environment. The hard part is deciding which companies are doing so when two dozen choices stare at you from supermarket shelves.

In general, I adhere to one of Michael Pollan’s golden rules: buy locally. Just this morning I walked through the Union Square Farmer’s Market, which not only informs me of what marketers are gearing up for Spring, but also of what crops are actually available at the moment–not imported internationally or trucked from California. Granted, I too enjoy eating strawberries in March, but knowing the real cost of those berries (including transportation fees, read: gasoline), I often seek out another sweet. When I see “locally produced” signs in Whole Foods, I tend to pick up that product over another, if the product seems of worth.

To read the full article on Reality Sandwich click here

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.

Bag of Tricks

3 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Bam! Or should I say Grass-fed Ham! That’s right, beloved chef Emeril Lagasse is partnering with Whole Foods Market. He’ll be highlighting recipes that feature local and organic products sold in the supermarket chain, filmed on location in their Washington D.C. area stores. Airing on Discovery Channel’s spin off network, Planet Green, Emeril will attempt to teach his audience about preparing fine and fast meals with conscious considerations.

Is this the introduction to a Whole Foods Emeril private label brand of products? Well, probably. And slews of other exclusives seem to be in store for the chain. In a recent NY Times article, writer Andrew Martin traveled to Costa Rica with Whole Foods President Walter Robb and several other well-known organic industry veterans on a hike through the rainforest in a money-raising mission for land preservation.

When probed to discuss how Whole Foods responds to its vendors selling in the Krogers and Wal-Marts of the world, the reaction was blatantly disapproving, hinting at being uncooperative for many vendors who have helped build the chain into its successful standing: “We are just not going to be taken for granted,” Mr. Robb said, adding that the company may drop brands that have “migrated in not a sustainable direction.” The chain, he said, is “going to look for people who want to partner primarily with Whole Foods.”

Though the evolution of business paradigms certainly seems unavoidable, is this approach practical? A company whose entire business model is built around serving one – and only one – customer seems to be looking right through the much bigger picture of making organics more available. Perhaps the more relevant question is: Why would Whole Foods deny people access to these foods? Suggesting that organic food’s growing appeal means quality and ethics erode as volumes increase is a roundabout way of saying, “Don’t sell to our competitor.” And that might even be an understandable demand if Whole Foods had several thousand locations. Or even 500. To date there are only 294 stores in nearly forty states concentrated in affluent urban areas.

While the most ubiquitous chain for organic and healthy food, they certainly are not the only place to shop for these items. There are numerous other chains, independent retailers and community-supported cooperatives. And many supermarket retailers are responding to their customers’ interest in organics.

I frequently purchase Numi Tea’s Morning Rise Breakfast Blend. It’s a delicious full-bodied organic black tea that tastes extra good on cold winter mornings. I usually buy it at Whole Foods, but one day recently I noticed it while cruising through my local Target store (where I sometimes shop for cat litter, garbage bags, vacuum filters, etc). It made me smile to see an authentically ethical and quality product sitting in the Jersey City Target of all places, with premium shelf placement to boot. I honestly felt a duty to buy it there instead of at Whole Foods. I started to wonder how many other people are buying Numi Tea from this store. If it’s not enough movement, what happens to it? Does that affect other organic items being sold in Target? Organic totals less than 5% of all food consumed in this country. That’s so miniscule it’s like comparing the eight or so steps to my front door with Mount Everest.

Whole Foods is positioning themselves as ‘taking a stand’ for organics by shunning well-known brands they label as “cashing out” after building their businesses on Whole Foods shelves. Products with wider appeal can actually be an entry point for more people to healthier options. These companies should not be forced to have to choose whether to be sold in Wal-Mart or Whole Foods – which in most cases is two entirely different demographics – because the latter feels like they’re being “taken for granted?!” Don’t they realize that customers are more product-loyal than they are committed to location, and will follow their favorites? It’s certainly commendable to stand for something, and big thanks to Whole Foods for being instrumental in reducing ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and unethically raised meat and dairy products, but this “stance” is clearly different. Whole Foods can puff up their chest as they do things like discontinue plastic grocery bags (ban goes into effect 4.21.08), but it seems as though the operation has only its own sustainability in mind.

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.]