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

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps Files Lawsuit Against Major ‘Organic’ Cheater Brands

9 05 2008

[re-post for our good friends at Dr. Bronner’s]

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps Files Lawsuit Against Major ‘Organic’ Cheater Brands

The family owned Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court today against numerous personal care brands to force them to stop making misleading organic labeling claims. Dr. Bronner’s and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) had warned offending brands that they faced litigation unless they committed to either drop their organic claims or reformulate away from main ingredients made from conventional agricultural and/or petrochemical material without any certified organic material. OCA has played the leading role in exposing and educating consumers about deceptive organic branding.

David Bronner, President of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps says, “We have been deeply disappointed and frustrated by companies in the ‘natural’ personal care space who have been screwing over organic consumers, engaging in misleading organic branding and label call-outs, on products that were not natural in the first place, let alone organic.” Dr. Bronner’s has determined, based on extensive surveys, that organic consumers expect that cleansing ingredients in branded and labeled soaps, shampoos and body washes that are labeled “Organic”, “Organics” or “Made with Organic” will be from organic as distinct from conventional agricultural material, produced without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, and free of petrochemical compounds.

For example: The major cleansing ingredient in Jason “Pure, Natural & Organic” liquid soaps, body washes and shampoos is Sodium Myreth Sulfate, which involves ethoxylating a conventional non-organic fatty chain with the carcinogenic petrochemical Ethylene Oxide, which produces carcinogenic 1,4-Dioxane as a contaminant. The major cleansing ingredient in Avalon “Organics” soaps, bodywashes and shampoos, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, contains conventional non-organic agricultural material combined with the petrochemical Amdiopropyl Betaine. Nature’s Gate “Organics” main cleansers are Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (ethoxylated) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Kiss My Face “Obsessively Organic” cleansers are Olefin Sulfonate (a pure petrochemical) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Juice “Organics”, Giovanni “Organic Cosmetics”, Head “Organics”, Desert Essence “Organics”, and Ikove “Organic” all use Cocamdiopropyl Betaine as a main cleansing ingredient and no cleansers made from certified organic material. Due to the petrochemical compounds used to make the ingredient, Cocamidopropyl Betaine is contaminated with traces of Sodium monochloroacetate, Amidoamine (AA), and dimethylaminopropylamine (DMAPA). Amidoamine in particular is suspected of causing skin sensitization and allergic reactions even at very low levels for certain individuals. Organic consumers have a right to expect that the personal care products they purchase with organic branding or label claims, contain cleansing ingredients made from organic agricultural material, not conventional or petrochemical material, and thus have absolutely no petrochemical contaminants that could pose any concern.

Dr. Bronner’s products, in contrast to the brands noted above, contain cleansing and moisturizing ingredients made only from certified organic oils, made without any use of petrochemicals, and contain no petrochemical preservatives. The misleading organic noise created by culprit companies’ branding and labeling practices, interferes with organic consumers ability to distinguish personal care whose main ingredients are in fact made with certified organic, not conventional or petrochemical, material, free of synthetic preservatives. Lawsuit Also Names Estee Lauder, Stella McCartney’s CARE, Ecocert and OASIS

Ecocert is a French-based certifier with a standard that allows not only cleansing ingredients made from conventional versus organic agriculture, but also allows inclusion, in the cleansing ingredients contained in products labeled as “Made with Organic” ingredients, of certain petrochemicals such as Amidopropyl Betaine in Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Even worse, despite Ecocert’s own regulations prohibiting the labeling as “Organic” of a product containing less than 100% organic content, Ecocert in practice engages in “creative misinterpretation” of its own rules in order to accommodate clients engaging in organic mislabeling. For instance, Ecocert certifies the Ikove brand’s cleansing products to contain less than 50% organic content, noted in small text on the back of the product, where all cleansing ingredients are non-organic including Cocamidopropyl Betaine which contains petroleum compounds. Yet the product is labeled “Organic” Amazonian Avocado Bath & Shower Gel. Another instance is Stella McCartney’s “100% Organic” CARE line certified by Ecocert that labels products as “100% Organic” that are not 100% Organic alongside ones that are; the labels of products that are not 100% organic simply insert the word “Active” before “Ingredients.” In allowing such labeling, Ecocert simply ignores the requirements of its own certification standards. Furthermore, the primary organic content in most Ecocert certified products comes from “Flower Waters” in which up to 80% of the “organic” content consists merely of just regular tap water that Ecocert counts as “organic.”

Explicitly relying on the weak Ecocert standard as precedent, the new Organic and Sustainable Industry Standard (“OASIS”)-a standard indeed developed exclusively by certain members of the industry, primarily Estee Lauder, with no consumer input-will permit certification of products outright as “Organic” (rather than as “Made with Organic” ingredients) even if such products contain hydrogenated and sulfated cleansing ingredients such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate made from conventional agricultural material grown with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and preserved with synthetic petrochemical preservatives such as Ethylhexylglycerin and Phenoxyethanol. [Reference: OASIS Standard section 6.2 and Anti-Microbial List] The organic content is required to only be 85%, which in water and detergent-based personal care products, means organic water extracts and aloe vera will greenwash conventional synthetic cleansing ingredients and preservatives.

The OASIS standard is not merely useless but deliberately misleading to organic consumers looking for a reliable indicator of true “organic” product integrity in personal care. Organic consumers expect that cleansing ingredients in products labeled “Organic” be made from organic not conventional agriculture, to not be hydrogenated or sulfated, and to be free from synthetic petrochemical preservatives. Surprisingly, companies represented on the OASIS board, such as Hain (Jason “Pure, Natural & Organic”; Avalon “Organics”) and Cosway (Head “Organics”,) produce liquid soap, bodywash and shampoo products with petrochemicals in their cleansers even though use of petrochemicals in this way is not permitted even under the very permissible OASIS standard these companies have themselves developed and endorsed.

Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the OCA, said: “The pressure of imminent litigation outlined in cease and desist letters sent by OCA and Dr. Bronner’s in March prompted some serious discussion with some of the offending companies, but ultimately failed to resolve the core issues.”

Our Daily Meds: Navigating the Polypharmacy

23 04 2008

By Derek Beres

In the 1970s, Professor J. Scott Armstrong put forth a conundrum to close to 2,000 business school students and executive trainees. Intrigued by the corporatizing of the pharmaceutical industry, he created a scenario (based on an actual 1969 incident) in which a company has a new drug with a projected $20 million profit. The catch: For each million the company nets, there is one death from side effects. The first twenty million meant twenty deaths, and so on thereafter.

Students and trainees were given five options, ranging from immediately pulling the drug from shelves–regulators stated cheaper, more effective pills without such grave side effects exist–to downplaying risks and promoting the drug heavily, creating a media-driven whitewash in which consumers could not discern problems, and therefore readily open their pockets.

The results? Zero took the first option; 79% chose the latter. As former NY Times journalist Melody Petersen writes in her new book, Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs (Sarah Chrichton Books), “For these students and trainees, who were playing the roles of the executives they would soon become, profits took precedence over patients.”

As one can imagine by the book’s subtitle, the above is not an isolated case study. In fact, it shows how the drive to maximize profits at any expense is built into the educational system by which students become executives. Petersen spends the majority of her book citing such examples, moving from hard facts and statistical data to personal interviews with people who have fallen victim to the marketing of pharmaceutical companies or, worse, have lost loved ones during the same process.

Click here to read the full blog 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.

Cleaning Up Soap: Why The Bronner Family Is Washing Out a Few Mouths

27 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

What we eat, drink and breathe is certainly important, but so is what we absorb through our skin. The skin is an organ – our largest in fact. Our internal control centers are all wrapped up inside this giant organ, yet we seem to forget (or ignore) this truth. Perhaps it’s because our personalities and identities appear to be forged through our skin’s shapes and colors. We deem it as a reflection of our deeper “organ-less” self, when it is simply just one part of the whole.

Contrary to red carpet commentary and style magazine recommendations, the skin does much more than make us sexy or otherwise. It does more than keep our bones and guts from falling all over the place. It soaks up nutrients; it’s both a delivery system and a barrier. The skin is our most corporeal relationship. It’s sensual and mysterious. And of course, it must be kept clean.

If cleanliness is indeed right up there next to the holiest of all things, then the Bronner family appear to be a bunch of angels working overtime, ensuring people are truly getting soaps that are safe and effective, not laced with harsh chemicals.

Read the full article on Reality Sandwich.

In Search of Teachers, Not Presidents

4 03 2008

By Derek Beres

While the Democratic debate has turned into an all-out popularity contest, and the most-discussed issues continue to be the economy, oil and war, there are two topics that none of the three candidates have really honed in on. They all spend a lot of time dancing around the perimeters, yet they never touch the essence of them. In fact, I’m not sure any of them even know what the essence is.

The two that I’m referring to are healthcare and the environment. Obviously healthcare is a huge concern, and has been addressed continually. Both Clinton and Obama support universal healthcare (well, wait — since when is America the universe?), and plan on having everybody insured if they were to gain the throne. McCain says the same, that we “can and must” cover everyone. It’s a hopeful idea, and one we can appreciate, especially given that numerous other countries already have this system in place without having to use it as a political platform. But of all three candidates, only one (McCain) even mentions the word “nutrition,” and makes some sort of claim to try to stop problems before they start — at the very bottom of his list.

Like our healthcare system already, everything is geared around curing, and not preventing. This sort-of thinking is what has led us to acquire what nutrition expert Colin Campbell calls “diseases of affluence,” illnesses that define the way Americans die in our times; namely: heart disease and cancer. (Not surprisingly, the third highest killer of Americans is the healthcare system itself, through faulty prescriptions, botched surgeries and wrongful diagnoses). In The China Study he not only shows why the way we approach nutrition is misguided, but that it is actually helping promote diseases like the aforementioned. He does not conclude that these nutritive guidelines — high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate meals — create the illness, but the way many Americans eat is certainly helping move us down the line a lot quicker, and more painfully.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.