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.

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The Slow Overturn of Democracy

5 09 2008

The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court
Frederick S. Lane
Beacon
June 2008, 288 pages, $24.95

Review by Derek Beres

Anyone unfamiliar with the marriage between politics and religion—more specifically to this review, the current plight of certain members of the church to make America a Christian nation, as denoted in Frederick Lane’s subtitle, The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court—need only to have watched the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on Saturday, 16 August. Watching pastor Rick Warren posit the same questions to Barack Obama and John McCain and, more importantly, watching their responses and the crowd’s reactions, was a perfect primer for anyone ignorant of just how entwined the two remain.

Credit freelance journalist Lane for an exceptional, insightful work illuminating both the history of America’s civil courts, and for showing how their evolution has brought us to where we are today—a country, he suggests, in danger of losing much of what we have stood for in terms of democracy and civil rights due to an ideological mindset perpetuated by a fringe culture that has been gathering increasing prominence and influence in the political arena.

When Warren put forth the question regarding which justice each candidate would not have nominated for the Supreme Court, the messages embedded inside every page of The Court and The Cross were brought to light. Obama initially suggested he would not have nominated Clarence Thomas, and then admitted Justice Antonin Scalia was not high on his list, either. Warren then asked about John Roberts, which may have hinted at an agenda to put Obama in a bad light in evangelical eyes. This is an important point: appointed Chief Justice by George Bush when William Rehnquist died of thyroid cancer in 2005, Roberts never sat well with the Christian Right, who, as Lane points out again and again, has made it a point in influencing our political leaders to beef up the Supreme Court with judges willing to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Warren never asked McCain his feelings on Roberts, though, and here is why: McCain declares he would not have nominated Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, and Stevens, four liberal members of the court. If any one of them should be replaced with a pro-life judge, it is feared that the possibility of Roe vs. Wade could be overturned—an issue McCain knows well, as he never tried to deny his stance, stating that birth starts at the moment of conception. To really show you how relevant a point this is to the Right, when asked another question by Warren, McCain returned to the bench, asking, “Are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court justices? When we speak of the issue of the rights of the unborn, we need to speak about judges.”

Read the full review on PopMatters.





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.





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.”





Life Lessons at Coachella (cont.)

4 05 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Friday: The Raconteurs are great. Jack White is a most creative and generous performer, and though they’re mostly a bluesy rock band, their sound is unclassifiable. They rock like Robin Trower or Ten Years After but with a Smashing Pumpkins covering NWA superfreakiness. All you want to say while watching this band is “Hell yeah!”

The Verve is absolutely awesome. It’s shocking that they were opening for Jack Johnson instead of the other way around. They sound like what the Beatles should have sounded like. Richard Ashcroft is as brilliant a songwriter as Bob Dylan or Ben Harper. “Lucky Man” is better than all of Jack Johnson’s songs put together. But apparently, Johnson is not the musical equivalent of a sleeping pill, as I’ve long suspected. I actually saw people who looked wide awake (though they were probably on ecstasy) dancing to his music. Even though the rush of people heading for the parking lot was forceful enough to knock them over, his cool chillness was potent enough to keep them upright. To each his own I suppose. (I’d post a video but I don’t want you to fall asleep before you read the rest of this blog.)

Saturday: Though not a fan myself, there was a hyped-up crowd of un-hyped, uber-cool European looking people packed together for Kraftwerk. (They’re like Daft Punk’s grandparents or something). Whatever. Electronic robot dudes are always cool by me as long as they don’t pull some HAL shit and start killing people. (Actually after watching this performance, I take it back. They pretty much suck.)

I was there if for no other reason than Portishead. Third is their first studio release in eleven years, and last in their label contract obligations. It’s uncertain whether we’ll ever hear another Portishead album, let alone see another tour. Coachella was their only scheduled US concert date this year, and absolutely stunning.  A guy standing next to me fainted half way through their second song.

Just a week before this performance, I was standing in Bourges, France watching another one of my all-time favorite bands, Fat Freddy’s Drop. As Portishead took the stage, I realized just how immensely important music and art is to having a better relationship to the mysteriously magical world I keep finding myself a part of. So many good songs to choose from Saturday night, but I settled on “The Rip” off of their latest.  It’s gorgeous, even if the sound quality isn’t the best.

There is probably no other circumstance in which Portishead would open up for – or play with – Prince, but I guess that’s part of Coachella’s craftiness. As Beth Gibbon’s voice dripped in my head, I was jolted back to “1999.” In any other situation I’d probably welcome Prince, but it was kind of like eating sardines (or any of these foods) while having a mouth full of chocolate. (I tried to find a video for posting but they’ve all been deleted from YouTube. The Prince is apparently also a money hungry dictator.)

Sunday: I think it’s a done deal that Gogol Bordello has officially signed on to do every music festival on earth in 2008. They were also at Printemps de Bourges in France the week before, and are at a bunch of others, including Bonarroo (the poor man’s Coachella), Popped, Lollapalooza, Vfest and Austin City Limits. They’re like the non-boring-but-still-boring version of Jack Johnson.

My Morning Jacket sounds kind of like The Raconteurs covering Wilco, but weirder and at times softer and/or heavier as heck. Jim James has a voice I like to call “dreamy,” but “awesome” works as well. They haven’t had that perfect album yet, but stay tuned, it’s coming.

This brings us to Roger Waters, aka that dude from Pink Floyd. I lamented most at his headlining, since he hasn’t written any new material since like 1980. But my friend Jody reminded me that maybe “his message is so important it needs to be repeated every generation.” Yah, I guess there’s no harm in flying pigs and laser light shows. My first LSD trip was when I was 15. We went to see the movie The Wall, only the acid didn’t kick in until after we left the theater. But nonetheless, I guess in a lot of ways, if it weren’t for Roger Waters I’d probably not even have gone to Coachella. I’d  probably be too busy working in a cubicle somewhere, or at a mall shopping. I’m kind of sorry I was walking out to the parking lot while he was earning his paycheck. Despite Coachella 2008’s slightly lackluster lineup, here’s to never ever ever finding ourselves Comfortably Numb.





Seeking Security Outside My Homeland, Inside My Country

23 04 2008

By Derek Beres

By the time the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled Tibet in March, 1959, he had gone through a steady period of disillusion with Chinese officials, who had been offering much lip service to communism — a philosophy he thought was, in theory, practical and promising. The reality of those officials, spearheaded by one of the twentieth century’s most villainous characters, Chairman Mao, was anything but what he initially expected.

One of their unusual practices was a constant concern for his “safety,” as if leaving the Potala Palace at all was a constant threat on his life. At first the man formerly known as Lhamo Thondup was surprised at their generosity concerning his welfare. When they began suggesting that native Tibetans posed a threat, he knew something was suspicious. This was proven when these officials invited him to a dance performance at their post in Lhasa, telling him to arrive in secrecy (an impossibility for a man in his position). The citizenry found out, and united–tens of thousands of them — they blocked the entrance to the Palace so he could not leave. In the ensuing chaos sponsored by the Chinese army, he fled, eventually setting up camp at Dharamsala, where he resides today.

While in Paris this weekend, both of my cards — a bank-issued Visa ATM and a Mastercard–were denied after having used them once each. This put me in a tough situation, whereby I had to borrow money. Upon returning, I called Bank of America to find out what was going on. Turns out that they have implemented a new security measure to battle fraudulent claims. This is understandable — last year they successfully blocked a $930 charge to a Wal-Mart in Texas, after two smaller charges went through. (The timing was horrific, though — I had just landed in Alabama to lecture at the state university, and found myself having to borrow from my hosts.)

Fraud is a serious crime that is truly bothersome. That someone would steal the numbers of my account and go on a Wal-Mart shopping spree, after spending $35 at two different “wings” restaurants (on a vegetarian’s card, no less), is sad and depressing. Yet equally bothersome was the Bank of America representative’s assurance that all this was for my “personal safety” (a point she reiterated numerous times). She did not mention the article in today’s NY Times that stated the bank “raised its credit loss provisions to $6.01 billion from $1.24 billion,” and had a 77% decrease in its quarterly profit.

Click here to read the full blog on the Huffington Post