Hello, Tree

Dear tree,

How tall and proud you stand amidst the city chaos.

Subjected to years of loud traffic passing you on two sides. Ignored by the countless people running, cycling, and walking over your roots each day. How many people have slept under your branches, and how many creatures have relieved themselves at your trunk?

What amusing stories you must have from the years of debaucherous music festivals and parades that have happened around you. A silent witness to the park’s history, you hold many secrets.

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And today, here you are, majestically smiling as the sun shines through your branches. A survivor of human pollution and earthquakes, you’ve learned to adapt to your changing environment and thrive, all while remaining a solid pillar of life for the birds, squirrels and insects that take refuge in you.

And today, you’ve inspired one girl to stop and honor you.

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Expect the unexpected

The writer Steven Johnson said that our memory seems to get worse as we get older because we tend to settle into a routine that lacks spontaneity and new stimuli, causing our brain to blank out the mundane details.

I do have a notoriously poor memory, though I like to think that my life is not that boring. Maybe this is why I get a kick out of stumbling upon unexpected things in my travels.

Found on Lands End Beach: an engine, graffiti-ridden ruins of a someone’s bathroom, and a labyrinth.

But maybe if we start to expect the unexpected, we can start to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the mundane become things worth remembering.

What ordinary thing will you celebrate today?

My foray into veganism

When I found out that my favorite yoga teacher was teaching at an 8-day long yoga retreat at a beautifully secluded and ecologically sustainable retreat center on the beaches of Mexico over my birthday, it didn’t take much to convince myself to sign up. Though you wouldn’t know it by my birthday history, I do feel that birthdays are a sacred time for one to reflect upon and celebrate one’s life with a special, self-honoring gesture. And I could think of no better way to do so than with an exotic yoga retreat.

What I regarded as a mere footnote when I signed up was the fact that the retreat was sponsored by VegNews, a local vegan magazine, and the food provided would be entirely vegan. Cool, I thought, it would be cleansing for both mind and body.

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What I realized my first night at Haramara, aside from the fact that I could happily spend the rest of my days in an open-air casita in the jungle without electricity, was that veganism is a way of life – a life that all participants at the retreat, minus three of us, were extremely passionate about. There were emotions, politics, research, ethics, and even core yogic principals involved. Not to mention the scars and ongoing tribulations that come with being an all-too-often misunderstood minority. Being vegan in a non-vegan world is hard, and requires a certain level of conviction in order to maintain the commitment to succeed. And I was impressed with the passionate convictions surrounding me at the dinner table.

The food was very good, despite popular vegan stereotypes.  I was pleasantly surprised by the wholesomeness, freshness, and creativity of the dishes. Nut and bean spreads, vegetable dips, curries, salads, and even tamales, were part of the 3-course meals we had twice daily, and that is not including the delicious tortilla-based hot breakfasts we could opt for each morning. In short, we were well fed, and I looked forward to every dish.

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Though my digestion took a few days to adjust to the new fiber-rich diet, by day 8 I was feeling great. It should be noted here that I have been dealing with digestive issues my entire life, and am always taking note as to how my gut reacts to nuances in my diet. On the flight home I noticed that the usual airplane-stomach pain I get was not there. And when I got home, I noticed that I was not craving any meat, eggs, or dairy. I wanted instead to continue with the fresh, vegetable-based foods from Haramara. A week or so later I felt lighter and cleaner internally, and my digestion wasn’t causing me any issues. I was vegan! A new way of life! A new community! How exciting!

Though it took some time every few nights to prepare a medley of foods to sustain me, I took pleasure in working within these new diet confines. Factory farming woes, as well as fear of hormones and antibiotics in food, became obsolete. I felt that I was eating with an acute sense of awareness and purpose. No living things had to die in order to sustain me….minus the plants.  I discovered joy in kale and carrot soup coupled with black bean patties. I realized quickly that having a variety of dishes with different ingredients each week was essential.

And I also started to notice how I loved making these almond flour-based vegan cookies. Only ground nut flour, coconut oil, maple syrup, mesquite powder, and some flax egg. Really healthy, right? What started as a morning snack here and there became a staple in-between meals. Then I started noticing how I ate more and more of them at a time. They started bloating my stomach. And though I felt physically fine, my head was getting foggy. Just feeling a bit…well…not alert.

And it was become increasingly harder to keep up with my cooking regimen. Until one day I broke down and while at the Whole Foods hot bar had a small piece of teriyaki chicken. The guilt! Partially for the animal, but more so for ruining my spotless streak of veganism. It had been almost 2 months! I was doing sooo well!  But, shortly after eating the chicken, I noticed that I felt newly satiated. I didn’t really want any almond cookies. And what’s more, I felt some mental energy returning.

(Beautiful beach steps away from the Haramara Retreat center.)

And so began my existential food crisis. My yoga teacher taught us at Haramara that core yoga principals included non-violence (no killing) and no stealing (i.e. milk or eggs). Did eating meat equate to eating unconsciously? Did I need to choose between higher consciousness and optimum physical well-being? (Many vegans would stop me here to say that a vegan diet, when done correctly, does result in optimum physical well-being. While I do not dispute this as true for some, I don’t believe it is true for all bodies, including mine). Was it really necessary to sacrifice health for higher consciousness?

I then started to think of Native American culture. Clearly Native Americans have a great degree of spiritual consciousness. Yet, they ate meat. Albeit, with a high degree of reverence and gratitude, but they killed and ate it all the same. Discounting meat-eaters as not spiritually conscious was ridiculous. Furthermore, Native Americans honor all natural things as sacred, including plants, the ocean, the sun. They feel a sense of unity with all nature, which I resonate with. All things natural to this earth are made from the same energy after all. Plants are still living things. Why is killing a plant much different than killing an animal? Because we don’t see its pain? My own vegan convictions were dissolving rapidly.

(A peony I saved from the ground of the Conservatory of Flowers’ peony garden. It was wilted and sad until I infused it with love and water.)

When I began to gingerly incorporate some chicken and eggs here and there into my diet over the next few days, I noticed an immediate drop in my sugar cravings. It was then that I realized that what I was craving was fat, not sugar. Over the next two weeks, I felt especially nourished by my food, and it tasted more vibrant than ever in my mouth. The two months of being vegan (as well as soy and gluten-free) definitely cleansed my system, and I believe, made it better able to process what I ate. I even noticed that I dropped a couple pounds. What stuck from my veganism was an acute awareness of what I was eating and where it came from. Only local, cage free, organic and naturally-fed chicken and eggs. And no processed foods.

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Though I am officially a failed vegan, I respect this lifestyle and applaud the awareness that it fosters. I will never regret my 2-month experiment and appreciate my new-found love of kale. Like anything in our lives, the key to eating is approaching food with awareness and appreciation. Instead of subscribing to a magical one-size-fits-all super diet,  I believe that each person needs to learn what diet (and way of life) is right for them by listening to the “laboratory of your own body”, to quote the words of the wise astrologer at Haramara. So true, Coral, so true.

Learning from our body

Our bodies talk, but do we listen?

It’s so easy to ignore what seems to be whiny chatter, and just turn the channel to “more important” things. Because hearing your lower back complaining of tightness or your knee making a fuss about up-hills can sometimes sound like a child whining about a desired toy. How important is it, really, when you are focusing on more pressing things like “how will I manage taking my car to the shop?”, and “what do I need to do to prepare for that meeting tomorrow?”.

These questions often take precedence because they effect how we deal with our external world, one which runs on the man-made construct of time, has deadlines, and requires us to meet certain demands in order to survive. Like it or not, our life depends on this external world. And if that lower back tightness or patella tendonitis is not getting in the way of meeting what is externally demanded of us, it becomes easy to cast them aside.

But the truth is that our bodies are our only vehicles for functioning in this external world. Does taking your car into the shop really matter if you can’t physically drive? Forget about that meeting tomorrow if you are sick in bed. And though your ailments may not seem to be so limiting at first, letting them fester unaddressed can lead to more serious injuries or disease later on that will. And regardless, wouldn’t your overall quality of life be better if your body felt great? No one will argue with me that physical well-being makes for greater mental well-being. When our bodies feel good, so do we, and vise versa. If you treat your body like the life partner it is, allowing it the respect to express itself and be heard, (and then giving it what it needs), you may be amazed at the wonderful things you can achieve together.  Listening to our bodies and cooperating with them to achieve well-being is actually (I believe) the foundation for successfully functioning in our external world.

And our bodies certainly hold a lot of intelligence about our well-being. That tightness in the lower back may be a sign poor posture, of trapped emotional energy from a recent breakup, or perhaps just a reminder of using better form when lifting heavy things. Regardless of the cause, each sensation holds a potential lesson for us to discover. Familiarizing ourselves with our bodies makes it easier to identify the clues to what ails us, and once we have the cause, we can determine a solution. Whether it be changing our posture, seeking out a form of emotional release, starting a strength program, or being more conscious when doing a certain activity, the outcome results in learning how to better care for ourselves.

So how does one listen, exactly? The first step is making our body’s health a priority, of making space for it in our life. Commit some time every day (or each week) to tuning into your body with undistracted focus. This could entail sitting quietly for five minutes and breathing deeply, going to a yoga class (after all, this is the point of yoga), or doing some form of enjoyable exercise. You may be surprised what thoughts or sensations start to arise when you peel away the thoughts of the external world and focus inward, acknowledging your body. It will talk, we just need to be willing to listen.