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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Advertisements

Nourishment through food

The most obvious form of nourishment is the food we eat. At its most fundamental level, the purpose of eating is to fuel our bodies with energy to keep ourselves alive, healthy, and functioning. Yet, if you ask yourself truthfully whether all substances that pass through your lips and into your stomach are done so with the pure intention of fueling a low-energy body, I highly doubt you’d say yes. I know I wouldn’t. I find it fascinating that the act of eating has grown to fill so many roles other than its natural purpose – oftentimes resulting in bodily abuse, ironically enough. From alleviating stress to providing emotional comfort to being a social pastime, the uses of food have become as varied and complex as our human lives. Perhaps one followed the other?

As interesting as it is, I’ll leave the debate of how this has come to pass for another time. Instead I’d like to think about how we can bring the mindfulness, reverence and simplicity, back to our relationship with food. This is important because if we are abusing our use of food, we are abusing our bodies, and ultimately ourselves.

Simplicity really is the key here. Food = Energy. Energy goes into the body  -> body uses energy to function -> energy is depleted -> more food is ingested. The purest of foods are those that are readily made available in nature. And aside from farming your own food, there is no better way to get in touch with the source of food than by shopping at a local farmer’s market.

I am lucky enough to have a my pick of farmer’s markets in San Francisco. This morning I chose the larger option, Alemany, which also happens to be the oldest farmer’s market in the Bay Area. The beauty of shopping at a farmer’s market is that it provides not only physical nourishment, but also soul nourishment. I am invigorated by roaming outside freely in the sunshine amidst fresh fruit, flowers, and garden aromas. Even seeing the families with their cute children eating sliced oranges makes me happy. 

Purchasing food directly from the grower psychologically establishes the food-earth connection. Even the effort that goes into growing the food cannot be overlooked, further deepening that appreciation. I can honestly say that there is something extra special about the Alemany carrots over those bought at Trader Joes. And it’s not just their cool rugged shape. Or excess of “hair”. I simply regard them with extra appreciation, having met their grower and knowing their freshness. So I will be that much more thoughtful in how I use them.

Roaming the farmer’s market is also a learning experience. This morning I learned what raw sugar cane looks like. Nowadays we commonly find sugar and every possible derivative of it in everyday foods. But do we even know where it originates from? (Sugar Blues is an awesome narrative on the history of sugar in the western world and its place in our common diet.) Below is a picture of where it comes from (the long, striped stalks on the right). Aside from using it as a walking stick, as I saw an older Asian woman do, it can be eaten by peeling the bark from one end and chewing on the inner flesh.

 

Those big green fruits to the left of the sugar cane are pomellos, which are about the size of watermelons and look like grapefruit inside. Though I didn’t try them, I enjoyed photographing them.

I found a new kind of avocado that is exceptionally creamy and delicious, and bought baby bok choy for the first time.

 

Making my way to the prepared foods section of the market (yes, there is a prepared foods section), I was beckoned by the seller at Sukhi’s Indian stand to try a handful of roasted Moong Dal lentils, which he said is full of protein and can be eaten as a snack or in salads. They are simply roasted in vegetable oil and salt, and since I liked their crunchiness and lightness, I decided to try a pack (below).

As tempted as I was, I refrained from getting an alfajore from the Chilean baker lady. That would have been just too far off the mark of the all-natural theme I was going for. But boy did they look good.

Then for some Middle Eastern flare, The Hummus Guy introduced me to Halva, which is tahini (crushed sesame seeds), olive oil, honey, and pistachio. He originally had me try the chocolate “americanized” version, but I retorted, “what do you take me for, I want the original!” and off I was with the pistachio version. So yummy, the best way I can describe it is that it makes me think of dry icecream. It is smooth and almost creamy, but dry and room-temperature.

Ultimately, it’s the appreciation of the food and intention behind the eating that determines whether the food will be nourishing. Mindfulness, as is the key with all action, will ensure that that’s the case.