Tuesday, 12 February 2013


It's a bit of a hot topic: Vegans who have decided to incorporate small amounts of "healthy" animal products into their diet.

First of all, the idea of "healthy" animal products is pretty ridiculous considering the numerous studies linking animal products with most first-world diseases. Doesn't matter whether its grass-fed, organic, free-range, unpasteurised, hormone-free, gold-plated, or sun-dried. The bottom line is that animal products are acidic, inflammatory, and not easily digested by humans. So the idea of adding toxic foodstuff to the diet in the name of "health" is absurd.

So. Why would a vegan introduce animal foods into their diet? Why can one person thrive on a vegan diet, and another person suffer? I believe that there must have been something fundamentally wrong with the individual or with the diet. I'll start with the latter.

I question the nature of the ex-vegan's diet, because no two vegan diets are the same. There are a few reasons why people "fall off" a vegan diet:
1. Not eating enough calories. Plant foods are less calorie dense than animal foods, and contain more fibre - so vegans need to eat a greater volume in order to get calories. (This is a great thing - we get to eat more!!)
2. Eating highly processed vegan foods. There is nothing wrong with a faux beef burger, but not every day. Faux meat is generally made from soy and/or seitan - neither of which are particularly healthy or nutritious.
3. Not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. There's a reason the raw food crew are taking over the vegan world - because fresh, whole, raw fruits and vegetables are full of nutrition. Not just vitamins and minerals, but also photochemicals and a host of undiscovered compounds that are crucial to health. These chemicals are in abundance, and in the quantities that most benefit human health, in raw fruits and vegetables.
4. Ignoring other aspects of good health, including exercise, sunshine, sleep, hydration, stress management, etc. as much as we vegans enjoy talking about food, being a healthy vegan is SO much more than diet.

I also question the motives of the ex-vegan in adopting a plant-based diet in the first place. For many of us, being vegan goes beyond diet. Some people "go vegan" to lose weight. Others adopt a vegan diet as part of a cruelty- free lifestyle. What draws a person to a vegan diet may be very different to what keeps them there.

Ethically, we have no need to consume animal products. Factory farming is appalling, yes, but even so-called "humane" meat is no different. Ultimately, an animal's life has to be taken, and I'm just not ok with that. Watch the documentary "Earthlings" - it changed my view about the entire animal cruelty industry, from meat to fur to vivisection.

There is also the environmental aspect of Veganism. Raising animals for food is a highly inefficient method of food production. The amount of grain and water required for one cow could feed many more people than the cow itself. Also consider the environmental impact of methane emissions, destruction of rainforest to produce more land for crops or animals, and the huge monocultures of crops such as corn and soy.

Onto my second point. What if there is something physiologically different about the individual, such that he or she cannot survive on a vegan diet? I've personally never heard of it, but it is possible. There are rare metabolic disorders where individuals cannot break down certain types or sugars (or fats, or proteins) and therefore are required to remain on a strict regime where specific foods must be avoided. The average person is not likely to have this problem because most of these disorders are detected early in life and are often associated with other medical and developmental problems - and unlikely to be discovered simply after adopting a vegan diet.

The people who think that they are biologically different and therefore NEED to eat animal products? They are sadly mistaken, and are unaware of (or unwilling to accept) their mistake.

For most of us, we may have compromised digestion due to past abuses - for example, limiting our ability to produce it absorb vitamin B12. This is where supplementation is important (and, there are many types of vegan supplements available). There is no danger of deficiency for most vitamins and minerals in a vegan diet, provided that plenty of raw fruits and vegetables are consumed. It is prudent for us to carefully monitor vitamins D an B12, as we don't spend enough time in the sun (D) and adequate B12 relies on intact digestive processes, which, as mentioned earlier, may be compromised due to past abuses.

This brings up my final question: If a person has damaged their body (via past abuses) and is unable to thrive on a vegan diet, should animals have to suffer?

Monday, 11 February 2013

Bikram yoga

This has been a pretty epic weekend for Bikram yogis around Melbourne. Saturday saw Rajashree, Bikram's wife, in an all-day workshop, and today the Yoga Championships. All this has made me reflect on my practice, right back to my very first class.

What do the words "Bikram yoga" conjure up? Sweaty lunatics in skimpy clothing balanced perfectly on one fingernail? That's seriously what I thought when I first stepped into a Bikram studio. I thought I was the most inflexible person on Earth. I loathed meditation and silence. Actually, I disliked being still, period.

The first class was ok. I survived and I didn't throw up or pass out. I came back the next day. And the next day. And pretty soon I was buying a six-month membership. And then a one-year membership. Here I am, three years later... (and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon).

I'm not a big part of the yoga "community" but one thing I do know is this: when I tell other yogis that I do Bikram, the usual response is a roll of the eyes or a smirk or the comment "oh, that's not real yoga". I'm no expert on yoga, but I've learned a few valuable lessons over the last three years. And I'm pretty sure I would have learned these lessons no matter what style of yoga I practiced.

1. You don't have to be flexible to do yoga.
Yoga isn't about getting your head to touch your feet. It sure looks cool and it's a great party trick, but it's not the point. All of the stretching and bending is simply a means to keeping your mind still - whether you can bend forward one millimetre or one metre. As long as your mind is still, your breathing is calm, and your body is relaxed.... you are doing yoga. (Actually, being inflexible as a beginner isn't such a bad thing, because you will notice rapid improvements in your flexibility in a short amount of time). When I first started, I couldn't touch my toes. And it took six months for me to be able to even grab onto my toes with straight legs.

2. It's about your mind, not the heat
Oh, the heat. It's a sauna in there. It's up around 40 degrees celcius, but the humidity makes it seem hotter. Some days, the heat is our worst nightmare. But ultimately, it is there for a reason. At a basic level, it makes your body more pliable. Stretching is easier and safer when you're warm. But more than that, the heat seems to help with mental strength. Because when you're balancing on one leg, limbs aching, sweat dripping, and all you want to do is collapse on the floor and drink a river of ice water, it takes mental strength to tough it out. To stay in the posture, even to stay in the room. Once you've survived a ninety-minute Bikram class, the day to day stuff won't faze you.

And, on a cold winter day, the heat lures you in like a siren song. It's like the hug of an old friend. And, after doing a Bikram class, you won't feel the cold for the rest of the day. Seriously.

3. Keep an open mind
You might not be a deadlocked barefoot hippie when you step into a Bikram class for the first time, but you just might be one when you walk out.

Perhaps not. But in all honesty, Bikram yoga can open the door to other types of spiritual practices like meditation, to people who would otherwise never delve into them. I'm thinking specifically of Type A personalities (myself included) who might scoff at the idea of meditation. The "athleticism" of Bikram yoga attracts many Type As into the hot room, and from there the mind opens - and the magic happens. Personally, I spent the first year of my practice fiercely focused on flexibility and getting "better" at the postures. I wanted to do the standing splits, dammit! Over time, I seem to care less and less about getting the postures "right" and more about being in the postures in that moment. Other things become the focus, like whether I can keep my mind still during savasana, or whether I can concentrate well enough to balance on one leg for a full minute. With that, comes mindfulness, gratitude, appreciation, acceptance. Yes I do want to do the standing splits one day but I'm ok with (and grateful for) where I am now.

4. Don't compare yourself to others
As tempting as it is to envy the gorgeous model-type yogi who has just set up next to us, remember why you are here. You are here for your own peace. If you spend your ninety minutes focused on someone else, then you can't be focused on yourself. There are many roads that lead to the yoga room, and every person there faces different battles. The person next to you might be there to heal their arthritic knees. Or to open up a frozen shoulder. Or to quiet the demons telling them that sobriety is no fun and to just have one more drink. The posture that's easy for you might be extraordinarily difficult for someone else. My point is: don't waste time wondering about others.

Never been to a Bikram class? I highly recommend you try it at least once. Many studios offer first-time students seven- or ten-day trials for the cost of a single class. You don't need any prior knowledge of yoga, and Bikram is suitable for all ages and all fitness levels. Some tips for your first time:
* Don't practice with a full stomach. There's nothing quite like the first forward bend and feeling your lunch sliding up the back of your throat. Don't eat anything at least a couple of hours before class - and even then, something easily digested like fruit. Save the bean burrito for afterwards.
* Hydrate well beforehand. You're going to sweat. A LOT. If you're doing an evening class, make sure you have consumed at least two litres of water during the day. If you do morning classes, make sure you are well hydrated the day before. On the morning of your class, you may like to eat something light such as a small piece of fruit or some juice. I would recommend drinking as much water as you can tolerate - but not so much that you're having to run to the bathroom every five minutes. Personally, I don't like eating anything beforehand, but experiment and see what works for you.
* Turn up early to the studio. This will allow you enough time to get settled and relax before class.
* Don't talk or walk around during class. It's about stillness - and anything else is just distracting.
* Listen to what the teacher is saying. Yes, the teacher will talk a lot and it's hard to concentrate on that for 90 minutes. It's kind of the point, though. Every bit of the dialogue has a purpose. And ultimately the teacher is there to take care of you.

As much as the general yoga community may dislike Bikram yoga or even Bikram himself, I will continue to tout the benefits of this yoga simply for what it has done for me over the last three years. As for the future, who knows? I may start disliking the heat, or I may find other types of yoga appealing. But for three years my eyes have gradually opened to what's real and what's important in this world, and learning my place in it - and this yoga has a big part in why I'm here now. If you haven't tried Bikram yoga before, I do recommend that you give it a go (provided you have your doctor's ok). I never would have guessed that the humid and slightly smelly room would unlock so many doors for me, and who knows, it just might for you too!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

How to give up drugs without really trying (part III)

Click for parts one and two

When trying to implement permanent habit change, it will usually fall into one of two categories. Things I want to start doing, or Things I want to stop doing.

The title of this post is about giving up bad habits, so I'll start with "Things I want to stop doing".

1. Identify and measure the habit you want to eliminate. Be realistic about how much you engage in it. Think back over the previous few days to gauge how often it occurs. Do you smoke? Drink? Bite your nails? How much/how many per day? If you really struggle to identify frequency, I suggest you keep a log - although note that this may be an underestimate, as once we're aware that we're logging our habits, we are less likely to engage in them. You could also ask a partner or close friend to keep the log for you, if you're comfortable with that.

Your logs will come in handy later, as they are a useful way to measure progress.

Sometimes, this self awareness is enough to significantly shift the frequency of our habits. Logging our behaviour is powerful, as it requires us to make a conscious decision to engage in that habit rather than simply doing it mindlessly.

If you're like me, though, you probably need a little more help. Onto step 2.

2. Identify your triggers. Your logs may be useful here. Do you tend to smoke while you're on the phone? Do you drink after work? Do you eat fast food only at 3am after a big night out? Bad habits tend to occur in context, as part of a chain reaction - so identifying the trigger point is critical to making permanent changes.

3. Modify your trigger, which will break the chain reaction. You could physically change your environment so that it is difficult to engage in the habit (e.g. Taking all phone calls at your desk so that you cannot light up a cigarette). Avoiding the trigger is also helpful (e.g. Taking a different route home so that you avoid the favourite fast food outlet). You could also engage in a new behavior that is incongruous with the old habit (e.g. Painting your fingernails so that you can't dig into that family-sized bag of chips at 11pm).

Changing habits is really about changing the environment around the habit.

4. Take action. This is a tough step. And it won't be successful every time. Continue logging your behaviour, and identify the patterns that aren't working for you. You may have been unrealistic with some of your changes, like expecting yourself to go for a jog every time you want a cigarette. It is important, though, to recognise and celebrate your successes. If you managed to avoid the 3pm chocolate fix for three days in a row, identify why - and continue doing it!

The process of habit change can be difficult, particularly for habits that are long term or well-entrenched. Some habits are harder to break than others. One "slip" doesn't undo everything. In fact, "slips" are helpful in helping us identify what is and isn't working - as long as you learn something from the experience!!

Implementing new habits is generally easier, provided that you are consistent. I would suggest scheduling time for your new habit, just as you would an appointment, or you may like to establish a regular time for your new habit (e.g. Exercising for thirty minutes every day at 6pm after work). The important thing here is to schedule the habit and stick to it, particularly for the first few weeks. You might like to try a thirty-day challenge. I've done a thirty-day challenge once before for yoga, and three years later I'm still a regular practitioner. For 2013 I have plans to try other challenges, yet to be decided.... (stay tuned!)

Monday, 4 February 2013

A simple diet

I'm pretty lazy when it comes to food prep. Usually because I'm rushing in the door and I'm hungry NOW. And that's why I love eating the way I do, because food prep is unbelievably quick. Sometimes even as quick as peeling a banana or biting into a nectarine.

I do occasionally make more complex foods. But "complex" is a relative term - I have no desire to slave over a stove for half an hour, just to have something to eat. And I don't have the patience for some of the gourmet raw food recipes that require a million ingredients and three days of dehydrator time.

So here's a super quick recipe for raw spaghetti that takes about 5 minutes to prepare. Ingredients are deliberately vague - the great thing about raw recipes is that precise amounts of ingredients are not needed for things to taste delicious. You can adjust ingredients depending on taste and availability.

Enough rambling. Here's a recipe and a crappy phone pic.

Ingredients for pasta:
1 zucchini spiralised
Few squeezes of lemon juice

Ingredients for sauce:
1 tomato
About 1/4 small bell pepper
Small stick of celery
Couple pieces sun dried tomatoes
1 date
A small chilli pepper (optional)
Basil & oregano to taste

Basically, soften the zucchini with the lemon juice (takes only a few minutes, I do this first and allow to soften whilst making the sauce). Blend half of the tomato and the rest of the sauce ingredients until chunky. Dice remaining tomato and mix into sauce. Pour onto zucchini noodles immediately before serving.

This recipe was for one person, since everyone else at my house eats cooked food. And, I recommend having a large serving of fruit as a starter, because this pasta is extremely low in calories. I ate about a kilogram of grapes, an hour before eating this meal.

Super low fat, and super high in nutrients. I don't get pasta cravings anymore, that's for sure!!