Confessions of an Un-Vegan Yogini – Part 1
Compassionate and Empathetic people don’t eat animals!
At the age of nine I declared myself a righteous protector of all animals feathered, furred and scaled and stopped eating meat. I already hated milk (something to do with the stinky raw goat milk we got from the farm down the road) and rarely ate eggs (too fattening). By high school I was a competitive athlete and my main sources of calories were refined grains, sugars and processed oils. I was a classic uneducated and undernourished “toast and tofu” vegan.
The bad habits of an uneducated vegan
My Senior year in high school after rowing the Head of the Charles crew race we went out for a celebratory meal which consisted of two heaping plates of French fries and a liter of Diet Coke. That was how I refueled and rebuilt after an entire season of training for (and winning) the Head of the Charles. The following year I remember grocery shopping with my older sister for a climbing trip to the New River Gorge where we bought bananas, several packages of Fig Newtons (probably fat-free) and SnackWell’s, which was a brand-new-fangled cookie and I was thrilled because they were also fat-free and vegan!
Malnourished vegans aren’t doing anyone any favors
Fortunately, I have a lot of earth and water in my constitution (Kapha) which means I was surprisingly physically strong and resilient and I got away with this nutrient and prana-free diet for a long time. The mouthful of cavities, chronic sinus and lung infections, monthly dose of antibiotics and corresponding yeast infections hardly slowed me down. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that things really started to fall apart. I was routinely bingeing on sugar and carbs and exercising to burn it off and bingeing and exercising over and over again. I wasn’t refueling any of the minerals, enzymes or vital life force that my bones, muscles and connective tissue needed to repair and renew and my gut was a biotic wasteland.
I literally began to fall apart at the seams, tearing tendons, ligaments and muscles and stress fracturing bones (including my femur). Around that time I was leading backpacking trips for NOLS in the Yukon and I was so sick that almost every day I woke up at 4 AM with diarrhea. The rest of the day I felt like throwing up and while nothing seemed appetizing, my cravings were intense. Many years later I would come to have the exact same symptoms with morning sickness and discovered that in Ayurvedic terms, these are signs of extremely low Prana, Agni and Ojas. [Prana is the etheric, air-like energy, often equated with your breath. Agni is the digestive fire, but it is also described as the essential spark that transforms substance into life force. Ojas is the vital and nourishing “juice” of life.]
Meat as medicine?
When I got back to the States that fall, I went to a Chinese doctor who prescribed meat. I didn’t like her answer so I went to another alternative doctor who also prescribed meat. In all, five different health professionals told me that I needed more animal protein to heal. Ridiculous. I wasn’t anemic, I was technically strong as an ox, but less technically, I was totally miserable. I practically killed my future husband with my spectacular flatulence, I had more yeast than an industrial bakery, I had one cold after another and my face was studded with acne.
Finally, I decided to give it a try. The only meat I could ethically handle eating was road kill and fortunately I was living in Vermont where they sold road kill moose by the pound. It was cheap, lean, organic, free-range and sustainably, if not humanely harvested. Within a few months of eating moose and cutting out gluten and a few grains, I started to feel much better. My gastrointestinal symptoms started to clear. My mood perked up, my attention span grew, and I started running marathons again.
Finding Prana, Ojas and Tejas
It took me many more years to truly rebuild my body because it wasn’t just the minerals and protein from the meat that I needed. What I really needed was life force. It took me a while to figure out that life force isn’t something that can be packaged, canned, frozen or cooked. It comes in the form of breath, joy, love and connection. It comes in the form of plants, specifically leafy green plants, nutrient-dense roots, oily nuts, juicy berries, and fresh fruits and vegetables grown in mineral rich soil. And it comes from eating quietly and attentively, with care and calm.
After I made this discovery I went back to being vegan in various ways. Some months I ate only raw foods, some months I was more of a paleo-vegan (yes, you read that right), I drank ridiculous amounts of green juice and green smoothies and ate my weight in chia seeds, and mostly I started to thrive, feeling better than I ever had as a young woman.
But, I am a very physical being and I live for movement and adventure. My idea of a great weekend
is 32 miles of trail-running followed by a two-hour handstand workshop. I am also a mother of two little girls and to be totally honest it is not my highest priority to commit to the enormous amount of time required to fuel my family entirely on living plants, seeds and nuts.
Not that it can’t or shouldn’t be done. In fact, some of the best athletes I know are competing at the top of their field as plant-based vegans (as opposed to tofu and toast vegans). And I have close friends who devote wonderful hours prepping homemade sprouted seed bars, kale chips and wild green teas. So yes, absolutely it can be done. But to do it well takes some serious grit. And given my own early experience, half-assed veganism (where I replace the meat in my girl’s lunch box with empty carbs, processed oils, salts and sugars) is not a valid option.
That’s right. I feed my kids meat because I don’t like preparing food all day. I’ve compromised and every day I give thanks to the animals that have compromised their lives for me to live this fast-paced modern lifestyle.
I use my strong plant-based vegan and raw food repertoire as the basis for our meals. But I add in meat as a condiment. A kind of potent medicine that helps us ward off sugar and refined grains. I use it to fill the small corner of their lunch boxes that is left over after I’ve put in the carrot and red pepper sticks, walnuts and chia seed pudding. I still have green juice or smoothies every day, eat a ridiculous amount of hemp and chia and use coconut water to fuel my runs. But I add in three or four servings of meat a week when I’m training hard. Meat from animals that I’ve very likely met (well, not the wild Alaskan salmon), and that my husband may have helped killed.
Sometimes I feel like a lazy, unenlightened, yogi-fake. But mostly I feel good about my decision to trade in sugar and refined grains for a little bit of animal protein.
In Part Two of this Un-Vegan post I will investigate the broader moral and ecological implications of various popular modern diets (SAD, vegan, localvore and aboriginal).
You can also learn more about how to rehabilitate your own gut and settle on your own optimal diet in my upcoming Spring Cleanse, April 1-14th.