On Yoga, Veganism and Wellness, part 3
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
March, 2020. By the time Covid broke out, I had stopped commuting into London on a weekly basis for work. After four months, it had proved to be too much disruption for our family unit while settling into a new environment. As the tidal wave of virus gained speed, I found myself preparing in the same way one does for an epic storm at sea. I battened down the hatches and closed up my Rolfing practice and said my goodbyes to local students, somehow knowing I wouldn't be back.
As 'home schooling' began there was a good dose of chaos and overwhelm, both in the online learning platform and in our household. I held down the fort as 'head teacher' for my son, and also began teaching yoga online. This was a welcome and unexpected way for connection outside of the complete isolation that had daily life had become, and was a beneficial focus point that helped mediate the anxiety percolating throughout my body. There was uncertainty of the virus, lack of income, my son's fear (for my life), and my own health to consider. Even as I worked to suppress the fear that was operating within to assure my very sensitive son that everything was okay, he, of course, could see right through the charade.
Over the first Covid-Spring, my health went through a sort of upheaval. The life-long digestive disease was making some of the seemingly simplest tasks difficult, and spinal pain peered over my shoulder. I couldn't bear to look at these signs, for it would have surely eroded at the inner-belief that I had to 'keep calm and carry on'. Daily yoga and meditation practice helped to hold everything together rather than aiding in the letting everything fall apart. Somewhere deep down, though, I knew this existence was not sustainable. I didn't have any idea of just how close to a breaking point I stood.
It started in October with a mysterious swollen knee, but then one morning woke up, and I couldn't get out of bed. Overnight one of my ankles had ballooned beyond recognition and pain carried up the leg to the hip. It was excruciating. For several days I laid on the couch, unable to function, envisioning my own demise. As a child of a rheumatologist and having lived with chronic inflammation, I knew intrinsically what was going on; I could even visualise this great fire in my gut spreading through my cell-lining and penetrating into my joints. I needed help.
Desperation led me to my local doctor, who in the midst of the Covid arc was largely unreachable. Crutches were purchased. Tears shed. Then, a close friend pointed me in the direction of Terry Wahls. An American doctor living with MS, through diet, she changed the course of her auto-immune disease and then wrote the 'bible' of elimination diets called the Wahls Protocol. Overnight, I dove deep in to a new way of understanding food, mitochondrial health, and how to eat as a support to auto-immune disease. Several other books were also purchased, including the Auto-Immune Protocal Made Simple and the Anti-Inflammatory Cookbook. I was in business. I knew I didn't have total control of my destiny, but I was willing to do everything in my power to choose life.
One of the main principles of both the Wahls and AIP protocol is an elimination of all processed foods, chemicals, gluten, dairy, eggs, nightshades, nuts, seeds, refined sugar, soy and anything the might inflame the mitochondria. It's also 100% organic. The key principle is to eating copious amounts of nutrient rich, dense food including: bone broth, 6 cups of rainbow coloured vegetables a day, a small amount of fruit (the most nutrient rich is the kind of vegetable and fruit where the colour penetrates through the entire produce, not just the skin) and organic, grass fed animal parts. (Of note, animal organs are pushed as the most nutrient rich food to support mitochondrial and organ health. Terry recommended animal liver, brain and kidney on the menu as often as possible. I had one 'heroic' attempt at frying up a baby cow's liver while chanting to Krishna for forgiveness, but I did not manage a bite. Like my teacher says, “Try your best and let God do the rest!" I did try my best, and 'God doing the rest' had me feeding said liver to the foxes. They loved it.)
One minute I had been a staunch vegan, the next I was a butcher's best friend. I found a friendly local guy who sold organic, local...well, dead animals. Heavily tattooed, bearded and muscularly ripped, he seemed to know a great deal about meat! He gave me, pro-bono, some cow's femur bones, two filet mignons and a a lifetime worth of cooking tips. The freebies felt a little like I was getting into a relationship with a dealer - you know, one you might have seen on Breaking Bad who gives a few doses to a new user so they can test out the goods (and then get them hooked). I ambivalently took the rather heavy bag of deadness and hobbled home.
As I recounted the recipe for bone broth (letting the femur bone boil with a good bit of salt and pepper) I set to work revamping the pantry. Nuts and seeds were replaced with coconut chips, gogi berries, tiger nuts and plantains. Soy sauce was substituted with coconut aminos. Wally's Apple Cider Vinegar replaced basaltic glaze and Avocado oil replaced the sesame oil I revered. All of the artisan spelt and wholemeal flour that had kept my lockdown bread-baking alive was substituted with coconut, tapioca and arrow root flour (again, a few tears shed). In no time, I became and expert at making AIP pho, and was ordering venison and pheasant straight from a local hunter.
My urgency for health dissipated a good portion of the guilt I carried for the lives of innocent animals lost; this was purely about survival.
I won't lie. The first couple of months were challenging - I gave up coffee, all soy products, my beloved oat milk and staples of nuts and seeds - but I did adapt to maple syrup and the myriad of sweet potatoes and plantains required to fill the void of starchy comfort.
I was surprised at how quickly I did settle in to my new relationship with food. As winter approached, copious bowls of soup were infused with bone broth - a nutrient-rich, alkaline rebuilder of tissue lining. Unsurprisingly, my blood work improved, and for the first time in many years, my iron levels were naturally normal and other vitamins I had been missing out on were replenished.
While in the foreground, I got on with the changes in shopping routines, cooking and eating, in the background, there was a running analysis and commentary about my decades of vegan practice. Who was I turning into? Was I still practicing 'yoga' if I was contributing to the harm of innocent animals? Was this truly what was best for my health? Had two decades as a mostly vegan eater helped, or actually played a role in harming my health? And the carbon offset....for the first time in my life I was eating more local, less plastic-wrapped food than ever before. Was veganism truly what was healthiest and best for the planet if so much of that food was processed / flown in from other countries / wrapped in plastic / out of reach price-wise for all but the wealthy? The decades of messaging from yoga teachers, doctors and the media were all competing for attention. For the first time in my life I started to understand that maybe it didn't have to be all or nothing in diet, judgement of self, or otherwise, but a skillful mediated awareness of animal welfare, the environment and my health. It dawned on me that no one, not even a doctor or nutritionist, would be able to tell me exactly what I needed. Only I could do that, once I had enough information and the ability to trust my gut.
On this new regime, I needed no supplements or hospital iron infusions that surely had their own imprint (what was in those dark, rusty colour sacs of fluid, anyway?) I recalled the viewpoint of Isabella Tree in her book Wilding, and could start to see the rigidity and dogma around the 'Go Vegan or Go Bust’ message, that often times seems to suggest that as long as food is vegan, it's healthy. (As a side note, there also seems to be some subset or secondary belief that as long as you're vegan and helping the planet and the animals, you can be an asshole in daily life. But I digress.) Isabella’s message about being a conscious consumer, knowing the source of food, and eating small amounts of animal protein in moderation (and only where animals need to be culled to maintain a healthy balance for the environment) challenged the vegan message I had been hearing for some years in a way that made some sense. Her theory is that if factory farming were to cease and eating wild animals were helping only to control the population in small amounts, animals could then roam more freely, helping to arate the soil and control vegatation growth while living a excellent quality of life. While a part of this view is idealistic (we are a long way off from seeing factory farms close down for good), it is already happening in some places like Knepp (and with the onset of bringing back formerly extinct species like the White Stork, as a success story, the idea of Rewilding is as a movement, on the up). Veganism, after all, is a new-age experiment, and while it is no doubt what is best for the planet and her species, it has also riddled some people into internal conflict. After all, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were designed to hunt (and eat) other animals. We have this in our DNA. This conundrum of exploring the boundaries of 'being human while trying to be other' plays out in many ways in our daily life. Whereas veganism is concerned, I’ve seen the tension people transitioning from being meat-eaters to meat-evaders face; I know first hand because for many of those beginning years of my vegan practice, I was one of them.
Flashbacks come to me in the form of food and experiences. There was the craving for a hamburger as a pregnant woman that was never satisfied due to my sophmoric yogic 'guilt' ... there was that three day fast on an Outward Bound retreat as a vegan teenager when I dreamt/hallucinated spaghetti and meatballs, returning from that experience emaciated with an even stronger resolve to never eat meat....and then, this. At a yoga event in London when my teacher was in town, she was getting ready to lead the chant 'Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu' (may all beings be happy peaceful and free), and just before she began there was a pause, followed by the blatant suggestion that only the vegans in the room had the right to chant this particular mantra, because only vegans were truly non-harmful. It was provocative moment for many in the room, but the younger version of me bought into that at the time. So, who was I now, and what was I becoming?
I observed these thoughts passing through me at nearly every meal, with daily vacillation about the path I had chosen, both as a vegan, and as a meat eater. Heightened awareness threw shade at my new regime as a myriad of new vegan product lines rolled into town. With the climate crisis reaching new heights in the press and finally, a more outright recognition of the role diet plays in carbon emissions, internal parts of me were in conflict; on the one hand wanting to do the right thing for the planet and for the welfare of animals, on the other, desperate to feel vitality from within, all with with the background story of my need to be there to support my son for the years to come.
After a few months, I did see changes in my body and my mind. I wanted to believe this was in part due to the diligence and gusto in which I embraced the elimination diet, but in reality, other things were at play. Yes, I found a way to be more in touch with my doctors, who listened to my suggestions about changes I wanted to make in my medications, and who were left perplexed by all that I was doing in exploring my diet. More importantly, though, I began honing in on the internal dialogue that had shaped my personality over the arc of my lifetime.
As the pandemic got underway, I had enrolled in several online programs where there was a strong emphasis on the inner-relationship, the one I had with myself. Yoga, of course, is also about this relationship, but my sense is that over time without trusted and regular guidance, this aspect is in jeopardy of being watered down, expecially without an intimate connection with the teacher as a mirror and a source.
I began actively practicing RAIN (the teachings of Tara Brach), meditating with Sharon Salzburg, and eventually and perhaps the most profoundly, I was introduced to Gabor Maté, whose book When the Body Says No has been integral in seeing my auto-immune disease in a new light. My whole life I had seen this dis-ease as something I had rather than a process that was happening within as an adaptation. This ‘process’ was a way I had subconsciously learned to manage myself in a stressful environment from a very young age, probably beginning before my birth, that incidentally, took place in front of a full film crew. My mother had to suppress her emotions during the birth process (I've seen it first hand!), and likewise, growing up, not expressing emotions was very much the passive-aggressive de rigueur of my family. It served me throughout my childhood as a coping mechanism in an inconsistent and often inflammatory environment with two parents at odds with each other, both carrying remnants of their own childhood trauma. The state of pushing things down had become a character trait. That internal wiring was no longer working though, and I knew I had to change the subconscious inner dialogue to regain my whole health. My nervous system needed a big Time Out, and the elimination diet had acted as a gateway that led me to literally strip away at layers of ingrained belief systems until there was nothing to hide behind.
The next eight months would see me have a second spinal surgery, begin a year-long, intensive training with Gabor Maté, and eventually loosen the reigns from both the Wahls/AIP protocols that I had been following so diligently, and also from the branded methods of yoga that I had once been so tethered.
As I sit here today, I've managed to return to a primarily plant-based existence without the processed vegan substitutes, which for me feels most natural and adaptable in my body and also my mind. The positives coming from my year eating meat have been many. First, I became aware of how judgemental I was about other people and their lifestyle choices. I more fully understand the concept of ‘minding my own business’, or rather, ‘being mindful of my own busy-ness’, and when I catch myself looking on the outside for reasons to be angry, I'm becoming more skilled at re-diverting that awareness within. Another benefit to the dismantling of my former rigidity is that I am more response-able; I'm more adaptable when confronted with circumstances out of my control and ready to find solutions. As a family, we eat more of our meals together, waste less, and are more collectively conscious about what we consume. My son's very limited diet has also opened to new possibilities (also with a big thanks to his school), and my health continues to be a focus of exploration and has found its way into different dialogue about balance.
Dietary needs are different for everyone and we all come from varied perspectives about the health of the planet and our role in protecting and sustaining her, our mother earth. Food and eating is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated without guilt, as are our bodies. While humans are by design, not meant to be vegan, neither were we intended to consume the vast amount of meat, chemicals and plastics that go hand in hand with today’s food industry. Factory farming is a blip on the continuum of time and, besides being one of the major contributors to climate change and soil erosion, is also nutritionally deficient and hugely abusive to the animals during their short, extraordinarily traumatised existence. Desperate times call for desperate measures of looking closely at what, and how we consume, not only food, but information and our own thoughts.
My experience has been that the path towards self-awareness is long and multi-layered. For many people, eating plays a role in both self-image and wellness. Yoga is empty without intention, but at its best, can play a transformative role as a framework for how we live, inviting all aspects of life to be an integrated part of wellness and self-realisation. There are many other frameworks that also can work contribute to this goal, in fact, every action (thoughts, words, deeds) an individual takes can be one leaning in towards wellness or away from it. The point being, it is not what you do, but how any action action is pursued.<