A Long Hiatus

I have to blame my recent bloglessness on Bikram and his addictive series.  As it turns out, there is tremendous opportunity to insert asanas into his collection of poses, and these variations can lead to really interesting sessions.  I’ve been enjoying his suggested series as a foundation and a guide.  There are so many ways to approach balance in yoga that the potential adaptations are almost endless, and while I realize that this may leave purists aghast, the lure of inserting a balasana or two into a routine over the course of six a.m. sadhana is sometimes overwhelming.  As David Farmar points out, in his inimitable way, if you were never to do another (insert asana here), neither your practice nor your life would end.  And so, I embrace a little modification here and there (and most mornings).
I’ve cleared a space for post-tea, early-morning yoga, and I’ve realized that the best way to embrace the benefits of routine is to break it purposefully.  While we can certainly be respectful of tradition, small changes in how we apply it can yield surprising results.  My once-nocturnal sadhana is giving slow way to the quiet of earlier practice, and Bikram’s patience with my tinkering has given new vitality to my day.  

Early Morning Mudra, Anyone?

I will admit it – I am decidedly not a morning person, which flies in the face of the yoga stereotype.  Sleeping in, for me, is a happy place, though I’m hoping that my ongoing quest for personal evolution will slowly make six a.m. more appealing.

There are a number of religious traditions that advocate getting up in the wee hours – i.e. four to five a.m. – to meditate and to pray.  I have attempted this once, and even I have to acknowledge the salutary effect that it had on my state of mind.  It is undeniably peaceful to rise before anyone else is awake, before the chaos begins (which you will ultimately float above like a lotus skimming muddy waters, yes?), and while all the world is quiet. A number of Buddhist lineages advise those beginning meditation practices to select artificially quiet environments at first; afterward, when a certain level of development is reached, bustle and activity will have little impact on concentration.  In this way, early morning ritual seems analogous – it is a time to “begin” again.

For those of us who haven’t yet become adept at leaping out of bed before the alarm goes off, it can be helpful to have a point of definite focus.  I’d mentioned mudras a while ago, and I’ve found them very useful in meditation.  The word mudra can refer to any of a number of positions, while hasta mudras refer specifically to positions or gestures of the hands.  A common mudra for morning altertness is ushas mudra, which can be performed by clasping the hands at your abdomen or chest.    Your fingers will be interlaced; think of a person celebrating a win at the end of a race – a common gesture is to interlace the fingers, creating a large “fist,” and shaking it at either side of the head.  That’s what your hands are going to look like, but we’ll leave the shaking for after the first cup of strong coffee.

For men, once your fingers are interlaced, ensure that your right thumb is on top of your left thumb.  For women, slip your right thumb under your left thumb; you’ll find that it rests at the base of your left index finger.

From here, you can hold the mudra and meditate on a sensation of fresh beginnings, alertness, and energy.  Five minutes may be plenty of time to feel refreshed, though don’t be discouraged if you’re still groggy – meditative practice, like all other worthwhile endeavours, takes time to develop.


Solving the Problem

According to current statistics, there are approximately seven billion persons on earth.  The World Bank shares statistics about global poverty, which can be found at http://data.worldbank.org/topic/poverty. According to these figures, almost seventy percent of South Asia and seventy percent of Sub-Saharan Africa are populated by those who live on less than two U.S. dollars per day.  In the Middle East and North Africa, the number is twelve percent, in Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s ten percent.  In East Asia and the Pacific, almost thirty percent live with this “income,” and in Europe and Central Asia, it’s just over two percent.  These percentages represent billions of human beings. These “numbers” live in poverty, of which aching hunger is a part, and they signify a staggering percentage of the human population.

It can be frustrating to want to help those in need, but feel that there simply isn’t enough to give.  The majority of us have difficulty contributing financially, finding ourselves strapped to make our own ends meet.  Interestingly enough, all that is required is a shift in mindset.  We’re conditioned to believe that the only way to make a difference is to sign a cheque, but I’d contend that this is actually the least effective way to generate change.  Global hunger is so great that an individual donation might carry the same weight as a drop of water dispersed in the ocean.  The best way to become a global citizen of clout and positive influence is to make personal choices that discourage reckless waste.  Selecting foods that make the most effective use of natural resources is a definite way to do this.

Consider these statistics (watch out for the math!):

A cow of average market size provides just over four-hundred pounds of meat, some of which is “suet” and other materials which can be used as part of meals, but cannot constitute “stand-alone” food (http://www.oda.state.ok.us/food/fs-cowweight.pdf, http://www.cattletoday.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=43995).  Given a recommended portion size of meat per person (seventy-five grams), one cow – at a yield of four-hundred pounds of edible meat – would feed just about 2419 persons one meal.  According to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, a cow will generally require an average of thirty-seven pounds of hay per day (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/beef/facts/roundbales.htm) (this figure is a very rough estimate – factors like foraging, hydration, etc. hugely influence hay intake).  Purdue University indicates that one acre will (again, roughly) yield just under one-hundred, ninety-six pounds of hay in a harvest (http://www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/forages/rotational/articles/PDFs-articles/calculating-hay-yields.pdf). Thus, one acre will feed five cows for a day.  Also according to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, a cow must be no less than thirty months old if it is to be slaughtered for meat.  If the general rule of weaning at seven to eight months old is followed, then for approximately twenty-three months, a cow will be eating close to those thirty-seven pounds of hay per day (barring other food systems, which also require land).  Five cows per acre per day means that five cows will require thirty acres per month, and three-hundred sixty acres per year.  If they aren’t sold for meat prior to thirty months of age, and begin to eat hay at seven months old, then nearly seven-hundred twenty acres are used to raise five cows for slaughter.  That’s one-hundred forty-four acres for one cow in order to get it ready to feed 2419 persons one meal.

Let’s look at a vegetarian source of protein now. There are roughly two and a half acres in a hectare. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian yield for lentils in 2007 was 1.26 tonnes per hectare (http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/lentil/lentil-statistics/?id=1174496962952), which is one half tonne per acre. Thus, in 2007, in Canada, a half tonne of lentils was produced per acre.  Let’s avoid further eye-strain and make these numbers “digestible.”

One-hundred, seventy five millilitres of lentils, cooked, is the same as just under one-hundred fifty grams, using 0.85 g/ml as the measure of density (http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/ap815e/ap815e.pdf). Assuming that the Agriculture and Agri-Food document listed above is measuring weight by metric ton, then a single tonne of lentils is the same as 1000000 grams, which is (very roughly) 850000 millilitres.

Let’s keep going. We saw above that a half tonne of lentils can be grown in one acre, which is the same as 425000 millilitres. This yields, at a serving size of one-hundred seventy-five millilitres per person, 2429 meals. Think about it this way.  One cow, over roughly the two years that it requires to mature to “marketable” age, will require one-hundred, forty-four acres of land (assuming that it is only hay-fed, and doesn’t require additional land for forage).  Overall, this one cow will feed 2419 persons one meal. That same acreage, planted with lentils, would yield seventy-two tonnes, the same as 72000000 grams.  That’s 61200000 millilitres.  At our handy serving size of 175 millilitres, that’s 349714 persons fed one meal.  These numbers are astonishing. We understand that crop rotation, the type of food mix that livestock eat, weather patterns, and other variables can influence these figures.  But given a very rough appraisal of the above statistics, which were valid for the years from which they were taken, planting a given amount of land with vegetarian protein sources would feed almost one-hundred fifty times (150x) more human beings than using that same amount of land for animal production.

There is also the consideration of water use.  An article featured on the Stanford Alumni page states that “[p]roducing one pound of animal protein requires 100 times more water than producing one pound of grain protein” (http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=29892) and an excellent paper written by David and Marcia Pimentel, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, confirms that a “meat-based diet requires more energy, land, and water resources than the lacto ovo vegetarian diet” (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full.pdf+html).

Now, let’s look at the nutritional profile on a serving size of beef (using a popular cut, t-bone steak, as a reference) and a serving size of legumes. According to the Canada Food Guide, which can be found here: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/basics-base/serving-portion-eng.php, a serving size of meat is seventy-five grams.  According to the same guide, a serving size of beans or lentils is one-hundred seventy five millilitres.

Please note that the information in bold has been drawn from the following sources:





Let’s begin with macronutrients.  A serving size of t-bone steak contains approximately fifteen grams of fat (of which approximately twenty-five percent is saturated), just under twenty grams of protein, and zero carbohydrates. 

With regard to micronutrients, it provides no vitamin C, A, D, or calcium. It has a small amount of magnesium, but significant amounts of B-12 and zinc.  It has just over two-hundred milligrams of potassium and roughly fifty milligrams of sodium.  Thus, the nutrients that are most heavily represented in a serving of this kind of meat are protein, B-12, and zinc.

Looking at a serving of lentils, there is less than one gram of fat, roughly one percent of which is saturated.  There are forty grams of carbohydrate and close to twenty grams of protein, depending on variety.  This last figure may be quite surprising to those who believe that meat contains significantly greater amounts of protein than plant-foods. 

In terms of micronutrients, vitamins C, A, and D are not highly represented, though lentils contains more vitamin C than does the serving of beef.  Nearly twenty percent of the recommended daily allowance of magnesium is present (roughly seventy milligrams).  There is little to no B-12, but there is twenty-two percent of the RDA of thiamine, another B vitamin, and almost ninety percent of the RDA of folate.  Vitamin B6 is also highly represented.  There is just over twenty percent of the RDA for potassium, and trace amounts of sodium.  Interestingly, there is significantly more iron in lentils than in t-bone steak, and the overall mineral profile on lentils is greater than that for this cut of meat.  Bioavailability influences the absorption rates of these micronutrients, but research concerning bioavailability is sometimes suspect.

Overall, the vegetarian option contains decidedly less fat, and no saturated fat, which the beef contains in considerable amounts.  The vitamin and mineral profile on the legumes is also greater than that of the beef.  A serving of legumes provides more water content than the beef, and the difference in fibre content is vast.  While the lentils contain almost sixty-five percent of the RDA for fibre, the meat contains none at all. These are the basic figures, but why are they important?

The University of Maryland provides a concise overview of the roles of various vitamins, which can be found here: http://umm.edu/health/medical/ency/articles/vitamins  As well, Deakin University has a good overview of the B-family of vitamins, found here: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vitamin_B

Have a look, also, at http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/lentil/?id=1174596720488. While these nutritional facts might belong to the “sustainable health” category, I think that it’s important to consider the nutritional density of foods in comparison to the amount of land “equity” required to produce them.  Given the proportion of the global human population that subsists without decent nourishment, and dies for want of it, it seems to me that the only responsible choice is to raise those products that make the best and most effective use of land, and produce sufficient food to feed all those who are hungry.

The impact of growing “x” amount of legumes is much less than raising a cow, specifically in terms of water, land, and energy use.  Given considerations of space, it is almost criminal, to my way of thinking, to raise cattle for the benefit of a select, comparatively wealthy few. Billions of men, women, and children live in conditions of entirely preventable near-starvation.  Economists and politicians will have to forgive my naïveté – I understand that endeavours of human welfare often require the blessings of free-trade agreements, sanctions, export costs, and taxes – but the numbers related to land-use per crop, per head are simple.

And so, it is for reasons like these that I support vegetarian and vegan diets.  I would highly recommend reading John Robbin’s Diet for a New America. There are many books that have been published since about similar topics, and many would have updated statistics, but Robbins presents his findings in a very elegant and comprehensible way.  As always, it is important to determine for yourself, on the basis of your own investigation, what the most appropriate path is for you.


The Problem, Continued

I’d mentioned in the last post that there were three major reasons that I chose a vegetarian diet many years ago. In addition to well-being, my decision to avoid meat, poultry, and fish was spurred on by moral and ecological concerns.  It can be difficult to talk about matters of ethics; we’re generally cautioned against discussing politics and religion (and, I would argue, moral values) in “polite” conversation; these are selectively “dangerous” themes.  Without commitment to an open mind and underlying human solidarity, these topics can be as divisive as they can be unifying.

So saying, it wouldn’t be honest of me to claim that my dietary choices had nothing at all to do with moral/ethical concerns.  I believe that our eating habits are hugely impacted by habituation.  Forms of entertainment are similar in that we enjoy what we’re accustomed to, what we’ve been raised to accept, what we’ve seen others doing.  Gladiatorial games are a prime example; society, at one time, demanded diversion in the form of terrible brutality.  What led the public mind to change remains unclear.  How can we pin-point the exact moment that a critical mass of objection was reached, and who was the first instrument?  This slow phenomenon influences food trends as well.  Twenty to thirty years ago in urban centres of Ontario, tofu was one of those odd “Granola Eater” eccentricities, and concepts like macrobiotic diets, vegetarianism, and local sourcing were enough to cause eyes to roll. “Not eating your meat” was tantamount to an attack on family harmony.  Now, vegan raw-foods cuisine has caused restaurants to appear and prosper, vegetarian-friendly options abound in almost all markets, and not having a vegetarian option on a menu is a little gauche. How did we go from an inability to conceive of a meal without meat to commercial interests recognizing the vegetarian and vegan populations as large and influential enough to inspire product-development and branding?

I was raised in a family populated mostly by eastern-European immigrants, one generation removed.  Though I’ve never visited ancestral villages, I am under the strong impression that vegetables fail to grow there.  Cows and chickens? Absolutely.  Dairy and eggs as a result? Definitely.  Vegetables and fruit? No, though occasionally a bit of kasha may emerge.  Fifteen years later, and my one aunt will still ask, looking utterly confounded, “so, you eat fish, no?” There is no doubt that my formative years were spent at tables laden with food pyramids skewed by poultry and beef, and until my early teens, I had no reason to question it.  My feelings must later have undergone a process similar to the one experienced by communities at large, though the cause is a mystery, even to me.  What I do recall is a feeling of sudden discomfort.  Looking at a chicken thigh on my plate, I was suddenly no longer able to detach (pun not entirely intended) the knowledge of it as a body-part – once a part of a living creature capable of pain, hunger, loneliness, and vitality – from the reality that it was now dead flesh on my plate.  I couldn’t any longer see this as “meat” and enjoy it for taste and texture, ignoring the process by which it reached my table.  What had happened, essentially, is that I had “de-habituated.”  If most of us had to kill and dress our own dinners, I am convinced that the vegetarian population would explode.  So many are able to eat meat because of the dissociation between the living animal and the meat product – we don’t think of vacuum-sealed ribs as cows or pigs. What we cook and serve are products, and we’re accustomed to enjoying them, our families enjoy them – there are no negative connotations surrounding the summer barbecue.  I contend, though, that the more knowledge communicated about the processes employed by abattoirs, the less we would be able to ignore the connection between the animal and the meal.

This is what happened to me – I ceased to be able to see what was on my plate as an object – the habituation that allowed me to ignore associations failed me.  It wasn’t a matter of choice – it was an inability to turn a blind eye. All of this is tied to moral considerations by a key personal conviction – that it is wrong to kill and to harm.  This was the moral component of my dietary change, and it was profoundly personal, tied to my own ideals.  This is why I find it ineffective, at best, to try for forceful changes of opinions in others.

With respect for choices that sustain,


The Problem with Vegetarians/Vegans/Omnivores

Food for Life distributes food on an internati...

Food for Life distributes food on an international basis produced solely from vegan and lacto-vegetarian ingredients. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a running joke that vegans and vegetarians will find ways to slip mention of their eating habits into conversation within five minutes of that conversation beginning.  Having been vegetarian for fifteen years (did I just uphold the stereotype?), I’ll admit that I’ve come across some true preachers, though the ones whom I’ve met on the other side of the pasture – the “omnivores” – have been quite a bit less respectful and a great deal more aggressive.  I return to forceful pranayama when I’m confronted with those who feel that my diet is a matter of their interest and an appropriate subject of debate.

A supportive diet is discussed in early yoga texts.  It’s generally acknowledged today that a light regimen avoiding meat, poultry, fish (as vegetarianism does), and eggs (as veganism does) is ideal for yogic development.  Food choices are, regardless, highly dependent on personal background, tastes, and ideals.  It goes without saying, however, that one’s goals – especially those related to fitness and well-being – greatly influence the nutritional changes that one makes. Because vegetarianism is so strongly associated with progress in yoga, we’ll delve into it here.

I’m often asked why I went “lacto-ovo” vegetarian, and lately, why I’ve begun to avoid dairy and eggs.  The question is inevitably raised around a dinner table at which I’m the only vegetarian, of course, which brings me – once again – to a bit of deep breathing. Regardless, I try to answer sensitively and with awareness of the fact that a person’s eating choices are motivated by deeply personal factors.

I’d like to introduce the idea of vegetarianism to you.  In conjunction with a more active lifestyle, the switch away from animal-based foods reformed my life and has helped me to maintain good health and avoid the onset of heredity diseases.  Diet, like yoga, must be individualized if it’s going to be effective, and I would strongly encourage you to do your own research and speak to trusted health-care professionals before committing to any sort of change.  For those of you who already maintain a vegetarian routine, I hope that this will serve as a bit of reinforcement and encouragement.

There have been a few very influential books that I’ve consulted over the years that have helped me to understand the impact of food on the body. One excellent example was written by a member of the Robbins family many years ago. Diet for a New America, written by John Robbins, is a thorough overview of a number of subjects related to eating habits, medical findings, and the ecological impact of both omnivorous and vegetarian diets.  I had difficulty reading through all sections of the book, but I tend to have a vivid imagination.  Though I found Robbins’ book a number of years after I made the switch away from meat, poultry, and fish, I appreciated it for its basis in research and investigation.

John Robbins speaks about diabetes and other diseases related to weight that ran rampant through his family, mentioning that the eponymous ice-cream chain and a culture of unlimited indulgence were never questioned as causes.  Similarly, my family was sedentary, and while our food was largely home-cooked, it abided by the “meat, potato, and a side of vegetable” rule that was the hallmark of healthy eating at that time. It never ceases to amaze me that the Canadian Food Guide once suggested that up to twelve slices of bread per day could constitute an appropriate dietary choice.

There is another book, written by Jane Heimlich, called What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You. Heimlich discusses a number of diets that contravene the “food-guide” rules and advocate largely vegetarian programs.  Several of these “rogue” regimens were formulated by doctors whose patients were not responding to traditional treatments, but whose health fairly immediately improved when their diets changed.

One of the most frustrating experiences as a lay citizen interested in the effect of diet on health is discovering that “facts” regarding nutrition vary so widely. These heterogeneous results are based on the findings and claims of different groups, including advocacy groups, the interests of which can have more basis in profitability than in science. When I first began to move beyond government guidelines, I learned quickly that “medical-model” dietitians disagree with naturopathic doctors, who disagree with sports-nutritionists. I started off simply wanting to know how much daily protein is ideal, and I came up with several very different answers.  Nutrition is far from an exact science.

I’ve found that the medical establishment is macro-nutrient obsessed. Fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are the primary considerations, and factors like the mineral and vitamin content, the glycemic-index rating, and the artificiality of ingredients are scarcely considered. I could choose an icing-coated, boxed breakfast pastry with ingredients eight syllables long, and that would qualify as a legitimate “grain/carbohydrate” selection on any government food guide.  I could, just as easily, choose a bowl of quinoa cooked in home-made broth as an option in the same category.  My experience with the medical model is that it lacks both understanding and “teeth” when it comes to educating the public about the importance of micronutrients and ingredients that require fewer than five-hundred processing steps.

Sports-nutritionists tend to favour the short-term benefits of narrowly focused food choices (i.e. tuna contains a tremendous amount of protein and little fat, so eat that every day!) and downplay the cons of a lack of variety in the diet.  Certainly, the hypertrophy seen in bodybuilders and power-lifters requires real dietary precision, and whatever foods most “cleanly” deliver selected nutrients in given amounts are those that are preferred.  In my experience, there is a spectrum, even in the amateur-sports community, of opinions about the necessity of natural foods.  Some are of an allopathic mindset – as long as the macronutrient profile on a product will support the physical end-goal, it is an appropriate choice.  Others take more of a naturopathic approach, which is one that we’ll discuss below.

Naturopaths, in my opinion, have the most comprehensive knowledge of nutrition.  A significant amount of time is allocated to nutrition in naturopathic training, and it results in a profound understanding of the value of different foods and their impact on the body.  While there may be similarities between the recommendations made by different naturopaths, the needs of an individual will largely determine how these recommendations are put into place. Not all naturopaths recommend vegetarian diets, but what I have observed is that they place great emphasis on unprocessed ingredients, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. The safety of organic ingredients is also stressed.

Having spent a great deal of time reading, researching, and consulting health-care providers, I believe that a vegetarian diet is an ideal.  Certainly, individual needs will vary, but findings on obesity and resultant heart- and endocrine disease, digestive illness, and chronic pain conditions indicate to me that vegetarian diets are safest.  Studies of longevity show consistently that diets that eschew meat result in longer life-spans.  Communities the traditional diets of which are based most on plant materials tend not to suffer from conditions that have, in North America, become inevitable “lifestyle” diseases.  For these reasons, I chose vegetarianism.  With a history of heart-disease in my family, I wasn’t about to continue on with the trend of saturated fat with a side of embolism.

Overall, the diet-health connection is one of three major reasons that I chose vegetarianism so many years ago.  Moral and ecological concerns were also motivating factors, but in the interest of keeping this readable, I’ll return to those in a later post. While food is an item of primal importance, I hope that these explanations will make new considerations and investigation possible.


Yogic Handshakes

Dedication to sadhana can look very different from yogi/ni to yogi/ni.  As discussed in a previous post, yoga is an umbrella over a variety of activities, each of which has merit and purpose.  As each person is entirely unique, so too will his/her development be at the beginning of a journey into yoga, and the activities that he/she needs in order to progress will differ.  My commitment to a steady practice has lately led me to study. I have gone back to basic sources, spending more time with Patanjali, and I’ve found that my understanding of the content has changed since my first reading.  When I open the pages of the sutras now, I have a developing appreciation of the scope and potential of ongoing practice.  Patanjali’s statement, ” now the practice of yoga begins” is profound in its seeming simplicity.

I’ve also begun to research aspects of yoga that are new to me, including mudras, which can be thought of as asanas of the hands.  These complement other elements of practice, from asanas to meditation and study, and can comprise practice itself. Gertrud Hirschi’s Mudras: Yoga in your Hands is a pleasant and interesting introduction to the mudras, and it gives the reader an excellent idea of how far-reaching the science of yoga is.

There’s some similarity between TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) theories of pressure-points and the basis of the mudras.  Hirschi refers to this, and delves into the effects of each mudra on various systems of the body and on psychological states.  The association of each finger and section of the palm with organs and the skeleton is discussed, and it’s not difficult to imagine how rich a practice could be, experimenting with mudras and complementary asanas.  While the mudras represent a single element of practice, they provide an excellent example of the tremendous thoughtfulness and diversity of yoga as a whole.  I hope that you will be encouraged to investigate the many avenues available and grow in your own sadhana.

mudra one

mudra one (Photo credit: kandyjaxx)

With anjali mudra firmly fixed,



A Little Love from the Mississauga News

A Little Love from the Mississauga News

Lots of gratitude to Metroland Digital, which asked me to be part of its “In the Neighbourhood/Ask the Expert” section for yoga in the Mississauga area.  Click the above link to head over to their article.

Very pleased to have a chance to reach out to others – it’s a beautiful, beautiful feeling to find a supportive community, and I’m looking forward to introducing yoga to those in Mississauga and in Maple.