I grew up a vegetarian. As a black child in the American south that’s the same thing as being the last unicorn on planet earth. Oh, I longed for fried chicken, pepperoni pizza and hot dogs that the other kids ate! When I got older I joined the world of carnivores. Being from Texas I loved steaks – the big juicy, bloody ones! When I went to yoga teacher training it was all-vegan. The first week I thought I was going to die – for many reasons – but the sudden weaning from meat was a major one. After the first week I felt lighter and my cravings for meat stopped. I stopped missing it and when I returned home I decided to remain a vegetarian. My husband has never been a big meat eater and so it was easy for us to go totally meat free. I’ve struggled with (eggs and butter), however, as I live in Africa and there are few easily available substitutes. However, when we were in Dubai we watched ‘What the Health’ and looked woefully at that big block of aged cheddar cheese in the fridge!
So, what’s a person to do if s/he wants to either become completely vegetarian or at least move toward a more plant-based diet. Below are 7 tried and true tips to help you live a more yogic life!
1. Cut Meat in Phases:
Meat is a stimulant and like all stimulants when you attempt to cut them from your diet, there will be major Resistance. The body is delicately balanced and drastic changes are not easy for it to accept. Homeostasis is the word. Don’t forget it. It’s easier to just coast along downstream than to stop mid-stream and go another direction. If you’ve been a life long meat eater, or just enjoy eating meat as I did – the body has oriented itself to digesting meat. Giving it up overnight will be difficult physiologically, psychologically and socially. Furthermore, since meat has been a large part of your meals, you might not know of many vegetarian option. So if diving in headfirst doesn’t sound appealing to you, make the transition over time.
Phase out red meats
I would suggest first giving up processed and red meats (beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, goat) as recent rigorous scientific studies found a strong association between the consumption of such meats and colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer. In those studies, the risk generally increased with the amount of meat consumed. Giving up red meat, still leaves you with other healthier choices as you march towards becoming a total vegetarian.
Then the white meats
Next, give up the white meats (chicken, turkey, etc) and just stick to seafood. Here you can include any seafood if you like. Before becoming pure vegetarian, there is still another step I recommend which is to then give up all seafood except for fish. Here you can restrict yourself to just salmon. Many people find this to be a good compromise and from a research point of view, this is quite a healthy place to be as well.
Forego seafood, fish and eggs
Finally, if you are determined to practice the yogic principle of ahimsa – non violence – and to not kill animals and other forms of complex life, now is the time to give up fish as well, and just become pure vegetarian. Just an FYI- I’m not here yet. I still eat fish. But eventually I will give that up too. If you are interested in giving up eggs as well, you can either move to unfertilized eggs from free roaming hens, or move towards giving up eggs as well (Note: The eggs you normally get at the store are unfertilized, but you might not wish to be an accomplice to how those hens are treated). There are also great egg substitutes such as Just Scramble, made from mung beans.
2. Go Vegetarian When Life is Good:
Food is a great source of pleasure and stimulation for many, and for some, the primary reason for eating meat is that it tastes good. So if you are going to deny yourself this pleasure, do it at a time when your life is full of other joys. If you try to give up meat at a time when things are tough, chances are you will experience epic setbacks.This thinking is in line with the Buddha’s teaching of not overloading the ox cart. In other words, don’t take on more challenges and difficulties than you can handle. Giving up meat can be a big sacrifice (at first)if you enjoy eating it. Pick a time to go vegetarian when your life is bubbling with other good things; and by all means, do not attempt this when you are going on a holiday!
3. Make Lifestyle Changes:
Chances are that eating out at first will offer less choices and be less attractive. So you’ll need to be prepared to try some veggie options outside of salad. Use this an opportunity to explore new foods, venues and restaurants. It’s also a good time to brush up on your cooking skills and maybe take some vegetarian cooking courses. Or you can simply YouTube it! Facebook has some good groups dedicated to vegetarianism. You can sign up and find some good recipes, encouragement and community. If you are a single try and marry a vegetarian who is a good cook 🙂 The key point here is that if both partners are vegetarian then it is easier to convert and stay converted.
4. Prepare and Plan:
In my daily routine I’ve found it relatively easy to maintain being a vegetarian. In Ethiopia there are lots of religious fasts so the restaurants have permanent ‘fasting menus,’ which are meat and dairy free! But my first trip abroad as a vegetarian was a complete disaster. I ate beef as I craved salt and blood! Weird right?! So I ate some carpaccio and my cravings went away. Big lesson! At home I have all the legumes, nuts, fresh fruit and veggies at my disposal. The next time I will be sure to stock up on proteins and other necessary nutrients to stay healthy. Options on the road can be woefully limited and there is a limit to how much pizza and french fries you can eat. So for trips and vacations you might take a page from the older generation and pack foods for the road. In the same way, if your options for lunch at work offer very little in the way of vegetarian options, you might need to pack a lunch. At the end of the day, this is actually not a bad thing, as you will end up eating healthier and saving some money.
5. No Cheating:
Once you have made the switch, don’t make exceptions until being a vegetarian has become second nature. At this point it is unlikely that you will need to make exceptions anyway. Just being non-veg for this holiday, or when you go to parties, or when you go out to eat, or just this one time since the chicken biryani smells so good, is generally going to derail your whole effort. So once you decide to phase out certain meats and you have switched over, don’t compromise. Show some willpower and control over your appetite and stay the course. I have faith in you; you can do it!
6. Practice Yoga and Meditation:
If you are attempting to be vegetarian, you will find that the practice of yoga and meditation will help. Many yogis are vegan and can be a great source of camaraderie. Yoga refines your energy and makes your entire system more sensitive. In this refined state, the old desire to consume animal flesh, parts will eventually vanish. Also, once your sensitivity increases, eating meat will affect you more emotionally and that too will help you on your journey. A quick note on eating meat and emotions: I used to suffer from clinical anxiety and when I stopped eating meat, my anxiety symptoms greatly reduced. I believe that the daily yoga was a big part of this, but also, I was no longer taking on the anxiety of the slaughtered animal. If you are new to yoga or want to strengthen your practice see How to Start Yoga and Three Essential Tips for Your Yoga Practice.
7. Watch Food Industry Documentaries or Visit a Slaughter House:
If you need an additional push, watch documentaries on the animal-agriculture and Big Food. Both ‘What the Health’ and ‘Conspiracy’ are pretty shocking. For more drastic measures, you can visit a slaughter house or chicken processing plant. I think it’s easier to eat meat when we distance ourselves from the suffering of the animals that are killed, but I have a feeling that getting closer to the action will have a shock value that may be just what you need to make that final leap into a full vegetarianism.
Finally, adopt a zen attitude! Going vegetarian can involve multiple iterations. Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t succeed immediately or occasionally eat meat. Just follow the steps above and set your mind on the objective in front of you, and I have all the faith in the world that you will achieve your goal.