Paleo + Yoga = ?

Hi, I’m Meghan. I’m a student and teacher of yoga. And I eat meat. Proudly. Lovingly. Gratefully.

Now that THAT particular confession is out of the way, and those who aren’t down with discussing the omnivorous way of life have fled, the rest of us can get into something that’s troubled me for a while: namely, “food judgment” in the world of yoga.

I used to be a vegetarian. At the age of 16, it seemed like a cool, animal-loving thing to do, and at that age I was still unsure enough of myself that I sought ready-made personality traits to adopt as my own. Being a vegetarian was being Somebody, part of a larger group, with a definitive identity. Also, at the time, I was just beginning to discover the practice of yoga, and all the yogis I knew were vegetarian, so the bias confirmed itself pretty smoothly. I won’t make any obfuscations—wanting to be part of a club was the reason I originally became a vegetarian. I stayed a vegetarian throughout college because it was so easy and non-stressful NOT to eat meat, so why should I do so, ever again?

After college, I became hip to the factory farming and corporate food systems in which the USA unfortunately remains mired to this day, and my reaction was to simply avoid that system at all costs. If mass food production was a corrupt hellscape of poison-peddlers, then I would remove myself from it entirely, and thereby absolve myself of any responsibility for its evils. I became vegan. I became REALLY vegan, one of THOSE vegans, internally judging everyone I saw putting meat into their mouths as though they would go down in history as solely liable for the destruction of the planet and the human race (not to mention all the cute fluffies they were ingesting—the poor, poor cute fluffies). In my travels, I’ve met plenty of vegans who are peaceable and non-judgmental, but let’s just say: I was not one of them. I was the bad kind.

It was—and I say this meaning absolutely no offense, and actually with a wistful affection—a very 22-year-old perspective. I remained vegan for two years, two blissful years in which I was absolutely certain beyond a doubt that I was saving the world with each bite of tofu. I was very happy being vegan. Until I wasn’t.

I won’t go into the myriad health issues that I dealt with as a result of those two years, because this conversation isn’t about veganism being bad or wrong. Suffice it to say, it was bad and wrong for ME, and I didn’t experience a slow trickle of symptoms and ailments; I hit a wall suddenly and painfully, like crashing a car. I flailed, feeling like crap, gaining weight, my skin pale and covered in rough patches, my eyes dull, my stomach hurting every time I ate. I saw doctors. I saw a naturopath. Long story short, they all told me that my diet was making me very unwell, and I needed to change it.

While this was happening—while I was experiencing this cascade failure of my previously energetic, happy, “healthy” body—I was taking courses in biological sciences and nutrition to prepare for a career in the medical sciences. Taking my knowledge of nutrition from Science rather than PETA’s website was the first step toward opening my eyes. From there, along with the “tsk”-ing and frowns of my doctors, it was a pretty quick slide into the realm of Everything You Know Is Wrong. And my own body was the proof.

I did nothing but read different theories on nutrition for months, making my way through everything the medical journals and the internet had to offer. I learned one main thing: Nobody really “knows” anything about nutrition. It’s an incredibly young science, and the research is coming in so rapidly, new theories so quickly put up and knocked down, that the whole thing can seem like an impenetrable tangle of contradictions and misinformation. I worked my way through it the best I could and saw some clear standout conclusions.

Taking my cues from “whole food” diets, primal living groups, and evolutionary biology, I started playing around with a Primal diet. Here’s where we’ll get into some sticky terminology. While The Paleo Diet TM has become a hugely trendy money-making operation, it does have its roots solidly in an evolutionary model of eating, and I like the gist of it, if not always the execution. However, I learned the hard way not to put labels on the way that I eat. The labeling of one’s diet, making it into a culture, a brand, an identity, is just as harmful, in my opinion, as the judgment of what other people eat. Your diet cannot be your personality; it cannot be your religion. However, it’s not something to take lightly, either, because it is literally what your body is made of.

When I decided to make a big change in my diet away from veganism, I had to lay all the evidence and all the options out on the table, and make the best decision I could based on what was in front of me. What will actually help the environment? What will be healthiest for my body? What will allow me to achieve my biological potential? What will be morally right?

It’s that last question I want to talk about. What will be morally right?

We are human beings, animals who, like it or not, evolved consuming other animals’ flesh, and continue to evolve based on that biology. The deepest blueprint within our cells is coded this way. Whomever or whatever you believe put us here, whether it be a deity, stardust, or random chance, that’s who we are, as a species. So why do we feel the need to ascribe morality—a human construct—to the unshakeable truths of biology?

It’s a losing game. It’s like saying it’s immoral to sweat, or drink water, or have sex (I realize that’s a kettle of fish right there). Eating what we are biologically predisposed toward eating is not something that is moral or immoral; it simply is.

(Here’s where, if you don’t believe we’re biologically or evolutionarily predisposed toward the consumption of animal products, you’re probably jumping ship. That’s fine. We fundamentally disagree and that’s okay; you draw your conclusions based on the available evidence, and I’ll draw mine.)

Where morality enters the picture is not in WHAT we eat, but in HOW we eat it.

When I decided to go back to meat-eating, I’d been meat-free for eight, nearly nine, years. Trading my tofu and tempeh for factory-farmed hamburger was anathema. As I wrote above, I looked at all the options out on the table, and decided that focusing on meat that I knew—as in, I knew what farm it was from, I knew their raising and slaughtering methods, and I knew what kinds of feed/chemicals they were giving the animals—was the most important thing. Second to that was finding meat that was raised as geographically close to me as possible. I joined a local buying cooperative that supported small, organic farms. I ate grassfed and pastured meats in an effort to maintain a good Omega 3:6 ratio. I ate only organic, hormone-free, humanely raised animals.

I dived into research on sustainable farming, and found that by supporting these local farmers and their efforts by buying their products, I was supporting the planet in a way that my veganism hadn’t, when I’d been shoveling down pounds of GMO tofu shipped from who-knows-where each week. I was part of a small yet discernable first wave of paradigm-shifters, demanding locally-sourced, sustainably-raised, humane products, and rejecting outright the insidious factory farming I had been so against in the first place. So, in a nutshell, I was accomplishing the same goals I’d had as a vegan, but doing it in a way that was healthier for my body, and didn’t fill me with judgment and frustration.

I bounced back to health. To me, this was the start of my true practice of ahimsa, or non-violence. I was achieving non-violence towards myself, my community, and my environment, by feeding myself what my body needed, supporting those striving for a better way of doing things, and achieving the biological potential that would allow me to best contribute to my community (I was no help to anybody when I was sick, tired, and angry). I was also practicing satya, truthfulness, by acknowledging my biology, and accepting that I am not just an observer on this planet. I am part of the Earth, part of the food chain, and by removing myself from participation in it, I was harming both my own body and the balance of nature.

If you’re not part of the world, you have no power to change it.

Each meal is an opportunity for mindfulness, gratitude, and love for the beings whose energy give me strength. Each purchase of an ingredient is an opportunity to make choices that lead to a better world. The temptation to be a Yogi with a capital Y, to submit fully to that fabricated identity and yield without question to what the identity told me I should eat and think, led me to nothing but illness, anger, and judgment. Listening to my body and forging my own path through the wilderness of the question, “What’s for dinner?” led me to a more true practice of yoga than I could have imagined.

What if yoga isn’t enough?

Let me paint a picture for you of how I began my day.

5am: iPhone alarm goes off next to my head, on my nightstand. I automatically grab it in my sleep; at this point in my life, it’s pure muscle memory. I would immediately snooze it if not for the alarm note I set the night before. Coffee. Shave legs. My brain recognizes that I won’t have time to snooze, but I set the phone down anyway, confused in my sleepy state.
5:05am: Three reminders beep on the phone: Coffee. Shave legs. Wear leggings today.
5:10am: Alarm clock #2 starts its wakeup routine. It’s a sunlight/birdsong clock. I slap it to snooze without thinking.
5:15am: Second set of reminders, the same three. Coffee. Shave legs. Wear leggings today. At this point, my brain has caught up to the fact that, oh yeah, I need to focus on getting up, moving around, having coffee before my workout. My workout! Right. I’m at the gym at 6am this morning. What day is it? Why am I wearing leggings? What’s going on?
5:20am: Third alarm, another on the phone, goes off. Alarm note: Get up now. Focus.
5:30am: Have had one cup of coffee by now. Brain is starting to clear a little, the pieces starting to move toward each other, but it’s still largely a jumble. I check my email, check my calendar, check my agenda for the day, check the weather. I begin the process of learning about what my day will be. I’ll have to reinforce it several more times before I can start a game plan to tackle everything, but it’s a start.
5:35am: Third set of reminders. Shave legs. Wear leggings today. Take check for Jen. At this point, I can remember why I set reminders for each of these things, but my attention is still fragmented by checking in with the internet.
5:40am: Fourth alarm. You have to move now. Put down the iPad. Oh, right. Because I won’t get to the gym on time unless I start getting dressed right now.
5:41-5:50am: Whirl around apartment, starting and stopping the process of getting dressed five times, distracted by more coffee, shaving my legs, getting that check written, and a million random thoughts: Hi, kitties! Should I let the dogs out? Morning, goldfish! Want some food? Oh wait, no, I gotta go. Leggings, right? I wonder if those shorts would look good with this shirt? Wait, no, LEGGINGS. I say aloud, “No, you’re getting dressed now,” at least ten times to keep myself on track.
5:50am: Final cascade of reminders, this time about the contents of my gym bag. Keys, wallet, phone. Wraps, grips, shoes. Check for Jen. Water bottle. BCAAs. Are you wearing leggings? I learned a while back that each reminder has to be separate, each thought and action individual, or it won’t take.
5:51am: Out the door. On time, but cutting it close; I missed my goal of leaving two minutes early. Being constantly 3-5 minutes late for absolutely everything in life since forever is something I’ve been desperately working to correct this past year, as owning a small business serving clients makes that completely and totally unacceptable.

Thank every deity out there for the invention of the iPhone—a tiny, immediately accessible, imminently portable little thing that performs the executive functions with which my brain has so much trouble. Were it not for smartphones and cloud syncing, my apartment, car, office, and everything in between would be a snowstorm of post-its.

Sometimes I look back through my reminders, which, on my iPad, don’t get deleted when checked off. They are hilarious. 3pm Wednesday: You can eat now. 3:30pm Wednesday: Did you eat? Because I know myself well, know that the first reminder probably didn’t take, or that I got distracted by something in the middle of making food.

Sometimes when I get back to my apartment after several hours away, I walk around finding items seemingly out of place, and am convinced there is an intruder hiding somewhere. My slippers on my bed; the drain stopper of my sink pulled up; two half-drunk cans of sparkling water sitting next to each other on the kitchen counter. The first couple of times this happened, I walked around with a knife, yanking back the shower curtain with a shriek, opening and closing the wardrobe doors, checking under the bed (I watch way too many crime shows). Nobody lurking, except my ADD. The items aren’t out of place. My brain just didn’t register leaving them there, because it got distracted by something else in the middle of doing it, and never made a memory.

It took a pretty long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t just lazy and unmotivated, and that there was something actually amiss in my brain. High school, and then college, were one constant, ever-increasing struggle to simply stay on task for more than five minutes.  I still did well in school, but it was like dragging myself through a molasses-filled minefield. Every assignment was completed within two minutes of the deadline; every test was crammed for the night before. I flat-out forgot about exams and assignments (the iPhone had not yet been invented; anything less automatic and immediate was ineffective) and became adept at coming up with elaborate yet believable, well-delivered lies for why I’d missed them, earning myself make-ups left and right. My early 20s, after graduating, became a mess of unpaid bills, unmet goals, unfulfilled potential. I knew this was no way to live, and was constantly frustrated by my inability to change it. I tried probably fifty different organizational methods over the years. None of them took. None made a dent.

By the time I was 25, I could solidly describe to others what my brain felt like: a stained glass window that had been shattered, all the pieces moving outward in slow motion like the expansion of the universe. I had discovered that having music or a TV show in the background while trying to concentrate helped snap these pieces together; silence made them fly apart again. One particular day, totally by accident, I discovered that Sudafed made the pieces not only snap together perfectly, but get brighter and more colorful, vibrating with energy, and that, under its influence, my work output increased by an order of magnitude in both volume and quality.

Somehow, I still didn’t put together that I had ADD, or some sort of executive function disorder. Yup: the fact that ingesting what is basically baby Adderall skyrocketed my mental clarity didn’t clue me in. I just thought, wow, I am superhuman when I take this stuff, I am the very best version of what I always hoped I could be. How funny.

You’re thinking now that this is going to descend into dark, pill-popping, after-school-special territory. Nah. Pill-popping, or altered states of any kind, have never really been my bag. Plus, it’s not like I could remember to take the Sudafed when I really needed to concentrate in the first place. I just noted that it worked to help me focus, and wrote it off as an interesting side effect.

Then, one day, I mentioned to a coworker that Sudafed had such a profound effect on my attention span and productivity. This person had been diagnosed with ADHD at age ten and had been on various medications for nearly twenty years. He gave me an odd look, like he wondered whether or not I was joking, and then said bluntly, “Yeah, that’s called having ADD.”

"No, no," I replied. "I mean, I’m 25. They’d have caught it before now. And besides, it’s not that it’s impossible to focus, it’s just that it’s hard to snap the pieces into place long enough." I described my stained-glass window.

He laughed. "Yeah. That’s called having ADD."


I talked to other people with ADD, telling them how my brain felt, asking them if that’s how their brain felt, too. The general consensus: “That is exactly what it feels like. Yes.” Other people added color, texture, detail, and variation to the stained glass window analogy with their own experiences, expanding the effect of ADD to other aspects of life that I hadn’t even considered.

At first, I was relieved to realize that my problems were possibly diagnosable, possibly fixable. This relief lasted for about a day, before it crossed my mind that the primary way it was “fixable” was a lifetime of medication.

It’s a funny thing, the resistance to medication. I can’t really put my finger on why I don’t want to go on it; on the surface, it seems the obvious thing to do. There is a chemical imbalance in my brain that medication would sort out. It would probably improve my life. And yet, whenever I think about doing it, something hollow and sick-feeling, panicky, forms in my gut and I just can’t. I can’t. I have no judgment, and actually feel a little envy, for those who do decide to go on medication. It seems like the easy way out, but it’s actually the much harder path, to acknowledge that you can’t do it alone and need something to fix you, that all your power and determination is just not enough.

Age 25, when I stumbled upon the fact that I wasn’t just a lazy mess and probably had some form of ADD-like thing going on, was, by no coincidence, also the age at which yoga went from a hobby to a passion and future career. Why? Because I decided that yoga would be my medication, that I could conquer my brain with enough asana. It didn’t escape my attention that yoga made my brain feel better, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why. It also didn’t escape my attention that, since I’d started a yoga practice in college, I had naturally gravitated toward hot yoga as my style of choice, and especially hot yoga with a specific, repeated sequence. I realized that both the heat and the ritualistic repetition of the asana series were focusing elements. They were my background noise, my Sudafed, during the largely silent yoga practice. No wonder I got furious when the room wasn’t hot enough. No wonder I resented the teachers if they improvised and went off-series.

In yoga teacher training, I nearly had a panic attack during our first seated meditation session. The room fell into silence and everyone was just breathing and emptying and focusing and all the meditation things, and I was sitting there feeling my brain fly to pieces, with nothing, no sounds, no music, no talking, no heat, no asana, to glue it back in place. I wanted to scream just to add some noise to the room. It was like falling off the edge of the world, floating out in space. I couldn’t do it. I worked on a spy novel in my head every morning instead.

After two weeks of seated meditation sessions (and yes, I’m ashamed it took me that long to sack up and try), I stopped giving in to telling myself stories and making lists; I just made myself sit in panic. Another week, and I was used to the silence; the panic was still there, but dull.

In the very last few days of teacher training, I achieved, for all of five seconds, actual mind-emptying, an actual meditative state. I fell out of it like having a hypnagogic jerk, gasped, and stared at myself in the mirror, eyes wide, while everyone else remained peaceful and still around me. I felt like I’d stood on the moon. The feeling of mental stillness was so foreign that it scared me. And yet: my brain was whole. Everything was clear, for those few seconds.

To some extent, every asana and meditation practice since then has been in pursuit of those five seconds of clarity and stillness. Progress has been slow, but the very pursuit of it has been like building a muscle—and over time, things in my life started falling into place because I was suddenly able to get stuff done.

And then came the iPhone, and Siri, and the cloud, and the ease of simply setting reminders for absolutely everything, and my life started running like a well-oiled machine. I had discovered the recipe for mind-glue, the better alternative to Adderall: yoga and a smartphone. It was working. I was doing it without medication after all.

But really: Was I?

I seemed to be backsliding a little bit about a year ago, so I took up a second physical practice, one that also flexes the focus and mind-emptying muscles, and things went back to improving. This is how it is: I keep adding focusing elements, like lenses in a telescope, knowing that, at some point, I will run out of time and space in my life.

If the only way I can function is with unmissable yoga, meditation, and ritualistic exercise, and the constant dinging of my phone to keep me on track, am I really overcoming anything at all? Sure, I’m surviving, but am I thriving? Lately I’ve been noticing that things are getting worse. Reminders will ding, and I won’t remember why I set them in the first place. I can’t parse my own language. I have to set double and triple reminders. I am almost unbearably inflexible to change, or disruptions in the routine. It’s like when you get contact lenses, and then after a year of wearing them, your prescription goes way up. Your eyes, not having to flex, relax against the crutches. 

What if the crutches are just making everything worse?

Yoga is not a crutch, though. Yoga is a vitamin. Yoga is a daily ritual that prepares my mind and body to perform to their full potential.

But what if it isn’t enough? At what point does yoga lose its effectiveness against a brain that isn’t working correctly in the first place?

I have no conclusions. This is really more of a thought experiment, an open discussion. I still don’t think I’m at the point where any shoulds are clear: I should get diagnosed, I should go on medication, I should work on memory and focus outside of the convenience and automation of technology. I don’t know if any of those things are true. I don’t know what I should do. All I know is what works, for now. My life has taken on the resemblance of success. Yoga is a huge part of that; it’s the primary ingredient in the mind-glue that holds the pieces together. I think that’s pretty much all I can ask for, until the glue no longer sticks as well, and maybe medication becomes the next thing to toss into the recipe. I hope, when the time comes, I’ll be ready to take that step.

And until then, the cues I always use when teaching yoga—find your focus, find your stillness, there is nothing but this pose, there is nothing but you on your mat in this moment—are as much for me as for my students. Because I know myself. If I don’t flex that muscle, if I don’t remind myself constantly, the focus will drift away, and I will drift away with it.


Purkinje neurons play an essential role in motor function. Here the Purkinje neurons reach their arbor-like dendrites into the molecular layer of the developing cerebellum of a mouse. The mostly green cells at the bottom left are cerebellar granule cells, which relay information from the nervous system to the Purkinje neurons.


Purkinje neurons play an essential role in motor function. Here the Purkinje neurons reach their arbor-like dendrites into the molecular layer of the developing cerebellum of a mouse. The mostly green cells at the bottom left are cerebellar granule cells, which relay information from the nervous system to the Purkinje neurons.

(via science-junkie)

Reblogged from medicalschool