Saturday, December 5, 2015

Vegan Holiday Blues (Problems + Solutions)

Common vegan dilemma:

Just imagine, you are at a Christmas party that you have been looking forward to attending for weeks. You walk in the door and are greeted by your family and a few close friends. You walk to the food table and offer your contribution of veggie sticks and hummus. You pick up a little plastic plate and soon realize that your little snack is the only item at the party that does not consist of meat, dairy or eggs. As you snack on your celery sticks and catch up with your great aunt, she might insist that you, "just stop being vegan for the night and enjoy the food!" If you are a new vegan, the idea might be tempting- but you realize that you want to stick to your values. More carrot sticks, until hunger panes ensue. Pie and ice cream are brought out, while you sip on sickeningly sweet fruit punch. Your sister offers you a piece of cake that she made from scratch. You politely decline, but feel kind of mean because you know she put a lot of work in to baking that cake.

If this sounds familiar, let's talk about solutions! This is no way to get through the holidays as a vegan. (In fact, it is all too common for people to give in to social pressure in these kinds of environments) Holidays should be fun, there is no reason to be miserable.

Let's talk about problem solving.

Problem: There is no vegan food at the party.

First of all, I have learned that it is very misguided to assume that there will be something to eat at any given house party. (Unless if the hosts are vegan) Even when the people hosting know that I will not eat anything off of their meat and cheese tray, I have to remember that I am not the only guest and the host has a lot on their plate to think about.

Solution: Plan on bringing the food that you are going to be eating throughout the course of the evening, and don't forget to bring a dessert! Bring food to share, but also bring food just for yourself in case if it's a huge party and your offering gets consumed before you get a chance to have your share. Have snacks, an entree and a dessert ready to go.

Problem: People might think I am rude if I turn down their offers of home made food

This is a tough one, and I have handled this situation a lot of different ways. You will have to figure out what works for you. Over the years of flip flopping between vegetarian and vegan, I would sometimes indulge in a baked good prepared by a well meaning friend over the holidays. The truth is, I am not used to eating dairy and it wreaks havoc on my digestion. Additionally, it has caused me to fall down a slippery slope of not eating all-vegan. I don't blame anyone for making an exception here and there, but I personally am better off mentally and physically if I just stick to eating vegan all of the time.

Solution: Communicate with family and friends before anyone makes a special, extra frosting dairy cupcake just for you. Prevention is the name of the game here, people! Before the party, mention to the host and anyone that might be making food that you are eating a special diet and will be bringing some of your own snacks. (Sometimes, a host will be very generous and offer to make you something special. Even if they do this for you, don't expect that you won't need to still bring your own snacks- it could just be one small thing that everyone is sharing!)

I know that there are a lot of vegans out there that like to make a fuss. Good for them- but I am not one of those people. I like to be polite, I like to be a good guest and I don't want to come across as a food snob. However, it is important to let other people know what my dietary considerations are. If no one knew that I was vegan, and I simply declined a baked good without elaborating- it would leave the other person guessing.

Even if I do a stellar job of communicating, sometimes people will still buy or make me food that is not vegan. I have found it to be important to be gracious when declining the offering and appreciate the fact that they thought of me in the first place.

Problem: Other people won't leave me alone about my vegan lifestyle!

This problem can be complicated, because there are often a lot of dynamics going on here. Whether other people are teasing you or pressuring you to eat animal products, it can feel stressful. I have also had the reverse situation with people who think my vegan diet is so fascinating, and they just won't change the subject.

Solution: What has worked for me is to take the spotlight off of myself and put it on the other person. Holiday time is precious for catching up with people that we don't get to see all that often, so it's really important to ask them questions and listen to how their life is going. Tell them about a book or movie you have read, make a joke- it'll be a better conversation and it will feel good to connect with the other person. They probably won't even remember you are vegan- until they offer you a cupcake.

I hope my little troubleshooter was helpful to you! Feel free to comment below if you have any other tips and tricks to get through the holiday season.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Social Issues of Being Vegan (and the need for self confidence)

I have been a yo-yo-er between being vegan and vegetarian for the last nine, almost ten years. I tend to go for about two years at a time being vegan and then crash in to an almost-healthy vegetarian diet, and then go back in to a true vegan lifestyle.

As I approach the two year mark on being vegan again, I delight in the idea of sustaining my plant based lifestyle for a much longer period of time. (Maybe my whole life, that would be great.) Over the last two years, I have had to do a lot of brainstorming on what my issues were with sticking to this thing that I really like to do. I realized that a lot of it boiled down to the social issues, which is what I wanted to write about today.

Here is the thing about being vegan that no one wants to talk about; people start to scrutinize you. People may not see you as a complex person anymore, they just see a specimen of a plant based diet. A product, if you will.

What people don’t understand is that we all come from different places with our health.

There are people that do not have to try very hard to be healthy. These are the people that can smoke, drink and eat junky food and somehow seem to function pretty well. These are the people that start eating a little healthier and all of the sudden they look good in a bikini and can do 1000 push ups. Bless them. I am not one of those people. If I neglect my health, I am a person that becomes very sick. When I take care of my health, I don’t look like a bikini model and I certainly do not become a fitness goddess. Living a healthy lifestyle gives me the ability to function relatively normally, and to me that is a wonderful thing.

The difficulty comes when people assume that being vegan, drinking green juice every morning or spending my weekends doing yoga or running laps means that I am in some way superior to them. People try to knock me off of the pedestal that I did not put myself on, which can be painful, embarrassing or just sometimes a bit annoying.

“How do you know your vegan diet works when you are still so overweight? You must need to eat some animal products!?”

“How do you know your vegan diet works when you are so spacey and scattered? You must need some animal products!”

“I noticed that you have a HUGE ZIT on your nose. You must need some animal products!”

“You pulled your ankle? I never get hurt when I run! You must need some animal products!”

Perhaps without meaning to, people have made me feel inadequate; like I am an incomplete person that would just be perfect if I was not a vegan.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t eat a plant based diet to be perfect. I don't have weight loss goals, either. I do it to improve my health from where I started. I also eat a vegan diet because it is one of my personal values, to do no harm. (The plant-based diet for health and the ethical, philosophical vegan diet are different, but I just happened to dabble in to both for different reasons and fell in love.)

Choosing to make a longterm commitment to be vegan involved a lot of self reflection and self esteem. I had to become self confident and give a big middle finger (okay, metaphorically speaking haha) to the people that think they can bully me in to being just like them. I also realized that people are threatened by people that do things differently, and get brave when they see that the fringy person is not perfect.

The other thing that helped me make a longterm commitment to veganism was recognizing that I will never “fit in,” not that I ever did anyways. I will stick out like a sore thumb, and people will always ask me what I am eating and where my protein comes from. It’s okay. I can roll with it.

Another thing that I worked through when I made my decision to remain vegan is to absolve myself of the responsibility to represent veganism. I can talk about it if I want to, but I don’t have to participate in every conversation in which I am invited. I love chatting with people that are friendly and respectful, but I do not have to talk about veganism to people that are rude to me. I have boundaries now.

Related to my last point, I also realized that I am not obligated to make my lifestyle look appealing. The juice that I drink in the morning is green. Usually it tastes sweet like apples, but sometimes it is kind of bitter. I wake up in the morning at 5 to run several days a week. Usually it is pretty energizing, but sometimes I roll out of bed and am *not* feeling it. Most people would cringe at how often I eat salad, but I really enjoy it and find it delicious. Some people probably think it is odd that I have potted kale plants on my living room table or that I try to re-grow my kitchen scraps. I don’t have to make my life look appealing to anyone in order to get others to try veganism.

When other people see me drinking me green juice and say, “I could never drink that every morning!” I used to argue with them and say, “You don’t understand, it tastes like apples and ginger! It’s so good! You should try it!” but now I just say, “Well, ya don’t have to drink weird stuff to be vegan but I sure like to do it!” if I say anything at all. It’s not my job to convert people. I know that I found this information on my own and adopted it to my life independently, maybe I wouldn’t have if someone had tried to sell it to me.

I am excited about what self development the next two years of being vegan will unfold. I am going to write about some of the other things that have helped me stick with this lifestyle in future blog posts. so stay tuned! :)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Is "Disability" a Bad Word? (Thoughts from ABC's 'What Would You Do?')

When I discovered the show, "What Would You Do?" I was thrilled. I flipped through one YouTube video after another, watching actors portray moral dilemmas in front of bystanding people who did not know that the situation was set up. There were drunk dads about to drive with a van full of kids, seemingly drunk women alone at bars, staged drug-slipping, a theatrical (but eerily realistic) kidnapping and people who seemed to have disabilities that needed help. The idea is to see who would respond out of all of the bystanders and who would speak up or try to help. To change the variables, WWYD changed the gender, race or age of the actors and repeat the skit. It's a very interesting show. It airs on ABC, but episodes can be found on Hulu and YouTube.

One episode that particularly stood out to me was one that involved an actress with a speech impediment that was taking orders at an ice cream shop. Some bystanders were impatient with her delayed speech, although most were very understanding. WWYD planted a few actors to act as impatient/ bullying customers to see how bystanders would react to the rude customer in line. (The roles are flipped a couple of times, with the actress as the customer and vice versa)

At the end of the show, it was revealed that the actress truly did have a speech impediment. However, she wanted to correct anyone who thought she had a disability. "It's just part of life," she said.

I have heard this sentiment a lot. When I read Bethany Hamilton's book "Soul Surfer," she commented that, "I am living proof that there is no such thing as a disability." Although those words are a crass over generalization of what other people experience, Bethany Hamilton did have her arm amputated by a shark and got right back into professional surfing. I'll give her a pass.

I can't judge. I know why people want to eschew the label of "disability." Just look at words like retardation, invalid, (We pronounce it like in-vuh-lid, but just look at the word in print) and handicapped. These words are so often used as an insult in media, and "disabled" is turning in to one of those words that no one wants to use to describe themselves. When we break down the word, "dis-able," the word does start to sting a little bit if it we to be used to generalized to the worth of a person's overall contribution to the world.

However, isn't over generalization the problem in the first place? Someone can't do one thing, so others assume that they can't do anything. I feel like what a person is or is not able to do should not define the value of their lives. Whether or not someone has a disability, there are plenty of things that we can and can not do. Just because I can not run the Pittsburgh marathon doesn't mean I'm a no-good person, and I would be no less of a person if I could not walk a single step. (I suppose this is where the word, "differently abled," arose from; but just give it five years because the mainstream culture will find a way to abuse the term.)

Although most people find a way to rationalize offensive words, (Such as misusing the word, "retarded," "psychotic," "special," etc.) I ask that they consider the impact that they have on people with disabilities. It would be a small change in vocabulary for one person, but for other people it can make a tremendous difference in terms of their workplace or social event feeling like a safe place. Words are not the only way people with disabilities are often alienated, exclusion from important opportunities "because they probably can't participate" is another way people are unintentionally mistreated. It's important to remember that people with differences in ability are painstakingly aware of their limits. If they are invited to something that they can not participate in, they will politely decline just like anyone else.

People often think that, when people with disabilities are alienated, belittled or mocked, the person with the disability is robbed of participating or contributing. This is very true, but this is not the only loss. When people alienate those with disabilities, they are robbing themselves and the community of an individual that has a lot to offer.

I respect anyone who does not want to think of themselves as having a disability, but I think that the intrinsic value of every person needs to be understood. Coming up with a word to replace disability might help, but it will only work if the mainstream culture stops verbally abusing people with different abilities. Ability or the lack of aside, race aside, gender aside, privilege and the lack of it aside... every person is valuable and important exactly as they are.... with whatever label they use to describe themselves


Before I log off, I would like to leave you with this excerpt from an interview with Special Olympics chairman, Timothy Shriver on NPR.

"Bill Clinton arrived and one of the professional photographers saw a group of Special Olympics athletes and noticed that they'd each had their little single-use cameras that they'd been given and they were trying to get a picture of the president, only they all had their cameras backwards. And he said to them, you know, you have to turn your camera around and then you look through the viewfinder and you click the button and you'll get a picture of the president way up high and the athlete, one of them turned to him and said, oh thank you so much, he said, but if you look through the viewfinder backwards it works just like binoculars and you can see the president perfectly clearly."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Coping with Chronic Illness

Living with chronic disease can be very challenging. Just imagine all of the symptoms that you had the last time you had the flu, (give or take a symptom or two) and imagine that you have to live with that every day for months or years. If you are reading this and you have a chronic illness, you don't need to imagine- you are living in it.
After living with a smorgasboard of illness that debilitated me to a wheelchair for three years of my life, I have come up with a few things that have helped me cope and carry on.

"Chronic" does not mean the same thing as "Permanent"
We tend to use the past to predict the future. If things have been a downward spiral so far, we can just assume the trajectory is going to be the same. Chronic disease can affect someone for a few months, a few years or possibly even a lifetime. It can be helpful to maintain hope that the symptoms will someday become manageable or that the disease will someday be reversible. Medical advancements are improving every day, there is more scientific knowledge about self-care and disability equipment keeps getting better and better. When I have had the attitude that "my life is a downward spiral," or "when one thing gets better, another thing gets worse..." I lose the ability to appreciate the things that I am able to do. There are no guarantees about the future, but it's okay to hope for a slightly better one than we have today.

Finding something that I as able to do and could get excited about

I found a lot of comfort in painting and singing, even when I was so sick that I had a difficult time with hand tremors. (Abstract art is in!) Before I was ill, I did a lot of active things and spent most of my time outdoors. It was really difficult to switch gears and find new hobbies, but it was a really important part of my self-care. Making art helped me get through those tough years with my sanity in tact.
For me, other people helped me find things that I was able to do, because I really had a bad attitude and thought there was nothing left. My grandma showed me how to container garden, (since I could reach the containers with my wheelchaire) which quickly grew into bigger and bigger projects that I felt excited about.

I had a physical therapist once who told me that he had an elderly client that often complained about "Only being able to walk to the mailbox." He asked her, "Well, do you walk to mailbox?" and the woman essentially told him that she just stayed in her chair, because she felt like it was so pathetic that she could do so little, why try. I know that feeling. However, learning to do as much as we can without overdoing it is a great step toward more independence and better mental and physical health.

Finding a purpose

Helping at my church really gave me a sense of sanity when I was really ill. I couldn't always help as much as I wanted, but reading a story to kids at VBS or handing out flyers for an event made me feel purposeful. Although I couldn't empty the dishwasher or run a load of laundry, I found ways to help around the house with my family that helped me feel like a contributing member. The trick with finding purpose is knowing one's limits and not overdoing it to the point of wearing ones self out or having increased pain.

Getting out of Sick World

There is a whole world on the internet where sick people comiserate with each other and talk about their illnesses. There is nothing wrong with visiting these spaces and giving or taking advice to/from other people who are going through the same thing; but don't live there! It's an easy trap to fall in to, as there suddenly are a thousand people to talk to who are going through the same thing. However, it can really set a recovery up for failure. If being chronically ill gives someone a sense of identity, how would they ever recover! Psychology is not just in our minds, it affects our bodies as well. Our thoughts send messages to every cell in our bodies, so mindfulness is very important. Venting about the illness is good every once in a while, but I personally have found that seeking things that make me feel healthy is much more productive.

If you are interested in more about this, visit Psychology Today for more information about the Mind Body Connection.


Eating well, resting, exercise and proper hygiene are important no matter who someone is or what their challenges are. If these things are too daunting, it's really important to not be hard on ourselves. There are a lot of options for people with illnesses and disabilities. From consulting with an occupational therapist to getting a home health nurse, there are a lot of resources to help one meet those needs.

Additionally, I've found that it is really important to ask for help when I need it. No one could read my thoughts, but there were times when I really needed something and was hesitant to ask. However, I have found that more people are willing to help when there is a need than can be imagined- so there is no harm in asking. Just to be polite, it is probably better to ask a lot of different people for that ride to the doctor's appointment or help cleaning the house. People want to help, but they burnout when only one person is doing all of the helping. It's always nice to think of a way to thank friends and family that offer assistance; a thank-you phone call, a handwritten note or a small gift are nice gestures to show that they are appreciated.

Manage stress

Being sick was stressful- and not just to me. It was stressful to all of the people who were taking care of me. The trouble is, the effects of chronic stress can make a lot of illnesses worse, disrupt the healing process and even cause a stress-related disorder to develop. (Just a wild guess, but maybe that's why people with chronic illness tend to have four or five different diagnoses) Managing the stress is really important.
I went to an occupational therapist once who taught me how to do deep breathing and relaxation. I was connected via heart monitor to a biofeedback machine, where I could see in quantifiable numbers my oxygen rate increase and blood pressure decrease. It was a great tool to give me faith in relaxation. I didn't need the biofeedback machine to do relaxation after a while, though. My mom helped me make a habit of doing my relaxation every night.

Seeking counseling or some sort of support can also be helpful, as they have a lot of tricks up their sleeves on how to manage stress.

Also, staying organized is a great way to cut down on stress. You know that stress when you're looking for your car keys and your heart is racng because you're running late and all of the blood is rushing to your face in a panc? Yeah, me too. Just imagine if you are having an asthma attack and looking for that inhaler that you use only occasionally. If I keep the important things (medical equipment, epipens, inhalers, medications, doctors notes etc.) in a designated place; then the only stress will be that I need to use those things, not that I can't find them.

Take Things One Day at a Time

Like I said before, there are no guarantees about the future. Fretting about "what could go wrong" or "what if..." does not help anyone get through the day they are currently living in. Planning for the future but paying the most attention to the specific day one is living in is a really helpful way to curb the anxiety. Focus on self-care for the day, there is no need to worry about "how on earth am I going to do this again tomorrow?" because tomorrow is a long ways away, and maybe it will be just a tiny bit better.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bethany's Guide to Henna Haircare

I was a hair dye addict in high school. I tried out every color of the rainbow, not knowing that I was frying my hair with each application. Wanting a more natural look, I switched to trying out natural hair dye, and the dye would leave my hair with a solid sheet of one color. After letting the dye grow out, I tried applying henna to my hair and I fell in love. All of the natural highlights were amplified, and my hair was tinted golden-red. As icing on the cake, henna is a hair conditioner, which means that my hair is in better shape every time I apply it.

I have become very picky about the brand of henna that I buy. One time, I bought "strawberry blond" henna from a bargain brand, and it turned my hair black! The colors must have been switched to the wrong boxes.

Since then, I always buy Rainbow Research Henna. It about $8 at Whole Foods, and I get 2-3 uses out of each container so it is pretty affordable.
I am not a sales person for Rainbow Henna and don't get any kickbacks from them (*but if they need a sales lady and are reading this, I'm up for the job! Just as long as I get free samples of henna)
 My only warning about henna is that it can't be mixed with regular hair dye. One time, I bleached my hair blond and then decided to apply henna on top of the bleached hair. At first it looked fine, but soon patches of my hair turned green! It was very hard to get rid of. The lesson that I learned was that, if I want to anoint my head with henna, I have to maintain a commitment to no hair dye. (especially bleach)

How to apply it
Henna comes in a powder form that needs to be mixed with water to make a paste. (I always use a plastic or wooden spoon to mix it, since the packaging warns against the alloys from a metal spoon damaging the henna)

There are a number of things that it can be mixed with to best suit your hair. Apple cider vinegar, chamomile tea or lemon juice can be added to brighten and bring out golden hues. Coffee can be added to draw out darker tones. Rosemary oil or an egg can be added to condition dry hair.

The paste will take on a mud-like consistency when it is mixed thoroughly. It can be applied like conventional hair dye and allowed to set for at least 1 hour. Unlike conventional hair dye, henna can not damage hair. I sometimes leave the henna on my hair overnight, allowing all of the conditioning goodness to permeate my locks.

Did you know.... henna has historically been used to dye men's beards, eyebrows and horse hooves? In addition to the rich tradition of Mendhi body art and hair coloring, henna has also had some pretty wacky uses over the years. To learn more about the history of henna, visit Earth Henna and read all about it.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why do our family and friends get under our skin!?

Have you ever caught yourself with a bad attitude? Negative ways of thinking can cause us to self-sabotage, have a poor work ethic, drive others away or damage our sense of self worth.

Here are a few patterns of faulty thinking that are easy to spot.

The people-pleaser: "My opinion is somewhere between what some people think and what everyone else thinks."

The depressed apathetic: "Look at all of those smart people who know what they are talking about. I don't deserve to have a point of view, whatever the people on television say goes."

The pseudo-enlightened: "If everyone would just agree with me and do things exactly the way I do, the world would be a different place."

The martyr: "I have suffered so much in my life, I deserve to have whatever I want- even at the expense of others."

The self-enchanted: "Can we get back to talking about me now!?"

The melodramatic: "I'm having a rough day! I am going to set myself on fire and throw myself off a cliff."

....we could go on and on. I'm sure you could write your own list! I'm being silly with the quotes, but we all know how much these attitudes and thoughts can influence our lives.

When I am reading lists like these, I tend to automatically think of people that these personalities remind me of. Do you have a people-pleasing mom or a melodramatic neighbor? A lot of us do!

However, you might not be thinking of that person for the obvious reason. According to the groundbreaking psychologist, Carl Jung, the behaviors that tend to annoy or bother us in other people are generally ones that can lead to an understanding of ourselves. (In fact, I probably subconsciously wrote that list with myself in mind!)

When it really bothers me that my coworker is acting self-absorbed, it might be because those are behaviors that I am engaging in also. (and if the latter is not true, it may just be that I am afraid of behaving that way or used to in the past.) Instead of directly judging the person the faulty thinking personality reminds us if, it is critical to ask ourselves, "Are there times when I do that?" 

Although we have been talking about these thoughts as if they are always negative, there are times when the attitude can serve me positively if used at the appropriate times and with appropriate measure. It's funny to be melodramatic when making a joke, but it would be horribly detrimental to be melodramatic when correcting a coworkers mistake or when filing a police report. Taking time for self-care is good, but taking selfies all day while the baby is crying is obviously poor judgment.

After recognizing the personality tendency, think about when the behavior is useful and when it is detrimental. This will help give those tendencies purpose, while making room for us to use new ways of thinking in situations where those attitudes and thoughts did not serve us.



This post was inspired by an exercise that my friend Michele conducted at our local women's group. We did an activity where we drew pictures of people that we admired and people that annoyed us with a short list of things that we found admirable or annoying. After drawing the pictures, we had to consider if those were attributes that also described ourselves. Eerily, every person found the adjectives to fit perfectly!

You can follow Michele Parham's blog at Natural Attachment  She writes about midwifery, unschooling, natural parenting and all kinds of good stuff.

A big part of this post was inspired by some notes that I found from my Social Psychology course. The book can be found on Amazon HERE

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What Positive Thinking Is (and is not!)

It may be true, perhaps, that Pollyanna ruined optimism for all of us. Frolicking adjacent to reality, Pollyanna gave us an archetype for how to drive our neighbors (and ourselves!) into comfortable, cynical pessimism. Let's not leave all of the blame on poor Pollyanna, though! Self help gurus, religious leaders and some law of attraction gurus can also be found promoting delusional thinking. (the "airy-fairy," as some call it!)

There are a lot of things that positive thinking can do for us. Most of us realize that staying on the negative side can damage our chances of making constructive decisions for the future. However, there is a lot of confusion over what positive thinking is and is not.

Positive thinking is personal

Have you ever been to a new age gathering where someone completely corners you and critiques all of the inner work they think you need to do? Just me? Okay, well, it truly does not make anyone feel empowered to change their lives.

Telling others to think positively will only backfire. We alone our responsible for our thoughts, telling others how to think will only make them feel bad about themselves. After all, this is positive thinking- not positive talking! Focus those positive thoughts toward encouraging others.

Positive thinking is not always happy

Sometimes we are heartbroken face overwhelming suffering. Failure to acknowledge pain can result in bad coping mechanisms and often causes us to behave in ways that are hurtful to ourselves later. When we think positively, it is important to maintain the integrity of reality without spiraling into bad thoughts that are untrue. Facing bad times with the attitude of, "I am going to seek the help that I need" or "I am really sad, but I know that my life is still important" will be much more helpful than being delusional about the heartbreak or spiraling into dark thoughts.

Positive thinking is not delusional

There is a difference between framing things in a positive light and making sh!t up and hoping it comes true. For centuries, humans believed that the earth was flat. In spite of all of that belief, the earth didn't change its shape for all of those people; and it won't change its shape for you, either. Thinking positively can help us gain a lot in life; better relationships, better interpersonal skills, better decision making and can even open up opportunities. However, positive thinking does not make all of our wishes come true or substitute for hard work.

What IS positive thinking? Gratitude!

Maybe Pollyanna had it half-right. When we lose our entitlements and are thankful for what is given to us in this life, it makes positive thinking quite a bit easier.

But why can it be so difficult?

Thinking in a way that is positive and healthy is a deceptively simple concept. Although there are ways one could make their thoughts more constructive overnight, there are often old habits that are tough to break. Seeking counsel is a good idea if one is having a tough time. For those of us who have destructive behaviors to break out of in order to think more positively, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (facilitated by a licensed counselor) is a great option to consider.

Mt. Mitchell, NC

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dancing the Dance: an Interview with Belldance Goddess, Amy Cottrill

Bellydancer, Amy Cottrill, can often be found shaking up Pittsburgh’s events with the art of Middle Eastern dance. Amy’s dance troupe, ElectroBelly, is known for combining the striking blend of traditional bellydance and electronic music. Although Amy, also known by the stage name, “Amethyst,” is best known as a performer and an inspiring teacher; Amy is also a passionate vegan.

photographer credit: Robin L. Houck
I met Amy five years ago; at the first belly dance class I had ever attended. I had a coupon for being in the Pittsburgh Vegan Meetup Group, so I had nothing to lose by showing up and attempting to dance! Unlike other dance classes I had endeavored, this class felt comfortable and safe. Alongside me, there were women who large and slender, tall and short. Body image issues flew out the window as we danced to the beat of a Middle Eastern rhythm. After an exhilarating class, all of the vegans and bellydancers went out to the Double Wide Grill and socialized. Amy and her partner, Bill, impressed me with their commitment to walk the talk when it comes to their compassion for animals.
Currently, Amy is pretty busy coordinating the Pittsburgh Vegan Festival that will take place on July 19th 2014 at the Allegheny UU church.

I am very pleased to release this interview with Amythest about her evolution toward veganism, impressive artistic endeavors and spirituality within dance. Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Amy!

Bethany: How long have you been bellydancing?

Amy: Learning since 1997, teaching and performing professionally since 2001

Bethany: Why did you decide to teach?

Amy: Sometimes women do not have a positive dance experience.  I had friends who had asked me to teach them privately.  I wanted to help women have a positive dance experience, and help connect them with this beautiful artform, and with other women, in a positive space.

Bethany: What kind of journey has veganism taken you on?

Amy: Vegan living has improved my whole lifestyle, awareness and health.  Becoming vegan cleared up bad headaches, skin and digestive problems I had (but did not understand until they went away due to the change in my diet). 

Veganism has led me to connect with like-minded people who care about making a positive change for our planet and its inhabitants of all sorts.  Veganism has connected me to a very positive community of people; and has helped me feel more alive and awake.

Bethany: What was your first experience with veganism?

Amy: I became vegetarian at a very young age due to a near-death experience, and connecting the feeling of not wanting to die with the realization that other living beings also have a natural desire to live and do not want to die.

It has always a very spiritual belief of mine, not to murder.

When I was in kindergarten, I ate a fast food hamburger and spent 3 months in the hospital on dialysis, fearing my death.  My kidneys, liver and spleen all shut down, as I suffered from HUS.  Sometime before that date, I had a DPT shot, so there was a question about whether the illness was a reaction to the DPT shot or (e-coli) contaminated meat.  …

...Miraculously, I survived.  Then, one day, my family went to the country on a trip, and a farmer had left a gate open, and our car almost hit a cow who was in the middle of the road, around a bend.  He stared through the windshield and I stared into his eyes, and felt the fear I saw in his eyes.  I realized he must have felt how I had felt in the hospital - fear, and a natural desire to live and not die. 

I laughed at the "steak" sign on the farm, and asked why that was on a cow farm.  My parents explained what meat was, and I will never forget the terrifying and sad feeling that came over me, and the realization I had, that killing a living being, a being who has a life (which is sacred and beautiful), and making the decision of taking away his life (as if it should be anyone's decision) just to for the selfish reason to eat his dead body, is horribly wrong and disturbing....  

...My mom sympathized with my thoughts on the subject, but wasn't sure what she was supposed to do since she had always been taught and believed people need to eat meat to be healthy. 

It wasn't until years later when I was 10 years old, when my parents switched my care to an Indian doctor who understood vegetarianism, that my mom became educated on the subject and happily let me become vegetarian since the doctor helped her understand how healthy a choice it actually is to stop eating meat.  As soon as she knew it was healthy for me, [my mom] was okay with it.....

I spent my childhood as a lonely vegetarian, the only one I knew, often mocked and ridiculed for my decision and beliefs, mostly by adults outside of my household.

I was in high school by the time I finally met another vegetarian, followed by meeting whole groups of vegans (outside of school)!  
I really started to think about the comment I'd sometimes hear, "But, you eat cheese, and that comes from an animal"; so I looked into it until I found out that supporting the dairy industry not only supports harm and eventual slaughter of the factory farmed dairy cows (which I had not yet known), but it also directly supports the veal industry, as their babies are taken from them, kept in horrible conditions and then killed while still very young.  I also learned that most cheese isn't even vegetarian, as it contains cow stomach lining. 

When I learned of this, there was no way I could pretend I didn't know and go on my selfish way supporting it.  I'd think of a mom and baby being separated and then murdered, since that is the reality of what happens to the animals.  So, I had to become vegan, although it was hard since I loved so many dairy foods.  I already abstained from eating eggs since I cracked open an egg full of blood while baking with my mom once (I guess a fertilized egg got in the batch some how).  So, giving up dairy was next, no matter how difficult a change it would be at first!

Then, one day soon after, someone randomly handed me a leaflet and there was information on it about a group in Pittsburgh (at the time) called Animal Passion, and I called them and was amazed to find out I wasn't the only vegan in Pittsburgh!  I met my first vegan friend through that group and finally, for the first time, felt like someone understood me!  From that point on, I met and made friends with many vegans!

Bethany: Have you had any mentors that have guided you along your journey?

Amy: Glenn Grodin of Animal Passion was my first vegan friend.  He introduced me to his friends, a whole group of wonderful vegans, who also became my friends and mentors. 

He took me to the East EndFood Co-Op for my first time, where I was shocked to find a whole grocery store full of options for me, and to see and try a raw fig for the first time (not squished into a processed cookie).  He corrected my embarrassing and hilarious mispronunciation of the word "vegan", since he was the first real, live vegan I had met after previously only having read about veganism at the time that I had decided to become vegan. 

Glenn was Pittsburgh's hardest-working and most dedicated animal rights activist.  He was the first person to help me realize, not only was I not the only vegan in Pittsburgh, but that I was part of a whole community of vegans, and I was understood in my shared beliefs, and certainly not alone!  Glenn helped me step onto an even healthier path, choosing natural foods over processed foods, organic over conventional. 

Glenn Grodin passed away, and Pittsburgh lost one of the most valuable animal rights activists, and I lost a really great friend.  He was a wonderful friend, mentor, and person. 

Bethany: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

Amy: The best piece of advice I've been given, in regards to veganism, is to cook home made meals with whole foods as often as possible, read labels and avoid artificial ingredients.

Bethany: Okay, back to the dancing! I noticed that you tie spirituality into some of your dance workshops and events. What is sacred dance?

Amy: Sacred dance is religious or spiritual dance, and can be found represented by people of various religions or paths.

My own style of sacred dance combines bellydance with Pagan spirituality, and incorporates the Elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water; Gods and Goddesses; Magic; meditation and guided visualization; story-telling; healing, positive intentions and goals, community, and more.

Photographer credit: J. Harrison
Bethany: How have you tied your passion for veganism, spirituality and bellydance together?

Amy: I have so many healthy interests which go hand-in-hand, such as bellydance, sacred dance, massage therapy (I graduated school as a massage therapist years ago), yoga, veganism, healing foods and environmentalism.  Everything is tied together.  Each of the mentioned ideas is a way to contribute to healing ourselves and the planet.

I often host events which include a mixture of healing and cultural arts, bellydance and sacred dance, and vegan food.  I believe in promoting all of those things, especially when they can be promoted together at one event.  Promoting cultural awareness and diversity connects us to other people.  Promoting a healthy diet for ourselves, animals and the planet connect us even more deeply with the world around us.

Humans are not totally separate from the earth, animals, and each other, as some may feel during a society-driven, rush around lifestyle; but each is connected to and has an effect on the others.  Humans often see mind, body and spirit as separate, when in fact the healthiest humans embrace rather than deny the connection between all three parts of the self.

Once you connect your mind, body and spirit, you connect with yourself.  Once you connect with yourself, it becomes easier to see your connection with others – people, the earth on which our lives depend; the animals who are all part of the same earth, environment and life.  Feeling the connection not only within parts of yourself, but between yourself and everything around you which makes up our world and our lives, makes it easier to want to live a good life full of connection, healing and love, rather than a life of blindly accepting murder of animals, illness from eating their dead bodies, and environmental destruction (and all while being disconnected from yourself and everything around you). 

If we kill all the animals, destroy their homes (which is also our home, our earth), and don’t take care of our own bodies, minds and spirits, we live a sad life of destruction, which will not end well for ourselves or our planet.

Bellydance and sacred dance are a beautiful way to connect the mind, body and spirit, while also connecting one person to another, and people of the present to people of the ancient past.

The belly is a sacred space within the body, where life grows, breath flows, feelings and energy live.  Through bellydance, we connect with our center, our bellies; and by moving in this sacred way together, we connect with the other dancers and with dancers of the ancient past, from which this dance has it’s roots.  It is very spiritual and powerful to connect with our ancestors in this way, through moving our bodies and breath in a way which they once did when their bodies were alive, so many years ago, especially while expressing spirituality in our dancing, as our ancestors did during ritualistic dancing.

Dancing and connecting in such a way helps open the possibility of reaching even further outside of the self to connect with other parts and beings of the world around you, past, present and future.  If you combine sacred movement and connection with healthy and clean/murder-free eating, you have a cleaner and healthier body, mind and soul, and a more clear conscience.

Bethany: What have been some of your most profound experiences with bellydance?

Amy: Studying under master instructor Ansuya Rathor of Bellydance Superstars has been incredible.  Her mother/teacher was one of the innovators of the American Cabaret style of bellydance in the 60s and 70s.  Studying under Ansuya has been very freeing as a dancer, as she promotes freedom of self-expression and innovation within the ancient dance form.  Ansuya encourages her students to learn about the authentic history, culture and forms of the dance while also being true to yourself, your own creativity and expression, and the innovation and progression of dance.

Ansuya also appreciates the connection of spirituality, veganism and bellydance, and it’s nice to learn from someone who shares similar views about the dance we love so much.  She has lived a vegan lifestyle at times and has talked about the connection.

Bethany: What is the most amusing thing that has happened at a bellydance event?

Amy: My former dance partner Shanti (only “former” because she is busy with her family now) performed at a private event with me.  A server walked by, offering guests pizza from a large tray.  Shanti took a tray full of pizza from a server, balanced it on her head, and danced around the room kneeling down in front of guests, offering them a slice of pizza from the tray on top of her head.  Guests would remove a piece of pizza from the tray and Shanti would get up and dance off to the next guest.  It was unplanned, just something she did on a whim, and it was quite entertaining!

Bethany: Is there a project you are particularly proud of?

Artist, John Ross with dancer, Sarah Hall
ReModel Gala 2009
photographer credit: Marcel Walker
Amy: I started an event series called the ReModel Gala, which promotes recycling, bellydance and art.  Local artists are each paired up with a bellydancer.  The artist creates a bellydance costume using all recycled/recyclable and reused materials.  The dancers perform in the costumes at the Gala, and judges choose winning designers based on rules in relation to materials used, recycling and creativity.  Eco-friendly prizes from local businesses are awarded.  Each event serves as a fundraiser for an eco-friendly charity.  Vegan food is served at each event, to promote the most eco-friendly diet.

My favorite costume in the competitions so far was at the first Gala, and was designed by artist John Ross.  The costume was worn at the Gala by dancer Sarah Hall.  The costume was made with reused record albums and covers.  It was very unique and gorgeous, and fit the dancer beautifully as she performed bellydance.

Bethany: Are there other types of dance or art that you enjoy?

Amy: I am a huge fan of Indian dance.  I myself have only taken a few Indian dance classes, so I’m just an occasional student of the dance.  But, I love watching Indian dance so much!  So, I include Indian dancers in many of my shows and workshops.

I’m also a huge fan of crossing cultures and blending forms of expression.  One of my favorite past ElectroBelly shows, which I hosted some years ago, included bellydance and break dance on stage together during the same piece, electronic music DJs, a VJ with a visuals screen, and more.

Thank you so much for interviewing with me, Amy!

Join Amy at the upcoming Pittsburgh Vegan Festival on July 19th and stay tuned for details on a Sacred Dance Festival and Vegan Bazaar

You can find Amythest's class and workshop schedule or book her for an event at Pittsburgh Bellydance

Be sure to Like Amythest on Facebook, also!

Friday, January 31, 2014

How to Open a Young Coconut

Young coconuts are, perhaps, the most delicious nut on the planet. (Can you believe coconuts are considered a nut and not a fruit?) Unlike the coarse, brown-shelled mature coconut, young coconuts are contained in a thick white husk that can be intimidating to coconut virgins everywhere. If you have tried the mature coconuts at the average supermarket, you may have noticed that the "meat" is impossibly hardy and difficult to use in recipes. However, the "meat" is much easier to use in young coconuts, as it has more of a Jell-O texture and can be easily blended, chopped or scooped with a spoon.

I get especially excited about coconuts as they possess nutrients that are good for your brain such as medium chain fatty acids. They also have antimicrobial properties that could potentially help your immune system as well as electrolytes that are essential for nerve conduction and heart health. Coconuts are also rich in cytokinins, a plant hormone that may have anti-cancer properties. The thing that I like most about coconuts are not just that they are healthy, but they are also delicious. I will not plug my nose and eat or drink anything, it has to taste good.

The first time I bought a young coconut, I was so excited to eat it. However, I had no idea how to open it. I stood in front of my counter with my tiny, maybe a little bit dull, kitchen knife in bewilderment. I chopped, stabbed and, generally speaking, tortured the poor thing before I realized how to cut a hole in the top.

Now a coconut veteran, I bought some coconuts for myself the other day and had them ready to eat in minutes. I took some pictures so you can follow along and be sipping on that coconut water in no time.

What you will need:
A young coconut
A large kitchen knife
Possibly a straw

Step 1) Saw off the point on the top of the coconut with a serrated knife

Step 2) In a sawing motion, cut downward on the three sides

Step 3) Tap the top of the coconut with the lowest point on your knife. You will be making a circle all of the way around. With my knives the way they are, I go around the coconut two or three times. If you want to spare your knifes, you could also use a hammer and a brand new, sterilized nail.

Step 5) Once you have gone all of the way around a time or two, the top can be pulled back like the top of a can.

Step 6) Poke a hole in the jelly and enjoy that delicious coconut water!

After drinking the electrolyte-rich water, the jelly can be scraped out with a spoon.

I hope this tutorial helped you have a frustration-free coconut experience!

Much love,


More about coconuts:

As a side note, I saw Gabriel Cousens, M.D. speak two years ago and he was mentioning that a lot of vegans forget that they are already on a lowfat diet simply by being vegan; they actually can neglect to get enough fat in their diets! He recommended coconuts and chia seeds as dietary staples to stay balanced.

The only downside about coconuts is that they are difficult if not impossible to find organic in northern regions. (Due to the fungicide they are dipped in before transportation to prevent mold) Some think that young coconuts have such a thick husk and shell, the fungicides have not found their way into the inside. I would prefer organic if I could find and afford it, but I do eat the conventional ones in the meantime.

Sources for nutritional facts:

Pub Med

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Few Ways to Feel Beautiful (according to me!)

I have found that a lot of people find their way in to the health food world to lose weight, slim down and look better. There are endless books, documentaries and magazines on dieting, fitness and health foods in the pursuit of beauty. A lot of people use this information to slim down, lose necessary weight and feel lighter; others, however, just seem to torture themselves.
I feel like people often are missing the point when they pursue beauty rather than health. The feeling of being beautiful can often be fleeting, and it is an all too common experience to be at a healthy weight and state of health and still feel unhappy with how one looks.
Fed up with all of the superficial bull$h!#, I would like to share a few ways I like to be beautiful that does not have anything to do with weight.

Hold your head up high
Having good posture will give one a confident edge that will carry out in all aspects of life. Mind-body awareness has a lot of I personally have a hard time with this one, but I try to remember the cues from an Alexander Technique workshop I took once that has really helped with my mind-body awareness.

Proper Nourishment
Staying well hydrated and nourished can give ones skin a lovely glow. Eating a lot of fresh, raw produce (I like to eat a LOT of raw food, but even just one additional serving a day can have health benefits) and drinking green juice or water can do wonders for improving overall health.

There is nothing that makes someone more approachable than a genuine smile. If it is hard to just naturally smile, practice thinking joyful thoughts when your mind is resting (ie, you are not in the middle of something that needs your concentration) and dismiss the negative thoughts. Smiling in front of a mirror can also boost

Even if there is weight to lose, muscle to build or acne to clear up- accept yourself for where you are at today. Pick out the qualities about yourself that are likable and capitalize on them. No one is perfect, and the expectation of such can be terribly damaging. There are probably so many imperfect people in your life that you love; why not make yourself one of them.

Doing something creative (whether it be visual, musical, edible or whatever your passion is) can really make a person glow. Practicing some sort of art can also help work through deep emotions that can hold one back from their full potential.

Avoid harsh criticism, gossip and complaining
I have found that some of the most beautiful people can suddenly appear to be very unattractive after opening their mouths and hateful or rude words are expressed. I have caught myself complaining a number of times lately and realized that I don't really want to be a complainer. This habit can be curbed by noticing when one is doing it, and then promptly replacing the negative comment with a positive one. It is very important that self-regulating occurs with the voice of a thoughtful mentor rather than a harsh critic.

Decorate yourself
Fun hairstyles, jewelry, makeup and lotions are all fun ways to have some style. I like to play around with fashion, it is one of those things that is more fun when it is taken lightly.

Practice listening intently
The best social advice I have ever heard was from Oprah, who once said that she likes to pretend that she is interviewing everyone that she talks to. (although, in her case, she usually is interviewing most people that she talks to!) Follow up questions and an appropriate amount of eye contact reassures the person you are talking to that they have your full attention.

Aerobic exercise
The tool of aerobic exercise has the power to make eyes shine, skin glow, stimulate the production of beneficial neurotransmitters and make the cardiovascular system stronger. I like to do some intervals of walking, running and jogging to get my heart pumping.

Laughter really is the best medicine! A good laugh can bring people closer together, raise serotonin levels and get the blood pumping. According to WebMD; "We change physiologically when we laugh. We stretch muscles throughout our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues."

Focus on other things
When virtually anything is put under a microscope, the flaws are much easier to see. While it is important to focus on ones self sometimes, (Quite often, in fact!) putting energy into other projects, relationships and activities can boost self-esteem and reduce anxiety. It is especially esteem-boosting to spend time on projects that you personally excel at and feel like you are benefiting others when you do them.

Whatever you like to do to feel beautiful, remember to be kind to yourself!

Much love,

Bethany < 3