Date Night During the PAN Vegan Pledge

photo of hearts

So what do you do for date night when one partner has joined the Vegan Pledge and the other has not? Interestingly enough, topics like this were covered at one of our Weekly Meetings. A panel of long-term vegans answered questions like, “Do you only date vegans?” One young panelist answered something along the lines of, “If I did, I’d be single for the rest of my life!” Another panelist noted that, while she doesn’t date vegans exclusively, a prospective date’s response to her lifestyle can be a good litmus test. In other words, if you potential date says, “I hope you like ketchup and fries, because we’re going for burgers!” you might want to pass. In other words, regardless of the issue, a red flag is a red flag. Lucky for me, my steady date isn’t a very picky eater and is usually game for any new food experience.

Photo of Mama Palma's

So last week we decided to pay a long overdue visit to Mama Palma’s Gourmet Pizza, an intimate brick-oven pizzeria with an extensive and eclectic menu that offers everything from Peking duck to cajun shrimp to smoked asparagus tips on a pizza. Mama Palma’s also happens to be owned by the family of one of my most energetic and enthusiastic Sunday 9 am fitness participants (her mama is the Mama). And since Brunella’s photo stream suggests that she has enough energy to work out all day (that’s us in the photo below) and then work all night (she’s their hostess), you know there must be magic in those carbs.

photo of Brunella

Like many small restaurants in Philadelphia, Mama Palma’s allows patrons to bring their own wine (they also have an extensive beer list). In keeping with the spirit of the Pledge, I decided to bring a bottle of Vegan Vine Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany our meal. Vegan Vine wines are produced by Clos LaChance Winery, a family-owned and certified sustainable operation in Northern California. Right now they seem to be producing 2 varieties of 100% vegan wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. This Cabernet was more fruit-forward, less tannic, and overall less complex than that varietal is capable of producing. I’d place it in the “easy drinking” category with plenty of bright fruit on the palate but not much in terms of a finish. In all honesty, I had wanted to bring a Brunello di Montalcino or even an old-vine Zinfandel, but I had a horrible time cross-referencing Barnivore’s list with what was available and appealing via the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s product search page.

photo of vegetable plate

As we browsed the menu and sipped our wine, Brunella sent over one of the evening’s specials: an overflowing plate of fresh asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, tomatoes, and olives all sautéed over the oven flames and accented with garlic and fresh basil. I could easily have made a meal out of the vegetables, but I had spent so much time ogling Brunella’s food photos on Facebook that I couldn’t not order pizza. Since Mama Palma’s offers pizzas in three sizes, my boyfriend and I decided we’d each order an 8″ pie. I went with the Grilled Eggplant Parmesan and simply asked them to replace the mozzarella with non-dairy cheese and hold the grated parmesan. My boyfriend ordered the Nonna, also a red-sauced pie, topped with grilled eggplant, grilled chicken, capers, homemade fresh buffalo mozzarella, and garnished with basil.

photo of roasted eggplant pizza

We had strategically used the appetizer’s cornucopia of vegetables as an excuse to order pizzas that featured grilled eggplant, which we both love. As you can see from the photo, the crust was thin and temptingly charred and the eggplant beautifully browned. Ladling the sauce on top kept the crust crisp and the eggplant moist.

As we bicycled home full and happy, we started listing the pizzas we wanted to try during future visits. “I want to try that one with the lemon and wine roasted garlic.” “The polenta bread, people keep raving about the polenta bread online!” “Did you see that guy’s salad?” “Did you see the piece of vegan cake at home in the refrigerator? I got it for us to share.” “I’m too full to eat dessert.” “Me too.”

photo of happy pears

PAN Vegan Pledge – Halfway There!

image of runner

I can’t believe I already passed the halfway point of the PAN Vegan Pledge. For this post I thought I would share some of the questions and problems voiced by my fellow pledges, as well as some very helpful resources that I’ve recently discovered.

As early as the 2nd Meeting (the end of the first week), some pledges were feeling frustrated. As you might expect, hunger and boredom were the two biggest complaints. Access to specialty items was highly dependent upon where people lived. And people with very full or “awkward” schedules found it more challenging to prepare meals in advance. Some pledges confessed to eating the same thing all week long; others admitted to eating out more. Most of us probably should have simply remembered to carry simple snacks like nuts or dried fruit. Maybe our organizers are psychic, because at that meeting they gave us a portable Veg Dining Guide.

flyer for vegan cheesesteak

Although the guide is specific to the greater Philadelphia area, it shows how many non-vegan restaurants offer an array of vegan-friendly options. These restaurants also span cuisines from the more familiar Mediterranean (think pasta aglio e olio) to the slightly more exotic Middle Eastern (crisp falafel, creamy hummus, smokey baba ganoush) to the wonderful flavors of South, Southeast, and East Asia. And while you might not fancy dining out several nights a week, browsing the guide can provide you with inspiration to break out of your go-to recipes.

In addition to the dining guide, PAN also has an online Vegan Lifestyle and Recipe Guide. The online guide combines meal plans, nutritional information, as well as simple recipes all on one handy website. But with the growing interest in plant-based diets, more and more resources have become available online. The Vegan Society – based in the U.K. – was founded in 1944 and became a registered charity in 1979. Their website is quite vast, but it includes a very clear breakdown of vegan nutrition by two registered dietitians. Click on the plate for a link to their page, which includes a helpful chart.


The Vegetarian Resource Group (you’ve probably seen their Vegetarian Journal at the checkout counter of the grocery store) has compiled a wealth of nutritional information, like a guide to Protein in the Vegan Diet. Helpful tip: Miss Rachel told us last week that a serving of tempeh contains as much protein as a serving of porterhouse steak – minus all that saturated fat and cholesterol! Finally, Vegan Health offers an even more detailed breakdown – including specific information about key nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and Omega-3s as well as information for specific populations such as diabetics.

So how am I faring? Sure, I too was hungry the first week, but I believe that was more due to the twenty odd fitness classes I taught (more than my usual) than any dietary shift. That said, I have found myself craving sweets. Why? Gone is the occasional Petite Vanilla Scone from Starbucks when I grab that Doppio! Off limits is that surprise Tastykake pie that my boyfriend would sometimes hand me when I returned from teaching a double class! Between the slight shift in diet and weather that makes me want to live on fruit, I also somehow lost a pound or two over the past few weeks. Although I’m sure it’s only temporary, I used this as an excuse to sample an array of vegan snacks.

photo of vegan snacks

Both the Complete Cookie and the Nugo Bar boast a healthy dose of vegan protein (8 and 9 grams per serving, respectively) – and taste great. The only qualm some people might have with the Complete Cookie is that one cookie is equivalent to two servings. So if you are counting calories, keep in mind that one cookie contains over 300 calories (but also packs 16 grams of protein and no sugar alcohols). So far I’ve tried the Lemon Poppy, Snickerdoodle, and Pumpkin cookies – all really delicious and super satisfying!

300 lb vegan

Finally, I’ve also discovered pro football player David Carter. You might know him as the 300 Pound Vegan. His website contains his blog and his “Stronger” recipes. While I don’t aspire to his level of physical fitness, just knowing that he can get through his day on a plant-based diet makes me feel confident that I can do it too!

Chia Paradise Pudding

Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh
Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh

For years now, I’ve had this idea that Morocco would be the perfect place to spend Christmas. Years ago I’d been fixated on Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky. And while I have no interest in wandering lost in the desert, the prospect of spice markets, sandstone walls, maybe a holiday hammam has always seemed alluring. More recently, the double helping of Yves St Laurent biopics out this year (the photo above is of the Majorelle Garden, which St Laurent and Pierre Bergé purchased in 1980) – has reanimated my fantasies of tented banquets in desert oases.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I say, “Those who can’t go, cook.” So sometimes I find myself taking a basic idea – like a standard soup – and flavoring it with daydreams. As the weather turned from summer to fall, and the semester hit me like … a desert sandstorm?

Taliouine Saffron

I had holiday plans … plans to study machete fencing in Haiti, aspirations of returning to Thailand – this time to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park … and the old dream, Christmas in Morocco. There is a lovely spot in Philadelphia called Down Dog Cafe. They serve an elixir, although they do not call it that. It’s a kind of smoothie: almonds, dates, saffron, almond milk, a touch of spice. It’s both cool and frothy, light yet nourishing.

The idea: Morocco, Down Dog’s almond date smoothie, breakfast …

Chia Paradise Pudding

  1. Take 2 tbsp of chia seeds and soak them in a cup of coconut milk (almond, cashew, they all work and impart their own subtle flavors)
  2. Throw in a pinch or two of saffron (saffron needs to be stewed or soaked), a dash of cinnamon, maybe 1/4 tsp of vanilla, something sweet like date sugar or jaggery if you wish
  3. After 15 or so minutes, add a few drops of orange flower or rose water (be sparing, 1/8 tsp could overwhelm it)
  4. Shake and refrigerate overnight
  5. In the morning serve over fruit – I used raspberries, but consider dates and sliced oranges for the full effect

chia pudding

More soon …

Related Links

Holiday Hip Openers

stressed gingerbread man
Holiday’s Have You Stressed?

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, the winter holiday season can prove quite stressful. Gift shopping, social obligations, and irregular eating patterns can take their toll on our bodies. On top of all this, those of us living in my neck of the woods often face plummeting temperatures and hostile precipitation. Not surprisingly, many of us find our bodies feeling stiffer and sorer than usual. In fact, some days it takes a real effort for me not to spend all day hunched over, clutching my arms. Heart openers offer a sensible solution to all that arm-crossing and face huddling. But yoga also tells us that we “hold stress and negative emotions in our pelvis” (Yoga Journal “Hip Enough?”). Maybe it’s time we all added hip openers to our holiday traditions. Here’s one way to do it:

photo, ball of yarn

A few weeks ago I integrated a hip opening series into my yoga classes. The classes ranged from gentle 55-min hatha to a vigorous 75-min vinyasa class. Regardless of the format, each class received a healthy dose of yin yoga-based hip openers, which left many sighing with relief. As an added bonus, you will notice that some of these also include options to add a subtle heart-opening component, effectively extending the stretch from the quadriceps, up through the hip flexors and pelvis, and into the torso.

My hatha class began with breath-work and slow spinal movement, often referred to as cat-cow. Click here for a description and explanation of the benefits. From there we moved slowly towards Downward-Facing Dog and a wide-legged forward bend that includes a wonderful shoulder stretch: Prasarita Padottanasana C. My vinyasa class began with several long flow sequences based on sun salutations, moved on to held standing asanas, and then settled into seated and reclining asanas. The following asanas served as a transition between standing and seated work for the vinyasa class and the main focus for the hatha class. You can try the entire sequence, or test out one or two of the asanas. As with all yoga practices, the duration of any pose should be determined by your body. You should also feel free to modify and use props as needed.

Dragon Pose
Dragon Pose

Shown above is a version of Dragon Pose, sometimes referred to as “Baby Dragon.” This is a pose I often integrate into opening vinyasas, reaching the arms overhead with palms touching and lifting and opening the chest (sometimes called Crescent Moon). Click on the photo for variations. In designing this sequence, I used Dragon to prepare our bodies for Pigeon (shown below). More flexible students were invited to take both elbows to the floor (called “Dragon Flying Low” on the link). We held this for 5-8 breaths on one side and then moved into Pigeon on the same side.

photo of pigeon pose
Pigeon Pose

For Pigeon Pose, “Flexies” were invited to fold forward (click on the image for instructions) or move into One-Leg King Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). Please note: any version of pigeon can be extremely difficult or painful for many people, but it becomes much more user-friendly if a folded blanket or a rolled mat is placed under the forward (front) butt-cheek and thigh. We held this pose a bit longer–8-10 breaths–to allow those wanting to fold forward an opportunity to sit with this a bit before going deeper. After moving through Dragon and Pigeon on the first side, we rested in Child’s Pose for about 5 breaths. We then repeated Dragon and Pigeon on the second side, and then rested in Child’s Pose once again.

photo of sphinx pose
Sphinx Pose

In order to ease the spine into the held extension that comes with Half Frog (Ardha Bhekasana), I had us pause in Sphinx Pose, a yin alternative to Cobra (click on the image for a detailed discussion of Sphinx and Seal, which involves a much deeper compression of the lumbar vertebrae and is therefore not suitable for everyone). I invited my participants to add a little extra padding (either under the pubic bone and thighs or the elbows and abdomen). We did not hold this for very long, since Half Frog also involves spinal extension and resting considerable body weight on one forearm or hand.

photo of half-frog pose

For Half Frog, imagine you are shifting gears on a car with manual transmission. We started in neutral: grasping the right foot with the right hand. First gear: those who could easily reach their foot then gently moved the right foot towards the right buttock. After 3-5 breaths, we went back into neutral. Then, for those with the flexibility, 2nd gear: the foot moved towards the outside of the hip and the heal aims for the floor. Note: the hand position in this pose can be very uncomfortable for the wrist, shoulder, and foot. I offered the option of simply placing the palm on the top of the foot. Click on the image or the source link for detailed directions.


Saving the (almost) best for (almost) last: Cat Pulling Its Tail. Can I tell you how much I love this pose? Honestly, every time I do this pose I wonder why I don’t do it every morning before I crawl out from under the covers and every evening before I crawl under them. It’s just that good.

So if you have been reading this post thinking it confirms that yoga is not for you, give me 3 minutes more. Click on the image or the source link, find a warm and cozy spot on the floor, and maybe try this pose–especially the reclining version shown in the image–if you can. Relax. Try lingering a bit in your exhalations so that they last a second or two longer than your inhalations. Hold each side for 30-60 seconds. Then roll onto your back. Let your feet and legs flop open. Let your arms rest by your sides. Close your eyes.

The weather might still be frightful, but (hopefully) your body will feel delightful!

cutcaster-photo-100361826-Christmas-snowflakePS: my Indiegogo “Birthday for Giving Campaign” is still running–click on the snowflake for details!

Pushing (Up and) Through the Holidays

One of my friends has an annual Black Friday party called the Night of Many Wines. He provides some bottles, guest bring some bottles–beer, wine, bourbon … In the past, I have referred to this particular event as the Day of Many Hangovers. Maybe I’m getting wiser and not just older, because for some reason I only had one glass this year. Yet unbeknownst to me more than booze was brewing at the party.

The next day my boyfriend casually asked if I wanted to join him (a Body Pump instructor) and our friend Pedro (an elite cyclist) in the December Pushup Challenge they had devised the night before. I have to admit, I hesitated a bit when he revealed their goal of 5000 pushups in 31 days (approximately 161 a day). But maybe I was just feeling smug for exercising restraint the night before, because I said yes.

cartoon of Santa doing pushups
If he can, you can too!

December 1 went well. Sundays I teach a 9 am class called Power Pump. The participants are enthusiastic, dedicated, and really strong, so I usually incorporate push ups into the class. We did 48 in 4 sets of 12 throughout the class. I threw in a few more before my 10:30 am cycling class, a few more before lunch, and suddenly the count was up to 100–and it wasn’t even noon!

Later in the day, my boyfriend knocked out 140 while watching football and drinking beer (!). At practically the same instance Pedro sent me a text–something about doing “7 sets of 30 in about 10 minutes” after one of his epic rides. Despite feeling like the weakest link in this fitness chain and struggling to push through 100 more (Pedro’s tip: front-loading early will allow for a break later), it was starting to seem like fun. In fact, being part of a team was so inspiring that I started a Facebook group and began inviting people to join. Right about now you’re probably wondering why anyone would make such a crazy commitment during the holidays.

illustration of muscles worked during push ups
Muscles Worked By Push Ups

Here’s the lowdown:

  1. Push ups are a phenomenal compound exercise. They work far more muscles than you might imagine as you can see from the illustration above (click on the image to be taken to an article that explains the benefits and offers several variations on traditional push ups).
  2. In addition to functional fitness, core stability, and muscular strength, push ups help women build or maintain bone density.
  3. Push ups do not require any equipment and can be done almost anywhere–case in point: Monday found me sneaking in a quick 20 while waiting for the elevator at my dentist’s office. For convenience alone, they are the perfect exercise for a hectic holiday season.
  4. Push ups, like most forms of exercise, do get easier over time. In fact, one member of our group posted on day 2 “getting a tiny smidge easier tonight.” By Day 4 she had surpassed her initial daily goal (go Alice!).

invitation cardCurious? Convinced? Join our December Push Ups Challenge or start your own group. Remember that joining a group brings the added benefits of accountability and support. In our group, people are setting their own personal goals. For some people this means 1000 in a month (33 a day), some feel 10 on the knees will be a serious challenge, and my crazy friend Ron is doing 1500 a day. You can also set a different kind of goal (like 20 in a row by the 31st), which will allow members to start with a comfortable number and build up over the weeks. Of course, you can also keep an eye on our Facebook group, see how we fare over the coming weeks, and propose your own New Year’s Challenge while the champagne is flowing.

Exercise is the New Watercooler

This week I gave a lunchtime talk about fitness at a local law firm. The firm has a group committed to health and fitness, and they provide a weekly lunchtime yoga class as well as a lecture series. When they asked their yoga instructor–the multi-talented Molly O’Neill–to suggest a speaker for a talk on fitness, she recommended me. Of course, “fitness” is a pretty broad topic, so I asked them if they had any particular topics in mind. It turned out they had something very specific in mind: office exercise.

Cartoon of office exercise

As someone who usually teaches group exercise in gyms, I knew this would take some careful thought and preparation. Pretty quickly I decided that Functional Fitness would form the heart of my presentation. Because offices offer limited space and time, small scale exercises that contribute to overall ease of movement, reduce risk of injury, and ultimately improve quality of life seemed like a logical choice. Plus, knowing that Molly was offering yoga on a weekly basis meant that I could focus on complementing her work on flexibility, breathing, and stress reduction.

To be brutally honest, desk work can put the body at risk. One study revealed the staggering effects of habitual sitting: “men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less” (“Is Sitting a Lethal Activity“). Since many occupations necessitate prolonged sitting, simply telling my audience not to sit was not a sensible option. There are, however, two parts of the day where office people can easily integrate more physical activity and break up a “long sit”: commutes and brief breaks.

Click on the link for the article
Click on the link for the article

For the commute:

  1. Take the stairs (this office happened to be on the 19th floor, so I suggested getting off on the 17th or 18th and taking the remainder on foot)
  2. Park the car a bit farther away from the office
  3. For those taking public transportation, choose a train or bus stop that will force you to walk an extra block or two

For Breaks:

Cartoon of man doing bicep curls while speaking on the phone

Yoga: I mentioned poses they were quite likely already doing in Molly’s class that stretch or open the front of the body: crescent moon, bridge pose, or a simple standing backbend.

Core Stability: these exercises can help prevent low back pain and injury while lifting objects from the floor or a table. Although many people immediately think crunches when they thing core stability, crunches can reproduce some of the same postural problems caused by sitting: Why-Crunches-Dont-Work-Your-Abs. Consequently, I recommended planks and single-leg balance exercises (like Tree Pose). I demonstrated a basic plank/hover and side plank done on the forearms and knees on top of the conference table. Later (see below), the group tried a modified table plank–forearms on the table, feet on the floor–a simple but effective variation.

Weight-Bearing Exercises: after a quick Q&A, I invited everyone to try a few exercises that could easily be done during short breaks.

  1. Squats: to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings, reproduce a move we do every time we get out of a chair, and promote mobility and balance
  2. Tricep Dips (we did these from a chair): these reproduce the action of the elbow joint when returning something to a high shelf. They strengthen the triceps, engage the chest muscles to assist, and tone the backs of the arms
  3. Single-Arm Rows (we did these with a waterbottle and in a lunge position): terrific for strengthening the middle back (esp latissimus dorsi) and thereby counteracting the pitfalls of prolonged sitting
  4. Incline Pushups: as one of the best functional fitness exercises, these require no extra equipment, engage multiple muscle groups (chest, glutes, the entire core), and actually reproduce an action we do all the time (getting up, pushing off or away from things). We did these with our hands on the conference table, but I also demonstrated wall pushups as an option

Any of these exercises can be done in a small space and during a short break. Doing something as simple as 5 tricep dips and 5 desk pushups before lunch or setting a goal of 10 squats every Friday can make a difference over time. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to my short presentation. In fact, it was their response that prompted me to turn that presentation into this blog post. I hope you enjoy it too!

Call Me “Ropey”

Shortly after my evaluation with the chiropractor I returned to receive my diagnosis. I was expecting to hear that I was hopelessly “subluxated” and in need of three years and several thousand dollars worth of chiropractic care.

Because I scheduled my initial appointment at Instructor Appreciation Night, I didn’t need to use the voucher they had handed to me. In fact, they told me, “Go ahead and give it to someone else.” Since my boyfriend is also a fitness instructor (he teaches Body Pump), I thought he might be as interested in a free massage as I was. Not only was he interested in the massage, he was vaguely curious to see what they would tell someone who is healthy and pain-free. When he returned from his followup, he was “prescribed” 19 visits: 3 visits per week for 2-3 weeks, then 2 per week, and gradually tapering to once a week. Even with coverage from his insurance, the copayments would have amounted to over $500. He politely declined.

Now my boyfriend teaches a sensible 2-3 fitness classes a week, works with a trainer, and runs or takes spinning to maintain cardiovascular fitness. He also eats pretty well, goes to bed when he’s tired, and doesn’t stress out about things he cannot control (he even sings around the house). I, on the other hand, teach an excess of classes (13 classes across 6 days), frequently find myself substituting snacks for meals, and often lose sleep or sleep poorly because I worry about falling behind on my grading or choreography. So you can see why I was braced for grim faces and a dire prognosis.

Cartoon about having a stiff neck from sleeping in a headstand.

Shockingly enough, the doctor’s treatment plan amounted to 22 visits–only a few more than my super-healthy boyfriend was recommended! Here’s the plan I was given: 3x per week for 2 weeks, then 2x per week for 6 weeks, then once a week for 4 weeks = $770 (at a $35 copay rate). They offered me a 20% discount if I committed to the entire package, but that still would have amounted to $616 over 12 weeks. This prescription was based on the questionnaire, weight balance test, a postural analysis based on a photo (I was wearing wedge sandals), and the doctor’s hands-on examination of my spine. From the top down she felt I suffered from the following:

  1. decreased range of motion in all my cervical vertebrae
  2. swelling and inflammation in mid and lower neck
  3. tension in the muscles from T5 on up
  4. T9 “jammed up” and she described the right side of my thoracic spine as “ropey”
  5. knots were noted in my lumbar area
  6. decreased range of motion around L4, especially on the right side
  7. tension in the hip area, and my sacrolliac joint was out of balance and rotated
Chiropractic Illustration of the Spine
Chiropractic Illustration of the Spine

In all honesty, none of this really surprised me, but I was mildly impressed that all her trouble spots matched what I actually felt in my own body. I have long felt that my neck was far stiffer than it was during the head-throwing jazz-dancing days of my youth. I also frequently feel that the supposedly fixed bones of my sacrum are not so much fused as jammed on top of one another, especially on my right side. Not wanting to commit to over $600 worth of treatment about which I was still somewhat skeptical, and also not being able to fit probably more than one visit a week into my busy schedule, I decided to try weekly treatments (which include a 30 minute massage) for 4-6 weeks and see how I felt.

It’s been about 6 weeks since my experiment began. I missed a few weeks due to other commitments, but so I’ve had 4 sessions so far. I’ve noticed that I feel somewhat light-headed whenever I leave the office. The chiropractor said this is due to sudden, unimpeded blood flow to my head after getting adjusted. I kind of figured it was due to the massage, but many people seem to have the same reaction (based on a quick online search of “chiropractic adjustment light headed”). After each appointment I really do feel great, especially my neck. I’ve noticed that the “cracking” noises have become less loud and feel less “violent” than during the first visit (where it took two tries to get one side of my neck to release). It’s also possible that the range of motion in my neck is increasing or returning to where it ought to be. Is it the adjustments? the massage? the combination? I can’t say for sure, but I’m feeling pleased enough with the results that I plan to continue for a few more sessions. As with the original treatment plan, I’m now tapering to once every other week. Stay tuned and see if my neck returns to its old creaky ways.