Wednesday, November 11, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Lani Muelrath...


When I met Lani Muelrath two years ago at Vegetarian Summerfest, I was immediately impressed by her vibrant, positive energy and friendliness. I was not surprised when she told me that she was working on a book – who isn’t these days? – but I was happy to hear it because I thought that she would be such a great ambassador with her warm and approachable nature. Well, the book is out now and Lani is making a difference by combining her welcoming communication style with solid information that breaks down barriers.

The Plant-Based Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide To Transition To A Healthy Lifestyle and Achieving Your Ideal Weight, Lani shines at what she does best as a longtime educator, speaker and content creator: helping people to make the transition to thriving, vegan living as easily and successfully as possible. As a winner of the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Instruction as an instructor of kinesiology and environmental studies, she has applied her background in education to offer engaging presentations on behalf of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Complete Health Improvement Project. With The Plant-Based Journey, Lani offers practical but smart and effective tips, recipes and tools for reaching optimal wellness in five stages, from just starting out, which she calls Awakening, to the final stage of refinement, which she calls Champion. Lots of well-researched bits from her 40-plus-year wellness journey are interwoven throughout, from fitness advice to helping people incorporate plant-based diets while traveling and communicating with family members who are not quite there yet and this helps readers find their way to their best health. The Plant-Based Journey looks like a great book for anyone from someone who is already vegan but wanting to improve their health to those who still pretty new to some of these concepts. I appreciate Lani’s friendly and pragmatic approach to shifting away from eating animals and I am honored that I am able to shine a little spotlight on her as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

When I was a teen, my mother inspired me to start learning yoga as she was studying and practicing yoga herself.  The yoga literature was infused with vegetarian-speak, which first awakened the idea for me. In college I started teaching yoga, furthered study of meditation, and encountered ‘ahimsa’ –a Sanskrit term meaning 'not to injure' and 'compassion' – as an important companion.  This led me to give up meat, fish, and eggs, though not dairy products. In retrospect I marvel at that, the schools of thought that teach ahimsa but disregard the dairy channel. That came (went?) for me at a later time.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

When I look back, every change that I’ve endeavored to achieve has come via the inspiration of someone having something that I wanted.  I’m not talking about physical possessions, I’m talking about embodiment of style and lifestyle. Being attracted to a lifestyle change due to positive modeling and influence is far more compelling to me. This is then underscored by more reasons to make changes. 

The research tells us that we make decisions for what we want and want to achieve based on emotion, and then look for reasons to support our choice.  Those of us who are teaching and sharing the word about the benefits and joys of eating and living animal-product-free need to remember this. When we start with an argumentative, negative voice, it creates barriers. Think about it. If we confront someone who has been eating a standard, animal-product filled plate for their entire life, when we come down hard with the negatives, under the surface the receiver gets the message that all their life they’ve been doing something wrong. And none of us wants to hear that. It is far too threatening, and creates a reactive resistance that may create polarization simply for self-protective reasons. Think about what you would feel like if someone came up to you and told you everything you had been doing about xyz your whole life was a mistake. What would your first response be?

With this in mind, the strongest pro-active influence for me would having someone modeling the benefits of living vegan – by how they live, how they act, the difference it makes – by attraction. Thinking back, that’s exactly what drew me in.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Focusing on the positives, modeling consistency over time, being present without pointing fingers, always humor, and always – share good food. It still behooves us to counter the vegans-eat-twigs-and-bark imagery. If you post pictures of your food – which is great for modeling meals and bringing inspiration to the plates of others – post pictures that are appealing. Like it or not, how we act, speak, and how our food looks are important elements of making impressions and changing hearts. Nick Cooney speaks about this quite a bit in How to Be Great at Doing Good.  Everyone seeking to be an agent for positive change would do well to read it.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

The fact that the environmental factor is finally getting bigger play on the stage. For years – decades, as a matter of fact – I marveled that people who called themselves environmentalists were chowing down on beef, chicken and cheese. It’s a huge disconnect that is slowly getting some gap closure.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Picking at the non-essentials. These are divisive, send the wrong message, and are completely unnecessary. Vegans criticizing each other. For example, I recently read a review of a vegan cookbook where the reviewer (vegan) was all over the author for not addressing everything from GMOs to grain allergies. Every book of education, transition, and recipes can’t be inclusive of every single aspect that dietary shift might touch upon. This is an offshoot of the same problem we have pretty much all experienced, where we are expected, as aspiring conscious eaters, to be expert dietitians, nutritionists, environmentalists, and psychologists. It shows up in other conversations such as raw vs. cooked, for example. These are personal choices within the bigger umbrella of simply eating plants instead of animals. Elitism rubs the wrong way yet vegans can be perceived as such – sometimes highly unfairly. But being aware of this judgment can help inform our language and approach.  Being inclusive, compassionate, friendly, and encouraging with your language is more effective at moving people in the direction you’d like to see them go, big picture.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

If you could eat in a way that is delicious and satisfying and has more variety than you ever imagined and that improves your health, vitality, and the lives of everyone around you, wouldn’t you want to find out more about that?

Yet to be honest, better than that has been the few minutes of opening with the presentations I’ve had the privilege to deliver on book tour with The Plant-Based Journey. I’m still working on how to compress this into elevator style. It has been so effective at bringing skeptics to the point of being becoming visibly more relaxed and engaged over the course of the presentation to buying a book at the end and using words like “so inclusive!” and “sounds like something I could do!”. Maybe elevators aren’t the best venue for this cause anyway. For some, yes – I know some vegans who are very skilled at putting it all out there, quickly, and making a difference. My approach is a little different.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I became vegetarian in 1972 - far before all the films and other connections we now have. John Robbins, early on, of course with Diet for a New America. John has always been very generous to me and supportive of my work. More recently, T. Colin Campbell.  Neal Barnard and PCRM I have the highest regard for as they get it on all fronts – the healthy, the animals, and the environment. Dr. Barnard has generously given me lots of opportunities to reach out and add to the education in the vegan world. Farm Sanctuary has had a big impact on me. Dr. John McDougall. I hate to start listing because it’s too easy to leave someone important out. 

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Nature is the great rejuvenator. Physical activity. Travel to wild places where the wild animals are. Meditation. Solitude. We live in the woods in northern California. It’s a place where I can run, bike, walk, and write for literally days at a time in quiet.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

In the past couple of years we have taken two trips to Africa. The elephants are a cause deeply representative of so many issues for the animals and the planet everywhere. Poaching has escalated as the demand for ivory trinkets and gadgets in China and the U.S. has increased. Having seen how community-oriented, social, and caring for their own the elephants are in the wild, the pain of seeing the elephants hacked-up for their tusks and stranding grieving babies and families is unbearable. The orphanages are getting more and more crowded.

It’s a complete disconnect in my mind as to why an ivory decoration would inspire anyone to participate in this horrendous industry. And even with regulations, there is so much corruption at government levels, that it can be hard to get any traction on improvement. The orphanage where our elephant adoptees are – the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – is perhaps the strongest presence for protecting orphaned animals and poacher intervention.

This is just the tip of the iceberg with so many issues of wildlife, animals, land, environment, sustainability – it overwhelms me when I think about it.  It helps to stay focused on specific issues that you can try to do something about.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

…being in cognitive harmony and physical and emotional peace with what you eat. When I was teaching school full time, during the years I was still consuming dairy products, every day I drove past the dairy farms in the valley and when I would see the cows out grazing, I would feel as if I was slumping down a bit in my seat. It’s possible to live in wonderful harmony with what you put on your plate and your highest ideals.

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