Country Life in Prague provides an excellent whole-food fix for vegans jaded by processed junk

Prague Astronomical Clock
Classy location: Country Life restaurant is near the medieval Astronomical Clock in Prague’s old town

Prague has a lot to offer vegans: on HappyCow I recently counted 58 dedicated restaurants in the Czech Republic capital, with numerous other places providing options for herbivores. 

However, after travelling around Europe for two weeks, what we needed most was a deviation from the vegan burgers and other fast foods so often found in more recently established cafés. We were also looking for something a little kinder on the wallet.

Country Life was perfect. It’s a buy-by-weight restaurant located just south of Prague’s medieval Astronomical Clock in the old part of the city, so you get to take in some of the sights as well. It’s attached to an organic food store, part of a chain that began in 1991 and now includes an organic farm and bakery. 

Vegan food
Whole food heaven: The restaurant has a huge selection of hot and cold food

The restaurant is buffet style and cheap, offering a wide range of salads and hot dishes, full of the freshest ingredients, as well as drinks and desserts.  You choose what you want, dish it on to your plate and pay according to what it weighs. A lovely, patient staff make the process seamless.

I am a sucker for weigh-and-pay buffets, because you get to try so many different things. With such an abundance of salads on offer, this place is a great antidote to the junk food you often find in vegan establishments when you are on the road. While that junk might be tasty and fill the gap, it doesn’t necessarily provide the nutritional benefits of the whole grains and fresh vegetables we thrive on.

Finishing touch: Vegan cheesecake and chocolate berry slice

Country Life was also excellent for traditional Czech foods and spicier curry and chilli-type dishes. I piled it all on. The boiled herby potatoes were simply cooked but absolutely amazing. (We ended up taking a carry-out box with the potatoes and a range of salads back to our hotel for later.) 

We finished with sugar-free vegan cheesecake and grain coffee, and left the restaurant energised by the much-needed injection of whole food into our travel diet. If you’re in Prague, it’s well worth visiting.

Healthy living: The central Prague Country Life store attached to the weigh-and-pay restaurant. The shop is also very good, offering everything from bread and a small selection of veggies to tofu and vegan cheese

The Green Flamingo, a vegan oasis in the meat-munching Austrian heartland of Innsbruck

Green Flamingo entrance
Lush welcome: the entrance of the Green Flamingo in Innsbruck

Traditional Tyrolean cuisine is dense, rich and has a hell of a lot of meat and dairy in it. So when meandering through Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian state of Tyrol, you’ll see restaurant menus celebrating dishes such as Kasspatzln (egg noodles baked in cheese), Gröstl (a fried hash of bacon, potatoes and onion with an egg on top), Knödel (sweet or savoury dumplings), and butter-heavy cakes and pastries with equally umlauted names. 

Top of the list of local delicacies is Speck, a distinctively juniper-flavoured fatty ham, the vast overconsumption of which once left my younger brother projectile vomiting for two days. This was many moons ago, and he’s since become a committed vegetarian, but just the word Speck is enough to conjure up shudders in my family.

Times have changed, and generally Austria, which like Germany has held a long-standing passion for all things ‘green’, has become a little more welcoming to those who don’t eat meat. But still, dishearteningly, everywhere you go you see menus offering endless meals made from animals’ body parts and their secretions.

Green Flamingo view from rooftop
Rooftop oasis: a view of the restaurant from the terrace

We definitely weren’t in Innsbruck for the food. But, having taken a break from our usual self-catering places during a train trip around Europe, we were staying in a hotel to visit this stunning Alpine city and knew we’d have to make more of an effort to eat well.

The Green Flamingo was an absolute treasure. I’d like to say we serendipitously stumbled across this vegan restaurant, started in 2019 by Danish Kaspar and his Dutch partner Kim, but it’s in a tucked-away location and we were led there by the Happy Cow app. 

Just beyond the main streets of Innsbruck, it greets you with a wonderfully green exterior covered in vines, and offers the choice of sitting inside or out on a rooftop terrace. It was a balmy evening, so we sat outside. 

Though a little off the beaten track, the place was packed, so I was glad we’d booked. But the spaced-out tables and abundant plant life growing in containers (gleaming tomatoes and peppers, for example) on the roof around us – not to mention the sunset-kissed mountain peaks in the near distance – made for a laid-back atmosphere, with no sense of crowding at all.

Starter meals
Starters: summer rolls with peanut dip, foreground, and We Love Cows quesadilla

The staff were great too. Whereas much of the Innsbruck hospitality industry seems to run on passing trade, with frequently desultory service, the waiters here were friendly and helpful.

So to the food. I can never resist summer rolls with peanut dip on a menu, so that was me sorted for a starter, and my partner ate the ‘We love cows’ quesadilla. Mine was really good, and his folded tortilla with melty vegan cheese, refried beans and Mexican spices looked and tasted amazing. 

Main course meals
Mains: Lego Döner Plate, foreground, and Kevin Likes Bacon burger

As a main, I can recommend the Lego Döner Plate – a DIY meal that presents you with an assortment of fresh vegetables and vegan döner ‘meat’, as well as a wrap and fries, which you put together as you please (I opted for eating separate items rather than stuffing all into the wrap). My partner ate the ‘Kevin likes Bacon’ burger. He’s a man who really knows his plant-based burgers and he declared this one superb.

It was really good food for sure, but for me the best thing about the Green Flamingo was its mere existence as an oasis of calm and veganism in the midst of all that animal consumption in Innsbruck. I felt at home.

Innsbruck mountain view from street
Mountain city: the Green Flamingo is located near this street off the tourist drags of Innsbruck, although that mountain view is always there

Tofu Vegan, a plant-based Chinese eating experience of the highest order

Flavoursome delights: Spicy cauliflower, Dongbei style potato green pepper and aubergine and Gong Bau tofu with peanuts

With its abundance of fresh vegetables, noodles, rice and tofu, Chinese cuisine is a reliable option for any vegan who fancies a night off cooking.

For me, though, there is always an underlying discomfort when browsing a standard Chinese restaurant menu, loaded, as they usually are, with chicken, prawns, pork and – a particular gross-out for me – shredded duck. I seek to stay focused on my own food, trying not to think about the inevitable contamination possibilities in a busy kitchen.

It was wonderful, then, to discover Tofu Vegan, which has two branches not far from me in London. I enjoy it so much that I have dined at the Islington branch three times in recent months, trying a wide range of the 40 or so dishes on the menu. I suspect there will be more repeat visits.

Welcoming: The Islington branch of Tofu Vegan

As the name suggests, it’s vegan, which means it instantly feels like a place in which I want to eat. The food is amazing. The menu is set out in a traditional style, with colour photos of many of the meals, and the staff are both knowledgeable and helpful when it comes to choosing dishes that suit your palate and will go well together.

I’ve asked for and taken advice before each order and never been disappointed. My favourites include the wontons in special house sauce, Dongbei-style potato, green pepper and aubergine, and the Gong Bau tofu with peanuts, but I’ve not sampled a taste there that I haven’t absolutely enjoyed.

Many of the dishes are made with tofu and mushrooms, or with Asian imitation meats made from bean proteins and other meat-free ingredients. The cooks include chefs from Sichuan, the Cantonese south of China and the north-eastern Dongbei region, so the menu features a range of enticing regional flavours.

Tasty treat: Gong Bau tofu with peanuts

It’s not, perhaps, the cheapest dinner option, but the portions are large and the rice is served in a regularly refilled all-you-can-eat bowl.

The owners say Tofu Vegan offers a completely plant-based menu suitable for vegetarians and vegans, but will also delight those who usually eat meat. I can confirm this from my own experience, as on all occasions bar one my companions were omnivores. Without exception they thoroughly enjoyed the food with the delighted astonishment of those who regularly eat meat without any apparent thought as to whether there might be an alternative.

Advertising Standards Authority highlights cruelty of the meat industry (and its own hypocrisy)

Man eating: still from banned Vegan Friendly UK advert
“They just don’t care about animals like we do, babe…” Still from the banned advert

At first glance – as a vegan, at any rate – it was easy to be irritated by news last week that Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority had banned a TV advert by Vegan Friendly UK on the grounds that it was “likely to cause distress” to viewers.

It’s not a particularly gruesome ad, showing a group of people enjoying a meat-based meal while pontificating about damage to the oceans and cruelty to animals, with a handful of swiftly intercut clips of freshly caught fish and farm livestock. It makes a powerful and thought-provoking point about hypocrisy, and urges people to “make the connection”.

However, the ASA ruled that the “juxtaposition between the adults eating and the animal imagery would heighten the distress felt by viewers” and banned the advert (see below) from TV.

The ban itself seems hypocritical, as the ASA is happy to allow a constant stream of material promoting roast lamb and pork sausages and beef burgers and fish fingers and cheese and milk, etc, all produced via distressing processes on an industrial scale. Still, you don’t like something, you don’t watch it. Easy.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the ASA has done a subtle service to the cause of veganism. By banning Vegan Friendly UK’s ad, it is highlighting the fact that the realities of the meat and fish industries are utterly horrific – too horrific, in fact, to be seen by those who eat their products, even in such an understated way.

The ban itself makes one of the points the advert was making – meat is a cruel business – but in a really stupid way. It might be worth investigating more closely.

Why adopting a wholefood plant-based diet can begin to improve your health in just four weeks

Despina Marselou
Inspirational: Dietitian Despina Marselou is knowledgeable, open and kind.

I first crossed paths with the Athens-based dietitian Despina Marselou after attending a webinar she conducted on the effects of diet on autoimmune diseases. With a recent diagnosis of multifocal motor neuropathy, a rare degenerative condition affecting the limbs, I was desperate to discover what I could do to help myself.

I spoke to Despina initially with a view to finding out more for this article but shortly afterwards I contacted her about the role food could play in making me, as a person with an autoimmune disease, feel better. As a practitioner she is knowledgeable, open and kind.

Within a few minutes of our online consultation, Despina told me that her Greek bluntness (and here I paraphrase) might challenge my English reserve. She wasn’t wrong.

In our initial appointment, which lasted an hour, the questions I had expected – primarily about my diet – never came. Instead, we chatted about my life, back to childhood, and what circumstances surrounded the time when I felt my first symptoms. She asked questions that no other medical professional had, presumably due to time constraints, and it felt good. It felt very good. I left our chat inspired, and feeling decidedly empowered around my own health, in a way I hadn’t done before.

In terms of my diet, I was already a long-time vegan, but more the fast-food munching kind than the “clean” unprocessed food type.  I wanted to understand how the change to a wholefood plant-based diet (WFPB) could work for me.

Greek-born Despina received an MSc in clinical nutrition and immunology from the University of Surrey in England, specialising in dietary support and behaviour modification in patients with disorders such as diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases. She believes fervently that a wholefood diet can be transformative in those with such conditions.

Here are some of the questions I put to her and her responses…

How dramatic a change can a WFPB produce? Do you often see life-changing effects in those you treat? Have you seen patients find renewed energy levels, for example?

Yes, and I am truly excited about it. Most patients who manage to adopt a plant diet can see differences in their health within four weeks. A WFPB diet is an unprocessed high-fibre diet with a variety of plants, full of the different vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and other phytochemicals. It allows balance and harmony within the diet. Everything is there: the flavours, textures and colours. 

Lab research
Research: The American Gut Project is investigating the link between diet and lifestyle and the health of the bacteria that live inside us (Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash)

In the largest study to connect the health of the bacteria that live inside us to our diet and lifestyle – the American Gut Project – they are discovering that the most powerful predictor of a healthy gut is the diversity of plants in the diet. The American Gut Project is part of the Microsetta Initiative and operates at the Knight Lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. It is an active research effort in which scientists aim to work with citizen scientists, as well as academic and industry researchers.

They hope to figure out what health and lifestyle factors are associated with the composition of the microbiome, which is defined by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as “the collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us”. They are in the early stages of this quest and need to collect thousands of samples to have enough data to continue looking for answers.

How did your own interest in the power of plant-based diets come about?

When I was 28 years old, I was diagnosed with Graves disease (autoimmune thyroiditis) and multiple thyroid nodules. For almost two years I experienced inexplicable daily episodes of spasm in my feet and toes, muscle weakness, brain fog and fatigue. My doctor suggested thyroidectomy to remove the suspicious thyroid nodules and put the symptoms I had at ease. 

The operation was performed, but for a couple of years, despite the reassurance that all the symptoms would ease, I continued to experience most of them. As a dietitian I knew that nutrition played an important role, so I did make changes to what I was eating. I went on a gluten-free, semi-vegetarian diet, where I felt significant improvement in my physical symptoms.

However, unexpected events hit me during my second pregnancy.  I was diagnosed with bilateral vestibular disease, with up to ten attacks of vertigo throughout the day and peripheral neuropathic pain. It was impossible for me to drive, work or sleep and I took at least five different expert opinions.  Multiple medications and strong painkillers, including antidepressants, were the answer offered by most doctors, so it was then and there that I decided to make a big change in my life for my kids, for my family and for myself. 

I decided to give some time to myself and search for alternative therapies including giving up the semi-vegetarian diet and going totally vegan. As a Mediterranean and as a dietitian, it was a huge step to take. I always thought that the key to good health was “everything in moderation” and that a whole plant-based diet was something like an elimination diet. But I must admit now that I regret not adopting a whole plant-based diet earlier.

Vegetables
Transformative eating: Despina has enjoyed robust health since embracing a whole plant-based diet (Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash)

My passion for seeking evidence-based knowledge prompted me to take the plant-based nutrition course of the biochemist T Colin Campbell, along with studying and researching food synergies. I created my own fasting nutrition protocol combined with Mediterranean herbs and teas which I followed for four months. I am thrilled to say that I have experienced robust health since then.

What was your own diet like before going plant-based? 

Well, it was mostly Mediterranean, or at least I thought so. A good, healthy Mediterranean diet is mostly plant-based and mine wasn’t and there is a reason for that. In Greece, socialising with food is a big part of our culture; my husband and I used to go out a lot with friends and travel around at the weekends. So from Monday to Thursday, I was following a nice, healthy Mediterranean diet, but during weekends, I was consuming considerable amounts of fish, chicken and cheese. Oh, the cheese… I used to think there was no life without cheese. 

I know you are a great believer in taking a holistic approach to disease. Is this view becoming more common among medical professionals? 

Yes, and I am very happy about it. 

However, we must not confuse a natural holistic approach which means changes in your lifestyle such improvements to your sleeping pattern, socialising, adopting a whole plant-based diet, relaxing techniques such as meditation, yoga and so on with approaches that frequently include dozens of test kits (to check your genes, microbes, nutrient absorption, etc). 

There are so many online adverts for simple food allergy testing. These can lead a patient to forget all about real and natural changes, and go on a gluten-, grain-, phytate-, lectin-, oxalate-, nightshade-free food regime until the same “experts” discover another secret to human health that we’ve all been missing and end up with multiple supplements and no health change! We don’t want more restrictions or more supplements. We need real food and to feel ourselves again.

Do many of your nutritionist colleagues feel the same as you? 

At the moment, we are few but we will get there. Continuous education and evidence-based fact is the key. 

Does poor nutrition often play a role in the development of diseases? Are some diseases more prevalent in people following a conventional western diet? 

Developed societies have witnessed an increase in autoimmune diseases in the past few years and the link between chronic inflammation and gut bacteria seems to be undeniable. Just a quick reminder: our gut thrives with a simple nutrient, fibre. It is well established that the microbiome metabolises resistant starches and dietary fibre through fermentation and decomposition, leading to the production of short-chain fatty acids. These are crucial components for the immune system and our health. So if we start reducing fibre and consuming more animal protein, the fermentation by-products of our gut microbes will be, for instance, phenolic compounds and ammonia, which are highly inflammatory and mostly carcinogenic.

Chronic inflammation is considered a major contributor to several diseases and autoimmunity activation such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, allergic asthma, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis etc.

There is growing evidence that dysbiosis (a reduction in microbial diversity of the gut) is a concerning issue for autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, inflammatory diseases, and functional gastrointestinal disorders and one of the major reasons for dysbiosis is a diet high in saturated fat, animal protein, refined sugar and prepared processed food.

Bacon
Risk: The WHO has classified processed meat such as bacon as carcinogenic

Back in 2015, the World Health Organisation determined that processed meat for example ham, bacon and sausages is a major contributor to colorectal cancer. The organisation classified it as carcinogenic to humans. 

Minimising the potential for underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes is crucial for protecting against all autoimmune illnesses and, indeed, Covid-19. As fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans help reduce inflammation in the body and promote a healthy immune system, diet could play a significant role.

Why do you think nutrition plays such an important part in fighting disease? Why plant based? And what exactly do you mean by this?

The immune system and microbiota – the micro-organisms found in all multicellular organisms, including the plants we eat and ourselves – are deeply intertwined. In fact, there is evidence that the microbiota enhances our infection-fighting power by helping to foster the proper development of immune cells. The microbiota also helps immune cells to identify and eradicate threats. So when we take care of our gut microbes, they take care of our immune system. This decreases our risk of autoimmune or allergic illnesses, among other problems. 

If we don’t attend to this, the immune system may get weak and inadequate, exposing us to increased risk of infection or parasites such as blastocystis. The bottom line is that we want a healthy immune system, and to get there you need a healthy gut. 

So how do we optimise this gut-immune connection? The answer again is to hit that fibre so you will have the optimum production of short-chain fatty acids. They go to work fixing the lining of the colon, reversing the damage of dysbiosis. 

So if you want to support your immune system it’s really quite simple. Eat more plants, in abundance and diversity, and let the fibre do the work for you. 

vegetables
Colours of life: Eat like you have a rainbow on your plate (Photo by Chantal Garnier on Unsplash)

The plant-based diet I promote to my patients has four basic rules:

  • It needs to be rich in complex carbohydrates: quinoa, millet, buckwheat, barley, and wholewheat pasta. 
  • It should be high in fibre: gut microbes are waiting to thrive and support immune function and the brain through the gut-brain axis (oats, pulses, barley, vegetables and fruits, fermented products). 
  • Eat like you have a rainbow on your plate – at least five or six different veggies with different colours and the same number of portions of fruits daily. Try to combine fruits with veggies in smoothies or green leafy veggies with some nuts, apples and raisins. 
  • Avoid processed foods, although occasionally you can have some sugar or your favourite plant-based burger since no one is perfect. It’s important to remember to make your plant-based nutrition a lifestyle, not just another unsustainable diet.

What about the vegan diet? Yes, a vegan diet can be unhealthy since the core idea of a vegan diet is to care for the planet and not hurt animals, so a person who follows a vegan diet won’t necessarily go through all the ingredients to check the salt or sugar content in a specific product. But there is a simple solution… choose both. WFPB for your health and vegan for our planet.

Is there much scientific research backing up the advantages of adopting a WFPB diet?

Yes. Recent studies have shown that just two weeks on a low-fibre diet causes altered gut microbiota that literally starts to eat away the intestinal lining, causing breakdown of the protective barrier and susceptibility to disease. Other studies point to a WFPB diet leading to a significant reduction in the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. It has also been seen to reverse type 2 diabetes, enable effective and sustained weight loss without portion control or exercise, and arrest the progression of early stage prostate cancer.

But how many studies do we really need to accept a simple fact? Plant foods are packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients which are great for our health.

I’ve heard people talk about “leaky gut syndrome”. What exactly is it?

Leaky gut syndrome refers to damage in the seals of the bowel lining, so germs, toxins or other substances can be absorbed into the bloodstream via porous (“leaky”) gut tissue and can promote an inflammatory cascade, activating the immune system in the “wrong” way. 

There is very little evidence about this and no diagnostic tool at the moment to diagnose a leaky gut.

What are your views and experience when it comes to gluten? 

Several autoimmune conditions seem to share the HLA gene responsible for regulating the immune system, which suggests that coeliac disease could be an underlying factor in autoimmune conditions. As health professionals, we need to be careful in suggesting that patients follow a gluten-free diet without solid evidence and certain diagnosis, since grains are beneficial for the microbiome. Also, following a gluten-free diet can put more stress on patients on top of their diagnosis. 

Bread
Take advice: Be careful about following a gluten-free diet without solid evidence of its necessity and relevant diagnosis (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash)

On the other hand, we cannot underestimate patients who report discomfort with foods that contain gluten. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity might be a possibility and we have to take it into consideration. A trial with a natural gluten-free diet (meaning no gluten-free products packed with preservatives) for a period of around six weeks before reintroducing gluten in certain amounts could provide some answers.

Whatever the case, it’s important to seek advice from a dietitian specialising in such conditions. You certainly don’t need nutrient deficiencies to deal with on top of your autoimmunity problems.

 My main aim is to share the knowledge of a plant-based lifestyle with people who suffer with chronic and autoimmune disease. I firmly believe that every person is unique. No matter the distance, I am here to help you explore what works best for you through a personalised whole plant-based lifestyle not a diet and feel “yourself” again.

* * * * * * * * * * 

Eating plant-based, as Despina explains it, doesn’t have to be hard: stews, casseroles, soups, stir-fries and Buddha bowls are all relatively easy to whip up. Serve these with quinoa, brown rice or roast sweet potatoes. For all the above, combinations of fresh or frozen vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses are basically cooked together in a vegetable stock with herbs and spices of your choosing. Start by googling “vegan one pot recipes”, and then play around with tastes and textures that work for you.

For stews, the vegetables are cut in chunks, and quinoa or lentils, for example, can be cooked in the same pan for a one-pot meal. Casseroles are the same, but with the pot going into the oven rather than being cooked on a hob. 

It doesn’t really matter what vegetables you use. Potatoes and carrots are a good base, and from there you can add whatever you fancy, or whatever you have in the fridge. Lentils are great in these dishes. They are an excellent source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc as well as protein and fibre. 

Soups are made from the same combinations, cooked and whizzed with a hand blender. Stir-fries are super quick; flash-fry the vegetables with some tofu or tempeh. Buddha bowls are combinations of nuts, seeds, pine nuts, tofu, quinoa and vegetables served together cold with a light sauce. You can make a simple, tasty sauce with tamari, a little hot water and peanut butter.

Smoothie
Powerhouse: Smoothies are a quick and reliable way to boost your diet (Photo by Christina Rumpf on Unsplash)

If you can, invest in a blender or specialist smoothie maker too. Quick, easy and filling, smoothies can be a reliable powerhouse. Just chuck in what you feel like, and there’s a balanced diet in a cup. 

With these things in mind, here is Despina’s weekly shopping list to support immunity and a healthy gut microbiome:

Wheat products and pseudograins: Oats, quinoa, millet, wild rice, whole grain pasta.

Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, pumpkin, cauliflower, peppers, broccoli, beetroot, tomatoes, cucumber, at least two types of leafy greens.

Pulses: Beluga, lentils, mung beans, soya beans/edamame, chickpeas.

Fruits: Frozen berries, dried fruits, avocado, kiwi, apples, oranges… fill your fridge, freezer and fruit bowl with your own favourites.

Nuts and seeds: Almond or peanut butter, tahini paste, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds.

Herbs and spices: Turmeric and pepper, mustard powder, oregano, thyme, basil, curry and saffron.

These are some of the basics for developing a healthy approach to food. Experiment with what works for you. It might take time, but the rewards of finding your body’s ideal diet can be well worth the effort. It’s hard to give up the things we think of as treats. We live in a society in which the concept of “Go on, you deserve it” floods our social media feeds and filters through into popular thinking.

But perhaps what you deserve more is to feel the revitalisation possible through ditching greasy, sugar-rich, plastic-wrapped, addictive but artificial consumables and replacing them with the honest-to-goodness natural food that your body craves.

As Despina says, we don’t need fancy diets. All we need is real food and to feel ourselves again.

  • To find out more about Despina’s work, visit her website here.

A guided run through the full Pawanmuktasana Series of gentle yoga exercises

Join me in this video for a guided run through the full Pawanmuktasana Series, an excellent three-part sequence of simple yoga exercises designed to gently mobilise and energise the whole body, working through most of the joints and major muscle groups.

While it is a physical practice, you will, as always with yoga, get more from it if you keep your mind fully engaged with what you’re doing. This helps you to discover the most effective ways of using your body by paying close attention, but also serves as a form of moving meditation – using each exercise as a flowing stream of focus points for your mind.

Add in active attention to your breath – encouraging it to slow down and flow in a relaxed way, perhaps even co-ordinating it with your movements – and you have a solid all-round yoga practice that could just as easily set you up for your day as end it.

If you’re familiar with the series you might find my guided run through it in this video a little chatty, but I’ve erred on the side of offering plenty of options for those who might be new to it. I’ve also slowed the pace right down, so the full series will require about an hour and 20 minutes of your time. If you can treat yourself to that, I’d encourage it, as the full sequence really feels good.

However, it’s also possible to do each section as a standalone practice. For the first section, start at the beginning of the video and the work begins after a brief introduction. For the second section begin at 36:00 in the recording. For the final section start at 58:08.

While it is a reasonably gentle practice that should be approachable for most people, if you require a doctor’s permission for exercise – for example if you have serious bone- or heart-related issues – please seek it in advance. And, as always when following any exercises offered on the internet by someone you don’t know, look after yourself by not following blindly – most importantly, if something hurts, stop doing it. You are your own best teacher when it comes to your body.

On a brief historical note, Pawanmukatasana is loosely translated from Sanskrit as “wind releasing posture”. And no, this does not refer to farting, rather the idea of energy moving through the body. The series was developed by Swami Satyananda in the 1960s and, while it is a key element of his Bihar school of yoga in India, it has become popular across many different strands of the practice.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga and Pilates teacher based in East London, currently offering classes online or one-to-one in person. Details at yogayelvy.com

Dive in and flow with Total Immersion, the technique that takes the slog out of swimming

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire swimming
Water woman: Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire demonstrates the technique
REVIEW Total Immersion Effortless Endurance Freestyle swimming workshop with Susan Cheshire

Moving through water – being immersed in the same element that makes up around 60 per cent of a human body – is a deeply meditative practice for me and swimming is one of the few activities during which the Babel in my head quietens down. The fact that it’s also superb for physical fitness is a tasty extra.

But while I’ve long enjoyed the mindful slog of getting 2,000m under me each time I hit the pool, I was intrigued when I heard about Total Immersion, a method of swimming that sells itself with words such as effortless rather than slog. YouTube videos of its practitioners in the water certainly made it look that way: smooth, flowing movements that, for all their relaxed appearance, were clearly generating strong propulsive forces with barely a splash. I definitely wanted some of that.

So I worked through the free short introductory video course on the Total Immersion website and read a few articles online that explained the basic technique. In essence it’s about streamlining and using energy more efficiently by harnessing the rotational power of the body to propel yourself rather than vigorously pulling and pushing yourself through the water with muscular arm strokes and strong kicks.

After a few days of theoretical studies, I dived in and tried to apply what I’d learnt. The results were impressive: while I wouldn’t go so far as to call my next swims effortless, they were certainly more relaxed than usual – the rotational movements reminded me of Pilates or vinyasa yoga, except in water.

At ease: Note the smooth grace with which Susan moves through the water in this video

I kept at it for a few weeks, enjoying it thoroughly, but it soon became obvious that there was a lot more to the technique than my initial solo explorations suggested. And so I found myself at an Effortless Endurance Freestyle Workshop conducted by Susan Cheshire, a top-level Total Immersion swimming teacher based in North East London. These are limited to six participants at a time, which means you get to work very closely with the teacher but also that you have to book a fair while in advance to secure a place.

It was a full eight-hour day that began in a classroom with an in-depth look at some of the theory of Total Immersion and a few exercises to prime our bodies for the way we’d be using them in the water. Yes, it’s possible to practise some of this stuff on land! Susan’s instruction was clear, direct and very practical, delivered in a relaxed style that helped generate a chilled learning vibe in the group.

To the water, then, for a two-hour swim to put it all into practice. The session started with each of us being filmed swimming a length of the lovely 25m pool at Bancroft’s School for a before-and-after record of the day. Then it was straight to business.

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire
Top level: Susan in her land-based form

Susan broke the method down into its individual components, starting with simply studying how a human body behaves in water – it tends to sink – and learning how to place it more effectively (streamlining and relaxing are the key). Bit by bit we moved through each area – how to hold the head well in the water, the best position for the arms and how to get them there, what to do with your legs and, most important, how to use the torso to generate the powerful torque that moves you through the water.

We practised each of the separate parts of the technique in isolation, really getting a feel for them as components. One by one we had a go under close scrutiny by Susan, who offered individual corrections and suggestions, before working alone for a while or watching what she was doing with the other students. This ability to observe our teacher offering individual adjustments to six different people was a significant benefit of having such a small group. We finished the morning swim being filmed again before a brief lunch break.

After lunch, there was another session in the classroom analysing the videos recorded earlier. This was such a powerful learning aid. Swimming alone before this workshop, inspired only by videos and reading, I had thought I was getting the hang of it, then I saw the video of myself in the water… and oh, OK, back to the drawing board.

The second morning video showed progress had been made, but also highlighted in a precise way where work needed to be done. I can’t exaggerate the value of these video analyses, not just of my own swimming but that of my fellow students too. We also did a bit more land-based “swimming” to fine-tune some of the body movements, then returned to the pool.

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire swimming
Effortless: Susan swimming at Derwentwater in England’s Lake District

The next two-hour session in the water added a few more individual components of the technique, such as effective breathing, and polishing the stuff we’d worked on in the morning before we slowly knitted the separate pieces together and moved towards our expression of the Total Immersion Effortless Freestyle method. Again, Susan explained everything in the water with absolute clarity, demonstrating the right and wrong way to do it, while giving us constant individual feedback and adjustments to improve what we were doing.

There was a bit more filming of separate techniques, and the session ended with a recording of a final swim at the end of the day to compare with our first length. We returned to the classroom for a full summary of the method, as well as suggestions on how to practise it in crowded public swimming pools.

There was time for a question-and-answer session at the end but – a testament to Susan’s comprehensive teaching – none of us had anything to ask. I went home both physically and mentally exhausted, and very happy.

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire swimming
Perfect poise: Susan practises the torpedo, one of the alignment drills of Total Immersion

Susan emailed the videos from the second swimming session, into which she had recorded detailed commentary. I was so happy to see, in the “after” video, that we had all made huge progress over the day. And it was good to observe precisely where to focus attention to develop further. Continuing, lifelong learning with deep awareness, or kaizen, is a key feature of Total Immersion, and this workshop provided a solid foundation for that.

Susan is a masterful teacher, conveying huge amounts of practical information while engaging personally with each participant throughout. I can’t recommend her workshops highly enough. They cost £225 for the day and are worth every penny.

To find out more about Susan Cheshire and book workshops or one-to-one tuition with her, visit her website here

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga and Pilates teacher based in East London, currently offering classes online or one-to-one in person. Details at yogayelvy.com

A smaller post-pandemic National Animal Rights March but just as passionate about a more compassionate world

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

With only around 1,000 people taking to the streets at this year’s National Animal Rights March in London – compared with 12,000 at the last similar (pre-pandemic) event in 2019 – the drummers were more important than usual.

Events like this are all about creating a vivid spectacle to attract the attention of the public and hopefully raise awareness. So you have posters (essential), smoke flares (optional and kind of annoying), wacky outfits (optional) and noise (essential) – anything that makes you seen and heard.

With any luck, much of the noise comes from marchers chanting slogans en masse: “There’s no excuse for animal abuse”, “Humane slaughter is a lie”, “It’s not food, it’s violence”, etc. But this year, unfortunately, with such a relatively small crowd, there was no way voices alone would carry the message, particularly as not everyone is into chanting.

Hence the importance of the drummers. There were two small groups of them, one near the head of the march, one near the tail, and they were magnificent and loud. Small it might have been, but there was no missing this demonstration.

The leading group of drummers at the beginning of the march near Smithfield market

I stuck close to the leading group of drummers and soon fell into an almost hypnotic state of presence driven the rhythm of their beats, marching for a cause I care passionately about. The persistent pounding ran through the protest like an invisible thread, lifting the limited chanting a little higher, stitching the spectacle together.

It was therefore absurd when the drummers were told by one of the march organisers to shut up. During a stop outside the headquarters of Unilever, which tests cosmetics on animals, a speaker said how great the drummers were but could they please stop for the rest of the march and let people speak for “those without voices”.

As the march continued without the drummers’ beat, it was immediately clear that there simply weren’t enough people there to make enough noise with voices alone. Without that pounding rhythm, the buzz had been killed. I could see a few what-the-fuck looks on the faces of the drummers, and indeed was so WTF myself I almost walked off at that point.

The rearguard drummers who kept drumming all the way to the end of the march

I have no idea why anyone would decide to pull the plug on a key component of the march – presumably the decision was made in a studiously democratic fashion, perhaps even by impromptu committee, for good reasons unclear to me – but fortunately it didn’t last long. One group of drummers remained relatively quiet for the rest of the march, offering the occasional rim-shot here and there, but the one near the rear went rogue and was soon pounding out the beat with full force.

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

Ultimately the job of the march will have been done: at least some of those who saw the spectacle passing through the City of London on Saturday August 28, beginning and ending at Smithfield meat market, will have been provoked into wondering what it was all about. Perhaps some will have been inspired to find out more about the cruelty of the meat industry and the dark contribution it makes to the destruction of our planet. Maybe some – in fact just one would be enough for today – will even find their way to a plant-based life.

I’m very glad I took part but must confess I was disappointed by the huge fall in numbers compared with the 2019 march. On that one, it felt like veganism was surging ahead. This time, it felt a little like it was in retreat. I doubt that’s the case, though; just my perception on the day. (High-quality statistics on vegans in the UK are hard to come by but everything points towards growing numbers.)

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

I understand that it must have been challenging to organise such an event just a few months into the post-pandemic opening up of the world, with many around the country reticent about the prospect of travelling to the capital for a demonstration.

But one of the big differences between the 2021 event and the 2019 one is that this year’s was organised by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) sister group Animal Rebellion (AR) and the last one by the campaign organisation Surge. I know very little about either group, but AR definitely has a higher profile – and not necessarily in a good way, at least from a public perception point of view.

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

This year’s march came at the end of a week of direct action by both XR and AR, with a good few activists arrested along the way. Perhaps this might have put some off attending, fearing it would be the kind of protest that would involve a willingness to be detained by the police. I support the missions of both XR and AR but even so, I initially had second thoughts about joining the march for that exact reason.

It’s a tricky issue for these organisations to navigate. On the one hand they argue we are in a climate emergency (I agree 100 per cent) and that strong action is needed right now (again I agree). On the other, much of what they do does little more than put off ordinary members of the public trying to go about keeping a roof over their heads; causing traffic jams in an already congested city, for example, or trying to stop public transport running do little to win anyone over.

National Animal Rights March 2021, London

We definitely need radical, rapid change to save our planet, but if this is going to come through the work of groups such as XR and AR, they are going to have to raise their game beyond the approach of any publicity is good publicity. It might make good fodder for the social media machine (and how strange it is that so many campaigners rely so heavily on feeding the artificial intelligence systems developed by some of the world’s most powerful corporate gangsters, thereby making them wealthier and even more powerful).

But for a revolution to succeed, you have to convince the broad masses to take action. It will require much creative thinking.

Camping out with 12,000 vegans – a joyous way to celebrate the return to post-pandemic ‘normality’

Karen_WY at the Vegan Campout 2021
Kindred spirits: the author at the Vegan Campout 2021

I’m going to fess up straight away and admit I attended the UK Vegan Campout 2021 in absolute decadence. Hiring a six-person campervan for two of us meant we avoided the epic queues to fulfil the basic human needs of eating and toileting at a festival of 12,000 hungry vegans at Newark Showgrounds in Nottinghamshire.

Coming during a pandemic, the organisers had had only seven weeks to finalise a lot of the practical issues – like food stalls and toilets, for example – so the queues for these facilities snaked back for up to an hour. It didn’t help that 15 food vendors and one toilet block company pulled out at the last minute.

We were set back a little from the main site, and walking across in the late morning as people began crawling bleary-eyed out from an endless variety of tents, I was struck by the seemingly stationary queues for the toilets and the solitary lengthy queue for the one tea and coffee stand at the site.

Karen_WY at Vegan Campout 2021
Happy camper: the author is fed and watered

But equally striking was the mood. From beginning to end, the festival-goers, whether waiting to relieve themselves or to fill their growling bellies, were chatting, smiling and making new acquaintances. I heard a couple of people comment on this, and speculate that perhaps this is in the nature of the targeted clientele, but I wouldn’t be smug enough to comment on that here.

This relatively new festival began in 2016, with no stalls, no talks and just 400 attendees, and was cancelled last year because of the pandemic. So for the vast majority of us, it was the first time we’d been out in such crowds for more than 18 months. In fact, there was very little apparent in the way of nods to Covid and I saw no more than ten people or so wearing masks. That said, for most of the time we were outdoors, and the weather was relatively kind to us.

As well as a large yoga and wellness tent, there were three dedicated hall buildings: a main stage, where big-name speakers such as Russell Brand appeared; a music area; and an activism tent – my favourite – with talks from different campaigners, as well as discussions on animal agriculture, the conservation and protection of marine wildlife, and animal rights issues in general.

Sitting in there, as I did for many hours, I heard a lot that made me think. It was speaking to Animal Rebellion activist Claudia Penna Rojas that convinced me to go on the National Animal Rights March through London the following weekend.

Vegan Campout 2021 presentation
Inspiration and learning: festival-goers enjoy a presentation in the main hall

I also had no idea about the extent to which beagles are still used for experimentation. There was an incredibly moving moment when activist John Curtin, speaking about this issue, asked if any audience members present had ever joined the “Camp Beagle” protest outside MBR Acres in Huntingdon to demand the release of some 2,000 beagle puppies being reared there for testing. When he invited them to come to the front, around 100 people went up to the stage and several then shared their own experiences.

Other speakers included Dina Aherne reflecting on how to compassionately raise awareness among the Hindu community about the atrocities committed by the modern dairy industry while remaining respectful of their beliefs and traditions. Advocates for Animals’ co-founder Edie Bowles provided an overview of useful legal tools that can be used to help animals. There was a lot more food for thought from a number of activists and charities fighting for the rights of our fellow earthlings.

I’d love to have spent more time in the music tent, but a definite highlight was Benjamin Zephania (above) and the Revolutionary Minds, who played on the first night. There was a beautiful moment when he announced he was going to pose a question he always puts to his audiences, only to be frequently underwhelmed by the response, and then asked if there were any vegans there that night. Hell yeah!

Big names in the Main Stage hall included Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, the vegan cookbook writers behind BOSH!, and environmental presenter Chris Packham. There were also names known primarily within the vegan community such as campaigner Lex Rigby and the inspiring plant-powered German strongman Patrik Baboumian (see clip above). The latter, having missed his flight, appeared via Zoom.

There was a screening of Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story, presented by Game of Thrones star Jerome Flynn (see trailer below). This film was made by the animal charity Viva! to highlight atrocities in the pig farming industry after it was alerted by hunters alarmed by the large number of rotting pig carcasses they were finding in the woods around Hogwood farm.

This farm was a major supplier of pig meat to the Tesco supermarket chain, and the documentary finally convinced them to drop Hogwood. The horror is doubtless reflected in many similar farms throughout the country. There’s no such thing as humane slaughter.

Viewing Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story at Vegan Campout 2021
No such thing as humane slaughter: festival-goers watch the film Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story

As I mentioned earlier, I missed out on most of the waiting and queuing, and only waded into the toilet blocks on a couple of occasions; my camping days, if they ever existed, are most definitely behind me. Hence I’m aware that I possibly viewed this entire festival through the luxury of my campervan goggles, but I absolutely loved it.

I loved the people, the atmosphere, and the speakers, and I loved the food stalls, which offered everything from ice cream to pizzas and curries, with heaps and heaps of plant-based fast food available. It felt good to be in that rare situation where there was no need to ask anything… it was all suitable for vegans.

The plant-based cheesemonger’s offering a rich selection of excellent vegan treats in London

La Fauxmangerie counter selection of vegan cheese
Spoilt for choice: Counter selection at La Fauxmagerie

“But, cheese…” Those whimpered two words are frequently the first response from omnivores at any mention of veganism.

And it’s true that for many of us, cheese is initially the hardest food to give up. That was definitely the case for me; though it was never going to be something to which I returned once the dairy industry blinkers were removed, I missed the distinctive taste for at least a year or so. I also felt the loss of its convenience as something to stick in a sandwich or melt on toast for a simple tasty meal.

Street sign for La Fauxmangerie
Step this way…

Over the past seven years, a bountfiful stream of processed foods for herbivores has saturated the market, and the search for the ultimate vegan cheese continues. As with the traditional product itself, the price range varies and you get what you pay for. For a basic cheese-on-toast fix, the competitors are increasing, with my own staple being Applewood.

But this week I ventured into the higher end of the spectrum with a trip to the UK’s first plant-based cheesemonger’s shop, La Fauxmagerie, in the rather aptly named Cheshire Street just off vibrant Brick Lane in London. A visit here provides the chance to sample some of the fancier vegan offerings before deciding whether to buy a larger block. The self-proclaimed mission of the shop is to curate a selection of the finest plant-based cheeses the UK has to offer and as well as selling established ranges such as I AM NUT OK, the owners have recently branched into making their own cheeses.

To me, vegan cheeses, unlike burgers and other fake meat products, can’t simply be a plain replica of their dairy parent versions, but I’m at a point where I don’t really want them to be. The smell of cheese, which once I found so appealing, is now sour, a little “off” and frankly unpleasant to me. What I want is the strength of savoury flavour and the creaminess… something I can lavish on to a seeded cracker or squish on to a lowly bit of toast and see it transformed.

Cheshire Street near Brick Lane, London
Cheesy location: Cheshire Street where La Fauxmagerie is based

That’s what La Fauxmagerie offers. If you get the chance, a trip to the shop is absolutely worth it. It’s both a personal and a flavourful experience; they also offer after-hours cheese and wine pairing evenings in their cellar. If not, you can browse online at lafauxmagerie.com

Graffiti near Brick Lane, London
Visual feast: A visit to the area around Brick Lane is a rich experience