What I Learned from Giving Up Meat, Alcohol and Complaining in India

This spring I attended a Yoga Teacher Training in India with my good friend McCall. Upon arriving in Rishikesh we took an ascetic wellness pledge. For the next 30 days we were to abstain from the following: meat, alcohol, coffee, sex, social media, make-up, body-hate, soda, complaining, swearing, smoking and worrying.

Not only that, but we would practice the following daily: flossing, sleeping for eight hours, hydrating,  praying before bed and waking up at 6 a.m. to run. We would practice self-control (Sanskrit- yama) and maintain an aura of positivity.

India

On graduation day when the pledge was over! Hence the make-up.

So how did I do?

Honestly, quite well. I 100% abstained from meat, alcohol, coffee, sex, make-up, soda and smoking, and I mostly abstained from body-hate, complaining and swearing.

What did I not do well on?

While I refrained from worrying aloud, my mind was an anxiety-ridden chatterbox that wouldn’t leave me alone. A few pledges completed fell to the wayside (sorry, flossing), while others we abandoned midway through (running, due to the macaque attack). I also failed to give up social media entirely; I wanted to stay in touch with friends as well as post updates for the blog. And okay fine, frivolous social media usage is one of my vices.

But overall I drank tons of water, slept eight hours a night, practiced four hours of yoga a day, read dozens of books, drank fresh-squeezed juice and behaved more or less like a yoga-obsessed nun.

Here’s what I learned from the experience:

Tough love hurts, but it helps.

I’m a huge fan of tough love. Which is why I tried to have a thick skin when my fellow students (lovingly) gave me critiques such as, “You’re breathing like a basset hound”, “You slouch too much”, “You need to be more patient in your yoga practice.”

As a result? I stood up straighter, learned to breath properly and was easier on myself in class. Tough love works.

When you vocalize a negative thought, you internalize it.

Due to our no-complaining pledge, I wasn’t able to vocalize my worries or paranoias. Because I couldn’t ask a friend, “Um, so do you think x was being rude to me at lunch?” I let go of the imagined snub much more easily.

And because I couldn’t vocalize deeper insecurities like, “Do you think I’m bad at yoga?”, the insecurity didn’t manifest and I kept working hard.

I’m not cut out for a vegetarian diet.

I had an idea of how a vegetarian diet would make me feel: clean, light, nearly transcendent. Unfortunately, I felt none of these things. I had less energy and bruised like a peach, and often found myself fantasizing about burgers.

But one plus is that giving up meat for a month gave me so much admiration for vegetarians. You guys are seriously rockstars.

Correcting your posture sucks at first.

For years I didn’t stand up straight. Having a big bust as a teenager caused me to slouch, and since then I’ve had chronic pain in my neck and shoulders.

The first few weeks of standing up straight were painful. I had to remind myself every moment to keep my spine straight, and it hurt to sit cross-legged as the muscles in my upper back were so weak from disuse. (Meditation was hell at first.)

But eventually standing up straight became (almost) second-nature, and the chronic pain went away! And it turns out you look worlds thinner and more confident when you have good posture.

Giving up coffee made me sleepy at first.

For the first week of Yoga Teacher Training I fell asleep in our academic classes frequently due to both jetlag and caffeine withdrawal. I hadn’t realized how thoroughly addicted to caffeine I was until I gave it up!

But after a few weeks I began to feel alert in the mornings even without coffee. (I’m sad to report that I have since relapsed.)

IMG_8048

My hilarious and lovable meditation teacher, Swami Ji, meditating on a rock in the Ganges. My lethargic tendencies prompted him to nickname me, “Sluggish baby.” And when he read my palm he discerned I was intelligent, and said, “Ah yes, sluggish people often have good minds.”

I care way too much about other people’s opinions.

Halfway through training a friend pointed out to me that I have a bad habit of asking for reassurance. For example, I say, “Wow, it’s so hot out.” And if no one agrees I say, “Don’t you guys think it’s hot too?” (P.S. I have since nixed this obnoxious habit.)

Yoga Teacher Training taught me I care way too much about other people’s opinions in terms of small things, but also big things. I’ve learned that if you were to follow everyone’s advice you would be paralyzed by indecision because their advice would contradict one another’s. So it’s best to take the advice of others with a grain of salt, and ultimately rely on yourself to make decisions.

I am way too hard on myself and it gets in the way of my progress.

I realized during Yoga Teacher Training that I have a complex and fear that I’m a lazy, pleasure-seeking person. While many of my accomplishments would point to the contrary, I carry around the idea, especially in regard to physical activities, that I’m lazy.

This self-doubt doesn’t help me; rather it hinders my progress because instead of focusing on the task at hand, say, a challenging yoga position, I berate myself for not being flexible and strong enough.

While being too hard on myself is still a problem, I’ve tried to learn to forgive myself and treat myself with the same compassion I would treat anyone else. Because self-doubt gets you approximately nowhere, ever.

Gratitude is the enemy of anxiety.

This is a lesson I’ve learned time and time again; gratitude is the enemy of anxiety. For me, anxiety goes like this: first I compare myself to others, then I worry why I don’t have a perfect body/Ivy League diploma/highly lucrative blog, proceed to feel inadequate, wonder what I’m doing with my life, retrace my past to see where I went wrong and ultimately declare, “Well, I’ve already messed my life so badly that I’ll never be able to remedy my mistakes. I have left nothing to live for.”

The best way I’ve found to combat anxiety (along with drinking a jug of water, spending time in nature, going for a run and laughing) is practicing gratitude for what I do have, and realizing how lucky I am.

So each night before bed McCall and I each came up with three things we were grateful for, from the opportunity to come to India to the fact that we had electricity that morning and we were able to toast our bread.

(One of the funnier gratitudes was when McCall unironically stated she was grateful to have both running water and electricity in the same day. Lolz.)

I don’t want to be perfect.

Personally, I feel society (and Pinterest) pressure us to be this idealized, near-perfect woman. This woman has rippling abs, drinks green juice, gets to bed early, Instagrams sunsets, runs, does yoga and never swears.

India taught me that I don’t want to be perfect. By the end of the month I missed IPAs and cheeseburgers and feeling pretty and talking to boys. The ascetic lifestyle, while great for a time, is dull and restrictive.

And you know what? Sometimes I swear and sometimes I’m sarcastic and sometimes I sleep in. And I’m not sorry about any of it. Because you never remember the nights you stay in and get a good night’s rest. And flawed people are entirely more interesting than perfect ones.

I may not want to be perfect, but I do want to be better.

India taught me that I’m no monk- I will never forgo meat or coffee permanently. But I do have a few vices I aim to cut out completely like complaining, body hate and worrying. But ultimately giving up so many things taught me so much about myself and bettered me as a person- though I won’t be doing it again any time soon.

Have you ever done a similar ascetic pledge?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

77 thoughts on “What I Learned from Giving Up Meat, Alcohol and Complaining in India”

  1. OK, so this was beautiful!
    Not only do I alas launch my life’s work and career in 2015; (all about slaying that “body hate” and embracing life, love, food, wine, and so stay tuned),but it was fun to hear about your training and doings!
    Your blogs are always enjoyable!!!! Keep on!
    Cheers! – Leah

  2. Oh my. I have never done such a thing but I recognize so much of your ‘before’ habits that its scary. Thank you for opening up and being so honest.. Its making me want to take some action in self improvement too. You know what, I’m making this an October Challenge. Is it okay if I mention you in my next post about this?

    <3
    Yara

  3. Great post, Ashley! I love how strict you were with yourself, but that you also learned to cut yourself some slack every once in a while.
    Being constantly surrounded by beautiful people who have seemingly perfect lives, I obviously suffer from very similar anxieties, but two years ago I stopped saying the word “jealous”. I just cut it out of my vocabulary, and it has made such a difference: When I don’t say “I’m jealous of your perfect, shiny hair”, when I don’t write “aww, so jealous of your flawless love life”, the comparison triggers way less self-doubt. Just like you said: If you stop saying things out loud, it makes them less real.
    But other than that: Giving up coffee? SO not happening for me.

  4. These are fantastic realizations and I can definitely relate to a few- mainly caring too much of what others think and being too hard on myself. This post was a great reminder to break these bad habits!

    I would also classify myself as ‘sluggish’ at times, so I’m relieved to hear that I probably have a good mind! Haha.

  5. I’ve always wanted to give this a go. I’m like yourself. I need constant reassurance that what I am doing is right, even if it is something as stupid as choosing which way to drive somewhere. I haven’t mastered that yet as much as I want to but I am pleased you’re getting there :)

    Lovely blog Ashley!

  6. Good stuff Ashely. I’m going to start a young women’s group and will use most of this. You are way ahead of most. xo

    • Thanks so much for commenting Marsha, it’s good to hear from you! Glad to hear this inspired you, please let me know how it goes with your women’s group. And hopefully we’ll be able to catch up in person soon! :)

  7. Sluggish Baby, I think this is my favorite post you’ve written. Not only do I relate to so many thoughts, but I feel like I know you better now. Thanks for sharing and being so honest. I’m going to read it again now!

    • Aw thanks, Rachel. It was a pretty personal post so I’m glad to see you can relate. I guess it’s a pet peeve for me when people say, “Travel changed me so much” but don’t give concrete examples, which hopefully I’ve done here.

  8. Haha I love this so much. My anxiety thought process goes a lot like that too. “Went to law school… have too much student loan debt… working 5 days a week is terrible… must save to travel… if I quit for a year will my life be ruined?… will I be poor forever?!”

    Gosh, I have such a slouching problem too. After reading this, I am currently attempting to sit up straight at my desk with my feet flat on the floor, and yes, it’s surprisingly painful. Great job on working to improve yourself!

    • Haha I guess a lot of us have that rabbit hole of anxiety! I try not to fall down it all together, but if I do I have the coping mechanisms I mentioned. And it’s so hard to have good posture when you sit at a desk all day I remember!

  9. There is so much good advice! I wish I wasn’t as sluggish too.. it really makes you look and feel terrible! How long did it take before you started to notice your posture becoming easier to hold up without it being painful?

    • I would say it took almost the entire month! The muscles in my back were so weak. It’s funny now though because my upper back is actually toned for the first time in my life, which I think is due in part to my better posture!

  10. I’m in the process of trying to find a good YTT somewhere in India and debating if I really have the balls to go through with it. I love reading these posts about it. Its definitely intimidating but it seems like you got a lot out of the crazy experience which is encouraging… is it bad that the idea of going a month without coffee is really intimidating to me? lol

    • Haha you actually don’t have to go a month without coffee, I just wanted to to test my will power! And I’d also recommend looking into YTT in Thailand, Costa Rica or Bali- while my experience in India was incredible, it would’ve been nice to do it in a beautiful, beachy place!

  11. Ahh such a great post! I feel like I would have similar discoveries as you. I’m way too hard on myself and insecure, and I would probably spend have the meditation time dreaming about good beer. Oops. But you’re right, flawed people are way more interesting and life is all about striving to improve, not to be perfect. xx

    • Couldn’t agree more. The month in India really did point out to me that I don’t want to be perfect, I want to be moderate and self-controlled, but still enjoy life’s pleasures. I will never give up carbs, butter and/or beer!

  12. Interesting experience, and I definitely agree about self deprecation and self consciousness holding you back on progress – I very much relate to that. Sorry to hear that vegetarianism didn’t go well for you also. It’s really important to be prepared for the switch to vegetarianism and replace meat with the correct foods to keep your body feeling good. I always admire vegans…

  13. I feel like you are talking to our entire generation of women and they should all be reading this. This is probably the most relatable thing I’ve read in a long time. Leave perfection to Pinterest, I’ll keep my flawed friends.

  14. Aww, I love this post! That last picture is fantastic. I think these are all good tips to keep in mind for any kind of travel, whether or not it’s spiritually oriented or not. Travel pushes you outside of your comfort zones, and if you’re too focused on the negative, you won’t enjoy any of it.

    – Ava
    beck daily

  15. I love this post so much. The realisations you made and the things you learnt about yourself make me want to be better, do better and be more forgiving of myself. I can relate so much to your feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and needing reassurance – I certainly am guilty of all these things at times too. I just really wanted to say how much I loved this post. It has made me feel really inspired and grateful somehow.

    Carly

    • I’m so glad to hear that, Carly. I think ultimately they all boil down to insecurity, which all of us harbor at least some amount of deep down. But as long as we can learn to manage it, that’s what counts!

  16. I think I could do everything there except the complaining part – what is the fun in a life without a bit of grumbling? Everything else sounds like a worthy challenge, though!

  17. Thanks for the post Ashley. I’ve just started going meat free for a month. Hopefully I will not miss it too much. Will bear in mind any withdrawal symptoms. The yoga interests me so I may give a try. Thanks for the inspiration.

  18. Great post. It’s always nice to detox of certain things in our lives to gain some perspective. Gratitude is a big one for me. I’ve learned that practicing gratitude leads to overall happiness in soo many ways!

  19. Sounds like such a great experience and I am so impressed that you managed to do so much of it for the full month! I definitely need to try some, if not all, of this out myself!

    • I would definitely recommend it! It was also quite a bit easier in India because there wasn’t the temptation in some regards- for example meat and alcohol were both illegal in the state I lived in!

  20. Great post! Sounds like an amazing experience that you have really learnt a lot from. I’ve been (slowly) working on loving my body more and trying to be more internally confident – I also have that reassurance-seeking tendency. It’s a slow process but we will get there :) And the social-media addiction, well, we can’t be perfect can we?!

    • Haha no, we can’t! But yeah certain bad habits just reap absolutely no benefits- like body hate- so I want to get rid of them completely. As for complaining and social media- well, no one’s perfect right?

  21. Sluggish baby hahah I love that. I’m pretty sluggish myself. I would die without caffeine. Love how much you pushed yourself here. It would be pretty hard for me to do all these things for a month! Props to you!

    Gosh I should also work on my posture and self-doubt. I always try and remember, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ and it’s true!

    • I didn’t completely eschew caffeine as I still had my daily dose of chai. Completely getting rid of it would have been INSANE. Also I remind myself of the ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ quote all the time!

  22. How does one “maintain an aura of positivity” without coffee?!?! Major props for giving all of that up and living to tell the tale. It sounds like an incredible experience, challenges and all!

  23. Wow! Marvellos stuff Ashley. You’ve done enormously well and in a way that I can’t hope to achieve LOL!

    I do like your last point though, “I don’t want to be perfect.” It takes a lot of courage and a lot of work to understand who we, as women, are. And it isn’t easy.
    When I was a teenager, I thought I was ugly.
    And where did I get that thought from? Other girls. I don’t have sisters and was quite merrily living in a world of boydom when nobody careed how you looked as long as you could kick a ball about, run, or jump.

    Cue 16-19 and I had the shock of my life when other girls started talking about my hair, no make-up, my clothes, my skin. Woooah! It took university for me to see that I was pretty alright, if not downright gorgeous. And how did I know? Guess!
    Well done babe!

    • I thought I was ugly too! Teenaged girls are the worst. I was ridiculed at school for being fat, even though I was the exact same size I am now- having a womanly body as a 15-year old is really hard. Glad to hear that you realize you’re gorgeous now, I have a lot more self-confidence than I used to too! :)

  24. Having grown up in India I think I have learnt to do a lot of these things out of sheer pressure to be patient with the chaos around and understanding about the problems of a vast and complex country such as this.
    I did leave about 5 years ago and find my patience has worn thinner living in a country of many superficial comforts. A visit home is in order!

    • India is indeed vast and complex- honestly I feel like a bit of a hack writing about it because I feel I barely scratched the surface. Which is why I just try to focus on my personal experience!

  25. I just recently started following your blog Ashley, and this one particularly sang to me in SO many ways! Obviously not in the literal sense, but when you wrote about needing other peoples reassurance, and that gratitude seems to be the arch nemesis of anxiety. Mainly your writing about not wanting to be perfect and not aiming for everything society basically wants you to be, good looks, perfect skin, fashion sense, smarts ect. Majority of what you wrote resonated with me in so many ways and to see it written down, but to also feel it internally made my day so much better. Thank you for sharing your experience and writing, honestly, about the HUMAN you are! <3

    • So glad that it resonated with you, Jenna! Honestly before this experience I felt a lot more pressure to be skinny, drink green juice and have all-around extraordinary discipline. I now see how much I enjoy moderation- i.e. drinking wine, sleeping in. Of course I still want to exercise control but don’t feel the need to be perfect.

  26. I haven’t done a pledge but this post makes me think it’d be a good idea. I complain way too often, when I know I’m too blessed to stress. Also, I can completely relate to being too hard on yourself and needing other’s approval. I’m going to try it for 21 days, not complaining, asking for approval or saying a negative thing about myself let’s see if it works. Thanks for the inspiration!

  27. This was a really great and informative article. A yoga/meditation retreat is something I have always wanted to do, not only because of the benefits but also to see whether I, like you, can get through the challenge and give up all the things we do so much on a day to day basis. Thanks for the article!

  28. Very informative post. And I admire the honesty with which you have expressed your private experiences on a public blog like this. Its inspirational too :) And Its a shame that I haven’t explored my own country ..lol
    You are so damn right about giving up meat altogether. I have tried that when I was 21 for a year and surprisingly it was easier in the beginning only to see my desire to consume meat growing gradually. And as a fellow Cancerian I can totally relate to “caring too much about what others think about me”..
    I hope your positive experiences in India sort of outweighed the negative impressions. And you had an awesome and memorable trip.
    Keep traveling and blogging :)

  29. Ah this is a beautiful post, thank you for sharing! You obviously learned a lot about yourself in the 30 days and I’m sure it will stay with you. I love the idea of not body-hating or complaining for a few weeks, maybe I’ll try it myself! Also, the photo of your instructor meditating on the rock is brilliant :)

  30. I’ve always wanted to experience something like this. I feel like you learn a lot about yourself when you’re forced to reflect. I don’t know how I would do with sitting still though! Great post and I can’t wait to read more. nomoneywilltravel.com

  31. Ashley! I commend you SO MUCH for sticking with this for a full 30 days. I honestly am not sure if I could do it, and maybe that’s my negative talk in my head. (I could do it! Yeah!!!) Either way, I definitely feel like this is something I WANT to do at some point in my life. It seems like such an incredible and life changing experience. Thanks so much for sharing something so personal.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Neysha. While I didn’t follow through with all of my goals overall it was a very interesting experience that taught me a lot about myself. Very recommended!

  32. So what you’re saying is I need to head to India to give up all my vices?! (Wouldn’t that be the dream?) =)

    But I agree with the vegetarian thing; it also goes for me when I’m 100% Paleo or raw: I have NO energy. I could do without meat on a craving level, but then I’m so blah and lackluster and have headaches and…just no.

  33. I adored this piece. It was so friendly and honest (I loved that you admitted you don’t want to go veg and it didn’t make you feel like a purified saint). I’ve also toyed with the idea of going to India for a yoga intensive, and this was really great to read because it probably foreshadows a similar experience for myself (but I’ll miss amber ale and grilled chicken). Way to go for sticking with it! It seems like the experience gave you some really useful introspective feedback.

    • I too love amber ale and grilled chicken :). But I’m glad you enjoyed this post- it was a very personal one so I was glad people reacted positively to it. I’d highly recommend going to India despite the hard parts- I truly think the experience made me a better person.

  34. I am in love with this post!!
    I am going to do my YTT in India in a few months, and am so grateful for finding your blog ahead of time. Thanks for being realistic and honest!

  35. But mood and mental clarity weren t the only benefits I noticed by the final days of my refined-sugar-free diet. Sleep is a critical part of mental health. Not only does it give the conscious mind respite from the day s activities, it helps flush out toxins from the brain . A good night s sleep also helps make us smarter .

  36. Hey! This post is quite old so I hope you’ll still see this comment – did you feel like you “had to be” total yogi to be able to go to this teacher class? Like are you supposed to be able to do headstands and all sorts of advanced yoga or how does that work? :)

    Thanks in advance!

  37. Hey! Seems my comment didnt work I will give it a second try! First of all, great post! I am wondering – did you feel like you have to be a full blown yogi to attend a yoga teacher thing like this? Like do they expect you to be able to do handstands etc. or can you come as an intermediate level or how does it really work? Thanks so much!! //Maria

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