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Derek Beres Headshot

The Yoga of Eating Animals

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While the mantelpiece of her NY Times article "When Chocolate and Chakras Collide" focused on the new-ish phenomenon of culinary sampling straight off the yoga mat, the heart of Julia Moskin's piece resided in the ongoing argument of whether or not yogis are practicing yoga if they happen to be eating animals. The contention: ahimsa, one of the ten precepts (restraints and observances) a yogi undertakes. The argument: as wide and varying as the true intentions of Jesus Christ.

In another words, it's a mess.

Much less than theologically inclined peers in America, those who have turned to Eastern thought -- whether in full or in part, complete devotion or occasional sampling -- have accomplished much the same idealism: my telling/hearing of this philosophy is the right(eous) one. That's what happens when a creature still wired for tribalism moves into the global village.

Most disconcerting about the argument is the invoking of a golden era, an Edenic never-world, something familiar to the religious; the latest National Geographic cover story features fundamentalist (read: polygamous) Mormons claiming this life to be a mere pop quiz before the post-life real life. That forever-ago era to yogis is marked as 5,000 years ago, a consensus popular in the common imagination with no factual evidence. The translation reads that ahimsa, or non-harming, implied vegetarianism, leading to the widespread diet famous in India.

Problem is, crowd control and not spiritual foresight caused a large number of Indians to green their cuisine. The spiritual "reason" came after, something well known to followers of Lent. Brahmans and priests continued to eat meat for centuries after the lay population upturned noses, both for sacrificial reasons and probably more carnivorous ones. Only after Muslim invasion threatened the country's stock did the high caste feed their foes the excuse they had perfected for their neighbors.

The danger of a religious/spiritual path happens when adherents are reading scriptures without flipping through history books. Texts that survive millennia are not created in a vacuum. To know the cultural circumstances that informed such seekers is as important as whatever revelations they experienced. Regardless, when modern yoga teachers invoke "ancient" texts and then cite contemporary changes to accommodate their own point of view, something is amiss. Evolve, yes; be lazy, not quite. As teachers of anything, what matters most is what you do, not what you say. If those two things don't gel, conflict reigns. Like Mos Def said, "Don't talk about it, be about it."

Understanding the cultural conditions that created the teachings we put into practice today is an integral part of the discipline. And yoga is just that: something we practice, not something immediately perfected. We cannot, as Richard Dawkins noted regarding the religious, use our last name as a religious affiliation without practicing the precepts. Yogis have certain ethics to abide by. If you are adding yoga into a pre-existing spirituality, great, but you should recognize what the practice entails.

So yes, I agree with teachers who claim that ahimsa does not necessarily entail vegetarianism. Vegan fanatics frighten me; fundamentalists of every stripe miss some essential balance. I've never responded well to teachers that demand anything; an invitation suffices. Self-observations are the most relevant, not second hand smoke. I've traveled to enough countries to recognize that meat is an indispensable ingredient to many cultures. I hope I've evolved enough to realize my way is not the only one.

Thing is, I also recognize that there is a lineage of tried and tested paths forged by men and woman who cared about the planet and its inhabitants. These journeys started with a looking out into the world and assessing their revelations against what was going on around them. To live in America today, with its agricultural monoculture wreaking havoc on our digestive systems and fueling our soaring health care bills, with the corporate world's flagrant disregard for animals and their blaring trumpet of dollars over disease, it is impossible to ignore that something is severely and unforgivably wrong.

If yoga teachers fail to recognize the damage being done around them -- and worse, claim that "real" yogic knowledge forgives such travesties -- then we are losing an essential community of voices who have to help reverse this agricultural monoculture. (Rather than spouting off statistics, there are plenty of resources available, from the book that inspired the title of this post, Eating Animals, to the dozens of meticulously researched books covering a wide range of topics from Marion Nestle's food labeling to Peter Pringle's carefully researched corporate muckraking.)

Our spending dollar is part of our power, and in situations like this, growing pains live up to their name. As one teacher of mine always says, every posture in an asana class should be at least somewhat uncomfortable, or else we never grow. By mimicking the motions we only fool ourselves. No progress without sacrifice.

Avidya is the Sanskrit word for nescience -- not only ignorance, but a completely misinterpretation of reality. Without irony -- as these linguists realized that every cure lies close to the malady -- vidya means knowledge. Turning a blind eye to the state of American livestock and our incessant meat cravings that inspire other countries to desire the same are not helping anyone. This cannot be the model any teacher aspires to: promoting your students' laziness because you refuse the work yourself.

By now it's pretty well known that the American meat industry is the most damaging catalyst instigating global warming, as well as hijacking our health care system and ruining our land. At this point, the topic has to mean more to us than simply sating our bellies. If teachers in this community do not speak up, then the practice is truly degraded to what one NY Times commentator claimed: "just stretching."

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