“How should the mind that can contemplate God relate to our fellow beings, the other life-forms of the world? What is our human responsibility?” I revisited these words a few evenings ago as I thumbed through Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope. I hadn't sat with this book in years, and opening its pages made me instantly nostalgic, and particularly mindful of a well-crafted practical joke my sister once fooled me with: When she gave me the text, she wrote, "To Kathryn; From Jane Goodall" on the inner cover. Needless to say, she got me good.
I recognize just how built into the framework of yoga the question of conscious relationship really is.
I've always been an animal lover with an eye for adventure, and although I've rarely called the unseen “God,” Goodall's spiritual reflections resonate with me—especially as they so often pertain to animal life. Now, as my twenty-something self revisits her heartfelt contemplation, I recognize just how built into the framework of yoga the question of conscious relationship really is. Particularly when it comes to ahimsa (non-violence)—a practical approach to kindness, a concept claimed to be the foundation of any fruitful yoga practice, and the yogic task to reduce the suffering of all beings.
Everyone's Practice of Ahimsa Is Imperfect
It's not exactly original to tie ahimsa, yoga, and veganism together in article format (that's a small part of what I am about to do here. Full disclosure: I practice ahimsa, in part, by being vegan). In fact, often there's a lot of controversy surrounding the subject. Google "ahimsa," "veganism," and "yoga" together, and you'll likely see what I am talking about. And while it's easy to get caught up in the "yogier-than-thou" mentality (for vegans and non-vegans alike), what if instead of concerning ourselves with whose diet is most "yogic," each of us sincerely looked for ways to practice kindness and non-harming in our own lives? For me, when I started to examine how I could practice ahimsa in my life, veganism made sense. While everyone might not come to the same conclusion, when it comes to extending more kindness toward our fellow creatures, there are ways that we can all get involved—particularly when it comes to being conscious about what we purchase and eat.
“We have the power to choose what goes on our plate three times a day," says Jivamukti yoga teacher and vegan Jessica Sticker. "By taking action at mealtime we can all incorporate non-violence into our daily lives, and everyone can engage on whatever level that they are willing to. A good place to start is just to learn, learn, learn....watch the movies, read the books, do research online. Inevitably, that will lead you to action."
My Journey Toward Veganism
My own call to action began rather mysteriously. A yoga teacher of mine once described his journey toward a plant-based diet as something prompted by an "inner voice," and this was also the case for me. The voice arrived 11 years ago as I was standing in line at a local grocery store, ready to order my then favorite meat-laden sandwich (a hero panini). Though the environment was benign, and the surroundings quite friendly, a collective sensation of pain began to wash over me. Though I'd never really associated my food with living, feeling animals before, I felt that the pain I was experiencing had something to do with the meat I was about to consume.
From there, I began my research. I learned about factory farms for the first time; that many animals are hidden away from our view and subjected to physical tortures considered standard industry practices (such as tail docking, egg industry de-beaking, and the extreme confinement of gestation crates). And as the shadow side of my food emerged, the understanding gradually stretched the contours of my human-centric world toward inclusiveness. Later, when I found yoga (and developed a yoga practice), I realized that this had been my introduction to ahimsa. It was when I realized that I could, by way of compassionate action, reduce suffering. In this case, the action was eliminating meat from my diet.
The Yogic Understanding of Animal Life
While few, if any, of us could claim an "ideal" yoga practice (we are all human, and we're all just doing the best we can), there is a yogic-ideal concerning animal life. I think exploring the concept is an important preface for a conversation on animal welfare, at least insofar as yoga practitioners are concerned. Perhaps the most prevalent concept which comes to mind is that of the sacred cow. In a 1997 issue of Yoga International, David Frawley explains the symbolism in his article, "Udderly Delightful: A Fresh Look at Dairy Products." He explains that the sacredness arose from the reverence people felt toward the cows' generous milk production. That reverence was demonstrated through proper care and respect for the animal—and ultimately, caring for cows in this way was thought to help humans cultivate positive qualities such as wisdom and kindness.
"In India the cow is allowed to give its milk to its calf first. Only the leftover milk, which is often considerable, is taken by humans. If the calf is taken away from its mother, her milk loses much of its nourishing quality," writes Frawley. "The dairy industry removes calves from their mothers and slaughters them. We kill the animal’s child and then drink its milk. How would a human mother feel under such circumstances?"
Animal Welfare: A Doorway into Issues of Inequality
Questions like this posed by Frawley (the "How would I feel?" kind of questions) are really where the work of ahimsa begins. Sharon Gannon often states that we can have anything in life, but only if we offer it to another first. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that many of the animal advocates I have spoken with have expressed that it was through an inkling of inter-connectedness that they were driven toward animal welfare causes. Jasmin Singer, the cofounder of Our Hen House (an award-winning animal rights indie-media outlet) being one of them: "I was an AIDS-awareness activist then, and when a vegan friend of mine showed me a documentary about animal agriculture, I felt I was being hypocritical by speaking up for one oppressed group, but continuing to oppress another by way of what (and whom) I consumed."
Sharon Gannon often states that we can have anything in life, but only if we offer it to another first.
While I can't claim to have been an advocate for any particular cause when I initially became vegetarian, exploring animal-welfare issues has opened me up to a deeper understanding of humanity; an understanding that we all—all beings—deserve freedom. Something that Frawley refers to in Yoga and Herbs as a kind of shared humanity: “It is only when we come to look upon all things as human that we are capable of a truly humane existence."
But in order to see every being as human, we have to acknowledge them fully. Though acknowledging animals in the full scope of their reality is inevitability a painful process.
Though I became a (lacto-ovo) vegetarian virtually overnight, for many years I ignored the fact that I was still contributing to animal slaughter by consuming animal products (not only to the slaughter of dairy calves, but also to the egg industries' shredding of male chicks). Contemporary egg and dairy products are so removed from the consumers, if I didn't pry into the matter, I could easily overlook the slaughter networks behind them. And because "everyone" eats eggs and dairy (I thought) it must be natural, it must be necessary. But gradually, the internal paradox became louder, and clearer. I could no longer justify responding to the welfare of my pet companions (my dogs and cats), and continue to ignore the welfare of others (particularly cows and chickens).
Setting my intention to not only go vegan, but remain vegan, was ultimately the result of watching the documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine. The subject of the film is animal photographer and founder of We Animals, Jo-Anne McArthur.
“I call myself a war photographer, not to bring attention to me, but to bring attention to the war on animals," she says. "It makes people stop and think. What, a war? On animals? How? Why? I’m on the front lines, documenting, but anyone looking at my work and the work of so many others…they are bearing witness too, and it’s incredibly painful."
When I asked her how she remains so one-pointed, her response was poignant and clear: “I’m motivated because I’ve made a commitment to the animals I’ve met. I live with the knowledge that there’s a great emergency for them. They all remind me that we owe them so much. All of my work is about getting us to look and to not turn away.”
But what does this have to do with yoga? "Yoga is about finding the cause, seeking the cause, and finding responsibility," says Gannon. "[People] feel that they have excuses, 'Well I have always done this, if I stop eating meat what difference would it make to the whole scheme of things?' What you do makes all the difference to your reality." She continues, "If I don't like a present situation, I have to acknowledge that I somehow contributed to that. So if I want to change it, I can."
By digging deeper into the source of my yogurt, my cheese (no matter how tasty it may have been to me), I am more aware that when I consume this food thoughtlessly, I contribute to unseen, unheard, animal deaths (I was startled to learn, for example, that globally, 2.1 billion farm animals are slaughtered each week). But ignoring the factory farm industry, and the suffering therein, won't make the issue magically disappear.
Awareness Toward Action
Ghandi once said, "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." It's a thought I often refer to when I contemplate how to bridge my yoga practice with social issues.
"Intentional acts of service, compassion, and justice are essential components of a practice of ahimsa," says Justin Van Kleeck, co-founder of Triangle Chance for All and The Microsanctuary Movement. "As someone who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation for many years, as well as yoga, I feel very strongly that our practice is most important when it is actualized through our ways of living in the world."
Van Kleeck and his wife Rosemary consider much of their work with The Microsanctuary Movement, and the rescue networks they've created for vegan outreach, as a form of karma yoga. Their Facebook group, Vegans with Chickens, currently works as a hub for adoption, community, and animal-welfare education.
While adopting animals is quite a commitment that not all of us are able or willing to do, smaller life choices are accessible for so many of us: "Small steps often build momentum that leads to big changes over time," encourages Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary. "Participate in Meatless Mondays and eat vegetarian one day a week, or eat one vegan meal each day. Start replacing animal products with plant- based 'meats,' 'milks,' and 'eggs.' There are more options now than ever."
Animals Make Us Human
Evidence suggests that if we were to consume less animals products (that includes wearing as well as eating), the effects would pay it forward. "It could come full circle," states Stickler. "If you want to look at ahimsa as 'don't harm yourself' then look even more deeply into the relationship between raising animals for food and the environment."
"Once you stop exploiting someone, it becomes so much easier to see them for who they really are."
Not to mention, as Singer suggests, we would no longer feel conflicted when we look into the (often cruel) realities of animal production processes: "People will no longer need to look away when they see a transport truck on the highway, and, we think, people will start opening their hearts to all of the amazing life-forms with whom we share this planet. Because once you stop exploiting someone, it becomes so much easier to see them for who they really are."
And personally? When I take their plight off of my plate, I free myself up to fully connect with each and every animal—not as product, but as a fellow being. The inner voice persists. It tells me that their suffering is my own, and that I cannot be fully human (or fully spiritual) when I ignore it. I thank them, each day, for teaching me about the depths of compassion—about the heart of consciousness itself.
If this in any way resonated with you, please share this article with your friends and family, and raise your voice for animals.
Additional Resources/How to Get Involved:
Jane's Statement on Intensive Farming Video
Read the full interview with Justin Van Kleeck
Our Hen House (Donations)
Farm Sanctuary (Donations)
Triangle Change for All (Donations)
A Well-Fed World
Grow Where You Are
Food Empowerment Project
In Line Farm
The Microsanctuary Movement