Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Vegetarianism is tightly bound with yoga and is by many considered to be a crucial part of the yoga practice. The practice in this context is seen as bigger than just what happens on the yoga mat. It is taken far beyond – to kitchens, pantries and cupboards. But what does vegetarianism have to do with yoga?
My first steps
Many years ago, I was receiving meditation lessons from one of my first yoga teachers, a tall bearded yogic monk, originally Australian, whose many years in India left an imprint both on his external appearance, orange temple robes and all, and on his vast knowledge of yoga traditions and philosophy. This kind, soft-spoken man gave me lessons and after receiving one, I went out and practiced and after a while, I would be given a new lesson that I would then integrate with what I had learned previously. This was before I ventured into Ashtanga. I had a soft hatha practice, drenched into lots and lots of meditation and philosophy. So, one day, my lesson with my teacher ended by him saying that I couldn’t proceed further before I stopped eating meat. I don’t remember what I answered to that but it was something along the lines of ”okay, I’ll give it a serious thought”. Inside, on the other hand, I felt offended. I felt offended by him suggesting one aspect of how I was conducting my life was wrong and I suppose that I also felt somewhat hurt. His opinions meant a lot to me and knowing that he obviously not only did not approve of something I was doing but that he actually seemed to have defined it as “not good enough” definitely stung. I kind of decided that I did not need those lessons anyway. And who was he to tell me what to eat or not?
Still, after a while I picked up a book on environmental- and health benefits of vegetarian diet. The book (I don’t remember the title or the author) was a bit on the preachy side but the first seeds of the new, non-carnivorous me were cast into the soil. I slowly started educating myself on how to build up a sound meat free diet. I am not the kind of person who goes cold turkey (no pun intended) easily. Or at least I used to not be. I had to learn how to cook proper food. Living on random boiled veggies wouldn´t work for me. And so I started. I picked up tons of cookbooks and experimented with soy products and other types of meet replacements. Sometimes it worked very well, while other things were more in the yuk – department. I don’t do yuk. I love food.
After a while, I got rather good for a rookie and my diet was almost completely vegetarian. And then I visited my parents. My parents live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a beautiful country with lots of beautifully tasting food. Unfortunately, my parents at that time, as most other people in that region, considered meat the only “real” food. Everything else is garnish. You don’t survive on garnish. They couldn’t get my new “fix”. Me a vegetarian? I am already too thin! I resisted for a while and then I broke completely. I woke up while I was in a restaurant with my close relatives and my brother said something like “Check out the vegetarian!”. The “vegetarian” was stuffing his face with minced meat of some sort, greedily devouring piles of the minced body of some animal. I felt so ashamed.
Short time after that, I came back to Norway, where someone served crabsticks at some meeting. They were disgusting. I think I had some. Then I stopped. I stopped, I went vegetarian and I never turned back. This was many many years ago.
The nature of the natural
I have noticed that people often tend to resort to the argument of “the natural” when we need to explain any kind of nonsense we do. Depending on what we need to explain, we depict the natural as desirable or something we need to distance ourselves from. So, while comparing someone to an animal most often connotes that the person isn’t too pleasant to deal with, we turn the argument around when we argue that something we take for granted needs to be the way it is because it is the “nature’s way”. One of those things is that when we kill animals, cut them up and eat their dead bodies, we do it because it is natural. We are at the top of the food chain. We kill because we can and feed on the lower species. Why then do we view it as repulsive when we who live in the political west hear that in some other cultures, they eat cats and dogs? How is that different from eating a cow or a sheep or an elk? Well, it’s not. It is as (un)natural to cut up a rat or a cat or a puppy and then consume their cooked corpse, as it is to do the same to a lamb or a cow, or a horse or what have you. Of course, we could argue that while it is natural to feed on animals, culture dictates which animal species are acceptable as food in a specific region or a given culture. And as far as being an animal goes, it seems like we are not supposed to act like animals when interacting with other humans while in our interaction with the animal species that our culture views as stove-friendly, we do choose to act like a dominant animal species, at the top of the food chain.
The difference is that a lion, a wolf, a bear etc. cannot decide that he/ she will feed on fruits, vegetables and nuts from this day on. We humans have both possibility and capacity to do so. There is nothing natural about us consuming meat of other animals. It is the question of culture, habit and convenience. In addition, the animals we eat are mostly not carnivores. We don’t eat wolves and tigers. We eat mostly vegetarian species, like cows and sheep. We eat them because we chose to. We chose to because there is a whole industry built around slavery, exploitation and ill-treatment of animals. We breed, genetically modify and slaughter other living beings in order to turn them into food. We cut up forests in order to grow crops to feed billions of animals bound for butcher shops and such. How is this an act of nature? If anything, it as an act against it.
To my great disappointment, I heard a renowned American self-improvement teacher say “Vegetarianism – done that – didn’t work”. He went on to say that he used to follow a “strict vegan diet” and that he got fat because all he ate was rice, pasta, potatoes and bread. Since when did stuffing your face with pasta, rice and dough become a “strict vegan diet”?? And then he said something like: “If you’re a vegetarian listening to this, here’s something you probably haven’t thought about: If we stop eating animals, they still aren’t going to stop eating each other! Those animals are going to die anyway! As are we!”. Oh gee, now, this is a well put and revolutionary argument! So, what does this mean? That we might as well start eating each other? A wolf is physically a carnivor and humans aren’t. And a carnivorous animal can’t just change his or her mind, so that the aforementioned wolf goes and has himself a lentil soup. Humans can.
And again – what about the environment? Apparently, it takes about 8-9 cows per year to feed a regular meat eater. Not because they devour these cows in their entirety, but because when you take all the parts of the killed animal in the account that a meat eater consumes during a year, about 8-9 animals need to be slaughtered to meet that need. It takes acres and acres of land and tons and tons of vegetables, fruit, wheat and what not, to feed one cow. So, when you eat this animal, you also eat all that it has eaten. The costs are grotesque! In comparison, vegetarians come practically for free. Check out Sharon Gannon’s “Yoga & Vegetarianism” for more facts.
And here’s the thing: Anything can make you unwell if you approach it in an uneducated way. Research links (check out “The China Study “and “Skinny Bastard” for the REAL hardcore facts) use of meat and dairy to the explosion of cancer and lifestyle diseases on the planet. And this doesn’t fail: The countries with the highest rates of meat and dairy consumption are also the ones most plagued by cancer, obesity, diseases of the respiratory and coronary systems etc. And sure, there are unhealthy, overweight and underweight vegetarians and vegans, but if you do it properly and intelligently, there’s nothing like vegan/ vegetarian lifestyle to make you healthy, energetic and gorgeous. I have been a super herbivore for most of my adult life and I am not overweight – I’m actually in a great shape – I am healthy and full of energy. So, no need here to eat a carcass or two. NOBODY needs this. Nobody.
A fellow yoga student once said: “All in the world is One, so in that way, you might as well eat a chicken or a cow as you can eat a vegetable!”. Really? Go eat your mother or your granny (or both! Knock yourself out properly!) then, baby. Or at least, eat your cat. No? Why not? Oh.
You either value life or you do not. If you don’t, you should start. If you truly value life, why should it be alright or in any way natural to torture and kill an animal and then consume its dead body? No matter what your stance when it comes to differences between humans and (other) animals, these too are creatures that want to live, that try to escape when they know they are in danger, they too get hungry and thirsty and care for their children. They do not want to end up in your wonton soup. If the are there, the chances are quite slim that they volunteered.
In asana practice, we do all kinds of postures with names inspired by the animal kingdom. There’s dog, cat, cow, snake, locust, crocodile, fish, peacock…. When the ancient yogis and rishis designed these postures, they did so by observing the animals in nature. The postures are there as a chance for all of us yoga students to embody the energy of these animals, to connect and hopefully to raise our level of empathy. On an esoteric level, asana practice too deals with your karmic patterns, stuff that is stuck in your body, your bones, muscle tissue, in your mind and in your energy circuits. Seen from this perspective, when you put the suffering, humiliation, torture and death of another creature into your body – because animal bodies are loaded with energy, as are human bodies, and things happen when you enslave, imprison and kill any being - how can this be good for you? It is not good for you, it is sure not good for whomever you have eaten, it is not good for the planet we live on. If you do yoga, if you read books on yoga, have good and knowledgeable teachers, you go to workshops and belong to a yoga community and you still eat meat, there is no other excuse but ignorance or laziness. You’re allergic to soy? Big deal. You can get your protein in gazillion different ways. If you eat a good selection of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes every day, you will get what you need. You don’t need to shovel in beans every single day.
The phenomenal Jivamukti yoga teacher, Sharon Gannon, writes that the fact that we feed on other animals is a reflection of our slave driver mentality. These animals are born and raised in captivity and the sole purpose of their existence is to be killed and eaten. What if we viewed these animals as nations? If it seems far fetched, well, it shouldn’t be. These are complex beings that – let’s face it – don’t want to die. They die because they get killed. And we do the killing. If not directly, then by buying products that come from the industries that are based on slavery, mutilation and slaughter of other species. We are taught otherwise in our schools and in our society, but the core of the matter is that killing another species for their meat and skin is torture and murder. You want that? No one in their right mind wants that.
And what about the “organic meat” or game, the animals that lead good lives or even live in freedom? Some say it is okay to eat such animals, because they lived well and we also need to “control the population” of this or that animal species. What if we stopped shooting elk? Wouldn’t nature fall out of balance? First of all, where nature is out of balance, it is mostly that way because we pushed it out of balance. Human species has proved ingenious enough to come up with the most creative ideas, when we really want to, so we would surely find a way to keep nature restore balance in nature without needing to kill, if we wanted to. Secondly most hunters do not hunt game because they want to keep or restore balance, but they view it as sport. And what about the “good life in freedom”-thing? Does that mean that it would be more okay to shoot, cook and devour a free, happy human being than a poor one that has lived in captivity most of his or her life? No. It boils down to us arrogantly assuming that animals are things and that we own them. Nowdays, they come packed in nice plastic bags and boxes, all cleaned up, so that we as consumers need not reflect on how that meet got there. The cow or the goat donated it to the supermarket? Perhaps not.
And finally, if you are an ashtangi, or if you practice any type of yoga where you happen to chant a bit, have you ever chanted “Lokha samastha sukhino bhavantu”? In this chant, you wish happiness, prosperity and freedom to all beings out there. Yes, animals too. If you are an ashtangi, you have chanted this in the end of your practice, thereby devoting it to all the beings on Earth (and beyond, who knows?). And then, you go and eat them and dress in their furs? It is not a good feeling being a hypocrite. When we act like this, no matter what, we always know it, on some level. And it will always reflect in your thoughts, in your mind, in your heart, in your body. You can’t be really true to yourself and support killing of others. I know a great, fantastic and globally renowned yoga teacher that eats meat because of allergies to a lot of things vegetarians eat. This teacher says “I am a hunter” and honours the animals getting killed and eaten, their earthly and spiritual roots, their souls. With all due respect (because this is a person I admire greatly), what if somebody slaughtered this teacher’s family or lover and then honoured their souls and thanked them for their meat and skins? Unacceptable. As unacceptable as it is to kill any other creature.
I also heard a global pop star say “I am not vegetarian. I have never been politically correct.” What a pillar of enlightenment this person is. Not. It is not politically correct to be a nazi either. But still most of us wouldn’t want to be one.
To cut the preach fest here, if you are a meat eater and you are contemplating going vegetarian, do it. If you think it is hard, start thinking it is easy. It is easier for you to read up on how to maintain a nutritious and tasty plant based diet than it is for the chicken on your plate to be beheaded and get its legs cut off.
Just stop. Stock up on some good vegan and vegetarian books (check out Sarah Kramer’s “La Dolce Vegan” – it’s easy to follow and the food is perfect) and educate yourself. Start ordering vegetarian food in restaurants. If they don’t have anything vegetarian on their menu, tell the waiter to tell the chef to make something. Demand. It works. It’s always a good test of a restaurant, by the way. If a chef can’t improvise forth a vegetarian dish, he is NOT a real chef. Why would you want to pay for something cooked by a sucky chef?
And remember: What you eat, drink and breathe creates you. Physically, mentally and energetically, it creates you. What you consume turns into your cells. The same way you wouldn’t eat just any crap out of your toilet and let your body turn it into your future cells, why would you want a decomposing and festering body of an animal (yes, fish too), to become a part of you. Because it really does become a part of you. And if you think “it’s not decomposing and festering!”, well do you know how long it stays in your intestines and simmers at body temperature? For days! And days and days! Meat! On 37 degrees Celsius! Whereas non- animal food shoots out of you quite quickly (forgive me any mental images this might have inflicted upon you). You feed your body and it uses what you give it as building blocks for a future you. Don’t turn yourself into a dumpster. Try it for a month. Try it for two. If you stock up on some good books, so that you don’t end up living on bread and rice only, you’re probably completely safe. If you do it this way, chances are, you’ll feel too fabulous to ever turn back..
Check your bookstores for good veggie cookbooks or go online and get them, if that is easier. Don’t get the books that demand you fly to faraway places in order to get the ingredients you need. Unless it is easy for you to go get a rare spice on a faraway mountain. In that case, be my guest. There are a lot of great books with simple and phenomenal recepies that you can make in a dash. When I travel, I always carry with me “Vegan A-Go_Go”, a book for vegetarians on the road that enables me to prepare super easy nutritious vegan food no matter where you I am.
So, don’t get stupid. Go veg! ☺