Nonviolence, Hypocrisy & Veganism. ~ By J. Brown

Via on Sep 11, 2011

I have only been in one fight.

It was in the third grade. I don’t recall what the impetus was but it ended up in a war of words between me and another boy on the basketball court. I remember deciding to hit him but when I went to strike my arm went slack. It was as if my body overrode my minds directive and I was incapable of trying to harm him.

The other boy did not have the same issue and I was quickly pinned and squirming to be free. The only black girl in our class, La Tisha, came to my aid and pushed him off of me before he got any punches in. We were friends and no one messed with La Tisha.

I can trace my inclination for yoga back to that day. I learned something important about myself. I am not naturally inclined towards violence. Even as a boy, I recognized that this was not true of everyone. As an adult, it makes sense that I embrace a life philosophy that puts a premium on nonviolence.

The first yama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s is ahimsa, often translated as “non-harming.” Aligning myself with Yoga turned something that I had always seen as a weakness into a strength.

Yet, somewhere along the way, an unconscious loophole developed. While I was incapable of intentionally doing others wrong, I seemed to have no problem doing considerable inadvertent harm to myself. In fairness, I was under the impression that I was working towards enlightenment and did not grasp the full extent to which I was mistreating myself.

I remember a particular occasion when I was teaching one of my trademark power vinyasa classes. I was barking out my well prepared sequence and, instead of my usual attention to everyone’s alignment, I happened to be noticing the facial expressions of the people in my class.

They looked miserable. They were filled with struggle and strain, just doing their best to get through and not enjoying themselves much in the process. There was a distinct lack of joy.

Afterwards, several students came up to thank me and tell me how great the class was. It made me feel uncomfortable. Walking home, I kept thinking:  

“What am I doing?”

Fact is, I was proficient in the practice I was teaching but it was not really helping me feel well. I had a lot of chronic pain that I rarely admitted to, even to myself. I was convinced it meant “opening.” Shortly thereafter, I blew my knee out doing Baddhakonasana with a belt and an assist. For all my diligent studies and abilities, super yogi couldn’t walk.

Around that same time, a friend of mine attended a large yoga event in NYC with a venerable teacher, considered to be a living “master.” She was one of a very small percentage of the 600 participants to have the guru assist her in one of her poses, only to have her hamstring connector popped at his forceful hand. I remember seeing her several days later, she was still in considerable pain.

Experiences like this have often left me feeling horribly disenchanted with the yoga community. The issue of overly forceful assists aside, how can yoga teachers who espouse ahimsa not be held accountable for harm done under their auspices? Adding insult to injury, common in hip yoga circles today is to cite ahimsa as a case for veganism. Basically, Patanjali says that if you want to be a real yogi then you can’t eat animal products.

I have been vegetarian for twenty years. I was vegan for three of them but it left me somewhat anemic. Introducing eggs and cheese into my diet made me feel better. I continue to maintain a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet because that’s what feels right for me, not because I think eating meat is wrong. I do try to eat organic but I don’t know exactly where all the eggs and cheese I eat is coming from, nor do I know the treatment of the animals who provide me this food.

While it would be nice if this were different and modern food production was not so dictated by corporate profits, I still think it strains common sense to suggest that my eating habits constitute violence. Especially, when the assertion comes from teachers who do not take personal responsibility for injuries that readily happen in their classes.

Another way ahimsa can be translated is “loving kindness and compassion.” There is a big difference between simply being nonviolent and actually being kind. I figure, if you can learn to show yourself and others genuine kindness, which most certainly includes not over working and harming your body in practice, and you enjoy eating meat, you’re still gonna be OK with the yoga powers that be.

Photos: teatteucomdo.sytes.net; cafepress.com

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Todayand the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com

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18 Responses to “Nonviolence, Hypocrisy & Veganism. ~ By J. Brown”

  1. ouch says:

    Funny, you just hurt me by needing to describe your rescuer as black (rather than brave, compassionate, strong, loyal, a bully).

    I recognize that as a fact of your story but including it, and not a quality directly linked to her ability to fight, suggests her race is linked directly to toughness…"no one messed with La Tisha".

    I know that wasn't your intention but the oversight is powerful.

    • yogi tobye says:

      Jeez that's really reading things into it! Especially since LaTisha was the only one with the common decency and compassion to stand up for him and kick some butt!

      Most would agree that the world needs compassionate doers like La Tisha and the more that can be done to destroy all common misconceptions of black, colored, afro-american, west-indian people, the better!

      Stop the nonsense…. In portraying a character, especially one in a minority as in this piece, there is need for the writer to put some kind of image in the reader's head…. there is no persecution in it!!!!

    • J. Brown says:

      I only mentioned Latisha’s race as illustrative detail to an actual event in my life. It never occurred to me that the retelling of Latisha pushing the boy off of me in the third grade would be taken as a derogatory characterization of all black people but, frankly, you are not the only person who read it that way. I didn’t see her coming to my aid as an act of violence, so much as friendship.

      I grew up in a very white suburban neighborhood and there were kids who were not altogether welcoming of Latisha. We were friends and she will always stand out in my memory as the person who had my back in the only fight I ever had.

      In the future, I will be more careful about how I refer to race in my writing.

      • ouch says:

        Thanks J.
        I realized that wasn't your intention and that is why I thought to point it out, suggesting other adjectives that would of been more relevant and more helpful to those who didn't know the entire context (like her empathy being tied to her outsider status) .

        I look forward to reading more of your articles and appreciate your response. I hope you feel we had a constructive exchange.

  2. Lori says:

    As far as I know, human beings are the only "animals" on this planet who can consciously choose to love (or not). Consequently, the best way to honor the sacrifices made by other animals so that we might live is to love – to raise that energy we receive from them to its highest level.

    The other way to honor ALL the life sacrifices of the the humans and non-humans required to support oneself from conception to death is to Realize God Perfectly…so you don't have to do this trip again (and make the life-demands on all of those other beings again)! And even if you do not do that, making as much progress as possible is worth the effort, not only for you, but for all the other beings involved.

  3. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  4. Faith says:

    I'm a little confused here. You were talking about yoga and non-violence, and then jumped straight to veganism. There seems to be a gap in how your thought process went from one to the other. In your opinion, how is veganism violent?

    • J. Brown says:

      The connection between yoga and nonviolence and veganism is that many teachers assert the principle of ahimsa when making a case for veganism but don’t seem to be embodying it in their physical practice or assisting techniques.

      I was not equating overly forceful assists as an argument against teachers who preach veganism. I was hoping to use my personal experiences to demonstrate the hypocrisy of people getting hurt in yoga classes that are taught by teachers who propagate dogmatic interpretations of ahimsa as it relates to food choices.

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Hi J. Interest discussion! You mentioned, "I do try to eat organic but I don’t know exactly where all the eggs and cheese I eat is coming from, nor do I know the treatment of the animals who provide me this food." Perhaps finding this out would change your views on eating meat/animals. I always wonder this, but there is an obvious imbalance to the world right now – corporations do have a hefty hand in many questionable tactics AND the quality of life for many — is it our responsibility to per say, peacefully protest these things by not engaging them at all (aka eating any meat) or ignoring them and taking the 'best' available option?

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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    • J. Brown says:

      Hey Tanya- Your point is well taken. I do believe in being conscious about our choices and my wife and I go to great lengths in this regard. I will always buy locally grown organic vegetables before I buy that apple from New Zealand. My wife and I have found a source for our eggs and milk where we feel comfortable about the farming practices employed. I guess my intended point is more to the selective reasoning of how folks apply ahimsa in their lives and, specifically, yoga teachers who are less than concerned about the realities of the individual people attending their class than the treatment of animals world wide. I do appreciate you holding my feet to the fire. Cheers.

  6. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  7. chiara_ghiron says:

    I think you put a little too many eggs (sorry) in one basked, so the piece is weak in the narrative structure. If I read you right, you really wanted to stress poor teaching techniques, so the fight in school and veganism could have been left out and still have powerful narative in the message you want to transmit.
    I am pretty much vegetarian and I know for a fact that my occasional need to eat meat is related to not good enough planning to allow me a completely balanced diet, which is my objective and am trying to pursue better.
    On the matter of veganism, which to be honest I do not think was the main point of the essay, I honestly think that a far more powerful message would be sent if more people lobbied against intensive farming practices, were prepared to pay more for their food and that extra money were spent ensuring good farming practices. Especially on the matter of eggs, I do not think all the eggs hens lay are fertilised? so differently to what could be argued for dairy products I do not think this is a violent behaviour.
    Going off the tangent now, I wonder what the yoga community thinks about abortion? I wonder whether this topic has ever been discussed?

    • chiara_ghiron says:

      and actually thinking more about the article, would not your earlier experience as teacher, and the one of the master who adjusted your friend be more related to ego and false knowledge rather than non violence? Meaning that you and the so-called master assumed that what felt right for you must be right for other people, and most likely neither you nor him actually realised you were adopting a violent or non compassionate behaviour, but you only realised it when you started to observe your students and seeked for true knowledge… what do you think?

  8. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  9. maru says:

    disagree

  10. As I think you are trying to say we don't all do well as vegans, despite following guidelines and taking the necessary supplements. Each one of our bodies is unique and will respond with different needs. Some of us need some form of animal protein and to not afford ourselves that would be be in fact approaching ourselves with violence.

  11. Sitara Bird says:

    Completely 100% agree.

  12. Suri kate says:

    Still… Veganism is not for everyone

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