Ahimsa on and off the Plate
Evin Bodell often brings Napoleon, her Australian sheep dog, to her West Side yoga studio in Lakewood, Ohio. Napoleon is a kind of shaggy greeter, sniffing everyone up and down as they step out of their shoes in the lobby. Whenever the door to the studio is left open, the dog snoozes on the threshold during asana class exercises, a reminder of how good life can be.
Before one class, as I sat in the waiting room on a sofa and roughhoused with the dog, scratching his stomach as he rolled over, I asked Ms. Bodell, a self-professed omnivore, if she had ever considered killing, barbecuing and eating Napoleon.
She said, “No,” in more ways than one.
When I asked her what the difference was between her dog and any of the other animals she ate, she said, “The dog was her pet and everything else wasn’t.”
According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, more than 95 percent of all Americans 18 years-and-older eat animals. On average, every American eats 200 pounds of meat a year, most of it cows, pigs and birds, and only very rarely dogs.
In the United States we manufacture, slaughter and eat nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total. The world’s production of meat in 1961 was 71 million tons. Today it is estimated to be more than 284 million tons.
We are eating more animals than ever in human history.
We became animal-eaters at the dawn of the genus Homo, around 2.5 million years ago.
Paleolithic or Stone Age man lived as a hunter-gatherer eating food based on high-protein meat, fruits and vegetables. Studies of the collagen in Stone Age humans living in England 13,000 years ago show that their diet, in terms of protein content and quality, was the same as the diet of wolves.
“Carbohydrates derived from cereal grains were not part of the human evolutionary experience,” says Loren Cordain, a professor in the Department at Health at Colorado State University.
Approximately 10,000 years ago, people in several parts of the world, most notably in Mesopotamia, independently discovered how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Over time our food staples gradually evolved, becoming beans, cereals, dairy, some meat and salt, and remained so until the Industrial Revolution.
From the mid-19th century to the present, mechanized food processing and intensive livestock farming has led to the broader distribution of refined foodstuffs and fatty meat. In the past 60 years the availability of factory farm animals for food has expanded exponentially.
There are many reasons why we eat meat. One reason is we have mastery over the earth, as most religions and governments preach. Many people believe animals are there for us to eat. In other words, if God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?
The Genesis chapter of the Bible states, “Man shall have dominion over the animals.”
But, does that necessarily mean we are free to imprison, kill and eat animals, or might it mean we should take care of them?
The Qur’an forbids eating pigs, but most other animals are fair game. The Qur’an also mandates animals being slaughtered for food must be alive at the time of their killing and the name of Allah be invoked at their deaths. It’s ironic Muhammad died while eating lamb.
Many yogis perceive eating animals as being essential for their health.
“In the past I experimented with vegetarianism and found I felt cleaner and less aggressive,” says Randal Williams, a yoga teacher and restaurateur in Lenox, Massachusetts. “But, on the other hand, I felt ungrounded and light-headed. I went back to eating meat and it was almost as if my cells were happier for having meat available.”
Meat is considered one of the food groups in the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid and is often eaten for its nutrients. Those nutrients include zinc, iron, selenium, vitamins B6 and B12 and especially the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. When I asked Kristen Zarzycki, a powerful flow teacher at Inner Bliss Yoga in Rocky River, Ohio, why she ate animals, she said, “I need the protein.”
But, does anyone really need to eat animals to get the protein required for practicing demanding yoga, even yoga as demanding as powerful flow?
Maybe not, since many elite athletes are vegetarians, such as four-time World Champion Ironman triathlete Dave Scott; four-time Mr. Universe body builder Bill Pearl; nine-time Olympic Gold winner Carl Lewis; and nine-time NFL Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The amount of protein we consume is also questionable.
“The average American consumes more than twice the amount of protein that is the absurdly oversized U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance,” says Jay Weinstein in his book The Ethical Gourmet.
The essential amino acids, or protein, not synthesized by the body must be gotten from food. Meat can be a tasty and convenient form of that protein, but those same amino acids can easily be gotten from grains and legumes. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has called for a new Four Food Groups that does not include meat, saying, “Two of the four [old] food groups, meats and dairy products, are clearly not necessary for health.”
It is rare that anyone has to eat animals for any nutritional reason.
In fact, eating animals for protein can be dangerous. A study in the late 1980s of 88,000 nurses found that those who ate red meat were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop colon cancer than near-vegetarians. Walter Willet, the director of the study and a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said, “The optimum amount of red meat you should eat is zero.”
More than 20 years of research at the Loma Linda University in California has revealed that men who eat animals are three times more likely to suffer from prostate cancer than vegetarians.
Some people say they eat animals because our culture accepts it and they were raised on meat. “If your grandmother is making a wonderful meat dish that you have loved since you were a child, is it yoga to push it away?” asks Mary Taylor, a Boulder, Colorado teacher and one-time student of Julia Child.
That is not necessarily the best of reasons, given that our culture forced African Americans to work for free less than three generations ago, denied women property and voting rights fewer than two generations ago and has been imposing its foreign policy by way of nuclear threats and armed conflict for the past generation.
What if our culture accepted cannibalism as proper and fitting?
Many people simply like the way meat tastes. They enjoy eating animals because they are delicious. “I love meat because I love the taste,” says Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio-area. “Give me a great steak on the grill in the summer and all is right with my world.”
Cookbooks are rife with recipes for beef, pork, fowl and lamb. Some people, like the famous chef and author Anthony Bourdain, cannot do without eating animals. “To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage and organ meat is a life not worth living,” he says.
What about satisfying our other senses, such as hearing and seeing? What if someone enjoyed listening to pigs squeal in pain? Would it be okay for them to stick switchblades into pigs to hear them cry out?
Is it okay to crowd cows into feedlots that resemble concentration camps where they spend a month-or-so shin deep in their own excrement being fattened up for the dinner table? Would the same practice be acceptable if someone just liked looking at cows stuck in shit all day long?
What harm can there be in eating a double cheeseburger?
As it happens, plenty of harm happens. There is a daunting amount of damage done to our environment in the process of the energy-intensive raising of livestock. Not to mention the physiological damage, bordering on cruelty, done to animals during their brief lives, and ultimately the killing, dismemberment and packaging of the animal.
James Lovestock, the British scientist best known for his Gaia Hypothesis, has estimated, “If we gave up eating beef we would have roughly 20 to 30 times more land for food than we have now.”
“When you look at environmental problems in the United States,“ says Gordon Eschel, an environmentalist and geophysicist at Bard College, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production.”
The amount of waste produced by the animals we raise for food is of biblical proportions, roughly 130 times the waste of the entire population of the United States, according to a 1997 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture. The hog farms in North Carolina alone generate more fecal matter than all the people in New York and California. None of this waste is treated and vast amounts of manure pollute rivers, lakes and groundwater nationwide. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that almost 30 thousand miles of American waterways are dead or close to dead due to this pollution.
In 2006 the United Nations issued a report saying livestock production caused more damage to the environment than all the cars, trucks, trains and planes in the world combined. “I do not eat meat,“ says Rafael Sarango of the Yoga Center in Houston, Texas, “because eating animal products is not good for the environment, which is the greenest act a person can choose.”
Most of the animals we eat are grown in what is known in the meat business as animal feeding operations. These are factories making the most meat at the lowest cost. To achieve economies of scale, chickens are crammed by the tens of thousands into enormous windowless sheds where they live their genetically modified 40 days in clouds of ammonia created by the accumulated waste of generations of them. Some corporate chicken factories are filled with up to a million birds in cages, a cornucopia of drugs mixed daily into their feed.
Americans take three million pounds of antibiotics yearly by prescription. The animals we eat are fed approximately 28 million pounds of antibiotics every year to keep them alive in their Augean stables. Intensive piggeries, often producing hundreds of thousands of swine for slaughter a year, confine their animals in sunless steel buildings in close quarters where the air is so poisonous the animals are routinely sprayed with insecticides. Despite the antibiotics fed to our animals they are still often contaminated.
“The meat we buy is grossly contaminated with both coliform bacteria and salmonella,” says Dr. Richard Novick of the Public Health Institute. To make matters worse, the overuse of antibiotics has led to a scourge of drug-resistant infectious diseases the World Health Organization says is a leading threat to human health.
The first yama in the Yoga Sutras is ahimsa, which means non-violence or non-harming. Like the Golden Rule in Christian ethics, ahimsa is one of the principles central to yoga.
“Non-harming is essential to the yogi,” Sharon Gannon says in her book Yoga and Vegetarianism.
“According to the universal law of karma, if you cause harm to others, you will suffer the painful consequences of your actions. The yogi, realizing this, tries to cause the least amount of harm and suffering to others as possible.”
Sharon Gannon includes all breathing beings in her sense of others, and as dopplegangers in the construction of the self.
If ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, slaughtering animals for hamburgers cannot be part of the plan. Killing animals by proxy makes us killers no matter how we cut it.
Many yogis feel ahimsa is something that should be applied to oneself first and foremost.
“If eating meat in moderation works better for the individual to help sustain a well-balanced life, then I think it is important to consume meat,” says David Sunshine of the Dallas Yoga Center.
Yogis are not selfish, in principle at least, but putting themselves at the front of the line and justifying it as a matter of balance makes them selfish in practice. We are all born into a Hobbesian world, but it is an interconnected world, and yoga is one of the ways of realizing that complexity and learning to be less, not more, selfish.
Ahimsa is almost a tenet of yoga. But for many it is a method rather than a mantra. “Ahimsa and all the yamas and niyamas are meant to be guidelines of inquiry and empowerment, not about dogma or morality,” says Danny Arguetty, a yoga teacher at Kripalu, as well as a nutrition and health counselor.
This flexible approach stresses yoga’s structure of flow on and off the mat as opposed to any set of commandments. “The yama of ahimsa is not for cementing a fixed morality,” says Randal Williams. “I would offer this inquiry, is it an act of harming to dictate diet to someone else or for someone else to dictate to you what you should eat?”
Nevertheless, whether ahimsa was commanded or created, whether old school or redefined in relativist terms, it is a simple proposition espousing avoidance of harm to living creatures. To spin the concept is to split hairs.
Wrestling with their appetites, many argue that harm is done to the natural world no matter what we eat. Underpaid and exploited migrant workers harvest our fruits. Corporations grow grains and vegetables in one place and transport them far distances, bankrupting local farmers with their economies of scale and needlessly consuming fossil fuels. Even the sophism that plants feel and suffer is invoked.
At the other end of the spectrum, Steve Ross in his book Happy Yoga insists that when grocery-shopping conscientious yogis should ask, “Are the farmers full of gratitude and love, and do they enjoy growing food, or are they angry and filled with hate for their job and all vegetables?”
These are naïve points-of-view, warping ahimsa as a prescription not to harm other living beings into a merry-go-round of what-ifs and one-upmanship.
Some yogis have made non-violence towards animals a core mandate of their yoga. Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois said, “The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet.”
Not everyone agrees. “I get angry, yes, actually, absolutely indignant, when I see students being frowned upon by some self-righteous teacher. There is a strong ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the yoga community that is keeping students, and even many teachers, locked firmly inside the meat-eating closet,” says Sadie Nardini, the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga. She reasons it would be harmful to the health of many yogis to not eat meat, violating ahimsa at its most primal level.
“People and animals alike would be far better served if we chose from more carefully regulated, caring and healthful sources,” she says, addressing the factory farm meat industry.
That is like being a vegetarian between meals.
In 1780 the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked, in his Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, “The question is not, Can they [animals] reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
The answer to Bentham’s question is hiding in the light, not in the darkness of today’s pigpens. Everyone knows animals suffer when we force them to live in squalor, genetically modify them, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cheap corn laced with antibiotics and hormones, kill them with bolt guns and finally eat their flesh after their suffering is over.
Everyone knows, which is why so many people say they don’t want to know when asked if they’re aware of how the loin of pork on their plate got there.
If modern feedlots and slaughterhouses had glass walls instead of barbed wire walls it is likely only the heartless would eat animals.
“I am a vegetarian because if I can’t kill it myself, why let someone else do it for me,” says Teresa Taylor of Yoga Quest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “People continue to eat meat because they are distanced from the suffering and killing of the animal they are eating. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Many people do not want to inquire into the killing of the animals they eat because they perceive the cruelty built into our factory farms, but do not want to internalize how deliberate and unrelenting it is.
“I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience,” Albert Einstein said before becoming a vegetarian late in life.
Yogis sometimes say that anything other than people doesn’t matter as much as we do. They say what matters is how aware and compassionate we are with others and ourselves. What we eat or don’t eat is beside the point.
But, what we do when we buy veal cutlets for our dinner tables may be more to the point than all the yogic love, reverence and respect in the world.
“Whether someone realizes it or not, if they participate in eating meat they are contributing to and encouraging violence. Not ahimsa by any stretch of the imagination, “ says Carrie Klaus, a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky.
Ahimsa is a personal practice, and everyone has to make his or her own decisions. Those decisions involve more than just thinking outside the bun, such as eating grass-fed, free-range cows and pigs raised on local farms.
“In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle,” says Jonathan Safran Froer in his book Eating Animals.
Is ahimsa a cornerstone of yoga or just a concept on the menu? Does it benefit ahimsa to be thankful to the dead animals we eat? Are the yogic precepts of restraint really served by having tenderloin for dinner?
“I do not eat red meat, so that is a start,” says Kristen Zarzycki. “It breaks my heart to know what happens.”
Maybe it’s not that yogis need to change what they think about eating meat, but rather rethink what they consider food.
We have transformed animals into commodities and main courses, and forgotten they are sentient, breathing beings much like us. Many yogis eat animals with compassion and awareness of what they are doing.
“On the rare occasion when I do indulge in animal food, I do so with great respect and meditation on the sacrifice of the animal,” says Jerry Anathan of Yoga East in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
It is laudable to be grateful and compassionate for the sacrifice of the cow when sitting down to a steak dinner, but does it speak to the spirit of ahimsa? Even though we have eaten meat for a hundred millenniums, perhaps it is time to lose our memory of eating animals and make a new paradigm for ourselves.
We don’t live or think like wolves anymore. Why should we eat like them?
“The food we eat is a profound way in which we connect with the world. Even if you never unroll a mat, you will lift a fork,” says Melissa Van Orman of Tranquil Space Yoga in Washington, D. C.
Eating animals is an instinct. Not eating them is a decision yogis make or don’t make very time they sit down at the dining room table, just like every other decision they make, from practicing asanas to being nice to their dogs.
“From what I have observed many of the yogis I have met are meat eaters,” says Danny Arguetty.
But, yogis and yoginis don’t eat their pets. More than 35 million cows, a 115 million pigs and some nine billion birds are killed annually in the United States to be made into fodder for our butcher shops and supermarkets.
We all have to eat, but maybe we shouldn’t take part in the killing and eating of animals anymore than necessary, if only in the interest of restraining ourselves from causing unnecessary harm in this life and to all lives, both ours and others.
Edward Staskus lives in Lakewood, Ohio with his wife, Vanessa, practices yoga and subscribes to Buddhism.
Editor: Sara McKeown