A synopsis of Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Path to Greater Health and Happiness by Sharon Gannon, adapted from an essay I wrote for the 2011 Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training.
Sharon Gannon’s book Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Path to Greater Health and Happiness is a look at the connections between the title’s two practices and how they benefit the individual yogi as as well as the human species. It deals with an issue that most western books on yoga seem to ignore or gloss over, that of vegetarianism as a necessary part of yoga practice. It also delves into vegetarianism from a spiritual and yogic perspective that is lacking in most books on vegetarianism and animal rights.
The book is organized around the yamas (restraints) that Patanjali laid out in the Yoga Sutras. The first yama is Ahimsa - the non-harming of other beings. People who subscribe to yogic and other eastern philosophies often misconstrue this restraint to be only applicable towards other humans. This is a moral laziness that helps those who enjoy the taste of flesh continue on in their ways without conscious guilt. Some yoga teachers apparently go as far as to say it is a directive only towards not harming one’s own body. Sharon points out that if that was the case Patanjali would have listed ahimsa with the niyamas, which all refer to “observances one should maintain in regards to oneself.” The yamas all deal with our interactions with others.
Ahimsa is the first yama and the other four seem to be refinements of it. The second is satya, which means ‘truthfullness’. Lying is a way of harming other beings, albeit sometimes not as obviously. The same can be said for the final three yamas; asteya (nonstealing), brahmacharya (respecting sexuality), and aparigraha (greedlessness). To be unskillful in any of the yamas causes other beings to suffer. To cause suffering not only hurts others, it also creates karma that eventually brings harm to oneself. If we instead strive to be compassionate and kind to others, we will bring benefit to them and to ourselves.
Sharon says that “through compassion, you begin to see yourself in other beings.” It could also be said that to put yourself in the place of other beings should bring about compassion. Our culture has tried to suppress this natural instinct of our imaginations through religious and scientific means. In western religions animals are often denied a soul, and Cartesian science has warned us against ‘anthropomorphizing’, or trying to know what an animal of another species might feel. The practice of yoga is an antidote to these false ways of perceiving the universe. Yoga means ‘union’ and moves us towards realizing the oneness of all life. Through the practice of ahimsa we realize our interdependence and begin to create peace and harmony around ourselves.
The second yama, satya, is a very powerful. As the book states, “lying is the foundation of culture.” On the personal level we have created a category of lie that we give a moral loophole, the so-called “white lie”. This is a type of dishonesty that is supposed to spare its subject the sting of the truth, but often leads to further deceits that cause harm. On a cultural level meat eating can be seen as the great white lie. We have created layers of deceit around the way we perceive and treat the animals we consume. It begins with the indoctrination of our children at home and in social settings, and continues on through adulthood. It includes the images of happy cartoon animals offering themselves to us as food, the myths of the nutritional superiority of animal proteins, the violence towards animals imbedded in our language (killing two birds with one stone), and on and on through every level of culture.
As with the personal white lie, cultural dishonesty disguises the harm we do to ourselves. The lie about the health of animal products causes us to suffer preventable diseases. The lie about happy animals offering themselves to us causes us to be disconnected from our food and our violent relationship to other beings. Because the farmers and corporations who provide our food keep the intensive confinement systems that enslave animals hidden from us we do not know the truth. Even when animal activists expose the truth with video documentation people refuse to believe, saying that the examples are extreme and not the norm.
Yoga is a spiritual path that seeks to root out the truth. Just as our bodies need adjusting to be in proper alignment, so do our minds. To eat meat and claim to be on a spiritual path is a great contradiction, an improper practice of satya. As Sharon eloquently states “how can we ourselves hope to be free or happy when our own lives are rooted in depriving others of the very thing we say we value the most in life -- the freedom to pursue happiness?” Lies are a form of self-imprisonment because we are forced to live within their confines, kept from the light of truth that is self-liberation.
The third yama, asteya (nonstealing), is particularly relevant. We steal mother’s milk from cows and goats, eggs from chickens, and the very lives of all food animals. The theft occurs not only at the slaughterhouse, but all through the animal’s lives. We steal their happiness and their freedom, confining them to situations that could only be described as slavery and torture if applied to humans. We practice unskillfully the yama of brahmacharya (respect for sexuality) during this confinement, controlling the reproductive cycles of animals in order to get the most meat, eggs or dairy out of them. We castrate, artificially inseminate, forcibly impregnate, and genetically manipulate the animal’s bodies. This would be called genital mutilation, rape, or worse if done to fellow humans.
The disregard of the final yama, aparigraha, is the reason for all of the above mentioned atrocity. While Patanjali calls for greedlessness, the harm we inflict upon the animals we raise for food is all out of greed. It has been proven scientifically that humans thrive on diets devoid of animal proteins, and therefor it is but for pleasure that we consume them. One of the best quotes in the book is from Shantideva, “Whatever joy there is in this world comes from desiring others to be happy, and whatever suffering there is in this world comes from desiring myself to be happy.” The deeper we look at the havoc wreaked by animal agriculture the more we come to understand that our greed for animal protein is depleting natural resources, toxifying our environment, creating a health crisis, and laying a foundation for continued violence towards one another.
Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Path to Greater Health and Happiness is a wonderful book and should be read by every yogi, animal rights activist, and human being on the planet. It is a truly insightful look into the causes of suffering and the path towards liberation for individuals and for humans as a species. May we all “pull the wool from our eyes”, the meat from our plates, the eggs from our muffins, and the dairy from our glasses. This truly is the path towards yoga and liberation.