By Ed Staskus
Very few, if any, men or women finish doing down dog pose at the yoga studio, roll up their mats, and that night eat the family dog for dinner. Some might have Buffalo wings, which have nothing to do with buffalos, and someone might even have a buffalo burger, which are actual buffalos made into sandwiches.
Although cats and dogs are out of bounds, many people eat an animal of some kind for dinner, mostly a bird, a pig, or a cow. When they do, it usually looks like something it wasn’t when it was alive. Sometimes it’s invisible, hidden by sauces and batter.
Whether they practice yoga, or not, almost everyone eats animals. In the Western world 97% of everyone eats them, according to Vegetarian Times. In the birthplace of yoga, however, which is India, close to 40% of the population is vegetarian. The remainder, for the most part, eat meat only occasionally, mainly for cultural and partly for economic reasons.
Many people who practice yoga today understand the conservative underpinnings of the practice that forswears eating animals. Most of them, however, sit on the farm fence about it. They don’t want to pick a bone about it.
Old-school yoga masters like K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who made vinyasa what it is, and B. K. S. Iyengar, the man who made alignment what it is, eschewed eating animals.
“A vegetarian diet is the most important practice for yoga,” said Pattabhi Jois. “Meat eating makes you stiff.”
“If animals died to fill my plate, my head and heart would become heavy,” said B. K. S. Iyengar. “Becoming a vegetarian is the way to live in harmony.” He had the sense of what bolt guns sound like.
Some modern yoga masters like Sharon Gannon, the founder of Jivamukti Yoga, believe a strict adherence to not only a vegetarian, but a vegan diet, is a vital part of the practice. She calls it the diet of enlightenment. Ms. Gannon regards today’s flesh food choices as not only harming animals, since they end up being killed, but harming the physical health and spiritual well being of people, too.
She says it endangers and degrades the environment, as well. She might be right on all counts.
Eating animals raises the risk of type 2 diabetes, hardens blood vessels, is directly linked to heart disease, increases the possibility of stroke significantly, and triples the chances of colon cancer.
In short, eating them shortens life spans, theirs and yours.
There’s also the animal cruelty factor, which can be, literally, sickening. Factory farming is “by far the biggest cause of animal suffering in the world” according to Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society.
The factory farming of pigs as it is practiced in the 21st century is as wholesome as toad’s juice. No disrespect to toads is intended.
The meat business is responsible for 85% of all soil erosion in the United States and according to the EPA raising animals for food is the #1 source of water pollution. It takes 2400 gallons of water to make 1 pound of beef. Every vegetarian saves the planet hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year.
The consequences for the climate are also freighted with a dark brass tack, which is that more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal husbandry, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
But, everyone’s got to eat, because everyone’s continued existence depends on food. What’s for chow might be an existential choice for some people, but eat you must.
Killing animals and eating meat have been elements of human evolution since there was human evolution. Meat was part of the diet of our closest ancestors from about 2.5 million years ago. Nobody for those several million years could be a vegan because it isn’t possible to get Vitamin B12 from anything other than meat, milk, eggs, or a supplement.
Like food itself, it is essential to life. B12 protects the nervous system. Mania is one of the nastier end results of a lack of it. Humans became human by eating meat. In other words, it was meat that fueled human brain development. The “meat-eating gene” apoE is what boosted our brains to become what they are today.
That doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily has to eat meat, then or now. There have always been vegetarians, just as there are today. Their brains and bodies have done just fine.
Many athletes are all in on plant-based foods. Hannah Teter, a two-time Olympic snowboard medalist, Bill Pearl, a five-time Mr. Universe body building champion, and dozens-of-times winning tennis star Serena Williams are all vegetarians. Walter “Killer” Kowalski, a former Canadian pro wrestler, was a vegetarian.
Today even vegans like UFC fighter Mac Danzig and Iranian strongman Patrik Baboumian succeed at their sports. In 2013, after hauling a yoke weighing 1210 pounds a distance of more than thirty feet, Mr. Baboumian roared to the crowd, “Vegan power!”
It gives the lie to the myth of animal protein.
Yoga is a growth industry everywhere. It’s been estimated more than a million Britons practice it, 30 million Americans, and as hundreds of millions of waistlines swell in China, it is spreading exponentially there. At the same time that yoga is expanding worldwide, global meat production has more than quadrupled in the past 65 years. More people are eating more animals than ever before.
Even though the rest of the world is trying to catch up, in the United States meat is eaten at three times the global average.
Yoga is made up of 8 parts, often called the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which range from the discipline’s golden rules to breath control and exercise postures to meditation. Non-violence, or ahimsa, is one of the central tenets of the practice. It means non-harming all living things
Living things include animals like birds, pigs, and cows.
At some stage many people who practice yoga think about going vegetarian, or even vegan. They usually have one-or-more reasons for changing their diet. Among them are health, non-violence, and karma.
Since most people benefit by eating less meat, and since much of today’s yoga is about fighting stress and keeping your body toned, the healthy halo of going flexitarian, or better, dovetails with the practice.
The do-no-harm principle behind going vegetarian is stoked by the inescapable harm done to the animals we eat. We raise them in pens and cages, kill them, and chop them up into pieces for our pots and pans. Since violence is a choice, and since eating animals isn’t necessary to stave off starvation, ahimsa strongly implies vegetarianism.
Sri Swami Satchidananda, the man behind Integral Yoga, believed being vegetarian was imperative to achieving self-realization.
“Because when you eat animal food, you incur the curse of the animals,” he said.
It’s like ending up in a cheesy bad B movie, “Dawn of the Dead,” for example. “They kill for one reason. They kill for food.” The zombies can’t just pull up at the golden arches drive-through because they never have any money.
At the crossroads of yoga and yummy, what he was essentially saying was eating meat is bad karma. It means taking in the fear, pain, and suffering of the animals you are eating. It obviates the benefits of poses, breathwork, and meditation.
“The law of karma guarantees that what we do to others will come back to us,” said Sharon Gannon about eating animals. In other words, beware becoming stew meat yourself one day!
But, the goal of yoga is to change yourself, not specifically your eating habits. Whether it’s turkey or tofu on somebody’s dinner plate is not as a matter of course going to buff up their yoginess. Not eating animals doesn’t make anyone a good person in the same way that walking slow doesn’t necessarily make everyone a patient man or woman.
Besides, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, you don’t have to become a vegetarian to practice yoga fully.
“Nowhere in the Vedas or in the ancient teachings is it said that you must be a strict vegetarian,” said T. K. V. Desikachar. He is, nevertheless, a vegetarian, and his father, Krishnamacharya, modern yoga’s founder, was also a vegetarian.
Eating animals is in our blood, or better yet, our DNA. Other primates are mostly vegan. People have been going carnivorous for a long, long time. We are always eating our way through Noah’s Ark.
However, it’s unlikely any of God’s creatures survived the world of the life-threatening Great Flood with the intention for the bright new future of ultimately ending up on somebody’s plate of hash.
It wouldn’t hurt anyone to give the birds and animals of the world a break by eating either fewer or none of them. In 1940 the average American ate about 80 pounds of meat. Today the average American eats about 170 pounds of meat a year. Our herds would surely appreciate another sunny day of home on the range, not the fluorescent lighting of the supermarket cooler.
And no one, after all, ever said a hot dog a day keeps the doctor away.
A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.