By Ed Staskus
Evin Bodell often brings Napoleon, her Australian sheep dog, to her West Side Yoga studio in Lakewood, Ohio, where he 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 yoga room is left open the dog snoozes on the threshold during the asana classes. He is an ever-present reminder of how good life can be, food and water in the lobby behind him and friends in front.
After 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 Evin, a longtime yoga teacher and omnivore, if she had ever considered killing, barbequing, 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 Napoleon was her pet and everything else wasn’t.
According to a 2012 Gallup Poll more than 95% of all Americans 18 years-and-older eat animals. That includes most people who practice and teach yoga. On average Americans eat almost 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. “Early Homo had teeth adapted to tough food. The obvious candidate is meat,” said anthropologist Richard Wrangtan of Harvard University. 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,” said 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. Our food staples gradually evolved to become 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 a broader distribution of refined foodstuffs and fatty meat. In the past sixty 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 eat animals, or might it mean we should take care of them? The Koran forbids eating pigs, but most other animals are fair game. It also insists animals being slaughtered for food must be alive and the name of Allah be invoked at their deaths.
It is ironic mordant double-edged that Muhammad died after eating poisoned lamb.
Some people practicing yoga see meat as essential for their health. “In the past I experimented with vegetarianism and found I felt cleaner and less aggressive,” said 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 yoga, even yoga as demanding as powerful flow? Maybe not, since many elite athletes are vegetarians, such as 4-time World Champion Ironman triathlete Dave Scott, 4-time Mr. Universe body builder Bill Pearl, 9-time Olympic Gold winner Carl Lewis, and 9-time NFL Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The amount of protein we consume is also open to question.
“The average American consumes more than twice the amount of protein that is the absurdly oversized U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance,” Jay Weinstein pointed out 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 convenient and tasty when grilled form of that protein, but those same amino acids can be easily 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, at all.
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 as likely to develop colon cancer as 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 twenty 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 they were raised on meat and our culture accepts the food practice. “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?” asked Mary Taylor, a Boulder, Colorado teacher and one-time student of Julia Child.
Although yoga touts acceptance as one of it virtues, that may not necessarily be the best of reasons, given that our culture once 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 and up to the present day.
What if your grandmother and 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,” said 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 said.
But, 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, many people ask, 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, the damage bordering on cruelty done to animals during their brief lives, and ultimately the killing dismemberment packaging of the animal itself.
More than 30 percent of the earth’s usable land is involved in the production of animals for food, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Even though approximately 800 million people in the world are underfed, most of the corn and soy grown in the world feeds our livestock. 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.”
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 combined. Nearly none of this hog waste is treated and vast amounts of manure nationwide pollute rivers, lakes, and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that almost thirty thousand miles of American waterways are dead or close to dead due to this pollution.
“When you look at environmental problems in the United States,“ said Gordon Eschel, an environmentalist and geophysicist at Bard College, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production.”
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 all put together. “I do not eat meat,“ said 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 are 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 forty 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 daily mixed into their feed.
Americans take 3 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,” said 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.
In the Yoga Sutras the first yama is ahimsa, which means non-violence or non-harming. Like the Golden Rule of 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 parts or doubles in the construction of the self. If ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, slaughtering animals for hamburgers cannot be part of the non-violence plan. Killing animals by proxy makes us killers no matter how we cut it.
Many people who practice yoga 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,” said 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.
Non-violence approaches being 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,” said Danny Arguetty, a yoga teacher at Kripalu, a health and yoga retreat in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, 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,” said 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 the avoiding 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 we should ask 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 practice. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Yoga, on which much of today’s yoga is based, said, “The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet.” He believed eating animals made his students stiff as a board.
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,” said Sadie Nardini, self-described ‘Ultimate Wellness Expert’ and 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 said, addressing factory farm meat industry issues
But, 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’, about animals, “The question is not, Can they 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 skin flesh organs after their suffering is over.
Everyone knows, which is why so many people say they don’t want to know when asked if they know 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,” said 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.
The inherent narrative in the yoga world is that it’s all yoga. What matters is how aware and compassionate we are with others and ourselves. What we eat or don’t eat is beside the point. It doesn’t matter.
But, what we do when we buy veal cutlets for ourselves, family, and friends 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, “ said 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 organic 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 non-violence 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 a t-bone 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 think is food. We have transformed animals into commodities and main courses and forgotten they are sentient breathing flesh and blood 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,” said 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 non-violence? 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 or cavemen and women 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,” said Melissa Van Orman of Tranquil Space Yoga in Washington, D. C.
Eating animals is an instinct. Not eating them is a decision we make or don’t make every time we sit down at the dining room table, just like every other decision we make, from practicing non-violence among ourselves to being nice to our dogs.
“From what I have observed many of the yogis I have met are meat eaters,” said Danny Arguetty.
But, yogis don’t eat their pets. It is a dodgy distinction.
More than thirty-five million cows, a hundred and fifteen 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. It is an astonishing amount of life and death violence in light of going vegetarian, which never killed anyone at the dinner table.
We all have to eat, but maybe we shouldn’t take part in the killing and eating of animals anymore than absolutely necessary, if only in the interest of restraining ourselves from causing unnecessary harm in this life and to all lives, both ours and the lives of others.
A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.