Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction 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.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
Most people practice most yoga indoors, the weather being what it is in North America. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway. That is a good thing if it’s the middle of winter in Vermont or the armpit of summer in Mississippi, or fall winter spring on Prince Edward Island on the south side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Almost 120 inches of snow falls during the long winter season on PEI. Skiers going to Vermont are happy if 80 inches have fallen during the season. The wind off the ocean makes everything feel colder than it is on the island. Sometimes harbors are still frozen well into May.
Practicing indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a light sprinkle. It means practicing in a space set aside for exercise and breathwork, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s practice, a habit thought to be fundamental to gaining ground.
No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your basement recreation room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled. Lightning might strike, but it won’t be literal lightning.
Some practices, like Bikram Yoga, are performed indoors only, in sealed-up steam-filled rooms,, like heat-ravaged parts of the world in the grip of a post-modern climate change event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably doesn’t measure up to what Bikram Choudhury, the mastermind of hot yoga, calls his “torture chambers.”
Pattabhi Jois, the man who inspired and developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga exercise of the last half-century is based, recommended that it be practiced indoors.
“Outside don’t take,” he said. “First floor is a good place. Don’t go upstairs, don’t go downstairs.”
When asked about renegade yogis in India practicing in the forest, he simply said, “That is very bad.”
Although there are problems associated with practicing outdoors – including that it will inevitably defy the weather forecast and rain the one day you try it – people do it all the time, especially in places like southern California, where there are many classes like ‘Beach Yoga with Brad’.
“Ditch the confines of the indoors!” recommended CBS-TV Los Angeles, reporting from the great outdoors.
“If you’re doing yoga indoors then you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Certified Yoga Instructor in Orange County. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”
It isn’t just sunny climes, either, that roll out the mat regardless of rocks and roots and biting bugs. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summer.
Some don’t wait for the solstice.
Members of ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their Alsteryoga on the thick ice of the frozen-over Lake Alster outside the northern German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads when in headstand.
Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, the instability of ground outdoors makes for a challenging experience. Some people practice on paddleboards when the hard water of rivers and lakes has gone defrosted. “When you’re not on a solid wood floor surface, you end up using different parts of your body,” said Jennifer Walker, an instructor in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body.”
Although I oftentimes get out into our backyard in the summer, I still roll out my mat indoors because I’ve carved out a space I like at home, and because the weather in Lakewood, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, is unpredictable, while the midges and mosquitoes that fly up out of the Rocky River valley are predictable.
Sometimes, though, I jump the traces.
The three mostly sunny weeks my wife and I spent in North Rustico, on the north coast of Prince Edward Island, at the Coastline Cottages on the National Park road, I moved my mat and me outside. Sometimes in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple tree at the back of our cottage cast a convenient shadow, I unspooled on the grass and set about doing yoga exercises, warming up with sun salutations.
“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, an instructor in Oakville, Ontario. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”
I practiced almost every day, because we were on vacation with plenty of time, and because the days were warm and it was fair and breezy where we were on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I was bitten every one of those days, sometimes more than less, by flying bugs, as well occasionally by black flies from the scrubby conifer woods beside the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.
Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. There are croplands and cattle and fishing boats everywhere. A few years earlier we had stayed in a cottage next to a field and a barn full of cows. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter. We made sure all the screens were safe and sound and in place.
The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we practice outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass to the red land beneath a high blue sky on a summer day is often striking.
I saw lots of sky doing things on my back on my mat behind our cottage. Creeping crawling insects took shortcuts under me, the long way over me, or just bumped into me and zigzagged away. Seaside birds flew overhead. Most of them were cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck. There were plenty of wood warblers and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, darting in and out of the crab apple tree.
One afternoon behind our cottage a week-and-a-half into our early summer stay on the island, a grown-up red fox hunkered down and watched me for a long time. The fox surprised me, even though I knew they were all over the north shore. We had seen plenty of them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.
From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a cash crop on Prince Edward farms. Fox pelts were in high style, but cost an arm and a leg because they could only be got from trappers. No one knew how to raise them until in the 1890s two men, a PEI druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed them.
It made many of the natives rich. The price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on the island in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay for ten and twelve hour days.
The Great Depression and changing fashion crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on Prince Edward Island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose. The foxes were probably glad to go, glad to be back on their own, glad to not have to be a fashion statement anymore.
“My grandfather raised horses, and kept foxes for their pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a North Rustico lobsterman whose Coastline Cottages we were staying at. “But, then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all the foxes out, and my father who couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”
Rubbing eyeballs with a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but sightings nowadays are commonplace.
“Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor, who grew up on PEI and is a historian of Canada’s environmental movement.
Although some of the issues with sun salutations in the great outdoors are bugs and bad weather or sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal. The foxes are wild, but not so wild, too. They live in woodlots and sand dunes, are intelligent and adaptable, and have no trouble living in close association with human beings.
One moonless night, sitting on the deck of our cottage overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we heard a god awful noise somewhere out on the long dark sloping lawn. The next morning Kelly Doyle had to clean up the remains of a dismembered rabbit. Every fox hunts every night for mice voles rabbits.
I don’t know when the red fox slipped behind the adjacent cottage to ours. I saw him midway through my yoga series for the day, when I lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there he was, about fifty feet away from me.
There is a rule at the Coastline Cottages. “Don’t Feed the Animals.” The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for food for their kits. I hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, because who wants a fox at their door cadging for a handout? But there was the red fox, plain as day, behind the cottage next to ours, giving me the once over.
“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Kelly had told us.
I had no reason to doubt him, so I continued what I was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox wasn’t overly large, maybe 20 or 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy, as though the animal had a cataract or been hurt.
He lounged and moved more like a cat than a dog, although foxes are a part of the dog family. His ears were triangular. When he cocked his head and his ears went up erect he resembled a Maine Coon cat with his muzzle in mousing position.
All during the rest of my yoga practice that afternoon the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. He stretched and yawned. When he left, moving away into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile canny swift. No amount of yoga I ever did was ever going to get me to be able to move like that.
I didn’t see him again the rest of our stay.
Living north of the Mason-Dixon Line I am by necessity forced to do yoga indoors most of the time. But, moving one’s mat outdoors isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the energy is. The fountainhead is under the arching sky in the wide blue yonder.
In the world of yoga the word prana means energy or life force and pranayama means breathwork, or breathing exercises. To practice outdoors is to be immersed in the source of prana, whether you mean it as the source of life or simply as the air we breathe.
Bringing a breath of out in the country air into your body mind spirit is refreshing. Great wafts of it are even better. It’s no holds barred refreshing breathing in the old-school air of the island. There’s more air in the air on the edge of the ocean than there is in most other places.
There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and me the sunny day we shared it, both of us dwarfed by a sweeping horizon and puffy white clouds blowing out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, behind a small cottage next to a soybean field.
“How was it?” my wife asked when I stepped back into the cottage.
“It was a breath of fresh air in my brain,” I said.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
Whenever Padma, a white and tan hound dog, hears her master’s namaste marking the end of class at Blue Lotus in Raleigh, NC, she stirs from her Mexican blanket pile, shakes, stretches in urdhva mukha svanasana, better known as upward-facing dog, and with her long nose in full gear makes the rounds of the yoga studio, sniffing out the sweaty yogis.
“It’s like clockwork,” says Jill Sockman. “She thinks namaste is her release command. If I am at the studio she is with me. On the rare occasion I am working and she’s not with me, people come in the front door, look to her empty bed, and the first thing they say isn’t ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m here for class’, but ‘Where is the dog?’ “
“She is my one true love and constant companion.”
The canine has been mankind’s best friend for a long time.
DNA research suggests gray wolves and dogs split into separate species around 100,000 years ago. Domestication began 30,000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence from caves in Europe, and our herding and hunting relationship with them dates back to the end of the Pleistocene Age. Initially tolerated as scavengers of bones and animal remains, over time dogs were co-opted as guardians and trained helpmates.
“It takes only a short journey to get from dogs guarding the village to a personal house dog,” writes Stanley Coren in The Intelligence of Dogs.
There are more than 400 million dogs in the world. Approximately 78 million of them are in the United States. Almost forty percent of American households own at least one. Among them are many yoga households. Although it is difficult to determine with any accuracy, it often seems like every other-and-more yogi has a dog.
“Almost all the yoga teachers that come to my mind have dogs,” says Dawn Schroeder, a Kundalini Yoga teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. “I have two dogs, both of them rescued.”
For some people, such as the handicapped, dogs are lifesavers. Helen Keller, the deaf and blind social activist, introduced the Akita to the United States and described the dog as an “angel in fur.” For others, like police, farmers, and even corporations, dogs are working partners. The runways of airports like Southwest Florida International are kept clear of large birds by Border Collies. For most people they are better known as pets and companions.
Although more physically diverse than any other land animal, resulting from centuries of intentional breeding, dogs are generally loyal and gregarious by nature, running to the door at the sound of familiar footsteps, not caring whether their owners are young or old, fat or fit, rich or poor. Money can’t buy the wag of a dog’s tail. They rarely run in packs anymore and nowadays consider people to be part of their posse.
With the rise of suburbanization in the 1950s dog populations boomed and they made the transition from the doghouse to the home, becoming increasingly integrated into the lives of their owners. The modern dog became part of the family. Today many people feel like their pets are their favorite people.
“Our dog Zoe, a Westie terrier, is the light of our lives,” says Regan Burnett, who teaches yoga at the Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia. “She does a perfect down-dog and up-dog every morning upon waking and practices Centering Prayer with me in the evenings.
“She is very special.”
“Increasingly,” says Jon Katz, the author of The New Work of Dogs, “we are treating them as family members and human surrogates.” Some single people and childless couples, among others, anthropomorphize their pets to the standing of an honorary child. They are called ‘fur babies’. Even families are challenged by children who know the best way to get a puppy is to ask for a baby brother.
“People are leaning on pets to fill the gap in social support mechanisms that earlier might have come from their families or tight-knit neighborhoods,” says Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog.
Americans have fallen in love with their dogs. Since the mid-1990’s spending in the United States on pets has almost tripled, from $17 billion to $43 billion, which is nearly seven times as much as is spent on contemporary yoga and its related products. Yesterday’s Fido and Spot are today’s Jake and Bella, part of the family.
Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, believes yogis engage especially with dogs. “I’m not sure why,” she says. “My guess is our desire to connect with all living beings and to share the vibrational quality of love that is unconditional and undefined. My husband and I rescued an amazing dog eleven years ago. She just passed away late last year, and I still miss her with my whole entire being. I would look into her eyes and know she could see all of me, without words. And she loved me no matter my flaws, failures, or even my not so attractive qualities.”
Dogs hop, skip, and jump when their owners come home. The Odyssey, the second of the two epic poems ascribed to Homer, is the story of a man who returns home after being gone for more than twenty years and is recognized only by his dog, Argos. Once known for his speed and tracking, but now neglected and lying on top of a pile of trash, after waiting ninety-three dog years for Odysseus to come back he wags his tail once and dies.
They lay their heads in our laps and stare up into our eyes, a heartbeat at our feet. They invite our attention and affection. Never mind that Fred Metzger of Pennsylvania State University, who studies the human-animal bond, believes dogs are highly skilled at parsing social behaviors, especially those having to do with hearth and the food bowl.
“Dogs make investments in human beings because it works for them,” he says. According to Dr. Metzger they act according to what makes humans happy to get what they want and need. They are den animals just like us integrated into the hubbub of the household, adaptable and attuned to the moment.
“Dogs give to get back,” says Brenda Motsco of Town and Country Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Ohio, who when not rescuing dogs is a feisty Bikram Yoga aficionado.
Unlike most other animals whose lives are not necessarily dependent on people, and whose existences are in some sense solipsistic, the dog is a different breed. When hailed a cat may or may not get back to you that day, but a dog will bust its butt to heed its master’s beck and call.
“Your dog kind of lives for you,” says David Bessler, senior emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City. Other than adoption, acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a person has to choose a relative.
Dogs are social animals, like people, and so need and rely on emotions to bond with other dogs and people. According to Marc Beckoff, a behavioral biologist at the University of Colorado, emotion is one of the foundations of social behavior and connects individuals, whether in society, family, or pack. Dogs have an evolutionary need for close emotional ties.
The dog world intersects that of people in many ways. They almost always feel like doing whatever you feel like doing, whether snoozing while you nap or walking in the woods with you and chasing sticks. The other side of a door is always the wrong side of the door to a dog. They rarely hang out a “Do Not Disturb” sign.
“My Chihuahua is always with me at the studio and is our mascot,” says Ellen Patrick of Yoga Sanctuary in Mamaroneck, NY. “She greets all my students and then sleeps next to me while I’m teaching. People tell me they come more for ‘Chi’ therapy than for the yoga because she has such a sweet spirit.”
Over the course of centuries, through the process of domestication, dogs have come to understand people the better than all other animals, and have most easily adapted to our social circumstances. The average dog may be a better person than the average person. Yogis find their dogs through adoption, rescue, and accidentally, like everyone else, but sometimes their dogs come to them in dreams, figuratively and literally.
“I was searching for a companion dog to my older Cathula Leopard Hound,” says Connie Murphy of Yoga Village in Arroyo Grande, California, “but whenever I found one and did my pendulum on getting them or not, I was always told no. Then I started dreaming about a black and white dog. A few days later a black and white stray, part terrier and part cattle dog came into our yard. Cold, wet, starving, filthy, and afraid. It took several days before he would allow us to touch him. We left the garage open for shelter, and fed him, and after we put out fliers and no one answered, he became part of our family. It’s amazing what food and a bath and love can accomplish.”
Although some people find themselves loving dogs more the more they get to know people, it isn’t always the best of all worlds for dogs in the modern world. In the past dogs hunted with men and were their guardians, but today they are acquired for many other reasons. Children pressure their parents to bring home the cute puppy they saw at the store; the lonely get them to relieve stress and anxiety; others buy intensively bred dogs because it is prestigious.
But, even though dogs may be so smart they can do anything short of calculus, they still rely on their human families for everything, including shelter, groceries, water, exercise, and veterinary care. “The way they think about their world is that people are super important and they can solve any problem if they rely on people,” says Brian Hare, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. Domestic dogs also need social interaction to the degree that without a master and family they grow unhappy and even lost.
Many dogs are abandoned by their owners because of management problems, the pet’s old age, or simply because it is more expedient than taking care of the dog over the course of its 12 or 14-year-life. More than 5 million dogs enter shelters every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and those same shelters euthanize several million more when the dogs aren’t rescued. Puppy mills overproduce pets, annually dumping millions of them on the market, according to the ASPCA, marketing their lovability to the ill prepared.
Many people who practice yoga, and live by its ethical guidelines, rescue rather than buy dogs. “As a person’s awareness expands they are more likely to acquire a dog from a shelter as opposed to buying a dog from a pet store or breeder,” says Cassandra Wallick of Gilbert Yoga in Gilbert, Arizona. “As we begin to see things more clearly we may realize that the breeding of animals for pets is somewhat inhumane when in fact there are thousands of animals being euthanized because of careless owners and over-breeding.”
Television shows like the ‘Dog Whisperer’ on the National Geographic Channel and ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ on Animal Planet have grappled with the biting, barking, and bad behavior of dogs made insecure, neurotic, and bullying by uncaring or uninformed breeding practices and by inappropriate human-to-dog interactions. Less than two generations ago neither Lassie nor Rin Tin Tin ever required a dog behaviorist. Today it seems like all our purebreds and even mutts need a couch.
“Ending or preventing suffering should be the main goal of a real animal lover,” says Val Porter, the author of Faithful Companions: Alliance of Man and Dog. Dogs are trusty and vigilant sidekicks to man. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were always pulling families out of burning buildings and saving the cavalry from marauders. They deserve the reciprocal care and loyalty of committed human companions.
“To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle,” says Julie Lawrence of the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center in Portland, Oregon. Judging from the principles they live by, known as the yamas and niyamas, the man or woman who practices yoga may be a dog’s best friend. Dogs probably don’t need yoga, better known as doga, but running with yogis may be good for their health. “Because dogs are pack animals, they are a natural match for yoga’s emphasis on union and connection with other beings,” writes Bethany Lytle in ‘Bonding With Their Downward-Facing Humans’ in The New York Times.
The intersection of dog and man can be fraught with misunderstanding and neglect. But, if there is a yogi at the crossroads, the dog is likely in good hands, since the goal of yoga practice is to be as good a person as your dog already thinks you are. ”In my lifetime I have had rabbits, turtles, a mallard duck, fish, parakeets, many cats, and a wonderful dog,” says Marcia Loffredo of Yoga 4 Health in East Hampton, Connecticut. “I believe we love, honor, and respect all of God’s creation based on what we learn and experience in our yoga practice.”
The way of the yogi encompasses animal rights as well as human rights, because that is the way of the whole human being. “My gut reaction is that yogis are good for dogs because through practice they learn to be more caring and compassionate,” says Brenda Motsco. Even though dogs exist for their own reasons, indifference and callousness results in suffering in dogs, and impoverishes the human spirit, as well.
Yogis seemingly gravitate towards dogs and dogs likewise towards yogis. “I have seen this,” says Mandy Grant of Juluka Yoga in Hillsdale NJ. “I have a dog who comes to my studio and students love him. Yoga creates compassion and understanding, and the practice of ahimsa, and the knowledge that we are all linked, makes people like dogs more after practicing yoga.”
Dogs have an unrivaled sixth sense, as any dog will tell you. They can predict thunderstorms and earthquakes, epileptic and diabetic seizures, their owner’s imminent return, and whether or not your friend is really your friend. In 1975 Chinese officials, fearing a catastrophe based in part on observation of the alarming behavior of dogs, ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city of one million people, just days before a 7.3 magnitude quake, saving an estimated 150,000 lives. Japanese researchers, in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, have long studied the usefulness of dogs as prediction tools.
Seizure-alert dogs are trained to react to the smell, reminiscent of nail polish remover, of the metabolic changes before a seizure induced by low blood sugar. “They are masters of observation,” says Nicholas Dodman of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “Their sense of smell is second to none and is beyond our comprehension.”
Sometimes it’s better to have a dog than a doctor in the house.
Dogs have more than 200 million smell sensors in their noses, compared to the 5 million of the average person. Smelling is a dog’s special sense. They discriminate their world through a predominant olfactory cortex and can sniff out fear and friendliness. If a dog snuffs you up and down but will not come to you, it may be time to examine your conscience.
“A dog can sense the softy in us,” says Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in Rocky River, Ohio. “They know when a good soul will do no harm”
At a bed and breakfast she and her husband built in Costa Rica, featuring a fifteen-mat deck overlooking the lowlands along the Pacific coast, Ginny Walters hosts yoga retreats every winter, and two years ago found her second home adopted by a dog.
“He appeared one morning with buggy eyes and famished. He had a sore on his ear that would heal for a day and then bleed all over again. I really didn’t know what the retreat participants would say. I figured if we didn’t feed him he would go away. But, he stayed. The retreat group would look out the window and he would immediately go into upward dog and as if on cue downward dog. He would never try to come into the house, just stay on the threshold and look at us. Two years later Rahm the dog is getting fat. He is our protector even though he doesn’t belong to anyone. When we leave the house he goes to his other place and stays until we return. He knows the sound of our car. We had an open heart to accept him. We didn’t give off the sweat of fear or anger. Ahimsa is all he asked for and with the yogis he found it.”
Most pet owners satisfy the fundamental requirements of hunger, thirst, and shelter for their dogs. Many of them tend to their social needs and sense of belonging, making them part of the family. Some address the needs that even dogs have for esteem, recognition, and status, fostering strength and self-confidence in their companion animals. A very few understand that dogs may be candidates for self-actualization.
“At one point in my spiritual growth I began to realize the soul of my dog was simply in a four-legged embodiment,” says Cassandra Wallick. “That soul was evolving just like mine. The attainment of oneness, unity, and self-realization is the ultimate path of the soul, and my dog was on his journey just the same as I was. After this epiphany I looked at my dog very differently. Not as a lesser creature, not even as a ‘dog’ anymore, but as a friend soul who was living out one of his incarnations in a dog’s body.”
Many people, even animal lovers, believe dogs have less potential for freedom than humans, so we are free to feel less compunction about denying it to them. But, since our standards for humane treatment of others is constantly expanding, it may be that every dog will have his day. If the dog’s companion is someone who practices yoga, a person whose core values are freedom and actualization, that dog will probably have its day sooner than later.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction 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.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.