“Treating animals like widgets harms our souls.” -Mark Bittman, acclaimed food writer and lecturer at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
Disclaimer: This article may be inflammatory to some. I also realize that this article may marginalize me and I’m okay with that. Furthermore, I am focusing on the ethics of eating animal products, not really on the issues of health or sustainability.
Ahimsa (non harming) and asteya (non stealing) are two really important concepts for the yogi who is struggling to decide whether or not they want to eat meat.
A little background. Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras thousands of years ago and they still inform the world of yoga today. The eight limbs he described start with the most external to the most internal of processes. Both ahimsa and asteya are two of the Yamas, the external-most limb. Of course, there is debate over the exact meanings and intentions of the sutras and limbs. However, I will discuss what is more commonly known about these principles of non harming and non stealing and how that relates to what we eat.
Many yogis go vegetarian to practice ahimsa, non harming in word, thought or deed. This means not participating in the killing of innocent beings-animals in all forms. To go further, veganism is the ideal way to practice ahimsa in your diet because due to the nature of the dairy, leather and meat industries (and all their byproducts), there really is no way around the harming of animals. Even in pasture and humanely-raised situations. If you’d like to know more about these ideas, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s free podcasts are an excellent source. So, we avoid eating animals and their byproducts as vegans and vegetarian yoga practitioners in order to practice ahimsa. Makes sense, veganism more so than vegetarianism.
But I’ve noticed it’s rarer for someone to say that they are refraining from animal products because they want to practice asteya. Asteya means non-stealing, yes, and it also means not taking what isn’t given. Deeply committed yoga practitioners understand that all beings on the planet are created equal so if you think you are better or more superior than animals, then you might want to stop reading now. Since we understand that yoga means union in the loose, Westernized translation of the word, we understand that we are indivisibly and inextricably connected to all beings in the Universe. This includes animals. And if you want to say that animals “gave” their life for you- please stop lying to yourself. Animals want to live just as much as you or I want to live. They feel feelings and pain. They feel happiness, grief, sadness, frustration, joy and so on. Their emotions may not be as complex as ours but that doesn’t mean that we are better than them or that they were necessarily “designed” for us to eat and consume. Thus, when we contribute to the killing and harming of animals, we are taking what isn’t given. The animal did NOT give its life for you. Its life was taken, usually in the most violent, torturous conditions possible. When you buy animal products and byproducts, you support that. There is no way around this one. Even in humane conditions, which are better than non-humane, conventional ways of raising animals, you’re still taking what isn’t given. This is stealing. The mother cow makes milk for her calf. Not us. Now I haven’t always avoided animal products and byproducts. I have leather in my closet from before I decided to go this route and am sure I harm and steal in other ways in my life, unconsciously. But my intention is there and becomes more deeply rooted as I continue on my path.
Also, if we look at the energetics of food, we know that meat and other animal products are grounding and usually produce people who are more yang, masculine, heavy, and even violent. Again, there are exceptions, but on the whole, animal products produce these qualities in us. On the flip side, plant-based diets are more yin, feminine, lighter. As yoga practitioners, we are striving for this feeling of lightness, balance, peace and vitality.
Now, let’s get grounded here, shall we? I’m also not saying that we will ever achieve 100% perfect compassion or be the best vegan that ever walked the planet. Mark Bittman also wisely said something to the effect of imagining there’s a continuum. On one side is conventionally raised meat, dairy, processed food, poor health, and a damaged planet. On the other side is the sustainable, responsible, compassionate, radiant health, ahimsa and asteya vegan side. As long as we are moving in the direction of compassion and consciousness, and not letting convenience be our excuse for eating meat and dairy, I think we’re doing the best we can.
So, in closing, are your eating habits in alignment with your values? If not, why not? Remember, that non-stealing and non-harming are wrong in most religions and spiritual traditions I’ve ever heard of. Why would animals be exempt from our compassion? How can we be selectively compassionate? It’s like calling yourself a Christian but then only following the parts of the Bible that are convenient for you.
Personally, as someone who is trying to embody the life of a yogini in every aspect of my being and day-to-day life, this is how I feel about ahimsa and asteya. I am working towards creating as little harm and keeping my asteya to a minimum. I am not perfect. The leather I bought a long time ago is still in my closet. I don’t think wasting those things after I’ve bought them and already contributed to the harm does anything. And again, it’s a process and there are exceptions, usually nutritional in nature, as bioindividuality would predict.
What are your thoughts on this highly divisive, yet, to me, clear issue? I would love to hear them.
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The beautiful photo above is from the farm sanctuary website.
Jenna Pacelli is a Holistic Health Coach and yoga teacher at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She coaches yoga practitioners and busy professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area and all over the world struggling with energy levels, stress reduction and weight management. With a focus on aligning their lives with their values, her clients create lasting change and fully embodied health and wellbeing.
Jenna believes that by creating health and wellness at the physical, emotional and mental levels, it is inevitable that joy and a deep understanding of one’s purpose follow.