Which Came First: The Yogi Or The Vegetarian?

2 02 2010
sanctuary cow

photo: jill ettinger

By Jill Ettinger

The longer we live, the more we ought to come to appreciate hypocrisy. Not as a flaw, mind you, but as an inherently human trait in all of us, void of any failing. We change our minds, our tastes, and our beliefs as we come to deeper understandings about the changing reality and our place in it. Opinions and actions can transform in an instant after being exposed to a perspective we’d not thought of before. Change of heart can happen at any time to anyone—even those with the most stubborn egos—and that’s perhaps more beautiful and interesting than it is deceptive.

There are few things I say definitely about myself, avoiding the pointed fingers of those who will view my personal adjustments through a condemning lens. From the very innocent changes, such as outgrowing a favorite band in high school, to more shocking shifts like (heaven forbid) voting for a political party I’ve previously pledged not to. Yet there are those things, those preferences that have become rooted in my daily routines. Like bands I loved indisputably in high school, these practices may indeed one day disappear completely, but for most of my adult life they are the closest I have come to truly identifying myself: I am vegan. I practice yoga.

As far back as I can remember, eating animals was a disagreeable concept for me and I went through all the phases a budding vegetarian goes through. It wasn’t until I planted myself in a natural food café as a line cook that I learned to fend for myself in a world of McNuggets and Big Macs. My diet and my world altered in a profound way and I never looked back. Yoga too had a way of creeping in after what seemed like years of being present, however undefined. Both practices became a path, though not a purpose. Like my vegan preference that sent me to work in a café so I could cook learn to for myself, I made the trek to an upstate NY ashram to become a “teacher” of yoga for no other student’s benefit than my own.

At the ashram, we were served a strict vegetarian diet void of heavy spices or sweetness. While many students had a difficult time adjusting to the food, I found it to be full of flavor and satisfying. It varied only slightly from my regular dining at home. I was reminded of all this while reading this bemusing article by Julia Moskin in the NY Times last week. Ms. Moskin peers into the only-in-America yoga ‘practice’ of “Yoga for Foodies,” where students follow yoga class with gourmet meals in the studio, slurping up soup on the sweaty mats they just downward-dogged all over.

Moskin also tackles the interesting subject of “meat-eating yogis.” Like much of India, most of the founding fathers of yoga promoted a  meat-free diet rich in fruits and vegetables to augment the austerity of the physical practice of asanas (yoga postures). Ahimsa is the yogic practice of committing not to harm another. Yet the definition of that commitment (especially for many modern Americans) does not necessarily translate to vegetarianism, let alone veganism.

As someone who followed a vegan diet before beginning a regular yoga practice, it was a step I gave little thought to until those days in the ashram where I heard the moaning of my fellow classmates craving pizza and burgers. At the time, I recall feeling as though my famished classmates “weren’t getting it.” That clearly their inability to adopt a vegetarian diet to further their yoga practice meant they had no real practice at all. It’s easy now to admit my naivete, but back then I was convinced there was only one answer. And what has become clear to me nearly a decade later is that being convinced of anything—especially of what yoga “means”—is not yoga. Not really. Yoga is you. It’s me. How we perceive and react to our world is our own versions of the practice because we can’t practice it as or for anyone but ourselves.

The rigidity and dogma of yoga or any spiritual practice is there for us to use as a way to unravel our own understanding of who we are, and who we are while doing those things. The moment we become attached to it, is the moment it stops having any meaning. I came away from the ashram realizing the whole wide world is an ashram. The practice is always about what I choose. I recall listening to a story told by the devotional singer, Krishna Das, that in Buddha-like effect said the bank robber must rob banks just as the doctor must heal. Neither is right or wrong, they simply are. Taking sides on the meat-eating vs. veg-eating yogis is a choice, just as choosing a diet is to all people who eat.

There’s a yogic mantra “Lokha Samasta Sukinoh Bhavantu,” which roughly translates to “may beings every where be happy and free.” Obviously, we must first understand what it means to be happy and free for ourselves before we can make any sense of what that means to any other being. For some, that sense of happiness may include eating meat. And while that’s not a reality I can personally relate to, I do understand that hypocrisy is little more than a process of understanding and assimilating more of the world than we previously identified with.

The yoga “industry” is a booming $20+billion dollar a year business. There are many practices in the current state of yoga that Swamis of yesteryear could probably never have fathomed, including eating meat. But something tells me that more than anything, they would be delighted to see that so many people are taking steps toward personal transformation in a world that needs yogis, perhaps more than ever before.

Leading by example is valuable, especially to those willing to follow. What’s right and wrong with the food industry and the practice of eating animal products is everyone’s responsibility, yogis or otherwise. Yogis have a long history with dairy, enjoying it as a food and using it as a devotional offering. I remember refusing to participate in a puja (worship) ceremony at the ashram because we’d have to pour milk over a statue. I saw the store bought milk jugs sitting next to the beloved deities that represented purity and austerity. Having seen what goes on in large-scale dairy farms, I knew this “offering” was anything but what it was to represent. Now, I wonder, if maybe that isn’t the point after all. By gesturing with something so far from what it used to mean, we cultivate deeper meaning within ourselves.

Someday, surely, everything will all make sense. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, we must do what it is we are called to do.


The Slow Overturn of Democracy

5 09 2008

The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court
Frederick S. Lane
June 2008, 288 pages, $24.95

Review by Derek Beres

Anyone unfamiliar with the marriage between politics and religion—more specifically to this review, the current plight of certain members of the church to make America a Christian nation, as denoted in Frederick Lane’s subtitle, The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court—need only to have watched the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on Saturday, 16 August. Watching pastor Rick Warren posit the same questions to Barack Obama and John McCain and, more importantly, watching their responses and the crowd’s reactions, was a perfect primer for anyone ignorant of just how entwined the two remain.

Credit freelance journalist Lane for an exceptional, insightful work illuminating both the history of America’s civil courts, and for showing how their evolution has brought us to where we are today—a country, he suggests, in danger of losing much of what we have stood for in terms of democracy and civil rights due to an ideological mindset perpetuated by a fringe culture that has been gathering increasing prominence and influence in the political arena.

When Warren put forth the question regarding which justice each candidate would not have nominated for the Supreme Court, the messages embedded inside every page of The Court and The Cross were brought to light. Obama initially suggested he would not have nominated Clarence Thomas, and then admitted Justice Antonin Scalia was not high on his list, either. Warren then asked about John Roberts, which may have hinted at an agenda to put Obama in a bad light in evangelical eyes. This is an important point: appointed Chief Justice by George Bush when William Rehnquist died of thyroid cancer in 2005, Roberts never sat well with the Christian Right, who, as Lane points out again and again, has made it a point in influencing our political leaders to beef up the Supreme Court with judges willing to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Warren never asked McCain his feelings on Roberts, though, and here is why: McCain declares he would not have nominated Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, and Stevens, four liberal members of the court. If any one of them should be replaced with a pro-life judge, it is feared that the possibility of Roe vs. Wade could be overturned—an issue McCain knows well, as he never tried to deny his stance, stating that birth starts at the moment of conception. To really show you how relevant a point this is to the Right, when asked another question by Warren, McCain returned to the bench, asking, “Are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court justices? When we speak of the issue of the rights of the unborn, we need to speak about judges.”

Read the full review on PopMatters.

The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken

11 08 2008

The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in the United States
Jeffrey W. Robbins & Neal Magee, editors
Continuum, April 2008, 237 pages, $19.95

By Derek Beres

When George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as being the most influential political philosopher that he identified with in a 1999 Republican primary debate, a significant turn in media attention to religious matters took place. To question how far religion and politics has ever truly been separated in America is too much a stretch for this—or any—single book. Yet with pre-millennial blues and, subsequently, 9/11 dominating our press, the role religion plays in the US (and, by extension, the world) has been broadcast widely and loudly over the last nine years.

The sleeping giant that has awoken is, of course, religion, here focused on the Christian right and evangelical movements. Yet this collection of essays is not necessarily “for” or “against” our religious choices; most of the authors do an excellent job at playing both scholar and devil’s advocate when taking into consideration the society-at-large, and how we are meant to prosper or suffer by the politics of religion (and vice-versa). As is made out early in the text, this is not a book that has been split by the usual media coverage of religion, taking the sides of the fundamentalist factions or the burgeoning atheism movement that has grown in its wake.

In fact, Sam Harris is only mentioned once in passing, while authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not appear. To the contrary, documentaries like Jesus Camp and other critiques of fundamentalist fury pass unmentioned, while megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen are barely discussed. Instead we have weighty looks at consumerist capitalism and prophetic evangelicalism, the history of the Civil War, and how the theories of Jacques Lacan can accurately describe the current situation from an early childhood developmental perspective.

Using Thomas Paine’s ironic rise and fall from public grace as a steppingstone to show why democracy is a process and not a manufactured product, pressed and ready for wearing, Jeffrey W. Robbins submits an elucidating essay that considers how the democratic struggle that began with the Revolutionary War continues today. He calls to our attention that religion, like politics, is often in the hands of the translator, and when that translation is in the interest of the person instead of the prophecy, something is amiss. This sentiment is echoed throughout the pages of this collection in various forms.

Read the full review in PopMatters.

Dear America, Are You Really Going To Eat That?

6 07 2008

Dear America

By Jill Ettinger

While much of the globe is constantly faced with scarcity, disease and starvation, the Western world insists on self-inflicted suffering via those American Dreams we’ve got our chubby fingers so tightly wrapped around. As strange as it may be to comprehend, many Americans are literally starving themselves through gluttonous over-indulgence. Author John Robbins (Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution) has noted that there are equal numbers of people in the world (roughly 1.2 billion of each group) suffering from diseases related to poverty and from diseases of affluence like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. There are different ways to skin a rabbit, as the saying goes — and leave it to Americans to discover that apparently even stuffing it works.

Unprecedented calls to action to “be green” are sending mixed messages and leaving consumers confused about their choices. Hybrid cars, energy credits, and recycling are mainstream topics while perhaps the biggest way we can make a difference for ourselves, our families and our community is in the foods we eat — or don’t eat. Many people in the world still grow and harvest their own food, and they have an innately organic relationship with what they put inside their bodies, yet Americans need a decoder ring for navigation through super market aisles (which can be found at the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms cereal oddly enough…).

The packaged product revolution has made a lot of people rich and a lot more seriously unhealthy. Corn syrup and refined sugars have had such an obvious, gross effect on humans, yet we as a nation seem stunned, paralyzed by the trend that’s feeding on our children like a parasite. And while the Whole Foods Revolution is sweeping the nation, it’s catering to an obvious audience and creating more questions about what’s really safe to eat in this country.

Read the full post on Reality Sandwich here

Einstein, Atheism and One Big Bowl of Rice

20 05 2008

By Derek Beres

On Sunday, the NY Times website listed two articles back-to-back in the Science section that, at first glance, seemed unrelated. In terms of content, that is true; in terms of how we understand and experience the world, they are too close for anyone’s comfort.

The first was titled “Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000.” Much to the surprise of everyone involved in the auction — twenty-fives times the original estimate, in fact — a 1954 letter that Albert Einstein wrote to philosopher Eric Gutkind pulled in close to a half-million dollars. The text had been circulating online, with Einstein citing the Bible as pretty naïve and childishly superstitious. He did not outwardly deny the existence of a god figure, but did say such “is too vast for our minds” — a claim that aligns him more with agnosticism than atheism.

The second article in the section was titled “World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut.” It uses a recent agricultural tragedy in the Philippines as an example of what is occurring globally: there is not enough money to back proper research and planting procedures to stave off droughts and, as this piece discusses, insect damage. One such bug is the gnat-sized brown plant hopper, which recently destroyed large rice crops that feeds an already-impoverished population. The tragedy is that it could have been avoided, had the money been given to scientists that could have bred a more resistant crop.

There are too many “could haves” in the world right now.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.

Idiocracy: A Depraved and Hilarious Tale of Corporate Conspiracy

12 05 2008

By Jill Ettinger

In Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy, America’s future is overrun by a country full of, well, you guessed it (hopefully), idiots. A garishly branded White House is home to a porn-star president championing the nation deeper into a terminal identity crisis and a terrifying degree of blind patriotism for corporate agendas.

The anti-intellectual future-culture lacks ambition outside of watching monster truck racing, TV programs like “Ow, My Balls!” while getting cracked out on tubs of junk food glop, shopping in city-size Costco stores (character “Frito” went to law school there) or stopping in a Starbucks where they serve up sex in addition to lattes. Judge’s message, like in his classic flick Office Space (or any of the Beavis & Butthead episodes), is a goofy and colorful over-dramatization, and although this theatrical flop is set several hundred calendar pages still to come, it clearly parallels today’s state of the nation.

In his humorous stay-the-course commentary on our relationship with corporations, Judge depicts a future that is a conglomerated landscape where virtually everything is branded with some obscene corporate logo, as big businesses have grown even bigger and more invested in our dependency on their products, regardless of whether they’re safe or effective. Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator is the Gatorade-like green beverage of choice found everywhere. Water is relegated to importance only in toilet flushing while drinking fountains dispense Brawndo to a subservient nation, half of whom also work for the manufacturer.

Read the full story on Reality Sandwich here.

Life Lessons at Coachella

3 05 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Sean Penn is a strangely compelling man. As he took the stage in Coachella’s Gobi tent last Sunday afternoon, his voice cracked and cascaded like a nervous teenager, while he perched awkwardly on a stool. His message began to reveal itself through a muddled attempt at a joke about his reason for being there: “A cappella Celine Dion covers,” he insisted. The crowd looked confused and intrigued.

“Revolution is a job for the young,” he announced. “This is the smartest, most technologically proficient generation of all time.” He blasted not only Bush, but also all three (yes, Obamaniacs) presidential candidates for their support of the no-end-in-sight Iraqi invasion. Bob Dylan once penned, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Sean Penn is that guy; he exudes a righteousness most like his character Mick O’Brien in the 1983 film Bad Boys, who stood up for justice against the resident prison bullies, earning status and prestige as a trustworthy inmate.

He asked the crowd who had been at Prince’s performance the previous evening. “Awesome, wasn’t it?” He went on, “Now imagine glaciers melting into the ocean, soldiers dying, people starving, forests being destroyed. Because it was all happening while Prince was playing.” His point was sharp, humbling. Yes, it’s true, while thousands gathered in the desert to dance, drink and laugh, the word-at-large is not unanimously joyful. He called to Coachella’s mixed crowd with an earnest invitation: “We have three bio-diesel buses here. They’re leaving the parking lots on Monday, and we want you to come with us.” The buses are part of the Dirty Hands Caravan, a cross-country excursion setting out to lend hands where needed, all the way to New Orleans for Jazzfest, then back to California.

This was Sunday afternoon, the last day of Coachella, and quite a departure from previous years. Overall attendance was down 30% from 2007, due largely in part to the lineup. This year’s headliners were Jack Johnson, Prince and Roger Waters. (Last year was Bjork, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine.) Penn’s buzzkill message seemed to echo the emptiness and despair of the festival. Though there were certainly shining moments (more on those later), the mood was best summed up in his pensive tone. One can only wonder what a post ’08 presidential election will hold in store for Coachella, or any festival next summer.

Art is that je ne sais quoi of the human psyche. We are curious creatures, after all, and best express ourselves as abstractly as we feel compelled. That means something different to everyone. Just in the way that our expressions are unique, so are our interpretations and responses to other’s offerings. One person’s poison is another’s panacea. As true as that is, there is still a collective acceptance of what is mind-blowing, versus a so-so lineup of musicians and talent. Compared to 2007, 2008’s edition was just a notch more exciting than any city Memorial Day picnic festival. Last year was so good it was painful. One simply could not see all the amazing artists at any given time. Abundance overwhelmed. Did you go see Amy Winehouse or Stephen Marley? Red Hot Chili Peppers or Gotan Project? Bjork or DJ Shadow? In comparison, 2008’s nail-biting choices included: Tegan and Sara or Vampire Weekend, Flogging Molly or Sasha and John Digweed, Sons & Daughters or Modeselektor, Serj Tankian or Pendulum? Ugh. How about a quiet nap tent?

Coachella’s Do-lab side show and leftover Burning Man installations were not enough to rally attendees in lieu of ass-kicking lineups. Though there were about 100 performances, the top three nightly headliners are what drive sales. Some of the more impressive day time performances included Les Savy Fav, The Breeders, Yoav, Man Man, Cinematic Orchestra, Rogue Wave and Little Brother. As for the main stage nightly headline acts, they went something like this… (continued tmw)