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.

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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
Beacon
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 Resurrection Before Jesus

11 07 2008

By Derek Beres

According to a recent New York Times article, “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection,” a stone tablet discovered roughly a decade ago is now under scrutiny by the academic religious community. It appears that the 87 lines of Hebrew embedded on this stone discuss the idea of bodily resurrection after three days – years before the historical birth date of Jesus. If this is true, it raises the possibility that the resurrection could be a metaphor for the redemption of the entire community of Israel, not only one human being. The case, as you can imagine, is being fiercely debated.

The most serious question the debate poses is this: Why did it take this tablet to make people – scholars no less – realize that? I’m used to the jargon of academia; it has been part of my studies for fifteen years. In fact, I even like some of it. Treating religion as history, and not as “fact,” is an important pursuit in an age that can be defined in so many ways by the term “blind faith.” But the problem with a debate like this is how poorly metaphors, much less mythologies, are understood in certain academic circles, as well as by the general population.

Hence our religious interpreters encourage the public to be more intrigued by conspiracy theories, a la The Da Vinci Code, than by understanding the mythological and metaphorical significance of these ancient stories. When you present analogies as living, breathing humans, you actually take away their humanness. Instead of personified ideas, you are left with the ideas of particular persons. This defeats the purpose of the prophecies, which is to educate and empower every individual with the lessons of religion. We spend more time wondering about what particular historical figures might have done when alive than doing what we need to do ourselves. There is a good reason “primitive” societies employed animals and imaginary figments as their gods: those figures couldn’t be mistaken as human, so humans would not make the mistake of separating themselves from the rest of the world.

Read the full article on Reality Sandwich





Sound Against Flame: Out Now!

4 06 2008

Sound Against Flame is an insightful and inquisitive look inside two emerging cultural ideas gripping the modern American consciousness: yoga and atheism. While seemingly opposed in numerous contexts, author/yoga instructor Derek Beres uncovers a common foundation as startling as it is revelatory to practitioners of any, or no, faith.

Using the concept of neti-neti as a bedrock—the idea of “not this, not that” that is the foundation of yogic philosophy—Beres looks beyond the inherent duality proposed by many religious traditions to drive to core teachings. Knowing that belief is actually a lack of experience, and that once the individual has had an experience there is no need for belief, this thoughtful survey of modern consciousness and religion is a call to do away with abstract idealizing. Instead it offers an opportunity to turn toward what is real and accessible at this very moment.

Most importantly, Beres concludes with actual possibilities of progress toward a philosophy that contains and holds within it numerous others. Whereas many books stop at merely citing differences and complaining, Beres maintains a strong faith in human creativity and conviction. It is belief that needs to be eradicated and done away with, in a manner that will “bind” the emerging global culture we are in the midst of experiencing. Entertaining, highly readable and thought provoking, Sound Against Flame is the mythology of modernity.

Purchase from Amazon now!