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 Science of Systems

19 12 2008

This blog was originally posted on lime.com.

By Derek Beres

I spend a lot of time in Whole Foods — probably too much. Nearly every day I’m in (at least) one of three of their four New York City locations. As a store, the company has a lot going for them, including one of their greatest inventions: the automated line. At the end of each row of cashier lanes sit between three and five rows, with a screen and computerized voice informing you which counter to go to. It’s ingenious in its simplicity, the most logical system imaginable. And yet, time and again, it confuses the hell out of people.

Take Monday, for example. It’s primetime, I’m trying to buy a bar and coconut water, it’s very crowded. As I approach the end of my prospective line, a man is spotted in the middle of the floor walking aimlessly from line to line, trying to find the clerk who he is assigned to. The worker at the front has to go over to him and tell him there’s an actual row to wait in, that the screen will tell him where to go. He gets confused and frustrated at the system, calling it “stupid,” though eventually finding his place within it.

This is not an isolated incident; I see this confusion often. Thing is, there are always different results. Most often someone will realize what happened, laugh, and get back in line, or go to the right clerk. Yet sometimes someone will act as this man did, calling a very basic system “stupid” simply because he did not know how the system worked. Obviously, this sort of response is not limited to supermarket lines.

In fact, I used this incident as the theme for my yoga classes this week. There is a correlation to asanas — sometimes when I call out a pose that a student does not understand, or cannot perform, they have a similar reaction: the class is too hard, this pose is too challenging, I won’t even try. Thus, they were defeated before they even began. Just because one does not understand the posture — the system — it is therefore at fault.

Most systems are essentially benign, at this level. A yoga posture is not “good” or “bad.” It is a structure, and how you adapt that structure into your body, or how you adapt your body to that structure, is indicative of your psychology. If you get easily frustrated, the posture is only bringing out the reaction already inside of you, like a seed waiting to sprout. If you laugh, or embody the challenge and move forward, this is where your head is. Your experience is defined by the thoughts you project into it.

A friend of mine who took my class last night, Daniel, sent me an email today:

In the beginning of class, you talked about this idea that, “There are no broken systems”; problems arise in “the way we relate to those systems.” The example that you suggested was a good one, in that it clearly supports your theory. The Whole Foods line situation really is a good system. Some people just find it confusing and their confusion, their lack of patience, etc. pisses them off, and then all of a sudden the system sucks. However … there are countless systems that truly are broken. Broken in the sense that there are very balanced, patient, wise people that are f*cked not because of their “relationship” to the system, but because the systems are unjust: colonialism, apartheid, fascism, the current American healthcare system, unregulated banking … the list is long. Anyway, I was stuck with this thought last night, and again as I woke up this a.m.

He is undoubtedly correct. When a system is devised for the gain of a few people, at the expense of others, it is broken, and will only eat its own tail, as the mythology of the uroboros goes. And yet, how many of us throughout history have not lived within some sort of broken system? Daniel mentioned the healthcare system, which is a great example. How we relate to that system in modern America is certainly a challenge. As someone who was uninsured for four years of my adult life, I know those struggles well. Still, the same principle applies: how I relate to it — if I let it defeat me, or if I stand up and move forward despite the greed of a few — is indicative of my psychology. I cannot believe the world will bend to my needs whenever I want. The flexibility of yoga involves my own bending, my own understanding that the world is not exactly how I want it to be. (Ironically, I’m currently reading the biography of V.S. Naipaul, fitting titled The World Is What It Is.) Once you know the limitations of your environment, only then can you find freedom within it.

Still, Daniel’s points are spot-on, and I had mentioned that while systems are usually benign, some people wrap and warp them to suit their own needs. What do we do then? Well, to the extent possible, we create our own systems to accommodate the good of the many. One friend recently forwarded me a link to her doctor in Brooklyn, whose company works by each member paying a monthly fee, instead of the one-time whopping bill. The fees are manageable for most, and the doctors reply by text messaging and emails, and always — I repeat always — follow up within a day. Generic prescriptions are free, and from what I understand they are very popular. (Last week they had a flu shot party at the office with a live DJ!) So here you have on a small scale a system that has become so in demand that the four doctors have to open another location in Manhattan. They were fed up with the healthcare system, and so founded their own, to help others, and to improve their own careers. Everyone wins, and the science of medicine, not the economics of it, takes precedence.

Global Beat Fusion: 49 Hours in Toronto

13 11 2008

By Derek Beres

I’m not sure why Toronto is called “T-Dot”. Oh, I’m sure there’s a very simple reason, but sometimes things remain more powerful when a mystery. I had made the mistake of referring to it as “T-Town” at one point, and was nearly assaulted by my friends. I supposed it’s like when tourists call New York’s Houston Street as if it were a city in Texas—if one can imagine the political and social distance between Manhattan and the state that spawned George W. Bush, there is no mercy in our reply.

Yet my friends were lighthearted in their scolding, and I noticed during my short time in Toronto that everyone I encountered had a similar attitude. Maybe it was the gorgeous architecture of the seasons—a slight, crisp chill surrounded by pockets of sunshine, a not-very-bitter drizzle that gave way to the lingering scent of autumn. I had made my way 90 airplane minutes north to attend and perform at the 7th Annual Small World Music Festival, one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching global music gatherings in North America. Rivaled by (and piggybacking) Chicago’s seminal World Music Festival, the Annual Small World Music Festival provides Toronto with a nearly two-week influx of amazing talent from across the planet in an ambitious feat of cross-cultural programming

I was invited by CIUT radio DJ Richard Martin, aka medicineman, whose show “No Man’s Land” is one of a handful of world music programs that have sustained and prospered in a radio market that focuses on anything but international sounds. We met in Montreal nearly five years ago and have since stayed in touch, often trading band names and mp3s in an attempt of giving innovative artists access to the very few media outlets dedicated to international music. He also led me to some things I would have never even imagined possible, like the world’s largest rodent (a guinea pig-looking creature the size of a pig) in residence at the zoo inside High Park, and a restaurant dedicated to fusing, of all things, of Hungarian and Thai cuisine.

After a surprisingly smooth flight into Toronto (on Continental, no less; my luck would not persist on the way home), I ended up at the Drake Hotel Underground to DJ alongside Eccodek. The party was in celebration of their new CD, Shivaboom (White Swan). I first met Andrew McPherson, Eccodek’s founder and keyboardist/producer, when he sent me a copy of the independently released More Africa in Us while I was working as an editor at Global Rhythm magazine. Despite the fact that I had never even heard of Guelph, I was immediately taken to the record. It fused tasteful elements of African music into a lightly textured electronic palette. His follow-up, Voices Have Eyes, did more of the same, only expanding into Turkish and Indian elements, along with flourishes of dub.

Read the full column on PopMatters.

The Tension That Supports

31 08 2008

By Derek Beres

In The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s illuminating memoir (in which she details her transformation from being a nun to one of the world’s most renowned religious historians), she writes, “Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.”

A few pages earlier, she had mentioned that she would never be suited for the demanding meditative disciplines of traditional yoga practice, but could find freedom in her studies, as well as her general attitude and behavior. (Mythologist Joseph Campbell once stated that his yoga was underlining sentences in books.) Of course, this is jnana yoga — the discipline of philosophy, or the yoga of knowledge. She takes the knowledge that the Buddha realized — that compassion is the highest quality to develop — and applies it to her own life and work.

This philosophy is not unknown to the bhakti yogi, who in his or her devotional practice applies compassion to all relationships. As a philosophy on paper, or taught in the yoga studio, this makes perfect sense. The hard part is realizing it when you’re not in a yoga studio, or reading a blog, or studying scripture. The challenge comes when you’re called to put compassion into practice at exactly the moment you’d rather do anything but — like, for me, every time I’m bumped and pushed on a subway car.

Read the full post on lime.com.

Calm As a Mountain

25 08 2008

In his seminal work, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts tells a story of a friend who owned a tea plantation. The man decided to pay his workers double, seeing the impoverished conditions they were living in. Once he started doing so, the workers only showed up half the time, leaving his plants in a dire condition. The man asked friends in business what to do, and they offered him economic solutions. Watts concluded by writing, “No one seemed to understand that those workers valued time for goofing off more than money.”

A number of my students began practicing yoga to counteract the high levels of stress they deal with at their jobs. Indeed, I suffered from the same situation, until I made teaching my job. It was then I found out that service, economics, and fun can all work together, that there need not be a rift between who we are and what we do. In fact, that rift is a very large reason we are stressed in the first place — by the unhappiness of treating work as something done for money, and not for the sake of work itself.

You hear it all the time: “This is what I do for money, not who I am.” It begins with the process of “more,” or, as an old friend paraphrasing Watts said, to take the “in order to” out of our lives. For example: we go to school in order to get a job in order to buy a house in order to own property and save for retirement in order to retire peacefully… only when we retire, we find that we’ve missed life each step of the way, because during each step we were waiting for the next step.

Read the full blog on lime.com.

Yoga: Teaching or TVing?

16 08 2008
Used under creative commons license from flickr user Eric_Lon

Used under creative commons license from flickr user Eric_Lon

by Derek Beres

The other day one of my students mentioned that he saw a yoga class advertised as having “no chanting, or any of that spiritual stuff.” I have come across such protestations from the anti-foo-foo crowd before, or at least from cautious marketers trying to capture a corner of the growing population that wants a physical workout without that other “stuff.”

As an instructor, I admittedly avoid talking about “spirituality.” It’s too abstract for me; yoga is a foundational tool for building awareness, so my talks tend to lean towards psychology and behavior, not concepts that may or may not be true. When you separate spirit from matter, you’re admitting defeat in the comprehension of union.

Overall, a fundamental connection to the intention of the practice should be adhered to. While self-realization may not have been the initial goal—yoga was most likely the invention of warriors quieting their mind for battle, and as it evolved it became more of a vehicle for community—when it merged with the Samkhya tradition, yoga was all about turning the mirror unto and into one’s self.

Read the full post on lime.com.

Sound Against Flame: An Excerpt

20 06 2008

An excerpt from Sound Against Flame: The Process of Yoga and Atheism in America by Derek Beres, out now from Outside the Box Publishing.

The half-cocked-brow gaze over slightly glazed eyes when I tried to explain the premise of my book to friends insured that I’d have some serious explaining to do. A comparative philosophy book on the practices of yoga and atheism, two systems with so (seemingly) little in common? Trying to establish a common ground between a devotional practice with images of blue-skinned, elephant-headed, flute-playing gods, and the complete opposite, the blasphemous idea of no God at all? Beyond a surface grazing-that of a South Asian spiritual practice mostly known in America as an exercise routine and for polytheistic iconography, alongside the outright denial of a Supreme Anything-there is plenty of shared wisdom. The premise of this work, and the underlying foundation of both yoga and atheism, directly pertains to the experience of life, not the abstraction of it.

There is little surprise that these two forms of belief/practice (or unbelief, depending on your definition) are the most rapidly expanding philosophies in our country. This is not to deny the brute strength of megachurches growing like wild weeds across the nation. (And this is not to necessitate the idea that such churches are inherently bad for us, as many atheists, as well as many sitting on the fence in the God question, put forth.) True, we are a Christian nation. There is little doubt about that. Even if we do not claim that as our faith, the forms of thought that arise in our brains have been conditioned by a specific cause-and-effect, rewards/benefits musculature defined and developed through biblical and political training. Indeed, it is impossible not to have been taught in such a manner if you have gone through the public school system. (And if you attended a private school, all the more so, as religion has a strong hold on nearly all of these institutions, as well as the majority of parents who home-school children.) Churches, it must be remembered, constructed the original educational system in America, so it is not surprising that the way we learn is dictated by theology. In many ways, this psychological underpinning is more relevant than outright belief, for when the manners in which we are conditioned stay hidden, we become prime targets for anxiety, depression, social confusion and general dis-ease.

What the basic ideological thinkers of the three major religious traditions of the West — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — have conceived is that your actions on this planet are preparations for a) some sort of kingdom of which people of your faith will lord over, and b) some form of afterlife, where a style of judgment will occur. This judgment comes in many varieties. Some maintain that you can convert to the faith and be “saved,” while other sects are so bullheaded that only those born into families of their specific faith are righteous. Regardless of the degree of severity, anything done for another life beyond this one is rooted in egoistic idealism, something both yoga and atheism (at their best) aim to dissolve. To get to the roots of this comparison, which is just as much a survey of the social and spiritual state of American ideologies as it is these two specific practices, we will have to apply the wisdom of philosopher Daniel Dennett: “If we want to understand the nature of religion today, as a natural phenomenon, we have to look not just at what it is today, but at what it used to be.” And this involves looking into the way all humans used to be, not just examining the doctrines passed down by a few men with specific agendas. The paths we will take may surprise you, and may not always be pleasant, but they will prove worthwhile.

To read the full excerpt on Reality Sandwich, click here