|What are the long-term consequences of equating the social discomfort generated by following one's conscience with the death and dismemberment of a conscious being for reasons of taste?
YOGA JOURNAL by Kate Roth May 2006
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Christine Winters didn't mean to break her vegetarian vow. When she began to practice yoga—on her own with the help of tapes and DVDs—she joyfully accepted ahimsa, the ethical guideline that proscribes yogis from doing harm to any living being. "Because of ahimsa, I decided to give up meat. It made perfect sense to me," says the 30-year-old mother, who also decided to raise her daughter as a vegetarian. Yoga teachers see it all the time. As students open themselves to the practice, "they are led very naturally to an understanding of do no harm," says author Lynn Ginsburg, who has studied yoga, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and vipassana meditation for 20 years, and Sanskrit for a decade. "It's a sneaky little thing that's built into yoga—the more you do it, the deeper it gets into your organic process. And when that happens, it wakes you up. Suddenly, you really do feel compassion for every living being."
Winters came to yoga seven years ago, but she learned about the abuses in the meat business through her volunteer work for EarthSave International and by reading Diet for a New America, by John Robbins, the founder of the organization. It opened her eyes to factory farming—where animals are treated as commodities, and where conditions are so bad for slaughterhouse workers that the U.S. Department of Labor has ranked the job as one of the most dangerous in America. "There was a synergy about my activism and my yoga, Winters says. Ahimsa and vegetarianism became an integral part of my life."
But she hadn't reckoned on the reaction of her loved ones—particularly her grandmother. "She disapproved of my decision to give up meat," Winters says. "Being old school, she didn't understand vegetarianism. She really believed it was dangerous." And since Winters often shared meals with her grandmother, her decision to give up meat caused constant conflict.
Winters persevered, but five years into her practice, she felt exhausted by the angry debates that inevitably ensued when she ate with her grandmother. When she found herself "almost coming to blows" with the older woman, she began to rethink ahimsa. "Here I was, straining to keep myself from screaming hurtful things at my own grandmother," she recalls. "That created a feeling of violence inside me, and that's against ahimsa."
The more she struggled, the further apart she felt from friends and family: How could the nonviolent path have led her to this brink? "There was a real social stigma around being a vegetarian," Winters says. In Bellingham, Washington, where Winters lived (she now lives in Olympia), the vegetarian community was small, and she couldn't figure out how to strike a balance between not eating meat and alienating the people around her. "It just got harder and harder for me to defend myself," she says. "I kept asking, Where do I draw the line? Do I really have to decide between protecting myself from emotional violence, and animals from physical violence? Why am I in this position?"
But here in the meat-eating West, the meaning of ahimsa is not so clear-cut. Some, like Beryl Bender Birch, prefer a broader interpretation. Others are more strict. "Ahimsa begins at home," says Birch, former wellness director of the New York Road Runners Club and the author of Power Yoga. "Say you go home for Thanksgiving and your mom is cooking her traditional turkey dinner—and you're not eating meat. Instead of making a scene, see if you can say, 'Mom, would you be offended if I don't eat the turkey? I'm trying to eat less meat, these days, for health reasons.' You don't have to announce your vegetarianism," suggests Birch, who was a vegetarian for many years and a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). "Find a way to speak to your mother without violence. And maybe, in this context, it would be less violent to eat the meal than to fight with your mother."
At the end of 2004, a remorseful Winters did let go of her vegetarian vows when her grandmother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It was her grandmother's dying wish to have Winters and Winters's daughter eat meat. Winters asks, "What was I supposed to do?" She clearly remembers the moment, in a Chinese restaurant, where she had stopped to pick up dinner for her grandmother. "Suddenly I thought, I'll have some chicken, too. It was wonderful to see my grandmother so happy when I sat down and ate that food with her." Since that day, Winters has taken a little meat into her diet, but she's wrestling with the decision. "I think this is how I will continue for a while. But I still have guilt."
Ethical backsliding? Well, that depends, Birch says. "I was teaching in Oaxaca and had access to free-range chickens. They were killed in about five seconds, right on the place where I was staying," she recalls. "One night we were cooking mole with chicken broth...and I ate it."
For 25 years Birch was a "devout" vegetarian. Then, in the mid-'90s, she began to travel around the world for yoga retreats and workshops. "I started going to countries like Jamaica, where I ate a little jerk chicken. When I went to Vancouver, I ate the salmon. Why? Because we were staying in places where the food was caught and prepared right under our noses, and I was able to do firsthand research about how that food was raised, how it was killed, and how it got to the table. And I was satisfied with the answer."
Many yogis agree that more important than what you eat are the questions you should ask before you eat: What is the source? How is it prepared? Was it cooked with kindness and focus and love? How do you eat? In what mental state?
"It doesn't matter what the food is," says Aadil Palkhivala, the founder-director of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington. "It matters how it is." Palkhivala suggests looking for nonviolence in the product itself, in its manufacture, and in its consumption. "If these things are taken care of, the earth will not suffer."
To some, this sounds like heresy. "Students deserve more than qualified statements from a yoga teacher," says Sharon Gannon, the cofounder of the global Jivamukti Yoga Center. "If your profession is teaching yoga, you must present ahimsa as a yama, and not as a separate item. It's great to have yoga in the West, but if it doesn't include the application of nonviolence in every aspect of our lives, don't call it yoga."
Christine Winters asks herself this question every time she shops—and it makes her feel better about the fact that she now eats meat. She looks for humanely raised organic meat, paying more because she knows she's getting something that's "better for the animals and better for my health." (To shop more responsibly, see "Concerned Consumer".) In fact, cost is one of her pet peeves. "Factory-farmed meat is cheap, but conditions there are horrible for animals—just to save Americans a little money." Winters sees the higher cost of sustainably produced meat as a positive way of limiting how much meat she eats.
These days, Winters is much calmer about ahimsa. Although she and her daughter eat meat, they eat less of it than they did before they were vegetarians. And Winters carefully helps her daughter understand where her food comes from. Winters is proud that her daughter is already much more aware of her eating and the consequences for the environment than Winters was at the same age. "I like to think, 30 years from now, when she's grown, the government and the food industry will be more responsible and responsive to the concerns of people like my daughter," she says. "And that thought makes all my stress worth it."