My journey to becoming vegan has unfolded slowly over this entire lifetime. I remember as a child going grocery shopping with my mother and being strangely drawn to inspecting the packages of frozen meat, reading the labels and being appalled at the names of some of the items: tongue, cheek, feet. I was always in search of the most disturbing one. At that point though, I didn’t really understand the connection that those tongues, cheeks, and feet had at one time belonged to a living being. As I got a little older, I began to understand that fact on an intellectual level but not yet an emotional one as I was still unaware of the the violent realities that animals face. I declared myself a vegetarian once in my adolescence after watching an undercover report on contamination in meat packing plants. I don’t think my parents knew what to do with that information so they kept feeding me what they always had and I really had no choice but to go on eating it.
All the way into my early adulthood, I suffered from issues related to slow digestion. I developed a working theory that the source of my problem was over consumption of meat. I would go for a period of time, usually a few days or maybe a week, without consuming any meat. I didn’t consider at the time to be vegetarian but rather just being “off meat.” When my discomfort lessened and I felt like my digestion had caught up, I would resume eating meat again. Not surprisingly, this was something I had to repeat over and over. I eventually started going “off cheese” as well in my effort for gastrological comfort. Again, I didn’t see this at time as being vegan because it never occurred to me that it was something you could do for an extended period of time. I grew up in Texas where it’s not a meal unless there is meat in it!
Eventually in my late-twenties, I found a spiritual Yoga class. This was the first time I heard of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and specifically Yama and Niyama (the Ethical Rules). Ahimsa, non-violence, is the first and most important of these rules. Sri Dharma Mittra defines Ahimsa as “not killing or taking away the comfort of any living being.”
Not long after attending my first of these Yoga classes, the studio brought in a Kundalini Yoga master from India for a week-long workshop. The participants were asked to eat a vegetarian diet during the duration of the workshop out of respect for the teacher. I thought to myself, “Sure, no problem! I’ve gone that long without eating meat before.” But this was the first time I thought of it in terms of being vegetarian. The workshop was fantastic and I was right, it was no problem to eat a vegetarian diet for the week. But then the week was over and I went back to a carnivorous diet.
But something in me had begun to shift. I started to question myself: Why am I eating this hamburger? Truthfully, I didn’t even enjoy it much. The more I examined myself, my diet, and my beliefs surrounding food, the more I realized I had never really thought about it before. My behavior was one of habit and ease. The beliefs I held about what was food and what constituted a meal weren’t my own but ones instilled in me by others. Suddenly, I had my own views on the subject. I had known for years that I felt better when I didn’t eat meat so why was I doing it? It made no sense and I stopped. That was in 2009 and I have enjoyed a plant-based diet ever since. It was absolutely the right decision for me; my digestion normalized and my health improved. I felt good!
I ate a vegetarian diet for about the next six years. During that time I truly saw it as a compassionate lifestyle and in alignment with Ahimsa. However, my spiritual awareness grew further when I completed my yoga teacher trainings with Sri Dharma Mittra at his studio in New York City. Both the 500-hour and the 800-hour trainings require a strict vegan diet as part of the curriculum. Sri Dharma has long been a proponent of a plant-based, cruelty-free diet and is himself, a living example of compassion.
I didn’t necessarily plan on becoming vegan permanently but it was extremely important to me to adhere to the diet and the directives given during the teacher trainings. In addition to the diet, we had daily practices that included asana, pranayama, mediation and journaling on Yama & Niyama. During this time, I noticed a difference in my body, mind, and my relationship with the world around me. I became less stiff, more limber and my physical asana practice grew tremendously. My mind began to settle and I finally began to have some success in meditation. Even as a vegetarian, meditation was a struggle; I had no patience and didn’t really understand the process and found it more frustrating than helpful. I also began looking at other beings differently. What difference was there, really, between my beloved dog and a cow? Or between myself and a cow for that matter? We all love life and fear pain and suffering. I knew I wanted to cause as little suffering to others as possible so I continued leading a vegan lifestyle.
Even after years of being a vegetarian, I did not realize the depth of suffering animals in the egg and dairy industry endure. Egg-laying chickens are kept only so long as they are useful and are then killed. Male chicks aren’t useful at all and are violently killed shortly after birth. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated over and over so they will continue to produce milk. The offspring are immediately taken from their mothers so the milk can instead be sold for human consumption. Female calves continue in this process becoming themselves dairy cows for their five years of life until slaughter. Male calves, however, are useless to the dairy industry and slaughtered for veal between 18-20 weeks old.
Yama, which includes Ahimsa, is the first of the eight limbs of Yoga, suggesting that the remaining seven limbs grow from the first. Sri Dharma refers to Yama as “the foundation of Yoga” without which there is no success in Yoga. To practice any of the other limbs without considering Ahimsa in thought, word, and deed is incomplete. You may practice Asana or Pranayama once or twice a day but eating is something we typically do multiple times a day and devote a large amount of time to over the course of our life. Each of those times is an opportunity to live your Yoga, to choose Ahimsa and show compassion to ourselves, other beings, and the planet.
Veganism isn’t just about a diet, it’s about building a compassionate relationship with the world you live in. Yoga leads us to see the oneness of all creation. Yoga is vegan.