A gentleman of my acquaintance, a sworn vegetarian for almost as long as I’ve known him, tells an intriguing tale of how becoming a herbivore changed his life for the better. While living in Ireland, some time before he decided to give meat the cold shoulder, he regularly had to run for his life from herds of stampeding cows. Every time he crossed a certain field, the mob would be waiting for him, swooshing their tails menacingly and (as I imagine it) pawing the dirt like furious bulls.
It would be drawing a long bow to say that cow-chasing was what persuaded my friend to become vegetarian. More likely, he followed the path that most new converts take: initial experimentation with “white meat and fish only”, slow-but-sure weaning from chicken to lentils, occasional lapse into what he himself describes as “low integrity diet days”. But since committing to a life without bacon and pork chops, he has noticed that his relationship with the animal world has changed. Now when he walks through boggy fields, the livestock are happy to watch him wander past, presumably recognising a fellow cud-chewer when they see one.
Whether or not you believe in a world where cows can spot a steak-eater at fifty paces, it’s a fact that more and more people are turning to vegetarianism, not only as a dietary choice, but as a way of living in a more ethical and conscious relationship with the world. Whilst here in the west vegetarianism is generally seen as something of a New Age phenomenon, or part of an alternative lifestyle, in India yogis have been advocating a meat-free diet for thousands of years.
The ancient yogis weren’t abstaining from meat in order to curb their carbon emissions, nor were they worried about their saturated fat intake. For them the most important consideration was that their food had to be easily digestible – both physically and mentally.
On the physical level, it takes a lot more time and energy for our body to break down the fibres and sinews in meat than it does to digest vegetable proteins. This is part of the reason why scientific research is showing us that a vegetarian diet helps to protect the body from disease such as cancer, obesity and high blood pressure.
But perhaps even more important is the mental difference that comes from living, and eating, with compassion. You can buy any number of books about the ethics of our food industry and how animals are farmed: the chemicals and medicines they are fed, the environmental impact of so many millions of cattle feeding and farting, and the methods by which animals are slaughtered. But even without delving into the harsh facts, there’s something fundamentally bizarre in the way our societies, founded as they are on respect for human rights and the sanctity of life, are prepared to forget all that when it comes to eating meat.
It’s not that we don’t care about animals – how many meat eaters are also pet owners? – yet many of choose not to think about the where the steak, salami or sausage actually came from.
Yoga, as well as encouraging us to do the right thing by our bodies, encourages us to take responsibility for each of our actions. When we begin to accept this responsibility, it means we have to start questioning our choices. Do I need to eat meat? Do I simply like the taste? Or do I merely eat it because it’s what I am in the habit of eating?
Then comes the biggie: is my addiction to the oral sensation of consuming fried chicken/pork chops/lamb brains important enough to me to knowingly inflict suffering on another creature.
Yogis, too, questioned their choices and decided that ahimsa – non-violence – was the most productive path forward. They believed that the mind would become calmer, more peaceful and loving, if they chose to treat all living beings with kindness and compassion. Choosing this path, of “doing unto others (including others with four legs) as you would have done to yourself”, changes your relationship with the world. And the act of eating, so essential to the act of living, ceases to be a habitual thing, but a considered and caring act.
It’s an experiment I’ve been conducting for many years and I’ve certainly found it to be true. And I really can’t remember the last time I got chased by a cow.
Author Bio – This post continues our yoga series by guest blogger Helen Laird of Yoga in One Syllable. Helen is passionate about helping people see where yoga already exists in their lives and inspiring them to bring more yoga into it.