Reconciling transitioning away from dairy with yogic philosophy

dairy cowReconciling the transition away from dairy with yogic philosophy

Today is the first ever World Plant Milk Day. The personal and societal reasons for transitioning away from dairy (and other products derived from animals) and towards plant-based alternatives span the environment, animal welfare and human health across the globe. The benefits posed by plant-based diets are detailed clearly by the new international food awareness organisation ProVeg.

Vegetarianism is often hailed by Yogic scholars as the diet most affiliated to a yogic path in terms of ethics, personal health and yogic tradition. But what about veganism? One does not have to dig very deeply before coming across a myriad of symbolism within yogic philosophy connected to viewing the cow as a milk-giving mother. Milk is also used within ceremonies and rituals as it is considered as a sacred substance. So, how can transitioning away from milk live in harmony with a yogic path?

There are numerous ways in which yogic philosophy could not only support a societal transition towards veganism, but also contribute to fostering leaders and influencers of such shifts in society:

  • Yoga increases our self-awareness and consciousness. Carnism, coined by Dr Melanie Joy, describes how eating particular animals and their products is a deeply embedded cultural occurrence. It is a violent all-pervading ideology that the vast majority of us have been raised to accept as normal, despite it being in conflict with other core human (and yogic) values. Just as, through our yoga practice, we work on our other conditioned habits and mind-sets that do not serve us or others, why would we not do the same in respect to what we are eating to the fullest extent? A key part of this is becoming aware of the defence mechanisms already engrained into our psyche. These will be ready to fire if our false sense of self feels threatened. Dr Joy explains how this has been part and parcel of every social change movement, and how, without awareness of carnism – of our conditioned food choices – we are not making free choices every time we eat.
  • Yoga brings us into presence and connection. Through yoga, we endeavour to come into the present moment, into our bodies, into the deeper essence inside ourselves and into deeper connection with that same intangible essence existing in fellow earthlings. Yoga means union – not only between the mind, body and spirit, but also between ourselves and other beings (the latter also aiding with the former). We are endeavouring to see beyond the exterior of fellow earthly creatures (human or not) to the deeper interior essence that is thought to be shared by us all. A natural side-effect of feeling close to another is to not to want to eat them or parts of them. We learn that change is inevitable. We can welcome in this compassionate dietary change in society!
  • Yoga guides us in the management of energy. Ayurveda is often associated with yoga. Sattvic, rajasic and tamasic foods can all be found within plant-based foods, so that each individual can balance their own unique energy constitution. Veganism is thought to be compatible with Ayurveda. So, that’s good news. Avoiding the consumption of negative emotions that will undoubtedly be present within the vast majority if not all animal foods is also thought to positively affect our energy. Through our asana practice, we seek to shift and direct energy, and to awaken dormant muscles – we can mirror this in awakening to the effects of carnism too.
  • Yoga teaches us about balance. Being an advocate of social change can be tiring and challenging. Due to the extent to which consuming animals is embedded in our society and institutionalised, taking another route is not always easy. We all have other commitments and our own issues as well. The good news is that being part of social change is not about attaining a non-existent perfection. Do as much as you can as every little helps. It’s not about judging each other, but moving forward together in the most positive and compassionate direction. 100% veganism is fabulous if you feel you can manage it. But let’s not forget that reducetarianism is also fantastic if that’s where you’re at – on a societal and global scale, it can be a stepping stone to veganism in the long run. We can all also aid in the promotion of veganism or plant-based diets in other ways alongside what we are buying and eating.
  • Yoga is about transformation. Let us unite all of the aforementioned attributes that yoga aids in bringing forth – awareness, consciousness, presence, connection, positive energy, balance – into a positive outcome: supporting the plant-based diet revolution as best as we can. We need to de-normalise eating animals; the aim, eventually, is for eating animals or substances from them to be socially inacceptable.

The eradication of the role of cattle in human advancement in our history does not need to occur. Shifting to plant-based diets does not challenge the notion of the cow as a mother to our ancestors; we can continue to honour this and express our gratitude. The time has come that the cow needs the human as a caring protecting mother. This video explores how one Hindu family honours their Gods using plant-based milk instead of cows’ milk (not to suggest that yoga is religious but it is widely considered to be a tool stemming from Hindu culture). Transitioning away from dairy could simply become another societal progression, similar to how many regions have outlawed animal sacrifices for ethical reasons, despite the long-standing traditions and cultural significance of such practices. Considering that humans can thrive just as well if not better on a plant-based diet, why are animal sacrifices not OK but the mass production and slaughter of billions of animals needlessly each year for food OK?

Modern milk production is a far cry from milk production methods in ancient times. Vegetarianism and veganism, sometimes hailed as western developments, have also actually historically been practiced in the birthplace of yoga since ancient times, particularly amongst Jains. The yamas and niyamas support the transition away from dairy. Every yama and niyama can be applied to the entirety of the animal kingdom, not just the homo sapien species. Shambo’s devastating story highlights a genuine full attempted enactment of the yamas and niyamas. Look at the lengths this community went to, to protect one cow. Why such effort for one individual cow but the exploitation and destruction of billions of other sentient beings each year (this is not a question for the community itself but rather for all of us, as chances are, we all wanted Shambo to live)?

Two things should be noted. First, yogic philosophy is much clearer regarding the abstinence from egg consumption. Lacto-vegetarianism already lies within the culture as eggs are considered to be the beginning of life. However, even if this were not the case, similar arguments could be made due to grave suffering and disrespect for life within the egg industry. Second, the situation may be more complex and sensitive in some areas of the world, but generally speaking these are the exceptions; many people and societies can make a clear choice whether to breed, rear, slaughter and sell animals for their meat or other products. There are initiatives such as Ahimsa Milk where the male calves are not killed (but put to work) and where the mother is not separated from the calf. Such practices are definitely an improvement; however, everyone would still need to dramatically reduce their dairy intake for these hugely low-key initiatives to provide for everyone, if such levels of provision could at all be possible. Ethical concerns would still remain as well concerning using the animals and their secretions in any way at all.

Yoga is not about remaining attached to traditions merely for the sake of tradition or due to its hold on our socially constructed identity. It is not about the denial of problems or leaving them for others to sort out when we play such a fundamental role both in the problem and the solution. Yogic philosophy need not be an obstacle to veganism. On the contrary, yogic philosophy and supporting a societal transition away from dairy can live in perfect harmony. And leaders of such social change could stem from within the yoga community. As members of the higher consciousness community, arguably, we need to be the leaders; we have a responsibility to step into this role as people look to us for guidance, inspiration and hope. Can we truly practice sitting in integrity, peace, contentment and stillness without recognising the atrocities within animal agriculture and without, at least, playing our part in the transition to the alternative? Start now (or continue!) on World Plant Milk Day.