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A Journey to Yoga & Vegetarianism
My own journey to becoming a vegan, animal rights activist yoga teacher began when I was three years old. I lived in Florida with my mother, father, little brother, and friend, Mrs. Goose. My parents referred to Mrs. Goose as my “imaginary friend.” I did not know what that meant at the time. In my mind, Mrs. Goose was a goose only a few inches taller than I was. We all lived in a big rented house at the edge of the Everglade Forest.
One day as we were returning home from the grocery store, Mrs. Goose and I ran out of the car. We wanted to race each other to the front door. As we ran, we both spotted something colorful lying on the stone porch steps. Mrs. Goose told me to slow down and be very quiet. She waddled closer to take a look, then told me to approach quietly. As I got closer, the shiny black, red, and yellow being who was lying on the steps, bathing in the sun, opened her eyes wide to look at us. I had never seen such a creature. She lifted her head to speak. She spoke in such a low whisper that I had to lean down very near to her face to hear her.
I leaned down, and she was just about to tell me som-thing when I heard my mother screaming behind me. My mother came quickly, pushed Mrs. Goose out of the way, and grabbed me. My dad came running with a crowbar and hit the shiny lady, breaking her back. I heard her scream, and I tried to get free from my mother to run and help her. Mrs. Goose was doing her best by flapping her wings, squawking, and trying to interfere. My dad hit the lady again, this time breaking her body into two pieces. My mother let me go. I ran to see the beautiful shiny creature lying lifeless in the sun, one eye still gleaming open, looking at me. As the wind moved through the cypress trees, I heard her whisper, “Why?
Without intending to, I had caused the death of a beautiful coral snake, minding her own business, sunning herself. I realized that I had the power to influence the actions of other people, for better or for worse, and I had better be careful.
I went to a Catholic school from first to sixth grade. Every morning, the day began with a catechism lesson. In first grade, we learned the Ten Commandments. The day that we learned Thou shalt not kill, I came home from school and was excited to tell my mother that we aren’t supposed to kill. She was fixing a dish for dinner she called “peasant stew,” which had cut-up hot dogs in it. I knew that hamburgers and hot dogs were animals who were killed so that we could eat them, so I was very excited to tell her the news. She responded: “Don’t worry. It’s okay that we kill these animals because they are raised for it.” I went off by myself to think about this statement.
I felt very confused. I had only recently heard the story of Hansel and Gretel and the witch who fattens them up, intending to pop them in the oven and eat them for dinner. I felt bewildered, angry, and disturbed that my mother did not see the connection. I felt even more disturbed because I wasn’t able to communicate to her that there seemed to be something very wrong with what we were doing. I realized that if my mother was going to change her behavior, I had to be able to communicate to her in a way that did not make her angry, and for that to happen, I couldn’t be angry myself. I had to find a better way.
Years later, in 1982, while living in Seattle, Washington, as a dancer, poet, musician, and painter, I went to see The Animals Film — a British documentary that probed into the relationship between human beings and animals. I went because the soundtrack was by Robert Wyatt, a musician whom I admired. Academy Award-winning actress Julie Christie also narrated the film.
Those two hours and twenty minutes in the movie theater altered my life like no other single incident. The film exposed the cruel, exploitative, and inhumane way that we human beings treat animals. The film explored the use of animals as entertainment (from stuffed toys to pets), as food, as providers of clothing, and as victims of military and “scientific” research. It ended with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) rescuing animals from a laboratory. The movie caused me to radically rethink art, the purpose of the artist, and what I was doing with my life. If I wasn’t contributing to stopping the insanity I saw depicted in this film, what was the value in what I was doing?
I had been an on-again, off-again vegetarian before the film. After viewing it, I became a committed vegetarian and, soon after, a vegan. I was deeply affected and vowed that I would find a way to help stop the suffering of the animals I had seen in the film — but how? I tried to voice my feelings, but my friends accused me of being too emotional. It was like trying to talk to my mother all over again. I knew that what I had seen was a glimpse into reality that not many people had or cared to experience. I could no longer live in a cushioned state of denial. I knew that for the situation to change, a whole society had to change — indeed, a whole culture. But first, could there be a change among my friends and myself? Could I change? I felt incredibly inadequate and inarticulate.
While in this state of intense internal turmoil, I fell down some steep, slippery stairs and fractured my fifth lumbar vertebra. The accident resulted in paralysis of my right leg for a painful and frightening two weeks. I recovered the use of my leg, but would still lose all sensation on occasion when the bone shifted and pinched a nerve. During this time, I moved to New York City. My back was still injured, and I began attending yoga classes as a last-ditch effort to do something non-surgical about the pain. Yoga not only helped my back, but the practice also instigated a reintegration of all parts of my being.
During those first few yoga classes, I had the rare experience of going deeper into the feelings in my body as well as the judgments, assumptions, and opinions in my mind. Was it painful? Extremely so! But, perhaps for the first time in my very physical life, I was actually being physical. I wasn’t trying to get out of my body — I was actually going deeper into it with a sense of adventure.
Previously I had objectified my body, considering it to be a tool I needed. After all, I was going to change the world, save the animals, and bring peace on Earth — and I needed a body to accomplish this great work!
I realized through the practice of yoga that ideas were not enough to change the world or to change my own life. Whatever I wanted to see in the world around me had to first become real in my own life, in my own body, down to the molecular level. Change had to start with the way I lived, the way I breathed, and how I spoke. Yoga gave me the means to dehypnotize myself from the cultural conditioning to which I — and everyone — had been subjected. Yoga taught me that the disease of disconnection that causes us to say one thing while meaning another — and to do a completely different third thing — stems from a deep lack of self-confidence. Yoga taught me the unitive power of well-being, which arises through aligning with breath (the animating life force) and allows one to feel part of the community of life rather than feeling at odds with it. Yoga taught me, above all, that life provides us with opportunities to be kind. Kindness leads to compassion, and compassion is essential for enlightenment, which is the goal of yoga.
Through the practice of yoga, I have learned something about the nature and meaning of karma. I have come to realize that how we treat others determines our own reality. This reinforced my belief in the reaction Mrs. Goose and I had shared — it showed me that I was not, in fact, alone in my view that we are powerful beings whose actions have an impact. What this helped me to see and understand is that this impact is not just on “the world” at large, but on everyone around me and, ultimately, on myself. That is what finally motivated me to become a yoga teacher as a way to share the benefits of vegetarianism with others who are interested in the path of enlightenment.
I consider myself an activist — a yoga activist as well as an animal rights activist. What does it mean to be an activist? An activist is someone who actively wants to stimulate a change in the world. We all know that pointing fingers and trying to change others is an endless job. If we can’t get to the root of a problem, our efforts will only end in frustration.
Yoga offers an effective form of activism because it teaches us that there really is no “out there” out there. What we see in the world around us is only a reflection of what is inside of us. Our present reality is a projection of our inner reality, and that inner reality arises according to our past karmas. Our past karmas are the result of how we have treated others. How we have treated others in the past determines our present reality.
We create the world we live in. If we want to change what we don’t like in the world, we must start by changing what we don’t like about ourselves. That is a task we can handle and one that will actually succeed in changing the world.
We are in the midst of a global crisis. Most people (humans, that is) don’t realize this. Most people don’t realize that we are causing the crisis. Many of us who are aware that we are causing this crisis don’t know what to do about it. I feel that the popularity of yoga at this time of global crisis is no coincidence. A yogi, by definition, is someone who is striving to live harmoniously with the Earth and, through that good relationship, purify his or her karma so that enlightenment can arise. What is realized in the enlightened state is the oneness of being or the interconnectedness of all beings. Such a shift in consciousness has the potential to save our planet.
This has been excerpted from Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Diet of Enlightenment by Sharon Gannon (Mandala Publishing).