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?"
The Ahimsa Debate
Winters’s dilemma is a hot button in dharma circles because it goes straight to the moral core of yoga—and many teachers are divided on whether practicing ahimsa requires being a vegetarian. Scholars say it was no accident that Patanjali made ahimsa the first of the five yamas—the moral principles by which all yogis are called to live meaningful, ethical lives. Ahimsa, which means "do no harm," has always been regarded as the greatest vow."As the footprint of the elephant covers all other animal prints in the forest," says Edwin Bryant, an associate professor of religion at Rutgers University and an expert on Krishna and Hinduism, "so ahimsa covers all the other yamas- truthfulness, not stealing, presence and total commitment, and noncovetousness. And in the history of the yogi tradition, there is never any doubt: Ahimsa means no meat eating."
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."
Bender believes spiritual practitioners who are new to the path create violence unconsciously when they act without compassion: "We tend to be zealots when we first get on a path, be that yoga or vegetarianism. I think if you refuse meat and announce it’s because you’re a vegetarian, you’re projecting a position of superiority that may make the person offering the meat feel less spiritual than you. Just say, ‘No, thank you.’ And let it go."
What’s a Yogi to Do?
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."
Palkhivala argues, "In yoga there is no right way. Ahimsa starts with what is appropriate for my dharma. When the spirit asks me to be a vegetarian, I should do that. If it asks me to eat meat, I should do that. We must connect within ourselves." Palkhivala, who is also the president and founder of Eastern Essence, a line of organic dehydrated Ayurvedic Indian food, says he strives to "eat what is appropriate for the balance of the moment" and considers himself "not a vegetarian and not a nonvegetarian"—which means he occasionally eats meat. But vegetarianism makes him feel good, he says. "Meat takes a long time to digest and is produced with intense violence."
The Meat Market
The violence begins with the way animals are forced to live, which has worsened dramatically over the past 20 years. "Traditional farming operations used to treat animals as individuals," says Ken Midkiff, the author of The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America’s Food Supply. "I grew up on a farm, and I knew which one of our sows liked to be scratched behind the ears and which one would bite. When our ewes rejected some lambs, we took them into our kitchen and fed them from bottles."
Midkiff—a passionate vegetarian since the late 1980s, when he read Peter Singer’s seminal book, Animal Liberation—argues that a handful of powerful corporations are exploiting American agriculture, with devastating consequences for the land, the animals, and the workers. "Somewhere between the 1940s and the 1970s, something went terribly wrong. Schools of agriculture and the USDA, taking their marching orders from agribusiness and farm machinery and chemical companies, started preaching the adoption of the industrial model: Get big or get out. And, sadly, most small family farmers got out."
Meat production has increased by 500 percent since 1950, according to Worldwatch Institute, and an estimated 54 percent of the nation’s livestock is crowded into 5 percent of livestock farms, reports the American Public Health Association, an advocacy organization of public health professionals. As a result, industrial agriculture "is inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time in history," according to journalist Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times.
These concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are designed for volume and profit, and millions of America’s animals spend their entire lives indoors without sunlight or pasture, crowded in unsanitary conditions without room for natural movement. In order for the animals to survive their squalid confinement, they are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease and promote faster growth. "The for-profit overuse of these drugs threatens their effectiveness," according to GRACE, the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, "because these persistent low doses breed bacteria that are resistant to their power."
Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the safety and integrity of the food supply, says that meat from factory farms is frequently contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens, a claim confirmed by independent studies. In 2001, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that 20 percent of the ground meat samples taken in Washington, D.C., were contaminated with salmonella, and 84 percent of the 200 samples were resistant to antibiotics. An independent laboratory conducting an analysis for the Sierra Club and the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy in 2002 found that, of 200 whole chickens and 200 packages of ground turkey in Minneapolis and Des Moines, 95 percent of the chickens were contaminated with campylobacter, and nearly half of the turkey was tainted with salmonella.
Moreover, there is emerging scientific evidence that the heavy use of antibiotics for livestock is creating bacterial resistance that threatens human health. The American Public Health Association passed a resolution in 2003 advocating a moratorium on the building of new factory farms, based on its research findings that of the 13 million pounds of antibiotics used for factory farms (by way of comparison, only 3 million pounds are used for humans), 25 to 75 percent remained unchanged in the 575 million pounds of manure that industrialized meat produces annually. Such a heavy concentration of antibiotics poses "risks to soil, air, and water quality and public health following land application," the association reported.
The Way It Was
The animals who live out their lives on such factory farms also face a worse death than they would have faced years ago. And the way meat is butchered now is more wasteful. "The creativity of the butcher shop has gone away, and half of all meat ends up ground into hamburger," says Bruce Aidells, a meat historian, writer, teacher, and entrepreneur. "Supermarkets are under pressure to use cheaper labor to cut costs, and they are relying on central processing plants and unskilled labor."
Many of the country’s small slaughterhouses have been replaced by large high-speed facilities. The USDA regulates the maximum speeds of livestock-processing assembly lines, but the speeds can be as fast as 390 cows and 1,106 pigs per hour, and 25 chickens per minute. If line workers fail to keep up with those speeds, they risk being disciplined or fired, Food and Water Watch reports. According to the Humane Farming Association, a 21-year-old farm animal protection agency, the high quotas mean that workers often resort to violent measures to keep the lines running, dismembering or skinning animals that are still struggling and kicking to stay alive. The meat produced under such conditions can become contaminated with fecal matter, filth, and other adulterants, advocates say, making it dangerous for consumers. "These practices are not only cruel and inhumane, but they also put consumers at risk," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch.
The USDA refutes allegations of animal cruelty. "We have inspectors in every plant," says Steven Cohen, spokesperson for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service,"and if it did ever occur [live animals moving down the line], that would be unacceptable." Cohen disputes the notion that more people are becoming ill because of unclean processing conditions, saying that the incidence of pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter decreased between 1996 and 2004, that all animals are tested for disease before slaughter, and that all meat is tested again after processing and before it enters the food supply.
The Money Connection
Whatever the problems with meat production, meat is still the biggest part of the American diet. In a mid-1990s USDA survey of what Americans eat, 74 percent said they ate beef at least every other day, and 31 percent ate beef daily.
"Meat has been successfully marketed to Americans as a necessary part of every meal," says Patricia Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, "and that’s a huge change that happened in just a generation. Many Americans now expect to eat meat three times a day."
The reason? "Meat has gotten so cheap," says Diane Halverson of the Animal Welfare Institute. "We accept the idea that everyone has to eat meat every day, in large quantities. That is the message from fast-food companies, restaurants, and trade associations like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council, and it serves the factory farm model."
"It’s like we’re buying the bullets that are being used to shoot us," declares Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher turned crusading vegan, and the author of Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat. "If we reduced our beef consumption by 10 percent in the U.S., there would be enough savings in grain to feed all the hungry people in the world," Lyman says, who calculates that it takes 16 pounds of feed to put one pound of meat on the table, and that a single pound of grain can feed 32 hungry people. "You know what’s a rising profit center for McDonald’s right now? Fresh fruit! You don’t have to become a vegan to have an effect. Every time you reach into your pocket, ask, ‘Who’s going to get my money today?’"
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." 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.
So, what is the yogic approach to effecting change? "The right answer comes from the practice," Birch says. "The practice emphasizes consciousness. You get quiet, go inside, and take a look. Gradually, your understanding of ahimsa becomes greater. As your consciousness grows, so does your compassion. And soon, you realize, your only duty is to help alleviate suffering for all sentient beings. The work comes down to that."
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."