“Animal Abuse in Modern Yoga Gastropolitics”

Jonathan Dickstein

Yoga traditionalism challenges any suggestion that genuine teachers are capable of abusive behavior. Neophytes and frauds may be capable of abuse, but surely not masters, nor their texts or methods. What appears to the ego-obsessed student as abuse is in fact true teaching, for to the ignorant the guru always “moves in mysterious ways.” Post-traditional yoga, on the other hand, rejects claims of infallibility and allegiance to dogma more broadly, consequently accepting the potential for abuse issuing from any source. And “abuse” here refers not merely to intentional harming, but intentional harming deriving from and depending on dynamics of inequality and power.

Concerns about inequality and power are fundamental to the politics of the political left, and so too to what I refer to as the “yogic left.” These concerns stem from a core commitment to the principle of equality, and I contend that this commitment requires the yogic left to extend its ethical gaze well beyond the limits of its own species.

With this in mind, this article makes three general points, with a focus on the third:

(1) Our concerns about abuse directly relate to the principle of equality, and the left’s commitment to it.

(2) The principle of equality requires the inclusion of animals into the moral community.

(3) Dietary restrictions grounded in the principle of equality oppose, rather than perpetuate, abuse.

Equality and The Left

In “The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century” (2003), political and social theorist Steven Lukes defines “the left” as “a tradition and a project … which puts in question sacred principles of social order, contests unjustifiable but remediable inequalities of status, rights, powers and conditions and seeks to eliminate them through political action. Its distinctive core commitment is to a demanding answer to the question of what equality means and implies.”

The imperative to confront abuse in post-traditional yoga is in lockstep with – if not a direct product of – this equality-minded “tradition and project.” The yogic left similarly “contest[s] unjustifiable but remediable inequalities of status, rights, powers and conditions.” This concern for equality has instigated campaigns to de-dogmatize, decolonize, de-whiten, accessiblize, and horizontalize the contemporary yoga world.

Lukes continues: “It [the left] starts from the basic humanist idea of equality: the moral principle that all human beings are equally deserving of concern and respect.”

According to Lukes, the left seeks equality according to the standard humanist interpretation of the principle: human beings, and only human beings, are “equally deserving of concern and respect,” owing to the simple fact of them “being human.” Inclusion in this being-categorization “human” not only entitles one to equality with other humans, but also to entrance into the moral community at all (yes, some “anti-cruelty” and “anti-abuse” laws and norms do exist, but animals still remain human property under the law). In short, humans count because they’re humans and nonhumans don’t because they’re not. This exclusionary stance is precisely where the left has gone perpetually wrong, and with it the yogic left. Any commitment to the idea of equality remains incomplete whenever it uncritically assumes an anthropocentric starting point.

In Practical Ethics (2011), Peter Singer argues that the principle of equality cannot plausibly derive from shared species categorization alone. If being “equally deserving of concern and respect” were contingent merely on one’s inclusion in the species category “human,” then we could easily conceive of such concern and respect being contingent on other categories, intra-species categories. Accordingly, ethical consideration could feasibly hinge on being “white,” “straight,” “male,” “able-bodied,” or any category deemed critical by the dominant culture. If these intra-species categories strike us as irrelevant when contemplating equality and ethical consideration, then why not also with species? Why are we so confident that species, or more specifically, being or not being human, is itself what matters?

Singer rightly notes that the principle of equality does not obey being-categorizations but rather the natures of the interests of the individual beings involved. As virtually all human beings share a number of basic interests – such as in not being physically, sexually, psychologically, and emotionally abused – their interests should be considered equally no matter their other, and in this context irrelevant, race, gender, or ability categorizations. However, interests in not being abused are shared by most if not all nonhuman animals as well, indisputably among the billions of farmed animals contained in human food systems. The announcement for the “Abuse in Yoga and Beyond” conference (from which this article emerges) expressed that “‘abuse’ extends beyond individual yoga communities and is often performed through unacknowledged race, gender, and class privilege.” But what about unacknowledged species privilege?

Orphans of the Left

Differential treatment based on species categorization, or speciesism, underlies the ultra-violence inflicted upon billions of animals every year, and to no greater extent than in human food systems. The phrase “animal abuse” conventionally refers to violence in excess of the socially sanctioned amount, yet not only are “food animals” abused by the “excessive” sadistic acts of individual humans, but also – and much more fundamentally – through their very conceptualization as objects, their categorization as processable things.

Historically animals have been denied victim-status altogether, resulting in the perplexing phenomenon of mass violence without victims. In “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” (2008), Cora Diamond notes that this mass violence is “for nearly everyone, it is as nothing, as the mere accepted background of life.” But the denial of animal victimhood should come as no surprise, for, as Syl Ko notes in Aphro-ism (2017), the Euro-American catch-all term “animal” has always expressed social (non-)value rather than biological composition. While we would all agree that we are animals, biologically speaking, not one of us wishes to be treated like an animal. To be treated like an animal, socially speaking, is to be treated like a thing, as an object with no considerable interests. “Animal” (or “subhuman”) advertises the absence of value-in-itself, but not the absence of use-value for others. In brief, the ontological exploitability of “animal” makes it, in the words of Maneesha Deckha (2010), a “violence producing category.” At the other end of the binary, the human, the non-animal, the person, stands as the only being capable of being victimized. But once we abandon our “anxious anthropocentrism,” as Erica Fudge aptly calls it, and recognize how the principle of equality demands consideration of nonhumans’ interests, then we must also acknowledge animals as legitimate victims of abuse.

Humans, Diet, and Abuse

Animals are victims of abuse, but what about human victims? What about the harms involved in restricting bodily regimens, and diets in particular? Does this not also amount to abuse? In “The Strong Case for Vegetarianism in Pātañjala Yoga” (2017) I discussed the logical implications of the classical yogic restraint of ahiṃsā (non-harming), and here only call attention to the invocation of this restraint in defense of a hands-off approach to dietary practice. According to this view, food restrictions themselves amount to forms of “self-harm,” thereby violating the core yogic restraint against harming. Dietary restrictions also appear to contradict the progressive yogic emphasis on subjectively-determined routines of self-care. The hands-off approach thus solicits justification from both traditional and post-traditional perspectives on yoga.

However, this notion of self-harm (as opposed to other-harm) is completely absent in the texts to which this perspective appeals. The Yoga Sūtra, as the primary example, explicitly prohibits avoidable bodily practices that cause harm to others, human or nonhuman. Moreover, whether one’s adopts or discards the Yoga Sūtra as an authoritative source, any assertion that the personal discomfort or inconvenience experienced by not consuming animals outweighs the misery experienced by those animals themselves is not only superficially unconvincing, but also unjustifiably anthropocentric and egocentric.

There remains the more credible claim that the abusiveness of dietary restrictions lies not in restriction-as-self-harm per se, but rather the sexism, ableism, and sizeism embedded in these restrictions historically. Dietary rules have been incorporated and wielded by abusive ideologies and figures, both inside yoga culture and, much more ubiquitously, under mainstream heteropatriarchy. This assertion is indisputable, yet so too have asana and pranayama practices functioned to enforce inequality and exclusivity. This fact does not mean that postures and breathing practices should be abandoned altogether, but rather that they should be (and are currently being) rethought, adapted, and reformed. Likewise, no matter how dogma and heteropatriarchy have weaponized dietary restrictions in the past, if these restrictions derive from a consistent, animal-inclusive application of the principle of equality, then we cannot discard them merely through the charge of guilt by loose association.

One may also accuse the move to regulate diet as myopic and privileged, if not also neo-colonial, ignoring the histories and ever-present ramifications of discrimination and violence experienced by marginalized and racialized human populations. Oppressed humans have been stripped of autonomy for millennia, and now seem to have to bear even more restrictions and costs from the dominant culture. But first we must acknowledge that most modern yoga practitioners actually belong to the dominant culture, at least in terms of race, class, ability, gender identity, and nationality. For this reason we should be somewhat suspicious of privileged voices engaging in selective and inconsistent allyship that, in this case, safeguards their own animal-consuming habits while inflating their yoga social capital. Second, and more importantly, the purportedly unjust dietary burden of foregoing animal products is not being levied by the dominant culture, but rather the victims of abuse themselves: “food animals” commodified for human consumption. To tweak a sentiment voiced by Claire Jean Kim in Dangerous Crossings (2015), I ask:

While reparations are undoubtedly due to those oppressed by the dominant culture – be that yoga dogmatism or white supremacy – why should animals be sacrificed on the altar of progressivism and decolonization, especially when they themselves are brutalized by the same dominant culture? Is it not an odd sort of restorative justice that pays one oppressed group in the pain and misery of another?

Expanding the Circle

 Largely omitted from this essay which has centered on “animalized animals” is how the patronization of animal agriculture only feeds ideologies and systems of oppression of marginalized and racialized – which is to say “animalized” – human populations. White supremacy has arguably no greater corporate manifestation than mainstream animal agriculture. For human laborers and consumers, the list of abuses is extensive. Workers labor long, tough shifts for minimal pay under unsanitary, dangerous and horrifying conditions, often unable to find alternative work due to language, education, or immigration status. They display elevated rates of violence, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, PTSD, and domestic abuse. The recent explosion of COVID-19 in slaughterhouses worldwide, with their continuing operation in the United States deemed “essential” when it is anything but, testifies to the complete devaluation of human lives in this industry. Moreover, not only is their product, the diet promoted by animal agriculture, sorely deficient if not intentionally disastrous for human health when compared to viable alternatives, but it is also responsible for food oppression – the state-sponsored injection of foods upon populations with known negative health outcomes – such as the pummeling of brown and black communities with fried and processed foods, and cow milk knowing that a large percentage of the consumers are not lactose-persistent. As we express in “Veganism as Left Praxis” (2020), globally speaking “there is an irony in considering veganism as a ‘white thing,’ [as many do] given…the whiteness of the universalizing, imperial drive behind the ‘meatification’ of food systems all over the world.” Christopher Sebastian (2019) adds that “boycotting animal products is a multi-problem solver. You would be hard-pressed to find any individual movement for justice that reduces our climate footprint, reduces harm against economically disenfranchised human communities, makes a statement about reproductive autonomy, and expresses solidarity with black and brown people, ON TOP OF not senselessly killing the billions of animals with whom we share this planet.”

At this point you may be thinking: “Sure, but isn’t this focus on individual consumption covered in Neo-liberalism 101? Systems and industries are the problems, not individuals and their eating habits, right?” There is much truth in this perspective, yet reflex assertions of consumer impotence are not only inconsistently invoked and fail to reflect actual market ecology, but, I would argue, derive from an unconscious internalization of neo-liberal, capitalist ideology itself. But we don’t need to get too heady about it either, as common sense will suffice: Personal change and structural change are not mutually exclusive. We can fight for systemic reform, both inside and outside the yoga world, all the while not supporting animal abuse through consumption. We can dismantle and chew gum at the same time.

Doing Better

“One of the worst crimes in history,” is how Yuval Noah Harari describes industrial animal agriculture, which accounts for over 99% of all animal products in the United States. Surprisingly, discussions about what this atrocity demands of us in our daily lives remains absent in – if not actively avoided by – yoga studios, trainings, and workshops. One can easily find mainstream blog posts and essays reassuring practitioners that they can still eat meat and be a yogi. Regardless of what “being a yogi” means, individuals continue to appeal to yoga philosophy, individualism, and apparently critique-immune practices of self-care to justify virtually any personal behavior, including blatantly abusive ones. While self-care as self-enacted restorative justice is vital, it does not render other-care irrelevant, especially towards the unfathomable number of vulnerable others brutalized in our food systems.

If we are sincerely committed to decolonizing yoga and making it more inclusive, trauma-sensitive, and trauma-preventative, how can we continue to avoid the animal question? The yogic left calls for boycotts of Jois, Bikram, Friend, Life and Gannon, and Manos, to name a few, but not Tyson, not Smithfield, and not Perdue, and definitely not “local” or “humane” operations that still profit from abuse in its most basic form – objectification. Perhaps the consistent sidelining and subordination of this question, and the scolding of those who raise it, stems from a simple anxiety-producing fact: The values of the yogic left stand in perfect symmetry with a boycott of animal products, yet its practices stand in perfect opposition.

We can do better by the vulnerable and abused nonhumans with whom we share this world, and our commitment to equality carries a serious obligation to do so.

Jonathan Dickstein is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. His work focuses on South Asian Religious Traditions, Animals and Religion, and Comparative Ethics. 

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