Thursday, January 28, 2010


"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread..." thus do I enter into the thorny issue of yoga and vegetarianism.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about yoga and food, and how some studios and restauranteurs are bringing them together in surprising (and somewhat icky - who wants to use their sweaty, nasty yoga mat as a place setting for an after class meal?) ways. This, of course, raises the question of what sorts of foods are fit for us yogis to eat. Patañjali's Yoga Sutras list ahimsa as the first part of the first limb of yoga - he is clearly making a statement of importance here by listing it right up front. Usually, we translate ahimsa as non-violence; not hurting each other. For a lot of yogis, this means adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. The reasoning, I believe, is as follows: If I'm committed to not hurting other people, why would I be willing to benefit from the death of other animals? Especially when it is certainly possible to survive without consuming any animal products?

Well... I'm not completely sold on the idea, and my basic argument against it boils down to, ironically perhaps, my appreciation of the incredible complexity of life. How do we draw the line between what we can (ethically) eat and what we can't? Is it a simple division based on kingdom? If so, then why are animals more important than plants, or fungi, or protozoa for that matter? We all started from the same biological miracle; we all have 4.5 billion years of evolution behind us. It's not as if we can pretend that non-animal life is less advanced or more primitive than animals are, and therefore less worthy of survival on an individual basis. We all, essentially, share the same birthday and are growing old together.

It's a fundamental truth that animals need to feed on other life. If we live on plants, we're still eating something that once lived and was killed for our benefit. Something needs to die in order for me to live. This can't be avoided.

When I think about the idea that the only ethical diet is a vegetarian or vegan diet, it also brings to mind the diets and lifestyles of other cultures. Traditionally, the Inuit lived on a diet that consisted exclusively of animal products. They did so because these were the resources available to them - in the far North, there are no edible plants. There are birds, there are sea mammals, there are polar bears, there are caribou, and that's about it. Does this make the traditional Inuit diet unethical? No, and I don't think anyone would claim that it does. Let's progress into murkier territory, then - other foods are now available to many in the far north, foods that have been grown and processed in the south and flown to the Arctic at great expense. Now, does this recent availability of plant based foods make contemporary adherence to the traditional Inuit diet unethical? Is it wrong for the Inuit (or anyway, those among them who can afford the imported foods) to continue to adhere to their traditional diet when other options are now available? I'd argue that the answer to this question is also No; to answer it otherwise would be to suggest an inherent inferiority of the traditional Inuit culture, which is ridiculous. To suggest the superiority of one's own culture or belief system is paternalistic at best, patronizing at worst.

A lot of the argument around vegetarian/vegan diets for yogis strikes me this way - paternalistic. Why should I let someone else decide for me what ahimsa means? Isn't it my own responsibility to make peace with my decisions and with the world? Isn't that part of svadhyaya, self-study, which is also listed in Patañjali's eight limbs of yoga? I did not become involved with yoga to become pious and superior, nor to kowtow to those who are. I'm involved in this practice because it helps me find meaning and beauty in the world.

Is it possible to practice ahimsa as an omnivore? Is it possible to eat meat and practice non-violence? I think this question is far more nuanced and complex than many in the yoga community admit. The answer cannot be reduced to a simple yes or no.

Ugh... this post definitely needs more editing, but frankly I'm tired of working on it. These ideas have been on my mind for a long, long time, and I will probably return to them at some point in the future.

As always, comments are welcome and encouraged, especially if you respectfully disagree with me or find flaws in my arguments.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Poised for Grace by Douglas Brooks - a review

I finished reading Douglas Brooks' Tantric commentary on the Bhagavad Gita last night, after struggling with it for about two weeks. Well... it wasn't terrible, but it was in dire need of editing. There were a few sentences that didn't make sense even after repeated readings, and there were a few very obvious errors, like subject-verb agreement. I don't fault the author; these things can creep into anyone's writing. But the editors could have done a better job.

Regarding the content - it was interesting, but I don't know if I buy the basic Tantric belief that everything is god or comes from god. I have never found that to be a satisfying philosophy, and usually when it gets fleshed out, it starts feeling circular. On a positive note, though, the book did give me a much better understanding of the Gita. Whereas Patañjali's Yoga Sutras is a philosophical treatise, the Bhagavad Gita addresses the more vital question of how to practice yoga in the morally ambiguous full blown disaster of the world. The description of Arjuna's breakdown on the battlefield is especially striking, and will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who has ever lost their footing in the world and didn't know what to do next. Krishna's advice is all the more poignant for the familiarity of Arjuna's self doubt.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dahn Yoga

There's been a fair bit of talk in the yoga blogosphere lately about Dahn yoga, so I thought I'd weigh in with my own experience.

It was November 2005, and I was spending a few days in Ottawa; I'd driven up for the weekend to visit my best friend (as I used to do every spring and fall). She was working the day after I arrived, so we couldn't hang out, but she'd received a flyer at work announcing an open house at a new yoga studio and she passed it along to me. Dahn yoga. I'd never heard of it, but I was willing to go and find out what it was all about.

The open house was partly meet and greet, partly sales pitch, partly practice session. Regarding the practice itself, it was unlike any other yoga I'd practised before. No reference to Patanjali, or even to India; totally unfamiliar poses. Strangest of all, we ended the session with 30 seconds of forced laughter. I remember sitting there in the circle at the end, forcing laughter along with the rest, thinking "This is crazy."

Regarding the sales pitch; well, they were certainly quite heavy handed. I had an out, of course, because I was only in Ottawa for the weekend. Still, they persisted in suggesting that I pursue Dahn yoga back in New York, and they really wanted me to return the following week for some sort of an aura reading.

I don't recall if anyone (apart from me) from outside the Dahn yoga circle came to the open house; most everyone else there was from Dahn yoga's Montreal centre. That, of course, was the real highlight of the open house for me; sitting there listening to people talking in Korean, French, and English, with a smattering of Sanskrit thrown in (names of other yoga studios in Montreal). I didn't understand the Korean, of course, but I understood a fair bit of the French. There is little that makes me happier than being surrounded by conversations in multiple languages, some of which I vaguely understand. I felt so cosmopolitan. I felt like I was in the Tower of Babel.

Is Dahn yoga a cult? I guess that depends on how you define the word cult. Is a cult just a religion without any political clout? I find this definition tempting, but ultimately insufficient. I think there needs to be a proselytizing aspect as well, which is common but not inherent in religion. Also, my sense of cults is that they are intractable; once you are in, it is difficult to leave. So given this very informal definition of cult (religion without political clout, proselytizing, intractable), does Dahn yoga fit the bill? Perhaps. I leave it to greater minds than my own to decide.

There is, perhaps, a second issue here, and I only raise it because I suspect the question will be asked (and answered poorly) by mainstream media if it ever addresses the Dahn yoga story. Is yoga a cult? Obviously I don't believe it is, else I would not be involved in it. But let's apply my three point definition here as well for the sake of argument. First, I disagree with the suggestion that yoga is a religion (though some in the community do present it as such, and would probably take umbrage with me for disagreeing). Although we talk about goddesses and gods, no one in the yoga community has ever suggested to me that I need to believe in these deities as anything other than mythological beings, and no one has ever suggested that I need to pray to them. Neither is there in yoga (at least, the forms of yoga which I practice) a hierarchical power structure or a supreme leader. Yoga, in my experience, is a bottom-up enterprise; yes, there are big names and leaders of sorts, but I am free (and encouraged) to build my practice out of my own experience rather than relying on anyone else's. Also, I have never experienced anything akin to proselytizing in yoga. Those involved in the practice have found their own way there, and remain there (or not) because of the meaning that they find in it, not because of the meaning that anyone else attributes to it. Finally, the question of intractability. People leave (and return to) yoga all the time; it's almost a joke among yoga teachers. We run into former students outside the studio, and the first thing they want to tell us is that they're sorry they haven't been practising. Not to sound insensitive, and not at all to suggest that I'm uninterested in their practice or personal struggles (nothing could be further from the truth), but whether and how to practice is the student's decision, not her teacher's. We are not shepherds. We are not baby sitters. Just as we all find our own way into the practice, we are all free to find our own way out as well, and I don't think I have ever met a teacher who does not understand or respect that.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Ever since I made my monster list of New Year's projects, I've been totally freaking out from the enormity of it all, and the thought of all the things I left off the list. So while I'm winnowing down, revising, and prioritizing the list, here's a post on an unrelated topic.

I sometimes find myself wondering why I am here. Like everyone else on the planet, I know that I am ultimately headed for the big dirt nap, and will probably get there sooner than I expect and much sooner than I'd like. Before that happens, though, I wonder if there's something important that I'm meant to do; not in a paranoid-schizophrenic-delusions-of-grandeur sort of way, rather, I'd like to think there is something I can do with my time here that would be of benefit to others and also meaningful to me. At first I thought that it would involve writing, or some obscure interest or fascination of mine, but I have never been able to figure out what to do with any of that. Most of my interests seem very peculiar to me, and probably not of great import to society at large.

Frustrated, I thought about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Buckminster Fuller, and their respective struggles to find purpose in their lives. Goethe found his answer in writing; Fuller, in devising creative new ways of living. Both ideas resonate with me in different ways, but neither seems to be my path, per se. Writing is certainly something I love to do, but I don't think I could view it as an end, only as a means. The fundamental drive for me lies somewhere else.

Then I realized I was thinking too much about it, and if there really was something I was meant to do, it was probably right in front of me and not something that I had to dig very deep for. And then it came to me. Yoga. Of course it's yoga; what else could it be? This practice, more than anything else, has been the thing that has helped me unfold as a person. If there is anything I am meant to do, at least at this point in my life, I am certain that this is it; studying, practicing, teaching, living yoga. And there is great comfort and relief in that realization, because this is something I am already involved in and already love.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (a review)

Why, oh why doesn't anyone write this beautifully today? Deliciously complex sentence structure, social commentary and subtle sarcasm. And humour too, though Austen doesn't sacrifice her charcters on the altar of irony as contemporary writers do. She leaves some room for them to breathe and to live. Generally, it was a pleasure to read this book.

However, there is one question that keeps rising for me whenever I read Austen's writing. Her characters are constantly talking about money, worrying about money, making arrangements and engagements based on money or the lack thereof, yet I have yet to encounter a charcter of Austen's who holds a job. They are all living on interest, though Austen never sees fit to mention the source of the principle. If her characters are all so very concerned about their finances, would it not behoove them to find some manner of gainful employment? Perhaps this simply was not done among the upper (or upper-middle) classes of England in the 19th century.

I guess this is why although I love Austen's writing, the plot of Sense and Sensibility seems a little thin to me. I just can't identify with the lifestyle of her protagonists, envious though I may be of their excesses of leisure time.

Well, one Jane Austen novel down, two others previously read (Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey - I haven't decided whether I'll re-read them). That leaves three works, unless I'm mistaken; Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. I'm off to a good start on at least one of my projects for 2010, reading all of Austen's novels.