We have won the lottery if we scratched off our ticket on the day we were born and found that we were, say, a middle-class, able-bodied person living in a Western country (rather than scratching it off and finding we have been born a desperately poor child in a Third World slum, or God forbid, a despised cockroach). Let’s count out blessings, our wealth, our health and abilities. Count them a whole lot then set out to share them. The world is open to us, especially if we want to do positive things.’
– Ingrid Newkirk (founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest animal rights organisation in the world).
I’ve recently returned from teaching on retreat for a wonderful group of women training to be teachers through the Sukha Mukha Teacher Training. One of the modules I enjoyed teaching the most was on the topic of Spiritual Activism. People often ask me what the links are between yoga and my work as an activist for both animal rights and environmental causes. For me the link couldn’t be clearer – if we look at the ancient yogic text of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra the first three ethical guidelines he offers us the goals of are non-violence, truth telling and not stealing.
When I reflect upon the way in which we treat animals in our present culture and on the way in which we treat Mother Earth herself it is very clear to me that almost all of us violate these ethical guidelines on a daily basis. If we eat meat, we are involved in violence (you have to kill an animal in order to eat it). We often choose to turn a blind eye to what we know to be true in order that we don’t have to change our behaviours – this is why Al Gore called his famous movie about climate change ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Much of the truth about the way we treat animals and the planet is inconvenient but as practicing yogis it is our job to turn towards the truth and uncover it, however painful. Not to run and hide under a veil of ignorance. In terms of not stealing at present we are engaged in stealing from animals (their eggs, their babies and their milk) as well as stealing precious resources from the earth and fish from the ocean. Most of us have a long way to go before we can say we are truly practicing as ethical yogis.
On a brighter note, when I was recently facilitating on this subject of Spiritual Activism on teacher training retreat I was really inspired by the resolve of the participants to make positive changes in their own lives towards kindness and compassion as well as the belief that these changes are meaningful and do make a difference. Cynicism was absent which is also, perhaps, another sign of serious yogic endeavour. In one exercise each member of the group makes a yogic resolve (in Sanskrit a ‘Sankulpa’ or intention) towards a better future and we wrote a huge colourful list to place on the wall. On that list were statements ranging in scope from ‘I no longer use plastic bags’ to ‘I no longer consume dairy products’ to ‘I am informed about environmental issues’ and ‘I do not use cosmetics which have been tested on animals’. Each yogini made her own commitment with mindful intention and resolve. The ripple effects of these small actions should never be under estimated and as Ingrid Newkirk reminds us in the quote above.
Katie Manitsas is a teacher on the Sukha Mukha Level 1 and Advanced teacher trainings.
You can see other blog posts and writing from her on her website.