In the early 1970s, I was in the dance department at the University of California, Berkeley, and right when I passed from my apartment to the campus, there was the Integral Yoga Institute. I went in there, long story short, to take a Yoga class. The postures were super easy to me. But when I left, I glided out on a wave of peace. I remember, at the age of 16, writing home to my parents that day—and this will bring me to tears—and I said: “Today I found myself.” And what I mean by that is I felt the deep peace of my own true nature.
Integral Yoga is the eight-limb path. That is what true Yoga is. This path includes yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi (abiding in one’s own inner peace). That’s what I try to practice every day so that my entire life is an ongoing Yoga retreat. I live my life, to the best of my ability, in alignment and congruence with that path. And part of that path is choosing a plant-based diet and lifestyle.
I decided to write The Solution, my latest book, because I believe the vegan lifestyle is the solution to every major problem that we’re facing on planet Earth. These problems can be reversed through plant-based nutrition, because the animal industry—meaning meat, dairy, eggs—is based on the consciousness of violence and domination.
When we replace that consciousness with ahimsa (non-injury) and lovingkindness, with collaboration and cooperation, we can reverse all of the major problems that we’re facing today. I tackle all these with a compelling case that I roll out this very well-substantiated way in which we can reverse the climate crisis, prevent animal cruelty, eradicate pollution, reverse deforestation and pandemics. And all of them remedies are based on ahimsa.
Ahimsa means to do our best to not cause injury in our thoughts, words and actions. Now, in order to live, something has to die. But, we can cause the minimal amount of pain. All animals essentially have the same nervous system and the ability to feel pain and pleasure, hope and joy, and all of the emotions. Right now, there are 72 billion land animals and over a trillion marine creatures that are tortured and killed for food every year. This is a global atrocity that has been normalized, and it’s an abominable violation of ahimsa.
Yet, for many, this is challenging to hear. The reason I believe it’s so challenging is because from the time we’re infants, we are conditioned—by our parents, relatives, society, community and from the media in all forms—to eat a meat-based diet and so it has been normalized. Dr. Will Tuttle, author of the World Peace Diet, terms this as a “cultural trance.” I would like to extend a loving invitation to all who practice Yoga, to wake up from this cultural trance and to make more kind and compassionate choices, which includes shifting from vegetarian to vegan in the name of ahimsa and in the name of all the yamas and niyamas—the ethical guidelines upon which the entire science of Yoga is based.
A question that often arises is that if yogis are meant to be vegan, why did many of the rishis and yogis of yore in India include dairy in their diets? I’d like to unpack this for a moment. Just because something was done in the past, doesn’t make it the right pathway today. This is where we need to put on our critical thinking caps. I like to call this “yogic discernment.” If we look over the long history of classical Yoga, many Yoga masters made adjustments to the traditions.
For example, it was not a general practice for women to be initiated as sannyasis (renunciate Swamis). Yet, Swami Sivananda (the Guru of Swami Satchidananda) initiated Swami Sivananda Radha as the first Western female swami in this lineage. We can imagine the ridicule he may have been subjected by those who thought, “Who are you to initiate a female Swami, and at that, a Westerner?” Swami Radha went on to become a great teacher who was a beacon illuminating the glorious science of Yoga for countless souls. That was because Swami Sivananda had a greater vision than those who were in the lineage before him.
As Maya Angelou said: “When we know better, we do better.” Swami Sivananda realized that it’s the consciousness of the person, not the gender of the person that counts. If Swami Sivananda had not done that, we would not have many of our female-bodied Integral Yoga Swamis like Swami Karunananda, Swami Divyananda, Swami Premananda, Swami Jyotirmayananda, and so on. It was because of his enlightened vision to make that change in an ancient tradition that all this good has ensued.
We also have the example of how our own beloved Gurudev, Swami Satchidananda, changed the ancient tradition of Guru Poornima. Guru Poornima traditionally was a time to honor one’s Guru. In the 1950s, when he was teaching Yoga in Sri Lanka, he said, “Why just pay tribute to my Guru, Swami Sivananda? Why don’t we honor everybody’s Guru—whatever faith or tradition they follow—on this occasion?” And in this way, he changed an ancient, annual celebration. Swami Satchidananda became a trailblazer in the interfaith movement. He has been greatly honored as one of the pioneers of this movement and the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine is a beautiful manifestation of the teaching that “Truth is one, paths are many.”
I believe that the science of Yoga is evolving by shedding the light of awareness on the vital importance of shifting from a vegetarian to vegan diet. Because if we’re going to live in congruence with the yamas and niyamas—the very first and foremost yama being ahimsa—this shift really should be a no brainer. And I’m going to explain why. Many people live under the illusion, as I did at one time, that it’s okay to eat dairy because the cows are just out in the grass grazing. Their owners give them names and sing to them as they give milk, and it’s a loving, symbiotic relationship. That was the illusion that I was under until the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Diet for a New America by John Robbins was published in 1987.
In that book, Robbins brought to light the horrific cruelty that cows endure in order for us to have milk. Ninety-nine percent of dairy comes from factory farms, which are concentration camps for animals. Cows are routinely dehorned, confined, brutally treated, and cannot even move around in their own stalls. They are impregnated—on what the industry horrifyingly calls a “rape rack”—so that they’re constantly lactating and can give milk. And then when they carry the baby for nine months, just as humans do, their babies are ripped away from them within hours of being born.
If you hear recordings of the anguish of the mother and the calf being ripped apart, that would be enough to make anybody go vegan. Then, twice a day, they milk these cows are hooked up to metal machines that are very painful; they get cuts and bruises and tears and infections. And if it’s an organic farm, they can’t treat them with antibiotics and those cows have to suffer, without any antibiotics. Furthermore, giving cows antibiotics breeds antibiotic resistance because 80 percent of all antibiotics are used in the meat, dairy, and egg industries. So these same antibiotics lose their effectiveness for humans when they really need them.
So if you believe in ahimsa—which means to do your best to not cause injury in your thoughts, words and actions—you can understand the horrific suffering that dairy cows have to go through. Their natural lifespan of 25 years is often reduced to five years because they are so spent. Then, the reward for being tortured is being sent off to slaughter for beef. So that whole industry is the opposite of ahimsa.
Every bite we take, every dollar we spend is a vote—it’s a vote for cruelty or for loving kindness; for devastation or sustainability; for disease or for health. And, most importantly, we’re ingesting the biochemistry of terror and misery. It’s a well-known fact that dairy is the number one allergen of the top three allergens: one is dairy, two is eggs, and three is fish. So we’re not practicing ahimsa when it comes to our own bodies and our own health.
I’m so inspired by a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King who said: “Never, never be afraid to do what is right, especially if the wellbeing of a person or an animal is at stake. The punishments you receive from society are small compared to the wounds that we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” I take refuge in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi who said: “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.” So I’m offering an invitation to reconnect with our intrinsic and intuitive compassion. And when we do so, we will make choices that are kind to the animals, the environment, and to our own health. If we want to be compassionate, we make new choices. I love the quote that says: “It’s better to be one candle than to curse the darkness.”
So if you have an entire society of people who are entrenched in this cultural trance, our role as light workers is to share the light of ahimsa by being living examples—to use our life force energy to spiritually awaken people to the interconnectedness of all life. Three times a day, and snacks in between, we can be practicing ahimsa by choosing a vegan diet. That’s something someone can do instantly. Gurudev said: “When you realize you’re holding a cobra snake, drop it.” When we realize that our actions are causing horrific cruelty and we want to truly embrace ahimsa we will be able to stop immediately.
And maybe I could just close with the prayer that this message will touch the hearts and minds of everyone reading this and create a ripple effect out into the entire universe so that together we can shift cruelty to lovingkindness and ahimsa. As Emerson said: “To know that even one soul has breathed more easily because you have lived is to have succeeded.” So may we all succeed by going vegan. May we live Swami Sivananda’s teachings, “Be good, do good, be kind, and be compassionate.” May we express that in our dietary choices.
About the Author:
Meenakshi Angel Honig is dedicated to peace and loving kindness. She has studied with one of the most highly revered and deeply loved Yoga Masters of our time, Sri Swami Satchidananda. Meenakshi is a certified Integral Yoga Instructor & Teacher Trainer with over 45 years of teaching experience. She served as Mind, Body, Spirit Yoga Instructor and Stress Management Consultant for over 17 years at The Grand Wailea Resort on Maui‚ Hawaii. She currently teaches at the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort and at the Wailea Healing Center, as well as on her national and international teaching tours. She is the author many books, the latest is, The Soulution. For more info, please visit her website.