Their body, Their voice: Animal abuse in modern yoga gastropolitics

The following text and slides were presented at “Abuse in Yoga and Beyond: Cultural Logics and Pathways for the Future,” a digital conference held by Loyola Marymount University on June 13th, 2020.

In the academic world I research South Asian religious traditions, but also contribute to the field known as Critical Animal Studies. This field investigates the exploitation of animals and its entanglements with the exploitation of humans. Akin to Feminist, Black, Queer, Chicanx, Disability, and Decolonial Studies, Critical Animal Studies dedicates itself to not only talking about its nonhuman and human subjects, but improving their very lives and preventing further exploitation. Fortunately, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and subsequent police terror, more academic fields and departments are finally expressing public commitments to social change.

In the yoga world I have spent many years in the Iyengar Yoga community, as both a practitioner and instructor, and I have zero doubt that teacher-student and community member abuse exist both inside and outside of this particular tradition. I hope that this gathering today is motivated by a desire to not only talk about victims of abuse in yoga, but to improve their very lives and prevent further abuse.

So this afternoon I will specifically discuss how solidarity with victims cannot legitimately stop at the assumed “species barrier.” I intend to make three points:

Point 1: Our general concern for abuse directly relates to the principle of equality, and our commitment to it.

The basic idea of “abuse in yoga,” assumes a reformist, and I would argue, left-leaning, if not altogether leftist orientation. Our question is not if abuse is possible, and if it operates in yoga culture, but rather how it emerges, functions, institutionalizes, and endures; and also how abuse is regularly ignored and defended.

A traditionalist approach resists any suggestion of abuse issuing from a guru or master, not unlike the ways others relate to fathers, pastors, and other man-as-infallible God figures. Inexperienced instructors may be capable of abuse, but not masters, and presumably not also their texts and authorized methods. After all, what appears to the overly-sensitive, body-obsessed Westerner as “abuse,” is actually “true” teaching, for to the ignorant the guru always “moves in mysterious ways.”

Hopefully our critical community rejects absolute obedience and quietism, instead accepting the potential for abuse no matter the professed wisdom or perfection of the teacher or method. And I use the term abuse not simply to denote intentional harm or injury, but specifically harm dependent upon positions and dynamics of inequality and power. The condemnation of harms generated through inequality is a, if not the, “core commitment” of the Left.

Political and social theorist Steven Lukes describes the Left as:

The imperative to address abuse in yoga is in lockstep with this tradition and project, and arguably derived from it, particularly as it too “contests unjustifiable but remediable inequalities of status, rights, powers and conditions.” The insistence on appropriate moral consideration permeates campaigns to de-dogmatize, decolonize, de-whiten, accessiblize, and horizontalize the modern yoga world.

Lukes continues:

Yet here is where the Left has gone perpetually wrong, and with it what I refer to as the “yogic Left.”

Point 2: Genuine equality requires an inclusion of animals into the moral community, and thereby a cessation of their objectification.

A genuine concern for equality and “what it means and implies” is incomplete whenever it assumes a species-exclusive, anthropocentric, humanist perspective. As Singer noted over four decades ago in Practical Ethics, the principle of equality cannot plausibly derive from shared species categorization alone (and remember it is a categorization). Because if being “equally deserving of concern and respect” were solely contingent on belonging to the designated kind “human,” then we could easily conceive of making concern and respect contingent on belonging to other designated kinds, such as “white,” “straight,” “male,” or “able-bodied, or any category deemed “critical” by the dominant culture.

But belonging to a “kind” is not what generates the principle of equality; rather it flows from the quite straightforward premise that we should treat like as like, specifically when it comes to the basic interests of individuals. And these basic interests, such an interest in not being abused — physically, sexually, psychologically, or emotionally — are surely not unique to Homo sapiens.

So if we reject ability, race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality as legitimate determinants for un-like, which is to say inferior or virtually non-existent, consideration and accommodation, why do we accept “being human” as the critical determinant for inclusion in our moral world? Is it perhaps because in this case, we humans are the dominant, oppressive culture, and are both deeply conditioned by, and invested in, the alleged truism that “being human” really does matter in itself? This conference announces that “abuse extends beyond individual yoga communities and is often performed through unacknowledged race, gender, and class privilege,” but what about unacknowledged species privilege?

This privilege is perhaps no more apparent than in ultra-violence inflicted upon trillions of animals every year, and to no greater extent than in human food production. I will spare you the details today, which rival the hell realms of Dantean and Buddhist cosmologies. But we must understand how this violence, even in so-called “humane” forms, constitutes abuse proper. The phrase “animal abuse,” akin to “animal cruelty,” customarily refers to something like “violence in excess of the socially sanctioned amount.” Yet when I state that animals are abused by humans, I refer not only to the sadistic acts of individual humans, and not only to the manners by which animals are “processed” into food, but the brute fact that animals are regarded as objects, exploitable capital, and “processable,” at all.

In short, their very use is abuse.

Remarkably we tend to deny animals victim-status altogether, and thus we have mass violence without any victims. It’s odd. Or is it?

As Syl Ko emphasizes in Aphro-ism, the Euro-American catch-all term “animal” has always expressed social value rather than biological composition. This is easy to illustrate: I assume all of us here would agree we too are animals, biologically speaking, yet not one of us wishes to be “treated like an animal,” even though we are one. To be “treated like an animal” is to be subjected to abuse. Hence we remain haunted by our own alleged animality, clinging to an ever “anxious anthropocentrism,” as Erica Fudge calls it.

This is because “animal,” in its social valence (which is the only valence that matters), indicates an absence of value-in-itself, but not an absence of use-value for others. Ontological exploitability makes “animal,” in the words of Maneesha Deckha, “a violence producing category.” We need only consider how “livestock,” that is “living stock,” that is “living property,” is synonymous with “chattel slave” under any non-anthropocentric worldview. But according to this binary only the human, the non-animal, has value-in-themself, is a person, and hence the only one capable of being a victim.

Point 3: Dietary “restrictions” grounded in the principle of equality oppose, rather than perpetuate, abuse.

We must accept that animals are victims of abuse. But what about human victims? What about the harm involved in restricting bodily practices, and dietary practices in particular?

This afternoon I won’t delve into the “traditional” yogic restraint of ahiṃsā (non-harming) in the so-called Classical Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. I have written about it elsewhere, and in short, when it comes to the question of consuming or not consuming animal products, at least in the market-engaging sense of “consumption,” the firm unconditionality of this restraint makes it an open and shut case in my view.

Yet ironically some modern yoga practitioners summon the same “tradition” in defense of a hands-off approach to dietary practice. “Restrictions” are interpreted as “self-harm,” or “sva-hiṃsā,” thereby violating the yogic restraint against harming; moreover, these restrictions threaten the progressive yogic emphasis on self-care. As such, the hands-off approach solicits justification from both traditional and non-traditional camps.

But, first, not only is a notion of self-harm absent in the very texts to which such practitioners gesture, and not only does this tactic perform the all-too-common white-cherry-picking from “the tradition,” but the texts themselves clearly prohibit avoidable bodily practices that cause immense harm to others, human or nonhuman. And, second, whether appealing to, or flatly discarding, the Yogaśāstra, to claim that the personal discomfort or inconvenience experienced by not harming, killing, and ingesting animals outweighs the suffering experienced by those animals themselves, is not only superficially unconvincing, but also unjustifiably anthropocentric and ego-centric.

However, there remains the more credible claim that the abusiveness of dietary restrictions lies not (or not solely) in restriction-as-self harm, but rather the sexism, ableism, and sizeism underlying these restrictions historically.

Now dietary protocols very well can be motivated by abusive ideologies and figures, and historically we perceive this inside yoga culture and, more ubiquitously, under mainstream heteropatriarchy. But just as asana and asana regimens have periodically effected the same, that is, enforced inequality and exclusivity, this does not mean that all postures and breathing practices must be abandoned in toto; rather they should be, and are currently being, rethought, adapted, and reformed. Similarly, no matter how dogma and heteropatriarchy have weaponized dietary protocols in the past, if the regulations themselves derive from a genuine (which is to say, animal inclusive) principle of equality, then we cannot discard them merely through “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.

First, let us acknowledge that many modern yoga practitioners actually belong to the dominant culture — at least in terms of race, class, ability, gender identity, and nationality. So we should be wary of privileged voices engaging in very selective animal-critical allyship, a move that protects their own personal habits while attracting “wokeness likes” and other yoga social capital. But second, and more importantly, the alleged burden of dietary restrictions is not being levied by the dominant culture at all, but rather by the victims of abuse themselves, that is, “food animals,” or any other animals commodified for human use.

So I ask, here borrowing a bit from political theorist Claire Jean Kim:

While reparations are undoubtedly due those oppressed by the dominant culture — be that yoga dogmatism or white supremacy — why should animals be sacrificed on the altars of progressivism and decolonization? Especially when animals are themselves oppressed by that same dominant culture? Is this not an odd sort of restorative justice that pays one oppressed group in the pain and misery of another? If the response is “well, but they’re just animals” — itself a slogan of white supremacy — we contradict the commitment to equality that is the very basis of reforming yoga culture.

Largely omitted from my presentation today, which has centered on “animalized animals,” is how much the patronization of animal agriculture feeds ideologies and systems that further oppress 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 traumatizing conditions, often unable to find alternative work due to language, education, or immigration status. They display elevated rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression, PTSD, and domestic violence. 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.

And 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 is also responsible for “food oppression” — the state-supported 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.

Furthermore, globally speaking (as a collaborator of mine recently remarked) “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.” And this says nothing about the ecological devastation and environmental racism upon which the industries depend.

Boycotting animal products, in the words of Christopher Sebastian McJetters, is

But isn’t this focus on individual consumption covered in Neo-liberalism 101? After all, systems and production are the problem, not individuals and consumption, right?

Assertions of consumer impotence such as “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” and “individual choices don’t matter,” are not only selectively voiced and fail to reflect actual market ecology, but, I would argue, derive from an unconscious internalization of neo-liberal, capitalist ideology itself (which unfortunately I’ll have to leave for another day). But we also can apply common sense: Personal change and structural change are not mutually exclusive. One can certainly fight for systemic reform, both inside and outside the yoga world, all the while not supporting animal abuse through consumption patterns. In short: we can dismantle and chew gum at the same time.

“One of the worst crimes in history.” This is how Yuval Noah Harari has described industrial animal agriculture, which produces over 99% of all animal products in the United States. Yet gritty discussions about what this ongoing atrocity demands of us remains absent in––and is actively avoided by––most yoga studios; so too in teacher trainings and workshops on philosophy. Moreover, there are numerous mainstream blog posts and “articles” reassuring one that they can “still eat meat and be a yogi.”

I have no interest in defining what “being a yogi” means, but as mentioned earlier I am sensitive to how individuals summon the apparently critique-immune practice of self-care to justify virtually any personal behavior, and more-often-than-not in modern yoga, clearly abusive ones. Self-care as self-enacted restorative justice is important, and something I fully support, but it does not render other-care irrelevant, specifically care for those who are also victims of abuse.

The upshot is that if we are truly concerned with decolonizing yoga, making it more inclusive and trauma-sensitive, and preventing abuse in all forms, how can we continue to avoid the “animal question”? We make calls to boycott Jois, Bikram, Friend, Life and Gannon, and Manos, to name a few, but not Tyson, not Smithfield, not Perdue, and surely not “local” or “humane” operations that likewise perform 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 those on the yogic Left stand in perfect symmetry with opposing boycotting animal products, yet their current habits 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.

PhD candidate, UC Santa Barbara