Yoga communities must live the fight against factory farming

Jonathan Dickstein
6 min readApr 17, 2020

Now more than ever practitioners have to stop fueling the engine of mass violence that is industrial animal agriculture.

Strolling by a shallow pond you notice a child drowning. Quickly you realize that saving them would ruin your new yoga clothes: Should you wade in and save them? Do you have an ethical obligation to do so?

Peter Singer wrote that when he asks his students this question, they consistently respond in the affirmative. No matter that you didn’t push the child into the pond or that you don’t know them personally, you still have a clear––and also apparently intuitive––obligation to inconvenience yourself and intervene on the drowning child’s behalf.

Most people would agree that even more reprehensible than letting the child drown is shoving them into the pond, especially with the foreknowledge, if not also the intention, that they suffer and die as a result. Most schools, communities, teachers, and practitioners of yoga, no matter how “traditional” or not, would recognize this as a clear act of himsa, or harming.

Yet given what we know about the immense suffering and death inflicted upon billions of human and nonhuman animals through the industrial-animal complex every year––forced insemination, natal alienation, mass confinement, mental illness, physical torture, mass killing, labor exploitation, environmental racism, displacement of indigenous communities, water and air pollution, massive carbon (and other) emissions, zoonotic disease, food oppression, famine, illness (the list goes on and on)––why are yoga communities not only not mobilizing to save these children, but casually and collectively pushing one after another into the pond?

The title is thus a little misleading. The question here is not so much why yoga communities are not living the fight, that is, the proactive fight against factory farms and their devastation of lives and ecosystems, but rather why they remain silent about their members’ patronization of these places and regimens of misery? True, practitioners may not be doing the harming and killing themselves––killing the chicken, pushing the child––but maintaining a mercenarial relationship with violence is no less severe. Both South Asian and Euro-American moral-philosophical traditions, and as well as our own basic intuitions, inform us that the husband who pays the assassin to kill their wife is equally, or perhaps even more responsible, for the pain and death inflicted.

The current global crisis only further evidences how some of our daily and most easily avoidable (for most if not all of us) actions send child after child into the cesspools of factory farms, with only a minority of individuals willing and able to risk much more than muddy clothes to pull them out. Whether the COVID-19 virus emerged from a “wet” market or not, most if not nearly all zoonotic diseases are transmitted to human beings from farmed animals, which implicates all large-scale animal confinement and killing operations. According to the 2016 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report:

Demand for livestock products leads to more intensive production, that is greater populations of high yielding and genetically similar stock kept close together. Thus the animals are not only exposed to more contact opportunities but they also lack the genetic diversity that helps resist the spread of disease, a vulnerability known as the monoculture effect.

As over 99% of all farmed animals in the United States live and die in “greater populations” on factory farms, there is virtually no way to consume animals responsibly, even if one limited their concerns to human beings and the prevention of pandemics and climate destabilization. But this reflex anthropocentrism would elide the glaring ethical issue of “farming” these animals at all––incarcerating, manipulating, and slaughtering them at rates literally beyond our imagination. And so-called “humane” consumption is likewise virtually impossible given the aforementioned figures, not to mention the question of whether “farming” nonhumans is ever justifiable, no matter the size and density of the operation.

Speaking to the plight of animals in-themselves, Rutgers professor and yoga practitioner Edwin Bryant has remarked:

Much western discourse on animal rights is focused on health, the environment, and economic considerations. These are supremely important but, in a sense, self-centered, based on our physical, political and environmental well-being. The ancient Indian arguments were exclusively altruistic — concerned for the well-being of fellow beings.

By “yoga communities” I call out––but in truth, call in— not only those heeding “ancient Indian arguments” (though we would be wise to consider them), but also any and all practitioners generally guided and beholden to a publicly-communicated, community-uniting moral compass, one usually grounded in the principle of ahimsa or non-harming. Hence the present call for yoga communities to publicly cease and denounce the consumption of animals is not motivated by dogmatic allegiance to a specific text (though you can find one here), nor the words or lifestyle of a living, deceased, or mythical guru. Rather it derives from the very same principles driving current anti-exploitation trends in Western yoga: resistance to ableism, sizeism, racism, and sexism; calls to decolonize and democratize yoga; insisting upon trainings to make the practice accessible to all; the rejection of the unchallengeable truisms of dogma and (self-) appointed figureheads.

Disability, race, and feminist scholars have long described not only the kinship of species-based oppression with discrimination anchored in ability, race, and gender categorizations, but also the insidious coarticulation of diverse forms of oppression under white (see: “human”) supremacy. Discrimination based on species categorization alone, or speciesism, follows the same faulty logic as that of race or gender discrimination, but the rhetoric of “animalization” has historically been deployed by oppressors to justify their brutalization of select human populations. In short, the closer you are to “animal” (see: non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied), the more justifiable is your killing. A radical perspective asks why the “One struggle, One fight” rallying cry of social justice should be limited to our single biological species.

Legitimate calls to “decolonize yoga” emerge from a long history of not only appropriation, but also systemic violence––material, physical, psychological, and emotional––inflicted on non-white people by white people. If decolonization is intrinsically anti-settler-colonial and anti-capitalist, and there is arguably no whiter, more commodifying, and more blatantly violent capitalist institution than industrial animal agriculture, then a total liberationist, decolonial yoga stance must firmly reject its principles and processes. Moreover, zoonotic diseases have functioned as instruments of genocide against indigenous or otherwise targeted peoples for centuries, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is, sadly but unsurprisingly, disproportionally devastating brown and black populations in the United States.

Perhaps the greatest ideological hurdle for some in embracing a full boycott of animal-derived substances is the assumption that this “restriction” amounts to yet another top-down assault on bodily autonomy, reinforcing whiteness, ableism, sizeism, sexism, and healthism. While some product restrictions may in fact do so, this reflex resistance to animal-free consumption oppressively assumes that living animals are always and already human products (see: “food animals”), commodifiable simply by virtue of not being human. But once we see other animals “before they were food,” as individuals–––and not things––deserving basic autonomy just like us, our conditioned sense of entitlement to their bodies begins to fade. Concerns for human bodily autonomy and well-being remain intact, but no longer will the harming and killing of innocent nonhumans be viewed or tolerated as legitimate forms of restorative justice.

Ostensibly governed by an ethic of non-harming, not only do yoga communities often stay stretching on the sidelines––“unattached,” “going inward,” “being the change”––but scarcely ever do they even implore members to cease supporting these entangled networks of animal oppression and human violence. When will yoga communities begin to practice and preach that it is patently harmful to pay someone else to push child after child, human or nonhuman, into the fetid pond of factory farming? A boycott of animal derived products by no means cleanses one’s hands completely, but it does a lot, perhaps more than any other personal abstention (see: yama). Christopher Sebastian writes:

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.

We could make a further case for why yoga communities should be, in a proactive manner, saving the child, destroying the pond, joining the fight. But don’t we at least, given yet another stark reminder of the incalculable pain and death we thrust upon others through our obsessive consumption of animals, owe it to everyone to live up to a core duty of non-harming? After all, you’re not being asked to muddy your yoga clothes, but simply leave the kids alone.