I’ve fostered a steady yoga practice over the past five or so years, and now find myself practicing daily. No, I don’t necessarily attend a yoga class or complete a couple series of Surya Namaskar each and every day, but I actively attempt to live in accordance with yoga’s ten ethical guidelines, otherwise known as the yamas and niyamas. To briefly summarize, the yamas consist of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, nonexcess, and nonpossessiveness, while the niyamas include purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender. While most of these tenets appear rather self-explanatory, their core meanings exist much deeper in the ocean of morality than those of us merely wading in the water would first expect. For example, rather than simply referring to an abstinence from lying to others, truthfulness encourages individuals to discover the inner courage necessary to live in accordance with one’s true self. Similarly, while nonstealing clearly denotes the avoidance of swiping items at your local hardware store, it also ascribes finding comfort as oneself, rather than yearning to live as another. I make a concerted effort to allow these more complex interpretations of the yamas and niyamas to guide my daily interactions, decisions, habits, and mentalities, though doing so often proves more easily said than done (wishing a pox upon the woman smacking her gum at an inordinate decibel behind me on the Metro does not necessarily jive with the whole “nonviolence” thing, for example).
Living in accordance with the yamas and niyamas requires perpetual self-reflection, a constant questioning of habitual behavior and thoughts. Though following the yamas and niyamas may seem rather exhausting (no thought is exempt from curious examination!), doing so can vastly improve the quality of one’s daily life. Surrender, for example, can free oneself from constantly harping over aspects of life that one cannot control; self-discipline, on another hand, can improve virtually any situation by altering how one chooses to perceive that situation. Indeed, by “deliberately and consciously direct[ing] attention and hold[ing] it voluntarily on an object [or situation], […] [yogis] perceive the world as it really is” (Simpkins 25). In short, emulating the yamas and niyamas necessitates a truly conscious mode of living—one cannot sail through life on “auto-pilot” when abiding by yoga’s ten virtuous precepts—yet offers innumerable benefits, both measurable and more abstract. So too does veganism.
As I listened to episode 87 of the Team Earthling podcast, host Stevie and guest Erin Red reminded me of the high level of consciousness and reflection both inspired and required by living a vegan lifestyle. Though the discussion in no way centered upon yoga, consciousness, the yamas, nor the niyamas, a briefly mentioned idea of Stevie’s highly resonated with me. To paraphrase, Stevie posited that “people get so hung up on wanting things immediately” and become accustomed to “being able to have those things without inconvenience.” She then employed the example of a pizza craving to demonstrate that once an individual becomes vegan, she or he can no longer “just have it”—one loses the material pleasure of immediate pizza gratification once one must first consider where to procure/how to make/where to find a recipe for pizza that does not contain dairy-based cheese or animal flesh. Seeking out cruelty-free pizza necessitates a conscious examination of how to adequately satisfy one’s hunger (even though it shouldn’t, for cruelty-free pizza should always be the default), as well as a knowledge of the vast and varied consequences associated with eating animals. Yes, obtaining vegan pizza may require more effort than simply placing an order with your nearest Pizza Hut, but doing so also reflects a transcendence of the “false needs […] which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression” (Marcuse 479).
Because our capitalist society prioritizes the accumulation of material goods above all else, it encourages its’ members to acquire as much as possible, to do so as efficiently as possible, and to harbor complete obliviousness as to the moral consequences of doing so. Constantly bombarded with product advertisements and reinforcements of the notion that wealth equals happiness, victims of capitalism devote their lives to earning the great sums of money that will purchase their heated swimming pools and hovercrafts—luxuries that our capitalist society has conditioned us to believe will provide us with a sense of fulfillment. Sociologist Herbert Marcuse, however, offers his take on this phenomenon: “Though perhaps immediately gratifying, these [material goods] do not offer long-term happiness to the individual. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness” (Marcuse 479). The capitalist powers that be depend upon the perpetuation of a superficial sense of satisfaction—a happiness that programs us to complacently continue contributing to the major corporations of the world while these wealthiest 1% of humankind benefit from the social and environmental destruction smoldering around them.
Indeed, regarding accumulation as the sole purpose of one’s life, while immediately gratifying and superficially fulfilling, also ensures one’s oppression under the rule of capitalism. Leading a truly meaningful, satisfying, and moral life requires us to recognize and reject the “euphoria in unhappiness,” the mode of unconsciousness, the “auto-pilot” setting foisted upon us by this entirely self-serving capitalist system. Suddenly, ordering from Pizza Hut versus creating one’s own pizza, free of products from the immense agribusiness industry, transforms from a matter of taste preference and convenience into one of social justice. Perhaps eating tofu or holding a downward dog pose won’t in and of themselves constitute a revolution, but the philosophies behind these actions certainly can—practicing these philosophies in their physical forms constitutes the most effective mode of bringing about change. For example, while yogis practice movements and deep breathing on the surface, they truly “practice[e] focusing, immersing [them]selves completely in the activity” to eliminate the “fear, agitation, [and] craving” inspired by our capitalism-influenced thirst for material wealth (Levine 97). Similarly, vegans abstain from consuming, wearing, and otherwise exploiting non-human animals in order to foster a compassionate world in which humans do not regard their fellow creatures as economic commodities.
Both my yoga practice and my veganism have inspired in me a truly awakened consciousness—one that, though disheartening and inconvenient at times, I know will contribute to the (no matter how far-off) achievement of a just society. Every day, I find myself contemplating the potential moral consequences of my actions. Not only does this render life infinitely more stimulating than if I merely “spontaneous[ly] accept[ed] […] what [was] offered” by the dominating capitalist mindset, it also enlivens the genuine happiness of knowing that I do all I can not to actively contribute to the suffering of sentient beings, both human and non (Marcuse 481). May we all seek to fully activate our compassionate consciousness in peaceful rebellion against an immeasurably oppressive system.
Until next time, Ali.
Levine, Marvin. The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga Paths to a Mature Happiness: With a Special Application to Handling Anger. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 2000. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. “One-Dimensional Man.” Classical Sociological Theory. Ed. Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2012. 478-487. Print.
Simpkins, Annellen M. and Alexander C. Simpkins. Meditation and Yoga in Psychotherapy: Techniques for Clinical Practice. Hoboken: Wiley, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 13 Oct. 2012. < http://www.connectny.eblib.com.libproxy.vassar.edu/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=706676&userid=EwFVS9yQLfXp2Tei%2baMalg%3d%3d&tstamp=1355063978&id=7220CB73B2F935CE1F5F70E80EBEBB3BF0291B65&conl=vcl>.