In my time as a burgeoning animal and social activist, I’ve had the immense honor of meeting a plethora of hugely inspiring individuals who engage in the difficult yet necessary work of striving for a more just society. Among these admirable folks, those who actively seek to combat oppression in its innumerable forms, in part through a holistic understanding of systemic inequality, most inform my own activism. Recently, I was introduced to one such individual, whose activist outlook and practice I aspire to emulate.
This individual is Becky Thompson—a well-published author, professor of sociology at Simmons College, longtime yoga instructor, and activist focused on issues of social and racial inequality. Striving to mitigate the systemic violence wrought upon people of color, the consequences such violence enacts upon the very bodies of such peoples, and a parallel violence perpetrated against the bodies of non-human animals through carnist eating habits, Becky is truly a multifaceted activist working in innovative ways.
Becky’s most recent activism takes the form of her upcoming book, entitled Survivors on the Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma (North Atlantic Books, 2014). Inspired by Becky’s continual witnessing of individuals employing yoga as a profound mechanism for healing from trauma (and undergoing of a similar experience herself), Survivors functions as an anthology that recounts the stories of pain and resilience of a multiracial group of individuals. I had the great pleasure of chatting with Becky about Survivors, and she generously shared with me a sneak preview of some of the stories included in the book. One entry recounts the experiences of Black & Cherokee male detective who served in Iraq as a Marine and now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Through yoga, this individual found balance, and pressed through five days of an intense court trial by practicing yoga every morning. Another entry comes from a Thai female farmer who works with homeless children and who is also a rape survivor, detailing how yoga has helped her to understand her reality and to reclaim her body. Becky’s own stories, woven throughout the anthology, speak to a similar redemption of bodily autonomy. For her, talk therapy could not adequately address the trauma she experienced in sexual violence; she felt that since she held the violence in her body, she needed to work through it physically, and yoga provided an ideal venue through which to do so.
Survivors brings to light the enormous power that lives within all of us to challenge the violence—interpersonal, institutional, systemic, and beyond—experienced daily by we not among the upper echelons of society. When Becky first explained the book to me, its enlivening message immediately resonated with my own experiences of using yoga as a tool for eating disorder recovery. In my yoga practice, I began to discover kindness and respect for my own body and mind, and to develop a sense of self-worth not tied to how much or what I ate. Though Survivors does not include a substantial number of stories regarding eating disorder recovery through yoga, Becky’s 1996 book A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems focuses exclusively on the topic (definitely next on my reading list!).
Of course, during my conversation with Becky, I simply had to ask about another of her practices: that of veganism. In my time as an animal rights and social justice advocate, I’ve noticed an increasing number of activists including non-humans in their realm of concern, and was thrilled to discover that Becky is among such activists. What’s more, she brings a compelling perspective to her practice of veganism. Her vegan journey began in part when she heard the story of a protestor of the Vietnam War who abhorred the destruction of completely anonymous peoples, and connected such destruction to that enacted upon exploited non-humans who have no idea why must experience perpetual torture. Growing with her yoga practice, Becky’s veganism came to represent a spiritual practice, offering a chance to expand her consciousness at least three times per day.
One of my primary concerns with the contemporary vegan/animal rights movement involves its predominant whiteness, and on this point Becky provides some intriguing insights. Just as Becky pays homage to yoga’s centuries-old indigenous origins in order to combat the modern yogic stereotype of white fitness junkies clad in Lululemon, she celebrates the vegan communities led by people of color, such as Japanese followers of a macrobiotic diet, many Buddhists, and Afrocentric spiritual practitioners of raw diets and holistic healing (like Queen Afua). Importantly, Becky also notes that while veganism ceases to be a moral imperative when one does not have access to the foods that make a nourishing vegan diet viable, those of us who live in a context in which we can thrive without eating animals have an obligation to do so. I think that this point proves necessary to remember, both by vegans who insist that everyone—regardless of context—must go vegan immediately, and by non-vegans who point out the inaccessibility of veganism to certain people as an excuse to not go vegan themselves.
Until next time, Ali.