At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living.
Veganism, Yoga, and Me
by Victoria Moran
From the time I heard the word vegetarian at age 5, I knew there was something there for me, but I wouldn't find out what it was in 1950s Kansas City, with its eponymous steak and barbecue and massive stockyards. Still, vegetarian stayed in my head. Other exotic terms joined over time—mysticism, meditation, yoga, intuition, reincarnation—until I had a collection of out-of-reach concepts, each joined with the others in connoting the aspirational and the magical.
After high school, I moved to London, hung out with Quakers and Spiritualists, and spent every spare minute in a shop near Trafalgar Square: Watkins, "specializing in new, used, and antiquarian books in the mind, body and soul field." I found a yoga teacher, and stopped eating land animals. A year later I was vegetarian and continued with yoga. Veganism took longer, but when I got there, I was still doing yoga—off and on with the physical practice, but always "on" in the way I looked at life. And ever since, whatever I've done, wherever I've lived, and regardless of the priorities of the moment—school, marriage, parenthood, career—my companions have been yoga and Veganism.
It may be hard to conceive of a time when it was considered avant garde, rebellious, even sacrilegious to eat foods now available at standard supermarkets, or take up a fitness practice offered at any Y. My mother noted how things had changed when, in her 80s, she said to me: "We used to think you were crazy, doing that yoga and eating those beans. But now people's doctors tell them to do that." Indeed they do, and yet I'm sufficiently rebellious and drawn to the avant garde that, even if the doctors said to do something different, I would do this.
I came into this life with a yogic worldview. I felt certain that I'd lived before and that God takes up residence within every living being. It always seemed to me that life on earth was not the ultimate reality, but it was important and I needed to do my best at it. As I learned that there were different religious faiths, it only made sense that each was there to lead its followers back to a collective home that belongs to us all. These odd notions were nurtured by my slightly eccentric, grandmother-aged nanny, Adelene DeSoto (I called her Dede), who taught me most of the words on my exploration list. The others I gleaned largely from a fictional role model, Mame Dennis, "Auntie Mame" in the classic motion picture starring Rosalind Russell.
Mame had celebrated diversity and tantalizing ideas in the 1920s, and she ages into an elegant woman of a certain age, who in the film's final scene is about to take her great-nephew to India to visit her favorite yogi. "Have him back by Labor Day," the parents insist. "Labor Day," she muses, guiding her charge up a circular staircase, "that's sometime in November, isn't it?" Between Dede and Auntie Mame, there was no way I could take up grilling burgers and playing golf, even though my biological parents enjoyed both.
So, there I was, eating funny and spending a lot of time upside time. It made for a glorious youth and middle age, but it's really only in my third act that I'm coming to see the immense value of a yogic Vegan life. This way of being in the world demands a degree of rigor. I'm lazy and self-indulgent by nature and, without Veganism and yoga, I might have long ago perished in a diner, missing both dessert and a playoff on Jeopardy.
As it is, the disciplines imposed by Veganism and yoga have, to date, saved me. I've long understood the basic edicts of Veganism to be: (1) Consider the welfare of others, irrespective of species, in all your choices; and (2) Prioritize the wellbeing of your arteries over the cravings of your palate. (I realize that nowadays we often regard ethical Vegans and plant-based health seekers as separate groups, separate movements even. When I started on this path in the 1970s, however, most Vegans made this choice for the animals, but rapidly signed onto some iteration of "healthy eating." We had to prove that respect for animals wouldn't lead to sickness for humans. Back then, "eat your veggies" was as much a moral imperative as a nutrition tip.)
Next up are the disciplines of yoga, a sort of 10 Commandments in two parts, starting with the yamas, or moral precepts:
non-harming (even non-yogic Vegans know this one in Sanskrit, ahimsa)
restraint of the senses, and
These are followed by the niyamas, or observances:
study of oneself and spiritual teachings, and
surrender to a higher power.
When I see these spelled out, I think I'm the sorriest would-be yogi who ever assumed a downward-facing dog. Still, every day I show up, and some days I do better. Being Vegan helps me at least to get a passing grade in ahimsa.
So, I keep at it, intrigued and inspired by the graceful interplay of Veganism and yoga. It's in the teachings of the sages:
“Those noble souls who practice meditation and other yogic ways, who are ever careful about all beings, who protect all animals, are the ones who are actually serious about spiritual practice.” - Atharva Veda, verse 19.48.5
"Just serve every living being in God’s creation with humility, respect and love." ~ Neem Karoli Baba, spiritual teacher of Ram Dass
"A perfect action is one that does no harm to anyone and does some good for someone." -- Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga
And it's in yoga's practical philosophy with its guidance on how to live, even how to eat. Yoga teaches that there are three modes or gunas governing life on earth: rajas (passion), tamas (inertia), and sattva (goodness). They're all necessary. Rajas builds families and cities and civilizations. Tamas lets us sleep at night and allows for the death and decay that nourish the soil and the forests. But if you're looking to build character or sanctify your soul, you want to focus on sattvic practices—meditation, good deeds, time spent in nature or otherwise surrounded by beauty, and engagement in spiritual discourse or immersion in spiritual study.
In addition, some foods are sattvic and contribute to both physical health and spiritual growth: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. The ancient texts included "milk from healthy cows," but I contend that a cow in a dairy herd is unlikely to be healthy and is assuredly unhappy. Since dairying sentences cows and their calves to an untimely death, ahimsa is impossible to achieve when there's yogurt in the fridge and pizza in the freezer, unless these are Vegan.
So, I live each day habituated to teachings from a foreign land and a way of eating and relating to non-human beings that is foreign to my heritage (the American Midwest, with roots in Italy, France, and Ireland). Even so, these teachings fit me as if made to order. In this era of cancel culture and online chastisement, I run the risk of a charge of cultural appropriation. My rebuttal would be that I appropriated these beliefs and practices so long ago, I'm not sure where they stop and I start. In my life, Veganism and yoga have contributed as much to who I am as my genetic code. They so infuse my life with meaning, and purpose, and delight that I feel a bit like a carnival barker, armed with a pressure-cooker and a sticky mat, calling out to passers-by, "Step right up! Get your Vegan yoga here. Believe me, ladies and gents, boys and girls—you don't want to miss out on this one."
About the Author
Victoria Moran is the author of books including Shelter for the Spirit, Creating a Charmed Life, and The Good Karma Diet. She is a cofounder of the Compassion Consortium and the founder and director of Main Street Vegan Academy, training and certifying Vegan Lifestyle Coaches and Educators. This essay originally appeared in the anthology Vegan Voices: Essays by Inspiring Changemakers, edited by Joann Kong, PhD, and published by Lantern Publishing and Media.