hānan eṣāṁ kleśavad uktam
The greatest obstacle to the practice of yoga is one’s own prejudices based on one’s own preferences.
PYS IV. 28
Once upon a time, the strong, wise, out-of-this-world God of Transformation Lord Shiva was sitting with his companion, the great Goddess Parvati. He was telling her about the methods of yoga he had just discovered. He talked for a very long time, not noticing Parvati was bored. After all, it was she who had designed the whole system of yoga in the first place and hardly needed to be lectured on it! As Shiva continued to talk, Parvati dipped her hand in the river and started to gracefully caress the water, making subtle ripples which went on to become waves. One fish recognized that something interesting was coming from the riverbank and swam over to check it out. That fish, whose name was Matsya, listened to Lord Shiva’s teachings with rapt attention. When Matsya asked him to repeat them again from the beginning, Shiva immediately agreed, not surprised in the least that Matsya was a fish. Shiva treats all souls with equal respect. He determines a person’s eligibility by their sincere desire to know the Truth, not by their age, religion, gender or species.
Shiva renamed Matsya, Matsyendranath or “Lord of the Fishes” (Matsya coincidentally means fish in Sanskrit and Indra means Lord). He instructed him to go on and teach others about Hatha Yoga. That’s how it works. The teacher gives the teachings to the student, and the student’s job is to then become the teacher. And so Matsya was the first student who went on to become Matsyendranath, passing on the teachings to others. Yoga is transmitted from teacher to student in an unbroken lineage that remains today. All of us who consider ourselves teachers of Hatha Yoga are descendants of that Fish, Matsya.
At the beginning of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the author, Swatmarama, acknowledges the lineage as being passed from Adinath (Shiva) to Matsyendranath. Yet most people have trouble believing that the first yoga student was an actual fish! How could that be? A fish could never do eka pada shirshasana or even padmasana! The automatic assumption is that Matsya was a man. At most they suppose he may have had wide-set eyes, scaly skin, or some other characteristic that earned him a fish-sounding name. In India, you can see images of Matsyendranath and he appears to be a strong, long-haired, bearded man with two legs instead of a fish tail.
Why is it inconceivable to us that a fish could have received teachings directly from God and gone on to become a yoga guru? It is because of deep rooted prejudice. We human beings arrogantly assume that we are the only species on the planet endowed with consciousness, intelligence, language and a soul. We think it has always been this way, when in fact, all living beings possess these qualities. Scientists today agree that there was life on this planet before human beings appeared. There was a time when aquatic beings outnumbered all other forms of life on this Earth. The Vedas speak of Lord Vishnu’s ten incarnations, and the first avatar was a fish!
I once heard someone tell the story of Matsyendranath and relate it to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale in an attempt to rationalize the “fish” issue. “Jonah,” the teacher said, “was a man swallowed by a whale. He’s inside the whale, which is sort of a big fish. Jonah was a wise and important person in the Bible. Matsyendranath was kind of like Jonah — a man inside a fish’s body. When you see Matsyendranath’s name at the beginning of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, you don’t think of it as referring to a real fish.” This teacher was adamant and to drive home the point and said, “Matsyendranath was a man, a person.” When I heard that, I wondered, are they saying that he was a person inside a fish’s body? And if so, don’t all fish have people inside of them? Isn’t every fish a person, truly, inside? Aren’t all living beings persons? If we define a person as someone with a soul — someone who can feel and think, who cares about their life, cares about their children, cares about their parents, cares about and feels things — then yes, a fish is a person.
The Vedantic teachings declare that all is Brahman—there is nothing in this universe but God. God resides in all beings concealed inside their outward form. But nonetheless, the essential nature of all souls is divine. The outer form of any being or thing is not their true eternal identity. I think the teacher who didn’t want us to think that Matsyendranath might have been a “real fish” was not prepared to think that way. Prejudice based on species can prevent us from embracing this idea. I hope the time will soon come when we do not look upon other animals as inferior and that, as teachers, we won’t be ashamed to teach that great gurus might not always appear in human form.
As children, my sister Jeanette and I would regularly entertain our friends wrapping our legs behind ours ears, though at the time, the word “yoga” was completely unknown to me. We very much liked to mimic Michael Jackson’s mesmerizing moves as well (remember the break-dance?). It was only when, in 2000, I was pregnant that I attended a yoga class for mums-to-be. I found the class boring, New Age kind of a thing, and never went back to that center. A few years later, I attended a more vigorous yoga class. It was a revelation, I felt like I was six years old again; not as flexible as I had been then, but still as blissfully happy. The practice made me high, I was in love! A few months into the class, I noticed that my chronic lower back pain had disappeared .
Playing in Nyungwe, Rwanda; Headstand, sirsasana, 2016
I am an avid reader, so whenever I come across something that triggers my passion to learn more about it, I raid libraries and bookstores. Amazon says that the book “Yoga and Vegetarianism” by Sharon Gannon was first delivered the first week of September 2009 (31 August – 9 September).
As a child, I had never taken any pleasure in eating animals and drinking milk. A story runs in my family about how my sister and I refused to eat fish saying that that whole grilled fish was “dead and staring at us”. I cannot myself remember ever saying that, but I do recall how I always loved observing ants and being fearful that I might kill them inadvertently while walking. And so, it is perhaps not all that surprising that reading “Yoga and Vegetarianism” turned me vegan overnight.
Both my paternal grandparents were lifelong vegetarian centenarians. My grandmother – who we affectionately called Jjajja (‘grandma’ in Luganda, one of Uganda’s main languages) – was the smartest and most generous woman I’ve ever known. She used to claim she could identify meat-eaters from a distance. Jjajja despised fat people and above all lazy people. And she adored her grandchildren, who she found absolutely perfect, even – or especially – the picky eater little me.
I guess it is because of her and our special relationship that my not eating meat as a child was never a problem in our family. But, from their perspective, the most difficult to accept was my disgust with and refusal to drink milk. Worse, still, my sense of smell was very strong and my gag reflex was overwhelming at times; I could never stand the smell of fresh cooking milk (done as a way of pasteurizing it) invading the whole house whenever fresh milk arrived straight from the farm. My sister could blackmail me into doing almost anything she wanted by threatening to dip her buttered toast into her morning tea. My mother too devised all manner of diplomatic excuses beforehand for my anticipated refusal to drink the milk I was offered wherever we went (almost everywhere), while at home she did her best to keep butter out of my food.
All Rwandans, particularly the Tutsi pastoralists, consider cows to be sacred and their milk the most perfect nourishment on earth, especially for kids. But the culture around cows goes well beyond their practical benefit. People are given cows’ names; telling a woman that she has a calf’s eyes is the highest form of complimenting her on how beautiful her eyes are. Similarly, the shades of human skin colour are often described in analogy with cows’ skin-colours, and traditional dances mimic cows’ gait, with women’s arms raised to look like and to move gracefully – like cows’ horns, as feet stamp rhythmically to drums and song. Traditionally, a cow has always been regarded as the most generous of gifts, offered only on special occasions, or as the highest mark of gratitude and friendship. Thus, in this cultural context, not liking milk let alone rejecting it outright, and worse, openly saying so, was considered a severe anomaly.
Nevertheless, over the years, as a teenager and a young adult, I ended up eating certain sorts of cheese (those without the buttery smell), chicken and fish. But “my side stories” about the private lives of ants and the dead people on my plate were there; ready to resurface at any moment. Even when I had given up on chicken, I was an on-and-off unhappy vegetarian. Reading “Yoga and Vegetarianism” was such a relief and a validation from the first words of the book. Sharon Gannon dedicated her book to:
«To those who want to be free
To those who do not want to be hurt by others
To those who do not want to be lied to, who want to be listened to
To those who do not want to live in poverty
To those who are sick but want to get well
To those who want to know the purpose of their lives.»
The clarity of Sharon Gannon’s message literally brought me back together and opened me to greater compassion for all beings (but first brought me greater awareness of my own prior ignorance).
According to the psychologist Melanie Joy “In one week, more farmed animals are killed than the total number of people killed in all wars throughout history.” But how did it all begin? Why does this total insanity continue? Why does it not make the world’s headlines?
I did ask myself these very same questions in 1994, when my people were being slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands in broad daylight in Rwanda; even as the overwhelming rest of the world went on with its business in total indifference. I concluded then, that human beings are simply the most violent animals on the planet, and that compassion is, perhaps, one of the rarest qualities of our species.
Many researchers agree that the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals was a terrible moment in history. This is what Jeffrey Masson writes about it: “The domestication of plants was accompanied by the domestication of animals. They happened more or less simultaneously. Except for dogs, who were domesticated much earlier, the earliest animals to be domesticated were sheep, goats, pigs, and cows (from around 9000 B.C.E.). Obviously, the original point of animal domestication had to do with food. And of course, to eat animals, humans had to exclude the recognition that they had feelings and could suffer in much the same way we do.” He continues: “People in early indigenous cultures (Inuit, Aboriginal, Amerindian, Maori, and so on) asked forgiveness of an animal before they hunted it down and killed it. Killing may have been necessary, but it was not casual.”
It is worth noting that the terms, “stock market” and “capital” all derive from this herding culture where wealth was in livestock. The Latin root word for capital is capita, which means the head of a cow, goat, or sheep (the first animals to be domesticated). The exploitation of animals seems to have served as a template for capitalism as we know it today. Tracing slavery back to its beginnings, David Brion Davis (one of the world’s most prominent slavery historian) links it to the domestication of wild animals
So where do we start?
Whether we agree with Masson and Davis or not, we live in a time of global crisis.
In 2006, a UN report identified livestock as the leading human contributing cause of climate change. Studies and reports abound on the imperative to cut down animal products in order to mitigate climate change. As a species, we are collectively slowly facing the truth about animal industries – a topic that is generally hidden from our view.
The website http://www.killedsofar.com counts how many animals worldwide are killed for food. By the time I put the final point to this article, it counts 35 billions so far this year and 629 billions if we include marine life.
Many things have informed my views about food, animals and humans. I became vegan for ethical reasons and reflecting on my own relationship to other beings (not just other human beings) is a work in progress.
Eating a plant-based diet is the easiest, cheapest, and smartest thing that we, human beings, can do for our health, the planet, and the other animals.
Everyone, I believe, is trying to do his or her best. Among the many hats I wear, I am a yoga teacher as well as the mother of a thriving 14-year-old who has been a vegetarian since his birth. In the first capacity, my role is to provide education so that people will be more informed and make their own choices from a basis of knowledge rather than ignorance.
Over the years, I have seen a growing number of people becoming more interested in knowing exactly what was in their food; how everything in it was produced, and the impact of such eating choices on our living environment. My husband comes from a family of hunters, and for him, giving up on red meat and dairy products was a personal milestone. He has watched and recorded dozens of documentaries on animal rights and our vital environment. Thanks to his deep understanding of the stakes, our home is a vegan household.
With my son, we pride ourselves on making the most delicious vegan chocolate cake and pancakes.
For my husband, it was important to find tasty meat substitutes. And all I can tell you is that the spicy tempeh has never failed as a crowd-pleaser. Did I mention my mom was an incredible cook and a true foodie? Any cooking skills I have are from years of assisting her and being spoiled by my auntie who always sent me cookbooks for my birthday.
Learning how to veganize your favorite dish and/or to find a good substitute to dairy products if you’re hooked on them is a game changer.
Genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. If you are already considering becoming vegetarian or vegan, you only need to get started*. Don’t delay action, don’t overthink it. Some people prefer to set up meat-free days or to take a vegan pledge for a week or a month (there are many online support groups). Make sure you set doable goals and even better idea, get a friend to do it with you. The more, the merrier!
On April 21st 2016, the artist known as…. has left this world.
Prince is best known for hits like “Purple Rain,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “When Doves Cry.” But his songs were about more than partying. Prince was a long-serving vegan and a strong advocate of the abolition of the abattoirs. His song « Animal Kingdom » from the album «The Truth» is very poignant. Please read Karen Dawn’s beautiful tribute
Prince was an activist and a secret philanthropist. If we may say, Prince was an example of a real karma yogi. Doing good, serving goodness, just for the sake of it.
Few individuals live up to their name, but Prince actually did. He was better at being human than most of us are.
These days I can only listen to his songs in repeat mode. I am so grateful for the soundtrack of my teen years… Not only because indeed « Sometimes it snows in April » but mostly, because Prince’s massive life lesson was you better live now (Excerpt from « let’s go crazy » )
We’re all excited But we don’t know why Maybe it’s ’cause We’re all gonna die And when we do What’s it all for? You better live now Before the grim reaper come knocking on your doors
On June 7th, 1958, a legend was born. His parents named him Prince Rogers Nelson
We remember the musical genius, the humble and compassionate human being.
And now Ancestor. May his homegoing be peaceful and full of music