There was a short story that came out in 1948 in The New Yorker. It was very controversial at that time, so much so that people wrote hate letters to the magazine and people unsubscribed. The story is called The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.
The story is set in a small town of about 300 people. Every year on the same day, they follow a tradition. People would have their names written on pieces of paper and one person would get picked. But unlike the lottery that we associate with winning big prizes, this lottery puts the person picked on death row. All the other people would participate by stoning this person to death on the same day. In this story, they say it is tradition, that things have always been done this way, that it is the natural order of things.
As yogis, we often chant the mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu to mean may all beings be happy and free. And this does not mean may all beings be happy and free- except the ones who have to be sacrificed in the name of tradition once a year. No. We mean what we say and we say what we mean. All beings means all beings, without exception. As long as they are beings who live and breathe, then they are souls who are in our realm of concern.
In our asana practice, we get to observe the subtleties of our human experience. We bring into our conscious mind the thoughts, patterns, and actions that may have gone unnoticed for so long. We get to experiment with our own bodies. When we inhale in a certain pose and exhale in another pose, is it because we have been told to do so, or is it because we have tried several ways of doing it, and finally took the variation that made sense to us? Are we doing things simply because we have always done them the same way, or are we doing things from a place of consciousness, intention, and deliberate action? Take for example, doing dhanurasana or bow pose. When we get into the pose, do we mindlessly do it, without paying attention to where we may be putting the emphasis, to whether we are balanced or not? We can try doing the pose lifting only the upper body up first, knees grounded down, then see how it feels. Then we can try doing the pose lifting only the legs up, chin and chest grounded down. Do we notice that we may have a tendency to lean more on either the upper or lower body? Is it a conscious decision or something we do simply out of habit, maybe a habit that has not been investigated? Once we are able to bring this to our attention, then we can derive conclusions from our investigation, and take action from a place of conscious choice. A choice is not truly a choice if we never had the opportunity to look at alternatives and know the many options that we are choosing from.
One of the things I often hear is that eating meat and other animal products is a choice. It makes me wonder if it truly is a choice. Has the person making the statement done a thorough investigation? Has this person taken the time to seek information, to watch documentaries like Earthlings, to read books like the Food Revolution, or perhaps the simplest and most direct investigation of all, has this person looked into the eyes of an animal and not seen his of her soul?
One of the most deeply-ingrained prejudices that we have in society today is our prejudice against animals. We have been told that using them, abusing them, and killing them are all part of tradition. We have been told that it is normal. We have been told that this is the natural order of things. We have been told that this is the way things have always been. How are we different from the characters in the story? Whereas we think of their yearly tradition and say, "how could they", have we taken the time to look at our own actions and asked "how could we?".
In the story " The Lottery", it is very easy for us to perceive the violence that is inflicted in the name of tradition because we are removed from the reality of the situation. In the story, it is not happening to us, and we are not the perpetrators. It is a tradition for the fictional characters but not a tradition that we ourselves have. Can we perhaps challenge ourselves to think of our actions with the same distance? If eating meat, dairy, eggs and other animal products were not part of our tradition, not part of what we have always done, would killing animals for reasons of taste, convenience, and habit then be something we would choose for ourselves? Or maybe we can conduct our investigation from the other extreme end, and remove all distance altogether. If we held a pig in our arms, would we not want to cuddle him rather than kill him? If we looked into a cow's eyes and saw her longing for her calf, would we not want her to be able to nurse her baby rather than steal her milk? If we see a male chick, would we not want to see him grow up rather than be grounded alive as it is standard in egg production?
Traditions per se are not right or wrong. Not just because something is considered a tradition, something has always been done, something is considered a habit that is deeply ingrained means that it is right, or that we should keep doing it, or that it is just to other souls. Yoga is anarchy. It is self-rule. It is using our own faculties, our own senses, our own moral compass to decide what we should continue doing in our lives. Letting go of a habit or a tradition can be scary. It could mean that we have to learn completely different ways of doing things. But in so doing, we may find that we open ourselves to a life that is fuller, a life that is more compassionate, a life that is more connected to others souls.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all. This mantra is a declaration. Antu means may it be so. Because we say it, then we mean it, then we will do everything that we can to make it happen – even if it means we let go of traditions, even if it means we question everything that we know, even if it means we have to turn our worlds upside down.
Note: Consider this my full disclosure. This month's focus is challenging for me to teach, not because the topic does not resonate with me, but because I am fully invested in what it means to see animals as beings. I've been vegan for 5 years now, and the main thing that drew me to Jivamukti was and still is its strong position on animal rights activism. I would go as far as to say that I chose to become a Jivamukti Yoga teacher and teach only Jivamukti because I value this platform in which I could speak in behalf of the abused animals. All other things I do, in asana and assists etc are all supporting roles to my main motivation. If I sound preachy, please do not take my lack of eloquence as a point against animals. Let me own my own faults but please think of the animals and do your own research. You don't have to look too far. It's everywhere.
Whenever I walk into a yoga class, I can see that in the safe space where we all practice, none of us would choose to harm the other. I believe this with all of my heart. Animal rights to me means that we simply invite the animals to this room, to this space where we wish no harm to others.