One New Year’s Eve, I was doing some animal rights activism in Brooklyn, New York. We projected a short clip called From Farm to Fridge on to a building, and there we met basically two types of people: those who protected their hearts and those who allowed their hearts to break open.
The first type of people would yell at us, call us names, or calmly tell us they wish to open a farm and have the animals killed. The second type of people would see the images right in front of them, would be witnesses to someone’s pain, would allow themselves to shed tears in front of strangers. The difference between the two types of people is not on whether they are “good” or “bad”. The difference lies in how vulnerable they allowed themselves to be, how open they are to feel the suffering of another, how connected they are to the sameness that binds us all.
Being vegan, for many, is a position that comes from the heart, a decision we make because we feel the suffering of our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters. To be vulnerable, to be susceptible to pain, to be capable of feeling hurt is bravery. It means we are fully awake in our capacity to see through this pain and to do something about it. As a yoga practitioner, I have many times cried during practice. Sometimes a specific memory will come up, other times just an overwhelming feeling from past pains and losses that are undefined. As a yoga teacher, I have also had the great honor to witness this opening in many students– this surrender to the emotions, this halting of whatever holds one back, this simple but difficult act of letting one’s defenses go.
The practice of yoga allows for a softening of the heart. It melts our armors and allows us to wrap ourselves in the warmth of self-acceptance. This vulnerability that allows us to be truthful to our emotions on the mat is the same vulnerability that changes the heart of a person to turn him or her vegan. When we allow ourselves to feel our emotions, we re-sensitize ourselves, and we start to feel as others do. Consciousness is not contained in a vacuum. That awakening, if we allow it to stir us, moves towards all directions and permeates our circle of compassion to include all beings. As it is said in the Bhagavad Gita, “When you feel the suffering of every living thing in your own heart, that is consciousness.”
You may have met vegans and judged them to be overly emotional. Some of us cry uncontrollable tears when we witness an animal being killed, or feel upset when family members eat a slice of dairy cheese in front of us despite our requests, or take the time and effort to make sure a cockroach or an ant or a fly is unharmed. To the rest of the world, we vegans appear crazy, over-the-top, even unreasonable. But are we? Most vegans grew up eating meat, dairy, and cheese– what is considered standard or normal. Growing up in the Philippines, I was desensitized by the images of “lechon” and seeing roasted pigs or cows did not seem extraordinary. A shift happened when I allowed myself to be vulnerable, when I stopped seeing “meat” and saw animals instead. Suddenly, those chicken ads do not look the same. I did not see food anymore. I began to see beheaded animals who in their last moments fought for their lives. I did not see milk or cheese or butter as food anymore either. I began to see the mother cow wailing for her baby as she is separated from him. I saw not only her milk being stolen but also her chance to be a nurturing mother taken away from her. I saw in the most hidden of the agendas of animal use industries the truth that are disturbingly painful- rape, theft, kidnapping, abuse, murder. The cows and the chickens and the pigs and the other animals became me; I began to feel their pain and carry their sorrows.
It requires vulnerability to feel as others do, to see past tradition, to feel instead of rationalize, to be moved instead of staying stuck. Yoga creates that magic, which my teacher Sharon Gannon refers to as a “shift in perception”. When we are able to move through the world without egoic agenda and without selfish interests, we start to let go of the demarcation line between humans and nonhumans, us and them, me and others. This magic transforms our pain into action, jolts us from apathy to sensitivity, and changes us from observers of life to change-makers.
And so while it is true that a soft heart versus a hardened one may subject us to more heartbreaks, it also gives us more joy, as it connects us to all of life, to this beautiful web of existence in our limited time on Earth. To be vegan means to be vulnerable, to expand our hearts to include caring for those who are forced to be invisible. To be vulnerable means to be courageous in seeing others for who they truly are- that animals are sentient beings– and not what others tell us who they are– our things to be used. And so, it is with our soft hearts that we vegans allow our hearts to be broken time and again, because vulnerability is not our weakness. It is our strength. Our connectedness is not our pitfall– it is our clear and unmistakeable path to Yoga and the Oneness of it all.
Nancy Siy is the first certified Jivamukti Yoga Teacher based in Manila. She studied with co-founders Sharon Gannon and David Life at Omega Institute in New York and continues to deepen her knowledge through immersions and visits at Jivamukti Wild Woodstock Ashram. Through the integrated practice of Jivamukti Yoga, Nancy leads classes that infuse asana with music, philosophy, hands-on assists, meditation, and introspection. Her teaching is continuously inspired by the guiding principle that all beings are holy, all yogis are spiritual, and that we are all here to serve a divine purpose. She teaches regular classes at Yoga+ and Bliss, and guest teaches in New York and Sydney. She also teaches Jivamukti Yoga workshops and retreats. Her dharma talks in essay formats can be found at her website www.manilajiva.com. She manages the Facebook group Jivamukti Yoga Manila Satsang and uses it as a venue to talk about yoga teachings applied off the mat.