Yoga Teachers’ Views About Farmed Animals And Plant-Based Diets
In light of the spiritual-, ethical-, historical-, and health-related links between yoga and plant-based diets, my masters-level study set out to explore if these connections are alive and well in the dietary practices and attitudes of modern yoga teachers. The aim was to gain an understanding of yoga teachers’ beliefs about farmed animals and attitudes toward plant-based diets. Animal advocates could then use this information to tailor their message when promoting plant-based diets to this group.
I chose yoga teachers as the target group for the following reasons: 1) The U.N. estimates that two billion people practice yoga globally, so yoga teachers could have an influence on a large number of people’s dietary views (i.e., their students); 2) It can be useful to focus on groups of people who may be most receptive to a pro plant-based message to help the movement to grow; 3) No research currently exists concerning the views of yoga teachers on farmed animals and plant-based diets; and 4) I participate in the yoga-teaching community and have set-up the voluntary Animalia Asana® co-operative, so I have a particular interest in this area.
Due to the complexity of human-animal relations, the personal nature of dietary choices, and the fact that the results of some past studies have contradicted each other, I chose a mixed-methods design for this study, involving quantitative questionnaires and qualitative telephone interviews. This allowed me to both test for statistical significance in the quantitative data while still collecting in-depth information through the qualitative data.
From 446 questionnaire respondents, the key results were as follows:
- Just over 29% of yoga teachers followed a plant-based or vegan diet, but almost 74% expressed a desire to follow or maintain a plant-based diet
- The greater extent to which yoga teachers had eliminated animal products from their diet, the more progressive their beliefs about the moral status of farmed animals and the more positive their attitudes toward plant-based diets were likely to be (p=0.05)
- As yoga teachers’ beliefs about the moral status of farmed animals became more progressive, their attitudes towards plant-based diets tended to become more positive and vice versa (p=0.01)
- Greater access to plant-based foods in small shops or when eating out, more knowledge regarding health, and more support from others within and outside of the vegan community were the top three factors that yoga teachers felt could help with transitioning to, or maintaining, a more plant-based diet.
The interviews supported and elaborated upon these quantitative results. In general, the interviewees believed in an equal moral status between farmed animals and humans and disagreed with humans’ removal of animals’ agency and the objectification of animals. All 10 interviewees agreed that there is a sliding scale regarding the ethics of different uses of animals by humans, though disagreed about whether some uses were mere lesser evils or completely acceptable. Most interviewees had health and accessibility concerns about a 100% plant-based diet to greater or lesser extents.
What I found particularly interesting was how both vegans and conscientious omnivores used the notion of human-animal similarity in their reasoning to be either pro or against plant-based diets. For example, one vegan interviewee identified humans as animals and so felt a close connection with nonhuman animals, while one conscientious omnivore interviewee who also identified the human species as an animal related this to a justification for killing other animals for food. Similarly, these same interviewees’ experience of pregnancy, motherhood, and breastfeeding led them to opposite conclusions: the former felt the need to abstain completely from cows’ milk as the thought of her baby being taken from her horrified her, so she empathized with dairy cows, while the latter felt that she had earned a right to play a role in the circle of death now that she had contributed to the circle of life.
The interviews also revealed a strong minority view that seemed to lead some respondents away from supporting a plant-based diet. It seemed to be based in a kind of spiritual worldview that asserted a need for eating a whole range of animal products for optimal health and to be ‘fully manifest’ in this physical world. This view also involved the belief that, relative to humans, animals only have a lower-order spiritual dimension to their lives, and so have a lower moral status than humans.
This is the first research into yoga teachers’ attitudes toward veg*ism, and it can hopefully help, inform, and inspire animal advocates when liaising with this group, especially any animal advocates within the yoga community. Compared to the general population, this study confirms that there is a higher prevalence of people following a plant-based diet and more support for plant-based diets within the UK yoga teaching community—but still, less than a third of UK-based yoga teachers follow a plant-based diet.
Researchers are increasingly studying religious views about how humans relate to animals, but research into more general spiritual beliefs is lacking. I think useful insights could be gained from such research, especially if we more closely examine and challenge human exceptionalist views; for example, we could in theory argue that it is precisely because of supposed human superiority that we move away from consuming animals or secretions from animals. I would also recommend case study research with willing volunteers who report health difficulties when they have tried to transition to a plant-based diet to see if plant-based health experts can help alleviate their symptoms or identify the issue. Finally, I recommend researchers to extend this study to other countries.
The full text is available here. I am also working with staff at The University of Winchester to try and publish this research in a peer-reviewed journal.