24 January 2011

Interview with TDIV writer and Karuna for Animals founder Erica Settino

This Dish Is Veg writer Erica Settino is the co-founder and executive director of the non-profit organization, Karuna For Animals: Compassion In Action, Inc. A long time vegetarian turned passionate vegan, she works tirelessly to educate others on the countless benefits of adopting a vegan diet, starting with the irrefutable fact of widespread, global animal suffering and cruelty. She currently holds a BS in Psychology with a concentration in Animal Behavior and is presently completing her MFA in Creative Writing. Along with her work in animal advocacy, rescue, welfare, and care, Erica works as an editorial assistant, freelance writer, certified and registered yoga instructor, nutritional counselor and health coach, and certified vegan chef. She lives in NY with her vegan husband and their four rescued animal companions.

What inspired you to start Karuna For Animals?
Karuna is a culmination and marriage of my work as a yoga student and instructor and my experience working in animal welfare, rescue, and care. It used to be difficult for me to decide how to best answer the question, “what do you do?” Depending upon whom I was speaking with or where I was, would decipher which role I offered. But I always felt compelled to quickly add, “and I work with animals,” or “and I teach yoga.” I felt it so important to mention both. I realized after a time, that it is because I am so passionate about both and that they come from the same place inside of me, that it was crucial to explain how very interconnected the work is, and that I am not one without the other. Karuna was inspired by that interconnectedness, and that is the message we are spreading: our interconnectedness to each other, to all living beings, to the earth, and to ourselves.

Explain the mission of Karuna For Animals.
It is the goal of the organization to raise awareness and funds for the rights of all animals. Karuna means compassion in Sanskrit, or more specifically, compassion in action. Our action is taken through yoga classes and workshops, humane education, community outreach (the animal community), and plant-based, vegan nutrition and education. It is our ultimate aim to rescue, rehabilitate, and provide sanctuary for any and all animals in need, regardless of species or breed. Because although there are distinctions amongst many animals, there is only one way in which to treat every one of them, and that is with kindness and compassion. Of course, there are some amazing organizations already doing this kind of work. But what sets us apart is using yoga as a means to gain deeper understanding of ourselves, and the divinity within all beings, as well as the consequences (what some people think of as Karma) of our actions.

How can people get involved with the organization?
Beginning in the spring of 2011 we will be holding monthly events throughout Long Island, which will range from yoga classes, workshops, movie screenings, book discussions, vegan cooking and nutritional classes, group discussions, guest speakers, and concerts to local fundraisers, raffles, and more. The wonderful thing about getting involved in these events is that the classes are as beneficial for us as is the money we raise for the animals. The benefits of a collective yoga practice, whether it be in a studio on a mat, or in the form of discussion in a lecture hall, has the power to ignite change and start a revolution. In addition to the events, people can volunteer to help organize the events, host a workshop at their office or home, host a vegan potluck, book private yoga classes or workshops for their upcoming events such as birthday parties or bridal parties. And of course, monetary donations can be accepted on our website via PayPal or check or money order. But most specifically, people can begin making monumental changes in the lives of animals by making small changes in their own lives. Always adopt your animal companions from a shelter or sanctuary. Always spay or neuter your pets, no matter the species or breed. Eat a healthy, plant-based diet. By eliminating meat and dairy from one meal a day you will savings thousands of lives. Yoga teaches us, through the principle of ahimsa (non-harming) to adopt a vegan diet to avoid taking part in the violent treatment and death of living beings. Practice yoga to know yourself and others better.

When did you decide to become a vegetarian? And what motivated you to go a step further and become a vegan? 
I first became vegetarian at around fifteen years old, which unbelievably is almost fifteen years ago now. That is the time that I began a dedicated yoga practice and really started to connect with the instinctual aversion I had to eating flesh. It wasn’t easy to be vegetarian then. My doctor was against it as well as numerous members of my immediate family. For a number of years my diet vacillated between total vegetarianism, and eating poultry and fish. I never enjoyed it and I would often eat around the flesh on my plate or even ask the deli attendant to “hide the turkey under the lettuce and tomato.” Seriously. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, when I stopped questioning myself and all I knew to be true, that I once again cut all flesh from my diet and knew I would never go back. Becoming vegan was the next, natural progression to leading a life of non-violence. The transition was seamless, and one of the best decisions I have ever made. What chickens and dairy cows experience for the production of milk and eggs is irrefutably cruel, and undeniably exploitative. I want no part of it.

What role does yoga play in your life?
I find it hard to put into words how influential and monumental yoga has been for me. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother practicing yoga and teaching me how to execute postures such as Sirshasana (headstand) and Bhujangasana (cobra) from her ancient Richard Hittleman book. She was my first teacher and really set the stage for a life of dedicated practice. My yoga journey has been so full, so very challenging, yet extremely rewarding. I have had the good fortune of practicing under revered masters such as Sri Dharma Mittra and Sharon Gannon and David Life, all of whom have been instrumental in my bringing Karuna to fruition (even if they don’t know it themselves); the examples they have set, the lessons that they teach, and the personal development I have attained prepare me for such an undertaking. Yoga is a way of being, a way of living that allows for a deeper integration into this life. So often students become distracted by the physical practice, that much of yoga is forgotten in the perfection they seek. It is for me a touchstone for grace, a prayer with my whole body, and a process of progression; so that any and all good I receive may be to the benefit of all beings.

Tell us about your upcoming children’s book.
“I Am Everything and Everything Is Me,” is the story of Sara, a young girl who wakes one day with the decision to investigate the woods surrounding her home. Throughout the day she is met by various elements in nature—a tree, a mountain—and of course, numerous different animals. As she explores their habitat she begins to understand them, through executing corresponding yoga poses she gains an understanding of the importance of their differences and beauty in their distinctions, and comes to see herself in them. I wrote the book with a humane education curriculum in mind and am looking forward to taking it into schools to work with children. It is still in the production phase, and last I heard with the illustrator. I am anxious to see how it comes together. I think that children are especially attuned to animals and nature and we should encourage and nurture that instinctual connection.

For more information about Erica and Karuna For Animals visit karunaforanimals.com.

Julia is a student who has a passion for veganism, animal welfare, and religious studies.

Photo credit:Erica Settino