To Be Or Not To Be:
A Look At Yoga’s Relationship With Vegetarianism
Written By Julie Schoen
It’s a common assumption that all yogis are vegetarians. For years I have been greeted with vegetarian meals by friends, hotels, and restaurants simply because they have received the knowledge that I’m a yoga instructor. Nearly every yoga function I have ever attended, at least in the United States, serves all vegetarian dishes. And while I absolutely love vegetarian food and eat a vegetarian diet nearly every day of the week, the assumption that I never touch meat is incorrect. In fact, I love meat too.
Here Are 5 Reasons Why Many Yogis DO Become Vegetarians:
- Ahimsa (Non-Violence): A major principle in yogic philosophy, followers of ahimsa practice non-violence in all areas of their life, which for many means giving up the consumption of meat in order to not play a role in the death of any animal.
- To Be Healthy: Vegetarians, for example, seem to exhibit far fewer cases of cancer and heart disease, just to name a couple.
- To Be Kind To The Planet: Many great minds, including Albert Einstein, as well as plenty of current research all agree that the way meat is produced and consumed in our modern age is doing great harm to the health of our planet, causing pollution, disease, and more.
- Ancient Indian Texts: The Dharma Sutras, for example, make very clear statements like,“the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven” or the famous Swami Prabhupada quote, “If you want to eat animals, then [God] will give you… the body of a tiger in your next life so that you can eat flesh very freely.”
- Recognizing The Divine In All: Yogis say “Namaste” at the end of a class as an acknowledgement of the divine light in all. Eating meat would conflict with the idea that all living things are divine.
I have practiced vegetarianism and veganism in the past for several months if not a year or more at a time at several different times in my life – elementary school, high school, college, yoga trainings, while being pregnant and after having my children. I have enjoyed these times in my life thoroughly and they have taught me a lot about being conscious about what I eat, how I eat, and why I eat. I guess you could say that being an on and off vegetarian or vegan has changed my relationship with food for the best.
I have gone on “vegetarian kicks” for several different reasons, most of them revolving around the idea of compassion, both for all living things as well as this planet we live on. Even at a young age I would become appalled with the idea of having an animal killed so that I could eat it. I would cut out meat completely from my diet for months at a time, even going so far as to cry and leave the table when anyone in my family bit into a steak or a piece of chicken.
I would, however, get hungry after a few months. I found myself craving meat. There are a lot of reasons why this happened, many of which have to do with the fact that my mom who, as sweet as she is, didn’t know the least about cooking vegetarian meals and would simply serve me whatever she made for the rest of my large family just without the meat portion. (There were a lot of meals for me that consisted of only applesauce and green beans.) I wasn’t receiving the proper nutrition I needed from the vegetarian foods I was getting so my body really was literally crying out for help as it filled my mind with thoughts of cheeseburgers and bacon.
Later in life I discovered another possible reason for my body’s desire for meat. That answer came from my studies in Ayurveda (often thought of as the “sister science” to yoga). A very smart and kind Ayurvedic doctor listened to me as I discussed my eating habits, my energy levels, my skin issues, etc. and then kindly asked me, “Why don’t you eat meat?” I was shocked. At this point in my life I was not eating meat or animal products because I believed that in order to be a “real yogi” I had to give these up. I told my doctor this and he smiled. Then he laughed.
In his opinion, as a health and nutritional expert and a yogi himself, there is no reason why anyone should ever feel like they need to do anything just because others believe it’s true.
This idea left me confused and angry at first. I was angry that someone would challenge the belief system I had been working off of for several years and confused that this yogi doctor of all people would be the one to do it.
Here Are 5 Reasons Why Yogis DO NOT Have To Be Vegetarians:
- Ahimsa: While most of the time the idea of non-violence is used as an argument for vegetarianism, it can also be used against it. If your body needs meat to function properly, not giving it what it needs could be considered an act of violence towards the self.
- Be Responsible: Eating meat and not caring about the well-being of others and the planet do not have to go hand-in-hand. You can choose when to eat meat, where to buy it from, and the quality of life for the animals. There are definitely horrible people and practices in the meat industry that would not be responsible to buy from, but there are also wonderful people who really love what they do.
- Be Open-Minded: By vowing never to consume meat there is a good chance that you will miss out on opportunities to connect with others. Eating animals is common to nearly every people group around the world and has a long and honored tradition behind it. Refusing to eat a meal prepared for you just because you have decided not to eat something years ago can be a bit narrow-minded.
- Learn To Listen Not Just Follow: Yoga is meant to be a journey of discovery about yourself, not anyone else. Just because the majority of yogis are vegetarian doesn’t mean you have to necessarily jump on the bandwagon without giving it any thought. Sure, try going vegetarian for as long as you want, but be mindful and listen to your body. Is it right for you? Does it feel good? If it doesn’t it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or a bad yogi.
- You Can Still Be Kind: A person who eats meat can still be a kind person. Thank the animal that provided you with your meal before eating it. Thank the people who cared for the animal, the earth that gave it land to live and grow, and the Creator who gave life to all of us. So much goes on behind the scenes in order to get food on our plates. Just because there isn’t meat on a plate doesn’t mean that the food was automatically produced in a kinder, better way.
It took me a couple weeks to digest what he was really saying: you should do what’s good for you, not for others. (Note: please take this statement to be one of empowerment and liberation, not an excuse to go do whatever the hell you want. I am very against the YOLO – *search Drake for reference if necessary* – mindset.)
In Ayurveda there are three different constitutions, or doshas, that make up a person. You can be born with a certain combination of the three, but those can evolve and change, go in and out of balance, as you live. According to Ayurveda, which by the way does not mandate vegetarianism, different doshas need different types of food in order to keep the body and its system balanced and functioning properly.
What my doctor was trying to tell me was that if my body wasn’t functioning properly, if I wasn’t feeling good, and wasn’t happy, I should consider all options to remedy that, including eating meat from time to time. Yoga after all is about taking care of the body and spirit, right?
So after decades of struggling with deciding whether I should label myself vegetarian or vegan, I have finally found peace with my diet. I don’t label it. I am mindful about everything that I consume. Before eating anything I like to consider where it’s from, how it’s made, and what the impact of me eating it will be. Will this help to make me feel better so I can take care of my family better? Will this help the planet flourish and grow? Will I regret eating this?
I am responsible when I eat – something that I think is much more impactful than simply labeling yourself a carnivore or an herbivore. I believe that so much pain in the world could be eliminated (disease, destruction, depravation) if people would just start to have a relationship with their food.
At an Ayurvedic clinic I attended a few weekends ago, my friend Shibana told us that she likes to follow the “You Are What You Eat” mantra, so ask yourself before your next meal, “Do I want to be fast, easy, and cheap?”