It’s one of the most controversial topics in the yoga world: vegetarianism. Some say you’re not truly practicing yoga if you eat meat; others say that not all body types can thrive on purely vegetarian diets. Is there a definitive answer?
On any retreat, you’re bound to hear a lively discussion at the lunch table about whether or not yoga practitioners should eat meat. Neither side takes their position lightly. After all, yogis don’t do things without reason!
The vegetarians say that ahimsa, or the yogic practice of nonviolence, prevents them from eating animals because it’s violent to take the life of another living being. Vegetarians also say that meat-eating inhibits us from achieving deep states of meditation because it negatively affects the energy body. (Pranamaya teacher Dharma Mittra discusses this at length in the Cow’s exclusive Q&A this month).
The non-vegetarians are often practitioners who once tried to be vegetarian but didn’t feel healthy while on that diet. They say it made them feel ungrounded, and that it created conditions associated with vata imbalance (an ayurvedic term for too much wind and ether).
I have to admit: I fall into the latter category. I was a vegetarian for about 10 years, and I ate well, but I was in the worst health of my life. I tried adapting my diet in all different ways, as well as attempting a host of other treatments, but I had chronic conditions that would not go away. Every acupuncturist I went to told me to eat meat, but I refused. Finally, one of my yoga teachers, who is also an Ayurvedic doctor, told me to start eating meat. With a lot of resistance, I slowly introduced small amounts into my diet. It wasn’t the only change I made at that time, but it was the most significant—and my health improved drastically over the next couple of years. I struggled (and still do, at times) with tremendous conflict over eating meat. But I know I am not alone in the experience I had; at least half of the practitioners and teachers that I know have similar stories.
What’s your story? Are you a vegetarian? If not, did you try it once? Can one eat meat and still be a yogi? And how far should one go to be a vegetarian? Write in and tell us what you think. (Passionate responses welcome!)
I was a vegetarian for 17 years and felt healthy. When I was treated for severe endometriosis my chinese medicine practitioner said he couldn’t help me unless I put meat back in my diet. I had no desire to, a lot of resistance. I gradually added meat as a small portion of my diet and there is no question that my thin body needs meat, at least in the temperate climate I live in. I couldn’t make it through winter without it, and I am just very careful to eat animals that were raised in my community where I know they had good and healthy lives!
I’m a committed vegetarian yogi, but don’t hold the view that a “yogi” must be vegetarian, because I don’t know what “yogi” means – what everyone’s personal intention is. We’d first have to define “yoga”. If yoga = following the 8 limbs of Patanjali literally (or several other traditional yoga systems), then it does include ahimsa. If we take ahimsa at all literally, it’s difficult to justify meat eating, even if it does contribute to greater personal health and well-being. Which is more harming: my being uncomfortable/unhealthy, or thousands of chickens, cows, etc. (over my lifetime) dying?
But yogis take the teachings broadly, especially in the West, and I know some who hold ahimsa to be the practice of not taking on the dualistic view that self and other exist at all in any real way, and since they don’t, “killing” is just an illusion! (This is one of the arguments Krishna gives Arjuna in the Gita in favor of going to war.) My feeling about whether a practitioner is in integrity around ahimsa depends on how they’ve committed to work with that principle.
For myself, I do feel that I can’t simultaneously make a vow of ahimsa, or non-harming, without also making the intention to take or harm life as little as possible. And I can’t see how to live in that vow while causing animals’ deaths. I acknowledge that the circle of birth and death is everywhere, and that all my actions have effects, some harmful. This is karma, and is unavoidable. It’s partly why some early teachings emphasized stopping action as the way to stop karma. Some Jains have taken this to its extreme. But since it’s relatively easy in this culture and climate to eat a rich vegetarian diet, I am willing to work with whatever discomforts result, for the greater good of living within my precepts. I’m thin, vata predominant, and sleepy/low energy a lot. Would meat shift all these things in a positive direction? Maybe. But it’s not worth it for me. If I had a more intense imbalance, it might be a harder decision, but at the root of the issue for me is that my physical comfort isn’t the most important thing in my yoga practice, as desirable as it is.
Modern western yoga is deeply tied to the desire to be healthy and strong in our bodies. If this is one of our core goals in being yogis, then meat eating might be the most yogic thing for some bodies. Early Buddhist and Raja yoga are not about personal health in this way – far from it, often – and so the ideal of ahimsa is cultivated as a greater good (and a deeper training of the heart) than the radiance of the physical body which is seen as impermanent (and selfless) anyway. Later Tantric and Hatha teachings rebelled against this austerity (which was taken to ridiculous extremes as times) by declaring all 5 forbidden substances (the 5 M’s: meat, grain, alcohol, fish, sex) to be allowed and necessary for the non dual practitioner in a ritual setting. In practice, the 5 were still mostly avoided by yogis. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, like Patanjali and the Buddha, lists ahimsa as the first yama, or ethical training. There’s no evidence that the Tantric tradition suggests a daily, habitual meat diet as appropriate for yogis, even if meat is used in ritual and as a practice of being beyond society’s mores. One teaching says that the ingestion of the 5 M’s should only happen when one’s equanimity is so deep that eating the most delicious meal and a pile of shit would be – in terms of desire generated – effectively the same.
Of course, most western yogis are not going to the texts and trying to justify their diets based on ancient ascetic suggestions! Most folks are just trying to live in a way that’s healthy and sustainable, for their own bodies and for the planet. The yogis who push vegetarianism rightly claim precedence in the texts, and I think rightly point to the big picture of harm on a global agricultural level, not just to the individual animals, but to the whole ecosystem. But individual health is important and respectable, and if a yogis intention is to nourish their body through practice of all kinds, making a conducive space for the hard work of inner freedom, and they find that meat eating supports their practice in a way that nothing else does, then it could be said to be “yogic” to do so.
Lastly, I want to bow to all my yogi friends who wrestle with this issue. I don’t want my argument in favor of yogic vegetarianism to cause any guilt or be read as criticism. That would defeat my hope to not cause harm. I myself am emotional about the issue partly because the precepts (yama) have been so important to me in my practice. (When I was a monk, my name translated as “protected by ethics”!) Given my love for ahimsa, and the safety it gives rise to in my heart, I simply can’t eat meat. Health isn’t in the equation much for me (& gratefully, I’m healthy). But that’s my own vow. We each have to find our own. And if your vow is to take care of this body you’ve been given in the best way you know how – if that’s ahimsa for you – then maybe meat is your medicine. The thing that’s not yogic is habit. If we’re awake to what we’re doing, what we’re eating, honest with ourselves, and not in denial about the effects of our actions, as wide as our minds can see them, then we’re doing our yoga.
May everyone find their way, and may all beings be safe and happy.
(Sorry to go on so long, Karen! A subject close to my heart…)
what a well written reply! thank you…it made me think.
Thanks for your contribution, Kitty. I think that you presented both sides of the debate fairly. Sat nam.
Spirulina is my meat
Urban Yogi from Melbourne
I recently started working at a Yoga Retreat Center in Costa Rica and meat is not on the menu. I have naturally adopted this way of eating without even really thinking about it. I do not miss eating meat and I actually feel healthier – physically and spiritually – without it. I am still learning a lot about the yogic way of life and really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks!
Whilst I think it’s preferable not to, I think it also depends how demanding your life is. Its one thing to be veggie whilst living an ashram lifestyle and another to run a job or business with a couple of kids to sort out and and a house to run.
I am a yoga instructor and practioner and strongly believe in the sutras, but i will also say that i use food as medicine and my body tells me when i do , at times, require small amounts of animal protein(usually meaning fresh fish or chicken). I always buy from local producers, free range, organic, and as fresh as possible. I also say a little mantra before i consume it, thanking the animal for it’s medicine.