In the context of my teaching, people regularly ask me if yogis must eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. Often, what they're really asking is can I be a yogi and still eat meat?
The short answer is: opinions vary. There is no shortage of passionate, conflicted, and contradictory opinions on the subject. Most long-term yogis I know are strictly or loosely vegetarians. Traditionalists usually advocate for vegetarianism and/or veganism. Other practitioners advocate for the diet that best supports one's yoga practice, which may include regularly eating meat or medicinal use of meat as needed. Ask enough yogis, and you're likely to meet advocates for Aryuvedic, Raw Food, Paleo diets, and beyond.
I primarily advocate for conscious and conscientious diets that support personal and planetary well-being. What's most essential to me is eating with as much awareness and compassion as possible of how one's dietary preferences and choices affect oneself, others, and the world. Maybe we can call it the "Kindness Diet."
After all, as I have written elsewhere, yoga is really practicing personal and planetary integrity. Yoga is seeing through the illusory divisions and fragmentation that cause unnecessary suffering, and discovering the inherent wholeness within, between, and all around us. Yoga is integrating mind and body, head and heart, depth and breadth, being and doing, self and other, spirit and matter,here and now.
When we eat, we are literally integrating our inner and outer worlds.
The first principle of yoga ethics is ahimsa meaning non-violence, akin to the medical profession's ethic of "first, do no harm." Thus, the foundation for yogic eating is to pay attention to the harmfulness and helpfulness of our dietary habits, and adopt diets that do the least harm.
This is no small undertaking because it often requires navigating contradictory perspectives, facing hard truths, challenging social norms, taking responsibility for our dietary choices, and changing habits we previously indulged in relatively convenient, if not entirely blissful, ignorance. There's so much unexamined familial and cultural conditioning around eating habits. Beginning to understand one's own conditioning is often the first step in creating and choosing habits that contribute to greater personal and planetary well-being.
For those of us without life or medical conditions necessitating animal consumption, doing less harm often means adopting a primarily vegetarian diet, but only you can decide what's best for you given your life conditions, medical conditions, and personal constitution. I encourage you to explore multiple perspectives, listen to your own heart, and reach your own conclusions about how your dietary choices harm and/or help you, others, and the planet. Then, make your own choices. Ultimately, it's your karma.
Questions to Consider
The following questions have contributed to my perspective on the subject of meat-eating in particular. If you find it helpful, I invite you to spend some time reviewing, reflecting, and considering these as you explore the subject for yourself.
Be forewarned that some of the subject matter may disturb you. When I chose to educate myself more thoroughly, I was horrified by much of what I learned, as well as haunted by the often graphic images/footage illustrating various perspectives.
Rather than share some of the more gruesome practices and consequences of mainstream animal consumption, I've done my best to share a bit of my thinking and offer links to more information for those of you interested in learning more.
Must yogis adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet?
I can't answer that question for others. I don't know that I've fully answered the question for myself, but I've spent a long time living that question. Along the way, I have learned that I generally prefer not to eat food with faces, which isn't to say that I can't appreciate the taste or health benefits of omnivorous consumption, but rather that a primarily vegetarian and vegan diet contributes more to my idea of personal and planetary well-being.
I tend to eat nourishing organic, regional, seasonal whole foods. I like a blend of cooked and raw foods in my diet. I happen to love all kinds of nuts, fruits and vegetables. Happily for me, fresh organic, vegetarian options are readily available where I live, and I don't have life conditions, health conditions, or a personal constitution in which animal consumption is necessary for me.
I still eat eggs and occasional dairy, which I get from humane sources as much as possible, but recognize that the dairy industry, in particular, is almost never humane. Since I have other perfectly healthy food options available to me, the idea of eating animals is less appealing to me. When I consider a fat, juicy burger, I can't help but think about the beautiful creature whose life was taken for me to indulge a taste.
Especially because it's not a medical necessity for me, I feel uncomfortable eating food that requires killing, which is really what I'm choosing when I eat meat for no other reason than it tastes good. After all, I've yet to meet someone who thinks a taste for human flesh is a reasonable moral justification for cannibalism.
Just because someone has tasty thighs shouldn't give us the right to take his or her life. If I had a health condition where a carnivorous diet was recommended, I might consider a different diet, but adopting a cavalier attitude toward harming another life simply to serve one's tastes seems inhumane to me--not only for the animals, but for our humanity.
When we focus exclusively on our own well-being without regard for others, we cut ourselves off from our greater humanity and perpetuate the delusion of separateness that is the root of all suffering. We deprive ourselves of the full experience of lovingkindness and compassion essential to wholeness and wellness. We can not eat the flesh of other living beings without some degree of emotional detachment, separating ourselves from our complicity in their suffering and our capacity for caring.
Beyond these moral considerations, the unsustainable climate and environmental impacts are hard for me to swallow.
I do realize that some of us really do need animal flesh for health reasons, and I have compassion for those who do. I really hope that sustainable, scalable, affordable cultured or engineered meat hits the market soon, so that you have another alternative. Meanwhile, I encourage those with a need or taste for meat to adopt less harmful ways of eating animals or refrain if you can until other options become available.
If you had to kill it to eat it, would you still choose to eat it?
Whenever I ask myself if I had to kill it to eat it, I find that the answer is usually a resounding no.
Here in the States, most of us are spared the violence and mess associated with the food we consume. We don't have to hunt, fish, slaughter, gut, or clean our own food. It arrives in the grocery stores mostly pre-packaged in parts. I think that it's easier to consume animals because we are mostly shielded from the reality and responsibility of killing what we eat. We don't see the faces of our food, either pre-, during, or post-mortem.
Just do a Google Image search for "slaughterhouse," and see how you feel about the images on your screen. Even without the sounds or scents that one would encounter in actual slaughterhouses, these images are profoundly disturbing, which is why I chose not to share any here even though these images make the point far better than anything I say.
If you had to meet each living creature prior to eating him or her, would you still choose to eat him or her?
Likewise, as much as I love the trend toward Community Supported Agriculture and pasture-raised, humane treatment of animals intended for food, greeting the pigs, cows, lambs, and fowl at the local farm up the street on my neighborhood walks only makes these creatures less palatable for me.
I was sooooo sad last year in December when all the pigs had vanished, and a farm-hand confirmed that yes, indeed, my piggy pals had all become holiday hams. Sergeant Pig and Blackie and Wilber II... My husband warned me not to name them, but even before they had names, they had faces and personalities.
If you knew that an animal was miserably mistreated its entire life just to end up on your plate, would you still choose to eat it?
The language and advertising of the food industry often shields us from the more unpleasant aspects of the industry. We adopt food names for living beings: animals become live "stock" and "meat." We eat "beef," "steaks," and "burgers," not dead (really, murdered) cows, dead cow flesh, and ground dead cow flesh. We eat "pork," "chops," or "bacon," not dead pigs, dead pig flesh, or strips of dead pig bum. We are fed images of happy cows, pigs, and hens in sunny, green pastures that don't even remotely resemble the reality these animals live and die as "livestock."
Whether by heavenly mandate or mere mortal decree, many human beings have long-subscribed to ideologies that claim dominion over the rest of life here on earth, conveniently justifying species exploitation, as if all creatures are here for our amusement, use and abuse. We choose to eat and wear animals despite other options. We ignore, if not condone, treatment of animals within the food industry and experimental sciences that would be punished as animal cruelty if practiced by private citizens.
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether we are human beings among beasts or merely the beastliest of beasts. For all of our intelligence, God-given or otherwise, no other species harms and endangers planetary life more than us. It is a cruel irony that we who we deem most humane often behave in the most inhumane manner, preferring to obliterate and obfuscate rather than celebrate our animal nature in communion with our fellow creatures.
What makes some animals "pets" and other animals "food?"
How do we decide that some animals are worth feeding and others are worth eating? How do we experience the fact that some cultures' pets are other cultures' meals? I've lived all over the world, and aside from the disturbing fact that much of humankind still seems barbaricly unkind in its treatment of other living creatures, the criteria by which some creatures are prized as pets and others are reserved for plates remains primarily cultural.
In the States, why is it ok to eat a cow, but not to eat a horse? A pig, but not a guinea pig, dog, or cat? Peruvians eat guinea pigs. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans eat dogs.
Most of us who intentionally share our lives with animals, particularly those we consider as pets, experience a kinship with our fellow creatures who live, work, play, and even grieve with us. Pets know who they are and communicate with us in their own way. My dog is quite adept at informing me when she wants to eat or walk or play. I don’t know if she would pass Gallup’s mirror test, but she knows her name and who she is, and her understanding of words far surpasses my understanding of woofs, which leaves one to wonder if only a self-obsessed species would base self-awareness on the appearance of human-like antics in front of mirrors.
Perhaps the human predilection for anthropomorphizing or attributing human intentions and mannerisms to animals is precisely because their behaviors are familiar, so similar to ours at times that we recognize ourselves in them.
Even those creatures with whom we share our lives less intentionally—like the deer who occasionally graze in my garden, the garden that I’m certain from their perspective is really part of their forest—elicit a kinship response within us when given any heartfelt attention. These creatures are not merely food to be hunted or rose-eaters to be shooed, but fellow sentient inhabitants of our shared planet who typically suffer from our selfish territorialism, for it is only our all-too-human self-centeredness that perpetuates such delusions of grandeur within our species, obliterating the wondrous potential of a shared communion with all living creatures.
Who died for you to eat today?
When I ask myself "who died for me to eat today?" I become more aware of what my food choices really mean for others.
We inoculate ourselves from caring when we choose to believe that some lives matter less than others, "livestock" versus "pets," for example. However, often this is just convenient conditioning that absolves us from dealing with our collective conscious and acknowledging our complicity in harming and killing other living creatures to sate what most often amounts to personal and cultural tastes.
Yet, this question applies to vegetarians and vegans too. Sometimes, who died is not as obvious--people in a country producing grains die from hunger because their politicians choose to export substantial portions of the grains to another country for profit. The purchase of GMO foods contributes to an epidemic of farmers' suicides in India. Calves are regularly butchered for veal within days of being born, so that all of their mothers' milk can be sold for human consumption. Male chicks die gruesome deaths in grinding machines because their care decreases egg production profits. Bee colonies worldwide are collapsing because of the pesticides that are used in producing the fruits and vegetables some of us purchase.
When we really begin to question the harm associated with the food on our tables, it's not so simple as whether or not we choose to eat meat.
How do you deal with people who don't share your dietary preferences and choices?
If I'm invited to dinner and meat is on the table, unless I am specifically asked, I don't offer commentary about my own or my hosts' dietary preferences and habits. I would rather express gratitude to my host for providing the meal, and gratitude to the animal whose life was sacrificed for our food. Sometimes, inadvertently stealing the joy from another's offering in our desire to educate does more harm than simply eating what's offered with gratitude.
Evaluating what others eat, particularly at their dinner tables, especially if the evaluation is more critical than appreciative, is generally unwelcome, unkind, and unhelpful. I've yet to meet anyone that responds well to critical food commentary, however well-intended. Even when one is merely offering an opinion that challenges the comfort of those present, it is often received as criticism.
However, when asked for my opinion in the context of socializing or my teaching, I'm happy to share my opinion, which basically amounts to this: nourish kindness.
Do your best to be kind. Do your best to contribute a world where we feed our hunger with nourishing food that does the most good while doing the least harm. Do your best to honor yourself and the lives of other living creatures and the planet that we share.
Only you know what kind of diet best serves your personal and planetary integrity. Ponder, enquire, and research on your own, so you can make your own informed decisions about the contributions and consequences of what and how you eat.
I can't say what's best for all, but I'm pretty sure that nourishing ourselves, others, and the planet with kindness is a good place to start.
A few additional resources that may be of interest: