Part One of this discussion on vegetarianism and yoga focused on the complexities of our food choices today in light of yogic tradition and ethics. And while I suggested that vegetarianism may not be as essential to yoga as it once was, I have a confession to make: I’m a vegetarian.
I became a vegetarian before I began practicing yoga, and my choice was based on ethics (I’d just read the classic Diet for a Small Planet) and health (my father had just suffered a heart attack). Despite my family’s fears that I would waste away without eating flesh, after more than 25 meatless years, I am still here.
But it isn’t always easy. For one, I dislike wearing the vegetarian label. And I still squirm at being the problem dinner guest. Shunning meat became easier once I started practicing yoga, where I felt supported by its long tradition of vegetarianism. But as years passed, I slowly realized that yoga no longer supported my vegetarian diet. Instead, I saw how my diet supported my yoga practice.
Like yoga, vegetarianism requires tapas (discipline), and overcoming cravings and habits in regard to food is good preparation for burning through the kleshas (obstacles) that prevent us from progressing toward expanded awareness. I believe that, together, yoga and vegetarianism help purify the body more effectively than either practice can by itself. I began to catch glimpses of the layers of experience beyond the one known as Annamaya Kosha, “the food body.” It became easier to integrate the yamas and niyamas into daily life and to sit still for meditation.
Significantly, both yoga and vegetarianism offer profound means for svadhyaya, or self-inquiry, which extends to looking at choices and consequences. Though the choice of whether “to be or not to be” vegetarian is yours alone to make, if you approach your decision within the context of self-inquiry, you are practicing yoga. In other words, how you choose relates more to your yoga practice than what you choose.
For yogis who are considering “going veg,” the North American Vegetarian Society provides extra support and incentives to would-be vegetarians throughout October, which began with World Vegetarian Day on October 1. If, on the other hand, you’ve decided that remaining an omnivore is the best path for you, don’t for a minute feel that you are being un-yogic.
Few of us practicing yoga in the West today hail from a traditional ashram-based lineage that emphasizes vegetarianism. Within the context of our larger community (the interconnected modern world), the principles of ahimsa and karma extend beyond vegetarianism to include awareness of fair trade and sustainable agriculture. Sustainable foods—including humanely raised, locally sourced meat—are becoming more widely available, especially from farmers markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). There are also organizations popping up that foster connections between local farms and communities and build awareness of sustainable food choices, as well as making them easier to find.
Though choosing what’s on our plates has become increasingly complex over the centuries, the yoga tradition continues to offer tools to help us make mindful choices about what we eat.
Do you believe vegetarianism is still essential to a yogic lifestyle?
Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.