Last month, I learned that McDonald’s has gone vegetarian and that bananas may not be. Only days before, the New York Times reported that organically grown food was not measurably more nutritious than food grown conventionally, a story that started a verbal food fight. Hundreds weighed in, some claiming organic food is elitist, others dismissing the study as biased. Yet another hotly debated current issue is California’s ballot initiative on GMO labeling.
When did what’s on our plates get so complicated? It’s all food for thought if you’re a yoga practitioner trying to settle the question of whether “to be or not to be” vegetarian.
Yoga and vegetarianism are linked by a long tradition. Ahimsa (non-harming), the first of the five yamas, is the primary reason yogis cite for a vegetarian diet. Another is the law of karma—the belief that the actions we take in this life plant seeds for the future. Yoga arose from this cultural context, and the practice of vegetarianism dates back to the Laws of Manu, a text written 500 to 2,000 years ago.
Vegetarianism also has practical origins. In tropical India, it was difficult to keep meat fresh. Avoiding putrefaction and parasites were considerations that contributed to the growth of vegetarianism, and shaucha, or purification, became central to yoga practice. Another factor was economics. Historically, meat was expensive, not something a poor saddhu (or in another time and place, a Christian monk) could afford.
How ironic that a diet relying on fresh vegetables is considered “elitist” today. Since times have changed in so many ways since the days of the Indian sages, we might question if the link between vegetarianism and yoga is still valid. After all, I could eat potato chips and drink soda pop all day long and still call myself a vegetarian. But if I harm my health, am I still practicing ahimsa?
Better to eat a tomato instead, right? Thanks to modern technology, we have the privilege of eating tomatoes year-round. But what are the ethics of that choice considering the fuel it took to transport that tomato or the working conditions where it was grown? Are vegetarians still practicing ahimsa if the tomato growers are suffering in poverty? Or if they are being poisoned from pesticides? What’s a yogi to do?
Instead of going vegetarian, some yogis have chosen to become locavores. Good luck with that if you drink coffee or like bananas. Or live far from the states that grow wheat or rice or citrus. The changes in logistics, relationships, and lifestyles required for local communities to become sustainable and independent are years beyond many of us in the U.S.
Food choices have become complicated and, when we bring emotion, dogma, or attachment to those choices, even controversial. Regarding vegetarianism and yoga, Swami Satyananda Saraswati said, “All arguments can continue in a circular path.” He added that yoga “does not for an instant insist” that practitioners become vegetarian. In other words, the choice is ours.
Are you a vegetarian? How has yoga influenced your choice?
Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part series.