We often hear about yoga and a vegetarian lifestyle in conjunction with each other that a lot of people think you have to be a vegetarian to practice yoga. But what exactly is the link between yoga and vegetarianism?
Some schools of yoga say you absolutely can not eat meat and call yourself a yoga student. That’s because one of the niyamas of yoga is ahimsa, or non-harming. And, well, you can’t eat meat without harming another living being. Of course, you can’t eat anything without harming something. Consider the harm you’re doing to the environment when you drive to your local grocery store or farmer’s market to buy vegetables. I’m not saying it’s a good practice to eat animal products, I’m just saying that all of us are responsible for harming in one way or another, why condemn others for choosing to find other ways to harm less?
Ancient Roots of Yoga and Vegetarianism
Ask any number of yogis to describe their diets and you’ll likely get responses as varied as the styles they practice. Many traditionalists see yoga as being inextricably linked with the meatless path, citing numerous ancient Indian texts to prove their conviction.
The history of vegetarianism in India began in the Vedic period, an era that dawned sometime between 4000 and 1500 b.c.e., depending on whom you ask. Four sacred texts known as the Vedas were the bedrock of early Hindu spiritual thought. Among those texts’ hymns and songs that described with reverence the wondrous power of the natural world, we find a nascent idea that sets the stage for vegetarianism in later centuries.
Ahimsa translates to nonviolence or non-harming and can be interpreted in many different ways. One of the most common interpretations of this concept in the yoga world is the adoption of vegetarianism (equating to not harming animals). While this interpretation is a very valid one, it is still an interpretation.
The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the most influential text of the Hindu tradition (written sometime between the fourth and first centuries BCE), added to the vegetarian argument with its practical dietary guidelines. It specifies that sattvic foods (milk, butter, fruit, vegetables, and grains) promote vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life. Bitter, salty, and sour rajasic foods (including meat, fish, and alcohol) cause pain, disease, and discomfort. At the bottom rung lies the tamasic category: stale, overcooked, contaminated and otherwise rotten or impure foods. These explanations have endured, becoming the guidelines by which many modern yogis eat.
Modern-Day Yoga and Vegetarianism
Modern-day yoga is taught in more than one way. There are countless styles, schools and types of yoga that are offered at just about any yoga studio. However, Yoga’s traditional core system is taught in the Ashtanga tradition, an eight-limbed path to enlightenment highlighted in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The first of these is ahsima. Ahsima translates to non-harming or non-violence and is interpreted in numerous ways. The most common interpretation of this concept in the yoga world is the adoption of vegetarianism, which basically equates to not harming animals.
Yoga teaches us that we can have whatever we want in life if we are ready to provide it for others first. The way we treat others will be determinant of how we are treated. It is a lifestyle choice, and even though a majority of yogis opt to be vegetarians in compliance with ahisma, every person is different and can interpret the ideology in their own way. And the ultimate answer to “are all yogis vegetarian?” will depend on the person you ask.
When most people think of yoga, they think of the physical postures taught in yoga classes. This is a yoga practice calledasana. It is one of themany yoga practices, such as meditation, pranayama (breathing exercises), andyama (restraint), that can help us realize our true nature. The practice of asana, for example, is the perfection of one’s relationship to the Earth. What is a perfect relationship? One that is not one-sided or selfish but mutually beneficial. If we are still eating meat, fish, or dairy products, we might question whether or not our relationship to the animals we are eating is mutually beneficial.
Besides the non-harming factor, a lot of yogis do not consume meat owing to the following reasons:
- Meat lacks vitamins and minerals
- Animal protein contains high levels of uric acid, which cannot be eliminated properly and is deposited in the joints
- Meat contains more protein than required by the human body
- Meat can be infested with harmful pathogens such as intestinal worms and trichinae
- A yogi knows that when an individual consumes meat, they are also taking in the pain and fear of the slaughtered animal.
- Meat contains a high level of toxins
From a health standpoint, there is good reason to consider plant-based eating. Vegetarian diets are associated with a number of health advantages, including lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, compared with meat-based diets. Vegetarians are less prone to cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). On average, they also have a lower body mass index.
As awareness grows about the personal health benefits of eating less meat, so too do concerns about the ethical and environmental implications of a meat-based diet. The average American consumes an astonishing 31 land animals per year, and at least that many crabs, lobsters, and fish, according to the Humane Society of the United States.