Yoga has a long tradition of vegetarianism. One of the yamas, or restraints practiced in yoga is ahimsa — the practice of non-harmfulness. This means to be kind to all living beings in thought, word, and deed and is often cited as a reason to be a vegetarian, since eating animals would harm them. Yet not all people can thrive on a plant-based diet. In that case, allowing yourself to become malnourished and unhealthy would be violating ahimsa toward yourself.
Not all ancient yogis were vegetarians, however. The tantrics would sometimes eat meat and drink alcohol, even though it was against the rules of Hindu society. They did this sometimes as an initiation. (There — you ate meat and drank alcohol, so now you are in our secret club and can’t tell anyone.) Sometimes they did this as an experiment. (Look — we ate meat and didn’t turn into a puff of smoke. Maybe it’s not good or bad, it’s just the energy we give it.) And sometimes they did this just to show how much they were conditioned by society’s rules and labels. (If anyone knew I ate this, I’d be shunned. But why? Does this make sense?)
For me personally, I grew up eating everything, but I had a real hard time when my mom served beef or pork. I had to clean my plate because people in India were starving, so I volunteered to send my food to India, which didn’t go over well. I then developed a surreptitious way to pass bites of food to my dog. He seemed to sense that this was sneaky business, and he was very discreet.
As I got older I realized that the only beef I really enjoyed was filet mignon because it had such a soft texture. But eventually I lost my taste for it, and then eventually lost my taste for chicken too. I always loved vegetables and made a lot of vegetarian dishes anyway, so it was easy for me to give up meat. Except that I didn’t do very well.
While a complete vegetarian, I had numerous episodes of low blood sugar. If I got a cut, it would take a long time to heal. I was anemic on and off. Sometimes I would feel a strange pressure in my head. Soon after I started a daily practice of yoga, I started craving salmon. I ate salmon every day for 7 days. I figured that all the yoga made me more attuned to my body, which was trying to correct a nutritional deficiency. I felt really good after that week of salmon. But I felt guilty. I was a yogi now, and I had to be a vegetarian, even though the practice of yoga was telling me to eat fish. So I stopped eating fish until I got to the point where I felt so bad that I had to eat it again just to walk around like a normal human. And this cycle of malnutrition and guilt kept going. I was ignoring my body and listening to my mind, which was full of ideas of how I should behave to be a good yogi.
When I did my month-long teacher training at Kripalu, I became very protein deprived. Although Kripalu Center is known for delicious food, there was something off about the month I was there. Maybe the chef had quit or was on vacation, but most days there would be a big tray of half-cooked beans and some plain greens. Since the beans weren’t cooked all the way, I would get a terrible stomach ache if I ate them, so I didn’t. After three weeks I was on the verge of fainting every time I did a standing forward bend. It was getting hard to concentrate. My friend Annie had a car, so one day I asked her if we could go out for dinner so I could get some fish.
We felt like gleeful criminals as we headed down the road. Eventually we found a mall with a Ground Round in it. I don’t think the Ground Round was known as a high-quality restaurant, but to us at that time it was like a 5-star Michelin place. We sat down and I scanned the menu for fish. There was a photo of beef tips in some kind of sauce that kept catching my eye. At this point I hadn’t eaten beef in 5 years, but I was salivating over this photo. Every cell in my body was asking for it. So I ordered it. Annie ordered a steak and told them to keep the salad and broccoli — she didn’t want to see anything green on her plate after 3 weeks of nothing but vegetables. The first bite of beef didn’t go down easy, but the rest did. As we ate, we laughed like lunatics who just found our way out of the forest and were having our first meal in years. We couldn’t help it. Our bodies were getting something that they needed and were deprived of. I’m sure the waitress was scared. The next day we went out and ate a burger for lunch, and then I was OK to eat veggies for the rest of my time there. I guess my body had the nutrients it needed to go on. (Note: I found delicious food on all my subsequent visits to Kripalu. Like I said, it must have been an off month.)
Eventually Kripalu decided to put tuna fish on the salad bar to appease the guests who needed animal protein. There was a huge uproar, with many people saying they would never go back. Garret Sarley, the president at that time, sent out a memo. He said something along the lines of “Yes, it violates ahimsa to eat animals. But it also violates ahimsa to deny your body the nutrition that it needs if you can’t get it from plants.” This helped me to realize that in order to be a good mother, good yoga teacher, etc., I needed to be healthy and have good strength and energy. So I became a pescatarian, eating veggies and fish. This suited me well for many years and I really enjoyed my meals.
Recently, as I turned 50 and noticed that my metabolism slowed dramatically, I started paying very close attention to the amount of protein that I eat, and I realized that I’m not eating nearly enough of the recommended amount. In order to increase protein, I’m experimenting with adding chicken into my diet. I have to say that for the most part, this isn’t easy. I forced myself to do a two-week experiment where I ate chicken 3 times a week. I noticed that I had good energy and lost weight. (Not eating enough protein can cause the body to hold onto fat, whereas eating more protein builds lean muscle.) I prefer veggies and fish, but there are some chicken recipes that I like. I don’t feel great about eating fish or chicken — they were live animals once. But I need them to stay healthy, so before I eat I thank them for their lives and their nourishment.
I don’t know what’s right or wrong, but clearly my body can’t survive on plants alone, as much as I love and respect animals and would rather not eat them. In the animal kingdom, some animals are vegetarian and some are carnivores. As we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, I guess we fall into the same category. Some of us are vegetarians, some are carnivores. I think the thing to do is to realize what your body needs, and take care of it in the kindest way possible so you are eating with awareness. Then you are a yogi who is practicing with full awareness.
I really love this post. I’ve dabbled on and off with the full vegan / yogi thing but I can’t live off just plants when I tried a few years back I was low on energy, cranky with headaches. After reading your post I feel confident now that I can limit my meat intake and eat more veggies and still be a yogi. Thank you
Thank you. In yoga we always hear, “Listen to your body,” and that should apply to what we eat also.
I have a friend who has recently going vegan and it seems every time I come across him whether in my yoga studio or just in general he always pushes the issue that I have to now go vegan because I practice yoga, and I’m a yoga instructor with a yoga studio. However, I’ve had gastric bypass and some of the nutritional requirements don’t always fit with the vegan lifestyle. I’m still severely anemic & on an iron regimen; I still take other supplements to replace what I’m either low or missing. I’m glad I found this article even though it’s 4 years old. Now I don’t feel guilty about telling him that at this time veganism is not for me.
Hi Kim. No diet works for everyone. No need to feel guilty!