There’s a widespread belief that everyone who does yoga is vegetarian. I’ve even come across yogis who are ashamed that they eat meat, as if they are somehow “breaking the rules”.
So let’s get this straight…
You can eat meat and meditate!
You don’t have to be vegetarian to do yoga!
I was vegetarian for many years, had no difficulty with it, yet from time to time I was aware that my body was looking for something else. That something else was fish.
A Fishy Tale
I would be in a restaurant and my body would be asking for fish, but internally I was telling myself, “No, I’m vegetarian. I’m sticking to my principles.” This went on for a long time – years, in fact.
Then one day whilst eating out I thought, “To heck with it! I’m having the fish!” Honestly, I don’t think anything was so gratefully received by my stomach. It tasted great, and my body felt like it had received something it had been yearning for some time.
The interesting thing was that when I meditated later that day there was the usual inner peace, when I did my yoga routine the following morning I was as flexible as I had been the day before. Nothing bad happened!
What did happen, however, was that I became aware of the box I had put myself into – the “I don’t eat meat” box. I saw how I had created an identity for myself around this practice, and how on a subtle level I felt that I was a little bit superior to everyone else.
Putting yourself in a box, no matter how nice, or how spiritual it may appear to you, is still living in a box! What can happen, and did for me, is that we come to identify with our boundaries, justify them, become comfortable in them, and we can become very rigid in maintaining them.
That’s what I did – I had considered myself a “strict vegetarian”. My ego loved the “strict” part of that description, and the whole game became a subtle form of self-violence.
But What About The Rules Of Yoga?
Which brings us to ahimsa, which is one of the five yamas (observances) mentioned by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras (opens external link in new window).
Ahimsa means “non-violence”, and is often used as the philosophical reasoning behind not eating anything that involves the killing of an animal for food.
Whilst it is undoubtably true that much of modern methods of rearing and killing animals for food is harsh and cruel, we need to bring the quality of ahimsa a little closer to home.
I’m going to take a wild guess that you and I are not too different. In that case the target of most of your violence is you. That’s quite a bold statement, but if you give it a bit of consideration I’m sure you’ll begin to see the truth in it.
For most of my life I was self-critical, never happy with myself – how I looked, what I achieved or didn’t achieve. I would beat myself up regularly. I would fill my body with drugs, alcohol and crap food.
There was a constant internal dialogue that was at times very destructive. This is all self-violence, and I have yet to meet someone who has not had this experience at one level or another.
So, given that the goal of yoga is to realize the infinite, all-loving Self within, Patanjali recommends this observance as a way of undermining the internal programs and behaviours which would slow down the growth of our own consciousness.
Whilst it’s nice not to be violent to others and our external environment, this observance is primarily an internal thing (as are the rest of the yamas, although that’s another bunch of articles).
Back To The Fish (Remember That?)
By following a rigid, inflexible concept I was creating a tension, a violence, within myself. I was denying a wisdom beyond my mind – that which rested in my body. My intellect (in the name of spirituality and personal growth) was basically declaring that it knew best and to hell with what my body needed.
Having that fish was ultimately a big part of me learning to be ok with me. I realised that I had become a bit of a fanatic, that it was time to put down the dogma. I realized that I needed to be gentler with myself.
You know, one of the biggest effects that food has on us has nothing to do with the food, but with the ideas and judgements we have around the food, and the level of awareness with which we consume it.
I have lived with poor families in Asia and Latin America and have been served up chicken, or a bit of deer. What was before me on the plate was not simply meat. What was before me was the physical embodiment of their hospitality and care for me.
A rejection of that, in the name of a some high concept, would have been insulting to them and a denial for me to experience the fullness of their hospitality.
So where does that leave us? I don’t know where it leaves you, but I know that I want to experience my life free from labels (yes, even the noble, spiritual sounding ones), where I am receptive to what life brings me – arms open.
As it turns out I maybe have some chicken or fish 2 or 3 times per week and the rest is non-meat. That’s how it plays out for me at the moment. I always make sure that the food I eat is produced to the highest ethical standards – even if that means sometimes spending a bit more on it.
But what I eat is what I want to eat, it’s what feels nourishing and enjoyable, free from rigidity. And importantly, it’s eaten with gratitude and awareness.