Yoga and vegetarianism are often seen to go hand in hand, and it is commonly believed that you cannot be a good yogi without being a vegetarian or vegan. It is largely debated whether vegetarianism is required to be yogic. With strong views advocating for both sides, it is difficult to know if there is a definitive answer to this question.
Not all yogis are vegetarian or vegan. Though vegetarianism is practiced by many who also practice yoga, not all body types can adhere to these dietary restrictions. There are lots of people out there who identify themselves as both non-vegetarians (even strict carnivores) as well as yogis.
While some on the stricter side of the spectrum say that you cannot be a true yogi unless you are a vegetarian, there are still others who think otherwise. To understand how far these lifestyle choices aid and abet one’s path to becoming a yogi, one must first understand how the idea of vegetarianism and veganism became associated with yoga. Keep on reading to find what exactly links yoga to vegetarianism and veganism.
Yogis can be vegetarians as well as non-vegetarians. One can be a yogi and a meat-eater at the same time. Choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle does not have a lot to do with being a yogi, though the two have been linked to yoga practice for quite some time. This is because the place where yoga is believed to have originated from was primarily a vegetarian society.
Lifestyle and eating habits vary from region to region. What is good for someone living in a tropical belt with a variety of vegetation sprouting everywhere is vastly different from someone in a relatively cooler climate where the heat from the non-vegetarian diet is essential in supplementing the body with the warmth required to live in such cold places.
There is no one rule book for anything, and the landscape, weather, and availability of food needs to be considered before imposing a lifestyle as a rule on someone. There is a concept of Ahimsa, explained more elaborately in this article that postulates non-violence.
Many interpret this as not eating meat, but it is merely an interpretation at the end of the day. Yoga is a personal journey, so the same approach for all may not be fair for all.
The land where yoga originated is also the land of the spiritual practice of Ahimsa. Ahimsa, in short, means adhering to non-violence in our thoughts and actions. It is a form of Yama, a practice, and there are five such Yamas recommended for a Yogi. These include:
- Ahimsa (Non-violence)
- Satya (Honesty)
- Asteya (Not stealing or exploiting)
- Brahmacharya (Overcoming desires)
- Aparigraha (Jealousy and greed)
These five Yamas form a set of vows that anyone who wants to practice yoga may want to adopt. Ahimsa is one of the critical Yamas that encourages non-violence through our words, thoughts, and actions.
Though eating vegetarian food is practiced by many who also practice Ahimsa, it cannot be achieved by merely abstaining from meat. Ahimsa is another word for non-violence. It is accomplished with the discipline of one’s thoughts and actions. Dietary preferences play but a very small role in this practice.
Many choose not to eat non-vegetarian food as it encourages the slaughter of animals. This slaughter is also a form of himsa, the opposite of Ahimsa. But the slaughter of animals is not the only cruelty done in the world today. If one wanted to practice Ahimsa, there are many other cruelties that one can abstain from or use their influence to stop them altogether.
Its literal meaning is not to do any harm to any other living being. It forbids any form of wrongdoing unto others, which has led many yogis to believe that becoming vegetarian or vegan is a way to avoid harming other living creatures. Even purchasing such food products made of animal fat or other such things is considered by many not to be in line with Ahimsa’s idea.
However, if you look up the ancient texts that elaborate on the practice of yoga, nowhere does it explicitly state that to practice yoga, you must refrain from eating meat. The ancient scriptures such as Patanjali, promoting yoga practice, do lay supreme value in diet, but it does not make it compulsory that meat should be avoided at all costs to become a Yogi.
Every individual has a different need and a different approach to doing things. Any good regimen considers these individual preferences and tolerances like Unani medicine, Homeopathy, etcetera; yoga needs to be tailored to the individual’s specific needs, and food preferences are highly individual in nature. While many claim the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism, it may not be cut out for all.
Ahimsa means not to harm another living being. Many yogis have interpreted it to suit their lifestyle and the abundance of food they have available where they live. However, it is just an interpretation.
There are a plethora of other things that can be practiced to adopt it. It does not need to be only vegetarianism and veganism. The ancient texts do not explicitly mention that one must be a vegetarian/vegan to become a yogi.
There are quite a lot of different ways to be non-violent other than by adopting vegetarianism. Equating vegetarianism with Ahimsa is like looking at just one flower in an endless garden. For some, eating meat can be equivalent to being non-harmful towards themselves, while others may consider the opposite to be a form of Ahimsa.
Modern-day yoga is being taught in many different ways, though the underlying principles remain the same by following the path of Ahimsa. Even though there are many schools of yoga, the practice of Yamas is common and serves as the link between yoga and vegetarianism. However, this link is now seen in a different light as yoga is adopted by people from other regions worldwide.
In many parts of the world, depriving oneself of the basic nutrients and warmth that comes from non-vegetarian food will not only be harmful to them, but it may also impact the food chain and ecology of that region. That is why Ahimsa has more than one interpretation today. Each should be understood by taking into consideration the environment and locality of the individual practicing it.
Being vegetarian or vegan is a lifestyle choice that is largely influenced by our ancestors’ eating habits, the kind of food grown in the region, the availability of vegetarian food, and sometimes even the socio-economic status of the people living in a specific place.
The ideology is open for interpretation and must allow certain concessions to be made depending on each individual’s circumstances.
Countless people in the West today practice yoga and also identify themselves as meat-eaters. They continue to be in great shape – both mentally and physically. The benefits of yoga do not shrink with a non-vegetarian or non-vegan diet. Yoga is a form of exercise that many others have adopted alongside a vegetarian diet. The vegan diet is relatively new and has only been adopted recently.
But the actual yoga regimen cannot be defined by what one eats; it is defined by one’s relationship with one’s thoughts since Ahimsa is a practice of abstaining from harmful thoughts. Being a vegetarian does not put one on the upper echelons of Yogis, nor does eating meat make one a lesser Yogi. It is up to the person who practices yoga and the life circumstances that influence how they will adopt it in their Yoga practice.
This video explores why a vegetarian diet alone cannot determine one’s peace of mind:
Many choose to be vegetarians because that is how they interpret and practice Ahimsa in their lives. But the concept of not harming other living beings can easily be expanded beyond these confines and accommodate other actions to fall under the ambit of Ahimsa, such as abstaining from mental violence.
Yoga is bigger than the food choices that one makes. It is more than just one’s dietary preferences, or in some cases, dietary requirements even that came as a prescription from the doctor.
Listening to one’s conscience is a good way to learn what could help in choosing the path of Ahimsa and become a better Yogi. Just by being a vegetarian or a vegan who is caught in mentally destructive thoughts and unkind in words and actions will never be a better Yogi than someone who might be eating non-vegetarian food but is calmer, kinder, and more understanding to other beings.
Diverting our attention inward is essential in being a better Yogi and a better person. Sometimes the answer lies within, whether we want to become a vegetarian or a vegan, practice Ahimsa by chanting mantras, or simply practicing kindness in our day to day lives.
Deep state meditation is also a form of yoga that is believed to be achievable if one is aligned to the discipline of following the Yamas. Many believe that since meat-eating is divergent from the practice of Ahimsa, it will prove to be a deterrent in achieving the state of deep meditation. They believe that meat-eating negatively affects the body’s energy and prevents one from attaining deep state meditation.
In the yoga sutras, such as the Patanjali, it is claimed that there can be more than one way of practicing Ahimsa and contributing to society. It means the absence of violence, and different people can interpret it differently. The elimination of physical violence and emotional hate are also some ways to practice Ahimsa. However, many have adopted this term’s literal meaning and chosen to become vegetarians and vegans in the process.
Becoming a vegetarian for yogis has gained popularity because it is one of the easiest ways to practice abstinence. But that should not be the only way to practice restraint. Saving the lives of animals is also a way to practice Ahimsa. Being kind and accepting of others is another way to practice the same thing and lead to one’s growth as a yogi.
Vegans and vegetarians follow a strict diet that restricts the use of animal products and their by-products. For someone transitioning from a non-vegetarian diet to a vegetarian or vegan diet, it may come across as a shock initially to the body, and so it may be difficult to make the jump the very first time.
In the larger picture, veganism and vegetarianism emerge as a way of life more than dietary habits. If one chooses to adopt this way of life, it is better to transition into it slowly. A sudden transition is also not sustainable as the body will go into shock and may not like the change and even react to the sudden change gravely.
However, transitioning to vegetarianism is only necessary when you are sure you would like to make the change, not to qualify you as a yogi. One can continue to be a yogi and a meat-eater at the same time. Think of vegetarianism and veganism as a way to supplement your life with additional disciplines. There is also a case of non-vegetarians who once tried to become vegetarians but did not feel healthy.
The Bhagavad Gita identifies three kinds of food:
- Sattvic (pure food);
- Rajasic (stimulating food); and
- Tamasic (impure food)
It is believed that food that gives us health and energy in its purest form is fruits, vegetables, and grains. These are considered Sattvic food, and it is generally considered that Sattvic food is good for those who practice yoga or those who want to lead a healthy life in general.
Other food categories such as spices, alcohol, eggs, etc. are stimulating, and so they fall under the Rajasic category. They are known to cause diseases and complications in the body, such as hardened arteries and high blood pressure. The meat falls in the Tamasic food category as aged meat is decaying, and the natural stiffness is lost over time as muscles dissolve after death.
It is believed that one should consume food that is pure and helps lighten our minds to reap the highest benefits from yoga. It has a direct impact on how we feel like a yogi.
Nonetheless, if you feel like trying some vegetarian dishes, the book “Forks Over Knives” is a great option with more than 300 recipes for plant-based eating.
Karma is also believed to have the most direct impact on the ideologies surrounding yoga. It believes in the philosophy of you reap what you sow. Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet will ensure that no animals were harmed for the meal. Many yogis believe that there is a universal energy that connects all living beings. No energy ever truly vanishes from the face of the earth and can reincarnate itself into a new form in the future.
If one were to analyze it, Karma, at its core, works on a cause and effect principle. According to this principle, any pain, hurt, or suffering that one may cause a person or another living being will have its share of consequences. This is the principal reason why more and more people are turning to vegetarianism. Many vegans go a step further and abstain from having food, which is meant for the young ones of other animals, such as cow’s milk, etc.
The practice has transcended from a way of life and integrated into yoga, even though the two are not heavily dependent on one another. They are both two distinct ways of life and can exist without one another. The idea behind linking vegetarianism to yoga is the practice of Ahimsa. Still, as we have seen in this article, Ahimsa can be practiced in many different ways other than adopting vegetarianism and veganism.
Since yoga also deals with our spiritual self and makes us question our lives’ purpose, it does persuade us to reflect on Ahimsa and how we can incorporate that more and more into our lives, but being a vegetarian or vegan is not mandatory. There are many yogis today who are experts in their field and who are also meat-eaters.
Ahimsa is adopted as a way of life by many yogis, but there are many versions of Ahimsa, as we have seen in this article. Veganism and vegetarianism are also different ways of practicing such forms of Ahimsa, but it is not the only way to practice this value. It is okay if someone feels that vegetarianism/veganism is not for them and still practices yoga.
There are many other yoga requirements, such as flexibility and consistency. For as long as those requirements are met, one continues to be a yogi even though they may or may not be vegetarians and vegans.
- Wikipedia: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
- Do You Yoga: Ask a Yogi: What’s the Link Between Yoga and Vegetarianism?
- Pranayama: Do Yogis Have to Be Vegetarian?
- Wikipedia: Sutra
- Do You Yoga: Why Are All Yogis Vegans?
- Wikipedia: Bhagavad Gita
- Live Kindly: The Connections Between Yoga, Karma, And Veganism
- Wikipedia: Karma
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