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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Yoga and Vegetarianism

I’ve been going to Back Bay Yoga almost every day since I moved to Boston at the beginning of April, and I’ve found the studio to be a very safe and friendly place in which to develop my yoga practice in earnest. I adore nearly all of their teachers, and have learned and evolved through pretty much every single class I’ve taken there.

Recently my three-month unlimited membership ran out, and when they posted a new weekday morning line-up that didn’t suit my schedule as well as the old one, I decided it was time to explore other yoga studios in Boston. I suppose I’ve gotten a bit too comfortable at Back Bay—I’ll always drop in for classes on a weekly or near-weekly basis, and I may very well renew my unlimited membership at some point, but for right now I feel a strong nudge toward exploring new styles and learning with new teachers.

This is how I found myself this past weekend on the South Boston Yoga website. I’d heard they offer aerial yoga classes, which I was really excited to try. Imagine my dismay, however, when I spotted a paleo diet workshop announcement with a certified nutritionist!

There didn’t appear to be any upcoming workshop on veganism to balance things out. More to the point, though, practicing yoga while eating animals is a contradiction, and once again I’ll draw upon Rynn Berry’s wonderful Food for the Gods to explain why:

Cobra, lion pose, pranayama and mudras. Anyone familiar with these terms for some of the physical and psychological techniques of yoga has probably taken yoga classes, and most likely remembers the feeling of peace and well-being that followed them. In India, the Jains, Buddhists and Hindus practice yoga, which is a set of practical exercises for attaining samadhi, or spiritual transcendence. The eighth hallmark of the ahimsa-based “vegetarian” religions is that they have attached to them a set of physical and psychological techniques for achieving ecstasy.

Professor Berry goes on to note that in the Western tradition “there is no yoga—probably because in classical yoga, spiritual progress is predicated on eating a diet of plant-based foods.”

That said, the “power yoga” we practice in studios all over the Western world bears little resemblance to “classical” yoga. As Dean Radin explains in Supernormal:  “…[Y]oga as it is known and practiced in the West today, as a quasi-spiritual athletic practice, can be traced not to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but to an amalgam of traditional yoga poses combined with Swedish gymnastics and British Army calisthenics.”

In my experience, most Western yoga teachers merely skim the surface of yoga’s spiritual roots, mentioning “the heart center” or the “third eye” without getting into what any of this stuff actually means—an understandable omission given that most students are there for the workout. I can’t ever recall hearing the word ahimsa spoken in a yoga class, and yet it is the most fundamental tenet of classical yoga: refraining from causing harm to any sentient being. Following this principle, of course, necessitates a pure vegetarian diet.

I politely asked about ahimsa on the South Boston Yoga Facebook page. The next morning, I found my comment had been removed. I tried again, and after what seemed like an odd reply—”Basically, we are not an exclusive community, diet being one of the life choices that we do not persecute. This discussion can happen over a private message if you like”—my second comment was removed as well. Whoever is doing the social media for SBY clearly felt defensive, and chose to frame my logical questions as the intolerant harping of a hardcore vegan (e.g., using the word “persecute”) rather than responding to my concerns in an open and forthright manner. I guess they’re afraid that discussing the issue in public might turn people off the paleo class, but if they were to offer a vegan workshop too, they wouldn’t lose anybody at all! I’m very sad that the SBY social media person chose to handle the situation this way.


But I’m not writing this post to complain. Actually, as I was editing this entry I discovered that the paleo workshop has disappeared from the South Boston Yoga event calendar!

Still, the issue has been raised, and I’d like to see it through: I’ve noticed that people on the paleo diet often justify their dietary choices by saying “I’m doing what’s right for my body,” and as a very happy and healthy vegan, it goes without saying that I consider this attitude a cop-out. (For a sensible take on cravings, read this great post from VeggieGirl. “It’s interesting that this type of logic is used to explain cravings for things such as meat, eggs and cows’ milk,” Dianne writes, “but not when what’s being craved is vodka, coffee or donuts.”) Furthermore, we shouldn’t follow someone’s advice just because they have a string of letters after their name; many medical doctors, after all, refuse to acknowledge the connection between the consumption of animal protein and the skyrocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in America.

My real “beef” with saying “I’m doing what’s right for my body” isn’t about the meat eater in question, however, and I invite you to meditate on the following statement:

If a choice is truly right for you, it won’t be wrong for anyone else.

 Even if you don’t believe that a cow or pig or chicken counts as “someone” (and you know I do!), what of the human animals who must go to work every day to slaughter, process, and package their flesh? Consider this passage from Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety (Thinking Twice About the Meat We Eat), edited by Moby and Miyun Park:

a random excerpt from Gristle, edited by Moby and Miyun Park.

Insane, right? And this passage doesn’t even touch on the psycho-spiritual effects of working in a slaughterhouse (whether it’s a factory farm or someplace “local” and “family owned”). If conditions are this heinous for the humans, imagine how much more horrific it is for the cows on the conveyor belt. This is why we practice ahimsa.

* * *

Sunday evening I went to a Jivamukti class with Nina Hayes (a fellow MSVA grad!) at Sadhana Yoga. Vegetarianism is one of Jivamukti’s five core principles (video explanation by co-founder Sharon Gannon here; I’m also looking forward to reading her book on the subject), and at the beginning and end of class the teacher generally leads the class in a Sanskrit chant: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantuIn English: May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

Every time these words come out of my mouth, a lovely feeling of peace and centeredness settles over me, and the feeling was even more powerful given my frustrating experience over Facebook that morning. Nina also read this poem by Hafiz:

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
Someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a
Full moon in each eye that is always saying,
With that sweet moon language, what every other eye in
This world is dying to hear?

It all comes down to love, doesn’t it? “Yoga” means “union” in Sanskrit, and to feel and spread and be love is to honor the interconnectedness of all living things. Nina says, “The teachings of yoga are clear in that if we want something in our lives, then we must be willing to provide it to others first. If we want to cultivate deep internal peace, freedom and love through yoga, our diet must reflect this.”

What do you think about the connection between yoga and vegetarianism? Is it fair to suggest that Western yoga should retain the classical yogic principle of ahimsa, or is the new power yoga “a different animal” altogether? Whatever your current diet, I’d love for you to share your perspective in the comments.

And finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to South Boston Yoga for ultimately taking my concerns seriously—I really appreciate that. I feel like I can go for that aerial yoga class after all!

4 Comments to Yoga and Vegetarianism

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    October 23, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting because my experience with yoga is that it is a time where I do not think about issues that I find so important during the rest of the day, such as protecting the environment. I feel it is a safe place where nothing else matters–what you eat, for whom you voted, what you do for a living. I suppose that is a cop out answer, but there is not a strong connection for me.

  2. October 23, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful and well written post! I’ve never been a fan of the paleo diet aside from the obvious fact that it still involves animal suffering. But some of the justifications for it do seem like a cop out. I like comparing the cravings for meat, dairy etc to cravings for vodka, etc. That’s a great point.

    I don’t know a lot about the philosophy of yoga. But I associate yoga with peace, which to me seems to go hand in hand with a vegan lifestyle.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.