When you practice Yoga you have to be a Vegetarian
or: 10 Misconceptions about Yoga
As a Yoga Teacher, I notice that there are a lot of misconceptions about yoga. I can list at least ten of them, which I will do spread out over several weeks.
This week I will elaborate on the premise that you have to adhere to a vegetarian diet when you practice yoga. I’ve heard variations on that theme, such as: all yoga teachers eat vegan. Granted, the practice of yoga may lead to a natural inclination to healthy food (I will get back to that in a moment) but as far as I know, no yoga scripture literally requires a vegetarian diet if you want to be a ‘good’ yogi. Or does it?
In the Yoga Sutras – one of the oldest yoga scriptures, written by Patanjali – guidelines are given for living a life without suffering. It is suggested that when you follow these guidelines, enlightenment, or at least a state of bliss, may be the result. Of course, the scriptures also state that you should not be attached to the fruits of your actions, to make everything less confusing (just saying!). Without going into great detail of the content of the Yoga Sutras, it is safe to say that Patanjali suggests the path of Yoga is comprised of 8 steps – or limbs, as they are traditionally called. The first step is to adhere to 5 given restraints or Yamas, in order to eliminate agony (in this case primarily referring to mental and emotional pain) from day-to-day living.
The first Yama, and in my opinion the most important one, is non-violence or Ahimsa. “So what?” – I hear you think. “I would never kill someone, or hit someone in the face!” I’m glad you won’t. But what about killing animals, or hitting a mosquito – is that any different? The practice of Ahimsa goes further than refraining from physical assault.
As I mentioned above, the Yoga Sutras offer instructions, if you will, on how to live a joyful life. Given the number of grumpy people – to put it mildly – I see in the world, this book should be a bestseller. Because of the fact that the Yoga Sutras were written in Sanskrit, they may seem ancient and not applicable to modern day life, despite some good translations that are available. And yet, living joyfully is simple: stop criticizing yourself!
Criticizing yourself creates negative thoughts, if the criticism itself isn’t already a negative thought. Negative thoughts lead to negative feelings, and negative feelings lead to negative behavior. Negative behavior is violent, no matter what it entails. And chances are that if you are criticizing yourself (and frankly, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t), you are criticizing others too. Even if that doesn’t result in hitting someone on the head, the result is just the same: suffering and non-peace.
So yes, in order for world peace to happen, everyone should practice Yoga*. Oh wait; we were just talking about vegetarianism, right?
My experience is, that the practice of yoga on the mat, the actual performing of the physical yoga postures, results in a greater awareness of your body and mind. Paying attention to how a specific posture creates sensations in your body, and how it affects your mind, is a great first step towards practicing awareness off the mat. I would call that learning to listen to your body, which highly reduces the ‘risk’ of harming it. With some practice, you will be more in tune with what your body actually asks for. Consequently, when your mind is telling you that it needs to eat a whole jar of cookies, your body may be telling you something different (didn’t I mention in a previous blog that yoga can help weight loss too?). And the cookie jar remains closed (ok, maybe one cookie…!). The same goes to the eating of meat. At some point, your body may tell you that it doesn’t want to eat meat anymore (and yes, I know that there are people who are very in tune with their bodies that feel they do need to eat meat). In that case, eating a vegetarian diet (or any healthy diet, for that matter) comes naturally as a result of the practice of yoga, rather than as something forced ‘because it is better or more enlightened’ to do so – and thus reducing the ‘suffering’ in your life.
On a side note, I think everyone should adhere to the practice of ahimsa, whether you eat meat or not, and whether you actually ‘do yoga’ or not. Therefore, if you do decide to eat meat, let it be as peaceful as can be, both to the animal as to the earth. So please buy organic meat that ensures the animal was treated well, and the nurturing of it didn’t result in the production of excessive CO2.
Lastly, I’d like to offer that the practice of yoga may also lead to reducing negative behavior. When you are more aware of the thoughts that are present in your mind, and when you notice they are of the negative kind, you may be able to change your thoughts before they lead to negative behavior. As I said: the practice of yoga is the key to world peace (as well as vegetarianism, and maybe even to global warming…).
* Yoga with a capital Y, which comprises of more than just physical exercise, as suggested above