Tell someone you practise yoga and, very often, they’ll make instant assumptions about you and your lifestyle – we all do this, stereotypes help us make sense of the world in a more efficient way. One of those assumptions is usually that you’re also a vegetarian, maybe even a vegan. Yoga’s all peace and love, after all, so you can’t possibly eat animals… Can you?
How to answer this question – a perennial amongst both yoga students and teachers (I should know, I’ve been both, at various time in my life) – is a matter of opinion, but also one of interpretation.
This is what one school of yoga tells us…
We see one of the most straightforward approaches to yoga and diet in the teachings of the Sivananda Vedanta school of yoga, which runs ashrams throughout the world and promotes yoga as taught by ‘one of the 20th century’s most influential teachers’, Swami Sivananda. According to his teachings, “The yogic diet is a vegetarian one, consisting of pure, simple, natural foods which are easily digested and promote health.” There, question answered.
The school does recognise the need to understand how to give the body what it needs, however, noting that “Nutritional requirements fall under five categories: protein, carbohydrates, minerals, fats and vitamins”, and “One should have a certain knowledge of dietetics in order to balance the diet.” So yes, yogis should be vegetarians – but they should know how to do it properly, for optimum health, which they claim aids spiritual awareness. And, as the school notes, “Any change in diet should be made gradually.”
The Sun: our greatest source of energy
The way to eat, according to Sivananda, is to ensure that all protein comes from plants, which are ‘at the top of the food chain’, and provide a superior source of energy to animal flesh. And this is why:
“The Sun is the source of energy for all life on our planet; it nourishes the plants … which are then eaten by animals (vegetarian), which are then eaten by other animals (carnivores). The food at the top of the food chain, being directly nourished by the Sun, has the greatest life promoting properties.”
Ultimately, the Sivananda school asks its students to follow one motto: ‘Eat to live, not live to eat’. They encourage Sivananda yoga practitioners to think of eating as supplying the entire being with the lifeforce, or Prana, the vital life energy.
So is vegetarianism in the yoga ‘rules’?
Another school, responsible for the publication of one of the most popular explanations of the famous text, Hatha Yoga Pradipka, offers a similar way of thinking and even gives the very same advice to ‘Eat to live’. But the author of this book from India’s Bihar School of Yoga, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, makes an unexpected statement on the subject of diet:
“There are no special dietary rules for [yoga] asana practitioners although it is better to eat natural food and in moderation. Contrary to popular belief, yoga does not say that a vegetarian diet is essential although in the higher stages of practice it is recommended.” – pg 16
On this basis, the amateur spiritual aspirant could claim that it is okay for him or her to enjoy a non-vegetarian diet. But there’s little else in the text which supports the idea of eating meat. Quite the opposite, in fact…
‘Vegetarian’ Yoga therapy
In a long section of the book about using yoga as therapy, dietary and other recommendations are made for a variety of ailments and diseases. None of them suggest eating meat; all the dietary advice given is based on a vegetarian diet. To treat asthma, it says, “Avoid mucus producing foods such as milk and milk products, rice and non-vegetarian foods. Eat fruit and vegetables in season, and cooked, rather than raw vegetables (salads) especially in winter.” (pg 529) And a diet of moong dal, khichari, yoghurt and buttermilk can relieve diarrhoea, we are told.
Can you be a yogi without being a veggie: yes or no?
Well it looks like a big ‘No!’ to meat-eating yogis from the Sivananda school, and a ‘No’ disguised as a ‘Yes’, from the Bihar School. So are there any yoga teachers who’ll go as far as saying you don’t have to be a vegetarian to practice yoga? Well, yes, there is one…
James Boag grew up in the same part of Northern England as I did: Yorkshire. And that’s an important point, because the context in which we grew up is unlike that of the swamis upon whose teachings the previous two schools have been built. India is a country where there are several religions that advocate a vegetarian diet, and yoga philosophy plays a central role in some of those religions too. So it makes sense for them to interpret the teachings of yoga from a vegetarian perspective.
Interpretations of ‘Ahimsa’
Listed as one of five ‘Yamas’ (self-disciplines) in what’s arguably the main text on yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is ‘Ahimsa’ – commonly understood to mean ‘non-violence in thought, word and deed’. If you already follow a vegetarian diet, or if you’re considering it (or indeed, taking up yoga and reading this to find out if you should be!), it’s easy to conclude that a meat-free diet must be the way to go.
But, speaking at a Satsang held in Mysore, India, James Boag plainly stated, “There is nothing anywhere in any traditional text that gives specific prescriptions about diet. Being a veggie is just an assumption. So for one person, ahimsa might mean adopting a vegan diet, but for another, it might not.”
Ways of ‘being’ ahimsa…
James offered some convincing support for his bold statements. He cited examples of people he knows who eat mainly wild and homegrown foods, and the example of Barbara Kingsolver and her family, chronicled in the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The Kingsolver family chose to eat principally only food they’d grown or raised (and slaughtered) themselves or from other local suppliers whose farming practices and animal husbandry they were familiar with. In contrast to the meat-free diets of Westerners like himself, whose high demand for products like quinoa is affecting agricultural sustainability elsewhere, James concluded that these people were, in fact, more ‘ahimsa’ than him.
So where does this leave us? Are we any closer to answering the question, ‘Do you have to be vegetarian to do yoga?’ A final word from James Boag:
“I like what Jesus said: ‘It’s more important what comes out of your mouth than what you put in’. In other words, it’s more about carefully considering the reasoning and motivation behind our choices and actions rather than latching onto particular sets of rules, or avoiding particular things. When we do this steady, patient work of checking in with our motivation and examining where we are acting from, whether our actions are really integrated and aligned with our conscience, then we are practising yoga.”