What Does Yoga Say About Vegetarianism?
Yoga and non-harm towards all creatures are intimately linked together. This can be traced back to the influential Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita which states that
One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings, who is nonviolent to all creatures.
This nonviolence towards all creatures, including animals, continued to spread over the centuries. This is especially true in India and the surrounding regions. Philosophies such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism promote non-violence, or Ahimsa. Ahimsa literally means not to cause pain. This includes pain towards humans and animals. In addition to physical pain, verbal pain must also be avoided under the principles of Ahimsa.
According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga is Yama. Yama consists of non-violence, truthfulness, non-steadling, continence, and non-greed. Non-violence again translates to Ahimsa, or not causing pain. The sutras continue,
Part II. 35 – “In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”
In addition to these ancient texts, several famous men associated with yoga practiced and taught Ahimsa. The Buddha and Gandhi taught the virtues of non-violence.
It is important to note, however, that although these ancient texts do preach the importance of Ahimsa, or non-violence, nothing is said that relates Ahimsa to eating an animal that is already dead. And although texts such as the Bhagavad Gita does speak against eating meat, the practice is discouraged for health reasons. Of course, many people believe that eating meat is directly in contradiction to the principles of Ahimsa and therefore vegetarianism is the only option.
For example, some Yoga Gurus believe teach that vegetarianism is a necessary part of life. Here are some quotes
“If animals died to fill my plate, my head and my heart would become heavy with sadness”, says Guruji. “Becoming a vegetarian is the way to live in harmony with animals and the planet.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
“The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet.” -Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
“Spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.” -Mahatma Gandhi, an avid vegetarian.
However, not all yoga gurus agree. For example T.K.V. Desikachar has said,
Vegetarianism is not a prerequisite of the yogi. – T.K.V. Desikachar
Additionally, it is widely known that the Dahali Lama is not a strict vegetarian for health reasons. And it is thought that the Buddha himself was not a strict vegetarian.
To Eat Meat Or Not To Eat Meat…
I strongly believe that this is a personal question and the answer greatly depends on factors only you can decide. I know many practitioners of yoga who have tried to eat a strict vegetarian diet but have found they did not thrive. I also know many people who are vegetarians and would never dream of eating meat again.
It is important to remember that the concept of Ahimsa means much more than avoiding harm to animals. It means refraining from causing pain to any sentient creature. Pain can be caused by physical harm, the words you say to another person, and even the thoughts you think about another person. Again, Ahimsa is part of the first limb of Ashtanga yoga called Yama. In addition to non-violence, Yama also teaches:
- Satya – To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient
- Asteya – To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes
- Brahmacharya – By one established in continence, vigor is gained
- Aparigraha – When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes
As you can see, vegetarianism is not the only point, if the point at all, of Yama. If you are a meat eater, there are still hundreds of ways you can break Ahimsa everyday. But on the same token, if you are a vegetarian, there are still hundreds of ways you can break Ahimsa everyday. I believe that it is not prudent towards our spiritual development to get so caught up in the vegetarian question that it prohibits us from seeing the big picture of Ahimsa.
If vegetarianism isn’t right for you, due to health reasons, access to food, religious beliefs, or whatever, than I believe there is no reason for you to stop practicing yoga. Many will disagree, but fortunately we are all able to make our own decisions regarding our bodies, and those who disagree must remember that spirituality is a uniquely individual pursuit, so what one person does has no bearing on what another does.
However, I want to Stress An Important Point About Animal Mistreatment
If one does decides to eat meat, I do believe it’s important to know where your meat comes from and how it was treated before and during it’s slaughter. Unfortunately, factory farming has led to the disgusting abuse and mistreatment of animals solely for the purpose of feeding humans. I most definitely believe that this is wrong and completely goes against the principles of Ahimsa.
I would avoid purchasing any meat made on factory farms. Unfortunately in America, this seems to be the vast majority of meat. Any time one goes to a restaurant or regular grocery store, chances are the meat for sale will have been raised and slaughtered on a factory farm.
There are other options, however. Local, sustainable farmers often produce meat they will offer to the consumer for sale. Before purchasing your meat from a farmer, ask to see the farm and observe the treatment of the animals. Ask the farmer important questions, such as how they slaughter their meat, what they feed the animals, and how they animals are kept.
And for those people who do not have access to a farm, stores such as Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods do offer some information about the treatment of their animals. Please contact the store manager for more information.
It’s Our Decision and Our Responsibility
If you are interested in reading more about the philosophy behind yoga, I would like to suggest reading and meditating on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
In the end, a decision so personal as what your use to sustain your body can only be made by you. For those who choose to be vegetarian, we must remember that this decision alone by no means satisfies the principle of Ahimsa. And for those who choose to eat meat, it’s important to be aware of the source of our meat and ensure ethical treatment of and respect for the animals who give us nourishment.