Let’s just set the record straight: You do NOT have to shun meat in order to down-dog. It is true that many long-time yoga devotees are vegetarian, but renouncing noshing on creatures with two or four legs is not a prerequisite to yoga.
But since there does seem to be a strong connection between the two, perhaps it’s worth looking into.
Understanding the Philosophical Principles Behind Yoga
For some practitioners, yoga and vegetarianism go hand-in-hand because of the philosophy of yoga which is built upon a principle of harmlessness. The Sanskrit term for non-violence, “ahimsa,” is a very important religious and spiritual tenet adopted by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and it is one of the five “niyamas,” or personal restraints, put forth in Patanjali’s yoga, the sage behind the Yoga Sutras, or the classical document of yoga.
Ahimsa is a kind of commandment of conduct or behavior that encourages all human beings to treat all other living beings without injury. For some, this tenet gets extended to animals and more importantly, the slaughter of animals for human consumption. One should practice ahimsa as a way of invoking good karma into their lives, but the way in which ahimsa is applied to living things, such as eating meat, is espoused by religions and spiritual practices which vary greatly. For some, eating meat is OK, for others, only eating certain kinds of animals for specific purposes is OK and for others, being a full-fledged vegetarian is the only way to safely pave your path toward enlightenment.
As many animal-rearing and slaughter practices in the US are far from humane, many yoga practitioners and non-yoga practitioners reject meat for this sole reason. Namely, that the treatment of animals that end up on our plates is too cruel to warrant eating them, irrespective of how delicious a perfectly grilled piece of filet mignon may taste.
Increasing Awareness of Your Spirit and Body
Yoga and vegetarianism also seem to be like twin sisters because of the inner awareness that yoga cultivates. As any practitioner of yoga can tell you, yoga inspires us to become more aware of how our actions affect our minds, bodies and others. The natural progression of this awareness inevitably spills over on to the kinds of foods that we choose to eat.
For instance, if you know that you’re going to a yoga class right after work, you’re likely to forgo the plate of nachos that you and your coworker decided to split at lunchtime. Similarly, if you have a weakness for donuts and find yourself devouring three or six of them in one morning, only to feel like, well, a giant donut afterwards, yoga has the ability to connect our actions to our feelings so that our choices are not so reactionary. Rather than quickly chowing down on a box of Krispy Kremes, the inner contemplation and sense of stillness that yoga creates opens us up to the possibility of eating just one and being satisfied or perhaps, shunning that fried dough entirely if we know that by eating it, it makes us feel less than good.
This same mentality is the primary factor why many yoga practitioners stop eating meat. As they develop a yoga practice and greater inner awareness of their bodies and feelings, the practitioner may find that eating meat makes them feel sluggish and less healthy. When they combine these factors with the tenet of ahimsa, becoming a vegetarian is a natural consequence.
While there is tremendous debate about what constitutes a healthy diet, nutrition and health experts now know and believe that a vegetarian diet, when it is practiced correctly, can have enormous positive health effects. Vegeterian diets have been supported by both the British Medical Association and the American Dietic Association that if they are appropriately planned, are healthy, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases like obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension and Type II diabetes.
Yoga (and non-yoga practitioners) who are very health conscious, adopt a vegetarian diet for these evident health benefits. As more data reveals that certain cancers like colon, breast, prostate and rectum are associated with high intakes of animal protein and animal fat, switching out barbecued ribs for barbecued tofu is becoming increasingly more popular as Westerners take responsibility for their own health.
Whether or not to become a vegetarian is a weighty issue. For those who are flirting with the idea, whether you practice yoga or not, many diet experts recommend that we start to make any drastic change in small increments rather than doing a sweeping overhaul of our eating habits. Cut down the meat-centered meals you eat each week to just three or four, or get a subscription to a vegetarian magazine and start sampling with plant-based dishes.
And for those who feel like their bodies don’t function properly without animal protein, there is no need to stop eating meat all together. If your conscience weighs on your mind as you sink into a juicy burger, consider purchasing organic meat and poultry so that you know the animals are being treated more humanely and with more compassion.
Regardless of your decision, take heart in knowing that becoming a vegetarian is a choice, not a mandate for being a good person. And know too that you will be allowed into your yoga class even if you just ate a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch.