John, a longtime yoga practitioner, is a strict vegetarian who follows the ancient yogic dietary recommendations to the letter. Jane, a beginning student, likes her steak medium-rare. John feels that animal flesh is a product of violence. Jane contends that eating meat helps sustain her practice. Who’s on the right track?
With the increased popularity of yoga in America (a carnivorous country by Mother India’s standards), many practitioners have found themselves caught in a dietary dilemma: Can you still enjoy that chicken salad sandwich and call yourself a yogi?
Certainly the moral principle of ahimsa, or nonharming, would seem to mandate asking the question. “Most yoga schools and teachers really favor vegetarianism for this reason,” says Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., president of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Northern California. Nonmeat dietary instructions also figure in classic yoga manuals like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Bhagavad Gita.
But as Donald Altman, author of Art of the Inner Meal, explains, the issue of meat is just one aspect of a much broader yogic view of food. According to Hindu perspectives, he says, “all food possesses different properties that affect our body, awareness, and spirit.” Tamasic foods like beef and pork make us slow, lazy, and dull. Rajasic foods like fish and fowl stir up aggression and ambition. That leaves sattvic foods like fruits, beans, whole grains, and vegetables, which foster balance and good health. Looking at diet this way, meat represents just part of a nutritional continuum.
For many yogis, the body (rather than the ancient texts) informs eating choices. John Schumacher, founder of Unity Woods Yoga Center near Washington, D.C., has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for more than 25 years. “I came to vegetarianism by simply adjusting my diet according to how it seemed to affect my practice,” he explains.
Donna Farhi, a yoga instructor based in New Zealand, also listened to her body for cues, but got a different message. A vegetarian as a teen, she found herself prone to dizzy spells in her 20s. When an acupuncturist suggested she try a little meat, Farhi was reluctant at first. “But I felt so much better—I let my body rather than my intellectual dogma guide me.”
Sandy Blaine, a teacher in Alameda, California, shares this experience. But while the fish she eats each week improves her energy, she says that “as a serious yogi, it is somewhat of a conflict for me. I do believe all life is sacred.”
Vegetarian or not, most teachers agree that the best decision comes from an honest look at your diet’s affect on your body and spirit. As Blaine explains, “Part of being a yogi is becoming conscious. Making self-reflective, honest choices is the first step toward living by the yamas and the niyamas.”