A Yogi Food Dilemma

Neal Pollack wants to follow the principle of ahimsa, or non-harming, even in his diet, but he can't seem to give up meat.

Last weekend, I taught a yoga class in Philadelphia. When I finished, it was dinnertime, and I was hungry. Maybe a 10-minute walk away, at best, was one of the great centers of American gluttony: The corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, the holy triangular intersection that’s home to Pat’s and Geno’s, the birthplace of the cheesesteak. I couldn’t resist, and I didn’t even try. Long before I opened my class I knew that I was headed to Pat’s when it was all over. Yoga teaches you to be moderate in your appetites, but it’s tough to be moderate when you can smell the Cheez Whiz and grilled onions from a mile away.

Google “is it OK for yogis to eat meat?” and you get a variety of answers, from condemnation to essays by vinyasaloving carnivores. The overall impression I get is this: Yes, of course it’s OK, just like it’s OK for Jews to believe in Santa Claus if they want. No one is stopping you. But meat is hard to digest, and our meat-production system is really screwed up. If you really want to practice ahimsa, or non-harming, to yourself, to animals, and to the environment, don’t eat flesh. You can get your protein from nuts and eggs and maybe a little fish once in a while. Personally I cannot, however, even consider veganism. I’d rather be exiled to The Forbidden Zone, like General Zod, than face a life without cheese.

But I’m not preaching this, because I don’t practice it. I eat meat. Not all the time, and usually not in large quantities, but I still do it, almost every day. I eat meat in chops, filets, salads, and stir-fries, in wraps, on pizzas, and tortillas, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes for snack. My stomach digests birds and pigs, cows and sheep, sometimes deer, and occasionally other, more exotic animals. I have eaten frogs and snakes and elk. Occasionally, I eat more than one animal at a time. In this, I take no pride. To quote Dostoyevsky: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.”

Meat is my only activity that gives me moral pause. I barely drink alcohol, and then only beer and wine in moderation. Yes, I consume marijuana, but that basically harms no one but myself, and the verdict is even out on that score. But when it comes to meat, objectively dangerous in so many ways, I can only marginally control my desires. It even comes dangerously close to what the yoga philosophers call an attachment.

There are, of course, ways to eat meat more sensibly than others. Enjoy it, as Michael Pollan recommends, as a “condiment,” occasionally and in tiny portions. Control your consumption so that you’re only eating meat that’s sustainably grown and humanely slaughtered. These are good and intelligent semi-s0lutions. But in some ways, they’re just masking the problem. Just because a butcher has a cool-looking hipster beard and a written statement of ethical principles doesn’t mean that he’s not chopping animals with a cleaver for a living.

I want to stop, honestly. My conscience and my yoga practice demand that I do. Yoga also dictates that we view all reality objectively, and without judgment. Well, I know what meat tastes like. It will taste the same in 30 years. Maybe it’s time to try a different reality.

Meanwhile, after my yoga class last Saturday night in Philadelphia, I went to Pat’s and ordered a cheesesteak, with sharp provolone and a side of fries. I gulped it down in less than 15 minutes.

It was kind of cold.