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For several years in the 1990s, I lived in Chennai, India, and had the privilege of studying every day with the great yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar. One day, a young man from France was brought in for a consultation with Mr. Desikachar. This man was very eager to learn yoga and had committed himself to staying in India and studying for several months. But his health had been declining since his arrival in India, and after a few weeks, he had lost quite a bit of weight, had become very pale and weak, and was unable to focus on his studies.
During Mr. Desikachar’s evaluation of this young man, he asked him about his diet, and most specifically, if he ate meat.
“Why, no, sir, of course not,” the man replied.
“Why do you say ‘of course not’?” inquired Mr. Desikachar.
“Because I want to be a yoga teacher,” he said, “and everyone knows that yoga teachers cannot eat meat.”
The young student reflected a belief of many yoga teachers and students today that yoga somehow forbids eating meat. Many who have studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, widely considered the authoritative text of yoga, equate the concept of ahimsa, or nonharming, with vegetarianism. It’s natural for those who study yoga to try to adopt an entire lifestyle that reflects their new commitment to conscious living and mental and physical balance.
But according to the Yoga Sutra, you don’t have to become a vegetarian. The confusion stems in part from a misinterpretation of ahimsa, combined with the fact that the first generation of yoga teachers in the United States mostly studied with teachers—such as Sri Desikachar, Swami Satchidananda, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Sri Pattahbi Jois—who, being culturally Indian and Brahmin, tended to be vegetarian. So an idea has developed in the yoga community that conflates yoga with vegetarianism. But the practice of ahimsa is not as simple as that.
Assess the damage
Ahimsa (sutra II:3o) is the first of five social and environmental guidelines, called yamas, presented by Patanjali in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra. The yamas are the first of eight “limbs,” or means, to help you reach a state of yoga, or focused concentration, in order to perceive more clearly, be more connected with your authentic Self, and suffer less as a result. The yamas consist of five components: ahimsa (nonharming), satya (the truth that doesn’t hurt), asteya (noncovetousness), brahmacharya (appropriate relationships and boundaries), and aparigrah (only accepting what is appropriate).
As I tell my students, these guidelines help us differentiate between the ever-changing, impermanent mind and what Patanjali describes as the part of us that is pure, perfect, unchanging, and permanent: our own true, authentic Self. By differentiating between the two, we can act from a place of our authentic Self (instead of from the mind), and therefore experience less suffering.
In the case of the French yoga student, Mr. Desikachar looked him in the eye and asked, “Have you considered the harm you are doing to yourself by not eating meat?” He said this young man was not getting the adequate nutrients for his body type, and that the Indian vegetarian diet was not serving him—and was, in fact, harming him. He then advised the man to start eating some chicken or fish right away and to have at least two servings a day.
Now, of course, Desikachar was not saying that everyone who is vegetarian is causing harm to himself—Desikachar himself is a vegetarian—but for this particular student, vegetarianism was not the optimal or most supportive diet. And when practicing ahimsa, the concept of nonharming must also apply to oneself—whether we are referring to our interactions with others, our relationships, or our occupation. While the Yoga Sutra is designed as a universal text, it must always be adapted to the individual.
See also Explore Yoga’s Vegetarian Roots
After offering the student his “prescription,” Desikachar went on to explain the often forgotten and misunderstood next sutra, which immediately follows ahimsa and the yamas in II.3o:
II.31 jati desa kala samaya anavicchinna sarvabhaumah mahavratam
In this sutra, Patanjali acknowledges that only those very rare beings in all the worlds (sarvabhaumah) who have taken a “great vow” (mahavratam) are able to practice all five yamas without interruption (vicchinna), while—and this is key—the rest of us must adapt these guidelines to our current occupation (jati), the place we live (desa), time of day, month, or year (kala), or circumstance (samaya).
For example, if one who made his living (jati) fishing adhered firmly to the yamas without sutra II.31, he would not be able to practice ahimsa unless he gave up his occupation, and hence harmed his family or himself by not being able to provide. Similarly, in the place where you live (desa), fresh vegetables may not be available year-round, and it may be better for your health to supplement your diet with meat. Likewise, depending on the time of year (kala), eating meat may be more beneficial, or in the case of the young man from France, his circumstance (samaya) meant that eating meat was the less harmful choice for his well-being.
Adapt to your circumstance
I’ve had to embrace this concept in my own life. I had been an ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than a decade when I became pregnant with my third child. Suddenly, I found myself craving red meat. For several weeks, I resisted eating it because it went against my convictions. I had initially become a vegetarian after learning of the environmental impact of overfishing and factory trawling, the depletion of land and water resources due to animal agriculture, and the greenhouse-gas effects of raising cattle. But I researched where to find organic, hormone-free, grass-fed beef (that was raised as humanely and environmentally responsibly as possible) and ate a half a hamburger. At my next prenatal appointment a month later, my doctor informed me that I was extremely anemic, in spite of the iron supplements I had been taking, and she encouraged me to eat red meat more regularly—confirming that my cravings were telling me what my body needed, and that by not eating meat I was doing myself (and possibly my baby) harm.
When it comes to your diet and practicing ahimsa, there are many ways to incorporate meat while staying true to the Yoga Sutra. Perhaps for you, the right approach is to eat meat only on certain days of the week or year. Or maybe the way the meat is fished or harvested is important to you. Or perhaps you will say a prayer of thanks to the animal that has given its life for your sustenance, nourishment, and enjoyment.
Ultimately, this consciousness and attention are what we hope for in our practice—to care for ourselves and for others around us, to be present with our actions, and to make conscious and thoughtful choices (rather than reacting without thought, which often leads to suffering). If we are not practicing the principles outlined in the yamas with ourselves, how can we expect to authentically live them and direct them toward others? When we apply the yamas to ourselves as well as to others, we are taking the best possible care of ourselves and doing our own important work in this process of personal growth and transformation.
4 Steps to Cultivate Ahimsa
Take a few moments each day to check in with yourself and cultivate ahimsa, both for yourself and for others in your life.
- Sit quietly in your home, in your parked car, or even on the bus or in the waiting room of the doctor’s office and bring your awareness to your breath.
- Observe the quality and comfort of the breath without judgment. Does it feel rapid and short? Strained and heavy? Shallow and quiet? Smooth and steady? Observing yourself (your breath, your sensations, your thoughts, your energy level, and so on) without judgment is the first step toward being gentle with yourself and directing the attitude of ahimsa inward.
- After a few moments of simply observing the breath, relax your abdomen and shift your breathing to gentle abdominal breaths, allowing the belly to expand on the inhale, and softly contract on its own on the exhale, with nothing forced or strained. With each breath, remind yourself that you are all right just as you are. You may be struggling or going through challenges, but right now, you are just right. Remind yourself that yoga is an ongoing practice and that the practice of personal growth is not always easy.
- Now reflect on ways you might support or be kinder or gentler to yourself: They could include taking a quiet walk, spending time with your dog or a friend, or taking a hot bath. And remember, even these few moments of breathing and reflection are a practice of kindness and gentleness. From this place of cultivating ahimsa toward yourself, and checking in with yourself without judgment, you will better be able to manage any challenges that come your way and respond to others in the world and in your life from a place of understanding, one that comes from being connected to that quiet inner resource of your own, true, authentic Self.
Kate Holcombe is a yoga therapist and founder and director of the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco.