In composing the FAQ for this site, one question that came up was “Do I have to be vegetarian or vegan to be a real yogi?”
Here’s what I said:
“No. By now you know that my definitions are very liberal. The reason they are liberal is because I believe that we are all at different places on the path of waking up to our true nature (love) and the purpose of our existence (love). I do not believe that a lack of awareness or heart-understanding should mean that someone is excluded from the very thing that will lead to their awakening (yoga). This is an equal opportunity enterprise.”
I like my answer—I think it’s legit. But it’s incomplete, so I want to address it again here in longer form…
I don’t think you have to be vegan—or even vegetarian, for that matter—to be a yogi.
The first point of the first limb of yoga (the Yamas) is Ahimsa, which means non-harming. This would seem to suggest not only that we don’t eat animals, but that it’s pretty fricking important.
For the animals
Obviously, not eating meat reduces the suffering of animals. It cannot be overstated how inhumane the conditions are on factory farms, which is where nearly all animals sold for meat are raised. They suffer needlessly so we can please our palates. It’s inhumane and heartbreaking.
For the planet
Eliminating meat dramatically reduces our individual carbon footprint, way more than not driving cars! (This must be too inconvenient a truth, because Al Gore left it out of his movie, An Inconvenient Truth, altogether—boo for that.)
For your soul
If you’re feeling esoteric, reducing the harm we cause reduces the karma we accrue. Yogic philosophy teaches that we cannot attain enlightenment until we balance our karma. I don’t know about that, exactly, but I do believe that what goes around, comes around.
Where things seem to get a little more vague for people is when it comes to eggs and dairy. I totally relate—I was a seafood-eating vegetarian for a long time, and that seemed like a happy medium to me. Then I learned about bycatch.
And I learned about the egg and dairy industries, which cause just as much suffering—and just as much death—as the meat industry. Babies are separated from their mothers, male chicks are ground up or gassed, and male cows and goats are treated as commodities and sold for slaughter, often after being severely confined. (I’m sorry—I don’t even like writing about this, but it’s real and we can stop it.)
All of this was enough to make me go vegan.
But before I go on preaching from my soapbox any longer, I have to confess: the vegan thing didn’t last long.
Last fall I learned I was severely anemic due to a combination of heavy periods and the absence of a precursor to some nutrient that helps us absorb iron. I had all kinds of symptoms—I would get lightheaded any time I stood up, my muscles ached, I barely had the energy to work, I got sick a lot, I was impatient and moody with my family…it was terrible.
My naturopath asked if I ate meat. “Uh no,” I explained. “I became vegan last summer.” His suggestion—his request—was that I start eating as much red meat as I could tolerate, as rare as I could stand it. Heme iron, he said, is the best way to treat iron-deficiency anemia.
On the other hand, if ahimsa means non-harming, and not eating meat is causing my body significant harm, perhaps I couldn’t discount what he was saying. Maybe I could be 95% vegan…veganish?
I started regular intravenous infusions of iron, upped my iron supplementation, and added back organic, pasture-raised eggs and occasional organic, grass-fed beef (both from a farm about five miles from my house, which I only include because there is a BIG difference in meat/eggs from a factory farm and meat/eggs from an actual farm) to my diet. I’m no longer anemic, and my body feels better, but I live with the dissonance of eating occasional meat and eggs (see item #3) while simultaneously promoting veganism (awkward!).
So you see, while yoga and vegetarianism may seem like a straightforward thing, in my experience it is not. My challenge is health related, but there issues of access, as well as cultural, socioeconomic, and political considerations. For example, because agriculture is so heavily subsidized, it’s cheaper for many families to make a dinner of chicken and potatoes than it is to make an organic salad. Many people simply do not have access to fresh, seasonal, organic produce.
UPDATE, 9/2017: This may be TMI but it’s relevant. Part (most?) of the reason I was anemic is from heavy periods. I resisted any kind of hormonal solution (birth control pills, IUD, etc.) because I didn’t want to mess with my natural cycle. Then I got so fed up I decided to try something different, and I recently got an IUD.
It’s too early to tell whether this will resolve my tendency toward anemia, but I think it’s going to work. This means I traded one thing I didn’t want (eating meat) for another (artificially altering my body’s endocrine system), which is just life, if you ask me. It’s not black or white. I still own leather shoes, and wool, and I do eat honey, so I’m not totally vegan yet. But this feels way better for my bodysoulmind, and brings me to my conclusion:
What it comes down to, from my perspective, is that you gotta do you.
Follow your conscience, give more than you take, and pray for the strength to do what you know in your heart is right. Even if you aren’t ready to give up meat, you can eat less of it less often. You can buy your meat from farmers who raised the animals and treated them with integrity. You can try out meat and dairy substitutes.
Every moment is an opportunity to make a choice for kindness over suffering.