Sunday 16th October is global Blog Action Day which was established in 2007. Each year the Blog Action Day focuses on a different topic and this year they’ve chosen the topic of food. Sunday 16th October is also World Food Day, and this date was chosen in 1979 as it was the same day the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations was established in 1945.
So, what’s the connection with yoga? Well, in one of the principal classical texts on yoga, the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, which was written about 2000 years ago in India, the eight ‘limbs’ of yoga are set out. The sutras themselves are short lines and they were probably imparted to yoga students through oral discussion and memorising by rote. They are therefore open to interpretation, especially now when we’re quite far removed from what life was like for yogis some 2000 years ago. There have been many commentaries on Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, each with their own interpretation.
The first limb of yoga is yama which is translated as moral codes, self-restraint, or vows. There are five yama, and the first one is: “ahimsa pratisthayam tatsannidhau vairatyagah.” BKS Iyengar’s translation of this sutra is:
“When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.” (Iyengar, 2002, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p.149).
Thus, we should avoid violent thoughts (about ourselves, others), not say hurtful things, but also not be violent or harmful in our actions. The action of killing an animal to eat it is therefore non-yogic. Today, most Westerners do not kill their own food but buy it from shops, but we are still supporting violent actions in purchasing meat someone else has killed.
There is a huge amount of debate in the yoga world about whether one ‘has to be’ a vegetarian if one practices yoga (see here and here; the Jivamukti school of yoga is firmly of the view that vegetarianism or veganism is essential in yoga). My personal view is that yes, being vegetarian (or vegan in my case) it is in keeping with the ethos and thinking behind what yoga is, and goes alongside the asana, pranayama, meditation etc elements of yoga.
However, a student new to yoga may well be attending a yoga class for relaxation, stress management, or to help relieve a mild injury. They may not be aware of, or interested in, the philosophical and practical stages Patanjali laid out in his Sutras. Certainly, if everyone had to perfect or abide by the yamas and niyamas all the time I’d probably have no-one in my class! (And I’m not so perfect on some of the other yamas or niyamas). But that’s not to say these lifestyle codes can be easily discounted completely.
Sometimes the question is phrased ‘Do you have to be a vegetarian to do yoga?’ suggesting that there is some sort of onerous obligation, that being vegetarian is difficult, boring, or ‘worthy’ and means giving up the good things in life to live on a diet of brown lentils.
If being vegetarian is viewed in a positive light, rather than as a difficult self-imposed penance, then it becomes positive and easy to achieve. I believe it is a positive choice for the health of the body (e.g. see here), for the health of the environment (see here, or here for the FAO’s Livestock Long Shadow report) and for the health (life!) of animals. See here for a really good summary of reasons why being vegetarian or vegan is better for the planet, people and animals with lots of links to other sites.
Sometimes I wonder when people are straining to reach that elusive centimetre in an asana whether their efforts are to some extent limited: putting 100% effort into that final centimetre, yet maybe no attention to what goes into the body, and the effects of diet on the body and the planet.
So although it isn’t strictly necessary to be vegetarian to practise yoga, to me it makes sense.
If you are unsure of where to start, want nutritional advice or information, want vegetarian recipes, want to read more about the suffering of animals for a meat and fish diet, then you could look up useful resources on the following websites: Vegetarian Society, Vegan Society, Animal Aid, Viva! and the International Vegetarian Union.
PS – Yes, fish are animals. If you eat fish you are not a vegetarian!