No teaching on the ethical principles (yamas and niyamas) skips a lengthy and often hotly debated discussion of the first yama, Ahimsa. It is usually translated as doing no harm and several yogis have interpreted it to include a vegetarian or vegan diet. Jivamukti and Dharma yoga both call on its adherents to avoid animal products and Sri Pattabhi Jois taught his students to avoid meat. Some teachers share these teachings in their studio classes and some do not. I choose not to, as I don’t want to risk a student misinterpreting my words. Luckily this space gives me the opportunity to fully express my approach to this important teaching!
I think that a yogic diet like anything in yoga, can best be approached as a practice. Just as we do our asanas knowing it as an ever evolving practice that doesn’t ever reach a moment of truth, there is no text, no final, and all we can do is work on it while learning and gaining joy. I would like to propose that what you choose to nourish the physical body that performs that practice with should be thought of the same way. Work on it every day to bring more consciousness and mindfulness knowing that we are all imperfect beings doing the best we can. The average American diet consists of 270.7 lbs of meat per year. The environmental impact of this volume alone is reason to think of it as a problem that needs to be addressed. I challenge you to think of your role in this consumption as an opportunity to practice ahimsa. Perhaps it’s as simple as beginning with a commitment to meatless Monday. There are lots of small ways to begin this practice without the strict constraints of labels like vegetarian or vegan. Most importantly, if everyone reduced that number by even just 20% the impact it would have on the commercial agriculture industry and the environment as a whole would be huge!
Imagine the last time you went out to lunch with friends or co-workers. You peruse the menu and make a choice about what you want to eat based on your mood, cravings, etc. What if, in addition to all of those factors, mindfulness and ahimsa were added to the equation? Maybe then you would be more intrigued by the black bean burger option and be more open to a plant based meal that day. Maybe your craving for red meat would overcome and you would get a traditional hamburger, but even if it caused you to choose the veggie option sometimes, your net meat consumption would go down. This is what I see as the best path towards that 20% reduction of that 270.7 pounds of meat per year. It is worth your effort regardless of whether you ever call yourself a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, etc.
There are also many ways to practice ahimsa with mindful dietary choices that have nothing to do with animal or plant based choices. For example, Food waste is a huge problem in the western world, especially the United States. Some have put forward estimates as high as 40% of the food in this country landing in a dumpster. This is due to a huge negligence of practicing ahimsa towards our planet at large. Commercial agriculture’s problems do not start and stop with meat and dairy, and letting any kind of food go to waste is a something I think we should all work harder to avoid. Here you have another opportunity to bring mindfulness and compassion to your choices. It’s as simple as making your way through serve yourself buffet lines with consciousness about taking only what you are sure you will eat. You might consciously plan meals leading up to a long trip away from home to avoid letting precious food go to waste in your fridge while you’re gone, or having a plan to give to friends whatever you have left. Perhaps you forego a trip out to eat when there are perfectly good leftovers in your fridge that might have to be thrown out otherwise. Learn other techniques to reduce your food waste here.
There are also ways to be more compassionate towards our planet within your plant based choices. For example, if you have the option of choosing to buy blueberries imported from Chile or a locally grown apple in the fall and winter seasons bringing the ahimsa factor to the equation may cause you to opt for the apples and the much smaller carbon footprint required to get it to you. Again, by making it simply a factor, you might choose the more ecological product more often and every little bit helps! I am a huge fan of avocados and they do not grow within 1,000 miles of the DC region and I choose to eat them regularly, but I keep the overall distance my food has had to travel in mind as I shop and opt for a closer to local option where possible.
I recently found myself factoring ahimsa into my choices and opting to consume meat. In ordering a meal that was vegetarian, a mistake was made by the staff and chicken was included in my bowl. The staff member was moving to throw it away since there was no way to remove it or give the order to someone else, but I stopped her. I chose to eat that non-organically, non-ethically raised chicken that lived a tortured existence over throwing out that bowl full of food to have a new one made. I believe that is the choice that most honors ahimsa towards our planet as a whole. While I know others would make another choice and I have absolutely no judgement towards them for it, I simply offer this example as a way to consider the practice of ahimsa from a different angle. Bring that ahimsa factor into your dietary and shopping choices and manifest a whole new way to practice your yoga.