What Does Yoga Have to Do with Vegetarianism?
This article is excerpted from the author's new book, Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Diet of Enlightenment, published by Mandala Publishing.
The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet.
-Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
The Sanskrit term yoga is found in the Vedas, the most ancient of the Indian scriptures, prehistoric in origin. The Indian philosopher Patanjali did not invent yoga, but he did write an important manual, the Yoga Sutras, several thousand years ago. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit yuj, which means "to yoke," and describes the yoking of one's individual small self to the cosmic eternal Self, or God. Reaching this blissful state of union with the Divine is called enlightenment, liberation, Self-realization, super-consciousness, or samadhi. Jesus referred to this state when he reputedly said, "I and my father are one." In all probability, he didn't use the English word "father." Most likely he used the Aramaic word for the Divine, which is Alaha. Alaha means the interconnectedness of all beings and things: the oneness of being. A more apt biblical translation of that New Testament passage might be: "I know myself as one with all that is." Jesus was describing Yogic enlightenment.
When Patanjali states, "Yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah," in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras, he is giving us both a definition of Yoga and a directive as to how to attain it. This sutra can be translated as: "When you stop (nirodhah) identifying with the divisive nature of your mind (chitta vritti), then there is Yoga (yogah), which is enlightenment." The union of the separate with the whole implies that enlightenment is actually the underlying ground of being and that otherness is an imposition or distortion of a more unified reality.
If we are interested in Yoga, we might ask ourselves, "What is Yoga interested in?" Yoga has one goal: enlightenment, a state in which the separateness of self and other dissolves in the realization of the oneness of being. What holds us back from that realization is a false perception of reality. Instead of perceiving oneness, we see separateness, disconnection, and otherness. Because the term Yoga refers not only to the goal of enlightenment but also to the practical method for reaching that goal, all of the practices must address the basic issue of "other." Otherness is the main obstacle to enlightenment. Killing or harming others is not the best way to overcome that obstacle. How we perceive and relate to the others in our lives determines whether or not enlightenment arises.
When most people think of yoga, they think of the physical postures taught in yoga classes. This is a yoga practice called asana. It is one of the many yoga practices, such as meditation, pranayama (breathing exercises), and yama (restraint), that can help us realize our true nature. The practice of asana, for example, is the perfection of one's relationship to the Earth. What is a perfect relationship? One that is not one-sided or selfish but mutually beneficial. If we are still eating meat, fish, or dairy products, we might question whether or not our relationship to the animals we are eating is mutually beneficial and, with that answer, decide if our eating choices serve our ultimate goal: the attainment of Yoga.
Compassion brings about the arising of enlightenment. All yoga practices are designed to help one develop compassion and, by means of compassion, dissolve the illusion of otherness. Through practice you begin to realize that everyone else in your life is really coming from inside you. Through compassion you are not only able to acknowledge this but also absorb everyone back into the fullness (or emptiness) of your own being. In Yogic terminology this is referred to as shunyata-emptiness (or fullness, if you want to see it that way).
Our experience of everything we see and everyone we meet is colored by our own perceptions. We are actually the most important people in our lives because we determine who the others are and what significance they hold. This is not a subjective occurrence that happens consciously in the moment of perception, but rather a conditioned response developed over time through repeated actions or karmas. These karmas plant the seeds that create our understanding of others, of reality, and of ourselves.
Yoga teaches us that we can have whatever we may want in life if we are willing to provide it for others first. In fact, whatever we are experiencing in our lives is a direct result of how we have treated others in our past. The way we treat others will determine how others treat us. After all, they are only acting as agents of our own karmas. How others treat us will influence how we see ourselves. How we see ourselves will greatly determine who we are, and who we are will be revealed in our actions.
The others in our world can provide us with the opportunities we need to evolve. The world will either keep us in bondage or provide us with the means to liberation. When we give to others that which we want for ourselves-when an action is selfless-it leads to the type of karma that will eventually lead to liberation.
As yogis seeking liberation, we strive to perfect our actions. Every action is preceded by a thought. To perfect an action, we must therefore first perfect our thoughts. What is a perfect thought? A perfect thought is one devoid of selfish motive: free of anger, greed, hate, jealousy, and the like.
If you wish to truly step into transcendental reality and have a lighter impact on the planet, adopting a compassionate vegetarian diet is a good place to start. Not everyone can stand on his or her head every day, but everyone eats. You can practice compassion three times a day when you sit down to eat. This is one of the many reasons that so many yoga practitioners choose to be vegetarians.
Ethical vegetarians eat only plant-based food in order to show compassion toward animals and other humans and to benefit the planet. Some people say they are vegetarian but still eat milk products, eggs, and fish. Ethical vegetarians do not eat dairy products, eggs, and fish because these are not vegetables and eating them causes great harm to other beings and the planet. Vegans are ethical vegetarians who seek to extend their ethics to include not just what they eat but everything they consume: food, clothing, medicine, fuel, and entertainment, to name a few. When I use the term vegetarianism in this book, I am referring to ethical vegetarianism or veganism.
The term veganism was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson (1910-2005), who founded the Vegan Society in England. Vegans do their best to refrain from exploiting animals for any reason and believe that animals do not exist as slaves to serve human beings. A vegan is a strict vegetarian who abstains from eating or using any products that have been derived from animal sources. The mission statement of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sums it up this way: Animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, laboratory experimentation, entertainment, or any other exploitative purpose.
Some meat eaters defend their choice by saying that it is natural, because animals eat one another in the wild. When people bring this up as a rationale for eating meat, I remind them that the animals that end up on our plates aren't those who eat one another in the wild. The animals we exploit for food are not the lions, tigers, and bears of the world. We eat the gentle ones-vegan animals who, if given the choice, would never eat the flesh of other animals, although they are forced to do so on today's farms when they are fed "enriched feed" containing rendered animal parts.
Some may say a vegan diet is difficult to follow. What does difficult mean? How difficult is it to suffer and die from heart disease caused by a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol? Still, many people would choose to go through invasive bypass surgery or have a breast, colon, or rectum removed and take powerful pharmaceutical drugs for the rest of their lives rather than change their diets because they think veganism is drastic and extreme. How difficult is it for the beings who suffer degrading confinement and cruel slaughter, dying for our dining convenience? How difficult is it for all of us to be confronted with the effects of global warming, deforestation, species extinction, water, soil, and air pollution that are a direct result of raising confined animals for food? How difficult is it for us to endure being hurt and abused, being lied to, worrying about money and security, experiencing mental and physical illnesses, and not knowing what is in store for us next?
By following the yamas prescribed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, we begin to realize that suffering is inevitable only to those who are unenlightened about the truth, which connects us all. Our own actions bring about the situation we live in. Yoga has the potential to heal the disease that we are all suffering from -- the disease of disconnection. War, destruction of the environment, extinction of species, global warming, and even domestic violence -- all of these stem from the disease of disconnection. You can only abuse and exploit others if you feel disconnected from them and have no idea about the potency inherent in your own actions. If you feel connected, you know that it's you, as well as other living things, who will suffer from the suffering you inflict.
It is wise for the yogi to consider that killing and eating another being perpetuates the wheel of samsara-the cycle of birth, life, and death. The yoga practitioner is attempting to be free of samsara and, therefore, would want to step out of the so-called natural cycle of the dog-eat-dog world. Some may argue that human beings have been doing certain activities "forever" and that, therefore, they are normal, natural, and should be allowed to continue. The fact that a belief or behavior is long-held does not make it inherently just, or even right. Consider, for example, the fact that men have been raping women for thousands of years. Does this mean that such behavior is normal and should be allowed to continue? We are fortunate enough to live in an era in which human beings have come to recognize rape as a crime. A yogi investigates all long-standing habits and behaviors, even if they have been in place seemingly forever, and asks: "Is this activity necessary now? Does it bring me or the world closer to enlightenment or peace?"
Eating meat is a long-standing habit in our culture. Many Western yoga practitioners argue that they have to eat meat to keep up the strength required for a physically demanding asana practice. Yet Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the Indian master of the physically demanding style of Ashtanga yoga, has stated clearly that a vegetarian diet is a requirement for the practice of yoga. He was initially very reluctant to teach Western students because they were meat eaters. It was only in the last twenty years or so that he opened his doors wide to Western students. I had assumed the reason was that he felt there would be language difficulties, but when I asked him if that was why he refused Western students for many years, he replied: "No. It was because they weren't vegetarians. If someone is not a vegetarian, they won't be able to learn yoga. They will be too stiff in their body and their mind."
"But, Guruji," I said, "you teach mostly Western students now. What caused you to change?"
"In my country, we are vegetarians because our parents are; we were born that way," he replied. "At first when Westerners came to me, I assumed a lot about them. Most Indian people do. But then some students came to me, and I learned that they were vegetarians, and they weren't born that way. They had decided on their own to become vegetarians. This seemed very unusual, and I felt that it was interesting and significant. And so I began teaching them because I felt they could learn."
The popularity of yoga worldwide has grown tremendously in the midst of a global crisis. This is no coincidence. Yoga holds the promise that could help us transform our ways of relating to animals, the Earth, and one another. Through yoga practice, we purify our past karmas and in turn develop self-confidence. We begin to feel like integrated beings as we start to heal the disease of disconnection that has separated our hearts from our minds and our bodies. Then the illusion that we are separate from the rest of creation begins to dissolve. With that disconnection dissolved, we begin to perceive our connection to the Divine, and the truth of who we really are is revealed.
I am thankful that yoga is being embraced in our Western culture by a growing minority, because we desperately need to stop viewing the Earth and all other beings as ours to exploit. Much of our culture's influence has been negative and quite destructive. It is based on the lie that "the Earth belongs to us." Yoga has always opposed this proprietary worldview and has offered humanity an alternative over the centuries: the means to live harmoniously with the Earth and all beings. If human beings can't find a new way to live with this planet, then our own annihilation as well as the planet's is certain. Without planetary harmony, no cosmic harmony can be hoped for. I believe that the teachings and practices of yoga are very important, perhaps even crucial, for the survival of life on Earth. That is why I am passionate about practicing and teaching yoga.
The choice to become yogis and the choices we make about what to eat are karmic, political, and economic decisions that affect our mental and physical health. They have repercussions in our families as well as in our larger communities. It is an indisputable fact that a vegan diet causes less harm to ourselves, to animals, to plants, and to the Earth. To say that what you choose to eat is nobody else's business is to belittle yourself and deny the impact that your actions have upon the lives of others.
The biggest consumer of fresh water is the meat and dairy industry. It is also responsible for most of the water pollution. The livestock industry is the single biggest contributor to global warming, as it creates far more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined! There are more cows (most of them hidden from our view) in the United States than there are human beings. By enslaving these animals and abusing them through lifelong torture and degradation, we deprive them of their freedom and happiness. How can we ourselves hope to be free or happy when our own lives are rooted in depriving others of the very thing we say we value most in life-the freedom to pursue happiness? If you want to bring more peace and happiness into your own life, the way to do so is to stop causing violence and unhappiness in the lives of others. Yoga reminds us that all of life is sacred, that all of life is connected, and that what we do to another we eventually do to ourselves. The best way to uplift our own lives is to do all we can to uplift the lives of others.
How we behave toward others and our environment reveals -- more than anything else -- our inner state of mind and the current condition of our personalities. How have we become so estranged from our true Divine nature and from nature herself? Are human beings naturally violent, deceitful, selfish, manipulative, and greedy? Or have we learned and perfected these negative traits over time? Could the practice of yoga not only challenge the basic assumptions expressed by these negative traits but reverse them and, in doing so, allow us to recreate ourselves, our societies, and the world we live in?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out an eight-limbed plan for liberation called Raja yoga. The first limb is called yama, which means restraint, and includes five ethical restrictions.
ahimsa satya asteya brahmacharya aparigraha yamah PYS II.30
1. ahimsa: nonharming
2. satya: truthfulness
3. asteya: nonstealing
4. brahmacharya: continence
5. aparigraha: greedlessness
The yamas describe how an unenlightened person who desires Yoga should restrict his or her behavior toward others. Patanjali says that as long as you still perceive "others" and not one interconnected reality, then (1) don't harm others, (2) don't deceive them, (3) don't steal from them, (4) don't manipulate them sexually, and (5) don't be greedy, selfishly depriving them of sustenance and happiness. Through the practice of yama, Patanjali tells us that we can begin to purify our karmas and remove the obstacles to our enlightenment, which are rooted in our misperception of others.
In this book, we investigate how the yamas relate to vegetarianism, as well as what one can expect as a result of being established in the practice of each of the yamas. This is called pratishthayam, which means "to become established in." Patanjali suggests that if we work for the freedom of other beings, we will become free. By becoming established in the practice of the yamas, we can look forward to a peaceful world free of violence (through ahimsa), lies (through satya), and stealing (through asteya); the enjoyment of physical and mental vitality and the end of disease (through brahmacharya); and a future free of poverty and bright with opportunities for increased happiness and creativity (through aparigraha).
What would we find if we were to investigate the yamas in terms of how we are treating the animals we put on our plates every day? Are we harming them? Are we deceiving them? Are we stealing from them? Are we manipulating them sexually? Are we impoverishing them through our greed? What impact does our treatment of these "other" animals have upon our inner and outer environment?
Don't wait for a better world. Start now to create a world of harmony and peace. It is up to you, and it always has been! You may even find the solution at the end of your fork.
 Henning Stanfield, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, and Mauricio Rosales, Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006).
Copyright 2008 by Sharon Gannon. Published by Mandala Publishing. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Image by GrahamKing, courtesy of Creative Commons license.