There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about yoga and food, and how some studios and restauranteurs are bringing them together in surprising (and somewhat icky - who wants to use their sweaty, nasty yoga mat as a place setting for an after class meal?) ways. This, of course, raises the question of what sorts of foods are fit for us yogis to eat. Patañjali's Yoga Sutras list ahimsa as the first part of the first limb of yoga - he is clearly making a statement of importance here by listing it right up front. Usually, we translate ahimsa as non-violence; not hurting each other. For a lot of yogis, this means adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. The reasoning, I believe, is as follows: If I'm committed to not hurting other people, why would I be willing to benefit from the death of other animals? Especially when it is certainly possible to survive without consuming any animal products?
Well... I'm not completely sold on the idea, and my basic argument against it boils down to, ironically perhaps, my appreciation of the incredible complexity of life. How do we draw the line between what we can (ethically) eat and what we can't? Is it a simple division based on kingdom? If so, then why are animals more important than plants, or fungi, or protozoa for that matter? We all started from the same biological miracle; we all have 4.5 billion years of evolution behind us. It's not as if we can pretend that non-animal life is less advanced or more primitive than animals are, and therefore less worthy of survival on an individual basis. We all, essentially, share the same birthday and are growing old together.
It's a fundamental truth that animals need to feed on other life. If we live on plants, we're still eating something that once lived and was killed for our benefit. Something needs to die in order for me to live. This can't be avoided.
When I think about the idea that the only ethical diet is a vegetarian or vegan diet, it also brings to mind the diets and lifestyles of other cultures. Traditionally, the Inuit lived on a diet that consisted exclusively of animal products. They did so because these were the resources available to them - in the far North, there are no edible plants. There are birds, there are sea mammals, there are polar bears, there are caribou, and that's about it. Does this make the traditional Inuit diet unethical? No, and I don't think anyone would claim that it does. Let's progress into murkier territory, then - other foods are now available to many in the far north, foods that have been grown and processed in the south and flown to the Arctic at great expense. Now, does this recent availability of plant based foods make contemporary adherence to the traditional Inuit diet unethical? Is it wrong for the Inuit (or anyway, those among them who can afford the imported foods) to continue to adhere to their traditional diet when other options are now available? I'd argue that the answer to this question is also No; to answer it otherwise would be to suggest an inherent inferiority of the traditional Inuit culture, which is ridiculous. To suggest the superiority of one's own culture or belief system is paternalistic at best, patronizing at worst.
A lot of the argument around vegetarian/vegan diets for yogis strikes me this way - paternalistic. Why should I let someone else decide for me what ahimsa means? Isn't it my own responsibility to make peace with my decisions and with the world? Isn't that part of svadhyaya, self-study, which is also listed in Patañjali's eight limbs of yoga? I did not become involved with yoga to become pious and superior, nor to kowtow to those who are. I'm involved in this practice because it helps me find meaning and beauty in the world.
Is it possible to practice ahimsa as an omnivore? Is it possible to eat meat and practice non-violence? I think this question is far more nuanced and complex than many in the yoga community admit. The answer cannot be reduced to a simple yes or no.
Ugh... this post definitely needs more editing, but frankly I'm tired of working on it. These ideas have been on my mind for a long, long time, and I will probably return to them at some point in the future.
As always, comments are welcome and encouraged, especially if you respectfully disagree with me or find flaws in my arguments.