“If I start doing yoga, must I become a vegetarian?” I am now in my fifth year as a yoga teacher and this question always feature somewhere during the conversation with most potential students who want to do yoga with me. The short answer is no, you don’t have to, but if it is a natural development and outflow of your yoga with me, then it is your choice to allow it and to follow how the inner world wants to manifest Itself in the outer world. This article will map my own personal journey from meat eater to vegetarian and back to meat eating again and in that I trust it might give some answers and consolation to those out there who need more than just vegetarianism is the ultimate choice or the preferred one if you want to do yoga.
Map of my own Vegetarian Journey
My own teacher Sri Durga is a vegetarian and a very avid one and she used to advocate vegetarianism strongly in her classes, to the point where I decided soon after I started yoga in 1999 with her to also make the transition to being a vegetarian. And please don’t get me wrong, I adore her and I respect her for her strong stance on this issue. Around me all those other vegetarians and fellow yogis looked so healthy and as I always had a problem with maintaining my weight, I really pinned all my hopes on vegetarianism to be the next big weight loss programme for me combined with a yoga practice.
By May 2000 I ate my last piece of kingklip and so started my vegetarian food journey. Initially I felt great, didn’t lose any weight, in fact I started to pack more kilograms around my waist and developed the most terrible heartburn, but being a Taurus, the stubbornness in me prevailed and I stuck to my newly found vegetarian diet. By 2003 the most terrible muscle aches in my legs started to appear. Initially I thought it was just sore muscles from the yoga and the 10+kg I have gained since starting on my vegetarian journey, ignoring the messages my body was sending me so desperately at night. Eventually I spoke to my teacher and fellow yogis about my aches, and my teacher recommend that I add more magnesium to my diet and that I take a Vitamin B12 plus B-Comp injection at least once every three months. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the aches and pains better, in fact it got worse.
By 2005 I have picked up 15kg since my vegetarian journey started. I also become very depressed and the doubt about my diet and yoga started to creep into my consciousness. In October of 2005 I went to India for the first time and I was shocked by many aspects of India, but the one thing that shocked me the most was the realization that India is not the great vegetarian loving nation as portrayed in Western media and articles. In fact my experience was that most Indians actually eat meat at least twice a week if they are not a swami, pundit or some religious leader. And that was the turning point for on my vegetarian journey.
Back home in South Africa, I decided to still stick to my vegetarian diet, but to research more. I started to look at my family history. Both my father and eldest sister was diagnosed with pernicious anaemia and my father especially had huge issues with this disease. He died in 2006 of a massive heart attack after suffering a serious and very low iron deficiency due to the fact that his body couldn’t absorb vitamin B. And as it is a genetic disease, I had to consider this for myself as well. At this point I started to look like Batman’s seriously overweight sidekick, Robin, huge black circles around my eyes, loss of energy, always tired and an increase in muscles aches throughout my whole body now, made it nearly impossible for me to function. I then saw an Ayurveda doctor who prescribed more eggs and a greater combination of plant based legumes, nuts and cheese for me, which to my great dismay didn’t make a difference at all except to my weight! The higher carbohydrate diet just pushed me faster towards the edge of diabetes and when I was test a in 2007 for diabetes I was classified as being pre-diabetic. This was where I decided enough is enough and started to introduce fish and chicken back into my diet. Within months my weight started to stabilise and the severe muscles aches and cramps disappeared. My energy levels returned to normal and the constant tiredness start to dissipate.
In hindsight I can say this: Vegetarianism is great and I am a great supporter of this diet and lifestyle choice, but before you plunge yourself into it, research your family history, check your parents for diseases and syndromes that will affect your journey into vegetarianism as it could have serious consequences.
What about Ahimsa – the practice of non-harming and non-violence
Being a vegetarian is not the ultimate way of honouring this yogic value. It is clear from my own account above that what I thought was a non-violent and non-harming lifestyle choice perpetrated so much violence and harm against my own body, that I have to ask questions about the violence I allowed against my body and how it resonated with this first yama of yoga.
I also think there are much bigger issues currently to consider in our strife for ahimsa than just becoming a vegetarian. The other day I visited one of my very good yogi friends and as she prepared a lovely vegetarian meal for us, I couldn’t help to notice that the beans she prepared was from Zambia (we are in South Africa), the carrots from Zimbabwe, and the petit pois from Uganda and the couscous from Tunisia. Our whole meal was imported! The violence against Mother Earth to get all those foods to South Africa is huge in terms of carbon from the fossil fuels burned to get those foods here. It is also more difficult to get information about ethical treatment, usage of pesticides and gm seeds from those countries, than from your own country. And let’s not get started on the violence against so many farmers and families in South Africa due to the lack of income, loss of jobs and farm land, because of imported food. Eating closer to the source of your food is not just serving you better, but the whole world in a very authentic way.
Ahimsa in terms of my food journey, is to know where it came from, how it was produced and as a fish and poultry eater, I like to know how these animals were treated, were they happy and living in good conditions, cared for with love? There are farmers who dearly love their animals and who rear their animals with respect and compassion, and my choice is to eat those animals from those farmers. I look towards local producers, where my food only had to travel a few kilometres by road instead of thousands of kilometres by air and road from some strange country where I don’t even know how my vegetables were cultivated.
Ahimsa for me is also to support initiatives such as Meat Free Mondays and to encourage people who eat meat everyday to consider eating meat every second day. As a chef I have to work with meat, I can’t avoid it and as such I always treat the meat I am working with, with great respect, honouring in that way the animal that died in order for me to prepare some great meal as nourishment for someone else and not seeing it as just another piece of dead animal on my chopping board.
Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras and Your Diet
For most yogis it is a problem that Patanjali nowhere in The Yoga Sutras makes special mention about diet and what foods you should or shouldn’t eat. Even the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t list any specific foods for following a “yogic diet.” And I suspect that if they did, the list would be very problematic for us as Westerners and also what was appropriate then, might not be appropriate today.
Despite that fact that there are no clear guidelines, I think as yogis we can look to Ayurveda and what it can offer us in terms of a great basis on which we can base our future food explorations and choices. Ayurveda tradition differentiates between the three Gunas where foods that are considered sattvic, include most vegetables, ghee, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Rajasic foods such as coffee, eggs, cheese, peppers, salt and fish increase energy levels and Tamasic foods, such as onions, meat, and garlic slows the metabolism. However, in the West we know the many health benefits of garlic for example and for me it doesn’t make sense to exclude it from my diet or to even list it as Tamasic. Maintaining a balance between all three Gunas is more important in maintaining a healthy and light body and this doesn’t mean to eat just Sattvic foods. Consider also your constitution or Dosha, there are three Doshas, Vata, Pita and Kapha and how they are in balance with each other.
The vegetarian diet made me sick, but I am still attracted to the non-violence of the first yama of yoga and as such I had to discover the truth for me. And my truth is that I still need animal protein to function appropriately. For me an omnivorous diet, one that consists of moderate amounts of animal protein and enough fruits and vegetables makes more sense and is more appropriate for where I am than a strictly vegetarian or even vegan diet. Since I do eat animal protein, I always honour the duck, the chicken, and turkey or prawn or trout by not wasting its life force or mine, but to use that force to heal myself and others, and to teach, inspire, and help people evolve. My ethics about what to eat came down to my personal truth and that is that an omnivorous diet works physiologically far better for me.
Clearly, with such varied perspectives on what feeds the body and spirit, developing a diet that reflects your ethics and honours your physical needs can be challenging. In the end most yogis would agree that part of the practice is to develop awareness about what you eat. It’s worth spending time educating yourself not just about the possible diets you could follow but also about the origins and properties of the food you buy. To begin forming your yogic diet, think about which teachings best resonate with you and how you might put those teachings into action.