Ask the Yogi: Do I need to become a vegetarian?

Q: Someone told me that all true yoga people don’t eat meat. Is this true? Do I need to become a vegetarian broccoliif I want to do yoga?

A: Although this topic comes up a lot, the practice of yoga does not promote one type of eating over another. Sure, some people who do yoga are vegetarians, meaning that they eat no meat products and get their protein sources from eggs, milk, and plant foods. Others are vegans meaning they eat only plant forms of food. Still many are omnivores, meaning eat they from a variety of foods including animal meats.

In my opinion this topic comes up frequently because of a complicated mixture in the minds of some regarding Hindu religious practices, the quest for ‘authentic yoga’ , and narrow interpretations of yoga principles called the Yamas.

Confusion point number one: For many, yoga is closely associated with Hinduism, yet, yoga is not a religion and does not promote one religion over another. Both yoga and Hinduism arose from the same geographic area, the Indus Valley civilization, but yoga came into being prior to the birth of the Hindu religion. Hinduism considers Yoga an essential part of Hindu philosophy. This is Yoga with the capital Y, much more than simply the asana (poses) practice that most associate with yoga. Hinduism also proscribes vegetarianism. Therefore, many people who are Hindu and practice yoga are also vegetarians. This does not mean that to practice yoga one must be Hindu or vegetarian.

Confusion point number two: What I call the ‘quest for authentic yoga’ is what I interpret from the discussion and conversations of those who are looking for ‘real yoga’. In my opinion this need is driven by the abundance of vacant and watered down versions of yoga found in many gyms and facilities that have taken the transformational practice called yoga and turned it into an empty shell of stretching and poses. Hatha yoga at is finest is about a scientific exploration of self. It is a search within and a mindfulness of action that allows us to see ourselves as we really are and challenge ourselves to become our optimal best. Those seeking the ‘authentic yoga’ are often drawn towards Raja yoga, which brings us back to Hinduism and of course vegetarianism. Rest assured there are many types of authentic yoga other than Raja yoga. One does not need to be vegetarian in order to create a personal exploration of self and transform into their optimal state of being.

Confusion point number three: The Yamas are ten principles of yoga, considered wise characteristics, that are from the Yoga Sutras historically attributed as written by Patanjali in around 400 AD. These principles were meant as a guide to those practicing Raja yoga, but they are generally accepted by all forms of yoga as a guide to proper ethical behavior. The first of the Yamas is called Ahimsa, non-violence, and asks us to inflict no violence to others or ourselves in word, thought or deed. Some people use a strict and narrow interpretation of this to mean we should be vegetarians or vegans. Once again I point out this is an interpretation typically reserved for those practicing a devotional yoga associated with Hinduism or Raja yoga.

So, to summarize: No, you do not need to become a vegetarian to do yoga. You can be a vegetarian or vegan if you would like, but you can also be an omnivore. It would be best if you focused on eating a healthy diet filled with wholesome organic foods. It would be best if you ate mostly whole foods that have not been processed. It would be most healthy if you made sure you ate adequate protein to support your muscle building. Technically though, you could eat powdered sugar donuts, a greasy hamburger, and wash it all down with a high-fructose corn syrup soda and still do authentic yoga, but I wouldn’t recommend it. That kind of eating leads to upset stomachs and excess body fat. So, eat healthy, but eat the way you feel is right for you.

In this response I touched briefly on a lot of extremely deep and philosophical points. If you would like to know more about them, here are some great website resources:

Diet in Hinduism
Roots of Vegetarianism
The Yamas and Niyamas
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

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