by Ramesh Bjonnes
What is the best diet for a yogi according to the texts of yoga? The Bhagavad Gita, one of India’s most sacred texts on yoga, is quite straightforward about what yogis should eat. This popular scripture teaches us that sattvic foods, such as fruit, vegetables, grains, and milk products, are good for body, mind, and spirit and that this type of a diet promotes “vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life.” Meat, fish, and alcohol, or tamasik foods, on the other hand, causes “pain, disease and discomfort.”
“One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings, who is nonviolent to all creatures.” –The Bhagavad Gita
Some historians, however, point to the early Vedic peoples and their culture’s lust for animal sacrifices—therefore, they argue, not all yogis were vegetarians. But other scholars point out that yoga culture actually had very little in common with early Vedic culture. The nomadic Vedic people were hunters and herders who imported their sacrificial practices from outside India. When they arrived around 5000 BCE, the Indians already practiced yoga, grew rice and dwelled in urban cities, such as Mehrgarh (7000 BCE), now believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world.
How do we know this? Archeological evidence points to an early form of yoga and meditation practice that existed as early as 4000–5000 BCE, a time when some believe Shiva, the King of Yoga, lived in the Himalayas in the summer and in Kashi (Varanasi) in the winter.
In other words, since the early yogic tradition had developed independently of the Vedic tradition, it had advanced its own peculiar sensibilities, including an aversion for meat and a penchant for steamy dishes of rice, chapatti, samosa, and lentils. India was, after all, the rice and vegetable basket of the world during that time. (Consequently, India also had most of the world’s population, estimated at being only about five million people. But like today, only a small minority of these ancient peoples practiced yoga.)
According to the Puranas, Shiva, the royal teacher of yoga himself, instructed even the common people to reduce their intake of meat and wine, what to speak of the cave-dwelling and breath-watching yogis. It is therefore safe to assume that, for several millennia, the ancient yogis and Tantrics lived, for the most part, outside of the Vedic Brahmin priest culture, and that they were taught to abhor animal slaughter. Over time, as some Brahmin priests adopted yogic ways, they also became vegetarians.
The Buddha and his friend Mahavira—the founder of the Jain religion, in which ahimsa, or nonviolence, is the cornerstone—were two such yogi vegetarians. On their path to religious fame in India and beyond, they became infamous for protesting the Vedic slaughter and sacrifice of animals.
We do know that Patanjali, the great yogi-scholar, emphasized in his system of Ashtanga Yoga that ahimsa, the practice of non-harming and nonviolence, is a necessary step toward higher wisdom and enlightenment. In other words, vegetarianism is also an important tenet of yoga, because of its ethical foundation, not just because it was beneficial for the practice of yoga. It is unlikely, however, that Patanjali invented yogic vegetarianism any more than he invented yoga. Both practices had already coexisted for several millennia.
What is my own experience? I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons first. About a year before I encountered yoga, I walked through a large, modern slaughterhouse. When I realized I had been eating live beings treated in such a cruel way, I decided to discontinue stuffing my body with hormone-induced, artificially colored, dead flesh. After that experience, Patanjali had an easy way of convincing me that ahimsa makes total yogic sense.
So, should yogis be omnivores, vegetarians or vegans? I think the answer depends on where we most focus our attention. Do we listen to the needs of our bodies, or do we listen to the more subtle needs of our hearts? Do we listen to the needs of the Earth, or the needs of animals or plants? I think the answer depends on how we listen to our bodies, our hearts, and our environment.
It is said that the great yogi Caetanya Mahaprabhu had such a tender heart for the environment that he rescued plants creeping onto the road to help them avoid injury by oncoming feet, hooves and wheels.
After embracing body, mind and spirit as inherent and interdependent parts of the cosmos, countless yogis have, for thousands of years, chosen the less cruel path when selecting their sustenance. For the sake of the earth, their bodies, minds and spirits, they have practiced vegetarianism or veganism.
But it is not an easy choice: Should yogis be omnivores, vegetarians or vegans?
Contemporary yogi omnivores argue that we have to kill in order to eat. Others argue that they cannot function optimally without eating meat. In truth, no matter what diet we subscribe to, we all must kill other beings to survive. Even vegans kill lower life forms to live. So, how much killing should we human yogis allow ourselves? A cow or a carrot?
The traditional yogi answer is that we should kill as few living beings as humanly possible in order to stay alive. Yogis also explain that it is better to eat carrots rather than cows, because cows are more complex and conscious beings than carrots. Consequently, they have usually been vegetarians.
Which part of yourself do you listen to before you eat? What type of diet will people ideally have on your yogi planet? Why is it unthinkable for most people to eat their own pets for dinner but to have no qualms about eating cows, chicken, and sheep from factory farms? If in doubt about the ethical ramifications of killing animals, one option is to visit a slaughterhouse—then you can make up your own mind!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ramesh is the Director of the Prama Wellness Center where lifestyle is considered our best medicine. Ramesh is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurveda at California College of Ayurveda and is a certified yoga detox therapist from the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of four books, including Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra:The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India).