“Ask any number of yogis to describe their diets and you’ll likely get responses as varied as the styles they practice. Many traditionalists see yoga as being inextricably linked with the meatless path, citing numerous ancient Indian texts to prove their conviction. Others put less stock in centuries-old warnings like “the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven” (from the Dharma Sutras) than in what their bodies have to say. If eating flesh begets health and energy, they argue, it must be the right choice for them–and their yoga.” –Jennifer Barret, in Yoga Journal
It might be true that the yogi diet today is as varied as the yoga styles we practice, but not so in the past. The yogis of old were consistently, if not vegan, at least vegetarian. Just consider this quote from the Bhagavad Gita:
“One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings, who is nonviolent to all creatures.”
Most yoga practice today is still very body-oriented, whereas traditional yoga was body-mind-spirit-focused. The goal was mainly spiritual enlightenment, not only relaxation and a great looking physique. Asanas, vegetarian diet, pranayama, and meditation were traditionally practiced in unison for spiritual reasons, secondarily for physical health and wellbeing.
And even though many yogis today claim otherwise, asanas were traditionally practiced as a preparation for meditation, even in traditional hatha yoga.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, its author, Svatmarama, invokes the names of many of the sages who came before him. His list of names leads us to conclude that the yoga described by Svatmarama is at least contemporary with that of Patanjali (200 BCE), whose influential Yoga Sutras were in turn a codification of theory and practice that had existed in India for several millennia.
In other words, I do not concur with those who claim that hatha yoga developed as some offshoot of yogic spirituality in the Middle Ages. Hatha yoga, just like Patanjali’s teachings, had been in existence in India for thousands of years, from the beginning of yoga’s long and illustrious history.
Why do I believe this? Carefully read, we see how Svatmarama’s treatise incorporated ideas from the much earlier Yoga Sutras, the Yoga Upanisads, the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita and other much older scriptures.
Hence, rather than being a book about the cult of the body, the hatha yoga pradipika leads the practitioner from the culture of the body towards the culture of the soul. Indeed the hatha yogis themselves proclaimed that “without raja yoga, hatha yoga is useless.”
In India it is the ancient Shiva and not Patanjali, nor the hatha yogis, who is considered the King of Yoga. Indeed the first Sloka (verse) of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika reads: “Reverence to Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, who taught Parvati hatha wisdom as the first step to the pinnacle of raja yoga” (Patanjali yoga). And at the end, we are reminded that “all hatha practices serve only for the attainment of raja yoga”. (4:103).
No surprise then that the yogic canon, the Bhagavad Gita, is pretty straightforward about what yogis should eat. It teaches us that sattvic foods, such as fruit, vegetables, grains and milk products, are good for body, mind and spirit and “promote vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life.” Meat, fish, and alcohol, or tamasik foods, on the other hand, cause “pain, disease and discomfort.”
Some scholars, however, point to the early Vedic peoples and their culture’s lust for animal sacrifices—therefore, they argue, not all yogis were vegetarians.
Other scholars, including yours truly, will point out that yogic culture had very little in common with the early Vedic peoples, anyway.
The nomadic Vedic people were hunters and herders who brought their sacrificial practices with them from outside India. When they arrived, which geneticists such as Dr. Spencer Wells now believe was as early as 5000 years before Christ, 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 4-5000 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 the majority of the world’s population, estimated at being only about 5 million people.)
Indeed, 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, navel-and breath-watching yogis.
Hence, it is 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.
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 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 anymore than he invented yoga. Both practices had already coexisted for several millennia.
“As long as we are living in physical bodies we will continue to cause some harm to others on this planet. So the practice of Ahimsa becomes one of trying to cause the least amount of harm. Everyone knows that eating a vegetarian diet uses up the least amount of natural resources and so causes the least amount of harm to the whole planet.
As you get better at Ahimsa, you get closer to the realization of your True being as that which is Peaceful and free of debilitating internal conflicts. Many people have difficulty with accepting a vegetarian lifestyle as intrinsic to the practice of yoga asana. Perhaps we can clarify that by examining the Sanskrit word “asana”. It means “seat.” Seat means connection to the Earth. Earth means all things: animals, plants, minerals, all existence. To practice asana really means to practice your relationship to Earth and all of her manifestations.”
–Jivamukti Yoga co-founder Sharon Gannon, from Yoga and Vegetarianism
In other words, if we intently listen with our whole being while in the midst of our yogic asanas, we realize we are connected to the whole earth and her beings, and thus we will naturally choose to cause the least harm. We will naturally choose to become vegetarians or vegans.
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, Patanjali had an easy way of convincing me that ahimsa makes total yogic sense.
“The single most important part of your yoga practice is the strict adherence to a vegetarian diet, a diet free of needless cruelty, harm and injustice. Ahimsa is not an optional part of the program, it is the first step.”
– Jivamukti Yoga co-founder Sharon Gannon, from Yoga and Vegetarianism
What kind of diet will people ideally have on your Yogi Planet?