Am I a Yogi If I’m not a Vegetarian​? ~ Alanna Kaivalya

Via Alanna Kaivalya
on Sep 17, 2012
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I cast the judgement and threw the stones—until they hit me square in the face.

For many in our modern yoga culture, ahimsa has exactly one translation: vegetarianism, or potentially more focalized: veganism. I understand this and for most of my life, I have adhered to this practice. However, there’s something wrong with this translation of ahimsa. It’s not completely accurate.

Ahimsa, if we break down the word, simply means the absence of violence. It’s a much broader stroke than this one focused idea. Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra where the directive of ahimsa is cited for yogis, goes on to add four other suggestions for how we can become compassionate contributors to society: truthfulness, non-stealing, conscious intimacy and non-hoarding. He’s pretty specific with these suggestions, but nowhere does he give us the exact, one practice that is going to cover all this moral high ground.

He leaves it to us.

In my years as a yoga practitioner, I’ve heard all the arguments for why veganism is a good idea. I’ve also made those same arguments. I used to be the one in the room telling students and fellow teachers that without a vegetarian diet, they were simply not practicing ahimsa.

I cast the judgement and threw the stones-until they hit me square in the face.

I realized at some point that my judgements of others were actually the most scathing antithesis to this sacred practice. By setting myself and my own actions apart from others, I was creating a hierarchy. I was missing the point of the practice itself, which is meant to create connection and dissolve boundaries.

We connect when we hurl judgement out the window, move beyond what is right and what is wrong and favor instead what will make us free and keep our hearts open. If any position in life, be it choosing a diet or a political party, separates us from another and puts them on the other side of the fence, how do we ever hope to create our much-longed-for unity?

Now, I understand this isn’t easy and as tempting as the debate over whether being vegetarian (or placing any kind of label on oneself, for that matter) is, it’s ultimately not the point here. Our work as yogis is not to determine who’s actions are better than others’ or what actions are “correct” given the yogic guidelines. Our work is to find it in our hearts to forgive all actions and accept all beings as they are, even if they make different lifestyle choices than we do.

Look, I think being vegetarian is a great service to the world. Being a vegetarian is a great way to practice ahimsa but not the only way to practice ahimsa. I think being an aid worker in a third-world country is a great service, teaching children the value of non-violence in their actions is a great service to the world and so on. There are a million great ways we can serve others in the scope of ahimsa because the most important moral compass is the one that sits in our own hearts.

We have to clean up our own mess first.

We can eat a diet of air and sunlight and if we’re looking at other people for doing it wrong because they’re doing it differently, we’ve steered off course. The meat-eater could be saving lives as an ER doctor by working extra shifts. The carnivore could be working on weekends to build houses for the poor. The great thing is that there are so many opportunities for us to be actively kind in our world.

Thank goodness Patanjali didn’t specify.

T.S. Eliot is quoted as saying, “For every life and every act, consequences of good and evil can be shown and as in time results of many deeds are blended so good and evil in the end become confounded.” Joseph Campbell responded to a similar quote by Voltrim by stating, “The best we can do is lean towards the light.”

I lived for years thinking that all who eat meat will be condemned to repay that karma with their death in future lifetimes. It’s a pretty grim guilt-trip to be on while practicing yoga. Luckily, I heard a philosophy teacher recently re-illuminate this misunderstanding with this simple teaching:

“If you choose to take a life, then you must save one.”

I understand that each life is precious and this could be misconstrued as an over-simplification of the process. This is neither a justification or absolution. What it does is re-frame the process so that without guilt, we can make the best choices for our own lives. These choices will be different for all of us and all the choices we make are valid, provided that they are done with an open heart.

You see, the scholar Joseph Campbell did much of his research based on the premise that “life lives on life.” It just does. We can all make arguments around this and I’ll never disagree with those who say factory farming is cruel. But judgement is also cruel because it poisons our own hearts, cramps our ability to connect with others and find ways in which we can uplift and forgive those we interact with. It separates “us” from “them” and gets us farther from the interconnectivity that is the crux of yoga practice.

When we possess an expanded understanding of ahimsa beyond only vegetarianism and accept every person as they are, we then have the best capacity to support transformation and positive change of anykind. If we begin with resistance to a particular behavior (like eating meat), then we’re already creating alienation and separation, which are both antithetical to yoga.

To practice ahimsa means to be firm in our authentic practice of active kindness and accept everyone as they appear to us, no matter how they choose to live their lives, no matter how we choose to live ours because there are eight billion different ways to live. If we can manage to live with an open heart and a genuine ability to connect to another, then we’ve dissolved any need for violence to arise.

Start there. You might find that the life you’re saving is your own.


Editor: Sarah Winner

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About Alanna Kaivalya

Alanna Kaivalya is an artistic and inspiring teacher of yoga. Born with a hearing impairment, Alanna learned through the power of vibration at a young age, and was then naturally drawn to the harmonic practice of yoga. Listed as Yoga Journal’s top 21 Yoga Teachers Under 40 (March, 2008), and now with more than a decade of teaching experience, she has developed a teaching style that is a unique combination of her spirit, her knowledge, and of course the teachers who have influenced her along the path. She has a mission: to convey a sense of joy and freedom through harmony and synchronicity, which she does beautifully through her classes, workshops, writing and music. Alanna is known for her ability to translate the ancient practice of yoga into a modern day context. For more information visit Alanna's website or connect with Alanna on Facebook and Twitter.


42 Responses to “Am I a Yogi If I’m not a Vegetarian​? ~ Alanna Kaivalya”

  1. @yoga4joy says:

    Ahimsa is not about healing or helping (i.e. ER doctors or volunteers in third world countries); it is about abstaining from personal actions that cause harm to others. The two are mutually exclusive. Suggesting that the practice of ahimsa in its purest form must necessarily include veganism, is not judgment. If we believe in our hearts that the absolute expression of non-violence includes animals, then it also becomes a duty to spread this personal consciousness as part of our spiritual practice. It is not about rejecting others or their choices; it is about broadcasting a message and exemplifying a life that in no way brings harm to another living being. To believe that a purified soul is wholly non-violent, then to attempt to live such a life and to spread that message to others is simply an act of love – for all living beings.

  2. Edward Staskus says:

    Although I found your article well worth reading, I cannot agree with your assumptions about going beyond good and evil. Post-modernism has its place, but what states like North Korea and tyrants like Josef Stalin do are not relative actions that yoga or any other spiritual practice can explain away or even come to terms with. When someone eats a hamburger it might not be the greatest thing in the world, but when someone sends millions to the Gulag it is very definitely evil and that person and nation state should be judged and held accountable. Although I subscribe to non-violence, sometimes how people choose to lead their lives, as you say, does matter since it is so remarkably horrible, so that finally judgment and action are inevitably the only solutions.

  3. theYogaDr says:

    Great article, and I appreciate the comment by kconnorsd very much too.

    Ahimsa was never about veganism. That is a total fabrication by modern teachers with their own agendas veiled as yoga-isms. Traditional Yoga is vegetarian but allows dairy in the diet and does not consider that to be against ahimsa at all. Just read the classic texts of hundreds of years ago. They were written by real gurus.

  4. thirtydaysofyoga says:

    As a meat eating, wine drinking yogi, I enjoyed reading your article. I'm on a journey and maybe, eventually, my journey will lead me on what many believe is the right path. The evangelical approach to this or even that works for many and not so much for others. I understand it and am willing to listen to it but my own mind is the only mind that I can ever change and I'm in no hurry. Yoga is a personal, internal process and has much ahead for me I'm sure so I'll enjoy/puzzle over each step of the way and if one day, it means no more meat, cheese and wine, then that will be accepted.

  5. AlannaK says:

    Hey Everyone – Thank you so much for your awesome comments. I appreciate all your views and believe they're very helpful in further illuminating this important subject for yogis!

  6. Chris says:

    Wonderful insights! As that Jeebus fellow said, "It is more important what comes out of your mouth than what goes in it." Keep on being your authentic self Alanna! Much respect!

  7. pixiemom says:

    Hundreds of years ago, animals were not treated in the same fashion that they are in the modern, industrial, factory farming environment. The truth is, animals must necessarily be harmed for us to enjoy their milk, meat and eggs – and in far too many cases, in the most egregious ways imaginable.

    As for prosyletizing, no one I know goes up to people in the streets or restaurants, or knocks on doors with the message of veganism. I wish I understood why some people are so offended by others who make a choice that they believe is aligned with the expression of non-harming to include all living beings and then somehow find it neccesary to be condescending and insulting to them.

    No one has stated that being vegan makes them a better person than anyone else. But how it can be argued that ahimsa in its purest form does not mean absolute non-violence and that would include abstention from killing any animal for any reason?

  8. ria says:

    When I was a young child in India, my grandmother had a cow and her calf. The cow (I forget her name) was prayed to each morning before she was milked. If she was in a bad mood / grumpy then the milk man would just need to come back or no milk that day, but luckily that seldom happened.
    The milk was boiled immediately and then consumed by the whole family for the rest of the day. The milk was used in Chai, in sweets, kheer and also given away to those who did not have their own cows in particular to the Sadhu's that go door to door in the afternoon. Oh we also made yogurt and lassi out of it and cow dung was used to make floors and walls.
    This was a pure way to consume animal products without any chemicals or harming the animal. Everyone won!
    If this is how you are consuming animal products then I can't see the problem. We worship the cow in India. That is not the case in the western world. Perhaps double check where your animal products are coming from.
    Calling one self a Yogi because you bought a yoga mat and are on it from time to time is just laughable. Its almost a status now in the west to call oneself a yogi. So firstly lets change that to 'I'm a student of Yoga' instead of I'm a Yogi.
    Secondly I know there are yoga students out there who drink and eat meat but I'd love to know how many Yoga practitioners are out there drinking wine and eating meat who are and have been serious students of yoga. eg: someone who has been doing Mysore Ashtanga for 10 years. I doubt very much if they are drinking and eating meat. Actually I'd love to hear from anyone who knows an 10+ year ashtangi who drinks and eats meat.

  9. susan says:

    Those who are actively engaging in eating animals are not yogins by Patanjali's standard, and there is no need to call yourself or others a yogin just because some aspect of yogic practice is being engaged in. You are most likely not a yogi if you eat animals. Most people do not need to eat animals, and do well without the sacrificial cult of "life is life eating life" that yogins, jains and buddhists contrast themselves against.

    If you are a yogi, your life is tempered in all aspects, especially diet. People can meditate and practice the many aspects of yoga regardless of their behavior, and there is no reason to call oneself or others a yogi for the sole reason they show up to a class or would like to be accepted by a group.

    Patanjali does not advise proselytizing at all, in fact he does not advise actively engaging in "worldly" matters at all, for instance while other lists of niyamas include giving (dana), his do not. He does say that even slightly encouraging another's violence is based on ignorance and to be avoided, so actively participating in the violence inherent in eating animals is definitely something to be avoided for anyone who would embrace ahimsa.

  10. bobcat says:

    Thanks for a well written and thoughtful article. I find it funny that we adults, highly connected and sensitive to our own body's needs, quarel like little children about what Patanjali told us to do or not to do and missing the point of this article entirely. Let's grow up and think for ourselves. Stop regurgitate what the gurus have regurgitated and actually get on with the practice of yoking. Only those who see parts of the thing and not the whole of it do quarrel. By the way, if you are open and curious check out Charles Eisenstein, The Yoga of Eating.

  11. Clare says:

    Only two beings are concerned with your decision to eat meat. You and the animal(s) that you kill. It is further vanity to wonder if this makes you a "Yogi" or not. It just makes you someone that kills animals. That's what you are. A.Human. Who. Chooses. To. Kill. Animals.

  12. Sabrina says:

    There are lot of arguments for being vegan or at least a vegetarian. But there is no understandable reason for eating meat – except selfishness, ignorance and the impossibility to create inner peace including ALL beings in the world. Knowing about the effects of meat-industry to the environment, accepting that a cow only gives milk (like every other mother) if she is pregnant (and her baby in this case is taken away from her), understanding that eggs and, well, every animal-protein is not really healthy – you should make a decision. If you think, that all these facts do not matter to you, you should at least not argue about the excuse why you still eat meat ('though the energy which is wasted for only 1 steak would feed about 40 hungry children) and try to find other meat-eating-supporters or to excuse their inconsequent style of living, too. You should at least keep quiet, if not feel ashamed for your life-style which includes the systematic killing or exploiting of co-creatures. Learn more about this:,,

  13. Thanks so much for this. I've been working on my own article about whether being vegan is sustainable for everyone, and what to do if you find your body doesn't want to cooperate with your ethics. I went vegan back in January:

    And it was great at first, but I've run into some health issues, and am wrestling with the idea that it may not be sustainable to me as a lifelong choice. This was really encouraging to read. xo

  14. AlannaK says:

    Kate – so glad this was an encouragement. Let me know if you ever want to chat about it further. :)

  15. […] Am I a Yogi If I’m not a Vegetarian? ~ Alanna Kaivalya […]

  16. […] I am definitely ready to further lighten my diet, softening the load on my digestive tract and on my body in general. There have been times in the past where I have made a decision to remove meat from my diet, but always with the underlying feeling of “this is what a good yogi would do/this is what a person that values health would do.” […]

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  18. […] My journey towards vegetarianism is not the one that you would normally hear of in a yoga class. […]

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