Diet for a Yogi Planet. ~ Ramesh Bjonnes

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Oct 2, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

“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?


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


25 Responses to “Diet for a Yogi Planet. ~ Ramesh Bjonnes”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…your articles are very well written and your knowledge is very good. I like that your articles they always border on the controversial yet are backed with scholarly "footnotes". They are always provocative. I have some thoughts regarding this subject on this lazy saturday morning. You always use the word "Yogi". Yogi is also used by 95% of the writers and commentators who read this blog yet there is very little in common with each other. One can go to Nepal or India or Tibet and actually see Yogis and know that they are Yogis. Or one can meet business men or women in Nepal, india or tibet and talk to them for a short while and know that they are Yogis; hidden of course, but you just know that they are Yogis. Actually that can happen here in the US but extremely rarely. So…what is a Yogi?

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    The buddhist teachers and I am presuming the Hindu teachers as well are very strict about not mixing their respective teachings with the teachings of each other. You mention the concept of "lower life forms" in your article and you also mention the Buddha in your article. This is not a concept shared by buddhist teachings. There is no high and low. Because an ant is not less in the potential to realize Buddha nature.

    I find that there is far too much discussion on diet. I agree as a foundation to be a vegetarian would be the best for a spiritual life. But diet alone will not give you realization. Many who have eaten meat have attained enlightenment. And this fact is not a reason to eat meat just as vegetarians have attained enlightenment and that is not the reason for that attainment. A large part of being a buddhist yogi or practitioner in the mantrayana or vajrayana is to make the world "one taste". Beyond judgement and subject object perception. If that means eating a carrot then do so. If that means eating meat then do so. On the surface being a vegetarian I think would be beneficial to a spiritual life. But not completely necessary…this has been proven.

  3. Ramesh says:

    Padma, very good question. There are different definitions about what a yogi is. Patanjali said that a yogi is someone who has control over his or her vrittis, one whose mind is devoid of disturbance, one whose mind is at peace. In Tantra, yga is defined as "spiritual union," the absorption of the individual self in the Cosmic Self. Those are the spiritual definitions of yoga. So I would say that a yogi is a person who walks the path of enlightenment, one whose life's goal is inner peace and spiritual union or illumination. Thus, one do not need to practice asanas (hatha yoga) in order to be a yogi, even though this practice is very beneficial. Budhists are thus also yogis, indeed all mystics are yogis…..

  4. Ramesh says:

    Padma, I agree with you. I don't think vegetarianism is a prerequisite, but it is very helpful for health and for spiritual growth. Moreover, in the world we live in today, vegetarianism makes a lot more sense for environmental reasons.

    Are there high and low beings? Yes and no. Every creature has the same innate potential, yes, I agree. But there is a distinct difference in ability to express this innate potential between an ant a realized yogi. Same potential but vastly different experience and expression of same spiritual potential. If we were all alike, we would all be alike. There is indeed a hieararchy of being. Otherwise we would all be ants. 🙂

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Yes..and that is how I understood your meaning in the article regarding "high and low". I would assume that this idea of High and low is hindu based. I would never say that this is wrong thinking only that I would say that obviously it is not the thinking of the buddhist school of which I am most familiar. This argument of High and Low beings is often used when discussing these dietary arguments so prevalent today. If one argues that millions of animals are killed in the cultivation of crops…most often those persons who are more inclined to think vedically will argue " yes, but those beings are Lower beings". The idea being that the "sin" is lessened because of the "lower" life form.

  6. Ramesh says:

    Well, if one belives that all beings are equal, then of course one can rationalize eating and killing anything. If there is no qualitative difference in worth or consciousness between fish and humans, we might as well eat humans. That is the literal consequence of thinking that there is no high and low consciousness in nature. This kind of nature-centric thinking is not practical nor is it based in reality. It is beter to kill a carrot than a cow, even though both life-forms have equal 'ground-value, but because the cow has more intrinsic value than a carrot because it has more depth of consciousness. Likewise, a human being has more depth and intrinsic value than a cow. This is not just a Hindu idea, this is common sense and it is also part of idea of "holons" as put forth by Koestler, Wilber, and so many others. This idea is as follows: each and every holon (atom, cell, life form, plant, animal, human, etc) in the universe has equal ground-value as all are equally pure manifestation of Spirit or Consciousness or Emptiness. BUT, as a particular individual wholeness, each holon possesses intrinsic value based on depth value, based on how much consciousness it expresses. Thus a human being has the capacity for enlightenment in this life time, but a horse does not. Hence, a human being has higher intrinsic value. So, my question to you; if all beings have the same value, if there is no high or low, do you think it is OK to eat humans. If not, why not?

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…lets consider discussing sentient beings. If we cannot agree on what is sentient then the discussion will have no purpose other than to try to convince each other unconvincingly. I will use the Buddha's sentient being definition of anything with a mind. Siting Wilber and so on holds no interest for me. I would disagree that a horse is not capable of enlightenment in it's current life as a horse. Who can say what the karma of any given individual is at any moment? Can you or I? A horse may become enlightened in the form of a horse by either the liberation by a master, not necessarily in human form, who is enlightened, or a master took the form of a horse in order to fulfill bodhisattva vows and in that case is already enlightened, or the horse became a horse in order to purify previous karma and was then enlightened upon death. The causes and their conditions are unending.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    Yes …the Human Birth is precious. Not because it is "higher". The human realm is is valued for its leisure and freedoms. The human realm is where one can attain enlightenment in one lifetime when one is capable of hearing the dharma and understand them and be blessed by a Guru. But…for a human to hear this and accomplish this is very rare. All beings have Buddha nature right now. That nature in an ameoba is as complete as the nature in a human or a god. The amoeba is deluded into being and doing amoeba things and does not recognize Buddha nature. The human is deluded in those things which make the human not recognize the Buddha nature and the same for the Gods. Delusion is delusion. Not recognizing is not recognizing. In this way all sentient beings are equal in their delusion and equally trapped in samsara's cycle. To discuss if one being is higher or lower is irrelevant.

  9. Ramesh says:

    I do not think it is practical to lump all sentient beings (beings with life form) into one category. As I said before, there is a qualitative difference between a plant and a human being., that is how yoga philsosphy makes a distinction and thus yogis choose to eat those beings with lesser consciousness. I know that in Buddhism sentient beings are considered those beings contrast to Buddhahood. But for all practical purposes it does not make sense to lump all sentient beings into one category. Ken Wilber is a Buddhist and would disagree with you on this, and also there is disagreement within Buddhist schools about this. Let us therefore just agree to disagree. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  10. Ramesh says:

    Well, it seems to me that you are making a value distinction here by saying that human beings can attain enlightent in one life time as opposed to other beings…. the terms higher or lower are irrelevant, one either makes value distinctions or not, and here you are….

  11. Ramesh says:

    Thanks again for sharing, Padma. I appreciate it!

  12. Padma Kadag says:

    So these same vedic rules…were they not responsible for the caste system? Is the judging of beings ,as being higher or lower, not the same as judging within the same confines of each realm,ie the human realm. Could not this lower and higher logic be applied in the human realm making the caste system, by your reasoning, completely valuable? Do you believe the caste system to be intrinsically true? That there are groups of humans born into families who are lower or higher based on their birth? Certainly by your logic and the logic of Mr. Wilber this would be legitimate.

  13. Ramesh says:

    While there is strong agreement about the importance of vegetarianism in the various yogic schools, in Buddhism, [according to Wikipedia] the views on vegetarianism vary from school to school. According to Theravada, the Buddha allowed his monks to eat pork, chicken and beef if the animal was not killed for the purpose of providing food for monks. Theravada also believes that the Buddha allowed the monks to choose a vegetarian diet, but only prohibited against eating human, elephant, horse, dog, snake, lion, tiger, leopard, bear, and hyena flesh[1]. Buddha did not prohibit any kind of meat-eating for his lay followers. In Vajrayana, the act of eating meat is not always prohibited. The Mahayana schools generally recommend a vegetarian diet, for they believe that the Buddha insisted that his followers should not eat meat or fish.
    The accepted legend of the Buddha's death also says that he died after accepting tainted meat from his hosts while traveling. The relevant word to describe this food, however, is contested as to meaning: it is not the usual term for meat (mamsa), but sukara-maddava, which translates as "pig's delight". Some people interpret that to refer to a kind of truffle loved by pigs.

  14. Doug says:

    Very thought provoking…thanks for writing this!

    Your walk through a slaughterhouse is important…modern food production is cruel. Whether someone eats organic or free range or any other term, the animals still go through an awful process at the end. Not participating in this is a very kind thing anyone can do. Our yoga practices are not just about what feels right for us as individuals…they also include how we treat others.

  15. Ramesh says:

    Padma, you make an excellent point here. Many people askew hierarchy because of such pathologies as the caste system. Yoga never accepted the caste system. There is nothing about the caste system in tantra nor in Yoga.
    There are natural hierarchies in nature and there are pathological ones in human culture. The caste system is a pathological hierarchy, fascism another. Such cultural pathologies do not honer and include and respect all human beings as intrinsically spiritual. To accept that someone is a guru and another a student and that such relationships are healthy hey truly are does not mean we have to accept that some so-called gurus are jerks.
    To accept that human beings have a more advanced expressed consciousness than a dog does not mean we have the right to be cruel toward the dog. Such practice is pathological, inhumane, and not acceptable. Seeing differentiation in nature does not mean we cannot love all nature. Seeing differentiation in human culture does not mean we cannot love all human beings and respect all and treat all with loving kindness.

  16. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…I appreciate your willing ness to explain and comvince. You show a genuine desire to teach and you care for your readers. But!…Wilber is writing nothing more than conceptual thinking which helps nothing nor does it accomplish anything than to have those who want to intelectuallize some kind of spirituality where they borrow from Buddhism to make a living. But by all means read it. If that is what you want. The same for the Dalai Lamas interest in Quantum Physics. Quantum Physics has nothing to do with Buddhist realization. It is nothing more than a simple concept. Why do we get so excited when science purports to be on the track to "enlightenment"? How funny!

  17. Ramesh says:

    If philosophy was not important, the teachers would not speak, and if science was not important the dali lama would be quiet about Quantum physics, but I agree with you, in comparison to enlightenment these things are not very important. Wilber would be the first to agree. He has stated that he mainly writes in order to inspire people to meditate. That is a noble pursuit, don't you think?
    Nevertheless, we may differ in appreciation for such issues, but we both agree that quantum physics has nothing to do with enlightenment. But they can be, and are, complimentary. I agree. Still philosophy, if genuine, is important to guide us on the path. We are multifaceted beings.

  18. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…I cannot speak for everyone..but I believe Wilber inspires individuals to read…not meditate. To add more conceptualization to an already coneptualized world. All of these books on Dzogchen are trash as well. We are multifaceted. Your Yoga schools and teachers and my Buddhist teachers and sadhanas have everything. Nothing else is needed. These unqualified western theories on eastern thought are just that. Theories with no living vibrant lineage of proof of realization.

  19. Padma Kadag says:

    "Trash" is too harsh. I am not referring to Wilber here. I am referring to the glut of Dzogchen books. All Lamas who are realized and are actual Dzogchen practitioners warn very heavily against these books on Dzogchen. I say this because of the intellectualization of something beyond words. Westerners for some reason feel that they can write about that which they themselves have not realized and the proof of this is not only in their words but the mere thought that they need to write about Dzogchen. This is a grave error on the aprt of those who want to practice the highest of Buddhist teachings. Because you think about it does not mean that you know it.

  20. Ramesh says:

    Padma, I do not share your ideas here. A truly enlightened person would be able to embrace all levels of reality–body, mind, spirit as well as intellectual, scientific, artistic and other forms of knowledge. ONE TASTE can embrace it all, honor it all. Have a wonderful day, my friend!

  21. Shiva D says:

    Hi , adding to your comments Ramesh, I believe there is strong eveidence to say that Buddha was vegetarian. Why? He, after all was following a yogic path to his realisation. Most yogis and saints traditionally followed a sattvic diet. It's also a proven fact that in India most of the saintly people and great yogis were all vegetarians. I also do not understand how this confusion. came about regarding eating tamasic food while championimng, Ahimsa came about in Buddhist history. Could it be that there is some distortion in the real history regarding Buddha's philosophy of non violence and vegetarianosm? Your reasoning in this article was very rational and very reasonable. I appreciate your patience and explainations. Pls keep the information flowing.

  22. Ramesh says:

    Shiva D,
    your comments regarding Buddha makes a lot of sense, and I am not sure why there are so many conflicting ideas about whether Buddha was a vegetarian or not. This could be distorted information, just as there is much disinformation about tantra, for example, the same could have happened to Buddha, or there may be other reasons. I do not know.

  23. Ramesh says:

    thanks for your kind comments and for reminding us that no matter how animals are fed and how healthy they may be for us, they are still being killed if we eat them, and more often cruelly than not.

  24. […] do artigo “Diet for a Yogi Planet” de Ramesh Bjonnes (Elephant […]

  25. Samantha says:

    Ramesh: “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.”

    Sam: I’m interested in learning which specific physical record you are referring to here.

    Cheers! And thanks for sharing all of your great articles.