I was sweating, twisting, and flowing in a room filled with dozens of other yoga students. We were there for a day-long intensive led by a moderately well-known Midwestern teacher who, from the moment he arrived, seemed overly smug for his stature and reputation. However, I was looking forward to a day of learning new techniques, sequences, and cues, so I let go of my first impressions.
I was having a good time until halfway into the practice, the teacher said, “Picture a raw, slimy piece of chicken in one hand and a fresh, crisp bunch of greens in the other. Which would you choose?”
The question was rhetorical. Obviously, he meant to guide us toward making choices that further our purpose and our goals. However, I found his words jarring and distracting. Aside from the fact that we were in the middle of a sweaty vinyasa practice (not the ideal environment, in my mind, for dietary discourse), I was drawn toward the chicken, even in its raw and slimy state. Greens are fine, even tasty, and I eat my fair share of them. But eating greens alone brings me back to a time in my life when they diminished me.
I need protein. Animal protein. And my failure at vegetarianism isn’t for lack of trying. I did it all–raw, vegan, juicing, even master cleanses. I traded notes, symptoms and recipes with others in my classes. We were all seeking something—enlightenment, purification, the perfect body—and thought that if we just found the right way of eating, everything would click into place.
Our motives were pure, but our means were questionable. And in retrospect, I’m guessing that many of these students, like myself, were suffering from eating disorders, hiding our pathology behind a veil of leafy greens and humanity.
I’ve had food and body image issues from an early age. I thought I had outgrown most of them. But the sheer stress and impossibility of controlling my self-worth as a yogini through my diet pushed me from being a somewhat insecure, body-dismorphic, occasional binge eater to a full-blown bulimic. It happened quickly and got out of control before I even realized I was in trouble. I was caught up in a horrible downward spiral, and the harder I struggled to maintain my purity as a yogic eater, the more deeply I dug myself in.
My physical health suffered. Upon reading my blood test results, my nutritionist told me that my ferritin level of 4 ng/ml was the second lowest she’d ever seen in twenty years and wondered how I managed to get out of bed in the morning. I felt as though I had glass in my joints when I moved. My hair started thinning, my skin lost its elasticity, and I began injuring myself in my practice.
The mental and emotional ramifications were worse. In a word (or four), I lost my mojo. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like I had nothing to look forward to. I didn’t have the heart or the energy to get swept up in a passion, and even taking care of my family became an overwhelming chore on many days.
It was hard to come to terms with adding protein and fat back into my diet, but the nutritionist insisted. Once I did, my physical body repaired itself quite quickly. I was lucky; I suffered little, if any, permanent damage from the two or three years of my worst bulimia. Working through the emotional stuff was, and still is, harder.
I struggle with it—maybe not daily anymore, but on a weekly or monthly basis. When I keep my ducks in a row with proper nutrition and exercise, I feel as though I’m my old self. But it’s not like flipping a switch.
It’s easy to fall into the hole of an eating disorder; getting out of it means struggling and clawing and falling down sometimes and even starting at the bottom again for the hundredth time, wondering why it has to be so hard. And for me, animal protein is my silver bullet. It’s not a question of how easy it is to recover. It’s whether it’s possible at all. And that raw, slimy chicken breast is appealing to me precisely because it brings full recovery within the realm of possibility.
This is why I went up to talk to the teacher after the morning session. He had asked for feedback, and I wanted to let him know that sometimes, certain words delivered by a person in a position of power, knowledge and trust, can have devastatingly unforeseen consequences.
It’s hard for me to share details of my eating disorder in person. I was shaky and emotional when I told him about my experience. During our conversation, I made it clear that I respected his choice not to eat animals and that I simply wanted him to know that for some people—notably me—a vegetarian diet may corrupt the very principle it purports to defend: ahimsa.
Ahimsa, or non-violence, is a fundamental tenet of yoga. It forbids cruelty or violence to other living beings.
Hindus and yogis who are vegetarians—and there are a great many of them—generally point to ahimsa as proscribing the consumption of animal flesh because of the violence toward the animal.
Indeed, killing another living being is, on its surface, violent. But the act of existence and survival is essentially violent. Farmers kill bugs that prey on leafy greens. People fight wars over arable land. Even plants try to protect themselves against violence by secreting compounds that are poisonous; humans have simply invented ways to work around these toxins so we can consume the plants and exploit their nutrients.
One of my wisest teachers told me that if either of his daughters were being physically harmed by another person, he’d chuck ahimsa out of the window and hurt the guy. Bad. Granted, he’s from Brooklyn.
He made me realize that we don’t live in a world of absolutism.
If this seasoned and enlightened yogi sees ahimsa as a relative concept, that there are circumstances in which violence is justified, who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?
Can we look at ahimsa collectively and try to walk a path that promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of living beings, recognizing that cruelty and violence will, unfortunately, always be a part of the natural order of things?
I was not practicing ahimsa toward myself when I tried to force my round peg of a body into the square hold of vegetarianism. In my efforts to reduce violence toward non-human living beings, I created terrible violence within my own body. Once I reconciled myself to the fact that ahimsa may be a zero-sum game, that it was either this principle or my body, my choice became easier.
I eat the most humanely raised and slaughtered animals possible, buying them from small farmers and knowing that the extra money I spend helps to foster a kinder and more natural industry and also (as a practical matter) makes me appreciate and honor my food more. I use every part of the animal when I cook so there is little waste. The chickens I eat were not raised to be my friends. They were raised to feed me, to sustain my life and health. Because of them, I am here and healthy and able to practice non-violence toward myself and toward other humans. I am grateful. If anyone sees this as a lame attempt to justify away bad karma, so be it.
I tried to explain this to the Midwestern teacher, who was kind and held my hands in his and thanked me for coming up to talk to him. And then at the beginning of the afternoon session, he told the rest of the class about my comment, saying that “a student” had been “offended” by his advocating greens over chicken. And then he said he didn’t give a shit, that as a teacher he had to risk offending people and he would never make everyone happy. Amen.
I am a teacher too, and I know I will never be all things to all people. Still, it stung that he mocked the truth that was so hard for me to tell him. And I was annoyed that he used the word “offended,” like I was petty and judgmental, like I missed his message because I got all caught up in some technicality. I wasn’t offended at all; I simply wanted to tell him my story and warn him that it could happen to others.
Why didn’t he listen to me? Was his ego so attached to the idea of being a proper vegetarian yogi that he was willing to risk harming someone else? Where was his ahimsa with respect to me? Did he value the chicken’s well-being more than my own?
As I sat with my feelings, though, I realized that none of my questions mattered. I had done what I needed to do. I didn’t need to be angry at him, nor did I need to be embarrassed by taking care of myself and protecting my body and my practice. If he chose not to hear my message, that was his decision.
What I learned that day was not how to transition from twisting plank to extended side angle, but instead how to hold firm to my beliefs and how to let go of criticism leveled against something I believe in.
I know that teachers will continue to talk about vegetarianism as a part of yoga, the history of vegetarianism in the yoga tradition and in the Hindu culture is strong and true and relevant, and this doesn’t change whether you agree with it or practice it. At the same time, I hope that teachers will encourage their students to keep their minds open, to question their teachers, and to refuse to subscribe to dogma just because someone says that’s how it should be.
Yoga can help us find our way, our personalized and individualized way, a way in which we use the footprints of those before us not as templates, but as guideposts, so that others may see them, learn from them, and forge paths of their own.
Can I eat meat and still be a good yogi? Damn right I can.
Marjorie Kean Fradin has been practicing yoga for more than ten years and teaching for four. Although the path to samadhi may be beyond her range in this lifetime, she is enjoying both the journey and the detours along the way.