Ahimsa, Bulimia & Bullying Vegan Yoga Teachers. ~ Marjorie Kean Fradin

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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

The Cosmopolitan

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.

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anonymous Jan 2, 2012 5:39am

[…] […]

anonymous Jan 1, 2012 8:22am

I am curious to know if you try a lacto-vegetarian diet? That is what it is practice in India traditionally, that is the diet recommended by ayurveda. In the West, since cow are not treated properly, we must adopt a vegan diet, as Sharon Gannon advocate in her book "Yoga and vegetarianism". My point is that veganism has not pass the test of time (compared to the lacto-vegetarian diet of India) so it is possible to a vegan diet is not appropriate for certain person. But a lacto-vegetarian can be appropriate.

anonymous Dec 31, 2011 12:18am


Thank you for sharing this Marjorie!

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 4:35pm

I am not, and do not, wish to attack the author.
When someone chooses to put their thoughts about a subject in print for the world to see/read/hear, an intelligent person may thoughtfully consider the material, find wisdom or may inadvertently find a lack of wisdom in the words. I found many questionable ideas presented in this article that fell apart on the first read. I could slog thru the story sentence by sentence and address each point, but there are so many. If a person chooses to eat meat, so be it. I would prefer that they didn't for many reasons. I am not self-righteous, I am clear. And I would prefer that others were clear as well.

Here are a few items in the story, and this is not inclusive of all;
1. " I need protein. Animal protein." – False. no one NEEDS animal protein. it's a choice not a necessity. Protein is better assimilated from sources other than meat.

2. " We were all seeking something, …enlightenment, the perfect body…". – Wow, where do I start.

3. " Our motives were pure, but our means were questionable." – an honest answer on the surface, but so the "perfect body" was "pure" motivation?

4. " I’m guessing that many of these students, like myself, were suffering from eating disorders…". – Guessing ? Based on what?

5. " nutritionist told me that my ferritin level of 4 ng/ml was the second lowest she’d ever seen". – Anemia. Iron comes from all kinds of plants and organisms in abundance. May be an imbalance in other vitamins, C is a big one. Author states many food issues, bulimia for one Celiac disease could cause this, has nothing to do with being a vegetarian.

Shall I go on?

    anonymous Jan 1, 2012 11:34am

    Are you a nutritionist? Or are you just basing your opinions on yoga? What do you know about her body and its needs, deficiences, etc? Yes, some people's bodies do function better with animal protein. I said SOME. In other words, I am not universalizing the human experience like you are doing. BTW: iron absorption for humans is best done through animal sources. That is fact.

      anonymous Jan 1, 2012 3:37pm

      Your "facts" are not factual but assumed.
      Iron deficiency can be caused by numerous and complex variables, including pH in the digestive tract, availability of vitamin C or ascorbic acid, possible bleeding conditions(digestive, menses), (the author states she has digestive issues), parasites, chemical balance, use of antacids, etc.

      Oatmeal provides more iron than meat.
      A breakfast of 1 cup of oatmeal provides approximately 60/70 % of daily iron requirements + some raisins, walnuts and flax seed = 75/85%. And that's just breakfast.
      Throw in a bean soup for lunch and some spinach for dinner, add some lentil salad. Well over 100% of daily requirements for most people. Notice I said MOST.

      So your "facts" should be full of beans.

        anonymous Jan 1, 2012 3:39pm

        also, soy beans are incredible source of iron.

          anonymous Jan 2, 2012 12:22pm

          All those foods you list do indeed contain iron. However, it is a medical fact that the human body absorbs iron most efficiently through eating animals. BTW: the old Popeye 'n spinach story is a fallacy. The type of iron in spinach is not the kind our bodies use and store.

            anonymous Jan 2, 2012 2:29pm

            show your sources.

              anonymous Jan 6, 2012 2:59pm

              Bippum and EJ,

              I posted a response here yesterday with links to four sources as Bippim asked. Where did my post go???

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 4:07pm

QQQ: to Louise and Emily and or anyone else. What IS yoga? Please explain it to me.

    anonymous Jan 2, 2012 12:25pm

    I think yoga is different things to different people. From what you have written so far, you appear to be a yoga purist/traditionalist. Much like traditionalist Catholics who preach dogma of the Magisterium as opposed to individual understandings and experiences of god.

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 12:46pm

Thank you for this wonderful article! I recently experienced this same discomfort when sitting in on a panel of well-known yoga teachers at a conference. When asked to talk about their favorite yamas, most of them picked ahimsa and used it to further their own platforms against animal cruelty and pro-veganism. On many levels, I'm fine with this– anyone who wants to can be a vegan; in return, I ask that they not judge my meat-eating. Not so: one particular teacher went off on such a rant against the food industry and anyone who supports it by eating meat that I got out of my chair and left. What happened to the most important rule: judge not lest ye be judged?

    anonymous Dec 30, 2011 3:41pm

    You said everything I have been thinking since reading this essay, Emily. I too have been on the receiving end of such behaviour by "well-known" (and unknown) yoga teachers. I make sure never to bring up such a topic when I teach yoga. When I attend a yoga class I do not want a lecture on what and how to eat, juice de-tox advice, "evils" of fast food, etc, etc. I really wish they would leave their political and social opinions outside the yoga room. These yoga teachers are woefully unaware of their egos and often fancy themselves nutritionists once they are certified to teach yoga. I challenged one of my yoga teacher trainers as to why he thought yoga certification meant expertise in food and eating issues. He did not appreciate my comments and ignored me in class for the rest of the training.

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 10:11am

Now who is issuing ad hominem attacks?!

    anonymous Dec 30, 2011 11:29am

    I beg you to learn exactly what an ad hominem attack is. Please look it up so that you will stop making the mistake of issuing those attacks and you will hopefully learn to not accuse others falsely.

    My post in no way attacked the author personally. My post clearly, to a reasonable person, was critical of the article. My personal assumption is that the author, and you, are both perfectly nice people in spite of what I find to be weakness in the arguments you both are making.

    An ad hominem attack is a personal attack. Such as what you did when you called another poster "self-righteous" instead of calling the argument that was made "self-righteous". Yes, I know that difference is subtle. But it is such subtlety which forms the basis of intelligent argument.

      anonymous Dec 30, 2011 3:33pm

      I understand the difference perfectly well. I stand by my conclusion that Bippim him/herself is self-righteous. Go back and read his/her post. It was very nasty and uncalled for given the careful and thoughtful arguments Ms. Kean Fradin layed out for us. Not sure why you are defending Bippim so strongly but I would guess Ms. Kean Fradin's essay may have hit a sore point in you?

      Again, you issued an ad hominen statement above and have not acknowledged it.

        anonymous Dec 31, 2011 10:18am

        Because this this post is about the authors beliefs those beliefs are open for scrutiny. Once again I never attacked the author personally. I did call into question the beliefs which drove her to write this article. And no, in this instance you do not understand perfectly well. You do not seem to understand that I am not defending Bippim I am standing against you calling people names because they have the audacity to disagree with you.

        You refuse to educate yourself and you refuse to stop your silly name calling. It is pointless trying to have an intelligent debate with you.

          anonymous Jan 1, 2012 11:30am

          Again Mike. I am not using name calling. Perhaps you have a different understanding of what name-calling is? Name calling to me is calling someone "jacka**" "jerk", "a**hole", etc.

          Saying someone is self-righteous is not name-calling. I am describing the kind of person Bippim appears to be based on what he/she wrote. Give it a rest already.

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 10:00am

One comment by a teacher in a workshop generates another "evil vegetarian had the audacity to question my belief system" article.

anonymous Dec 29, 2011 8:34am

What a wonderful, honest piece.

anonymous Dec 29, 2011 5:38am

QQQ – What is a "good" yogi?

anonymous Dec 29, 2011 5:37am

yoga = cutting through the bullshit

anonymous Dec 28, 2011 10:58am

Who makes up these rules! I went to a yoga studio and noticed the list of what to do and not do, don't eat 2 hours before practice, come 15 mins before class, and here was the big one, don't wear perfume or scented lotions. For shavasana, the teacher and owner, gave out neck massages w/lavender oil. Who makes up these rules. Thanks for sharing. Been there, done that.

anonymous Dec 28, 2011 10:00am

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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anonymous Dec 29, 2011 12:30pm

Did you even read the essay?? I'm guessing your self-righteousness clouded your understanding. No where did she state that he didn't have a right to his opinion. What she illustrated, and quite eloquently, is how ahimsa extends further from what we eat to how we treat each other. This yoga teacher was abusive in his handling of her comment. And you are further illustrating your lack of full understanding of ahimsa in your arrogant, rude, ideological rant.

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 9:45am

Here we go again. Accusing some one of self-righteousness because they do not agree with you. Personally, I see a lot of self-righteousness in this article and your post. When you called Bippim self-righteous you engaged in an ad hominem attack. We can disagree and debate the merits of the article, but when you resort to name calling then it is hard to take you seriously.

You wrote, "I'm guessing your self-righteousness clouded your understanding". You do not know Bippim and you have absolutely no clue about his/her understanding.

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 11:22am

Wrong again, Louise. These are your words exactly.

I'm guessing your self-righteousness clouded your understanding.

The reason this is ad hominem is that your directly accused the poster of self-righteousness,. Not the post, but the person. Any personal attack is ad hominem and calling a person "self-righteous" is the same as calling them an idiot.

anonymous Dec 30, 2011 3:27pm

You need to go back to school Mike.