In fact, for years I attended classes and teacher trainings in which they espoused the virtues of the yogic diet and I would politely nod my head knowing that as soon as I left I would be headed towards a meal with meat as it’s centerpiece.
Even when I heard Dharma Mittra give his classic comparison of our refrigerators to morgues and our stomachs to graveyards, I went back to eating meat, albeit with some food for thought (particularly thoughts that equated parts of my home and body to death).
As a yoga teacher, it was perplexing to me to hear that I was not living ahimsa (non-violence) by eating animals and I did my best to consume less by getting educated about where my meat was coming from and by choosing to eat only organically raised free-range meat. This helped reduce the amount I was eating but I still felt the urge to eat it. Something was missing and I wasn’t really sure what.
My first yoga teacher training with Integral Yoga, made me curious about how I could begin to incorporate more vegetarian options into my diet. It wasn’t until I met Dharma Mittra that I felt a deeper pull to give vegetarianism a hard look.
In my first immersion weekend with him he made his point clear:
“Beyond the moral implications of eating animals, you can never realize the full potential of your meditations and yoga practice or feel the subtlety of the energetic impact of what you eat until you give up meat and increase the amount of live foods that you consume.”
The idea of giving up meat cold-turkey (pun intended) scared me; if there is one thing that I’ve learned on my yogic path, is that if I am afraid, it means I am headed in the right direction.
As I started to root out my fears, bit by bit, the first area that surfaced for inspection was my emotional connection to meat through my family of origin. Meat was a part of my psyche and identity as an Italian American.
For us, meat was not only a primary source of protein but also one of pride and love. My mother’s meatballs are the stuff of legend, my Grandmother’s meat sauce has been passed down for generations, a rite of passage to be in the kitchen alongside her learning how to make it.
To renounce meat would be to renounce them, to look upon my family’s rich tradition as barbaric and outdated. I also realized that my love for food and cooking was heavily occupied by recipes for meat and that vegetables were always an afterthought or something meant to be choked down, certainly not enjoyed as a main course.
As I peeled through the layers of awareness around my food habits, I began to uncover hidden truths buried about myself within them. One that surfaced quickly was my emotionally reactive and addictive relationship with food that went far beyond meat.
This particular fact lead me to be 50 lbs heavier than I am today.
My meals consisted mostly of highly processed foods, contained some fried element and had a super high fat content. My emotions and connection to food went something like this:
Happiness = celebrate with food
Sadness = comfort yourself with food
Excitement = celebrate with more food than usual
Holiday = Plan entire day around preparing food then gorge yourself on food
Grief or Depression = numb yourself with food
I knew I had a problem when I could remember more good meals than the names of acquaintances.
I simply did not want to live in a world where pork fat was not a part of my diet—I derived more pleasure from eating bacon than any human should. Eating salad depressed me…you get the picture.
Through the careful practice and study of yoga, I finally came to witness the feelings of emptiness and disconnection to my spirit that was driving me to eat the way that I was. I also realized how much my familial conditioning was holding me back from thriving as a healthy adult and I wanted to be a better model for healthy eating habits for my children.
Perhaps, I could do the hard work of eating less meat and influence the ones I loved in a positive way.
I knew that I was ready to take the next steps on my path when I had successfully begun to add more and more vegetarian items to my cooking repertoire that didn’t depress me and were actually quite delicious (a shock even to myself) and more days passed before I had a meal with meat.
I was preparing myself for the next stage, my 500 hour training with Dharma himself.
When it was time for me to seek out a 500 hour training, it was with careful thought and consideration that I chose Dharma’s program. I knew that it would require a commitment to being a vegetarian for the duration of the program and I was inspired by the depth of devotion that Dharma clearly had to his commitment to being not only vegetarian but vegan.
I was also genuinely curious about the energetic implications to what it would mean for me to have no meat for that great a length of time, the longest I would ever go without meat in my life thus far.
At first, finding alternate replacements for protein was difficult. There was only so many sprouted almonds I could reasonably consume in a day. Once I got into my flow of morning smoothies and making tasty salads with tahini and avocado as suggested in his Ahimsa diet, I began to feel what he meant about feeling lighter in my body and less disturbed in my mind.
I felt the digestive impact right away.
The fresh green juices left me feeling energized and mentally sharper; I found I needed less sleep and that my emotions were more balanced. I was finally feeling something other than overwhelmed by what I initially felt was a restrictive lifestyle.
My family was largely un-supportive, which wound up being the more challenging thing for me to face. My husband actually felt directly threatened by it, even though I still continued to cook meat dishes for him and our children. My mother and siblings outright taunted me at family gatherings.
I stood firm but saw how challenging it would be to holding the diet for the rest of my life, if I were to choose to do so, once the training and all of my requirements were completed.
After all of my months of steady diet journals and training was completed, I felt my body—and perhaps mind—asking for meat so I allowed myself the ability to choose and see for myself what would happen to my energy and digestion again.
I immediately found that my energy dropped and my digestion was impacted when I ate beef or pork, chicken and fish seemed to do nothing so long as I watched the quantity and frequency. My decision was clear, beef and pork were officially off my plate —a major victory for cows and pigs everywhere, given how much I used to consume.
I would be greatly limiting the amount of chicken and fish I ate, allowing it only when my body really gave me a message for it which is happening less and less frequently.
I’m also happy to note that my family has backed off their incessant teasing to a certain degree; they are respecting my choices more and more and are even enjoying my creative interpretations to Italian classics such as mushroom “meatballs.” They do still get mildly insulted when I turn down the food that they made with love and pride, but they are at least taking it a little less personally which is another victory to say the least.
The lesson I learned through all of this is that even old habits and ways of being can change—even the strongest ones that you thought were an inextricable part of your being (if you give it enough time and self-reflection).
I am gentle enough with myself to know that I will probably be in transition towards total vegetarianism for a while, but I know enough to not speak in absolutes or to attach too strongly to rigid timelines or expectations.
Dharma gave me the tools & strength to try—I feel stronger in my convictions because of it.
Life, like yoga, can be a work in progress.
Gina Lee has been practicing yoga for 10 years and teaching for six. She is the owner and principle yoga teacher at Bearfoot Yoga & Wellness Center, a family-friendly yoga studio in Bay Shore, New York. Gina brings her eclectic background in traditional Hatha and love of Native American spirituality into her classes as well as her life. She has two energetic sons and enjoys finding new ways to make mundane tasks a sadhana (spiritual practice). Check out the website for a full class schedule and information on workshops and teacher training.
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