May 25, 2009
The Ultimate Yogic Diet
by Melissa Van Orman
My heels arched toward the purple and orange-swirled carpet of the hotel conference center. Pressing against the floor, I lifted my hips higher into a horizon of inverted V's. More than 100 people—once eager to be at this yoga workshop—now groaned deep, long breaths. How much longer would they hold us in downward facing dog?
It takes 16 pounds of grain to make every pound of feedlot beef. Dance club beats interspersed pre-recorded speeches. If Americans cut their meat consumption by 10 percent, which I don't think is unreasonable, we could feed 16,000 people. Think about it.
I knew that yoga teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life were famous for their animal advocacy, but their techno-vibed speech came at a sensitive time. A passionate vegetarian for 13 years, I had begun eating meat again in a last ditch effort to resolve a complicated health problem. I had made an uneasy peace with my diet, until yoga forced me to confront my food choices.
For many Americans, the word yoga evokes images of supernatural mysticism or superhuman flexibility, but yoga is much more than an exotic workout. It is a practical system to integrate physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual awakening—an awakening that takes many a modern yogi by surprise. What often begins as a practice to loosen hamstrings or unwind from a stressful job may unexpectedly blossom into a richer and more meaningful connection with the natural world.
Such was the case for Washington, DC, yoga teacher Chuck Zebrowski. Toward the end of a four-month teacher training, Chuck recalls taking a road trip. Driving next to him were "truck loads of chickens on their way to slaughter." Struck by the helplessness of these creatures, he explains "I remember thinking I didn't want to be part of the animal food industry."
Yogis have a long tradition of eschewing meat, in part because our practice teaches that we are connected to all living beings. The word yoga literally means "yoke" or union. Chuck explains that for him vegetarianism is "part of realizing a connection with the rest of the world and not wanting to do harm if we don't have to."
This concept of non-violence is a central tenant to the yogic ethical principles known as the yamas and niyamas. Yamas (roughly translated as restraints) are practices to prevent harmful behaviors such as lying, violence, theft, greed, or sexual excess, while the niyamas (observances) cultivate positive outcomes like discipline, purity, contentment, self-study, and surrender to God. These ten moral teachings form the base of the classical yogic system outlined thousands of years ago. In this traditional approach, the yamas and niyamas precede the physical exercises, breath work, and meditation—implying that attention to our moral character is a primary imperative of practicing yoga.
As my understanding of these ancient teachings deepened, so too did my introspection. Could I practice compassion (ahimsa) if my lunch resulted from an act of violence?
Was I speaking my truth (satya) if I professed to love animals but continued to eat them?
Could I live without greed (aparigraha) if my fancy dinner caused other creatures to exist in misery?
These questions created discomfort, which Sharon Gannon and David Life amplified during their workshop. But yoga teaches that it is ok for things to be hard.
Anyone who has attempted a headstand or gritted trough a challenging hip opener understands this reality. Yoga requires discipline (tapas) which leads to deeper awareness. It is this commitment—coupled with patience and compassion—that ultimately transforms not just our bodies, but our approach to work, relationships, and—yes—even our diets.
Our diets, in fact, are exceptionally practical expressions of yoga.
The food we eat is a profound way in which we connect with the world. Our choices reflect how we value animals raised for food, the sustainability of our agriculture, and the treatment of farm workers. While many yogis wish they could take class three times a day, such dedication would strain schedules, wallets, and muscles. Food, however, is inescapable and offers a tangible path for spiritual growth. Even if you never unroll a mat, you will lift a fork.
Moving toward a plant-based diet is accessible to everyone. Even forgoing a slice of cheese on a sandwich deepens our interconnectedness and reduces the conflict we create in the world. Yogis are rarely able to hold a new posture the first time they try it—they move into fantastic positions by celebrating small steps.
So celebrate your practice, in whatever form it takes. Sign up for a yoga class. Decrease your consumption of animal products, or eliminate them entirely. Breathe deeply and smile sincerely. Savor the bounty of nourishing plant based foods. Commit to creating peace and cultivating compassion in the simplest of actions.
Melissa Van Orman took her first yoga class in 1993 as a high school student in rural Maine. She now teaches vinyasa flow at Tranquil Space Yoga in Washington, DC.
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