Yoga and Nutrition
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Wednesday
May222013

Yoga, ahimsa, and diet

As a yoga teacher and nutritionist, I’m often asked what a “yogic diet” is. While I don’t believe there is one-and-only-one yogic diet (the same way there is no one-and-only-one diabetes or weight reduction diet), I do turn to the ancient text, the Yoga Sutras, to offer some definition as well as food for thought.

The Yoga Sutras are 196 aphorisms, recorded by the sage Patanjali, that outline the practice of Ashtanga (“eight-limbed”) yoga. The Sanskrit word sutra means thread. Indeed, the verses provide a common thread or backbone to organize the philosophy and teachings of this type of yoga, and may be built upon and woven into again and again.

When most people hear “yoga,” they think of exercises performed to stretch and strengthen the body. But in fact, the Yoga Sutras contain only one verse about asana, or physical poses. And, of the eight arms in Ashtanga yoga, only one has to do with physical poses.  Most of the teaching and philosophy is devoted to understanding the mind and living a harmonious life.

While yoga philosophy may be applied to nutrition in myriad ways, I’d like to address just the first part of the first arm in Ashtanga yoga: ahimsa, or non-harming. 

It is impossible to go through life and never harm another living entity, whether by our direct or indirect actions or our words. However, I would argue we have not only the ability to minimize the suffering we cause other sentient beings, but also the responsibility to do so.  Our dietary choices are a critical way we can uphold that responsibility.

Vegetarianism and veganism are often touted as the most yogic diets in that they eschew killing or harming animals for food. Another way to look at ahimsa is the active promotion and protection of life. When a person does not eat animals – whether furred, finned, or feathered – she does protect the lives of sentient beings.  The lines become blurred, however, when we consider how animals used for food are treated, raised, or killed. In Ayurveda, dairy foods are often considered sattvic or pure, clean, and good. Traditionally, cows were sacred beings in the Hindu religion, and if they freely gave their milk, this was an honor and gift. The same cannot be said of cows in today’s factory farms – animals may be kept in a forced state of lactation, in confined and unsanitary conditions. The resultant dairy foods may be tainted with added hormones and antibiotics. Not only are animals harmed, but the milk they produce is no longer pure, natural, and good.

Some individuals are comfortable consuming eggs only if they are from hens raised in safe, clean conditions, who are allowed to roam freely and fed a healthy diet. Other people would still say this is taking advantage of sentient beings to serve our own desires. How about a small dairy farm in New York state where goats and sheep are kept for cheese making, but treated gently through their lives? We also have the option of soy cheese; however, conventional soybean agriculture may contribute to deforestation and the destruction of indigenous species in South America. What if we eat fish that lived freely in the wild – but were caught using methods like trawling or gillnetting that destroy not only animals themselves, but, in turn, ecosystems? Is this preferable to consuming fish raised in “farms”? Animals aside, what about food that is produced with the use child labor (such as some cocoa) or by persons in unsafe or abusive work conditions (such as meat from some slaughterhouses)?

Perhaps no meal is entirely benign of consequences. The problem arises when the distinction between what causes harm, versus what fosters people’s and animals’ natural lives, is determined more by our taste buds, convenience, or economic concerns than a true regard for ahimsa.

It’s important to remember that ahimsa is also taking care of ourselves – not harming our own bodies or spirits. A friend of mine recently received chemotherapy that caused his body to reject most food. To help protect his life, I suggested liberalizing his diet for the time being, so that he had more options for nourishment, rather than limiting his dietary choices.

The word yoga means to bring together, or unite. The yoga described in the Yoga Sutra is non-dualistic. There’s no dictate to worship Krishna, Jesus, or Mohammed. Patanjali doesn’t say a yogi must meditate on one correct object, or speak one correct language. Similarly, there’s no one correct way to eat. Certain principles delineate what a healthful and compassionate diet is. Within these guidelines, we have flexibility to craft a perfect diet for ourselves. As long as we consciously think about ahimsa and do our best to reduce suffering for all, we are on the right path.

 

Further reading and resources:

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda. Integral Yoga, 1978.

The Yoga Mala: The The Original Teachings of Ashtanga Yoga Master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. North Point Press, 1999.

The Humane Society of the United States. www.humanesociety.org.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. http://www.montereybayaquarium.org.

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