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Which Came First: The Yogi Or The Vegetarian?

photo: jill ettingerThe longer we live, the more we ought to come to appreciate hypocrisy. Not as a flaw, mind you, but as an inherently human trait in all of us, void of any failing. We change our minds, our tastes, and our beliefs as we come to deeper understandings about the changing reality and our place in it. Opinions and actions can transform in an instant after being exposed to a perspective we’d not thought of before. Change of heart can happen at any time to anyone—even those with the most stubborn egos—and that’s perhaps more beautiful and interesting than it is deceptive.

There are few things I say definitely about myself, avoiding the pointed fingers of those who will view my personal adjustments through a condemning lens. From the very innocent changes, such as outgrowing a favorite band in high school, to more shocking shifts like (heaven forbid) voting for a political party I’ve previously pledged not to. Yet there are those things, those preferences that have become rooted in my daily routines. Like bands I loved indisputably in high school, these practices may indeed one day disappear completely, but for most of my adult life they are the closest I have come to truly identifying myself: I am vegan. I practice yoga.

As far back as I can remember, eating animals was a disagreeable concept for me and I went through all the phases a budding vegetarian goes through. It wasn’t until I planted myself in a natural food café as a line cook that I learned to fend for myself in a world of McNuggets and Big Macs. My diet and my world altered in a profound way and I never looked back. Yoga too had a way of creeping in after what seemed like years of being present, however undefined. Both practices became a path, though not a purpose. Like my vegan preference that sent me to work in a café so I could cook learn to for myself, I made the trek to an upstate NY ashram to become a “teacher” of yoga for no other student’s benefit than my own.

At the ashram, we were served a strict vegetarian diet void of heavy spices or sweetness. While many students had a difficult time adjusting to the food, I found it to be full of flavor and satisfying. It varied only slightly from my regular dining at home. I was reminded of all this while reading this bemusing article by Julia Moskin in the NY Times last week. Ms. Moskin peers into the only-in-America yoga ‘practice’ of “Yoga for Foodies,” where students follow yoga class with gourmet meals in the studio, slurping up soup on the sweaty mats they just downward-dogged all over.

Moskin also tackles the interesting subject of “meat-eating yogis.” Like much of India, most of the founding fathers of yoga promoted a meat-free diet rich in fruits and vegetables to augment the austerity of the physical practice of asanas (yoga postures). Ahimsa is the yogic practice of committing not to harm another. Yet the definition of that commitment (especially for many modern Americans) does not necessarily translate to vegetarianism, let alone veganism.

As someone who followed a vegan diet before beginning a regular yoga practice, it was a step I gave little thought to until those days in the ashram where I heard the moaning of my fellow classmates craving pizza and burgers. At the time, I recall feeling as though my famished classmates “weren’t getting it.” That clearly their inability to adopt a vegetarian diet to further their yoga practice meant they had no real practice at all. It’s easy now to admit my naivete, but back then I was convinced there was only one answer. And what has become clear to me nearly a decade later is that being convinced of anything—especially of what yoga “means”—is not yoga. Not really. Yoga is you. It’s me. How we perceive and react to our world is our own versions of the practice because we can’t practice it as or for anyone but ourselves.

The rigidity and dogma of yoga or any spiritual practice is there for us to use as a way to unravel our own understanding of who we are, and who we are while doing those things. The moment we become attached to it, is the moment it stops having any meaning. I came away from the ashram realizing the whole wide world is an ashram. The practice is always about what I choose. I recall listening to a story told by the devotional singer, Krishna Das, that in Buddha-like effect said the bank robber must rob banks just as the doctor must heal. Neither is right or wrong, they simply are. Taking sides on the meat-eating vs. veg-eating yogis is a choice, just as choosing a diet is to all people who eat.

There’s a yogic mantra “Lokha Samasta Sukinoh Bhavantu,” which roughly translates to “may beings every where be happy and free.” Obviously, we must first understand what it means to be happy and free for ourselves before we can make any sense of what that means to any other being. For some, that sense of happiness may include eating meat. And while that’s not a reality I can personally relate to, I do understand that hypocrisy is little more than a process of understanding and assimilating more of the world than we previously identified with.

The yoga “industry” is a booming $20+billion dollar a year business. There are many practices in the current state of yoga that Swamis of yesteryear could probably never have fathomed, including eating meat. But something tells me that more than anything, they would be delighted to see that so many people are taking steps toward personal transformation in a world that needs yogis, perhaps more than ever before.

Leading by example is valuable, especially to those willing to follow. What’s right and wrong with the food industry and the practice of eating animal products is everyone’s responsibility, yogis or otherwise. Yogis have a long history with dairy, enjoying it as a food and using it as a devotional offering. I remember refusing to participate in a puja (worship) ceremony at the ashram because we’d have to pour milk over a statue. I saw the store bought milk jugs sitting next to the beloved deities that represented purity and austerity. Having seen what goes on in large-scale dairy farms, I knew this “offering” was anything but what it was to represent. Now, I wonder, if maybe that isn’t the point after all. By gesturing with something so far from what it used to mean, we cultivate deeper meaning within ourselves.

Someday, surely, everything will all make sense. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, we must do what it is we are called to do.

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