Does the yoga lifestyle require that one adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet? This is an on-going and ever-evolving question for me, and I’ve recently had some new thoughts about it that I’d like to toss around here. As always, comments and replies are encouraged. (Just for the record, I am not a vegan or a vegetarian, although I do tend heavily towards a plant-based diet that excludes dairy and most meat, but includes seafood and eggs.)
First of all, it’s clear that yogis aren’t required to do anything. That is, there isn’t some kind of rule book that says, “If you want to be a good yogi, do X and don’t do Y.” Yeah, some people like to make yoga out to be some kind of crazy religion, but I doubt very much that as yogis we need to go around setting rigid lifestyle rules for ourselves.
All that being said, as a yogi, I do find some compelling reasons for adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet. These reasons are not necessarily particular to the culture of yoga, but these reasons certainly become heightened as one develops a serious yoga practice. In other words, reasons for being vegan or vegetarian exist independently of yoga, but when one practices yoga, those reasons become much more difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.
On one level, yoga is about bringing peace, serenity, and equanimity to the spirit, mind, soul, or whatever you want to call it. Put more simply, yoga is about living the good life. One thing that can derail this quest for the good life is a sick body. Indeed, perhaps nothing is more antithetical to the good life than bodily illness. This is why, in yoga, we strive to strengthen the body and to cleanse it through sweating, backbends, twists, inversions, etc. Now, given that bodily health is such a fundamental aspect of yoga, it seems clearly and utterly paradoxical for a yogi to intentionally poison himself. And at the top of many a yogi’s list of potential posions are meat and dairy. What’s so “poisonous” about meat and dairy? I won’t get into a tirade here about the potential dangers related to the consumption of animal products. For that, you may want to check out one of the following books: Mad Cowboy by Howard F. Lyman, and Fastfood Nation by Eric Schlosser. My point here is merely to say that if a yogi does care about his body and his health (and, perhaps necessarily and definitionally, a yogi will care about these things), it is incumbent upon him to at least consider the ways in which the consumption of meat and dairy, or least certain kinds of meat and dairy products, may or may not be detrimental to health.
Yoga is also about awareness, and this awareness provides further reason for being vegan or vegetarian. Part of the process of becoming more aware of oneself is also becoming more aware of one’s place in the world and of one’s relationship to the world. Given the development of this kind of multifacted awareness, it seems paradoxical for a yogi not to think about the impact of his dietary choices. A yogi is compelled to think not just about what tastes good to him, but what exactly the satisfaction of his taste buds means for other conscious beings, the environment, and society at large. Again, I won’t go into all the sordid details of meat/dairy production and consumption (you can look at the two books I mentioned above for that). The point is simply that as yogis develop awareness, their awareness will extend beyond themselves. When this happens, a vegan or vegetarian diet is often something they will feel compelled to adopt.
So, to return to the original question, does a dedicated yogi absolutely have to be a vegan or vegetarian? I don’t think so – but in virtue of being a yogi, a person commits himself to a certain kind of lifestyle that points strongly in that direction.