Is it purely a coincidence that many yogis (myself included) are vegan? Or that the food at most yoga retreat centres is plant-based? The short answer is: no. The longer answer is that veganism and yoga are fundamentally connected through the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence to all living creatures. But let me unpack this a little more.
Many people today only associate yoga with the physical practice; for them, yoga is little more than a form of exercise. But, strictly speaking, ‘yoga’ refers to an ancient practice – the science of ‘Raja yoga’ – in trying to control the mind. This science has been around for thousands of years, passed down from teacher to teacher. The purpose of this ‘yoga’ is to achieve Samadhi, or a state of complete liberation/enlightenment, similar to Buddhism’s nirvana, whereby all physical attachments have been cast aside, the ego no longer exists, and we see ourselves for who we really are: the embodiment of the Universe (or God, whatever works for you).
How do we achieve this Samadhi, then? Helpfully, we’re offered a practical guide (set out in the ancient text ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ – often considered the ‘bible’ of Raja yoga) comprising eight stages, or limbs, that must be followed (hence ‘Raja yoga’ is also known as ‘Ashtanga yoga’, which means ‘eight-limbed yoga’). These eight limbs are:
1. Yama = ‘abstinence’; think of yama like rules for society, ethical and moral codes dictating how we ought to live (e.g. not stealing).
2. Niyama = ‘observances’; personal rules, relating to our own behaviour/how we should live (e.g. cleanliness of mind).
3. Asana = the physical practice (poses); what most people think of today as yoga.
4. Pranayama = breath work; breathing exercises.
5. Pratyahara = ‘withdrawal of senses’; we do this using the drishti, whereby we focus the gaze on one point during each asana (pose).
6. Dharana = concentration
7. Dhyana = meditation
8. Samadhi = the ‘superconscious state’, or ‘absorption’
I won’t go into detail on the other limbs here; I want to focus only the first limb – the yamas – of which there are five:
1. Ahimsa = nonviolence
2. Satya = truthfulness
3. Asteya = non-stealing
4. Brahmacarya = celibacy (moderation, not total abstinence!)
5. Agarigraha = non-greed/not hoarding or accumulating things beyond our need, or non-grasping
Specifically, I want to focus on the first branch of this first limb (still with me?!): ahimsa. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as ‘compassion and nonviolence to all living creatures’. It’s a cornerstone, not only of yoga, but also of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. In yoga, it’s often pointed out that this nonviolence applies to ourselves as well as to others, and that violence is not only physical but can be mental too. Our words and thoughts can be violent, for example. So ahimsa also means not saying/thinking negative and hurtful things to yourself, instead talking to yourself with compassion and love.
Yet, sometimes I feel that this more esoteric side of ahimsa is given more weight than the more transparent, literal translation: physical nonviolence to others… which, obviously, means not harming or killing others.
Now, without wanting to enter into any debates here about ‘humane’ meat and ‘painlessly’ killing animals that have led so-called ‘happy’ lives, eating other animals is an inherently violent act. An animal must die for us to eat it, and the taking of a life, however it is done, is, in my view at least, an act of violence (with the exception of taking a life to relieve the suffering of that individual).
Moreover, looking at the dairy and egg industries, we can also say that these practices are inherently violent – involving the forceful separation of a mother from her child and then the killing of the male babies (calves for veal, male chicks because they are not ‘useful’ to the industry). When male chicks are fed, still alive, into a grinder to be turned into dog food, etc. (trying to get as much profit out of these egg ‘by-products’ as possible), how can we claim this practice is nonviolent?
None of this is to say that you must become vegan if you want to continue attending your Saturday morning flow class! Or that you can’t enjoy the (physical) benefits of yoga whilst continuing to eat (non-vegan) cake!
But yoga is also about more than just the physical benefits. It’s about connecting with your true essence, about finding unshakeable and continued peace and contentment. Living in accordance with ahimsa is a tried and tested principle that will help you along this journey. Knowing that you are living your life in a way that doesn’t bring harm or violence to any living creature is incredibly liberating. You can’t help but feel uplifted! When you also extend ahimsa to yourself, talking to and about yourself with nothing but love and compassion, you are on a sure-fire path to joy and enlightenment.
Of all the yamas, I feel this is the most fundamental; the simplest, really. Yes, it may not always be easy to drown out that inner critic, or to stop yourself shouting at your partner/children/parent when you’ve had a bad day and everything they do/say just seems to get under your skin! But try stopping just for a moment, and asking yourself: ‘how can I apply ahimsa to this situation?’ In other words, asking ‘how would love respond?’
This applies to our food choices too. How can we shop and eat in a way that causes the least violence to ourselves (our bodies and our health), other animals, and the environment, too?
Asking such questions is just as much a part of yoga as doing your daily sun salutations. In this way veganism is undoubtedly connected to yoga.
After all, as the saying goes: “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu” (May all beings everywhere be happy and free)!
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda (2012), Integral Yoga Publications: Buckingham, Virginia