Yoga philosophy includes moral imperatives called yamas. The primary yama, ahimsa, is translated as “non-harming,” and it means not causing pain to any being by thoughts, words, or actions. As a longtime yoga practitioner and teacher, I definitely try to practice ahimsa. That’s not always easy, but when it comes to my food choices, it seems effortless. As an ethical vegan, I know I am doing my best to minimize harm to animals, the environment, and my body.
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak to a group of yoga teachers-in-training about a “yogic diet.” In the spirit of ahimsa, a yogi’s diet should be nonviolent and, therefore, vegan. I was certain that this group of peace-loving yoga practitioners would easily comprehend the simple connection between not harming others and choosing foods that don’t involve a slaughterhouse.
Many individuals, including those yoga students, come to yoga for physical or health reasons. Some soon begin to experience a positive mental and emotional shift, and they eventually experience a deeper transformation. Yoga touches their hearts. It becomes more than a physical pose on a mat: It transforms into peace in action.
This is often the same path vegetarians follow. Many give up meat simply for health reasons. Then they solidify their commitment through logical or mental exploration, and they later reach a point at which simply identifying with animals touches their heart. Meals become more than nourishment—they too become peace in action.
The evening of the discussion, I was confident that it would be a gratifying and pleasant experience. I knew this audience. I had walked their yoga path and was ready to positively impact their journey. I made a conscious decision to avoid discussing animal suffering and the horrors of slaughter, as this often shuts people down emotionally. I would focus on the health benefits of a vegan diet. I was prepared for some resistance, but I knew that logic should easily sway the reluctant.
Unfortunately, the evening did not come off as effortlessly as I had imagined. As soon as it became clear that “yogic diet” meant “vegetarian diet,” the energy of the room changed. People began to shift uneasily in their seats. Some turned their gaze to the floor while others glared intently at me. There was clearly a sense of annoyance and discontent in the room. I tried to ease the mood with a couple of different approaches, to no avail. This had become difficult and uncomfortable.
I took a moment to sit in silence and take a few deep breaths. During this stillness, another yama came to mind: satya, which means “truthfulness.” I needed only to speak the truth. The truth is that millions of animals are hurting, suffering, and dying needlessly. Speaking this truth was more important than trying to remove the discomfort in the room. This felt like the appropriate time to show PETA’s “Chew on This” video. By the end of this 4-minute video, the energy in the room had changed again. Hearts had been touched, and there was now space for me to continue.
Thankfully, the evening ended on a positive note. Most everyone participated in the discussion, and all but a couple of people eagerly accepted copies of PETA’s vegetarian/vegan starter kit. Over the next couple of weeks, I received e-mails and heard encouraging news from participants who had started their own vegetarian and vegan adventures. For the others, all I can do is hope that eventually they will find a way to take the basic yoga precept of ahimsa off their yoga mats and onto their dinner plates.