Let’s Talk About Ahimsa: Vegetarianism and Yoga
The first yama, or yogic principle of universal morality, is ahimsa.
It means non-violence, or the absence of inflicting harm.
For many yogis, observing ahimsa translates directly into vegetarianism or veganism, in which all animal products including eggs and dairy (and even honey) are eschewed.
And so the question arises: Must a yogi be a vegetarian?
Ahimsa, as outlined by Patanjali, doesn’t have only one translation. Non-violence isn’t simply doing no harm by action; rather, there must be no harm done in thought and speech as well. Patanjali leaves the translation up to interpretation, and so it is for us to decide how exactly to embrace the directive.
There are 5 yamas that outline the way to universal morality. These are:
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (chastity)
- Aparigraha (non-hoarding)
These may seem like obvious points on the moral compass, but how–and if–we make them happen depends on our perspective.
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Judgement doesn’t Count
Being a vegetarian is one way to practice ahimsa. When we judge another person for making a personal choice that is different from ours, however, we are not practicing ahimsa. Judgment is not without inflicting harm in thought. And so on one hand we are eating a diet that is free of cruelty, but on the other we are thinking and possibly speaking from a place of reproach.
It’s worth mentioning that judgment can go both ways. My husband grew up on a dairy farm, and I don’t include dairy in my diet. Fortunately neither of us met our differences with resistance.
If either one of us had, our lives would be very different.
We can’t know the reasons that are behind another person’s private decisions, not that they matter in a discussion about judgment, nor are we entitled to know them. But would we say that, hypothetically, continuing to eat a vegetarian diet against a doctor’s orders would be doing no harm?
Where do we draw the line between what is good for us and what is good for others? Because more often than not, doing what is truly good for ourselves translates into doing good for others, since taking care of ourselves makes us better, more compassionate contributors to society as a whole.
And isn’t that the intention of the yamas themselves, to elevate our moral ground?
With a moral compass as our guide, positive change in the world becomes possible. Positive change won’t come from a place of separation or estrangement.
Mindfulness is Ahimsa
Morality requires each of us to be mindful that we are all connected. And when we honor that connection, doing harm is made obsolete.
We are practicing ahimsa.
It’s true that we can make change in the world by changing our diet. We can also make change in the world by suspending judgment on those whose dietary choices are different than ours.
It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, thank goodness.
We are not going to succeed at all of this, all of the time.
But we hold ourselves accountable to the yamas, and by way of the attempt to succeed we achieve an important degree of success. A person might not steal, but lacks compassion.
And that omnivore?
She volunteers her nights teaching adults how to read. There are many ways to practice ahimsa, not just one. It’s the mindfulness behind the practice that distinguishes between outcomes.
So does a yogi have to be a vegetarian?
It’s not for me to decide. I can know only what this yogi has to be (and most of the time I’m still trying to figure that out!). But I do know this: we are all in this world living our lives, doing what we can. Finding our way, together.
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