Lots of yogis choose to mindfully eat vegan. Some do it for health reasons, some diet for peace, while others aim to deepen their spiritual practice. Let’s explore what’s the connection between veganism and yoga, and where on the spectrum would you place yourself.
First thing, let's explain what it means to be vegan. A vegan is a person who refrains from eating any animal or animal by-product. Therefore, not consuming any meat (including poultry and seafood), eggs, milk, cheese, and suchlike. If something contains an ingredient that came from an animal, for example a cake containing butter, it does not classify as vegan.
Top reasons to go vegan
At first glance, going vegan may seem an unnecessary complication of one’s diet and lifestyle. But vegans often have quite noble reasons for taking this forward step.
First of all, veganism reduces animal suffering. There’s no compassionate way to kill an animal that doesn’t want to die. Yet, about 70 billion land animals are slaughtered globally each year because of the human meat-diet demands. Often, the conditions in which these animals are kept leave a lot to be desired, too. That’s why a vegetarian diet, rejecting meat but welcoming animals’ milk and eggs, is often not enough for those who love animals.
Another popular reason to choose a vegan diet are health benefits. Thanks to various studies veganism is now recognised as a tool efficient in reducing risks of many civilisational diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and many cardiovascular diseases. Vegan blood seems to be of a higher quality, while the immune system more efficient. Vegans also often report higher levels of energy, increased clarity of thinking and empathy, which could be explained by an improved hormonal balance.
The third common reason is environment. It’s a big subject, but in short – farms take a lot of space which could be instead dedicated to rewilding and growing more grains. A vast majority of grains we currently produce are animal food. Yet, grains already are a great source of protein for humans, so adding an extra step in this chain – animals and later their meat – makes the process much more complex, requiring not only significant amounts of water but also causing – problematic for the environment – pollution. As an Australian philanthropist Philip Wollen put it – “meat is like one and two cent coins, it costs more to make than it is worth.”
Veganism in yoga
While veganism is a lifestyle choice trending in recent years in the Western world, yoga is a holistic discipline originating in ancient India. It has links to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism which are based on a shared philosophical framework of unity with all sentient beings. Yogis who eat vegan often mention the first principle of yoga philosophy called ahimsa – the idea of non-violence, or non-harming. This principle was deliberately practised by Mahatma Gandhi who renounced his intentions to hurt any living thing or cultivate hostile thoughts, words or deeds. He used it as a tool for mass action, leaving a significant and inspiring mark in history books.
Ahimsa does not only embrace the concept of not harming other people, but also the earth we live on and its animals, both wild and domesticated. Eating vegan is therefore an easy way to practice ahimsa because in doing so, we don’t cause them any harm – confinement, abuse, or killing. By establishing a vegan diet, we directly disengage ourselves from this one of the most common but overlooked forms of violence.
Veganism goes beyond just a diet, it can also extend to what kind of products we buy and how we live our lives, for example not wearing any clothes or accessories made of animals' body parts. Whole-foods and an organic plant-based diet is also an act of non-violence towards the Earth, contributing to a healthier and more abundant planet.
And so, shifting to a vegan diet can help create a more peaceful mind, in a fairly simple process – just as we brush our teeth and shower to keep our body clean, we meditate to keep our mind pure. The choice of foods we eat is just one more way of nourishing ourselves by investing in the health of our body and soul. After all, practising yoga is about being mindful, not only on a yoga mat but also in our daily life. It’s about attending our emotions, body, mind and soul, and making wise choices with integrity.
At the same time, yogic and ayurvedic literature mentions the concept of sattvic diet, which is a dietary classification. In this system, certain foods increase the energy of our body, stimulating and agitating it, as well as provoking mental restlessness – coffee, tea, soda drinks, spicy or overly salty and bitter foods. Then, certain foods decrease or slow down our energy and therefore are considered harmful to the mind and body. They lead to a duller and less refined state of consciousness – meat, fertilised eggs, mushrooms, alcohol or opium, as well as food which isn’t fresh.
Sattvic foods are the third category – balancing for the mind and promoting eating habits that are – according to the definition – pure, natural, vital, energy-containing, honest and wise – nuts, seeds, oils, ripe vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and various herbs. Interestingly, in this system cow’s milk is allowed for consumption under certain conditions – the animal has to have a spacious outdoor environment, an abundance of pasture to feed on and water to drink, be treated with love and care, and not be pregnant. And, its milk can only be collected once the mother's calf had its share. In a nutshell, following a sattvic diet can be considered a moderation in eating.
Currently in the UK, around 30% of yoga teachers follow a plant-based diet, which is 25 times the proportion in the general population, and nearly 75% desires to follow it because it’s best aligned with their yogic practice. They often believe that minimising animal suffering is as important as minimising human suffering (mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/3/480/htm)
Why people eat meat
The conventional wisdom is that vegans and vegetarians are the ones who bring their beliefs and ideology to the table. However, an American social psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy revealed that everyone has beliefs.
For meat eaters, this hidden ideology conditioning people to eat certain animals is called carnism. It’s a quite complex framework consisting of social conditioning – most people eat meat since childhood, and humanity has been doing it for a long time – but also consisting of a belief that farm animals are far less emotional and intelligent than the rest. It’s interesting to note that farm animals differ across the globe. In some places it’s common to eat horses and cows, in other dogs and bats, while certain cultures reject the idea of eating any of these. Therefore, the carnist ideology differs depending on a country or religion.
In carnism, there’s another level of lack of equality in the animal kingdom. Certain animals are treated as fellow humans becoming pets with recognised personality characteristics, while others are being eaten, not given names but barcodes. In persuasion it’s called deindividualisation. These animals also tend to be objectified in the language itself – pork instead of pigs, poultry instead of chickens – all affecting the human perception. Curiously, many children don’t realise that meat or milk come from animals, because the only part of the process they observe is collecting them from shop shelves.
A five-year-old Zada from Syria realises that meat is made from animals.
A belief that we need to eat animals to be strong and healthy is still very prevalent in many cultures. At a closer look, however, eating meat in the long term causes a variety of health issues which a vegan diet can successfully reverse in many cases.
As it’s been for centuries, carnism is dominating the mainstream diets in many places around the world. Its practices are hidden from the view with marketing drawing a positive picture, not far from denial. Consequently, recognising and understanding carnism as an ideology is important to help us think more critically. People who insist on consuming dead animals should be given the chance to at least make this choice consciously, instead of being conditioned.
At the same time, there are certain problems with the vegan lifestyle too, such as some genetically modified foods, or forests being cut down to make room for soy plantations. But, with the right focus and balance we can find the golden mean. As a humankind, we had to eat meat to survive. Now we have reached the point in our history where we have the choice to go into our future cruelty-free. Especially, if it’s only a convenience that's holding us back.
Whether you are vegan or not, we would like to invite you to meditate on this idea. How do you reduce violence in your life at present? Do your food choices cause suffering or disease to others, or contribute to any destruction of the environment? If so, would you question what you eat?