Thursday, November 17, 2011

To eat meat or not to eat meat? Or, Confessions of an Egotistical Vegetarian

The issue of eating or not eating meat (and the accompanying issue of whether one can eat meat and still be a proper yogi) seems to have resurfaced recently, both in the blogosphere and in my everyday environment.

First, my everyday environment. A couple of days ago, I was ordering my usual lunch (a veggie sandwich on wheat bread) at the campus cafeteria. As the server was putting my sandwich together, the guy next to me in line remarked, "Oh, you have no meat in your sandwich!" From the baffled tone in his voice, I think he meant something along the lines of, "Dude, you forgot to put meat in your sandwich!" This being the upper midwest (and a rather rural part of it, at that), the idea that somebody could eat a sandwich without meat in it probably still strikes many people as quite strange, to say the least. In any case, this is how the conversation between me and this guy unfolded from this point: 

Nobel: "I'm vegetarian."

Guy: "Really? I could never imagine going without meat. How long have you been vegetarian?"

Nobel: "About two years."

Guy: "How do you feel, not eating meat for so long?"

Nobel: "Well... I feel lighter. But really, most days I don't even think about it anymore. I've not eaten meat for so long, I barely even notice I'm not eating meat." 

Guy: "Very interesting."

And we then went our separate ways.   


The same issue has also recently emerged in the blogosphere as a topic of discussion. First, Grimmly recently blogged about his journey from vegetarianism to non-vegetarianism, and back to vegetarianism. Grimmly's story is very authentic and inspiring. You should check out his story, if you haven't already done so.

Bindy also ends her recent post about her wonderful trip to Akron, Ohio with an account of these delectable cheeseburgers that she ate at an old-school burger joint, the kind "with waiters who run out to your car to take your order & return quickly with a tray that hooks on to your window just like in the 50s. you eat in your car."

Anticipating the possibility of the vegetarian/vegan police/PETA activists leaving snarky comments in her comments box, Bindy continues,

"i know many of you who read this blog are probably repulsed by this, but i eat meat because when i was a vegetarian for 7 years, i got sick ALOT. since i began eating meat-the exact same year i started doing yoga-i haven’t been sick since. not all bodies are meant for the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle.
even though i know many of you will anyhow, don’t judge me. i myself am not fond of vegans but i try not to judge either."
Well, Bindy, I am certainly not repulsed by your account (and pictures) of the delectable cheeseburgers. And I think it is probably true that not all bodies are meant for the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. If eating meat (and lots of it, to boot) is your, uh, piece of steak, then more power to you!

Personally, I don't think I would have become vegetarian if it weren't for the Ashtanga practice. Two years ago, I moved to Milwaukee, and became a full-time Ashtangi when I started going to morning mysore at my teacher's shala. At my teacher's recommendation, I decided to try not eating meat. To this day, I still don't really know why I listened to him: Many, many people have tried to persuade me about the wonders of vegetarianism before that, including a couple of (in my opinion) rather misguided big-name yoga teachers (I'm not going to name names here...) who resorted to cheap scare-tactics like showing PETA videos (you know, the kind with graphic depictions of chickens getting their beaks cut off), but I had basically ignored them, and continued merrily eating meat, especially my favorite meat dish, fried chicken. It probably also doesn't help that I was brought up in a culture (Chinese culture) whose members have been known to eat anything that crawls, swims or flies. Which, if you think about it, is an evolutionary advantage, since this pretty much means that Chinese people will probably never die of starvation due to lack of food in foreign environments :-) So growing up, meat was as much a part of my life as, I don't know, apple pie and cereal might be to the lives of others. Growing up, I used to think that the only people who didn't eat meat were (i) Buddhist monks and nuns, (ii) people with certain medical conditions. I suspect that many Chinese people still think this way.

But I digress. As I was saying, I still don't know why I listened to my teacher, where so many have tried to persuade me but failed. Maybe it has something to do with his no-bullshit way of going about it ("If you stop eating meat, you can get deeper into Marichyasana D!"), but I almost immediately decided to start by limiting myself to eating meat once or twice a month. After about a month of doing this, I realized to my surprise that, except for the occasional craving for fried chicken or Friday Fish Fry, I really didn't really miss meat all that much. And I also discovered that not eating meat allowed me to feel (and be) lighter. Which really helps a lot when you are getting up early to put yourself into things like Mari D and Pasasana six days a week.

So really, I don't have any particularly noble or high-minded reasons for becoming vegetarian. The chief reason is my Ashtanga practice: I love doing the practice too much to let something like fried chicken get in the way of Mari D or Pasasana. Which is probably a very bizarre and egotistical reason to go vegetarian to most people in the so-called normal world ("What? You give up fried chicken and Filet Mignon just so that you can twist yourself into funny shapes every morning? Have you lost it?"). But hey, I'm sure people do even stranger things for way stranger reasons all the time...

In any case, since my reasons for being vegetarian are not very high-minded (in fact, they are actually rather egotistical, if one equates asana achievement with ego), I'm not in a position to hit anybody over the head for not being vegetarian. Nor do I want to. Having been on both sides of the vegetarian-omnivore divide, I don't think being or not being vegetarian puts one in a better or worse position to become a self-realized being. As a matter of fact, I hear that His Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat too. So if you are a meat-eating yogi/spiritual practitioner, you are at least in good company :-) 


  1. Hi Nobel!

    YESSSSSS was my reaction on this entire post!! I recently went back to eating meat after 1+ years of being Vegetarian; The reasons same as Bindy, the changes in my spiritual body were AMAZING~ but my physical body, was depleted... no matter how much I tried supplementing.

    So i'm glad to read this and see I'm in good company in the yogi world. ;)

    BTW>I do not see your reason as egotistical at all. After all, Ashtanga Practice begins with Asana and then "all is coming"...Your Asana achievements are what subtly build the higher self, the mind and the soul along with the body.


  2. I don't like to eat meat, makes me feel heavy and slow. And I cannot do dairy, blocks me up.

    This kind of diet suits me well tho I do notice that between morning Ashtanga, a full days of work, which is often quite physical, and the joys and expended effort of raising a precocious and precious 4 year old, my body needs good deal of protein.

    And since I refuse to eat prepackaged, processed foods, especially of the "fake meat" variety, I've had to learn an awful lot about seeds and nuts and sprouted grains and other wholesome sources of protein and fat.

    And as it turns out, this has been quite a fun learning adventure. Sourcing, preparing, and eating sustainable, nourishing, organic food has become a spiritual practice in and of itself for me.

    Much respect to all those yogis and yoginis who tune in and and listen to their bodies needs and eat whatever they need to eat to be healthy and strong. And much respect to those yogis and yoginis that tune in and cut out eating the things their bodies don't need.

  3. Hello RV, thanks for thinking that my reason is not egotistical. Yes, it is great that you are doing what your body (and probably mind as well) needs. This is probably the best kind of ahimsa.

    Hello Tom, learning and experimenting with different ways of getting enough nutrients to nourish the body is indeed fun and educational. Mental note to self: Need to experiment and research more, and rely less on prepackaged foods.

  4. Good subject:) Touchy subject:) No judgement here, however if we are Ashtangis practicing according to the lineage of Krishnamacharya, then he clearly states that asana is only 1 component of a spiritually transformative practice. He recommends that students practice the 8 limbs including Yama & Niyama, so my point is that the very first Yama is Ahimsa..non-violence, not causing suffering or committing any cruelty towards others and ourselves. I know of some ashtangis who sit down to a nice fat ham sandwich and have an awesome physical practice. personally, I cannot eat animals, the thought turns my stomach and makes me sad. I too feel much lighter eating a vegetarian diet, it's also easier on my budget:)

  5. Yes, JayaKrishna, ahimsa is key. Actually, Kino mentioned during my interview with her this past April at her Richmond workshop that being the first of the yamas, ahimsa is the bowl or container that contains and makes all the other yamas possible.

    But how exactly to actualize ahimsa is a matter that is highly individual. In the end, only the individual can decide for himself or herself whether he or she can square eating meat with ahimsa.

  6. ahimsa is a very slippery slope. we kill thousands of organisms just walking down the street, stepping on them, inhaling them. tires & film have animal products in them. you would be surprised how much the death of animals is an every day encounter whether you choose to believe it or not. and if you are a world traveller, it's impossible to maintain a vegan/vegetarian diet. if you are served food from someone whose heart & soul has gone into the meal & you refuse to eat it, that is not ahimsa. ahimsa does NOT mean being a vegetarian by any stretch. it's just what certain yogis choose to describe it. one big reason for the vegetarian thing is hinduism & brahmans. think about it. anyhow, good post & lots of "food" for thought, whatever it is that you eat.

  7. Yes, Bindy, I agree with you about the fuzziness that surrounds the idea of non-killing. Very good point.

    "if you are a world traveller, it's impossible to maintain a vegan/vegetarian diet. if you are served food from someone whose heart & soul has gone into the meal & you refuse to eat it, that is not ahimsa."

    This is a good observation. Fortunately for me (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), I have not traveled outside the U.S. for years, and most places within this country are relatively vegetarian-friendly (although maybe not so vegan-friendly). So I have not have had to face the dilemma of somebody offering me his or her heart-felt food with meat in it. Having grown up in a culture where eating (and eating a lot, at that) is seen as a sign of good fortune and goodwill, I can certainly empathize with that.

    It would be interesting to wonder if vegetarianism would have been such a big part of yoga (or even a part of it) if yoga had not originated within the Hindu/Brahmin cultural milieu. I don't have any answers to this. Much *food* for thought, though :-)

  8. Here is a good video on meat: