For several years in the 1990s, I lived in Chennai, India, and had the privilege of studying every day with the great yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar. One day, a young man from France was brought in for a consultation with Mr. Desikachar. This man was very eager to learn yoga and had committed himself to staying in India and studying for several months. But his health had been declining since his arrival in India, and after a few weeks, he had lost quite a bit of weight, had become very pale and weak, and was unable to focus on his studies.
During Mr. Desikachar’s evaluation of this young man, he asked him about his diet, and most specifically, if he ate meat.
“Why, no, sir, of course not,” the man replied.
“Why do you say ‘of course not’?” inquired Mr. Desikachar.
“Because I want to be a yoga teacher,” he said, “and everyone knows that yoga teachers cannot eat meat.”
The young student reflected a belief of many yoga teachers and students today that yoga somehow forbids eating meat. Many who have studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, widely considered the authoritative text of yoga, equate the concept of ahimsa, or nonharming, with vegetarianism. It’s natural for those who study yoga to try to adopt an entire lifestyle that reflects their new commitment to conscious living and mental and physical balance.
But according to the Yoga Sutra, you don’t have to become a vegetarian. The confusion stems in part from a misinterpretation of ahimsa, combined with the fact that the first generation of yoga teachers in the United States mostly studied with teachers—such as Sri Desikachar, Swami Satchidananda, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Sri Pattahbi Jois—who, being culturally Indian and Brahmin, tended to be vegetarian. So an idea has developed in the yoga community that conflates yoga with vegetarianism. But the practice of ahimsa is not as simple as that.
Assess the damage
Ahimsa (sutra II:3o) is the first of five social and environmental guidelines, called yamas, presented by Patanjali in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra. The yamas are the first of eight “limbs,” or means, to help you reach a state of yoga, or focused concentration, in order to perceive more clearly, be more connected with your authentic Self, and suffer less as a result. The yamas consist of five components: ahimsa (nonharming), satya (the truth that doesn’t hurt), asteya (noncovetousness), brahmacharya (appropriate relationships and boundaries), and aparigrah (only accepting what is appropriate).
As I tell my students, these guidelines help us differentiate between the ever-changing, impermanent mind and what Patanjali describes as the part of us that is pure, perfect, unchanging, and permanent: our own true, authentic Self. By differentiating between the two, we can act from a place of our authentic Self (instead of from the mind), and therefore experience less suffering.
In the case of the French yoga student, Mr. Desikachar looked him in the eye and asked, “Have you considered the harm you are doing to yourself by not eating meat?” He said this young man was not getting the adequate nutrients for his body type, and that the Indian vegetarian diet was not serving him—and was, in fact, harming him. He then advised the man to start eating some chicken or fish right away and to have at least two servings a day.
Now, of course, Desikachar was not saying that everyone who is vegetarian is causing harm to himself—Desikachar himself is a vegetarian—but for this particular student, vegetarianism was not the optimal or most supportive diet. And when practicing ahimsa, the concept of nonharming must also apply to oneself—whether we are referring to our interactions with others, our relationships, or our occupation. While the Yoga Sutra is designed as a universal text, it must always be adapted to the individual.
Kate Holcombe is a yoga therapist and founder and director of the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco.