The yogi’s dilemma: to be vegetarian or not to be vegetarian…

So you love the physical practice of yoga and the stillness that the breath work and meditation brings, and you start to look into yoga philosophy. You’ll very quickly come across the Yamas and Niyamas – the restraints and observances – the ethical principles of yoga.

The first Yama is ‘Ahimsa’ – non-violence or not causing harm.

Which leads you to the question: how to practise non-violence in your daily life? One obvious area relates to the food you eat.

Food for Life distributes food on an internati...
Veggies – yum! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does that mean every yogi should be vegetarian? Can you truly practise Ahimsa if you eat meat and fish?  

I am vegetarian and have been since I was about eight years’ old.  If you challenged me to state my opinion on this, I would probably say that yes I think yogis should be vegetarian.  But then I notice the ‘should’* in that sentence and it makes me stop and think …

BUT…

Questions, questions…

What about dairy? Milk and eggs (and their related products) are a by-product of the meat industry, so truly to practice Ahimsa, should you be vegan?

But if you’re vegan you’re likely to be eating more soya products – what about the disputed environmental impact of soya? (See my friend’s post: Where does my soya come from? )

Then there are issues about whether to eat organic or non-organic food? What about Fairtrade? Should you try to eat locally-sourced produce? What about the environmental costs of food production and waste – which applies to veggies and non-veggies alike?

That’s a lot of questions: it’s a complex issue.

See the bigger picture

As a teenager I was a rather militant vegetarian: VERY judgmental about those I saw as lesser mortals who relied on the killing on other living beings for their sustenance. This included regularly telling people exactly how that piece of meat got onto their plate, in lots of gory detail, while they were (trying) to eat it. Nice.

But now I try to see the complexities in the issue.

To practise Ahimsa it’s not just a yes/no answer about whether you’re vegetarian or not.

It’s not just about the food you eat. What about the clothes you wear? Do you wear leather? But then what’s the glue in your shoes made out of? What’s in the medication you take? Animal by-products are used in thousands of goods, not just in food – see the Vegan Society’s Glossary of Animal Substances.

And don’t forget about the human beings involved in harvesting, producing and distributing our food – what are their working conditions? How much are they paid?

More questions!  And there’s no single, easy answer.

Be honest

I believe we can work towards living a life within the principle of Ahimsa by living with honest awareness and gratitude that we depend on everything the earth gives us to survive – whether that’s animals or plants or each other.

If you eat meat, then do so mindfully, acknowledging the animal that gave up its life for you.

If you think you’d find it impossible to change your eating habits, have a go at changing for a time-limited period and see how you get on.

You could try having a weekly meat-free day, or try cutting out dairy for a week if you’re vegetarian.

A friend has recently pledged to go vegan for a year from being a meat eater (Read her blog at Pledged2Veg ). I find that very humbling – I was vegan for a while, but the cheese addiction got me. What a wimp!

Be mindful of everything you purchase and eat. Try and buy as ethically as you can. If financial restrictions mean you can’t afford to buy everything organic and Fairtrade could you instead regularly swap to organic or Fairtrade for just a few goods? This is what I do.

Spread the love

Another important aspect of Ahimsa is how you treat yourself and how you relate to others.

Ahimsa could be said to start with yourself. So be kind to yourself. Don’t cause yourself harm by judging yourself or denying yourself the right to be you.

Living a life in accordance with Ahimsa is challenging. There’s a lot take into consideration, but also lots you can do. Make a few small changes and see the difference you can make.

Do you try to bring the practice of non-violence into your life? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this…


* In my (humble) opinion the word ‘should’ is the meanest word in the English language. It has an implied wagging finger behind it; a judgmental meanness; a lack of compassion… So if I hear or read myself saying ‘should’ I try and stop and re-evaluate what I’m saying.


Stella Tomlinson teaches Dru yoga in Southampton, UK. Dru yoga is a flowing and therapeutic style of yoga, characterised by graceful movements, directed breathing, relaxation techniques and working with affirmations and visualisations. Connect with Stella via Facebook and Twitter.

5 thoughts on “The yogi’s dilemma: to be vegetarian or not to be vegetarian…

  1. I agree with you about the ‘should’ word, and I’d include ‘ought’ as well. So long as it’s not harmful to anyone else, listen to what your body and heart are saying. Instead of ‘I ought to do the ironing’, go out and enjoy the sunshine. Instead of ‘I’m so tired, but I really should clean the car’, go and have a nap and allow the body to rest. Try to let go of perfectionism and the expectations of others (real or perceived).

  2. I gave up meat in 1996, many years before I’d even heard of yoga. To me, being vegetarian meant not eating or wearing my animal friends, but I did not otherwise pay much attention to what I ate. I ate mostly pre-packaged, overly-refined foods, lots of M&Ms, and take-out pizza at least three times a week. I was introduced to yoga in 2003 or so. Through yoga, I learned more about what I was really trying to do back in 1996 when I stopped eating and wearing animals. Although it was very difficult at first, and took several years to really psych myself into, I started eating with intention. When I bought eggs or milk or cheese, I made certain to buy those products from local organic farmers (hard to come by in the midwest) who cared for their animals in a way that I was comfortable with. I actually talked with the farmers, made sure the cows and chickens were eating what nature intended rather than a bunch of corn-based feed. I checked out their living conditions myself. I pet the cows and let the chickens peck at my feet. I started eating raw organic dairy, and only organic produce, understanding the toll chemicals take on our environment and in our bodies. I gave up pre-packaged foods, refined sugars and flours, and any chemical-based medications. My friends didn’t want to hang out with me anymore because socializing always involved food and there wasn’t anyplace I was willing to eat. Somehow, my body was still asking for something different. A holistic doctor ran allergy tests on me, determining that I’m allergic to nearly everything. No more dairy. No more eggs. No more blueberries, almonds, honeydew melon, kidney beans… the list is extensive. But, it’s been a real eye opener. I listen to my body with each bite. I learned muscle testing so that I could ask my body on a case-by-case basis what foods were needed. I was upset when my body asked for fish. My research told me to stick with wild caught only, so I bought that and thanked that salmon for giving his life for me. My husband, bless his heart, follows my lead for the most part. He hides a jug of organic milk in the back of the fridge, and has a stash of chocolate bars (no refined sugars, at least) in the back of the pantry. What it all comes down to is doing what I feel in my heart to be right. I’m not slacking because I can. That would be easy enough, but who am I hurting but myself? Like the bumper sticker on the back of my car reads: Eat like you give a damn.

    Thank you for this post!

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