Over the past few years I’ve been incorporating more and more vegetarian and vegan meals into my diet. Especially during my recent travels, the places I have been working and staying have had very “yogic” diets; either vegetarian or, in the case of my current home, 100% vegan (oh, and gluten-free and organic!). Vegan food can be bloomin’ delicious so it’s very rare that I miss my old diet at all.
I know that veganism can greatly minimise our impact on the environment, and obviously does a great job at reducing demand from cruel/inhumane farming corporations. For some, it can work wonders for health and wellbeing, too. But as time has passed, I have begun to notice some undesirable effects on my health as a result of this diet. I decided it was about time I did a little more of my own research on why the yoga world traditionally eat in this way so I can make a more informed decision on how I want to eat, instead of just following the crowd.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he outlines the eight limbs of yoga, two of which are a set of guidelines on how to live a peaceful life: the yamas and niyamas.
Living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas is said to reduce our suffering in life and help us on our journey through the higher limbs of yoga, towards a fully conscious, or enlightened, state of living. I’m up for doing whatever I can to get to that state!
One of the five yamas in Patanjali’s teachings is ahimsa, or “non-harming”. It’s easy to see how we took this to mean, “don’t harm animals for food”. And this it one of the main reasons yogis (including me!) quote as their motivation to be vegetarian. So over the past few years I have been moving towards a vegetarian and almost vegan diet where possible, trying to be a “good yogi” by following Patanjali’s guidelines and practising ahimsa towards animals and the environment.
But there’s another part of the Yoga Sutras in which Patanjali talks about adapting the guidelines (the yamas/niyamas) intelligently to your unique life circumstances. As an extreme example, the Inuit people of the Arctic follow a diet based mostly on fatty meats. They find this the most effective at enabling their body to stay warm in freezing cold temperatures. I don’t believe they would survive long on a vegan diet! Does that mean they are less able to advance spiritually than a vegetarian yogi?
And clearly another aspect of ahimsa is being compassionate towards yourself. As much as my ego hates to admit it, I think following a vegan diet is actually harming my body.
Listening to my body
Even though our vegan diet here in Hawaii is fresh, organic, varied and very healthy, I’ve started to notice symptoms of IBS creeping up on me, which I’ve never experienced before. Although I’ve tried to identify a specific intolerance, I keep drawing a blank. My weight is dropping every day and I now worry the symptoms are even impacting my hormone levels as my menstrual cycle has been affected…this is the final straw!
It’s clear to me that if I were to continue to follow this kind of diet I would not be practising ahimsa. In fact I would be doing the exact opposite. And so (as I’m sure my boyfriend will be delighted to hear) I have decided to incorporate meat back into my diet. I’m hoping that if I reduce my carbohydrate and up my protein intake (from the highest quality sources of course), it will stabilise my blood sugars and help to balance my hormones.
I am determined to bring more awareness into making sure that any meat/fish I eat is organic, sustainably sourced and from local, humane farms in order to practise ahimsa towards the environment. Here in Hawaii, the sustainable farming movement is HUGE so I’m learning as much as I possibly can while I have the chance.As my good friend and teacher Rachael Medd reminded me, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika advises us not to wrestle the mind into submission by forcing ourselves to follow the yamas and niyamas too strictly. Doing so creates tension and resistance and will only impede our spiritual journey!
“The mind should never be forced to accept something which feels unnatural. Keep the yamas and niyamas in mind and let them develop naturally.”
In my case, trying to follow a strict vegan diet just might not be natural for my body right now (or ever). Instead, I can try to keep ahimsa in mind when choosing what I eat. For example, only eating as much meat as I know my body needs, making sure I choose produce from organic, humane farms etc.
Confessions of a yogi’s ego
Even though I’m pretty sure that this choice is going to be good for my health (not to mention, I actually enjoy eating meat and fish!), there’s still a part of me that is resisting. If I observe this resistance with mindfulness, I can see it for what it is: the ego.
I have been identifying with this false image of my “self” as a yoga practising, healthy, vegan girl and taking away part of this image makes my ego unhappy. Living in line with the yamas and niyamas makes my ego feel superior, like I am a better yogi if do. But Patanjali said it himself: we are all unique and it would be ridiculous of me to try and measure myself up against other yogis based on what we eat, or anything else for that matter! Just by bringing that realisation into my awareness, I can already feel it beginning to dissolve.
In our asana practice, it’s easy to get carried away and push our bodies too hard in order to conquer the next challenging posture, which almost always leads to injury. I am recognising this behaviour in myself off the mat too; I’m so focused on being a “better yogi” (what does that even mean?) that I have been missing the signs from my body that I’m not giving it what it needs.
A lot of this ego is derived from the media. Another great reminder from my friend Rachael: just as walking around carrying a Liforme mat and dressed head-to-toe in Lululemon does not make you an advanced yogi, neither does the way you choose to live. Only you can measure your progress in this practice by how honest you can be with yourself about your intentions in everything you do; whether it’s asana, diet, your choice of clothing…Bringing awareness to these decisions is enough to begin an amazing process of self-inquiry, and that’s what yoga is truly about!
[Just to be clear, I know that a vegan/vegetarian diet works perfectly well for some people’s bodies, and most aren’t eating that way just to make themselves feel superior! But for me, when I can see clearly that it’s harming my body, the only reason I would have for persevering would be coming from a place of identification with ego 🙂 ]
So let’s see how it goes! I’m hoping to see these awkward symptoms of mine disappear over the next few months as I slowly incorporate a little meat and fish back into my diet. And maybe this post will remind you to always do what’s best for your true self, not your ego <3 If living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas is causing you more suffering, then it could be a sign that you have misinterpreted their meaning!
I’d love to hear what my fellow yogis think of this decision.
Thanks for reading guys,
Love Nat x x