three questions for four teachers on vegetarianism and veganism in the modern yoga world
Vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise in the mainstream, with more and more people changing their lifestyles out of concern for nonhuman animals, the environment, and personal health. Curiously, modern yoga appears to be trending in the opposite direction, decentering or even omitting its prior emphasis on ethical vegetarianism. In this interview, four longtime teachers from different backgrounds and traditions–Jivana Heyman, Mary Taylor, Edwin Bryant, and Suzie Muchnick–offer their perspectives on vegetarianism and veganism in modern yoga pedagogy and practice.
How prominent was the issue of vegetarianism/veganism during the early period of your experience with yoga?
Jivana Heyman: I was already vegetarian before I started my yoga teacher training journey in 1991. And my basic yoga teacher training through Integral Yoga was very focused on the yogic lifestyle. In fact, we had to commit to being vegetarian, and not drinking, smoking or using drugs, in order to teach at the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco. During the training we were given clear teaching about that fact that we were practicing ahimsa (non-harming) by being vegetarian, and most of the conversations around diet were about whether Ayurveda should include a vegetarian diet, and whether we should be vegan or vegetarian. As soon as I became a teacher trainer myself, I regularly referred to these concepts in my teaching, especially when training new teachers – and I still do!
Mary Taylor: I began practicing yoga while at university in 1972–a generic hatha yoga class that a friend recommended. During this long, early period, I didn’t really have a yoga community that I was steadily part of, and dietary recommendations were never part of any class I attended. However the friend who had originally recommended I go to yoga was vegetarian, so I was made peripherally aware of vegetarianism through her. The counterculture of the late 60’s was also taking hold and anything “yoga” was associated with the counterculture, so vegetarianism wasn’t a completely foreign idea (as it was in much of the US), but it was also not mainstream, not even in yoga circles (except at yoga ashrams and small dedicated yoga communities) in spite of the publication of books like “Diet for a Small Planet” and “Moosewood Cookbook” which were widely touted and influential in the anti-establishment world of the times.
During that time too, health food stores, vegetarian societies, macrobiotics and eventually in the ‘80’s PETA slowly began to take hold in the US. They morphed from hippy run co-ops to more savvy types of businesses and health improvement movements. But it was not uncommon for parts of the health food movement to turn formulaic, if not fundamentalist in their approach. Those interested, but not committed, often felt alienated by the dogma that was sometimes part of the package. From my perspective as a classically trained French chef (who didn’t like meat even as a child), vegetarianism was new and intriguing ground, but I also felt like I didn’t fit in with the archetype that was developing as to who vegetarians were—which didn’t seem to have too much to do with yoga in the ways I found it presented.
Edwin Bryant: Vegetarianism was presented as absolute and essential and, indeed, a first and indispensable step in yogic practice. We can recall that ahimsa is the first yama (abstention) which, in turn, is the first anga (limb) of yoga. We were definitely taught primarily from an ahimsa point of view. Meat eating was depicted as essentially brutal and base. Attention was clearly directed towards animals as sentient beings just like humans, who suffer and aspire to avoid suffering just like humans, and no one aspiring to any level of higher spirituality could advance without developing this preliminary perception and sense of empathy towards the suffering and well-being of fellow living entities.
Secondarily, the tamasic effects of meat-eating on the mind was an additional consideration. A tamasic mind, or non-sattvic mind, is incapable, metaphysically, of understanding higher Truths in yoga philosophy. Higher (atman-related) knowledge is a quality of sattva in Samkhya (see e.g. Bhagavad Gita), so a non-sattvic mind is not constituted by nature to perceive the atman nature of other beings, and to subsequently extend full compassion to them in the form of ahimsa. But this was secondary (as it is ultimately a selfish consideration).
Suzie Muchnick: I began my yoga studies in 1969 being introduced to Sivananda by a coworker in a gym. I was not vegetarian or vegan at that time but had flirted with being vegetarian when I was 16. At no time was the concept of ahimsa introduced to me in any yoga class in the early years of my studies. Without support or much knowledge I remained a meat and dairy eater. My co-worker only made a comment about vegetarianism in passing. The books I was reading at that time did not highlight the diet and even in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light On Yoga, there’s only a very brief comment about diet.
Currently how prominent is the issue of vegetarianism/veganism in your own yoga community?
JH: It seems like the issue of vegetarianism/veganism has become less popular within the contemporary yoga community. In fact, many of the lifestyle guidelines originally connected with yoga are currently out of fashion, perhaps because they have been identified with the guru culture that we are moving away from. That guru culture allowed for a lot of abuse and cult dynamics, and this new generation of yoga practitioners seems to be more focused on self-improvement and empowerment of the individual. Unfortunately, the rights of animals seem to have been lost in this transition. I often wonder about our duty to protecting the rights of animals and the planet, rather than simply finding our individual happiness.
MT: I’ve witnessed vegetarianism ebb and flow within the culture at large and within yoga communities as well. My home base yoga community doesn’t really promote one specific dietary model, though community potlucks are always expected to be vegetarian with many vegan dishes being offered as well. Eating well and living well (not over indulging in food, alcohol or drugs) is an unspoken tenant, yet specifics as to what precisely one’s diet should be is not emphasized as part of the practice.
I personally am hesitant to speak too strongly or in demanding ways to other practitioners about what they should, or should not be eating. Though I have been a vegetarian for close to 40 years, I feel strongly that one’s diet is a completely individual choice. Indeed it is true that vegetarian diet is part of a traditional yogic lifestyle, however most of us do not live in the traditional yogic environment—even if we live in India.
From my view, there is no one answer, no one diet, no one formulaic approach to food and eating that is “best” for everyone. Instead, if we can learn to listen to the subtle cues our bodies give us as to what we need, if we can trust our moral understanding as to whether or not we feel comfortable eating meat, if we can take a long, hard look at how our food choices are impacting the environment and others, then we will find a diet that is appropriate not only for us at any given moment, but for a sustainable world on the whole.
EB: Within the Vraj bhakti-related community, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who is not a vegetarian, either among bhaktas in India, or outside of India. Understandably, any lover of Krishna Gopala (the protector of cows) would not consider killing cows, or, by extension, other creatures! Vegetarianism is assumed amongst practicing bhaktas.
Within the yoga asana community things vary. Adherents of institutions such as the Sivananda are all vegetarian. Some demarcations between lineage based traditions such as they or Siddha Yoga or Gaudiya Vaishnavism would be relevant here, in contrast to the non-lineage based yoga communities such as Iyengar and Desikacharya (who although themselves adherents to the Sri Vaishnava Vedanta community, did not teach this aspect of their own spirituality to their asana students). I think of interest to a study like this, if by yoga we intend asana centered practices, might be the Krishnamacharya derived communities given their centrality to what is understood as ‘yoga’ outside of India.
I have been interacting and participating in practice mostly with the Iyengar Yoga community over the last 20 years, giving countless workshops on the Yoga Sutras which include the yamas such as ahimsa, and it is my observation that the students with whom I engage have been taking vegetarianism more and more seriously over this period. Everyone knows it is desirable, even as Guru-ji Iyengar recommended but did not mandate it, and I see more and more students in this community increasingly adhering to it, or considering it seriously.
SM: My quick reply to this question is that the issue of vegetarianism or veganism is not prominent at all. Students and friends and family know of my involvement with animal rights and my own veganism. I have written some published articles about my path towards and on veganism. They all know that it is not the health angle that brought me to this lifestyle, although I do know and support the related health issues. Over the last 12 years I have personally introduced hundreds of students and others to the benefits of veganism. Most have learned and been open to at least becoming more conscious of their disconnect. They love their dogs, cats, and birds but still eat cows, fish, and chicken. Even today, most of the students in my school and the ones I meet at workshops and in India are not even vegetarian.
If you have noticed a shift in prominence over the years, in your own community or elsewhere, to what would you attribute that shift?
JH: There is some tension within the Accessible Yoga community regarding personal rights, body positivity and animal rights. The general feeling is that any external guidelines about diet are restrictive and contribute to body image issues. Discussions of vegetarianism/veganism trigger reactions of being overly controlling and trampling personal rights and individual choice. Again animal rights get lost in this discussion, as does the concept of ahimsa, which is at the basis of the practice of yoga.
The teaching of ahimsa is offered in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as the first practice of yoga – the first precept of yama, which is the first limb of ashtanga yoga. The teaching is offered in the context of how to correctly practice yoga – by first doing no harm. Patanjali is offering these teachings as internal, personal codes to help us attain Samadhi, or enlightenment. He’s not necessarily saying that we shouldn’t do harm because it’s wrong. Rather, he’s saying that we shouldn’t do harm because it will interfere with our path to enlightenment by disturbing our mind. With this deeper understanding of ahimsa, we can consider the effect that our lifestyle choices have on our own mind, and our own spiritual journey.
MT: My general observation, as one who has been practicing yoga for many years, as well as someone who has worked within the natural foods industry in community education, as a food editor and as a general consumer, is that vegetarianism has stronger roots in our culture than it did 40 years ago, yet still it is quite outside the norm. At the same time, the number of restaurants now offering vegetarian or vegan options—even in small rural communities—is a demonstration that awareness of interplay between diet and health as well as a willingness to consider that not all meals contain meat, are indicators that things are slowly changing. There is a slow awakening of awareness to the facts that one needs to eat in ways that support health, that there is really no one answer that is the dietary silver bullet for everyone, and that what and how we eat directly affect the environment and the the planet at large.
At the same time vegetarianism is still fringe and is something to which there is a huge resistance, which seems perpetually fueled by the need for a quick fix (usually not vegetarian) such as the paleo diet or the keto diet or whatever the next fad will be. We look for the fast fix when in fact there isn’t one. Anything but paying attention to what the body needs when it needs it!
EB: See my previous comments regarding the Iyengar community. I would attribute this shift partly to more extensive and deeper engagement with especially the Yoga Sutras, which has become canonical for the asana community. For example, Yoga Alliance mandates 20 hours of philosophy for their teacher training courses, and this almost always features the Yoga Sutras from which the yamas will always be a component. In the more than half century since asana yoga has been exported to the West on a massive scale, students have had more time to read more widely and engage canonical Yoga texts. So, coupled with the increase in veganism and vegetarianism in the larger culture, asana practitioners are encountering the moral and philosophical arguments for vegetarianism more than earlier generations simply by dint of the passage of time. Students are becoming more informed consumers, one might say.
It is my opinion (or perhaps hope), actually, that yoga students who have a serious relationship with yoga philosophy could actually be at the forefront of the animal rights movement. Much western discourse on animal rights is focused on health, the environment, and economic considerations. These are supremely important but, in a sense, self-centered, based on our physical, political and environmental well-being. The ancient Indian arguments were exclusively altruistic–concerned for the well-being of fellow beings. One could argue these values are more enlightened, and certainly something practitioners of yoga philosophy can powerfully stress in the public discourse.
SM: Of course I have noticed a shift. It’s not easy or desirable to be ahead of the pack, but I have it seems all my life. How many people were practicing yoga in 1969? By 1974 I was clearly committed to studying the vast subject of yoga through the Iyengars. Sure, some people were dabbling in yoga. And then there were those of us who were studying, practicing and sharing. They talk about “a tipping point” in many life arenas. Clearly the boomers and their extended life span are more interested in living longer with health. And that’s a lot of people. So they are slowly, and I mean slowly, embracing a plant-based diet. It matters. Very few of us were brought up vegetarian or vegan, and so I have to remember that change is difficult.
You can see all the new and delicious products in stores that are vegan. Years ago, I had to make my own seitan. Now you can purchase it. Of course, homemade is still better in so many ways, but having the convenience of products, even tofu, helps others make the transition. The fad of practicing yoga is still very, very popular and veganism will hit its stride too. There will be those who experiment with the changes without proper support. Those will move back towards their old habits. Something will bring them back to a better understanding. Any amount of less meat eating will save more animals, prevent more cruelty, and engage in more kindness to our sentient nonhuman friends.
(*My own reflections on this interview can been found here, published under the title “May Only Some Beings Be Happy and Free.”)
Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over 20 years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone.
Mary Taylor began studying yoga in 1971, but was not until 1988 and finding her primary teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, that she experienced the transformative impact that a dedicated and daily practice can have. Mary co-founded the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado with her husband Richard Freeman. Mary travels and teaches with Richard and also as part of the core faculty of the Being with Dying program (Upaya Zen Center) and theUrban Zen Integrative Therapy Trainings.
Edwin Bryant is presently the professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University. As a personal practitioner of yoga for 35 years, a number of them spent in India studying with traditional teachers, Edwin strives to combine academic scholarship and rigor with sensitivity towards traditional knowledge systems. In addition to his academic course load, Edwin currently teaches workshops on the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and Hindu Philosophy. (www.edwinbryant.org)
Suzie Muchnick began her study of yoga in 1969 and has been teaching Iyengar Yoga since 1975. She runs The B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Center (Postures) of Naples, FL. Suzie has been a Iyengar Yoga certification assessor since 1997, served on three IYNAUS boards, and served as Ethics Chair for two years. She has been vegan for 22 years and is committed to animal rescue, particularly cats and cat foster.