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Two years ago, I traveled to Belize to report on a specialized yoga instructor workshop. I’ve practiced yoga for some time, and took for granted that I wouldn’t be the only vegan in the group. Yet, when we gathered for meals, I observed all the other participants eating meat and animal products. I was shocked. In my mind, being a vegan yoga practitioner seemed intuitive, an embrace of the yogic concept of ahimsa, which calls for not harming others.
But I was the outsider in the group, the one who wasn’t an instructor. Maybe I was wrong? After all, many people come to yoga solely for its fitness benefits and may not even know about the philosophical aspects. Nonetheless, long after I filed my story about the workshop, I still wanted to know: What does yoga really teach about being vegan?
The roots of ahimsa
Yoga, of course, is a centuries-old practice. What we consider ‘classical yoga’ comes to us from the writings called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled at some point between 500 BCE and 400 CE.
“His yoga system was and still is regarded by many as one of the six philosophical systems of ancient India,” says Sharon Gannon, founder of the Jivamukti Yoga Method and author of several books, including Yoga and Veganism: The Diet of Enlightenment.
Although Patanjali’s book is brief, in chapter two he establishes something called the ‘eight limbs.’ Think of the limbs as an eight-step plan to attain yoga, where the definition of ‘yoga’ is being able to join or connect. “To connect with God, the eternal blissful source, is the ultimate yoga,” Gannon says. “What is realized in the yogic state of enlightenment is the oneness of being – but to get there, Patanjali suggests that you first connect well with others.”
The first limb of that eight-step plan focuses on the yamas, a Sanskrit term that means restriction.
“In the context of the eight limbs of yoga, yamas pertain to restrictions of one’s behavior in relation to others,” Gannon says. There are five yamas: Ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteva (non-stealing), brahmacharya (not to abuse others sexually), and aparigraha (lack of greed).
“All of the five yamas, not just ahimsa, can be applied to how we are treating other animals,” Gannon says. “The standard American diet is a meat- and dairy-based diet that involves harm, lies, theft, sexual abuse, and greed.”
When Holly Skodis, founder of Yoga is Vegan and host of a weekly Clubhouse room about yoga and veganism, took her first teacher training, ahimsa was taught, but it had a different interpretation. “It was more about being kind to yourself without an acknowledgement of all sentient beings,” she says.
According to Gannon, that understanding Skodis encountered – that ahimsa should apply to how one treats oneself – is a misreading. Instead, she points out, the second yama of the eight limbs is niyama, containing five observances that outline how a person should treat themselves. Ahimsa isn’t one of them.
“If Patanjali intended ahimsa to be applied to how a person treats themselves, he would have placed it in niyama,” Gannon says. “Patanjali intended it as a directive for aspiring yogis to practice in regard to their relationship with others so they don’t cause harm to others.”
Does one need to be vegan to fully embrace yoga?
And so we return to my original question from that trip to Belize: Should yogis, especially those who teach yoga, always be vegan?
“Of course, I think the answer is yes,” Skodis says. “But while we’re all moving toward this final destination of finding liberation, there are teachers for every student, and not every student will want to be vegan to practice yoga, nor should yoga exclude those who aren’t vegan.”
For Skodis, though, her own choice is clear. “While it’s impossible to be in alignment with ahimsa all the time,” she says, “when you start to uncover the practices that go into how food gets on your plate, you quickly understand that meat and dairy go against ahimsa.”
Jivamukti Yoga, founded by Gannon, defines yoga as a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. Its foundation is based on five tenets, ahimsa being one.
“Animal rights and veganism fall under the ahimsa tenet and are an important part of the teachings that will be communicated by a Jivamukti yoga teacher,” Gannon says, adding that Jivamukti welcomes anybody who has an interest in yoga, even those who aren’t yet vegan, to take its teacher training. She estimates that although most teachers who enroll aren’t vegan, roughly 90 percent become vegan by the end of their training.