Do I Need to be Vegan to do Yoga?
I am an omnivore. I have been alienated several times because of this in the yoga community. I have tried veganism for several months, several times and it has not been a good experience for me in general. I have felt depressed or a constant lack of energy. I have lost significant muscle mass. I have had digestive problems. There was no good experience ever during these times. However, I am always working on avoiding certain type of food (like red meat, for example) because of my own personal reasons. I want to be clear, I don't think there is anything wrong with veganism. But I do think that most vegans fail to persuade others into their lifestyle to a point where people develop aversion to it.
My mom was born on the coast of Italy. My dad was born on an island in Venezuela. If you are born by the sea, you won’t think anything wrong about eating fish. To me it feels unnatural not to have at least a vegetarian diet. I will not pretend to have the answer, but I will try to touch some sensitive points about veganism and yoga.
No violence: There is no passage in the sutras that establishes veganism as the only option. There is historical evidence suggesting that some spiritual communities that practiced yoga in the East had meat, fish, eggs or dairy as part of their regular diet for centuries. Even Ayurveda, which is a tradition linked to yoga, considers dairy as part of a healthy diet for most people. However, karma yoga regards Ahimnsa, the practice of non-violence, as a key factor in the path to enlightenment. Another way to put it is to say, you cannot harm life, you cannot eat animals. One common counter argument is that the lack of animal food could harm yourself if that is the source of nutrients that your body requires for well-functioning. For example, some aboriginal communities’ diet depends solely on the animals in the surroundings. But I don’t think this example applies to modern Western society. We could agree that the meat and dairy industry uses violence and animal cruelty to deliver food to the consumer. Also the fishing industry is extinguishing all life forms in the ocean. In that sense I think it is important to establish a difference between the hunter-gatherer food consumption and the modern industrial one. However, Ahimnsa doesn’t justify veganism as the only option in the industrialized modern world either. The agriculture industry is also full of cruelty. Crops have been genetically modified and wrongly chemically treated. Farming conditions all around the world are most of the times infrahuman. That is also bad karma.
Source of protein: Our intake of protein is linked to our evolutionary process. The brain humans have today is the consequence of increased protein intake from meat sources. Hunting had a significant impact in the development of socialization, language, cooperation and planning in the first human communities.. Amino acids, which are the components of protein, are the foundation of muscle and organs growth. Both animal and vegetable source protein have pros and cons. However, most studies agree that animal source protein is the biggest, most complete and the easiest to assimilate. Some meat protein is linked to cardiovascular problems due to high levels of cholesterol and fat, though. Nevertheless, vegetable protein normally comes with a high intake of carbs, also linked to obesity and cardiovascular problems, with the exception of soy or nuts. But soy is also linked to the development of allergies, reduced absorption of minerals and irregular digestion, negative effects that can also be found in other beans. Nuts may be a good source of fat and protein but again can't be the only source of protein. For example, one single almond needs five liters of water, making its regular global consumption unsustainable. However, protein from cattle requires even higher amounts of water. Though super foods and other high protein plants, like quinoa or avocado, are easier to digest, they have lower amino acid rates and body assimilation ratios than animal source protein. Most of these products grow in specific regions of the world making its consumption also exclusive and non-sustainable. The Netherlands population became the tallest one in the world in just 150 years. Growing an average of 20 cm during this period, the phenomenon is partially explained by the simultaneous increase in dairy and meat intake. However, if the Chinese population were to consume that much meat protein, there wouldn’t be enough land and resources in the entire world to sustain that consumption. And on top of this, a big part of global warming is caused by methane gases released into the atmosphere from cattle farming. All this raises questions about overpopulation and the realms of optimal individual nutrition.
Yoga and body image: Yoga helps you develop a healthy body. That is, the best body you can make out of you. The media sells you a body image that is not necessarily healthy. Depending on your body type, it might be healthy for you to be more or less strong, or flexible or to have more or less body fat. The bulky guy image doesn't work for everyone. The same can be said of the skinny fashion model body type. In a similar way, you can find articles scientifically assuring different ideal protein intakes per day. Every body needs different nutritional sources and it is hard to figure out which one is the right for you.
Yoga is about balance: And here I will give you my biased opinion. Yoga is about finding harmony, being one with nature and the universe. I can’t agree with those that think that a diet based mostly on soy is healthy. I can’t agree with any diet that considers only a few sources of food. All ancient tribes have some animal source intake in their diets. In the regions in the world with the highest longevity statistics, known as the blue zones, all include some form of animal food in their diets. But they also eat all sorts of vegetables, nuts, even insects, everything local. New studies indicate that populations with a wide range of food source live longer, stronger and healthier. One of the biggest ideas in permaculture is that mono-crops not only are bad for the ecosystem but also bad for farmers that are forced to eat from a few sourced of food, affecting their immune system, longevity and physical performance.
My grandmother used to tell stories about growing up in Italy. She would tell me about how they ate whatever the local land provided. Crops were small. Some family members would grow vegetables or gather mushrooms in the woods; others would hunt or sacrifice a barn animal. She died of old age. She would say that family members from around the province would gather for the harvest. They would all prepare food for the winter, make wine and celebrate abundance for days. Food used to be a communal thing that brought people together and connected them with the land. That, to me, is good karma.