"No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies." — Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Yoga Books Espousing Vegetarianism

I was looking through a large number of books about yoga yesterday. Some of them were more than just "asana picture books"; some had information on meditation, diet, and lifestyle. This is good; yoga isn't just about putting your foot in your ear. The issue I have is about the diet they propose.

Let's go back a bit. Yoga has always been considered a sort of "spiritual science". That doesn't mean it's "religious". It is a collection of tools, a path, that can help one to focus on whatever it is that one wants to focus on. Most of the time, traditional yogis focused on their Self and Brahman, and how they were really the same thing.

A vegetarian or vegan diet has a certain energy to it. That energy is uplifting, airy, space-y, rarefied, light, expansive, cool, and dry. These are all qualities that a meditator wants to embrace, as they assist the mind and spirit in "rising above" the body and the Earth and into other realms.

So, since the goal of yoga is mastery of the mind, and the mind is helped to roam free by a diet lacking in heavy foods, yoga suggests a vegetarian diet (lacto-vegetarian, to be a bit more precise; they consider milk "the perfect food").

Yet, not all Indians are vegetarian. The ancient Indian medical science of Ayurveda suggests different diets for different people and for different purposes. Ayurveda suggests cooking almost all food, at least a little, to help pre-digest it. It suggests more meat for some people, and less meat for others. It suggests special diets for certain things like illnesses, detoxification, or certain times of the year.

Different people practice yoga for different reasons. Some change their reasons over time, or as their body and mind change. Some want a "yoga butt" and strong, flexible muscles. Some want to control their mind. Some just want to relax. These are all good goals, and yoga provides all these things.

If yoga is so wide as to provide these different things to different people at different times, why does it only have "one diet" - vegetarianism?

I think that your diet should be modified to fit your body, your mind, and your goals, in that order. A simple list may help make this a bit more understandable:

  1. Start by eating what your body is built to eat, and by not eating what your body is not built to eat. Human beings are omnivores. Our evolution dictates what our body requires for sustenance. Listen to millions of years of development! Also, if you are allergic or even slightly intolerant of a food (say, gluten/wheat or milk), stop eating it completely as it stresses your body.
  2. Next, modify your diet according to your activity. For example, if you are building muscle, you need lots of protein. If you are meditating more than exercising, you need less protein and more airy, light foods.
  3. Next, modify your diet according to other various factors such as the time of year, certain individual conditions, or suggestions of a physician or teacher.
  4. Then, if you'd like, you can modify your diet by your personal preferences and tastes.
Each of these items are cumulative and possibly subtractive. So, you start in step 1 with, say 1000 foods. Then in step 2, you may remove 200 items. Step 3 may remove another 100 things, and step 4 may cut out some more. You may be left with 500 items you are built to eat, that are tailored to your activity at this time, that are appropriate for the season and personal conditions, and that you enjoy eating.

As a yoga teacher, I might suggest a high-protein, meat-heavy diet for someone who is doing a strong asana practice, and maybe a pesco-vegetarian diet for someone who is using light asana as a preparation for lengthy meditation. At all times, I would modify the diet according to the results, the time of the year, and the person's preferences. In all cases, I would insist on natural, organic, free-range or wild meats, organic vegetables, organic fruits and nuts, and raw milk (if the person can tolerate it). No factory-farmed anything, and nothing from a box!

Everyone is different. Everyone has different goals. Hence, everyone's diet should be tailored to them, now, for that purpose.

(P.S. I am following a paleo diet for two reasons. First, it is an experiment; I have been vegan or vegetarian in the past. And second, my yoga practice is currently very asana-heavy, and I am trying to build muscle, connective tissue, and bone, so I want more nutrient-dense foods.)