Sunday, September 7, 2008

You Should Eat What I Eat: A Myth Perpetuated By Some Yoga Teachers

At nine years old, I announced I would be a vegetarian. My parents responded first with amusement, then concern, and finally protest. After a brief caucus, they convinced me to reconsider my decision by reintroducing fish and chicken into my new, admittedly ill-conceived nutrition plan. Given that I was barely old enough to use the oven or wield a kitchen knife (and I certainly wasn't doing the grocery shopping), I wasn't exactly poised to be the healthiest of vegetarians.  I wasn't adept at substituting the protein I would miss from meat with alternatives, such as legumes, tofu, etc. In all likelihood, I would subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watermelon, had my parents not intervened.

In high school, after becoming a yogi and studying the principle of ahimsa, I reestablished my vegetarianism (this time, more deliberately and with a well stocked, veggie-friendly school dining hall as a resource) and maintained that choice through most of college. Occasionally, during trips back home to the Cape, I'd feel compelled to savor the fruits of the sea, and I never felt the need to abstain from my grandmother's homemade kale soup, simply because the stock was not vegetarian approved. I looked at my dietary choice from a cumulative perspective, a decision that fit into the framework of my life as a whole, serving as only a fraction of the compassion I could show the world around me. Of course, the opposite of this theory is that there are many ways one can harm another being, independent of food choices.

As a yoga teacher, people often assume that I am a vegetarian (or vegan or macrobiotic or raw foodist), and that's fine. (I can always duck and cover if I'm spotted at my favorite sushi joint;-) What I find less palatable is the assumption on the behalf of some yoga teachers that their students should eat the way they do.  Period.

I believe very strongly that teaching yoga is not a forum for pedaling our own personal agendas, however noble they might be. I also believe that if a teacher is doing a really good job conveying the essence of yoga that students will, by default, make the healthiest, best informed, most appropriate decisions for themselves-- in life and at the supermarket. It's far more compassionate to be understanding of each student's right to make his/her own choices rather than vilify a jam-packed yoga class on Thanksgiving morning for the turkey many people are about to consume (true story: teacher and studio withheld).

I fully acknowledge that my view comprises only a dollop of the discussion on this issue (which is why I invite you to share your own thoughts by posting a comment). I'm the daughter of a chef father and an immigrant mother from a culture entrenched in seafaring and savoring food as a celebration of family. One could make the case that while eating meat is extremely unappealing to me, the fact that plenty of my parents' restaurant patrons did, sent me to college. Moreover, my grandmother even with her eroding memory can probably still recount the first time she fed each of her grandchildren that signature kale soup. To her, its ingredients far surpass those placed in a shopping cart; there's also love, culture, and comfort in her recipe. This is the lens through which I see food; I respect that it's inevitably different from yours.

I haven't eaten red meat since the age of nine (a remnant of my original non-meat pledge).  It's less of an active choice now and more of an innate wiring in my brain. Currently, I eat fish and poultry on occasion. Nevertheless, I believe we're all built differently, and the best we can do is make decisions that optimize our own emotional and physical energy, thereby enhancing our lives and those of the people and sentient beings around us. After all, it's what's in our hearts, not just on our plates, that shape our impact on the world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Has a yoga teacher ever pushed a personal agenda-- food-related or otherwise-- on a class in which you were present? What informs your dietary choices? Did your choices change once you started practicing yoga? Should all recipes on be vegetarian/vegan?


YogaDawg said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

K Fab said...

I went to a studio in NYC a few years ago and while I was waiting to take class, they were piping into the studio a speech by the founder of PETA. It was all about the killing of animals for food. It was the most uncomfortable, inappropriate thing I have ever experienced. There I was, trapped, a captive audience, forced to listen to this studio owner's personal agenda. And it was the most horrific content, meant to cause a reaction. This is a very well known studio with a very popular teacher. Needless to say I was completely turned off, and that would have been the case whether I was a veggie or not.

I find the best teachers live their lives in whatever way they so choose and are an inspiration to their students not by what they say, but how they act. If they act in a way that resonates with some students in a particular way, great. But to push a particular personal agenda is not yoga.

Anonymous said...

Greatest challenge is learning how to balance. Like you, and much to my parents dismay, I became a self-proclaimed vegetarian at 10 years old. Then I became an unhappy vegetarian. My unhappiness had nothing to do with being a vegetarian; it had everything to do with an unhealthy obsession with "being healthy". My eating habits haven't changed all that much, but my attitude towards food and fitness has. I eat what makes me feel good; most of the time, it's fruit and veggies, fish and chicken...sometimes it's gummy fish. Most of the time, it's a regular dose of physical activity, sometimes it's sweats and a movie. I believe a solid yoga practice heightens one's awareness of what works for the individual, not the institution...and certainly not the specific yoga teacher! In short, I agree with you whole-heartedly. Keep it real.

Butterflymama said...

Any person pushing their dogmas or agendas on other people shouldn't be teaching yoga. That's not very yoga-like! I get it that practicing ahimsa means that you practice non-violence and that could include what you eat depending on how you much it matters to you. Only the student can decide for themselves what's right for them. A student just may start to see the effects of heavy meals (meat or not) or excessive drinking, etc and what effects that it has on the body during yoga practice and then they can decide for themselves what kind of changes they'd like to make. Yoga is a process of opening up and awakening the body, among other things, and it's a process that a student must go through in their own time and shouldn't be rushed by people that should be practicing another limb of yoga, satya, to help and support a person's path to their own truth.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think that all recipes on should be vegetarian/vegan. They can be healthy in nature though. Not all of your "fans" are even yoga inspired. They just like to read your blog.

Allyson said...

I believe that living as a yogi is about eating mindfully and listening to your body. I believe in eating whatever your body craves. Before I found yoga, I was a vegetarian and, for one year, I was a vegan. Never had I ignored my body's needs more than during that time! This is not to say that people who choose veggie and vegan diets are not listening to their bodies, it's just that I need different things. I believe that yoga is about acceptance, intuition and connection, not judgment or following one way to live.

Cody said...

Let's not forget that yoga's sister science - ayurveda - actually recommends meat eating for certain individuals, based on their doshas and needs.

I do believe that a largely sattvic diet is beneficial for daily yoga practice, but it's much more important to eat consciously.

Yoga teachers probably shouldn't impose their personal beliefs on their students - but there's no harm in raising consciousness about how ahimsa can be applied in a student's daily life. It's all in the delivery of the message, I guess!

Anonymous said...

what i would like to know is who eats meat and microwaves it?

that, amigos, is where i draw the line.

microwaved meat.