When Yoga and Civilization Collide

04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week's New York Times article, "When Yoga and Chakras Collide," threw the debate between yogis and civilization into relief. Essentially, the piece can be read to pose the following question: If we practice yoga, are we obliged to withdraw from society?

The article highlights the tension many yogis face: whether or not to walk away from animal products and eat primarily raw fruits and vegetables. According to Eva Grubler of the Dharma Yoga in New York (one of America's most revered yoga studios), the ideal yogi diet should consist of, "steamed vegetables, salads and fresh juices." The article also quotes Steve Ross, author of Happy Yoga: Seven Reasons Why There's Nothing to Worry About, who explains in his book, "I get a toxic, icky feeling from eating something that's basically inedible." By that, he means cooked food.

And yet, as the Times reports, some yoga studios are providing meals -- complete with meat, wine and chocolate -- at the end of practice. And they are causing quite a stir in the hardcore vegan / rawfoodist yogi camp. While a sweaty studio would not be my eating-place of choice, not a day goes by when I don't eat cooked food or animal products. And not a day goes by when I don't practice yoga. Both feel better with company.

Until recently, I felt that my innate appetites and love of cooking were directly at odds with my yoga practice. And yet, when I have tried to eat a primarily raw or vegan diet, I feel profoundly unsatisfied, both physically and socially. After having read Richard Wrangham's book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, I understand why I want and need to eat warm, rich food, which sometimes includes flesh. Moreover, I am hardwired to enjoy it with others.

This is how Wrangham's argument boils down: the human discovery of fire essentially catapulted some of our ancestors out of the realm of Neanderthal and into the realm of Homo--Erectus and eventually Sapien. I am not one to distrust a person simply because he or she is not a scholar, but in this case, the distinction is striking. For example, Ross (whose nutritional background appears to be purely anecdotal) claims,"Approximately 85 percent of all vitamins and 100 percent of the enzymes are lost in the cooking process. If you cook anything above 118 degrees F, the enzymes naturally found in that food are destroyed." Unfortunately, Ross does not cite his source. Wrangham, on the other hand, is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard; Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at the Peabody Museum and Director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda. The scholar devotes the final third of his book to footnotes. Both my gut, and my brain are inclined towards his argument.

Indeed, it is both our guts and our brains that distinguish us from our chimp cousins, Wrangham argues. Physical evidence that human beings evolved to cook food -- and evolved because of cooked food -- appears in both our stomachs and brains. The relatively small size of our digestive systems indicates that we evolved to eat food that is easy to digest, including cooked meat. Furthermore, the ease of digestion (cooking makes food easier for the body to process) essentially lends calories to whatever we cook, which in turn allowed our ancestors' brains to develop at a pace unparalleled by any other species. Because their bodies weren't working all day long to digest raw, fibrous foods, our ancestors' brains suddenly had the nutrients necessary to grow exponentially in size. We owe our intelligence to cooked food.

In addition to physical benefits, cooking helped foster society. For example, heating food can be preserved longer, therefore guaranteeing more nutrition for longer periods. Cooking also caused early humans to lose their hair, one of our most distinguishing characteristics. Because of an availability of warmth and warm food, early man no longer needed his furry insulation: I'm sure most raw foodists, if given a choice, would opt to eat cooked food rather than grow a coat. Indeed, as many anthropologists have noted, including Jared Diamond in his book, Guns Germs and Steel, it's the cultivation of agriculture and fire that made it possible for entire civilizations to develop. Without the need to wander in search of food -- be it foraged vegetables of wild animals -- human beings suddenly had the time and energy to sit together and think. It is because of cooked and cultivated food that man eventually built towns, appointed leaders and had the luxury to create art, literature, music, even yoga.

I know many vegetarians and many vegetarian yogis, whom I respect very much. I even know a few who eat primarily raw food -- these are choices that I happily accept. However, when a person tells me that human beings were not designed to eat meat or cooked food, or that my yoga practice is inferior as a result of my diet, I must respectfully disagree. (The common theory that people were not meant to eat meat because of their blunt teeth and small jaws has also been defunct by Wrangham's work: we are meat eaters, we just eat soft meat -- of the cooked variety.)

I used to wonder why I felt so drawn to the stove and to a table full of friends. I long for the very thing provided by yoga studios that offer a communal meal after a communal practice. And yet I felt guilty about it -- as though some primal impulse were keeping me from a truly enlightened practice. Now I realize that the opposite is true: the very thing that makes us human is our desire to cook, cultivate, kill and share our food. There is indeed a beast within each of us, calling us to do the same -- the Homo Sapien.