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Sadie Nardini

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Om Scampi: A Top Yogi Comes Out of the Meat-Eating Closet

Posted: 07/22/09 12:50 PM ET

I've done yoga for 15 years, taught it for 10. I train teachers, travel across the globe doing high-level workshops, conferences and retreats. My days are spent gladly, and often, for free, helping hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to find their best selves ever.

I consider myself a pretty good example of a spiritual practitioner set firmly on her dharma, or path of personal transformation. It's what I was born to do, and who I am.

Yet what I'm about to say will most likely cause some yoga practitioners to rise up against me; a war on our Om turf, if you will. They will discount all my work and message of personal empowerment to so many. They will have you believe I'm a fake, a wolf in yogi's clothing. And that makes me sad, because it's not the reality of my teachers, students and clients.

And honestly? As the owner of a busy NYC studio, I don't really have the time nor energy to start beef, no pun intended, with the yoga community. But I'm simply going to have to take that chance.

Because I've had it.

When one enters a yoga studio, they are more often than not met with the knowing smiles, the beads, the soft voices, the lentil soup and herbal tea. We all know the drill. Yet never is there a plate of organic turkey jerky offered along with the organic carrots, nor even a tidbit of animal protein in the café. If someone walks in and requests some grilled chicken on their tabouleh salad, you can almost hear the inner recoiling happen out loud.

Gods forbid.

Because after all, most yogis learn in Karma 101 class that to eat meat is to swerve sharply from the yogic path. Many top teachers actually think that unless you live according to a vegetarian and therefore, more "cruelty-free" existence, the gates of yogi heaven here on earth remain firmly closed to you.

I disagree.

I get angry -- yes -- actually, absolutely indignant, when I see students being frowned upon by some self-righteous teacher or fellow student as they even think of raising that forkful of shrimp scampi to their lips.

It may seem that the yoga community is all-accepting, and benignly just trying to offer you some easy stretches and simple meditations you can do at home, whoever you are, but I can assure you, as someone who has seen behind the scenes of two of the country's biggest yoga communities, New York and LA, for 15 years, that is not always the case. Many of the most famous teachers are not only vegetarian, but think you should be too, or you're not "as yogic" as they are. I know...they've told me so in person. To me, that's not spiritual...that's judgment, pure and simple.

People hide their passion for sushi or burning desire for a big juicy steak from their instructors, and eyes narrow when a student dares to mention it in polite company.

There is a strong "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the yoga community that is keeping students, and even many teachers, locked firmly inside the meat-eating closet. If they do tell, they run the risk of being placed somewhere along the imaginary, self-created spectrum of yoginess, usually more towards the bottom than the vegans among us.

One result of this is that yoga is getting a bad rap, as a culture of Yogier-Than-Thou, which has people running back to the gym in droves. No one wants to be made to feel like a lesser being, especially while already lurching around in Tree Pose like a drunken sailor. And I'm sick and tired of seeing it happen again and again in studios across the country, proving to potential students that they are not welcome as they are...but will be only if they plan to change.

I'm one of the only teachers of a certain level I who is willing to publicly speak up and call it out. I'm risking a lot doing this, as I am moving to a larger arena in my own teaching, and could turn off the very people who are taking me there.

But it's my truth, and I'm sticking to it.

So here goes:

Many of the largest studios in NYC stress a strict vegetarian or even vegan diet as one required step towards enlightenment. One of the biggest makes their teacher trainees adopt this diet at least for the yearlong duration of training. I could name names, but it's hardly necessary. People stereotype yoga practitioners this way for a good reason -- it's epidemic.
Students come to me all the time afraid to tell me about their darkest, dirtiest secret: they are omnivores. One even cried when I told her I eat meat too. She had been so traumatized at a top studio by having to watch unannounced Meat is Murder videos before being taught her yoga class.

The issue I take with this is multifaceted. I don't care if a studio, or anyone, wants to require rules in their own space. But damned if they don't stop there. At the top of my list is the judging of others that happens when a vegetarian, peaced-out [read: skipping father along the yogic path] yogi encounters a meat-eater who is still arguing with her boyfriend [read: stumbling back there in the mud somewhere with one shoe lost forever and a soaked-through sock, barely making do].

I see the loving compassion in many a yogi's eyes light up when someone is behaving the way they'd like: calm, cool, collected, in control, eating nothing with a face. After all, we're all one, especially when we're living life the way that one feels, through their studies, and beliefs about the world are right for all of humanity to adopt.

But when faced with a yogi heathen who asked for grilled chicken in their quinoa and kale salad, the light blinks out, and they assume a teaching stance, spouting their gospel truth, and towering spiritually over the poor, unenlightened student, akin to Harry Potter receiving a sorcerer smackdown at Hogwarts. They might say they don't feel "more than"... but deep down, or not so deep at all, they do.

I have heard celebrity teachers say to packed classes, "Eating meat is an unconscious action, and you simply cannot count yourself as a yogi if you do."

To back up their ideals, they quote Scripture [written largely by unknown authors, scholars and poets -- sound familiar?], repeat the admonitions of their gurus, or teachers, and set their own opinions in stone. "The way, the truth and the light", they seem to be saying.

As a member of a family who is in part evangelical Christian, this sounds all too familiar.
To me, this attitude smacks dangerously of any fundamentalist religion or worldview which becomes fanatical and separatist from all who don't perceive the world, and any world beyond, in the way they do. Disagreeing with someone's choice because it's not for you is one thing, but thinking you're better than them because of it is dangerous. It's that "one truth, my truth" thinking that is killing our world community.

Full disclosure: I used to be one of the Yoga Fundamentalists, kind of.

I was a vegetarian for 6 years, and a nutrition specialist, so I knew full well what to eat for optimal health. I believed my teachers when they said vegetarianism creates a clean mind, which creates a clean spirit. As if your spirit could have high cholesterol. I was a diligent vegetarian and dedicated yoga student, and later, teacher. Yet, I physically, never felt worse, had lower energy or caught more illnesses. Yet there was one major difference between me and many of the yogis I hear talking their yogi smack today. I never thought I was better, or more spiritual than anyone else based on my food choices. I always maintained that my choice was mine alone, and I accepted people for theirs.

The first time I ate meat again, it was a Kielbasa sausage with sauerkraut at Veselka's Deli on 2nd Avenue. I felt vitality surge back into my body. For me, the highest self-healing and best energy is achieved through a conscious, healthy diet containing mindfully-sourced meat. And though delicious, that Kielbasa wasn't it. I moved on from there to procure compassionately raised, small farm, local when possible, sources of my protein, as well as my other foods.

Am I buying the 24-pack of hot dogs from Costco? No. Am I eating a medium-rare, grass-fed, free-range, organic filet mignon instead of the couscous and beans sometimes? You betcha.

Yogis might sputter, "But meat rots in your intestines and poisons you! The human body can't process it!" First of all, the chemicals in processed and factory meat, and the high-fat meats should be avoided. But I can tell you (though you might not want to know this much about me) that after many years of eating lean, hormone, antibiotic-free, natural meats, my colonics are clear of animal sludge. My cholesterol is healthfully low. I feel vital, strong, and good.

Look at the French, who ate meat, cheese, and wine regularly, from the earth and with respect, and had radically lower heart disease, and obesity than the US. Before Western fast-food restaurants appeared, that is. Mediterraneans and Asians too.

If you can't be spiritual and eat meat, than nearly the entire rest of the world would be disqualified from our studios. The Dalai Lama began to eat meat on the advice of his doctor because his vegetarian diet was not fueling him properly. In many places, a vegetarian or vegan diet is not possible, and more expensive than the average salary can afford. It's not only spiritual-ist but classist to demand it as a prerequisite.

I can hear the yogis recoiling, then roaring from here: "but it's not just about health! It's about the destruction of our earth/ecosystem/morality from eating meat!"

Whoa there, nellies.

I agree that the factory farmed meat industry is a disgusting, under-regulated mess. If you don't know this, watch the fabulous movie "Food, Inc" out now.

People and animals alike would be far better served by consumers eating fewer animal products, and when they do, choosing it from more carefully regulated, caring and healthful sources. Sounds reasonable to me.

But no, argue many yogis, that's not true balance. Eating any animal product whatsoever not only adds notches to your karmic belt, it blocks you from enlightenment. They may even say they accept all kinds of people into their classes. Yet if they're totally honest with themselves, deep down, they either think it's yogically substandard to eat animal products or they feel guilty about doing it themselves. Many are not-so-secretly hoping their students will change to a veggie diet through time spent with them.

Removing huge swaths of food groups from our diets may not be the most balanced action...and it may not be based on reality, either. At least, not mine.

If we look at this whole issue from an energetic, "spiritual" point of view. then what about the billions of insects that are killed each year to produce the, well, the produce that fuels the vegetarian diet, or the fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are still alive while they are being masticated to death in order to satiate the yogi's "enlightened" way of eating?
Plants feel pain, and recognize when people wish to harm them. Read the Secret Life of Plants to understand that they are conscious beings too.

If we ate to avoid killing any living thing, we'd all die of starvation.

Of course, even though yogis believe we are technically "all one", I guess that "all beings everywhere" actually means "all those with a cute face", and end up taking priority over those with long, spindly legs and gross wormy bodies. But in this case, size doesn't matter. A baby is not lower on the spiritual validity spectrum value than an adult. As Horton said in Horton Hears a Who, "A person's a person, no matter how small." This includes the elephant speaking, as well as the microspeck community of Whos living on the clover.

We simply cannot avoid taking lives in order to sustain our own. That is a basic cycle of nature.

Also, one of the highest yogic principles, and the one often cited as the reason not to kill animals for food is ahimsa, or "non-harming". We sometimes neglect to see that for some people, eating lean animal protein helps their bodies to function better. I am one of them. To deny your body what it is asking for and needs to remain the most vital, is to Self-harm, and that is where the Ahimsa practice is supposed to begin.

Some yogis neglect to recall their history -- that yoga as a philosophical system is thousands of years old and comprises hundreds of different styles, including Tantra, which included schools that exalted eating meat if it served the body's needs, drinking a little wine, and generally having fun...in moderation...or not.

It was all divine, many Tantrics said, just an energetic dance or "lila" that had its consequences one way or the other, but should not be judged as inherently "good" or "bad" by anyone.

I'm not a classical yogi. I'm not Tantric, either. I'm just a girl trying to get through this life with courage and balance and love. When it comes to what I eat, I prefer to take a page from my Native American heritage, and honor any animal, vegetable or mineral that I choose to eat for giving its life essence to me, so that I might go out and make of my life, now our lives, something beautiful and brave. In this way, we are truly all one, and as one, we continue to lead by example, and be the change we wish to see in the world.

So for all these reasons and more, I've grown weary of hearing from my contemporaries that eating a turkey instead of a Tofurkey at Thanksgiving is "not yogic" and have that backed up, erroneously, by some of the most instrumental teachers we have.

I am also thankful for it, so I may step forward, share my voice and be the teacher for those who want to do what's best for them: practice yoga, be who they wish to be, and have a nonjudgemental home in which to be it.

To require people, even teachers themselves, to be the Buddha before they are accepted as "spiritual enough" overlooks millions of real people behind who were just seeking guidance for how to stay centered in their everyday lives. This, therefore, causes them to feel misunderstood, or worse, seen, and then looked down upon, which is infinitely more hurtful...and not even remotely the purpose of the yoga I know.

When yoga becomes exclusive, instead of inclusive, people are turned off from the practice before they have a chance to explore the healing, anti-aging, weight loss, mind centering, heart opening and myriad other priceless benefits it holds for them.

I don't mind yogis, or hell, anyone, eating or living the way they feel is right for them. I'd feel personally better if they reduced harm and increased love through their actions, but hey -- that's how I live and I teach what I live, leading by example...and that's all I can do.

But I worry about the state of my beloved practice, one that is supposed to be a refuge for all, and I mean, all beings everywhere, when a few leaders start deciding what is "right" for everyone else. I don't proselytize you to become a meat-eater, or push my farmer's market pork chop on you. I welcome your right to choose as I expect you to welcome mine, trusting and even respecting that we know what the right actions are...for ourselves.

So how about we go out for dinner, talk about it, while you eat your vegan salad in peace, and I'll do the same, though I may sprinkle some Whole Foods nitrite-free Bacon Bits on mine.

Let's start living our yoga out loud, and walk smack down the middle of the path, together.

Whaddya say?

 

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