I'm a yogi, and after 15 years of a vegetarian diet, I've started to eat meat. Whew. It feels good to say that. Over the last several months, I've embarked on a quest of introspection and exploration- looking within and opening my eyes to new ways of being- in order to step into greater health and alignment. As a newly minted conscientious omnivore, I feel stronger and more balanced than ever- physically, ethically, and spiritually.
I initially gave up eating meat in late adolescence because of my discomfort with death and what I perceived at the time to be unnecessary violence. That was an important step in the evolution of my consciousness. After many years as a vegetarian and the building responsibilities of adulthood, I was spending most of my time feeling exhausted and depleted. Having been anemic my whole life, I took iron supplements and B12 injections, both of which were ineffective. Every time I tried to donate blood, I was given a pamphlet about the importance of increasing my iron levels and I dismissed it as the hubris of Western medicine. Over time, though, instead of being turned off by the smell of meat, I began to crave it when it was being cooked around me. As a yogi, I train myself to become finely attuned to my body and it felt wrong to ignore my body's needs. So, after careful consideration, I decided to try.
The first animal flesh I ate was from a pasture-raised whole chicken that I cut up alongside my husband. As I was doing so, I didn't feel squeamish or disgusted. Rather, I felt immense gratitude for the life in front of me. Our preparation of the meat was an honoring of this animal's life and an acknowledgment of our place in the cycle of life and death. After eating this chicken, I felt rooted to the earth in a profound way, and I felt more connected to our true nature. Within several weeks of my return to an omnivorous diet, I began to experience subtle and dramatic improvements in my health and vitality. I felt strong in my asana practice in a way that I never had before. I had more energy throughout the day. My chronic insomnia improved, I got fewer headaches, and lower back pain that had persisted for several months began to dissipate. My experience has been so positive that I feel it would be irresponsible not to give voice to it.
The yoga community exhibits a curious tendency to idealize certain diets and vilify others. Ahimsa, or non-harm, is the virtue most commonly espoused as a mandate to stop consuming animal products. I find it odd that this virtue often seems not to apply to fellow human beings. I've been on the receiving end of harsh criticism and attacks based on my dietary choices, and I'm not alone. Through my research over the last few months, I've learned of numerous instances in which those who've chosen to be vocal about their return to omnivorism have been the victims of online harassment, hate mail, death threats, and professional sabotage. So I have fear as I write this, and I refuse to be silenced by bullies.
Early on in my yoga practice, I remember falling down some dark wells thinking about the harm I was causing simply by existing. It seemed to me that the only way to cause no harm would be to not exist. This felt strikingly similar to the pressures many women feel to continue shrinking, becoming more and more perfect while taking up less and less space, to use deprivation as the barometer for moral fortitude. I thought perhaps the only way for me to live by yogic principles would be to consume nothing so that I would eventually waste away.
Remembering an insight from one of my first yoga teachers changed all this. She said that ahimsa must always be coupled with satya, or truth. The truth is that our very existence as human beings causes harm. We are heterotrophs. In order for us to live, something must die. Realizing this has been a personal revolution. Instead of carrying my constant fatigue as a symbol of my virtue, I now feel that I deserve to be strong. I deserve to feel well. I deserve to take up space. As I've stepped into my wholeness, other women in my family have done so as well, shedding tightly held food restrictions.
I've also learned that not all yogis, past or present, advocate for a completely plant-based diet. The sage Vishwamitra of ancient Indian lore ate meat and it strikes me as no accident that my change in diet emerged as I embarked on the series of postures that begins with his name. The Dalai Lama includes meat in his diet and many yoga teachers acknowledge the need to listen to one's body and adapt over the course of a lifetime. From an anthropological lens, there is no evidence of a multigenerational society surviving on solely plant-based foods. As much as we have been gatherers, we have been hunters. A newborn thirsts for its mother's milk, a pure animal food.
I'm not advocating for the Standard American Diet here. I'm advocating for the freedom to eat what enables us to thrive. For most people, that is a combination of plant and animal foods. I'm also advocating for the simultaneous practice of ahimsa and satya by working together to minimize suffering. There's no doubt that industrialized farming is causing a tremendous amount of harm to our planet and to the animals we raise for food. The way I choose to practice is by conscientiously consuming- procuring animal products from the most ethical sources we can find. Instead of feeling shamed by the animal rights community for making this choice, I would relish the opportunity to sit together, share perspectives, and come up with innovative solutions to heal the earth while increasing access to humanely raised animal products. In fact, over the last couple of months, I've made it a point to seek out conversations with a variety of people on this topic and what I've discovered is that there as many kind, compassionate ranchers as there are vegans. Butchers and chefs have as much reverence for animals as activists filming slaughterhouse exposés. The reverse is also true. There are plenty of mean-spirited people who eat meat and plenty who eat only plants. Our dietary choices do not determine our ability to love.
What has also become clear to me is that fundamentalism is not going to save us, the animals, or our planet. If we refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of multiple perspectives, there's no hope for a more harmonious path forward. Fundamentalism is a form of violence in and of itself, and if we are truly working to reduce suffering, taking up arms seems like a fatally flawed tactic. There are members of the yoga community who seem to have conflated eating conscientiously with a dangerous attachment to perfection. I would encourage us instead to create space for nuance so that we may all play a role in building a future that's not only sustainable, but regenerative.
As I embrace my newly found omnivorism, I've developed a deeper sense of gratitude for everything that I eat. I cherish my weekly trips to the farmers market, picking out my favorite fruits and vegetables as the seasons change. I also cherish picking up our bimonthly Amish dairy delivery and I cherish talking to the rancher who raises the bison that nourishes my blood. As a teacher, I now encourage my students to explore including more animal products in their diets if they're constantly tired or feeling low energy. At the same time, I respect each person's choice. Our shala community includes vegans, vegetarians, omnivores, and a butcher. We all strive to eat and live in a way that allows us to feel vibrant and do good work. In this way, we're creating a microcosm of what's possible when we let go of rigidity and step into authenticity. A friend of mine who's a reverend, animal lover, and omnivore recently sent me this blessing:
All life is one
and everything that lives is holy:
Plants, animals and men.
All must eat to live
and to nourish one another.
We bless the lives
that have died to give us food.
Let us eat consciously,
resolving by our work to pay
the debt of our own existence.
My hope in sharing my journey is that it inspires us to honor our needs, honor our humanity, honor each other, and come together to create a world in which the act of eating, in all its forms, is treated as sacred.