One thing I learned in studying the yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sutras in my Pranalife Yoga Teacher Training this past year was to withhold judgment of others. I realized the yamas and niyamas could help me explain my choice to no longer eat meat but might also help me be less judgmental of people who make different choices.

According to T.K.V. Desikachar there are no prerequisites for studying yoga. In fact, in speaking about not smoking, being a vegetarian, giving away all our earthly goods, etc., he says that:

“Such ways of behaving are admirable only if they originate within us – and they may as a result of yoga – but not if they are imposed from the outside.”

The part about behaviors originating within us as a result of yoga — that’s the part that really interests me. I think yoga can be a useful tool to help us ask difficult questions, like why we make the choices we do. It’s when we stop to consider our choices that they can become actual decisions and not just habits. So perhaps it’s less about whether we choose to eat meat and/or other animal products or not to eat them but rather that we’ve thought about our choice. Because it’s the habit that’s not yogic.

I started asking these difficult questions about 2 years ago. I had flirted with the idea of vegetarianism for years but in a busy household with 4 active kids, meat was often a convenient fall-back plan to get everyone fed. Then our daughter chose “Vegetarian for a Month” for a project at school and I thought it would be a good idea for everyone in the family to support her.

And when the project month ended, I couldn’t go back to eating meat.

It was partly because I began researching online and found lots of evidence to support the health benefits of eating little to no meat: fighting heart disease, reducing cancer risk and the risk of osteoporosis, lowering cholesterol, blood sugar and obesity risk, etc. I read about evidence suggesting  that we just don’t need meat like we used to in the days when we were shrinking our guts and growing our brains in order to develop language and social skills.

Then Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals seemed to call out to me at the bookstore. I might not have even taken a second look if our family hadn’t been in the middle of our meatless month but I bought it and read it. It was a game-changer.

As I read in his book about the effects of our current system of factory farming on the environment (climate change from greenhouse gas production, the land and water use required to raise the billions and billions of animals/year that are slaughtered for human consumption, the overuse of antibiotics required because of overcrowding etc.) I became more and more convinced that I could no longer support such an industry by purchasing their products.

Perhaps what impacted me the most though was Safran Foer’s research into and description of the conditions in which 99% of the animals raised for human consumption are kept. There’s no way to describe these conditions other than inhumane. Go ahead and google it. But be warned there are some terrifying images out there.

This brings me back to the yamas and niyamas of the Yoga Sutras as a framework for summing up my feelings about eating meat.

There are several that seem applicable (non-stealing, truthfulness, impeccable behaviour etc.) but the yama of “ahimsa”, non-violence or non-harming, seems most directly related.

I feel I can no longer take my yoga practice off my mat and practice ahimsa in my daily life while still eating meat because it seems like an act of violence toward the living creatures that are raised for consumption, toward the environment as a whole because of industrialized factory farming, and toward myself because of the negative health effects.

I realize this may not be new information; it’s all been discussed and argued about before at length. I also know that, whether habit based or not, food preferences can be among the most difficult to change. Which is why nothing I’ve written is necessarily going to impact anyone else’s personal choices around food. And I have to be OK with that.

In order to really practice the yama of non-violence I can’t judge the choices that others make.

I have to keep working at showing love and compassion to those who view these issues differently than I do. I get to practice this up close and personal every day because at the end of our daughter’s school project half our family decided to go back to eating meat and the other half chose to continue as vegetarians. This has made for some interesting discussions and compromises.

We’ve gone through several transitions as a family over the past two years, and there will likely be more as we continue to navigate different beliefs, opinions and preferences. The meat-eaters in our household have, perhaps grudgingly, accepted that I’m not going to buy or prepare meat anymore. I’ve accepted that when we’re out at restaurants or visiting the houses of friends and family, those who are still comfortable eating meat are likely still going to do so. My husband, who still eats meat, will occasionally buy and prepare it for those who want to eat it, but he has also been great about making sure there are always good vegetarian choices available when we eat out.

Perhaps my family can be a microcosm for how I’ve started to view the bigger picture.

If I judge anyone for their choices with any sort of violently emotional response I am, of course, practicing the violence that I am advocating we curtail by eating less meat or no longer eating it at all. Instead, I need to show love and compassion to those who view these issues differently than I do. Another quote by T.K.V. Desikachar states:

“The success of yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”

I can’t just focus on the part about how I live my life and ignore the part about how that affects my relationships; these two have to go hand in hand for it to actually be yoga. That’s what I’ll keep striving for. Maybe it will lead to some more radical lifestyle changes. Maybe just subtle ones. Maybe you’ll begin to eat less animal products. Maybe I’ll give away more of my earthly goods. Or stop judging people so harshly. But let’s support and love one another through it all. Because if we can’t, then what is the point of any of this.

How have you made mindful choices about your food in your own life? Share with us in the comments!

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