Does Ahimsa Mean I Can’t Eat Meat?

Practicing the principle of nonharming can trigger dissonance in omnivores. Here are some thoughts on reconciling your diet with your practice. By Kate Holcombe

Does Ahimsa Mean I Can't Eat Meat?

FOR SEVERAL YEARS in the 199os, I lived in Chennai, India, and had the privilege of studying every day with the great yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar. One day, a young man from France was brought in for a consultation with Mr. Desikachar. This man was very eager to learn yoga and had committed himself to staying in India and studying for several months. But his health had been declining since his arrival in India, and after
a few weeks, he had lost quite a bit of weight, had become very pale and weak, and was unable to focus on his studies.

During Mr. Desikachar’s evaluation of this young man, he asked him about his diet, and most specifically, if he ate meat.

“Why, no, sir, of course not,” the man replied.

“Why do you say ‘of course not’?” inquired Mr. Desikachar.

“Because I want to be a yoga teacher,” he said, “and everyone knows that yoga teachers cannot eat meat.”

The young student reflected a belief of many yoga teachers and students today that yoga somehow forbids eating meat. Many who have studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, widely considered the authoritative text of yoga, equate the concept of ahimsa, or non-harming, with vegetarianism. It’s natural for those who study yoga to try to adopt an entire lifestyle that reflects their new commitment to conscious living and mental and physical balance.

But according to the Yoga Sutra, you don’t have to become a vegetarian. The confusion stems in part from a misinterpretation of ahimsa, combined with the fact that the first generation of yoga teachers mostly studied with teachers—such as Sri Desikachar, Swami Satchidananda, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Sri Pattahbi Jois—who, being culturally Indian and Brahmin, tended to be vegetarian. So an idea has developed in the yoga community that conflates yoga with vegetarianism. But the practice of ahimsa is not as simple as that.