Assess the damage
Ahimsa (sutra II:3o) is the first of five social and environmental guidelines, called yamas, presented by Patanjali in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra. The yamas are the first of eight “limbs,” or means, to help you reach a state of yoga, or focused concentration, in order to perceive more clearly, be more connected with your authentic Self, and suffer less as a result.
The yamas consist of five components: ahimsa (nonharming), satya (the truth that do esn’t hurt), asteya (noncovetousness), brahmacharya (appropriate relationships and boundaries), and aparigrah (only accepting what is appropriate).
As I tell my students, these guidelines help us differentiate between the ever-changing, impermanent mind and what Patanjali describes as the part of us that is pure, perfect, unchanging, and permanent: our own true, authentic Self. By differentiating between the two, we can act from a place of our authentic Self (instead of from the mind), and therefore experience less suffering.
In the case of the French yoga student, Mr. Desikachar looked him in the eye and asked, “Have you considered the harm you are doing to yourself by not eating meat?” He said this young man was not getting the adequate nutrients for his body type, and that the Indian vegetarian diet was not serving him—and was, in fact, harming him. He then advised the man to start eating some chicken or fish right away and to have at least two servings a day.
Now, of course, Desikachar was not saying that everyone who is vegetarian is causing harm to himself—Desikachar himself is a vegetarian—but for this particular student, vegetarianism was not the optimal or most supportive diet. And when practicing ahimsa, the concept of nonharming must also apply to oneself—whether we are referring to our interactions with others, our relationships, or our occupation. While the Yoga Sutra is designed as a universal text, it must always be adapted to the individual.
After offering the student his “prescription,” Desikachar went on to explain the often forgotten and misunderstood next sutra, which immediately follows ahimsa and the yamas in II.3o:
II.31 jati desa kala samaya anavicchinna sarvabhaumah mahavratam
In this sutra, Patanjali acknowledges that only those very rare beings in all the worlds (sarvabhaumah) who have taken
a “great vow” (mahavratam) are able to practice all five yamas without interruption (vicchinna), while—and this is key—the rest of us must adapt these guidelines to our current occupation (jati), the place we live (desa), time of day, month, or year (kala), or circumstance (samaya).
For example, if one who made his living (jati) fishing adhered firmly to the yamas without sutra II.31, he would not be able to practice ahimsa unless he gave up his occupation, and hence harmed his family or himself by not being able to provide. Similarly, in the place where you live (desa), fresh vegetables may not be available year-round, and it may be better for your health to supplement your diet with meat. Likewise, depending on the time of year (kala), eating meat may be more beneficial, or in the case of the young man from France, his circumstance (samaya) meant that eating meat was the less harmful choice for his well-being.