The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs no matter
how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo.
When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and
injury into the life of another, even the lowliest creature; to do
so is to renounce our manhood(womanhood) and shoulder a guilt which
nothing justifies…Dr. Albert Schweitzer
Trust me; working towards living a vegetarian lifestyle can be difficult – especially if you have been a habitual meat eater for as many years as I have. I’m down to eating meat ‘only by chance,’ and in my once-in-a-blue-moon Chinese food treat (sometimes there is a blue moon twice in the same month!) Over the last year or so, my renewed dedication to Yoga and my deepening spiritual practices have brought me to a fairly stable lacto-ovo vegetarian, and I am slowly working towards the day when I will be a true vegan…but why? Why give up that summer grilled steak, or beach barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs?
The quick answer
The short answer from the perspective of Yoga alone is that you will never manage to obtain all the benefits of Yoga, both physical and spiritual – unless you are willing to consider and implement a vegetarian lifestyle. This is an irrefutable point that every Yoga master has agreed upon since the dawn of time itself. The slightly longer and possibly more persuasive argument (if Yoga alone is not enough) is best viewed from two categories: The physical benefits and the mind-spirit benefits. Before we go into detail, I think a few definitions to keep us all on the same page is in order.
What is a vegetarian?
A vegetarian is defined as someone who does not eat any animal or fish products. The two most common classes of vegetarian are lacto-ovo and vegan. Within the two main categories of vegetarian, there are many variations depending on the motivation, experiences, and needs of the individual. When people become vegetarian in an effort to achieve better health, there may be some flexibility in their use of animal products but when the choice is made on the basis of ethics, philosophy or religion, there is a greater tendency toward adherence to the lifestyle.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian – Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid all animal flesh, but do use eggs (ovo) and dairy products (lacto). Some people are simply lacto-vegetarians, using dairy products but not eggs, and others are ovo-vegetarians, using eggs but not dairy products.
Vegan (pronounced vee-gun or vee-gan) – Vegans avoid all products of animal origin, including eggs, dairy foods, gelatin (made from the bones and connective tissue of animals), and honey Vegans avoid animal products not only in their diet but in every aspect of their lives. They may shun leather goods, wool and silk, tallow soaps, and other products made with animal ingredients.
Physical and spiritual benefits
Physical health is the most common reason individuals will give when asked why they chose a vegetarian lifestyle. Most people now recognize that vegetarian diets are not only a healthy choice, but are proven to protect us against disease. The potential health advantages of vegetarian diets include the following (far from complete!)
Reduced obesity – Vegetarians are leaner than nonvegetarians, which often translate into better overall health in itself.
Less risk of chronic disease – Vegetarians enjoy fewer instances of type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or high blood pressure, and also certain forms of cancer. Vegetarians suffer less from gallbladder and renal diseases, and there is mounting evidence that even rheumatoid arthritis may be added to this list.
Longevity – Vegetarians live an estimated seven to nine years longer than nonvegetarians and more often than not enjoy healthier more productive senior years.
Food-related diseases – There is a significantly reduced risk of contracting Listeria, E. Coli, salmonella and other food-carried pathogens for those living a vegetarian lifestyle.
Reduced buildup of environmental contaminants – Substances like heavy metals, PCB’s, insecticides and other forms of environmental contamination are generally found in greatest concentrations father down the food chain (meat). This is especially true in fully organic vegetarian lifestyles where there is less risk of accumulated contaminants.
Food intake is more efficient – A vegetarian lifestyle provides a better balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat on average. Plant based diets also provide reduced cholesterol and saturated fats, while providing higher amounts of crucial vitamins including E and C, fiber, plant sterols and essential minerals such as magnesium.
One of the most profound effects of a vegetarian lifestyle from a less tangible point of view is its ability to infuse us with compassion and respect for all living things. When we make decisions in our lives that promote our own health and well-being, the benefits radiate outward from us and have the capacity to influence the planet. From the Yoga viewpoint, living in harmony with the environment and the purification it brings are an essential component of Yoga mastery. In eating meat and using animal products, we are indirectly supporting and agreeing with the concept that the life of any animal is invalid in the face of our hunger for its flesh. We also therefore are party to the cruelty, fear, and torture that many of these animals go through to feed us our summer barbecue. The sanctity of all sentient life is the cornerstone of almost all the major religions and philosophical belief systems, and yet it tends to be ‘logic-ed away’ or forgotten altogether when it comes to our desires for meat.
From the spiritual viewpoint, vegetarianism is natural – eating meat or other animal products is not. Don’t be too hard on yourself; I am no better than any of you. I still love a good steak – although it has been a while now…Most of us were brought up eating meat, and many of us, myself included, find it difficult to find substitute enough plant-based proteins to make up for the meat we miss. Vegetarianism should be seen as a lifestyle, not a diet (we all know what “diet” means.) As with any lifestyle change, it is something we often must work towards, sometimes in very tiny steps. To help you, our valued reader (and me), I hope you can join us next week when I outline food substitution ideas, some great vegetarian recipes, and a few great hints to make the path to a vegetarian lifestyle a little easier.
Until then…Namaste, my friends.