Now that THAT particular confession is out of the way, and those who aren’t down with discussing the omnivorous way of life have fled, the rest of us can get into something that’s troubled me for a while: namely, “food judgment” in the world of yoga.
I used to be a vegetarian. At the age of 16, it seemed like a cool, animal-loving thing to do, and at that age I was still unsure enough of myself that I sought ready-made personality traits to adopt as my own. Being a vegetarian was being Somebody, part of a larger group, with a definitive identity. Also, at the time, I was just beginning to discover the practice of yoga, and all the yogis I knew were vegetarian, so the bias confirmed itself pretty smoothly. I won’t make any obfuscations—wanting to be part of a club was the reason I originally became a vegetarian. I stayed a vegetarian throughout college because it was so easy and non-stressful NOT to eat meat, so why should I do so, ever again?
After college, I became hip to the factory farming and corporate food systems in which the USA unfortunately remains mired to this day, and my reaction was to simply avoid that system at all costs. If mass food production was a corrupt hellscape of poison-peddlers, then I would remove myself from it entirely, and thereby absolve myself of any responsibility for its evils. I became vegan. I became REALLY vegan, one of THOSE vegans, internally judging everyone I saw putting meat into their mouths as though they would go down in history as solely liable for the destruction of the planet and the human race (not to mention all the cute fluffies they were ingesting—the poor, poor cute fluffies). In my travels, I’ve met plenty of vegans who are peaceable and non-judgmental, but let’s just say: I was not one of them. I was the bad kind.
It was—and I say this meaning absolutely no offense, and actually with a wistful affection—a very 22-year-old perspective. I remained vegan for two years, two blissful years in which I was absolutely certain beyond a doubt that I was saving the world with each bite of tofu. I was very happy being vegan. Until I wasn’t.
I won’t go into the myriad health issues that I dealt with as a result of those two years, because this conversation isn’t about veganism being bad or wrong. Suffice it to say, it was bad and wrong for ME, and I didn’t experience a slow trickle of symptoms and ailments; I hit a wall suddenly and painfully, like crashing a car. I flailed, feeling like crap, gaining weight, my skin pale and covered in rough patches, my eyes dull, my stomach hurting every time I ate. I saw doctors. I saw a naturopath. Long story short, they all told me that my diet was making me very unwell, and I needed to change it.
While this was happening—while I was experiencing this cascade failure of my previously energetic, happy, “healthy” body—I was taking courses in biological sciences and nutrition to prepare for a career in the medical sciences. Taking my knowledge of nutrition from Science rather than PETA’s website was the first step toward opening my eyes. From there, along with the “tsk”-ing and frowns of my doctors, it was a pretty quick slide into the realm of Everything You Know Is Wrong. And my own body was the proof.
I did nothing but read different theories on nutrition for months, making my way through everything the medical journals and the internet had to offer. I learned one main thing: Nobody really “knows” anything about nutrition. It’s an incredibly young science, and the research is coming in so rapidly, new theories so quickly put up and knocked down, that the whole thing can seem like an impenetrable tangle of contradictions and misinformation. I worked my way through it the best I could and saw some clear standout conclusions.
Taking my cues from “whole food” diets, primal living groups, and evolutionary biology, I started playing around with a Primal diet. Here’s where we’ll get into some sticky terminology. While The Paleo Diet TM has become a hugely trendy money-making operation, it does have its roots solidly in an evolutionary model of eating, and I like the gist of it, if not always the execution. However, I learned the hard way not to put labels on the way that I eat. The labeling of one’s diet, making it into a culture, a brand, an identity, is just as harmful, in my opinion, as the judgment of what other people eat. Your diet cannot be your personality; it cannot be your religion. However, it’s not something to take lightly, either, because it is literally what your body is made of.
When I decided to make a big change in my diet away from veganism, I had to lay all the evidence and all the options out on the table, and make the best decision I could based on what was in front of me. What will actually help the environment? What will be healthiest for my body? What will allow me to achieve my biological potential? What will be morally right?
It’s that last question I want to talk about. What will be morally right?
We are human beings, animals who, like it or not, evolved consuming other animals’ flesh, and continue to evolve based on that biology. The deepest blueprint within our cells is coded this way. Whomever or whatever you believe put us here, whether it be a deity, stardust, or random chance, that’s who we are, as a species. So why do we feel the need to ascribe morality—a human construct—to the unshakeable truths of biology?
It’s a losing game. It’s like saying it’s immoral to sweat, or drink water, or have sex (I realize that’s a kettle of fish right there). Eating what we are biologically predisposed toward eating is not something that is moral or immoral; it simply is.
(Here’s where, if you don’t believe we’re biologically or evolutionarily predisposed toward the consumption of animal products, you’re probably jumping ship. That’s fine. We fundamentally disagree and that’s okay; you draw your conclusions based on the available evidence, and I’ll draw mine.)
Where morality enters the picture is not in WHAT we eat, but in HOW we eat it.
When I decided to go back to meat-eating, I’d been meat-free for eight, nearly nine, years. Trading my tofu and tempeh for factory-farmed hamburger was anathema. As I wrote above, I looked at all the options out on the table, and decided that focusing on meat that I knew—as in, I knew what farm it was from, I knew their raising and slaughtering methods, and I knew what kinds of feed/chemicals they were giving the animals—was the most important thing. Second to that was finding meat that was raised as geographically close to me as possible. I joined a local buying cooperative that supported small, organic farms. I ate grassfed and pastured meats in an effort to maintain a good Omega 3:6 ratio. I ate only organic, hormone-free, humanely raised animals.
I dived into research on sustainable farming, and found that by supporting these local farmers and their efforts by buying their products, I was supporting the planet in a way that my veganism hadn’t, when I’d been shoveling down pounds of GMO tofu shipped from who-knows-where each week. I was part of a small yet discernable first wave of paradigm-shifters, demanding locally-sourced, sustainably-raised, humane products, and rejecting outright the insidious factory farming I had been so against in the first place. So, in a nutshell, I was accomplishing the same goals I’d had as a vegan, but doing it in a way that was healthier for my body, and didn’t fill me with judgment and frustration.
I bounced back to health. To me, this was the start of my true practice of ahimsa, or non-violence. I was achieving non-violence towards myself, my community, and my environment, by feeding myself what my body needed, supporting those striving for a better way of doing things, and achieving the biological potential that would allow me to best contribute to my community (I was no help to anybody when I was sick, tired, and angry). I was also practicing satya, truthfulness, by acknowledging my biology, and accepting that I am not just an observer on this planet. I am part of the Earth, part of the food chain, and by removing myself from participation in it, I was harming both my own body and the balance of nature.
If you’re not part of the world, you have no power to change it.
Each meal is an opportunity for mindfulness, gratitude, and love for the beings whose energy give me strength. Each purchase of an ingredient is an opportunity to make choices that lead to a better world. The temptation to be a Yogi with a capital Y, to submit fully to that fabricated identity and yield without question to what the identity told me I should eat and think, led me to nothing but illness, anger, and judgment. Listening to my body and forging my own path through the wilderness of the question, “What’s for dinner?” led me to a more true practice of yoga than I could have imagined.