The Vegetarian Question

By Martha Marcom

Occasionally I am asked if yogis are supposed to be vegetarian. It’s a juicy question, with multiple dimensions--there’s the moral issue, the ecological impact of your food choices, and the nutritional component along with practical considerations regarding what is realistic for your life.

In a nutshell, my answer to the question is simply bring consciousness to your food choices. If you’ve never tried a vegetarian diet, it can be a grand and healthy adventure--some cooking required! The impact to the earth of eating lower on the food chain is profound. It takes vast amounts of water to produce a pound of beef in factory-type farms, for example. *

Pattabhi Jois, my teacher, would not even discuss the nutritional aspects of diet. For him it was a matter of ahimsa, pure and simple. It worked well for him, it was part of his DNA and culture, but for some very sincere people, it is not that simple. I remember a frail young woman from the US surreptitiously eating an egg after practice in Mysore, India. Her body required more protein that the South Indian vegetarian diet could provide. That image of her points to a dilemma--we strive to be good yogis, but we are wise to take into account our distinct individual dietary needs, our cultural heritage, and our health history. Much is still being discovered about what nutrients the human body needs to thrive.

We have the luxury and confusion of having to navigate food choices. Many among us did not grow up eating a thoughtful, balanced diet. We came of age along with convenience food, fast food and food specifically created to addict us. And when we ask the experts what to do, we find that there are multiple theories of what constitutes a healthful diet, and some of these plans directly oppose one another.

Eating food is our most profound relationship with the external environment in that what we ingest then becomes part of ourselves--becoming our blood and tissues. Buying food directly from a farmer, choosing what is most beautiful and appealing, figuring out how to prepare the bounty--this can all be a sort of sacrament. All the more when you get to know the farmer and are certain that the growing methods used are respectful of the earth.

My awakening around food came in 1970 when, as a student at OSU, I attended a talk by Dick Gregory, a well-known comedian. Nothing he said was funny. He spoke with tremendous passion about waking up to the food we choose, the methods by which meat is grown and slaughtered and the profit motive that takes complete precedence over nutritional quality. This talk was my turning point into becoming a vegetarian. Back then, going meatless was taking a giant step out of mainstream culture. The act of omitting meat caused concerns in social situations, and it was challenging to find food to eat. There was not a context for meals without meat--there was no tofu or soymilk and no vegetarian options at restaurants. You ate plain pasta at peoples’ homes. But this prompted me to question and rethink cultural choices in general and was a first step in becoming more conscious overall. Transcendental Meditation and yoga soon followed as the natural evolution of vegetarianism.

Disclaimer: though I was a vegetarian for many years, and my husband and I raised our three children as vegetarians, there came a time when it seemed appropriate to add chicken and fish to our diet, and we did. At the time, we were several years into a Macrobiotic diet. This system excluded dairy and eggs, but some teachers recommended occasional poultry and seafood. Our son and youngest daughter were longing for chicken. Three pregnancies and extended nursing as an over-30-year-old mother had taken a toll on my bones. We embraced change and in the process discovered the North Market as a source of high quality fish and chicken.

Increasing numbers of people are choosing veganism these days; veganism is no animal products whatsoever, including dairy products and eggs. This decision is usually a heartfelt desire to practice ahimsa. But choosing veganism is to adopt a diet that has not stood the test of time over generations. It can be done well, and it’s less and less challenging to eat this way, but it still requires thought, planning and knowledge of what’s required by the body. Many traditional cultures are vegetarian, and that is a far easier path. Now I choose organic whole foods, favoring the ones that are grown locally as much as possible. I remain mostly vegetarian, but include fish and fowl in my diet, especially when dining out.

As an inviting way to begin to explore dietary choices, I recommend “Meatless Mondays”. Designate a day of the week where you consciously avoid eating meat. This day can be a time to enjoy shared meals with friends or family, and regular time to experiment with new recipes, new vegetables and new preparation techniques. Here is the link to a wealth of inspiration, dietary information and vegetarian recipes:

*In their landmark book Population, Resources, Environment, Stanford Professors Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich stated that the amount of water used to produce one pound of meat ranges from 2,500 to as much as 6,000 gallons.

3 Responses to The Vegetarian Question
  1. Angela Nicolosi

    Thank you for a thoughtful answer to this question. So many times students assume that if you teach yoga then you are a vegetarian. I know 3 yoga teachers who were vegetarian and now eat some meat. I appreciate that you accounted for the cultural aspect as well! Namaste, Angela

  2. daphne johnson

    Martha, After beginning this blog the other day and finishing the read now my lingering thought was recipes. Thanks for sharing the link. Maybe it would be fun to share your favorite one or two vegetarian recipes as well. I have many but most are scribbled on scratches of paper, others committed to memory and then some on the web.

    This is one of my favorite sites for fun recipes and new renditions of oldies accompanied by great photos.

    some favorite recipes I make over and over again:

  3. yogaonhigh

    Thank you for the links Daphne… we do plan to share recipes in the near future.