Food for Thought
Food, nutrition, and its impact on health, both our own and that of the planet's, is a universal issue loaded, for many of us, with controversy and emotion. Much research has been done, but relatively little is known about how exactly the body processes and makes use of the variety of nutrients it needs to stay healthy. In the Western world, we are fortunate to have nearly endless food choices and a variety of established, neatly categorized diets from which to choose, born from civilization's endless pursuit of optimal nutrition. Each of these diets comes with its own set of guidelines, health claims, and outspoken advocates: vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, locavore, raw foods, and Paleo are just a few examples that come to mind. There are many more.
As yogis, we must consider not only how the foods we eat will affect our bodies, but also the impacts these choices may have on our minds and spirits. In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar writes of these impacts that "character is moulded by the type of food that we take and by how we eat it." So, in terms of a yogic diet, it is not just the type of foods that we eat which are significant, but the manner in which we eat them. "The yogi believes in harmony, so he eats for the sake of sustenance only. He does not eat too much or too little. He looks upon his body as the rest-house of his spirit and guards himself against over-indulgence." In other words, the yogi takes only as much food as he or she needs, and eats that food mindfully, "with the feeling that with each morsel one can gain strength to serve.... Then the food becomes pure." (Emphasis mine)
It is a popular interpretation that ahimsa, the principle of non-violence, predetermines vegetarianism as the only diet for the yogi in keeping with the yamas and niyamas, or the dos and don'ts of yogic behavior. However, while a meatless diet may provide sustenance for many, not everyone can maintain proper health on a vegetarian diet, in which case, for these people to deprive themselves of meat products would be directly in conflict with the principle of ahimsa, which begins with the intention to do no harm to oneself. So, as you can see, the issue is not as cut and dry as it may first appear, even in terms of yogic philosophy. Sometimes the best choice is simply the lesser of two evils.
Depending on where you live and the resources available to you, a locally and humanely raised beef product may produce much smaller impacts and serve as a more efficient nutrient source for you and your family than a bunch of bananas chemically ripened, picked by abused workers for pennies (or the equivalent), and flown thousands of miles to your table. I'm not telling you to quite buying produce. I'm just pointing out that mindfulness means that we must be present in every choice, to assess every situation and resist the urge to take a rigid stance.
Fad diets and sweeping lifestyle changes such as veganism are prone to swift and ardent popularity because they make our many daily food choices a little bit easier. If we lessen our options by assigning stringent limitations to our diet, we can stop thinking about what serves us best in this exact, unique moment. If we have already decided that it is, without exception, wrong to eat certain foods for whatever reason, it becomes too tempting to fall into rigid patterns of thought, which results in a lazy, unobservant mind. We should seek to extend the principles of our practice to every situation. Be in the moment and choose for the moment. That's yoga.