I was sweating, twisting, and flowing in a room filled with dozens of other yoga students. We were there for a day-long intensive led by a moderately well-known Midwestern teacher who, from the moment he arrived, seemed overly smug for his stature and reputation. However, I was looking forward to a day of learning new techniques, sequences, and cues, so I let go of my first impressions and was having a good time until halfway into the practice, the teacher said, “Picture a raw, slimy piece of chicken in one hand and a fresh, crisp bunch of greens in the other. Which would you choose?”
He asked this question as a metaphor, trying to guide us to choose things in life that further our purpose and our goals. However, I found his words jarring. Aside from the fact that we were in the middle of a sweaty vinyasa practice, not the ideal environment for dietary discourse, I was drawn toward the chicken, which was obviously the wrong choice in his mind. Kale nauseates me and although I enjoy most greens, I can’t live on them. I need protein. Animal protein. And my failure at vegetarianism isn’t for lack of trying. I did raw, vegan, juicing, even master cleanses. I traded notes, symptoms and recipes with others in my classes. We were all seeking something–enlightenment, purification, the perfect body–and thought that if we just found the right way of eating, everything would click into place. And in retrospect, I know now that many of these students were suffering from eating disorders, hiding their pathology behind a veil of leafy greens and humanity.
I should know because I’m one of them. Not only did I become physically ill from the extreme elimination of animal protein and fat from my diet (my nutritionist, upon reading my blood test results, told me that my ferritin level of 4 ng/ml was the second lowest she’d ever seen in twenty years and wondered how I managed to get out of bed in the morning), the sheer stress and impossibility of controlling my self-worth as a yogini through my diet pushed me from being a somewhat insecure, body-dismorphic, occasional binge eater to a full-blown bulimic. It happened quickly and got out of control before I even realized I was in trouble. I was caught up in a horrible downward spiral, and the harder I struggled to maintain my purity as a yogic eater, the more deeply I dug myself in. My physical health suffered. I felt as though I had glass in my joints when I moved. My hair started thinning, my skin lost its elasticity, and I began injuring myself in my practice. But the mental and emotional ramifications were worse. In a word (or four), I lost my mojo. I am a planner, and for the first time in my life, I truly felt like I had nothing to look forward to. I didn’t have the heart or the energy to get swept up in a passion, and even taking care of my family became an overwhelming chore on many days.
It was hard to come to terms with adding protein and fat back into my diet, but once I did, my physical body repaired itself quite quickly. I was lucky; I suffered little, if any, permanent damage from the two or three years of my worst bulimia. Working through the emotional stuff was, and still is, harder. I still struggle with it. When I keep my ducks in a row with proper nutrition and exercise, I feel as though I’m my old self a lot of the time. But it’s not like flipping a switch. It’s easy to fall into the hole of an eating disorder; getting out of it means struggling and clawing and falling down sometimes and even starting at the bottom again for the hundredth time, wondering why it has to be so hard.
This is why I went up to talk to the teacher after the morning session. He had asked for feedback, and I wanted to let him know that sometimes, certain words delivered by a person in a position of power, knowledge and trust, can have devastatingly unforeseen consequences. It’s hard for me to share details of my eating disorder in person, and I was shaky and emotional when I told him about my experience. During our conversation, I made it clear that I respected his choice not to eat animals and that I simply wanted him to know that advocating a vegetarian diet, while consistent with what our Western yoga culture embraces, could possibly violate a fundamental tenet of yoga.
Ahimsa, or non-violence, is what most people point to when they say yoga mandates vegetarianism. However, in my case, I was not practicing ahimsa toward myself when I tried to force my round peg of a body into a square hole of a diet. One of my wisest teachers (and yes, I do have many, many teachers) claims that ahimsa was relative; he has two daughters and if they were being threatened by another person, he’d chuck ahimsa out of the window. Granted, he’s from Brooklyn. But still. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and anyone who’s ever read “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith knows that a diet based in agriculture is far from bloodless.
The Midwestern teacher was kind and held my hands in his and thanked me for coming up to talk to him. And then at the beginning of the afternoon session, he told the rest of the class about my comment, saying that “a student” had been “offended” by his advocating greens over chicken. And then he said he didn’t give a shit, that as a teacher he had to risk offending people and he would never make everyone happy. Amen–I am a teacher too, and I know I will never be all things to all people. But it stung that he mocked the truth that was so hard for me to tell him. And I was annoyed that he used the word “offended,” like I was some grouchy old man complaining about kids these days. I was not offended at all. I simply wanted to warn him about what happened to me and suggest that maybe a large group vinyasa practice was not the place to teach nutrition.
Why didn’t he listen to me? Why wasn’t he more compassionate and open-minded? Was his ego so attached to the idea of being a proper vegetarian yogi that he was willing to risk harming someone else? As I sat with my feelings, though, I realized that none of my questions mattered. I had done what I needed to do. I didn’t need to be angry at him, nor did I need to be embarrassed by taking care of myself and protecting my body and my practice. If he chose not to hear my message, that was his decision. What I learned that day was not how to transition from twisting plank to extended side angle, but instead how to hold firm to my beliefs and how to let go of criticism leveled against something I believe in.
I know that teachers will continue to talk about vegetarianism as a part of yoga, and this is as it should be. There is a strong history of non-meat eating in the yoga tradition and in the Hindu culture, regardless of where this tradition stems from. At the same time, I hope that teachers will encourage their students to keep their minds open, to question their teachers, and to refuse to subscribe to dogma just because someone says that’s how it should be. We all need to follow our paths, and yoga is supposed to help us find our own way, not walk in the footprints of those before us.
Can I eat meat and still be a good yogi? Damn right I can.