Some time ago I was out to eat with a fellow yoga teacher. The restaurant, naturally, had both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. As we discussed the menu, my companion, a teacher of far greater experience with the goings on inside the yoga community than I, shared some surprising insights. Thereafter ensued an illuminating discussion about what many yoga teachers eat when other yogis, particularly those from the vegan-activist sector of the yoga world, aren’t looking. Last year, one such yoga teacher came out of the meat-eating closet with a vengeance.
‘Om Scampi’ is an article by A-list yoga teacher Sadie Nardini that’s partly a defense of an omnivorous diet and partly a rant against judgmental vegetarians. Ms Nardini makes some good points about the prevailing culture of “Yoga Fascism” in the yoga community: expressing a dissenting opinion, whether about the spiritual imperative of veganism or the notion that we’re ultimately all one formless point of pure awareness, often disqualifies one from having an opinion – or at least one worthy of consideration – in the eyes of those who subscribe to such beliefs. It’s not unlike political hawks in time of war labeling war protestors as un-patriotic.
Critical thinking is essential to the health of a community and, as Ms Nardini points out, the yoga community’s ideas of inclusivity deserve some scrutiny: Must vegan yogis accept omnivorous yogis as being on the same spiritual path as they are? Do all paths lead to the same place? Well, the train to Chicago will not take us to St. Louis. If you place a piece of meat in a Buddhists begging bowl they’ll accept it and they have a philosophy that supports that acceptance. If you offer a piece of meat to a Krishna Bhakta (a devotee of Krishna) they will reject it and they have a philosophy that supports that rejection. Is the result the same for the Buddhist and the Bhakta? Do both yogis end up at the same destination?
No, they don’t. Their respective philosophies even say they don’t. You can take the scenic route and get to St. Louis by way of Chicago, but uniformity of destination irrespective of path is not found in the literature from which the yoga traditions arise: there are different schools of yoga philosophy and they disagree with each other so Om Shanti – get over it!
Where do we get this idea that in yoga all dogs go to heaven no matter which stick they fetch? It appears to me that we get it from excessively liberal and self-serving interpretations of yoga scripture or from an outright rejection of the traditional literature, which brings us back to Ms Nardini’s position that omnivorous diets are as spiritually valid as any other: her argument may be one way of looking at things, but it’s not a viewpoint that’s supported by classical yoga scriptures.
Of course, Ms Nardini rejects classical yoga scripture, which she regards as of dubious origin, prone to fundamentalist abuse, and, consequently, of little value. And she makes it clear that she’s not a classical yogi. That makes sense since classical yoga rejects omnivorous diets. But here’s the irony: classical yoga is not all-inclusive: on the contrary, it’s very exclusive. In fact, it relegates the entire experience of the material world to the realm of illusion or, more bluntly, avidya; ignorance. As far as the ancient sages of yoga are concerned, yoga is the process of liberating the self from the dictates of the illusory mind and body that we mistake for our selves and, if permitted to rule the course of our lives, will oblige us to endure a perpetual cycle of birth and death in a world of misapprehension, a world in which suffering is the inevitable result of mistaking an illusion for reality.
In a post-modern world where things mean whatever we want them to mean and our personal truths trump “Truth” with a capital “T”, eating meat is okay – if it fits your truth. But while attempting to defend the modern and supposedly all-inclusive idea of yoga from a pseudo-inclusivity that conceals exclusionary attitudes (such as vegetarian yogis invalidating the spiritual standing of omnivorous yogis), Ms Nardini jettisons the tradition of yoga itself.
To go from yoga as a means to be liberated from illusion to yoga as a means to perpetuate and even revel in that same illusion requires a 180-degree turn. And Ms Nardini’s insistence that omnivorous yogis are every bit as spiritual as vegetarian yogis is not only 180-degrees from traditional yoga, it’s symptomatic of a larger issue for the yoga community; something Carol Horton has appropriately dubbed “the Oprah-fication of Patanjali”.
Bending the ideals of yoga into a pretzel of feel-good philosophy – whether we bend it to justify eating meat or animal rights activism as ‘yogic’ activities – is, in my view, usually an exercise in subjective self-importance that’s not likely to meet the standards the tradition itself has set. But self-importance is the foundation of Ms Nardini’s argument: “it’s all about me and my truth. Eating meat makes me feel good so I do it in a way that works for me. And if it works for you then you should, too. You’re truth is just as spiritual as anybody else’s”. This is a very liberating declaration if we identify ourselves as our minds and our bodies and live in denial of karmic consequences for our actions, the very definition of illusion in any traditional form of yoga philosophy.
So Ms Nardini has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: the tradition of yoga has been abandoned in defense of yoga. The logical fallacy of her argument is this: while decrying “the imaginary, self-created spectrum of yoginess” that places vegetarians higher on the yoga ladder then omnivores, Ms Nardini, rather than deferring to the traditional texts for an objective spectrum of yoginess, creates her own imaginary spectrum of yoginess, which, conveniently for her, includes that which the traditional texts clearly reject: slaughtering animals for food.
Rejecting, trivializing, or liberally interpreting yoga scripture to suit our personal agendas requires that we become our own teachers, relying on our own subjective and speculative conceptions rather than availing ourselves to the realizations of those who have so compassionately illuminated the path of yoga for us in the first place. The process of yoga is meant to re-create the revelatory experience of the self-realized souls who gave us the process. Without such guidance it’s a lot harder to find the switch on the lamp of knowledge that will help us see where we’re going. So this Thanksgiving, I’ll be giving thanks for the old school yoga teachers who teach us that, if we want to follow the path of self-realization they’ve illuminated for us, eating slaughtered animals just won’t cut it.