Ahimsa and Mindful Eating

By Sarah Halweil, November, 2008

Pratisthayam Tat Samnidhau Vaira Tyagah’ –Yoga Sutra II.35 Ahimsa
(In presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease)

‘Yoga is not for him who overeats and also not for him who does not eat’ – Bhagavad-Gita V1.16

The argument for nonviolent eating often gets simplified into 2 categories: “vegetarian” and “meat eater”. But, as I have learned through 18 years of being a vegetarian and now what I might call a mindful meat eater, the task of putting a meal on a plate is multi-faceted and quite complicated.

As yogis, we talk a lot about connections. And so it follows, that we should realize our connections to the food we eat. That means asking questions: What did it take for this food to get here? Where was it grown, pastured, or produced and how far did it travel? How much petroleum did its transport require? Is it “real” food—that is, how many recognizable ingredients are actually in what I am eating? Was it made in a factory or by someone’s caring hands? How much harm did my meal inflict on the environment and people in contact with it via pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, changes to the landscape and the money paid for that food? Finally, a more nutritional concern is whether the given meal is what I should be eating now—is it what my body needs?

I do not think that there is a set of correct answers that applies to everyone. Some people may need certain foods for health reasons. For others, keeping livestock may be an important part of their economy. And for others, limited access, either geographical or economical, to certain foods may determine what is eaten.

For me, the origin of my food—where it comes from and how it was prepared—has become the most important consideration. For example, because I live on land surrounded by water, it makes sense to me to eat seafood. Which seafood is best, is another complex topic. One thing for conscientious seafood eaters to keep in mind, is that smaller more plentiful fish are better choices for environmental impact and health. They eat lower on the food chain and have accumulated fewer toxins. One should also consider how the seafood was caught.

I have also added small amounts of meat to my diet. Some comes from a farmer I know. He raises his animals in a compassionate manner without the use of unnecessary hormones and antibiotics and his animals are always outdoors (they do have shelter for inclement weather) in fresh air where they can lead as natural a life as a domesticated animal can. Also, I organically grow most of the produce that I eat.

On the East End of Long Island, we are fortunate to have produce grown by local farmers and cheese made by local dairies. Buying from them whenever possible decreases the amount of petroleum used in transporting food and also keeps money in the local economy.

The food writer Michael Pollan advises 3 simple instructions for eating: Eat food, not too much, and mostly plants. He also says eat only what your great grandmother would recognize. I like to expand that across ethnicities, since we are now privileged to have access to many varieties of food. Pollan also suggests that farm animals raised on pasture-instead of factory farms-form a necessary part of a healthy farm, since their manure nourishes the next planting of crops.

We should keep in mind that the lower we eat on the food chain-the more “vegetarian” that we eat-and the less distance that our food has to travel, the more we are eating in a peaceful manner.

The setting in which we eat is also important. The Dali Lama is known to eat meat for health reasons and out of respect. When served a meal that requires time and effort, it might be disrespectful or even considered ahimsa to reject what is given when others around the world do not have enough to eat.

Respect, thoughtfulness, and compassion should be part of planning what to eat and mealtimes. As we all know, this is not always the case. Sometimes, we eat too much, too fast, and not the right food. There are many asanas to aid in cleansing the body of the bad decisions we sometimes make about our food.

Asana for cleansing and purifying

According to B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, twisting (especially with a long torso), laying over a belly bolster, leg pumping (bending and straightening the legs), and mayurasana (peacock pose) are all effective in improving digestion, curing ailments of the stomach and spleen, and preventing and cleansing build up of toxins due to faulty eating.

In addition, if one has abused food, the environment or even people to eat, take steps to remedy the situation. Eat more simply: food from close to home, lower on the food chain and less of it. Help out at a community garden. Support a local farmers’ market or food bank. Share a thoughtful meal with friends and family, and teach by example.

Next time you sit down to eat, ask, how am I connected to the food in front of me. Is there yoga on my plate?

Sarah Halweil

Sarah Halweil is a graduate of the 2004 Yoga Shanti Teacher Training Program. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Latin American Studies and Environmental Science, and Georgetown University in Nursing. She is also a graduate of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) Program, and is the clinical coordinator for the Urban Zen program at Southampton hospital.

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