Training in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (and now by his grandson Sharath) is very physical as only with daily physical practice would the other seven limbs (Anga) of Ashtanga (Ashta = eight, Anga = limb) become apparent. Sri Jois always called his system “Patanjali’s Yoga” after the legendary ancient sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras in which these eight limbs (Yama Niyama Asana Pranayama Pratyahara Dharana Dhyana Samadhayo ‘Stavangani: II-29) appear. Slowly over time with daily practice (Abyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah: I-12; the mind reaches the state of yoga through practice and detachment) the yogi cultivates awareness of the first two limbs – Yama (restraints) and Niyama (observances) which are the Ten Commandments of Yoga – which support the third limb of Asana (the physical postures) and lead by natural progression to the other limbs of Pranayama (breath/energy control), Pratyahara (restraint of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dyana (meditation), and Samadhi (equilibrium, union with the Divine, state of bliss.
How can a physical practice lead to good behavior, healthy lifestyle, meditation, and even enlightenment? The concept of “tristhana”, the three parts of the practice, involve yoking the posture, the breath, and the gaze to train the mind to focus on the practice itself and withdraw for a time from the frenetic pace of daily life. At first the mind may wander, become bored or distracted, or even rebel against the performance of a fixed series of postures six days per week with only full and new moons, Saturdays, and major religious holidays off. Continuing to practice through these challenges develops fortitude, determination, “tapas” (one of the Niyamas, from the root word for fire or heat) and eventually the mind becomes trained and disciplined rather than scattered and distractible while the body becomes strong, supple, and balanced.
When one becomes immersed in yoga practice, it becomes easier over time to reduce and eliminate habits which interfere with that practice. The Yamas (Ahimsa/non-harming, Satya/truth, Asteya/non-stealing, Brahmacharya/moderation, Aparigraha/non-greed) and Niyamas (Shaucha/purity, Santosha/contentment, Tapas/dedication, Svadhyaya/study of the Self, Ishwaripranidhana/surrender to the Divine) slowly evolve from seemingly austere and difficult to follow “laws” to guidelines for healthy living to a seamlessly integrated and easily practiced lifestyle. Once the body is no longer plagued by frequent illness, injury, or disease the mind then naturally begins to turn inward via the other limbs.
So what do these Yamas and Niyamas mean for the modern human (yogi or non yogi)? For example, Ahimsa, non-harming or non-violence, is usually taken to mean that the yogi’s diet must be vegetarian but what if that body seems to require meat or other animal products and declines with a strictly vegan regimen? Simply switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian or vegan one “cold turkey” (pun intended) might cause harm to that body if the primary replacement involves large amounts of improperly prepared soy protein. Many cultures in Southeast Asia have traditionally followed a more vegetarian diet which included some sea foods or dairy products and so have over time found a balanced approach which provides enough nutrients to sustain life (even then, most vegetarians become deficient in B12 which is most easily assimilated from animal foods); Sri Jois lived into his 90’s and his guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, both vegetarians from birth, died at the ripe old age of 101. But those whose ancestors regularly consumed animal products (ie European, some African, or Native American descent) including meat, may have different dietary requirements but those following their traditional diets also often lived long and healthy lives.
Yoga’s “sister science” of Ayurveda provides some insight into these differences using the theory of the “doshas”: Kapha dosha being a combination of the heaviest of the Five Great Elements (Pancha Mahabhuta) would be most benefitted by the lighter vegetarian or vegan diet as they need to balance their tendencies towards gaining weight when consuming heavier animal foods. Vata dosha, being a combination of the lightest of the Elements would be depleted by that same diet and would most benefit from the heavier animal foods (though well cooked as Vata digestion can be irregular or weak). Pitta dosha, being high in Fire Element which relates to digestion, can often eat anything (lucky Pitta!) but must be careful not to aggravate that same Fire or suffer consequences like acid reflux.
A body in balance with balanced digestion will experience good health, and more important than whether the diet is vegetarian (or not) is whether the diet is “clean” – the first of the Niyamas, Shaucha, requires purity of food, speech, and even thought. A vegan who consumes conventional soy and other plant foods is possibly ingesting pesticides and herbicides applied to the crop while in the field; if that soy is also genetically engineered (ie “RoundUp Ready”) the crop may have had higher amounts of toxic chemicals applied plus there may be evidence that the gene inserted into the soybean (which “tells” the plant to create pesticides to kill the pests) just might transfer to human gut flora, ie the microbes that help us digest our food may now be creating pesticides in our gut instead (thus driving an increasing epidemic of serious gut disorders like Crohn’s Disease). Even more disturbing is the fact that industrial production of soy to feed consumer demand is causing devastating changes in ecosystems where it is farmed; our very quest to consume a “clean” diet free of harming animals while promoting our physical health is causing harm to the planet and thus violates that first Yama of Ahimsa!
If the animal destined to become food lives a happy life eating its natural diet and allowed its normal behaviors, then is dispatched quickly so it feels no pain or fear, would that meat be a cleaner, more compassionate food than the chemically saturated mono-cropped rainforest-destroying plant food? If the human eats a diet that keeps his body healthy and mind happy and practices in a way that minimizes harm to himself and others while not being “perfect”, is he not the better yogi than the one who is consuming a diet that is not supportive to his practice because of a lack of nutrients or inability to digest them in addition to destroying the environment in which it’s grown?
As a teacher of yoga rooted in the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga I strive to help my own students find their own path most suitable for their growth and development which may change over time and with practice. It may be that at this moment some students feel no need to eliminate animal foods while others feel compelled by their beliefs to become vegan; perhaps their nutritional requirements change over time as the vegan begins to crave animal foods as their bodies become depleted while the omnivore is gradually able to eat more “veggie” most of the time. As one who has tried to be a “good yogi” for over 20 years it has become a part of my practice to follow Ahimsa by not judging myself for my own shortcomings while remaining understanding of others’ attempts to do the same.
“Without practice, theory is useless; with practice, theory is obvious.” David Williams, early student of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
3 Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras Translation and Commentary by DKV Desikachar pg 43
4 ibid pg7