There are many reasons people decide to eat a vegetarian diet. The most common reason is probably for health, but also up there are love for animals and environmental sustainability. Some are vegetarians for just one reason, some for multiple reasons. But there does seem that a disproportionate number of yoga instructors also happen to be vegetarians. Why is that? Is there a yoga reason to refrain from eating meat?
Among dedicated yoga practitioners, there is actually a pretty big divide about whether or not a yogi ought to eat meat. Those who have given considerable thought to the topic and decide that yogis need not be vegetarians are usually those who have tried it and determined that it’s not good for their health. Many of those say that they felt depleted and were more likely to get sick when they were vegetarians. Often their doctors recommended that they incorporate meat back into their diets to be healthier.
But there are many who advocate vegetarianism or veganism as necessary for the life of a yogi. They often point to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is the most widely-known text of yoga philosophy. The Yoga Sutras describe an “eight-limbed” path to right living, and the first limb of this system is called the yamas. The yamas deal with morality, the attitudes and actions people take toward the world outside of themselves. The yamas address issues like truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), sexual restraint (bramacharya), non-greediness (aparigraha), but the characteristic associated with vegetarianism is listed first in the yamas: ahimsa, non-harming and compassion for all living things. The idea is that when a person eats meat, he is causing an animal to be killed, which is violence and harm done to the animal.
On a practical, rather than philosophical, level, there is the ancient yogic wisdom that the body and mind are better primed for meditation on a vegetarian diet. According to this wisdom, because digesting meat is more complicated than digesting vegetables, energy flows more freely throughout the body on a vegetarian diet, and so the practitioner is more balanced and prepared for higher-level activities. Another yoga text, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika specifically names meat and fish among the foods “injurious to a yogi or yogini.” (Happily, this same text recommends eating “tonics” that are “well-sweetened, greasy, [made with] milk, butter, etc., which may increase humors of the body…”
See a list of all injurious and beneficial foods, according to The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, here.