The first step in Patanjali's system of Yoga is Ahimsa, which means the practice of non-harming and nonviolence. This is the reason vegetarianism is a main tenet of Yoga. You simply cannot eat another being without harming them first. The practices of Yoga are meant to be practices, meaning you work toward the attainment of perfection, knowing that perfection may never come.
As long as we are living in physical bodies we will continue to cause some harm to others on this planet. So the practice of Ahimsa becomes one of trying to cause the least amount of harm. Everyone knows that eating a vegetarian diet uses up the least amount of natural resources and so causes the least amount of harm to the whole planet.
As you get better at Ahimsa, you get closer to the realization of your True being as that which is Peaceful and free of debilitating internal conflicts. Many people have difficulty with accepting a vegetarian lifestyle as intrinsic to the practice of yoga asana. Perhaps we can clarify that by examining the Sanskrit word "asana". It means "seat." Seat means connection to the Earth. Earth means all things: animals, plants, minerals, all existence. To practice asana really means to practice your relationship to Earth and all of her manifestations.In my own practice, I try to keep ahimsa in the forefront of my mind as I walk my vegan path. (I did not display much ahimsa when I flipped off that idiot driver on Saturday, but….) I loved the idea of vegan yoga! Anyway, I received an email from the yoga studio where I occasionally take classes advertising this two-hour Jivamukti master class. It sounded amazing, but master class? I gulped. I love yoga and practice when I can, but masterful I am certainly not. Red assured me that I would be fine, that no one would be criticizing my Downward-Facing Dog or ability to kick up into Headstand (an ability which is wholly absent). I felt some anxiety as I drove to the studio, but reminded myself that pushing out of my comfort zone from time to time is one of the best ways to learn.
The class started off with a short session of chanting and sitting meditation, which is always a challenge for me. I hate sitting still, and I knew that at least one of my legs would fall asleep, but I tried anyway. I was surprised at how well I was able to calm my mind and actually sit still without fidgeting—as I closed my eyes and focused on my breath, I swear I actually started to fall asleep. I jerked back to full consciousness, then continued sitting with my eyes open. And yes, my right leg did fall asleep, but it woke up as we went right from sitting to asana practice. I had never tried to do Downward-Facing Dog with a numb foot, but it worked.
The practice itself was vigorous, but it felt good to move in and out of the rhythmic asanas, with Allison (the visiting instructor) counting inhalations and exhalations. The studio was almost uncomfortably warm—not as warm as it would have been during a hot yoga class, but warm enough to have all of us soaked with sweat in less than half an hour. She walked around the room, rubbing eucalyptus cream into our necks and shoulders. It’s always weird to have another person touching me, even a yoga instructor, but the cream brought a cooling tingle and smelled divine. Must find eucalyptus cream, I said to myself while huffing from Downward Dog into Plank. (Aside: weight training with Red seems to be working! My arms and shoulders definitely feel stronger.) The asana series wasn’t all that different from what I’m used to, but I enjoyed it and was definitely challenged. It’s fascinating to watch my body as I move into different asanas—how my shoulders feel rolled back, for example, instead of hunched, and how much easier it is to hold Downward Dog when I press my fingers into the mat instead of only my palms.
After two hours and an abortive Headstand attempt, I was a puddle of exhausted, sweaty vegan. I felt awesome. I was completely wrung out—and so was my headband, which didn’t do a very good job of keeping the sweat out of my eyes, but that’s okay, headband. Today, two days later, I’m ridiculously sore, but in a satisfying way. Allison didn’t talk about Jivamukti’s focus on veganism, as I’d been hoping she would, and I was too tired to ask her about it personally. Still, I’m very glad to have finally experienced Jivamukti yoga. Whether or not I ever get to study it regularly, I know that I can find my own vegan asana wherever I am.