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On Yoga, Veganism and Wellness, part 1

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Many of you know me to be a practitioner of yoga and veganism, which I have subscribed to at two distinct points of my life: as a late teenager in university working for an organic food co-op as an aspiring hippie and marathon runner(more on this in another post); and a decade later as a practicing yogi, which continues to this day.

Beyond these two arcs, however, food has played a continuous dynamic and important role in my life for as long as I can remember. Oddly enough though, until recently it in-and-of-itself has not been linked directly with my own sense of wellness.

At three years old I was diagnosed with a digestive autoimmune disease. As a child of 1970s America growing up in the apex of the carbohydrate-diet lauded by Proctor and Gamble (otherwise known as the FDA), the disease was thought to be purely genetic – so environment, diet and stress indicators were never taken into consideration. Instead, bloodwork, rigorous testing and medication were thought to be the panacea of good health. Intuitively though, I must have known better, for even as a young child I stayed away from ‘white’ and heavy foods that I associated with pain.

Fast forward ten years to my teens, and by that time my illness had evolved into body dysmorphia and anorexia, no doubt rooted in by the constant sense of bloating from the disease and medications, and hand-me-downs of generations of family dysfunction that led me to feel ‘not good enough’.

I went on to study philosophy in university, which eventually opened the doorway to yoga. As I treaded down this new path, my relationship with food was spun on it’s side. Rather than understanding it as a vehicle for my own pleasure and pain, I began to see food as a fulcrum of interconnections – on the one hand something that kept every living creature alive, on the other, the thing that caused a great deal of suffering to the animals being farmed and consumed. I had never considered this glaringly obvious piece of the puzzle before, and it would be quite some years before I came to reconcile my desire for world peace and an end to suffering for all creatures with my own self-depreciating behaviour that stemmed from an inner turmoil of not feeling worthy enough to be a part of this world view. While the yoga practice was at least in part about learning to be more accepting and kind (of myself), I hadn’t yet understood how to take things further inward to pierce through some old self-assumptions.

While I was a disciplined and devoted yogi, I hadn’t yet resolved how to truly understand and honour myself and my unique needs. Instead, my practice seemed to somehow hoover above and around me. When I practiced asana, meditation and pranayama, I felt momentarily redeemed, yet outside of practice time, the patterns of my past kicked right back in as I judged, critiqued and tried to control my behaviour and appearances into what I thought society asked of me. I was not steady and joyful within, even though my balance was improving and I could touch my toes.

Regarding yoga, I was earnest in my desire to learn, and took the advice of my teachers as gospel, whom I trusted explicitly and who appeared to have the answers for many things. I was good at asking questions of others to find answers, yet I hadn’t yet learned how to ask the right questions of myself.

Meanwhile, at my yoga teacher training, each night we were encouraged to watch movies about the animal-as-food industry (15 years ago the long list of movies highlighting the woes of eating meat was not quite so long).These videos were intended to disrupt ideas that most people took as mainstream – that a wholesome meal looked something like dead animal on a plate with a side of carbs and veggies.

But something else happened on that teacher training. I observed people who were not already vegan being judged and excluded from an elitist inner circle of cool. Meanwhile, those who were openly and dogmatically vegan were celebrated and held a kind of special status within the group. As someone who never quite felt they fit into group dynamics, it struck me then, how we all wanted a sense of belonging, yet we were all at different places along the path. Even with our shared love of yoga, the way we percieved ‘practice’ took on a variety of meanings.

Charismatic teachers can have a powerful hold on eager students that is sometimes not without the lacing of hypocrisy. On the one hand, we were taught that everyone is doing ‘the best they can’ – to be compassionate and loving; on the other, we were repeatedly taught that enlightenment (the unending sense of inner peace, freedom, bliss) was reserved only for those practicing veganism – for veganism is widely seen as the holy grail of ahiṃsā (non-harming), the first step of a yoga practice.

As a young yogini, I was seeking enlightenment, full stop. I trusted my teachers, I wanted to be close with them; I wanted to be seen, and accepted. Most of all, I wanted to do the right thing; I was a seasoned people pleaser, after all.

Back in the ‘real world’ though, when I started teaching at the yoga school affilitated with my teachers, relationships in the studio space took on another complexity. The upper eschilon of senior teachers did not appear to be very happy, or content in-and-of themselves. Many of the crew struck me as being ‘angry’ and judgemental vegans who did things like hide their Ugg boots in a locker to maintain an appearance of wokeness, but seemed to exclude compassion for humans in their practice of ahimsa. Again, the tension between the path for ‘perfection’ and the ‘imperfection’  of life was highlighted. Rather than transparency and an aim towards integration and acceptance, there seemed to be a stigma associated in simply being human.

I struggled to reconcile my understanding of the relationship yoga held with connection and inclusivity within the micro-culture of hierarchy, judgement and exclusivity.

While I was a practicing vegan, I didn’t feel comfortable preaching about it in my classes, and I was not dogmatic in my approach. I was married to an omnivore and my family, while understanding of all my life ‘phases’, did not understand why at each visit I insisted on cooking my own food. Then there was the sense of shame I carried due to my chronic illness. (The second target of ‘evil’ within the yoga community was the pharmaceutical industry propelled by animal testing, cruetly and corruption in general; at one point I was reduced to tears by my teacher for taking daily medication.)

I was conscientious about not feeling that I looked the part of the svelte, flexible beacon of youth associated with yoga teachers at that time, and I didn’t feel safe or accepted within the framework of the studio, which was augmented when I became pregnant, then acutely ill (the pregnancy eventually led to liver transplantation). Despite my continued practice of yoga and veganism throughout this time, I certainly did not feel well within myself.

When my hepatologist suggested I eat meat to help the anemia and vitamin deficiency that left me blind for a period after giving birth, I scoffed at the idea. Eating meat was the step I was unwilling to take, even if it would benefit my own health. I hadn’t paused to reflect on with what I was actually fuelling my body though, beyond the copious amounts of vegetables that made up my daily diet. I hadn’t yet gotten under the surface of the label on the vegan foods I was eating, instead brain washed to believe that any vegan alternative would be more healthful that consuming animal products, which would lead to the demise of the climate and never-ending cycles of suffering.

…to be continued in pt. 2

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