Ahimsa- The first ethical discipline of Yoga. One out of ten disciplines called Yamas and Niyamas. Ahimsa can be translated as: non-violence, harmlessness, non-interference.
When I accomplished my first Yoga teacher training, I was determined to live a vegetarian lifestyle. My teacher was a strict vegan, so were most of my peers. Our teacher training sessions included a joined lunch made of the trainee’s offerings. Slowly everyone started to bring only vegan or even raw food treats to lunch. I learned a few tricks from those gatherings and thus I started to cook vegetarian at home and was determined to commit to this diet. I had not necessarily occupied myself with the matter of animal cruelty at the contemporary meat industry, rather it was the natural path I felt I should take as a Yoga teacher. I was taught Ahimsa: do not interfere in other creature’s path; I was taught the health benefits of the vegetarian diet; and I was given quite a few good recipes.
My family’s reaction to my new ideas was not favourable. My mom kept cooking lunches that included main meat dish and a side of pasta or rice without a sauce. As I rejected the meat, I was left only with the side dishes and consequently I was hungry each time I stayed at my family house. My mom argued that she can’t go through the hustle of cooking an extra dish just for me; she didn’t know how to cook vegetarian; meat was what everyone always ate. In my family it was considered right to always clean your entire plate as you eat and not complain about it. Therefore, I felt that I was always judged as selfish and impolite for my choice.
Once I raised the question with my fellow teacher trainees.
‘What if you are invited to another person’s house and all that is been served is meat. Wouldn’t it be impolite to refuse the meal?’ I asked and confided them with my struggle.
My teacher laughed heartily and said that I think so perhaps because I was brought up in a Russian family. One of my friends even stated, ‘if your hosts know you are vegetarian and still serve you meat, one might question THEIR manners instead.’
Somewhere during those two years of training, between my mom’s kitchen and my teacher’s lectures, I became what I call: a ‘bad vegetarian’. I indeed ate mainly healthy vegetarian food, except sometimes some fish, which I was beating myself for. I used to claim that I am ‘not fussy’ and when I was served meat I ate everything around it. I preferred to pick at my food instead of putting my hosts in a position where they have nothing to serve me with. Sometime during this period, I heard my favourite Yoga teacher declaring that she still eats meat; it gave me some validation at the time, but it wasn’t enough.
Three or four years since, I am now living in a continent far away from my family house. I am rarely hosted as I don’t have that many contacts hereabouts, so I have the privilege to choose what I eat most of the time. I cook vegetarian because it is cheaper, easier and it is gradually became my favourite food. As a Yoga teacher I understand and respect Ahimsa: not interference, all creatures have their own journey to follow in this world; one should not hinder the path of another for his own good.
Few days ago I was traveling in a mountains area and stopped for the night at a very small country town. My navigation skills were never my advantage, thus I got a bit lost and ended up driving at night through the bush. I arrived at my motel only after ten pm that night and the elderly hostess unlocked the door for me. With sleepy eyes she said she was so tired because she only opened the motel recently and there was so much work that she has to get up every day at half past four. She gave me the keys and added, ‘your room is upstairs, I’m sorry I won’t come up there with you. I waited for you to arrive safely until now and I wish to go to sleep.’ I bided her good night and agreed with her on an hour in which I’ll come down for breakfast the next day. She didn’t asked me if I am vegetarian or vegan or gluten free or don’t like some kinds of spices; she was a bit simpler than that.
I was expecting breakfast to be a buffet from which I would be able to pick the goods that suit my diet. However, a brief moment after I entered the dining room another lady came out of the kitchen with a piled up cooked breakfast dish. She was at least in her sixties, she placed the plate in front of me and said, ‘please, enjoy your meal’. The plate consisted of toasted bread with piled up bacon, eggs, mushrooms and sausage on top of it; it was all over each other in a one big mix. After a quick reflection at my situation I ate the bacon. The next day I ate the sausage as well and cleaned up my plate.
One of the best teachers I had the luck to be exposed to lately said that because he leads a traveller’s lifestyle, he can’t always choose what he eats. It is a similar example, however, he is quite privileged in his lifestyle. Many people are really CAN’T choose what they eat; some perhaps don’t experience the privilege of having food at all. At this New-Age of ours where embracing vegan diet is so available for us, we must remember the fact that it is only because we have that choice that we take it. In some snowy northern villages, people still survive only on hunting animals, for others eating meat is part of a traditional ritual which is deeply meaningful to them. I guess that at this motel’s homely little dining room I suddenly thought, ‘who am I to refuse the food this old lady made for me?’ I suddenly felt that rejecting her kindness would be a severer case of breaking Ahimsa than eating two pieces of meat.
In my own home, my own sanctuary, I can choose any diet that is in the latest fashion. We must not forget that food is such a precious matter for many of us, it is part of our path. What we eat, and how we eat, and how we make it, and if we eat at all. Especially if it so for you, you should respect other people’s sanctuaries. I understand now the value of cleaning up my plate. A tradition that is not only taught in my Russian family, but was embraced for centuries by so many cultures. It is also comes from Ahimsa: non-interference in other creature’s path in life. It is about not rejecting someone else’s offering, an offering that perhaps came with good intention or an intention that is unknown to us. It is someone else’s journey you cross pass when you arrive at his table as a guest and you should respect his journey. What purpose one serves when one refuses the turkey some grandmother made for a Christmas dinner? What I would have achieved if I refused the food my hostess hustled for? Except vexing a soul that reached to offer kindness, I don’t see any. Food is the essence of life, each has his own taste, but we should not claim it as a value. Being a kind person is a value, so is embracing the kindness of others.
With food, like with all matters of importance, one should be flexible and sensitive. One is not what one eats. Being vegetarian doesn’t make me a better person or a better teacher. The intention behind our choices is what matters. What we eat should be a choice made by the same criteria as any other. Does my choice serves others? Or the universe? Does it makes me happy or not? Does it makes anyone else happy or not? If the answer you find within is positive, just keep it simple and eat the bacon.