I had the pleasure of conducting a workshop on Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali recently in Singapore. One of the participants raised an interesting question on Ahimsa. “Isn’t injury to oneself also considered part of the definition of “injury”? Doesn’t a vegan diet inflict injury on oneself? Where do we draw the line?”
My thoughts (and the answer to the question) are as follows.
Injury to oneself is a broader interpretation of the doctrine of non-violence or Ahimsa within the context of Yoga. Ahimsa in Yoga means not harming other beings (in thought and deed).
Training for Yoga involves assuming voluntary discomfort i.e. tapasya or austerities. This is deemed essential to acquire supreme control of the mind and the sense organs, which in turn is essential to achieving states of intense concentration at will. Therefore, it is ingenious to invoke an expansive interpretation of injury to avoid (minor) discomfort from dietary restrictions.
Vyasa, the foremost commentator of Yoga Sutras, observes that the very act of living produces injury to other beings. In other words, some amount of injury to other beings is unavoidable. It follows that the practice of Ahimsa is one of gradation. All that the Yogi can do is to minimise needless injury to other beings. “Minimise” and “Needless” are the operative words here.
Is a vegan diet Yogic (in the above sense)? It certainly avoids of needless (direct) injury to animals through exclusion of animal products . However, it may not necessarily accord with the minimisation guideline. If one ends up obsessed with sense gratification through a laborious and expansive vegan diet – recipes with a dozen ingredients, taste-just-like-meat dishes, exotic raw vegan cakes, fruits and vegetables shipped in all year from many thousand miles away and so on – one may actually end up causing more (indirect) injury than a carefully restricted non-vegan diet. Also, it would not be useful in the context of training to control the mind and the senses for Yoga. I admit to such vegan excesses.
To sum up, a Yogic diet is a diet that contributes to minimisation of needless injury to other beings. This minimisation effort encompasses all activities of life and food eaten is just a part of it. A Yogic diet is necessarily vegan. However, a vegan diet may not be Yogic.