The Yamas & Niyamas are ethical guidelines and comprise the first two limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’ “Eight-Fold Path”. They are the very foundation of skillful living according to Yogic philosophy.
The Yamas and Niyamas both consist of specific guidelines (presented as precepts) which give detailed explanations to guide you through all aspects of daily life. The Yamas offer universal directives which a community or society can follow to promote harmonious relationships; whereas the Niyamas deal more with what you as an individual can do to live in harmony with nature.
These Yamas and Niyamas reinforce the principles and purpose of a plant-based or Vegan dietary regime and lifestyle, and this article will explain this close association and how the Yamas and Niyamas apply to Veganism.
The Yamas encourage a collective way of living which discourages negative behaviors, and in so doing, embraces Veganism:
- 1. Ahimsa – Compassion and non-violence towards all sentient beings, including animals. As a Vegan, you practice ahimsa, believing that animals have right too, so you avoid all cruelty to animals by using only cruelty free, eco-friendly products.
- 2. Satya – Truthfulness, expressing your truth in thoughts, words and behavior. It often takes courage to be practicing Vegan, especially if friends and family, work colleagues and others eat meat you may find yourself socially excluded and/or considered a bit of an odd-ball. By sticking to your convictions you are practicing Satya.
- 3. Asteya – Non-stealing and by extension, being generous with your feelings, thoughts and actions. Economically, it costs considerably more to raise and feed animals than to cultivate plants. By practicing Asteya you are enabled to support and cooperate with nature and you’re using less of the Earth’s natural resources.
- 4. Brahmacharya – Self restraint, generally Brahmacharya refers to restraint of the sexual energy, however in its broadest sense, Brahmacharya means self-discipline and moderation in all areas of life. The yogic diet consists of eating “sattvic” foods, foods which are easy to digest, and eaten as close to their natural state (and source), which is in accord with a Vegan diet. In addition, a conscious Vegan strives to preserve our natural resources and by recycling whenever and wherever possible, and this indicates a willingness towards moderation and conserving energy.
- 5. Aparigraha – Non-possessiveness and non-greed. On a practical level, when adopting a compassionate, Vegan lifestyle, we take the first big step toward becoming established in Aparigraha, and with that, we step into a bright, enlightened future for ourselves, for the animals and for this planet.
The typical Western meat diet encourages you to bulk buy, to store frozen foods and meat, to fill your larder with long life provisions. As a vegan, you strive to eat freshly prepared foods, to support your local farmers market and where possible, eat locally sourced foods.
The Niyamas are more personal observations (recommendations) and relate to actions which you, as an individual are encouraged to do.
The Niyamas encourage a personal way of life which encourages positive behaviors which embrace Veganism:
- 1. Shauca – Cleanliness, keeping yourself and immediate environment clean and tidy. Veganism with its emphasis on a “green” lifestyle using eco-friendly practices is perfectly aligned with the yoga practice of Shauca.
- 2. Samtosha – Contentment, being satisfied, accepting of your immediate situation; the ideal behind Samtosha is to prompt yourself to be happy and appreciate all the blessings and tribulations in your life, yet at the same time to strive towards spiritual evolution. Sattvic foods promote happiness and contentment, while Rajasic and Tamasic foods tend to stimulate and disturb. There is a Native American tale of two wolves: “…a grandfather is talking to his grandson about how inside his mind are two wolves in a constant fight. One is anger, greed, self-pity, revenge; the other is love, kindness, empathy, hope. The child asks which one wins, and the grandfather replies, ‘Whichever one I feed.’” In the same way, we can choose to eat foods that promote contentment.
- 3. Tapas – Relates to self-discipline; the ability to stay focused and maybe go without certain possessions in order to grow, develop and care for yourself and others. Tapas can also relate to the way you prepare and/or cook your food, even starting a garden and growing your own takes time and effort compared the more popular and convenient fast food approach of buying ready-made, pre-prepared and processed meals and then using a microwave.
- 4. Svadhyaya – Self study and observation of your thoughts, feelings, words and actions. Life is a journey and Svadhyaya can also mean the study of your own mind. A decision to stop eating meat and follow a more ethical plant-based lifestyle which causes the least amount of harm to the environment and animals involves considerable personal study, reflection and observation.
- 5. Ishvarapranidhana – Refers to devotion to God. To constantly be aware of the sacredness of life and to hold reverence for all being. This is the highest goal of yoga and perfectly in accord with Veganism, which also holds all forms of life as sacred.
You can see from this overview how the observance of the Yamas and Niyamas offers Vegans a way to live a wholesome and eco-friendly life. By applying the principles of the Yamas and Niyamas to your daily life you it will become obvious how yoga philosophy encourages you to become a vegan or follow a plant-based diet.
Side note on the question of dairy and dairy products: Cows produce milk for the same reason that humans do, to nourish their young; but calves born on dairy farms are taken from their mothers when they are just one day old (and raised for veal – violates Ahimsa) so that humans can have the mother’s milk instead. Furthermore, in the case of bovine baby vs. human baby, cow’s milk is designed to nourish the calf’s relatively rapid bone growth (a calf will gain approximately 40% of its full-grown weight in its first six months [400-600 lbs.], while a human baby is meant to gain only about 10% in the same time [14-16 lbs.]). Additionally, there are now Vegan alternatives to cow’s milk (e.g.; soy, almond, coconut, rice and flax milks are some common examples). For more on the dairy issue, watch the film: “The Perils of Dairy”
The ancient Chandogya Upanishad (D II 26.2) says “When food is pure, the mind is pure, when the mind is pure, concentration is steady, and when concentration is achieved one can loosen all the knots of the heart that bind us.” Veganism is one of the main pillars of the purifying the mind.
*In summary – The American equivalent of a traditional Yogic (Sattvic) diet today consists of organic, whole, natural fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains. A modern Sattvic diet emphasizes foods grown in harmony with nature, preferably by organic farmers, planted in good soils, ripened naturally and then prepared with an attitude of love. Foods treated in such a manner carry the highest prana and consciousness. This modern sattvic diet does not include junk and processed foods, excessively spicy or salty foods, fried foods, white “enriched” flour, refined sugars, and other forms of food that unnaturally stimulate your blood sugar and/or your mind. This modern diet avoids meat, fish and alcohol and eggs as well. It does not include genetically engineered (GMO) foods, irradiated foods, microwave foods, foods that have been cooked more than 24 hours previously or stale foods.