On two recent occasions now, I have been asked about my diet by a student. "What do you eat?" "Do you eat meat?" And the answer is, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables; and yes, I eat some meat.
What I want to stress here is that I don't believe in forcing your body into a diet that doesn't work for it or doesn't make you feel right. A lot of people seem to think that all yogis are vegetarians; so when we embark upon this yogic path, we say, OK... so I have to stop eating meat, right? Yes and no. Stop eating meat if that's what your body is asking for, or if you feel strongly enough about the effect your diet and your habits have on the environment, the planet, and every living being as a whole.
I do not think it will necessarily work out if you force yourself to stop eating meat when your body is still really craving meat. Some discipline is good, and getting a little tough on yourself may be appropriate sometimes, so I'm not saying Never do that. What I am saying is that for me, the natural progression of slowly and gently eliminating things from my diet is what works. Because I do not crave any of these things that I have eliminated, so there was really no struggle involved. It is just very natural.
I suffered with some rather severe digestive issues a number of years ago, before my yoga practice became what I consider it to be now, and before I managed the stress in my life in a more effective way. I had, at different points, cut out many things from my diet including, fats like meat, dairy, oils, even nuts; gluten and all simple carbohydrates and refined sugars; and insoluble fibers, even some fruits and vegetables. If you do feel as badly as I did, trial-and-error is the only way to determine what it is that your body is having an adverse reaction to... until you can train yourself to become very attune to your body's messages and you will soon know exactly what is agreeable and what is disagreeable without much effort. However, this may come more easily to some than to others.
I eventually did channel and listen to my inner voice or intuition and it became very obvious what was aggravating my digestive system and sometimes even provoking headaches and other reactions.
At one point in my life (even during my time practicing yoga), I did feel I needed meat in my diet. I was anemic earlier on and felt that I needed the iron and protein that meat provided, so I ate meat. Gradually and without expectation, over the course of a year or two, I felt unpleasantly full and heavy and dragged down every time I consumed red meat. It was this coupled with an experience I had in December 2010 that prompted me to eliminate red meat (cow and pork) from my diet. I still have poultry and seafood, but not often.
In December, I visited a friend in Mexico and witnessed the slaughtering of a bull. It was as humane is I think it could be -- nothing like what we practice regularly here in the U.S. It, however, still disturbed me and I could see such life and consciousness in this bull's eyes (like a cat or dog might have... if you have pets, you know what I mean). It is a different kind of consciousness than I've observed in a chicken or in a fish. Not to say these creatures are not conscious beings, but the energy there is profoundly different from what I can see.
In addition to the fact that the consumption of heavy foods like meat products does not seem compatible with a consistent yoga practice, the other reasons vegetarianism is associated with yoga are because of the effort of mindfulness that comes with the yoga practice and observation of the gunas, or the modes of life, and the aim to live a more sattvic life.
When you set on a path to be more aware of your actions and decisions and how they affect the world and others, you will begin to consider not only what you do, say, think, feel, but also what you eat, what you buy, what you wear, what you make time for, etc. (more on all of this in another post though). Most relevantly to this subject matter is that it is quite natural to begin to feel for other creatures, including cows, pigs, and even the chicken, turkeys, and sea creatures. So, you may not want to eat them anymore. The other part about this that I think is relevant is that I believe in the transfer of energy. Meaning, if an animal was continually abused the way many of the animals that we consume are, there is a lot of negative, unhappy energy registered in that animal's body, in some way, whether you want to believe in that or not. That energy is what you are consuming. An unhappy, overworked, underappreciated being.
The other thing is that traditionally, there are certain foods that are considered sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic, as per the three gunas (which I wrote about before, and you can see it here). Meat products are considered rajasic, meaning they are stimulating, and can produce arousal and restlessness of mind, disturbing the equilibrium of the body; tamasic foods are static and are therefore harmful to the mind or the body producing laziness, fatigue, and depression; sattvic foods, however, are characterized by purity and goodness, yielding mental clarity and tranquility.
Most of my diet can fall under the sattvic diet these days; however, I want to emphasize again this wasn't necessarily something I consciously chose. I believe that when you are practicing the other aspects of yoga (asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing techniques), yamas and niyamas (codes of conduct), etc.), this will happen quite naturally. When the body becomes more pure, it will tolerate and impurity less and less. So, I stopped consuming most food products from the other categories (rajasic and tamasic) because they made me feel unhealthy. If you listen to that feeling, that higher knowledge that we are all equipped with, you will discover what foods and drinks are right for your body because the body knows... and THAT is the "yogic diet," the one that produces feelings of calm, peace, health, and harmony in your body, mind, and soul.