To Vegan or not to Vegan? The Yogi’s Dilemma

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | February 9th, 2010 | 17 Comments
topic: Fitness, Health & Wellness, Healthy Eating, Weight Loss, Yoga

Vegan Yoga

The New York Times article “When Chocolate and Chakras Collide” triggered a cascade of associations for me around yoga, food and eating disorders. I am a proponent of any diet that makes you feel well in both body and mind, and that one person’s food can literally be another person’s poison. I truly appreciate the dilemma that many folks face when they decide to commit fully to the precepts and teachings of yoga, but I also think there is another side to the story – that of “rules and restrictions.”

A young anorexic

At the tender age of 13 I became a strict vegetarian, denouncing my mother’s New Orleans culinary gifts of fried chicken, chicken fried steak, jambalaya and pork fat french fries. You see, at age 11 I started practicing Yoga. Mom brought home the Jane Fonda Workout and the Raquel Welch Yoga videos, which became my daily obsession and ritual. Along with my new found love of movement and my body, I began to create a lot of new rules around food. I lost all of my baby fat … and then some.

By age 12, I had gone from 95 pounds to an anorexic 65 pounds. I was so proud of myself. Food became intolerable, and I kicked my mother’s cooking to the curb. I insisted on controlling every drop of oil that went into my body, no mayonnaise, no lard, no butter, etc. My love of yoga supported my new diet. My yogic beliefs included a strict interpretation of “ahimsa” or non-violence, which translated into to eating light on the food chain as a vegan. It also helped me to maintain my weight loss.

Phase 2: Bulimia

Fast forward to college … I met many other women who had similar concerns about their food. We were dancers and budding yoginis (go figure) and our obsessions supported each others’ bizarre habits. One of my new favorite tricks was to purge, just like my hero Jane Fonda. When one of my best friends ended up in the hospital, emaciated and on a death-watch, I finally woke up to my eating disorder and my pain.

Healing begins

My journey back to nourishing myself was a roller coaster of unraveling beliefs, admissions of trauma and internal growth. I began to study massage and thankfully comforted myself with an even deeper practice of yoga and meditation, and developed what is now my Core Integration program. Well into my recovery, at age 23, I moved to Santa Monica, our nations’ Yoga capital. For the next few years, I was still a strict vegan, but I had indeed kicked my bulimia and anorexia. Though no longer “acting out” my disease, I still struggled to like myself.

Somewhere around 30, I had a revelation. I was so sick of building rules around food! There were so many NOs in my life: no meat, no butter, no mayonnaise, no eggs. I had skewed a great dislike of myself into my need to punish myself and control food. It amounted to a lot of negativity that scared my family, friends and boyfriends. I finally made a connection: all of the NOs were keeping me in a perpetual state of closure, denial, restriction and fear. What if I just started saying YES to everything (well, almost everything) including the foods I had demonized?

And that was it! I turned the ahimsa around and stopped assaulting myself with my own propaganda. I started to taste everything with the taste buds of an optimist, and my heart finally opened. In fact, I met my husband who is so loving, supportive and not a vegetarian!

What do you choose?

Look at yourself and your rules around eating. Are they destabilizing you or empowering you? What if you said YES where you’ve been saying NO? There are many reasons to be a vegan, and just as many arguments to be an omnivore … And many will say it depends on your body or blood type.

With great respect for all your conscious choices, I look forward to your response, and of course, totally respect your decision!

If you are a loved one have an eating disorder, please seek out help, these diseases can be fatal, you are not alone, and you can heal!

Comments

  1. This is a terrible article.

    Connecting veganism to eating disorders and a “life of saying no” is insulting and lacking any type of coherence.

    And what’s with the title of this article? You barely mention veganism and “the yogi’s dilemma.” Or is it the yogi’s dilemma to have an eating disorder or not?

    “There are many reasons to be a vegan, and just as many arguments to be a carnivore…”

    Is that so? I’d like to hear these – because that’s what the title led me to believe this article would be about. It would have been interesting to hear what yoga philosophy actually says – which is apparently to be vegan – and why you chose to give that up and how you can support that with yoga philosophy.

    I’ve been waiting for years to hear a good argument as to why one should eat meat. Why are you hiding this from us?

    Excuse me if I sound angry, there is just so much nonsense on the internet connecting veganism to anorexia when really the two aren’t related at all. And I was excited to read about veganism and yoga. Which didn’t really get to happen.

    Andrew Warner | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. Andrew, thanks for your comment. My intention definitely was not to relate Veganism with eating disorders, that just happened to be part of my story. In terms of veganism and “the yogi’s dilemma,” my point was simply to state that it can be a difficult decision for a Yogi who, on the one hand in many Yogic schools, is encouraged to be Vegan, but perhaps is personally confronted by feelings that this doesn’t work for him or her either physically or spiritually. It was solely “food for thought” so to speak about the rules we can often put on ourselves or allow others to put upon us, when often they just don’t feel right. I appreciate you offering your opinion.

    Jill Miller | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. Perhaps your views toward your body image and your relationship with food was narcisisstic. When one adopts a vegan lifestyle it may initially be a health-focused decision, but ultimately has more to do with living one’s values about nonviolence, and goals for a healthier planet , and less to do with him/herself. There is no feeling of deprivation when a vegan lifestyle is chosen for the right reason.

    Eileen | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. I enjoyed the article and am grateful to you for sharing your story. I believe it is an important one to share. I recognize, too, that it was “your story”, and you were presenting “food for thought”.
    I personally subscribe to a mostly plant based organic food diet, however, I do eat meat and fish on occasion, and see this as a conscious personal choice that I make. Eating disorders are life threatening disorders, and I feel that the vegan lifestyle can be viewed as desirable by women who struggle with these disorders. I’m sorry if this sounds as if I am making a causal statement about the relationship. I am only seeing that there can be a positive correlation. This is due to the array of symptoms present for someone with an eating disorder and the demographic studies done related to those who suffer with eating disorders.
    According to several different national studies, the percentage of vegans in the US ranged from .2 % – 1.8% of the population. The majority of which are female (78%) and under the age of 35 (80%) with 77% of both men and women vegans polled, stating that they became vegan for moral/ethical reasons. The highest % of occupations for those polled who described themselves as vegans were college students and lawyers. (I personally would not have guessed, lawyers.) In the US, the typical person who struggles with eating disorders is: white, female, middle class/upper middle class, and under the age of 35. So there is bound to be some correlation.

    Do I think that a vegan lifestyle somehow causes eating disorders? Absolutely not. Do I think that it is possible that those with eating disorders may be drawn to a vegan lifestyle? yes. Let me explain….
    I am passionate about dance. I am white, no longer under 35 (!), attended both college and graduate school and while a dancer in college, I did not have an eating disorder. Although, I knew several women who struggled with bulimia and anorexia who pursued dancing careers. Do I think that Dance promotes eating disorders? No. Do I think that those with eating disorders are drawn to dance, gymnastics, and wrestling? Yes.

    I know several people who are passionate about being vegan, and have made the choice consciously for ethical/moral/spiritual reasons. Some of them are among the healthiest, happiest people I know. I respect the choice very much, and the lifestyle. I also respect the choice that others make. I applaud those who work to heal from eating disorders, and recognize that the healing process involves building ego strength, setting personal boundaries, and making appropriate choices for their lives. Choices about lifestyle, and choices about the food they eat. I respect the right to choose.
    Thanks for reading.

    Christine | February 17th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. Thanks Christine, I appreciate the kind words, and the STATS… wow, those
    are really interesting. Hope we get the chance to meet some time, sounds
    like we share some similar history in our love for dance!

    Jill Miller | February 18th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. Thank you so much for this article. I myself am in recovery from an E.D and I used veganism/vegetarianism and even yoga to justify my irrational behaviors. I loved what you said about the lifestyle of NO…the restrictions. Having been in recovery about a year now (still a little baby!) I’m allowing myself to go deeper into my yogic practice…non-violence in my self-talk as well as non-violence in my life. butter is no longer a violent food, but a delicious spread on bread in the morning. thank you so much for sharing this. i feel a sense of camaraderie! I think sometimes that the principles of yoga can be so abused to achieve an E.D’s end and it’s not really talked about or acknowledged.

    And the people who got angry, attacking, or defensive about their vegan lifestyles obviously missed the point of your article. You were talking about wholesome living, not attacking vegans. I understand! More power to you. Thank you so much for sharing.

    alannah | June 23rd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. I too believe in the fact that everyone/thing has a right to live on this planet just as I have. I try not to harm or destroy or encourage killing of any lives which are within my control.

    I am in my fifties and have been a vegetarian (i take milk products) my whole life and so have been my wife and my children (2 girls). We are all over 5 ft 71/2 inches tall and fairly healthy with none of the problems that I hear about around and plus the problems from your article. One of my daughter’s friend is a non-veg who also went through the same problems that you described, so being a vegetarian or not has nothing much to do with the issue. I believe obsessiveness is a very dangerous thing and it requires one to be ready to adopt a life style and not to kill oneself. Vegetarian does not mean that you have to kill yourself and your taste buds but it means you have to bring a change with alternatives that provide a similar nourishment plus the taste. Spices with proper use of legumes and vegetables and wheat/rice can be both tasty and nourishing and healthy too.

    There are hundreds of books written on vegetarian cooking which satisfies ones taste buds. Secondly vegetarianism does not bite my conscious of destroying other lives that have their families too.

    Vijay | July 19th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. Hi,

    I have to say this was a powerful article as well as the comments that followed. I have slowly began to eat more of a vegetarian diet myself and being overweight was the starting reason of my journey (but not my only reason). My Blood Type is A and therefore I am supposed to benefit from eating a vegetarian diet and I think its a great way to eat.

    Thanks again for sharing your article about your life. I wish you all the best.

    ChristaBell | August 1st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. I’ve always thought that the best diet was a balance between vegetables, protien, grains and fruit. As long as you eat from each of these groups every day, I don’t see how you can have any eating problems.

    Alma's Hydroponic System | August 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  10. Well … what to say …

    I actually agree with this article. Most people don’t realize that when you get fixated on “particulars” in your diet, you REALLY alter you brain chemistry. For example, your brain is composed of fat (60% of it is fat) … cut out your EFA oils and *poof* you go mentally off center. Your brain is fueled largely by carbs, cut them out … you start making weird choices … for instance … making even MORE strict dietary restrictions. No protein … well then … no cell structure … welcome to getting old really, really quickly. Oh yeah … can becoming a diabetic to boot!

    The thing is, our eyes are on the front of our heads and we have teeth for ripping off flesh … unfortunately we also have large prefrontal cortexes … which makes us guilty for being human. We need to eat meat, carbs, veggies, herbs, nuts, fruits … the whole nine. If we don’t eat a wide range of foods, our brains suffer, we age fast and die early.

    Argue if you want … or you can possibly digest my comment … amongst all of these dietary restrictions it might be … *drum roll* FOOD FOR THOUGHT *rim shot*

    David Lloyd | October 18th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  11. Thanks David!
    I love all of this brainiac data. :)

    Jill Miller | October 19th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  12. While I am glad you found your path, some of the comments are upsetting.

    I practice yoga, and have tried vegetarianism a few times. Each time, it made me incredibly sick, to the point where I can’t function properly. I’ve come to the realization that my body just requires meat. That’s my argument for eating it.

    Furthermore, if I must eat meat, I would much rather take the animals myself, in the most respectful way possibly. By doing this, I ensure not only are they lead a full, free life, and I do not support the industrialized meat industry with no regard for animal life.

    Does this make me a bad yogi or person? I think not.

    To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear. ~Buddha

    Susie | October 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  13. You’re welcome Jill. I was a vegetarian for about 3 years in an effort to become healthier after a significant illness. Looking back on it, it was great the first year … but … over time I began to suffer from physical stresses from my dietary choices.

    I slowly changed my diet and started to feel much better. Now, I eat well and I’m in the shape of my life … 17 years after dying in a hospital. That is also thanks to you. I have been a martial artist since I was a kid and I was always interested, but never impressed, with yoga DVDs … then came your yoga link series … and … seriously … I’m really pleased and impressed. My hips and abs are killer and my posture is great … thanks for your passion!

    If you’re interested in any more brainiac stuffs … let me know.

    I’m starting up a blog … http://whitecranemedicine.wordpress.com/ check it out if you wish?

    David Lloyd | November 1st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  14. Thanks David!

    So glad your abs are Yoga Link happy! Anytime you want to fill in missing pieces with your data and insight…please JUMP IN!

    Blessings to you and your fascinating blog!

    Jill Miller | November 2nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  15. Jill, I loved your article and it was VERY helpful for me. I practice yoga as well. I am just getting into it, after my sister referred me to her classes. I had questions about my diet as well, but I was not sure, so now I feel at ease with my dieting decisions. My question is a bit of a different scenario. I design jewelry and I was wondering if most yogi’s are primarily vegans and refuse or avoid wearing leather items due to the yogi philosophy, and or animals rights. I have avoided designing jewelry items made from leather due to when my ex-bf who was a yogi instructor became angered that I was considering designing items from leather. My thing is that I am not sure what to do. I am afraid of other yogi’s shunning me and my company, in the event that I do design items from leather in future. Can anyone tell me for sure if most yogi’s are vegan and have disapprove wearing leather items of any kind? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. My company is already established and I would not want to risk offending anyone, like friends or future customers, or risk being shunned or disliked for my design choices. You can e-mail me @giak28@gmail.com. Thank you very much.

    Anje | November 13th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  16. Revealing our dietary changes is one of the intimate revelatiosn of our life- thanks Jill for being up front and honest about where you stand. It is truly important for each one of us to take the time to listen and explore beyond the judgements and the popular beliefs, listen to your body as it gurgles and churns through the day and night singing its own song. I too have journeyed from caribbean/ american mainstream diet to vegan to choosing what is natural healthy and what feels good. I may have had a judgemental approach at one time in life and now maintain it is time for each one to learn what is best and eating what grows near and as whole as possible is key. I urge everyone to listen to their bodies voice.

    aziyza | March 3rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  17. Thank you Jill for sharing your struggle. You have to listen to your body, plain and simple.

    Long story short. My husband and I were vegetarian–not vegan, cheese is food of the gods–for 7 years. Every now and then I, actually more than that, I had unbelievable cravings for meat. I ignored them and chalked it up to old habits and mouth cravings. After years of eating what I thought was a healthier diet (read: for me), I developed a series of symptoms that resembled ovarian cancer. Multitudes of unpleasant exclusionary tests ensued. No medical issues could be found. I was at a regular appointment with a chiropractor/kinesiologist/nutritionist who I mentioned it to out of frustration. She offered to do muscle tests. Flax seed…blow out. Fish oil…solid. Numerous other tests that considered animal protein vs. plant protein. The result was the same every single time, animal protein good, plant protein exclusively? Not so good. Reluctantly, I inserted fish back into my diet, then slowly other animal proteins. WIthin three weeks, all the symptoms had completely resolved.

    I have been a practicing yogi for 10 years and have responsibly consumed animal flesh for 7 of them. Do I consider myself less of a yogi? No. I am honoring my body’s needs.

    hcb10960 | March 5th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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