Ahimsa – can you be a yogi if you eat fish or meat?

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In my last post I mentioned that when I feel low, I often eat tuna.  In this post I explain why.

Ahimsa (non-harming), often translated as ‘non-violence’, though something more fundamental is intended by it.  Patanjali regards it as one of the five moral observances (yama)… It is generally defined as the practice of abstaining from harming others physically, mentally and vocally at all times.’ (The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein, page 13) 

I am often asked, ‘how can you be a yogi?  You eat meat.’  Yes, I do.  I was a vegetarian for 15 years.  Yet I made a difficult decision to go back to eating fish and chicken for health reasons.  I suffered with depression from my teens and throughout my twenties.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had found counselling useful but still this black cloud would suddenly appear above me and I couldn’t shake it.  Finally, my GP said I’d have to take anti-depressants but I didn’t feel that was the right solution for me.

At around this time I came across a book called ‘The natural way to beat depression’ by Professor Basant K. Puri and Hilary Boyd (in re-print at the time of writing), which detailed how important EPA, ‘which is a derivative of a naturally occurring essential fatty acid … the richest source of this omega-3 fatty acid is oily fish’ is in helping sufferers of depression. (Page 9)  The book goes on to assert that ‘depression … is characterised by reduced levels of electrical activity in the brain … as a result of low levels of the brain chemicals serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine, which prevent the neurons, or brain cells, from connecting properly … tests have shown that EPA enhances the brain’s ability to regenerate cells.’(Page 111)

In addition to my depression, I also had some of the other symptoms mentioned in the book which indicated low levels of EPA, such as minor skin conditions.  It all added up and after a lot of soul searching, I started eating fish again and was surprised at how quickly I started to feel better.  I had also been craving chicken over the months prior to my decision to give up vegetarianism, something I had never done before.  After some research, I discovered how important the protein is in alleviating symptoms of depression as it increases levels of dopamine in the brain.  The same is true of other protein rich foods such as tuna, which I often craved when I was a vegetarian. Maybe this was my body and brain trying to tell me all along that a meat-free lifestyle wasn’t meant for me.

The concept of ahimsa is interpreted as do not harm any living being, but if not eating meat or fish makes you ill because your body needs it, then I personally believe you should eat it.  Ahimsa should also extend to ourselves as much as to anyone else.  Just be sure that the fish or meat you buy is sustainably sourced and free range, ensuring that the animal which has given its life for you has been treated as humanely as possible.

On a final note, while I wasn’t comfortable about taking anti-depressants that doesn’t mean they are not helpful for some people and you should always seek medical advice as soon as possible if you think you are suffering from depression.

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