Sense, Sensuality, and Sensibility

In the New York Times article “When Chocolate and Chakras Collide” (January 26, 2010), yoga practitioners debate the yogic diet: Should yogis eat meat? Drink alcohol? Indulge in sweets and spices, onions and garlic?

Traditionalists hold that ahimsa requires vegetarianism, and that one must avoid strong flavors, caffeine, and alcohol, which overwhelm the senses. Revisionists argue that the hardline approach is unnecessary, if one’s attitude is appropriate. Both views make sense. It seems incongruous that a yogi be pleasure-seeking; yet, sticking to the rules doesn’t guarantee saintliness.

My two cents:


In the article, a group gathered for “vigorous, sweaty yoga” followed by a gourmet meal “to allow the yogis to taste, smell[,] and digest in a heightened state of awareness.” The higher-consciousness rationale seems worthy. But isn’t it a no-brainer to appreciate a “multicourse dinner of pasta, red wine[,] and chocolate”?

When I studied Zen meditation under Reb Anderson of Green Gulch Farm, he once described his training. Meals were spartan: a plain soup doled out in limited quantities. Students had to learn to appreciate the humblest sustenance, to be grateful for whatever one receives. (If a server was particularly stingy, they had to squelch any rumblings of resentment!)

To heighten sensory awareness, a simple meal seems more apt than a catered feast. (Better yet, cook your own meal (and clean up).) Mind you, I’m not dissing chocolate and wine. I’m certainly not “holier than thou,” to use quoted yoga teacher Sadie Nardini’s words. But, to me, socializing over a gourmet meal is simply an evening out. A “yoga experience”? Call a spade a spade.

By enjoying yummy food, with their tastebuds on red alert, the group was doing nothing wrong. But if they are really “interested in healthier bodies, clearer consciences and a greener planet,” wouldn’t it be better to volunteer in a soup kitchen or to donate the event fee to Haiti (or to others in need)?


Since I posted “Ahimsa versus sashimi,” and “Addendum of vegetarianism,” I’ve gone vegetarian. Unless I catch the fish, I’ll forgo it. I grew up eating fish (and poultry, beef, and pork), so I have no sanctimony about vegetarianism. I simply realized two things: First, I cannot without qualms kill an animal (not even a fish). Perhaps I cannot forget how my 15-year-old cat, with congestive heart failure, gasped and suffocated in my arms. Second, letting someone else do the killing lets me too blithely ignore the creature’s life. When I’d order maguro sashimi, my focus was its succulence. I never really acknowledged the creature that died for my pleasure.

This is my choice for myself. I accept others’ choices for themselves. But it behooves us to be clear about our philosophy. Before, I wasn’t.


The meat-eating debate reflects a larger question: Is sensual pleasure a yogic experience? In the Times article, David Romanelli, the yoga teacher who presented the dinner event, is said to believe “that any profound pleasure of the senses—a live Bruce Springsteen track, an In-N-Out burger, the scent of lavender gathered in the French Alps—can bring on the ‘yoga high’ that is a gateway to divine bliss.”

Whoa. While I’m all for pleasurable experiences in life, would I call them “yoga”? Everyone experiences sensory highs: parents bonding with their infants, athletes pushing their physical limits, scuba diving in the tropics, romantic love that weathers decades. As humans, we all experience such beauty in life.

To me, what yoga does (or can do) is to crystallize our awareness of the mundane, the simple, the ordinary moments. It’s easy to be awed by life’s obvious pleasures. Yoga develops our sensitivity to subtlety.

Hamburger image: Vanessa Pike-Russell



  1. “The meat-eating debate reflects a larger question: Is sensual pleasure a yogic experience?” — I think the key to experiencing sensory pleasure from a yogic perspective is not to deprive oneself, but to experience the sensation without attachment, and not place a greater value on a moment filled with pleasure over a less than pleasurable moment.


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful insight. I’ve read a lot about vegetarianism and its place in the yoga community. I am still working out my personal thoughts about the issue, but it’s so nice to hear valid points expressed without judgment. I wish the rest of the world could articulate things as clearly and maturely as my yoga blog friends do : )


  3. Great points, YogaSpy! So many of my non-yoga friends would just prefer never to think about these issues. As one said to me, “I appreciate the remove the supermarket gives me.” The animals people eat love their lives as much as our household pets do, yet there is massive cultural denial about what our food choices really mean — denial encouraged by the food industry. The whole thing just feels so unhealthy to me. Do I think vegetarianism is a requirement for yogis? No, not necessarily. But I do think making conscious choices is a bottom line, the foundation of an authentic yoga practice.


  4. Hmm. This is making me think about the “experience as yoga” label, whether it’s applied mothering, writing, eating, meditating, gardening, etc. Maybe we’re assigning too many pleasurable tasks the yoga label to somehow make them seem more significant. I dunno. I do the same thing (apply the label) and now I’m starting to wonder if I’m being a bit flip.

    Good thoughts, something to (ahem) chew on.


  5. Doesn’t it all come down to everything being a personal choice? The type of yoga one does to how you wish to eat or feel the world? Only you know what’s best for you on your path.

    Great thought provoking article. Thanks.


  6. I won’t say what *is* and what’s *not* yoga. I will say, though, that there is such a thing as escapist pleasure. I have put on my dancing shoes on and gone out and danced the night away, sometimes to enjoy life, other times to temporarily escape or put off something else.

    There’s nothing bad and wrong with enjoying whatever we consider fun and pleasurable. It gets tricky and we run into all sorts of corners when we feel the need to justify it as “a yogic experience”.

    I remember one night, after the Big Market Crash, my boyfriend wanted to watch a movie so that he could “not think about how depressing everything is for 2 hours”. It was so honest. He didn’t need to say it was some sort of opportunity to contemplate principles of happiness and reality or something pseudo-profound.

    Of course, in the grand scheme of things, everything is yoga. I’m with Brenda here though. We as people who devote ourselves to yoga have got to be vigilant about going overboard with labeling everything as yoga for commercial and packaging purposes.


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