Can you eat meat, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and do yoga? Absolutely. Can you do these things while doing yoga? You sure can. Should you? Probably not.
Yoga is sneaky in a beautiful way. The more you do, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more you want to learn. The more you learn, the deeper your practice becomes. Sooner or later, you’ll learn more about the history and philosophy of yoga, particularly the Yamas and the Niyamas, and even more particularly: Ahimsa.
Ahimsa is the practice of non-harming or non-violence This is as straightforward as it sounds, and also a lot more complex than you think. Not only does it pertain to "not hurting" other beings, but it also includes being kind to yourself. It doesn’t deal solely with physical violence, but also mental and spiritual abuse. Ahimsa can be applied in numerous ways, with such guidelines ‘don’t shake a baby’ to ‘don’t kill living beings’ to ‘you should really avoid calling someone a jerkwad because they just cut you off on the highway going 90mph while talking on their cell phone, most likely to some other jerk about something completely stupid’.
Needless to say, when starting to practice ahimsa universally, one tends to take a lot of deep breaths. Lots of 'em.
How does ahmisa apply to anything you might perceive as a ‘non-yogic’ habit? If an action you perform doesn’t serve you—that is, if it doesn’t positively support you in a non-violent way—then this action is intrinsically violent itself. For example, you smoke cigarettes. You’ve smoked them for years. We all know cigarettes aren’t good for you, yet you still continue to smoke them. Ahimsa dictates this to be a negative act violent to yourself. Another example—you eat red meat. Where does that meat come from? An animal that most likely didn’t donate that flesh for human consumption. Essentially, eating meat is an act of violence.
Or is it? Depending on the diet, the person, the body, eating red meat is a valuable source of protein, among other beneficial things. Yes, you can get these nutrients somewhere else, but you like meat. This line of thought can spiral on infinitely. The bottom line is that one needs to clearly define their own understanding of what ahimsa is and how it applies to their own lives. Yoga is not a surefire, instantaneous cure for any affliction, but a vehicle for self-awareness and wellness. It’s not the destination, but a steady path towards discovery.
Talk to a hundred different yoga instructors and hear as many—if not more— answers. It all depends on how you view the practice. Far be it from me—a guy who, if given the choice, would choose bacon & blue cheeseburger as a new scent for an air freshener—to tell anyone that they should not eat meat. It would be extremely hypocritical if I—a man who has worked a bar from every angle: behind, in front, on top, and below—were to point a shameful finger at someone going for a drink after class. We're all adults here, and adults get to make their own choices. The most important advice to give anyone who struggles with the idea of starting (or continuing) a yoga practice is simple: DO YOGA. Whatever gets you on that mat—be it once a day, a week, month, or year—do it. Get into the flow and see where it takes you.
You want to eat meat? Eat meat. How about enjoying that hangar steak with a fine, cask aged scotch? Don’t forget to light up one of those hand-wrapped Cohibas your friend brought back from Cuba. Right now, my only suggestion to you is that you wait until after class to indulge in your bacchanalia. Also, take a few deep breaths before you tuck in and think about how what you’re about to do will serve you. If you commit to do something, enjoy it fully and be present throughout. This is how yoga is best practiced, and this is how it can be applied to everything in life.