I’ve just returned home from the wonderful Northwest Yoga Conference in Seattle. As a member of the panel discussion, I was asked a classic question about Ahimsa: “Does one have to be a vegetarian to be a Yogi?” As you know, Ahimsa (a- not, -himsa violent) is the first of the Yamas (ethical principles) in Patanjali’s Sutras Eight-Limbed Path. As a happy and healthy vegetarian for over 35 years, I believe that not consuming animal products is a clear path for eliminating suffering for a large class of earth’s co-inhabitants, as well as a common-sense choice for intelligent use of the planet’s limited resources.

However, I think that Ahimsa, like all of the Yamas and Niyamas, has another, deeper purpose. To look at each of these tenets as a contemplative focus brings one to a reflective state in which we can consider our relationship to our selves, others and to spirit itself. Perhaps Ahimsa is an invitation to kindness.

While in Seattle, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Bald Eagle soaring across the cloudy skies, most certainly on the prowl for an unsuspecting fish or young bird. If you’ve ever seen an eagle, hawk or falcon hunt and catch its prey, you know it is thrilling-if shocking in its brutality! Yet, in the grand scheme of things, this is not violence: it is the natural cycle of life. Each expression of life has its dharma and must fulfill its destiny.

As Krishna nudges Arjuna in The Gita, “It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly.” (Bg. 18.47)

While the raptors must hunt, I myself, do not. Each one of us must make decisions each day about how we live in relation to other living beings, doing our best to choose kindness over violence whenever possible.