Ahimsa and vegetarianism.
Soon after I first got my asana into gear, more than a decade ago, I began to experiment with vegetarianism. It was what the ancient masters advocated, right? They must have known what they were doing. I was on a fast-track to a healthier, more ecologically sound, more ‘spirichal’ future; all I had to do was stop eating bacon and I was practically enlightened.
For me, at least, it didn’t quite work out like that. I tussled with tofu for four unsatisfying, low-energy, food-obsessed years before I finally threw in the towel and scoffed a cold sausage from my parents’ fridge. After that, my animal-eschewing days were well and truly over.
I’m still dedicated to my asana practice, though. So how do I reconcile plowing through prime rib and chomping chicken with the principle of ahimsa, refraining from harm? Do I just ignore that particular practice and cross my fingers that no-one will notice, or is it possible that ahimsa can incorporate my fondness for kingfish?
I’ve come to see ahimsa as a guideline rather than a rigid rule. For a start, it’s simply not possible to avoid causing any harm whatsoever and still live in the modern world. I fly in airplanes, I use a computer, I slag off David Cameron. Christ—every time I breathe out I emit carbon dioxide.
I’m not about to don an organically-grown robe, colored using only plant-based dyes and hightail it to the Himalayas to live as a sannyasin. That being the case, I’d be an idiot to imagine that I’ve purified my karma just by refusing the meat course.
Secondly, I recently hit upon a quote from Autobiography of a Yogi, attributed by Paramhansa Yoganananda to his guru, Sri Yukteswar. Catalyzed by an amusing vignette centering around the massacre of mosquitoes (a concern I can identify with all too easily, writing this from a hammock in Thailand, around sunset), Sri Y makes the following pronouncement:
“This world is inconveniently arranged for a literal practice of ahimsa. Man may be compelled to exterminate harmful creatures. He is not under compulsion to feel anger or animosity.”
Admittedly, I take the extermination of harmful creatures a bit further than the good guru, and collude in the slaughter of beasts and birds that I wish to eat. Nonetheless, I do my level best to respect the fact that my dinner often features some sentient being which has met its end to fill my stomach.
I choose fish caught in the wild, animals that have lived before they died, and make every effort to avoid factory-farmed meat. Crucially, I think, I eat meat because I feel happier, healthier, and more energetic when I do. Not because I feel a desire to inflict violence on other creatures.
At times while I was vegetarian, I veered dangerously close to fundamentalism, convinced that my way was the best way and dismissive of those who questioned it. I was also prone to driving myself excessively hard on the yoga mat.
Looking back, I realize that I was doing precisely the opposite of ahimsa: damaging my relationships with others, and my body, in order to protect a doctrine I held more dearly than either.
Over time, I came to accept that my body wasn’t ready to live without being fed flesh, and that trying to make it do so ran counter to the principles of yoga just as surely as trying to force myself into a challenging asana that I was only capable of holding with much huffing and puffing.
Perhaps, one day, I’ll find that switching to vegetarianism feels suddenly right and natural to me, just as I now lift lightly into bakasana where once I fell flat on my face. Not today, though.
Restoring fish and meat to my diet has opened me up to greater awareness of the subtleties and limitations of ahimsa. I stopped viewing the desire to cause no harm as an injunction, and began to recognize it as an art.
Paradoxically, I think that’s when I really began to practice it.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.
Robert Wolf is a yogi, writer, and largely hammock-based activist. Currently travelling in South East Asia, his favourite ways of spending time generally involve learning, laughing, loving, or any combination of the three. Read his journal, follow him on Twitter, or connect with him on Facebook.