What I’ve Learned About Non-Violence From Eating Animals. ~ Robert Wolf

Via elephant journal
on Mar 6, 2012
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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.

Photo: Rick

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.



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10 Responses to “What I’ve Learned About Non-Violence From Eating Animals. ~ Robert Wolf”

  1. karlsaliter says:

    I do not like how much I like this. You are effing up my fundamentalist hard core self righteousness. Quit it.

  2. West says:

    I also have very similar feelings about Ahimsa and eating meat. I enjoy a good "Surf and Turf"! As I am in my 40s I have come to the following realization; "In order for me to live, something else must die." I try to minimize my impact but I have stopped beating myself up over this. Namaste my friend.

  3. robertwolf681 says:


  4. robertwolf681 says:

    Surf and Turf? Ah, Googled it. Lobster and steak. Wow. Hardcore!

    I like this: "In order for me to live, something else must die." For me, vegetarianism was an expression of a refusal to accept that axiom. I honestly believed that I could purify myself to a degree that would make me an unadulterated positive force on the planet … and almost disappeared up my own aura as a result.

  5. […] for elephantjournal. A couple of those have now been published: a new edit of my piece on Ahimsa and vegetarianism, and an article about my experience of forgiving someone who was once close to me. Check ‘em […]

  6. Edward Staskus says:

    I don't know where to begin, so I will begin by saying this is well-written nonsense. You only eat animals who have lived before they died? Even factory food lives before they are killed so you can then eat them. You are more energetic when you eat animals? I am more energetic when I…but I don't because I would rather not support drug gangs You don't eat them because you are violent. Well, of course not, somebody else kills them for you.

    You feel better when you eat animals, right? I feel better when I when I kill…

    But, really, read Swift's modest proposal, you will get the point.

  7. robertwolf681 says:

    What an unpleasant (and poorly-argued) comment, Edward. I'm open to feedback, but not what appears to be barely-articulated impotent outrage.

    I'm glad you noticed that the piece is well-written, though.

  8. […] who speak against killing and who desire to spare the lives of all conscious beings are right. It is good to protect even animals and insects. But what about those persons who kill time, what about those who are destroying wealth, and those […]