Tuesday, April 29, 2008


A friend of mine e-mailed me earlier this week and suggested I write about ahimsa, the yogic concept outlined in the Yoga Sutras that recommends a non-violent and non-harmful approach to all of life in both thought and deed. A good subject for sure, so here goes. The topic of ahimsa is multi-layered enough to warrant many inquiries: how does ahimsa relate to our asana practice, our communication with others, our preferred activities, our diets, and even our thoughts? What exactly qualifies as “violent” or “harmful?” If a mere thought can harm, then does the thought itself have heft and verve, in a quantum sense, as the Yoga Sutras indicate? These questions insinuate the cerebral rabbit hole we jump into when our yoga merges with our life, which, if we practice long enough, it almost assuredly will.

Blunt force is easy to recognize as harmful, but the more subtle forms of violence might be more appropriately described as resistance to the inherent good glimmering in the center of any given moment. We judge one another too easily, or fail to say “thank you,” or go to bed mad. Sometimes we let too many moments escape unappreciated, robbing ourselves as well as the people surrounding us of the best possible experience. Is this violent? Harmful? It certainly limits our freedom, inhibiting our movement forward in the journey to enlightenment.

Consideration of these questions invites mindfulness and self-awareness, allowing us as yogis the opportunity to continue to grow and to be happier. When we extend the effort to be gentle and aware to even the more subtle aspects of our daily lives, we cannot help but constantly investigate our own motives for and reactions to the events we create, as well as those surrounding us, which some say we also create whether we realize it or not.

Eventually we realize some (or many) of our habits are harmful to ourselves or to others, and therefore need to be changed. Many yogis use ahimsa as their basis for a vegetarian lifestyle. I am one of these people, but I understand that I could be doing more. For instance, although I don’t eat meat, I do eat eggs and dairy, and I really couldn’t argue with someone who tried to tell me that industrially-produced dairy products are just as devastating to the land and animals as industrially-raised meat. It’s true. And yet I have not yet been able, whether through lack of strength, compassion, or ideology, to take my dietary restrictions to the next level. I also occasionally enjoy fish, although I have recently decided to quit indulging myself in this pleasure. I could whine about how hard it is when we eat out (which is when my fish-eating episodes always occur), or I could enjoy the one additional step I’ve made on the ahimsic ladder and thank myself for the progress.

This whole diet as ahimsa practice deserves an entire topic of its own (which is actually what my friend wanted me to write about when she suggested the topic – sorry Michelle, I got side-tracked), but even this aspect of life has strands coming off of it that can make any situation not as cut-and-dry as it looks. For instance, if we visit someone’s home who is unaware of our dietary “requirements,” and this person has selflessly and thoughtfully prepared a non-vegetarian dish, do we refuse to eat it? What’s more harmful? Disparaging someone’s admirable good effort? Or eating food that’s already gone from pasture to table? Or do we graciously enjoy the portions of the meal that don’t contain meat, without commenting upon or judging the rest? All good questions we might encounter as yogis.

As always, you certainly have the option of containing your yoga practice on the mat, and in class, although I truly believe the physical practice eventually reveals the importance of the internal landscape to asana practitioners. It’s all connected. Yoga understands this truth, it is this truth, the practice both contains and directs us to the union we are meant to experience as enlightened beings. And for most of us, it all starts on the mat. I’ll see you there!

Happy practicing. And Namaste.

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