Ahimsa Awareness [Yamas Series No. 1]

In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease. (Sutra 2.35)

What do you tell yourself while you practice? Would you be embarrassed if your thoughts were suddenly to be piped through speakers to the rest of the class? Would the thoughts about yourself and your own practice be worse than anything you might think about the stinky feet or questionable sartorial choices on the mats near you? Mine would. I am so much more understanding about my neighbor’s stinky feet than I am about my own chipped toe nail polish. 

General yoga teacher wisdom tells us that how we are on our mat is how we are in the world. Sometimes this is good to know; paying attention to our tendencies on the mat can lead to those light-bulb, “A-ha” moments about our choices off the mat. But at other times the self-knowledge gained on the mat is truly cringe-worthy. Do I really walk around with this many negative thoughts aimed at myself?

I have been paying closer attention to my thoughts on the mat in preparation for this post on ahimsa and what I found is not what I went looking for. But before I get into that, first a bit of explanation and definition.  Ahimsa is generally translated as non-harming, non-violence, and/or non-injury. It’s the first in the list of yamas, the five ethical practices that form the first branch of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Of the eight limbs, the yamas are the most concerned with how we are in a community of others but they are still focused on our individual actions, words, and thoughts . 

Because of terminology and some translation choices, the yamas can be read as “what not to do” – don’t harm, don’t steal, don’t tell lies – and that’s not necessarily incorrect. I just prefer to think of them more as positive guides for action rather than restrictive codes against certain behaviors. As often happens when I have a topic in mind to write about, resources show up in my life to help me gain perspective (I am not alone in this, it’s a universal phenomenon for writers and speakers). In this case, I visited a new yoga studio this week and before class we had a short dharma talk by Joshua Greene (Yogesvara dasa), author of The Gita Wisdom. When asked about the incompatibility of war with the yogic principle of ahimsa, Greene offered what he felt from his studies was a more community-oriented definition of ahimsa: that of “non-aggressive participation.” His point, which resonated with me and other questions I have been having about the use of my yoga practice for anyone but myself, was that ahimsa is broader than the individual avoidance of causing harm; it includes the active participation in preventing injury and injustice to others. 

Greene presented this as one definition of ahimsa, with the implications that there are those who may disagree. The wording of the sutra that deals directly with ahimsa seems to support this idea; that our work in developing ahimsa is more than individual, and also influences how others in our spheres act – “all hostilities cease.”

But first, one has to become “firmly established in non-violence.” So back to what I found in watching my thoughts during practice this past week. It was ugly. I expected it might be, but I thought it would be "mean girl" ugly. Instead it was "bad bootcamp instructor" ugly. I was ready to be ashamed of myself for what I thought of others during their practice; indeed, ahimsa is one of the yamas about how we think, act, and speak in regard to others. But the violence of my thoughts was mostly directed toward myself and my own practice. They ran the gamut from chastising myself for being too lazy in a pose I knew I could do “better,” to not taking it easy enough on my body in other poses. A peek into the litany: 

Why can’t I remember to point my tailbone toward my heels more? Heels… my heels look awful, did I really wear sandals with my feet like this today? Why am I so self-conscious in a space where I should be letting go? Bad, bad, bad, yogi. Pay attention. No, not parsvakonasana…I always get the same adjustment in this pose. Why can’t I remember to point my tailbone toward my heels more? And around and around...

This is just the stuff I’m willing to share with you. I am guessing you have some of your own critical thoughts happening on your mat. 

If our yoga practice is truly a reflection of our lives off the mat, then I have a long way to go in my journey toward ahimsa. But fortunately, yoga is about process, not achievement. And practice provides a safe space for this process. Rather than tackling our whole beings in the world all at once, we can work on ourselves while on that small rectangle, during an hour or so of practice. If you’re like me, and the journey seems daunting, just start by observing your thoughts in this safe space for a while to see what patterns you may be able to interrupt. As with all journeys, the progress you make in this early step can only lead you to the larger, more communal implications of ahimsa. Because how we are on our mats is how we are in the world.


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