Ahimsa: Do No Harm
by Julia Clarke
I was recently inspired to write this blog series focusing on the Yamas and Niyamas, which form the moral code of yoga, after the culmination of our Colorado School of Yoga teacher training at Mountain Soul collided with some questionable behavior by a yoga teacher in Boulder being brought to light. I don’t need to dwell here on the specific behavior or circumstances that prompted this series; suffice to say that while yoga teachers are just as fallable as the next human, I think both the words “yoga” and “teacher” carry a certain weight that should be supported with compassionate, conscious behavior.
Yoga: non separateness, a means of achieving extraordinary consciousness
Teacher: one that teaches
Oh come on! Yoga is sexy, sweaty group fitness! The only prerequisites are looking good in over-priced spandex and Instagram-friendly flexibility! Throw a filter on it and paste in an #inspirationalquote and you are #divine.
Now, I get why anyone would think this. The state of yoga as a profit-generating commodity devoid of spirituality or morality today has been heavily discussed, criticized and well-satirized in such series as the heartbreakingly accurate Namaste Bitches. Call me a dreamer but as a teacher I still want to be a torch bearer for yoga as a practice cultivated to achieve extraordinary states of consciousness. Like any such belief system, it has a set of ethical guidelines that are generally believed to be a good idea to uphold if evolution is your jam.
Just like the Ten Commandments of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Yamas and Niyamas comprise ten behavioral observances that are laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (it’s an old book, compiled more than 1600 years ago containing wisdom that had been passed down orally for much longer than that. They are succint and open to quite a bit of interpretation. Yoga is a bit like a game of Telephone).
- Ahimsa: nonviolence
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: non-excess (often interpreted as celibacy)
- Aparigraha: non-greed.
- Saucha: cleanliness
- Santosha: contentment
- Tapas: self-discipline
- Svadhyaya: self-inquiry
- Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender
Now, back in Patanjali’s day, these probably weren’t things you’d have tattooed onto your shoulder blade or screen printed onto your tank top. These were principles that you’d adhere to in thought, action and speech, for a very long time, before being deemed ready to unroll your yoga mat and enter into meditation (okay, there weren’t mats and they weren’t doing the kind of yoga we are doing today, but you catch my drift).
Now fast forward to 2017 and imagine going into your local 24 Hour Fitness to drop in to the 12pm Hour of Power only to be told by the desk agent you needed a minimum or five years of strict observance of nonviolence, non-stealing, truthfulness etc. before being allowed to practice here. Think yoga would have caught on like the wildfire that it is today? Okay, so easy to understand why we’ve focused more on the phsyical practice. My point is, if we’re going to call it “yoga” shouldn’t we at least give a little nod to what that actually means?
The first Yama is Ahimsa, nonviolence or non-harming. The very first step on the path to extraordinary consciousness through meditation was not to buy a punch card but to stop doing harm to yourself and others, and without this step all your efforts on the meditation cushion/yoga mat are futile. My understanding is that Ahimsa actually forms the entire foundation of ethical living as outlined in the Sutras; if you fully embrace this one, then you will naturally abstain from lying, stealing, greed and so on. While some traditions engage this practice in the form of veganism and others by sweeping the earth in front of them as they walk to avoid stepping on insects, I have found it to be a powerful oractice for inner reflection.
Don’t we all come to the matto heal, not harm?
Even if we just look at Ahimsa through the limited lens of physical violence, sadly we can find all too many examples of self-inflicted and teacher-inflicted injury, whether driven by ego or ignorance (see How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body for more). Expand the interpretation just a little and it’s painfully clear to me that even when you remove intrinsically harmful poses like headstand, the physical practice can still be used as a tool for self harm, pushing oneself beyond flexibility in “safe” poses to satisfy one’s ego for example. Zoom out a little more and I’ve become especially sensitive to us using yoga as a means of self-inflicted punishment for excessive partying (and particularly abhor the response of marketing to perpetuate that cycle of guilt and punishment).
In the years since I first picked up a copy of the Sutras, I’ve expanded my concept of Ahimsa to include all manner of harmful behavior. I’ve learned that the word “compassion” may offer a more valuable interpretation of the concept. In fact, more than just the absence of violence, Ahimsa is the practice of refining all of our thoughts and actions to express universal compassion for all beings.
Off the mat, I started to observe many places in my life where I wasn’t being compassionate. Sometimes through judgement of others or speaking roughly, but if I’m honest my worst offenses were always towards myself. How many times a day was I unkind to myself in thought, did I ignore my own needs, or was I unforgiving when I didn’t live up to my own unattainable standards? Even today I catch myself in savage self-retribution when I feel I haven’t made straight A’s as a yoga teacher, business owner, graduate student, daughter, sister, girlfriend and friend, because that’s not a lot to live up to. In speaking to my friends and peers, I think that this inner realm may be where we actually do the most harm.
So, if you’re interested, you could start by noticing where your yoga practice may be causing harm: are you pushing yourself in the competitive spirit? Do you come to your mat out of guilt? Do you engage in negative self-talk and covet thy neighbor’s asana? If you’re willing, I’d then encourage you to take the practice of Ahimsa off your yoga mat and notice where your thoughts, words and actions might actually be inflicting harm to yourself. Illuminating these behaviors is the first step to negating them, and once you’re kind to yourself, you’ll be a whole lot nicer to your neighbors.
As Donna Fahi says of Ahimsa in Teaching Yoga: “We see the essence of ourselves in the other and realize that the tenderness and forgiveness we so wish to have extended toward us is something that all humans long for.”
Or, if like my you resonate more with the George Carlins of the world: “Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity,.”