I have only been in one fight.
It was in the third grade. I don’t recall what the impetus was but it ended up in a war of words between me and another boy on the basketball court. I remember deciding to hit him but when I went to strike my arm went slack. It was as if my body overrode my minds directive and I was incapable of trying to harm him.
The other boy did not have the same issue and I was quickly pinned and squirming to be free. The only black girl in our class, La Tisha, came to my aid and pushed him off of me before he got any punches in. We were friends and no one messed with La Tisha.
I can trace my inclination for yoga back to that day. I learned something important about myself. I am not naturally inclined towards violence. Even as a boy, I recognized that this was not true of everyone. As an adult, it makes sense that I embrace a life philosophy that puts a premium on nonviolence.
The first yama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s is ahimsa, often translated as “non-harming.” Aligning myself with Yoga turned something that I had always seen as a weakness into a strength.
Yet, somewhere along the way, an unconscious loophole developed. While I was incapable of intentionally doing others wrong, I seemed to have no problem doing considerable inadvertent harm to myself. In fairness, I was under the impression that I was working towards enlightenment and did not grasp the full extent to which I was mistreating myself.
I remember a particular occasion when I was teaching one of my trademark power vinyasa classes. I was barking out my well prepared sequence and, instead of my usual attention to everyone’s alignment, I happened to be noticing the facial expressions of the people in my class.
They looked miserable. They were filled with struggle and strain, just doing their best to get through and not enjoying themselves much in the process. There was a distinct lack of joy.
Afterwards, several students came up to thank me and tell me how great the class was. It made me feel uncomfortable. Walking home, I kept thinking:
“What am I doing?”
Fact is, I was proficient in the practice I was teaching but it was not really helping me feel well. I had a lot of chronic pain that I rarely admitted to, even to myself. I was convinced it meant “opening.” Shortly thereafter, I blew my knee out doing Baddhakonasana with a belt and an assist. For all my diligent studies and abilities, super yogi couldn’t walk.
Around that same time, a friend of mine attended a large yoga event in NYC with a venerable teacher, considered to be a living “master.” She was one of a very small percentage of the 600 participants to have the guru assist her in one of her poses, only to have her hamstring connector popped at his forceful hand. I remember seeing her several days later, she was still in considerable pain.
Experiences like this have often left me feeling horribly disenchanted with the yoga community. The issue of overly forceful assists aside, how can yoga teachers who espouse ahimsa not be held accountable for harm done under their auspices? Adding insult to injury, common in hip yoga circles today is to cite ahimsa as a case for veganism. Basically, Patanjali says that if you want to be a real yogi then you can’t eat animal products.
I have been vegetarian for twenty years. I was vegan for three of them but it left me somewhat anemic. Introducing eggs and cheese into my diet made me feel better. I continue to maintain a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet because that’s what feels right for me, not because I think eating meat is wrong. I do try to eat organic but I don’t know exactly where all the eggs and cheese I eat is coming from, nor do I know the treatment of the animals who provide me this food.
While it would be nice if this were different and modern food production was not so dictated by corporate profits, I still think it strains common sense to suggest that my eating habits constitute violence. Especially, when the assertion comes from teachers who do not take personal responsibility for injuries that readily happen in their classes.
Another way ahimsa can be translated is “loving kindness and compassion.” There is a big difference between simply being nonviolent and actually being kind. I figure, if you can learn to show yourself and others genuine kindness, which most certainly includes not over working and harming your body in practice, and you enjoy eating meat, you’re still gonna be OK with the yoga powers that be.
Photos: teatteucomdo.sytes.net; cafepress.com
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Todayand the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com