Practicing non-violence is not always non-violent.
I recently spent 90 minutes attempting to verbally explain and physically demonstrate the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) in a Saturday yoga class in the tiny New England town of Exeter, New Hampshire.
Ahimsa is one observance in a series of ethical guidelines called the Yamas. According to classical yoga philosophy, once we have practiced and mastered these concepts, we are one step closer to enlightenment.
When entering challenging postures, I reminded everyone to honor their bodies and to make each movement a “non-violent” one. I closed the class with a quote from Gandhi, a master of non-violence. I sought to create a space of peace in that little studio that morning, but it wasn’t only my words and intention that were setting the stage.
The snowfall outside the floor to ceiling windows, the way the candles dimly lit certain parts of the studio and the particularly deep inhales and exhales of my students, gave me comfort that the world was conspiring in my favor for choosing this topic.
Of course, it’s always easy to talk about something like peace, when it’s being visually exhibited emotionally felt in the moment. But, in the planning for and performance of my lecture, I had forgotten a vital detail about non-violence, and I was soon reminded that the real practice of this concept would rarely be in the safe, unthreatening space of the yoga studio.
After teaching, I always find myself mentally reviewing the class and its theme for much of the rest of the day.
I left the studio that morning and went for a run, enjoying the silence of the cushioned white world. All harsh sounds of life had been muffled. All the sharp edges of a town filled in. Every place seemed a soft and peaceful place to land.
I was lost somewhere between thinking about the way I had explained non-violence and a student’s high blood pressure, when my right foot swung in front of my left and landed with a disturbing feeling and sound, on the body of a squirrel, who had most likely become road kill only moments before I came to add my own weight.
Caught off guard by the sensation, I stopped abruptly in the middle of the street and looked down at the blood on my shoes.
The irony came later, with the fact that I had picked these shoes out of a catalog from an eco-friendly manufacturer who didn’t use any animal products. The scene below me was anything but non-violent. It was messes of grey and white fur, black pavement and red blotches seeping in all directions across clear ice.
As I stood there in the middle of the street, catching snowflakes with my hair and eye lashes, it was hard to imagine that this was the same world that I had just admired for being so peaceful.
I was immediately furious; a burning flame of heat and emotion juxtaposing the cold day and melting the snow around me.I forgot everything I had ever practiced and preached about ahimsa.
I was angry that the animal was dead. I was angry that I couldn’t stop looking at it. I was angry that it had made its way into my peaceful path this morning, and I was guilty for not being aware that it was coming.
It took me thirty minutes of stillness on a park bench across the street from the scene and the rest of the day with my head in the clouds, to realize that the event had great relevance to what I taught that morning in my class. It was a very literal example of how violent situations will make their way into our lives, despite how we may master this concept in a class.
Perhaps in some cases, where monks and yoga masters study separate from society in Ashrams, violent situations may be much more scarce and easier to avoid. But in this world, we face them sometimes on an hourly basis.
We may never reach a place where we never encounter violence in others, our environment or ourselves. We won’t always have our feet on a mat in a warm place, breathing deeply.
That morning, I had discussed how to cultivate non-violence while we were already in a place of peace, but I had failed to emphasize the fact that yoga can’t keep us from encountering the rest of this world or separate from a society that does contain so much significant violence.
Instead, it teaches us to be part of and cope with these situations as they come and then not be violent to ourselves; a test I failed myself.
My heart raced when my foot landed on that little animal body. There may have even been a few tears. But, in order to appreciate the times of non-violence and to teach these concepts, I need these experiences to fuel my understanding of Ahimsa and give me stories like this to tell my students.
That day, I felt that I hadn’t taught this concept as it applied to everyday life off the mat, and the universe reminded me of this part I had missed.
Knowing this now, I’ve decided that in my next class where non-violence is a theme, a master like Gandhi will not be mentioned nor quoted. Instead, I’ll tell a story about a girl who got a lesson about non-violence from road kill.
Edited by Hayley Samuelson.