January 3, 2013

Ahimsa: Yoga is Ethics First. ~ Karin L. Burke

Photo: h.koppdelaney

My practice began with asana.

It began in the body. Understanding, ethics and philosophy all came later.

I felt a strange, deep stirring when I practiced yoga. I didn’t know a thing about the philosophy behind it; it would be a stretch to say I ‘understood’ it.

I used to believe philosophies and religions fail when used as tools to live by. They are pretty. Pretty like a dress you wear on days you feel gorgeous and all the world is right. But most of our lives—my life, anyway—didn’t happen in the way of lace and poetry and kid gloves. It happened with bitten nails and chapped lips, screaming alarm clocks and much weariness. Makeup, and make believe, church and ethics all amounted to the same thing.

Yoga’s ethics are different. They are not an excuse or escape from the body, but an expression of the body. They are part of the human. Harm none, honesty, purity, ahimsa are words written on and of bodies. They are as much a part of us as is our skin.

I am a wordy, philosophical kinda gal; it tickled me no end when I found the philosophy behind yoga.

I found the philosophy to be a pure distillation of what I felt on the mat, knew with my hands and my eyes. That the point of practice is not physical contortion and heavy breathing; it is a question of aliveness, sensitivity.

Yoga is ethics, first. If it begins as a flash of physical knowing, it holds true all the way to the most rigorous of intellectual understandings.

The logic of yamas and niyamas appeals to our highest level of intelligence. The fully developed human being knows his own self, and where he stands. He knows everything amounts to this: either he sees the body of every other as equal in importance to his own, or he does not.

Compassion, ahimsa, is inborn and instinctual. But it is also—and this makes it rare—a truth the mind can find no shortness with. Any shortness found is with the self, and not compassion.

Like god, I suppose: bigger than mind, it contradicts the mind. This doesn’t prove the smallness of god. It proves the smallness of self.

The body is wild, messy and discordant; there are reasons we prefer to live in our heads.

And yet, to feel what one feels, moment by moment, is ultimately the kindness of telling the truth. It demands bravery; it is frightful to see not with our expectations and ideals and shoulds and oughts and musts but with what is.

The word courage translates, in Latin and old French to, ‘with heart.’

Compassion, as translated as the Greek of the new testament, means to feel ‘from the bowels and gut.’ It is not easy to face reality, to stop living in the boundaries of our heads and enter the field of the body, where things are not so orderly and are, quite frankly, terrifying and hard to understand.

We must, sooner or later, realize that courage, bravery, ethics, true self, are not things without fear. But a place where the fear doesn’t matter any longer.

Our eyes grow gentle to see this way.

This is what eyes were capable of all along.

You were born to love and yet you feel alone.

If you pay attention to the breath, eventually you realize it is not you, breathing. It is your body responding to the universe. It is atmospheric pressure, breathing you.

The breath is, without you; when you end, there will still be others breathing.

This is a primordial, gut wrought, deep stirring experience. If you allow yourself to feel what you feel, see what you actually see, you resolve to fierce compassion.

Ethics are visceral.

Every human being is marked, branded. We all have these tattoos across our foreheads, written into the lines of our hands, but the things are mostly invisible and private.

I am born to love, built of it, it says and yet I feel alone.

We know the words by heart.


Karin L. Burke is a yoga teacher and founder of Return Yoga. Return’s mission is threefold: to teach the skills of yoga and meditation to underserved communities; to collaborate yoga service opportunities and qualified yoga teachers; and to offer high quality public yoga instruction at a real life cost.



Assistant Ed: Kate Konieczny

Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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