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In simple terms, it means don’t harm your neighbor, the earth, or yourself.
Now more than ever, it seems like a good practice for anyone interested in humanity.
With all the violence we keep experiencing, it looks like quite a few of us are not getting the message. And I have to admit, with all that’s going on, I hesitated writing this as not wanting to belittle the humungous hurdles out there facing our communities.
But here goes:
Many yoga teacher trainings ago, we covered the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Right on top of the yoga tree stands the Yamas and Niyamas. Yamas being right living with others, and Niyamas being right living with our minds and thoughts.
Ahimsa stands at the top of the heap, followed by: don’t lie, don’t steal, practice abstinence, don’t covet, be content, be clean, be disciplined, study yourself, and, finally, surrender to it all.
I, like many, decided that, while I loved the practice of yoga (my narrow view of it anyway), I did not need to live like an Amish girl. No offense to the Amish, of course. It just wasn’t for me and, well, seemed rigid. Never mind that I also deemed these first two limbs as maybe a little too New Age-y for me and my power yoga.
It took me a long time to understand that these “rules,” which seemed pretty restraining for us humans, were actually a sophisticated map of living well.
For example, Īśvarapraṇidhāna and “surrender” does not actually mean to roll over and quit when things are too tough. It’s rather an opportunity to stop fighting life’s challenges and perhaps see the offering within them.
Can you remember when you were fired from your first movie job as an assistant costume designer, and it was the worst day of your life? I can. The cliché “hindsight is 20-20” couldn’t be more true. Thank heavens I was axed as I learned really quick what not to do.
(P.S. I got hired back after a lot of pleading and went on to do 16 movies in a row as I let my mistakes teach me how to grow.)
Ah, but ahimsa. Ahimsa in this world of Breonna Taylor and far too many others to name. As a white woman, I cannot possibly imagine the pain and suffering being felt by the Black community with the horrific injustices they have lived with for far too long. There are gigantic problems out there that stem from oppression, poverty, lack of education, and racism that need our immediate attention and action.
Aside from the deep systemic changes that need to be made in our government, laws, and education, a radical self-inquiry is necessary if we are truly going to address living in a nonviolent way.
As Deborah Adele asked:
“What would the world look like if there were no greed, no lack, no insecurities?”
Alright, yes. I know that that seems fantastical and far-fetched in the society we currently live in but play along for a moment: how would it feel? What would our politics look like? What would change around the world? Really?
Y’all know this quote by Gandhi:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
This is what ahimsa is asking us—to start with ourselves.
>> Where am I spread thin?
>> Am I overworking? Under-sleeping?
>> Filling holes with too much sugar? Caffeine? Alcohol?
>> Bombarded with too much stimulation?
>> No boundaries between work and home?
When we are feeling imbalanced, we start to feel hurried, exhausted, powerless, fearful. All of these start to cause tiny inner waves that reflect and explode externally.
Okay, it’s true. I will admit snapping at a stranger or, well, yes, my husband when feeling overtired from teaching too many yoga classes or treating a dear friend poorly when I was freaked out about starting my own clothing line. Or yeah, I might have been a bit b*tchy when feeling unworthy because I felt I didn’t measure up to what society thinks I should look like.
No, I am not proud of these things, nor are they meant to be compared in any way to the ever-present violence that communities are experiencing on a regular basis.
Yes! Make a difference and support the causes to make the world a better place. For heaven’s sake! Gun control already!
This might seem like an overly simple idea, but what if we were to take the time to see where we are out of whack and create some balance? What if we observe where we can make a difference in ourselves? It has a huge and lasting impact on others.
If we cannot start with the act of compassion toward ourselves, how can we honestly do it for people in our lives?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nailed ahimsa. He faced hatred square in the eye and still somehow managed to remain nonviolent. I imagine that it took herculean courage for him to be an example of standing your ground—based from a place of love—while being surrounded by so much hostility.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There are not enough words to describe how devastating it is that a man who said and lived those words was assassinated.
Repeat: action needs to be taken toward justice—now. Period.
Humbly, I just keep trying to absorb Dr. King’s words about hating another. I wonder: what differences would this make in the world we now live in?
The more important question is: when will we practice a little more compassionate acceptance for all of our pieces so that we can do the same for our neighbors’ pieces? And their neighbor? And theirs?
*Recommended reading: “The Yamas & Niyamas” by Deborah Adele.