Ahimsa: The yogic art of not punching people?

Ahimsa: The yogic art of not punching people?

I just completed the contact hours of my yoga teacher training experience. I threw myself into this study, and I came out of training with lots to think about and resources to keep me occupied for a long time. Although today’s post contains some terms specific to yoga, the content is relevant to everyone.

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What is ahimsa?

Today, I can’t get ahimsa off my mind. Ahimsa, or nonviolence/ non-harming, is one of the five moral restraints in yoga. The first time I read the definition of ahimsa, I thought it was a straightforward concept. I don’t walk down the street slugging people, so I have already nailed ahimsa, right? Investigation proves that ahimsa is more complicated than my original definition of “not punching people.” Look at how many acts of violence resulting in death have made their way into the news in the last two days. (I am thinking of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as I write this.) Clearly non-violence is not easy for people.

Violence and harm do not always result in death. How often do we ignore a phone call because we are too busy? Ignoring the call could be an act of self-care, but it could also mean that we are hurting the person on the other end of the line. How many times do we tell jokes that reinforce a negative perception of a person or group of people – even if that was not the intention of the joke?  How often do we vent our frustrations to people who are not equipped to handle them, thereby sending negativity into the world? Unintentional violence is still violence. To complicate things more, intentional violence is often committed by people who think they are doing the right thing.

When we pass judgments on ourselves and others, we are also doing harm. Negative self-talk is a form of violence. When we guilt trip ourselves about not being the best at something or berate ourselves over not being able to perform some impressive physical feat, we’re being harmful.

Poverty, Inc.
Starring George Ayittey, Herman Chinery-Hesse, Corrigan Clay, Shelley Clay, Paul Collier

As I learn more, I am amazed at how often I commit harmful acts. When I buy products that are mass produced in foreign countries at the expense of underpaid workers, I am harming those people. Heck- even donating stuff can go awry, and I have donated a lot of things in my lifetime. Did you know that donations and foreign aid can destabilize local economies by depriving entrepreneurs of their clientele? (Watch Poverty, Inc. (linked above) if you want to know more about this.) Think about all the times you didn’t recycle when you could have or all the times you took the disposable option when you could have chosen the sustainable one. What if you buy something from a company that supports a political agenda that dehumanizes others?  This, too, is harmful.

Sometimes non-harming looks different for different people. If buying ethically-sourced food puts you in such a financial bind that you can’t afford to your rent, then are you really doing the right thing? Aren’t you harming yourself?

Ignorance is bliss

It is easy to bury our heads in the sand because this is too much to think about. It is easy to buy bottled water without thinking of the municipal water source that was drained to put it on the shelf or the people who live outside of the bottle factories who die from exposure to carcinogens. It is easy to use a harsh chemical to clean something and send the mess down the drain. If we are framing our world in terms of ahimsa, though, out of sight isn't out of mind.

Everyone has the capacity to do harm. Ahimsa is not some box that you can check on the Eight-Limbed Path because you haven’t murdered anyone. Cultivating a non-harming lifestyle is a lifelong job. How do we fulfill our desire to do as little damage as possible in a world that is teeming with opportunities to cause harm? I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you that it probably starts with mindfulness. I educate myself. I am going to do my best to leave this world better than it was when I entered it, but I also know that perfection is a myth. I am no saint.

We’re all works in progress, and we all have the opportunity to affect this world. Some things that we do will be good for others, and some things that we do will not be so good. Keep learning and growing.

“May all beings be happy and free.”