The Practice of Ahimsa (Non-Viloence)
The first limb of the eight-fold path of Astanga Yoga is Yama or ethical discipline. The Yamas provides us with a framework that considers how choices and actions impact our lives. The first Yama is Ahimsa or non-violence/non harming. Ahimsa is a universal concept that requires us to live peacefully and intend no harm through word, thought, or deed. Often Yoga and related spiritual practices are methods that focus on enlightenment where the separation of the practitioner from their surrounding world could be seen as an achievement. Opposing the notion of total separation, what if enlightenment is to wake up to the interconnectedness of life and live skillfully in the world. The mind can distract us from the realities of our actions but only through practice can we place a greater importance on discerning the effects of our decisions. Only then can we live a fully engaged life.
As we practice yoga we learn to settle the elaborations of the mind and eliminate distraction. With these distractions aside we are then able to accurately identify connections and interrelations in our lives. We are not separate individuals. Decisions and actions we make affects every person, community, and environment around us. Becoming aware of our actions and their impact is important when considering the practice of Ahimsa. When the mind is quiet we can make decisions free from the attachments, ideals, and prejudices of our thinking mind. With the awareness we achieve through yoga practice, it becomes our responsibility to realize our actions have implications upon the planet and its inhabitants.
The scope of Ahimsa is broad and can be applied towards all aspects of our lives. The impact of our food choices are often over looked but question the notion that most grocery stores stock foods shipped from all corners of the planet. Whether they be bananas from Costa Rica, olives from Israel, or soya beans from China, the shipping of food takes an environmental toll. In addition, the techniques or pesticides used to grow food, and the treatment of employees harvesting foods can manifest repercussions from choices as simple as diet. As a separate being we enjoy the convenience, abundance, and variety of food but choose to ignore the multilayered reality. The Yogin is conscious of the connectedness of our world and considers the karma (causality) of his or her choices. It is easy to be distracted by modern media and want to separate ourselves from the sensational world (war, political unrest, starvation) but these realities are happening to us by extension. We are the world. We are not separate from the violence and injustice taking place on this planet. Learning to react skillfully to these events without adding more hate, anger, or violence to an already awful situation is needed to dissipate the situation. Fighting violence with violence is not a practice of Ahimsa. Fighting fire with fire is also an important consideration while debating, or engaging in any conflict. Identifying to our ideals and preaching our beliefs could be taken to be a form of violence in itself. Expression of our ideas and opinions is important, but it must be done in a tactful and reflective way as to not offend or hurt. We must contemplate the impact of our lives during a time when the earth is unprecedentedly sick. If we become conscious of decisions and actions that deplete the worlds natural commons and resources, we can make practical choices that will heal our planet. Driving cars, using electricity, and carelessly consuming have negative effects. A consciously moderate lifestyle will assist in making the world more capable to support the abundance of our planet.
One can be overwhelmed by the practice of Ahimsa especially when engaging controversial and contentious topics such as vegetarianism, veganism, fossil fuel consumption, abortion, gay rights, religion, and spirituality. There is no book written that explains how live perfectly. We are obliged to make choices relative to the circumstances in our life. In his book Yoga for a World Out of Balance, author Michael Stone reiterates this point, “Nor can any theory claim to be a universal canopy of the different norms and values across cultures, because doing good is always relative”. As practitioners or yoga it is our duty to constantly consider the practice of Ahimsa and reflect on our relationship with the world and always strive to live a fully engaged life.
I encourage everyone to share their ideas, comments, and experiences on this topic.
I’ll end with a quote from Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar:
“Violence is bound to decline when men learn to base their faith upon reality and investigation rather that upon ignorance and supposition”