|Bearded man seated in subway station holding sign saying Seeking Human Kindness |
Photo by Matt Collamer/Unsplash
I keep hearing yoga teachers talking about taking yoga off the mat without explaining how to do so. I think that’s because practicing yoga in life can be really challenging, and it’s much easier to get lost in the details of an asana practice. To be honest, how many of us are willing to look at our own behavior––especially when we are causing harm? Unfortunately, that is the key to not just practicing yoga, but putting yoga into practice.
Similarly, we talk about ahimsa in very general terms without considering how we actively practice non-harm in our daily lives. Ahimsa is the first teaching of yama, which is the first limb of ashtanga yoga. It’s where yoga begins. In many ways, Ahimsa is the place where love seeps into our practice.
These concerns came up for me again recently when I saw a comment on Instagram defending the rights of yoga teacher Katchie Ananda to share transphobic remarks on J Brown’s yoga podcast. The comment was, “Ahimsa is a personal practice.” This stuck in my head, and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. I understand that ahimsa is an internal practice––of course, all of yoga is. But the whole point of ahimsa is about not causing harm to others.
The podcast with Brown and Ananda was a good example of himsa, harm. The trans and queer yoga community responded in pain and shock that this type of discussion was happening on a yoga platform. Trans yoga teachers and activists Tristan Katz and Maygen Nicholson explained, “Cis folks don’t get to decide what is or what isn’t transphobic; cis folks don’t get to say what is or isn’t harmful to the trans community. Social justice and equity are about centering the needs of those most impacted, not denying their lived experience or gaslighting those communities, arguing against the very real harm they are experiencing.” (You can read their full comments here.) In other words, practice ahimsa.
In her translation of the sutra on ahimsa (2.35) Nischala Devi explains, “Embracing reverence and love for all (ahimsa) we experience oneness.” Devi brings a new approach to this teaching, and shows that the term ‘non-harm’ is actually a double negative which means love and reverence for all. When I’m actively not causing harm, I am being loving and kind. In fact, this quality of loving kindness is the hallmark of a yoga practitioner, and to be honest, the hallmark of a spiritual practitioner from any faith or tradition. It is the essence of spirituality compressed into one extremely simple, yet extremely challenging, concept––“love thy neighbor as thyself.”
This is what children learn when they’re young. They learn that we all need to respect each other's boundaries, and that the whole world doesn’t revolve around us. As children, we are often bullied, or we bully other kids. As we mature, we learn that other people are not objects but are people, who have feelings as deep and real as our own.
In particular, we start to understand that some people have marginalized identities and the world tends to bully them. Social justice is about standing up for people who are bullied by a system that’s unfair and unequal. It is about seeing the ways that white supremacy is the school bully that still haunts us in every aspect of our lives. Social justice is about seeing that other people share the same heart as we do, and simultaneously acknowledging that their lived experience is completely different than our own.
The way we reconcile this seeming paradox––that we’re the same and yet completely different––is through the practice of compassion. Compassion is the essence of ahimsa. Without compassion we wouldn’t care what other people or animals experience. The point of the yoga teaching on ahimsa is to force us to think outside of our own ego and to expand our consciousness to include others.
Ahimsa leads us to the most essential yoga teaching: we all share the same essence. But that essence is individual in its appearance. The one appears as many. Our job as yoga practitioners is to transcend that limited view of separation and limitation. As Swami Sivananda used to say, the goal of yoga is to see the “unity in diversity.” Our job is to transcend our individual egotistical nature and see that we all share the same heart. That’s what ahimsa allows us to do. That’s what yoga allows us to do.
With this understanding, perhaps we can all ask ourselves these questions:
- Am I willing to embrace ahimsa as a core element of my practice?
- How do I respond when I’m called out for causing harm?
- How can ahimsa help me to expand my consciousness?
C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of the Accessible Yoga Association, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Forums, and a popular Ambassador program. He’s the co-founder of the Accessible Yoga Training School, and the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications), as well as the forthcoming book, Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion (Nov. 2021). More info at jivanaheyman.com
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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