Sunday was the first day of Yoga Teacher Training, and as expected, much of our time was spent getting to know one another and establishing our sense of community.
We went over some of the basics – the central beliefs of Integral Yoga, the six paths, the eight limbs, and started to talk about yama and niyama (the ten don’ts and dos). Our homework included thinking and journaling about the first yama, ahimsa.
Ahimsa means nonviolence, or nonharming. It seems like such a simple concept at first, but in practice it’s deeply nuanced. We know we shouldn’t be violent. We shouldn’t hurt others. But what about ourselves? Animals? The environment? We cannot avoid all harm, so how do we find a balance that honors the practice? How do we respond in a situation where harm is inevitable, or where speaking truth is necessary, but also causes harm? And what exactly constitutes harm?
Since we are the only people we’ll ever have control over, let’s start with how we treat ourselves. Are we harming ourselves through our thoughts are behaviors? What are your first thoughts when you look in the mirror each morning? Are you telling yourself how beautiful, smart, and amazing you are, or are you critiquing your body… your hair… your skin? If you’re like most of us, it’s probably more of the latter than the former, and that’s causing us harm. Are you harsh with yourself, setting unrealistic expectations, then feeling bad about yourself when you don’t meet them? Or are you gentle with yourself, recognizing that your value is not determined by the number of check marks on your to do list at the end of the day?
What about your diet? And let’s be clear here that I’m talking about you eating the the best foods for your balanced physical and mental health. I am 100% anti-diet in the weight loss context, and that includes the “it’s a lifestyle not a diet (but I hope I lose weight as a result)” diets. I spent two decades dieting, and like 95% or more of the population, it didn’t make me lose weight in the long term, and it caused serious emotional harm. We’re meant to come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and we deserve to be comfortable with our bodies as they are, and to not live in fear of calories or carbs. The decisions in this context, as I see them, are whether you’re eating foods that make you feel good overall (mind, body, spirit), considering the ethics of your decisions about where your food comes from (knowing it’s almost impossible to do this perfectly), and whether your diet aligns with your values (while being gentle with yourself). In the early days of learning intuitive eating, when I was learning how to be around the foods I’d restricted for so long, I ate a lot of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes – a LOT. I needed to give myself complete permission to eat them in order to work through my disordered eating behaviors. At the time, it seemed impossible that I’d ever be able to stop. But eventually I wanted them less frequently, and now I can usually act like a “normal” eater around them. When you consider your diet, don’t forget that supporting your own mental health and self-care are factors in practicing ahimsa.
Are you doing physical harm to your body through too much or too little movement, or are you mindful of what your body is telling you, resting often enough to let your body recover? If you’re engaging in any form of self-injury or substance abuse, please reach out to a professional as well as a friend or family member. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 1-800-662-HELP (4357))
When we are hurting ourselves, it’s likely we’re hurting others around us as well. When we’re experiencing pain, we often reflect it outward through hostility or indifference. It’s easy to be short with others, ostensibly because we’re too busy, when in truth we’re frustrated with ourselves for not having a better handle on our own to do list, or for not having said no to some of those to do list items. Or perhaps we’re short because we’ve been surrounded by stressed-out coworkers all day, and just need ten (or thirty) minutes of quiet to regroup and recharge. Sometimes that truly isn’t an option, but be honest with yourself about whether it really isn’t possible, or whether you’re resisting the vulnerability necessary for you to ask your partner or child(ren) to support you.
We can harm the people around us in many of the same ways we harm ourselves – being overly critical, demanding, and by not showing compassion. Once we can find that compassion toward ourselves, reflecting that outwardly becomes much easier.
But what happens when we find ourselves in a seemingly fundamental disagreement – like the political discord abundant on social media? How does outrage factor into ahimsa? Is fighting for what we believe to be right a sufficient justification for publicly expressing vitriolic statements? This is an area I’m struggling with a bit. I don’t see the usefulness of posting vicious things, even if there is truth behind them, because the only people that will agree with you are the ones that already do, and the ones who don’t will feel validated in their belief that the “other side” is hateful and unfair.
Outrage is very effective at spreading a message – within an echo chamber… when was the last time you changed your mind because someone screamed at you?
Shankar Vedantam, Hidden Brain, NPR
This is not to say that I think posting factual information, even from organizations with clear bias, is wrong. But the hatefulness and condescension behind a lot of the political rhetoric is counterproductive and does all of us more harm.
The issue of outrage and politics was addressed in this week’s Hidden Brain podcast, Screaming into the Void: How Outrage is Hijacking our Culture, and our Minds. Since I had ahimsa on the brain, I spent most of the episode thinking about the connection.
My struggle is not with checking my vitriol online, though. In fact it’s quite the opposite. I’m so uncomfortable with the hatefulness that I fail to speak up sometimes, even when I really should. My personal ahimsa challenge is to find ways to support what’s right – what questions and challenges the harm of others – without causing myself harm when an angry response, or even the anticipation of one, triggers my anxiety. I’m jumping a bit into the second yama here, satya, or truthfulness, but ahimsa and satya are inextricable. When we see others being harmed, whether it’s across the world, the country, or the room, our voice – our truthfulness – is necessary in order not to contribute to that harm.
I ultimately don’t think there’s much value in publicly arguing on Facebook, but I think I could do a better job of sharing news articles about critical issues, even if those posts are not as popular as the snarky memes. And more importantly, I can make a point to contact my representatives more frequently than I currently do.
That’s my thinking on week one of Yoga Teacher Training. Leave a note in the comments if you agree, disagree, or have a completely different idea about ahimsa to share.
Featured image by James Chan from Pixabay