Our society is going through some serious upheaval right now – and with all the deeply important conversations going on, I am sitting asking myself, what can I do. It is clearer and clearer to me that none of us are innocent, we’re complicit in perpetuating structures that rely on systematic subjugation in order to progress the desires of one small group.
While I have always been reminded by my family and teachers that I am lucky to live in such safety and comfort, I am ashamed to say that I have never done very much to balance the scales in favour of those who don’t enjoy such ease.
Now I am trying to consider what tools I have at my disposal – and of course I turn to yoga and ask – how I can apply its techniques for its real purpose: breaking through unconscious habits and more importantly, facilitating change.
1-2. Yama-Niyama – Social and moral observances
3. Asana – Physical practice
4. Pranayama – Energetic practice (breath)
5. Pratyahara – Attention practice (letting the senses move inwards)
6-8. Dharana – Dhyana – Samadhi (Samyama) – Awareness practice (concentration, meditation, absorption)
We know that yoga is more than opening the hips and getting upside down. We practise in the tradition of Patanjali’s classical Ashtanga Yoga – the 8-limbed practical system to achieve clear sight and union with the essential universal consciousness. So there’s more to yoga than the shapes we make on the mat. The first of these limbs is the yama – moral observances. And the first of the yamas is Ahimsa – which is often rendered as ‘non-violence’ but I think of rather as ‘cultivating harmony’ and you’ll see why as I go on.
In the Yoga Sutras where this system is codified, Patanjali presents us with many lists as he organises the world and the aspects of consciousness into a map that allows us to navigate and explore our own mental and spiritual experience. I mention this because the way he organises things is not accidental. The first item in a list is always the most significant, and often stands at the head of the group, where the subsequent items flow out of the first. In this way we can see that Ahimsa is the heart and cornerstone of our practice.
So what is ahimsa?
Most often you’ll see ahimsa translated as ‘non-violence’. It’s easy then to think, “Ok cool, I am never physically violent, I’m against war, I’m a vegetarian, I wish for peace and love in the world, man ✌✌ – I’m practising non-violence!”
Unfortunately what we have here is a pseudo practice that skims across the surface of the problem. When we limit our practice to wishing ‘love and light’ and avoiding conflict because we are ‘so non-violent’, we are not engaging with the world in any real way. More than that we are doing some serious Spiritual Bypassing – where we rest on the laurels of our spiritual practice and refuse to confront what is really going on.
This is something that we see so much in the Western Business of Yoga – we are presented with a rose-tinted, hippy-dippy view of practice and ourselves, in order to make yoga into a polished and packaged commodity that isn’t going to piss anyone off and will sell well. This is an example of cultural appropriation, where we have taken a complex and rich spiritual and philosophical tradition out of its cultural context, wrapped it up in an instagram filter, slapped an exclusionary high price tag on it and denied entry to the original carriers of the tradition into our shiny new yoga club.
If we go back and look again at ahimsa, it’s more complex than a simple absence of violence. Himsa does mean harm, but the prefix a– isn’t a straight negative, rather it expresses the idea of ‘other than’ or perhaps even ‘opposite to’. In this way ahimsa doesn’t just mean not being violent, but actively striving to cultivate harmony and wellbeing. As in the prayer lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu – may all beings everywhere be at ease, and may every action I take facilitate that.
Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind. It was by such work that Janaka attained perfection; BG III.20
By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and equanimity toward the non-virtuous, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness. YS I.33
From the lokasangraha of Bhagavad Gita to the moral guidance of the Sutras, the texts are quite clear about the fact that we cannot practise in isolation and that the good of each member of the group depends on the wellbeing of the whole.
We are all intertwined – certainly the covid pandemic has proven that to us like never before. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. And so when we cultivate harmony we should include all people in this, regardless of colour, creed, class or culture.
How can we practise real ahimsa?
At its heart, ahimsa is a practice of love and compassion for all living beings. But as in any loving relationship, there is more to this than just bathing in a dreamy sense of adoration. In order for it not to be passive, we have to be prepared to engage with the uncomfortable. Thankfully the yoga system provides us with the tools we need to do this.
Just as we practitioners are intertwined, so are the aspects of practice. All 8 limbs of the yoga system support each other, similarly the moral principles of yama-niyama must feed into each other if they are to go beyond simple box-checking exercises.
AHIMSA – SATYA – ASTEYA – BRAHMACHARYA – APARIGRAHA
If we are to cultivate harmony (ahimsa) then we must begin with satya – honesty. In a real, true, frank way – observe our own position – what are the ripple effects of the way I behave and live? Where are my own latent biases and prejudices? Where have I been turning a blind eye to injustice? Can I be honest with myself about the foundation of my privileges? And what more could I do to support the wellbeing of those beyond my direct sphere of contact?
Going further, through the principle of asteya, the opposite of stealing – ie, respecting what rightfully belongs to others, we can observe where we are taking what is not ours. How are we not sharing our resources, how does our ambition and greed create suffering in those who are worse off?
Brahmacharya teaches us to distribute our energy wisely – instead of spending it on the pursuit of pleasure and acquiring more and ever more, how could we distribute our efforts instead towards balancing the injustices that we can finally see all around?
And finally the uncomfortable practice of releasing our grip on the status quo – aparigraha. Things can’t go on as they have been, and in order for anything to change we have to let go of our understanding of how society works. Doing as we please without thinking about how our actions impact on the wider community can’t go on. Staying comfortable in our bubbles of familiarity can’t go on.
Satya is happening right now – we are finally seeing how our society has been built on uneven ground, where half of us are moving through the world with relative ease, ignoring the struggles of the other half who have to fight their way through constant obstacles, disrespect, and even danger in everyday life.
Now that we can finally see this going on, the lack of harmony is shockingly evident. If we are to practise ahimsa (and thus if we are to practise yoga at all) we must engage, and make each of our actions contribute to the lessening of this disharmony.
So what can we do? We are sitting with this now, educating ourselves and working on our focus, sensitising ourselves to injustice and the unconscious habits that have kept things so unfair for so long.
We are having these conversations – listening, hearing uncomfortable truths, absorbing information, trying to make sense of it (that’s what I’m doing by writing this article).
It’s the responsibility of each of us to understand what we can do, to go out of our way to make change. We must question our motivations and our assumptions; stand up when we see unfairness; share our resources – time, money, attention; open up our doors and our hearts to include everyone fairly. And we’ll know that it’s working when it’s uncomfortable – if it feels easy that’s a sign that we are staying in the realms of denial. Instead we can apply ourselves to the true practice of ahimsa, an engaged practice of deep kindness and love for the wellbeing of our fellow man, but which must be brought forth with fierceness in order to cut through the inertia of the status quo and our unconscious habits.
So let’s stand up, be yogic warriors, leave the love and light, be real, and take action now.