Last time I posted, I discussed the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga and expressed an interest in blogging about each limb in more detail. The first limb is made up of the yamas, or 5 “restraints.” These practices are called restraints because they call upon us to “restrain” from certain behaviors or mindsets.
The first of these restraints, or yamas, is ahimsa. Ahimsa is usually translated as “non-harming” or “non-violence.” In other words, it’s the practice of restraining from creating or doing harm. Rightfully so, ahimsa conjures up images of Gandhi or MLK and their social movements of non-violence. And yet, ahimsa doesn’t need a national stage of institutional bigotry upon which to play out. There lots of “little ways” to restrain from harm, and these little ways add up.
One way to practice ahimsa is by being a vegetarian. It’s my understanding that much of the justification for a vegetarian diet in yoga comes from this yama. Eating animals creates harm; whereas, (the theory goes) eating plant matter, fruit, nuts, and even animal products (like ghee, yogurt, milk, cheese, etc) creates significantly less harm than eating flesh. So, you don’t have to be a Dr. King to practice non-violence; you can be a vegetarian. If it hasn’t happened already, food will become one of the global “human” rights causes of our time (next to women’s rights).
Ahimsa, though, isn’t just about outward harm. We don’t just do violence externally to a group of people different than us or to a cow that we want to turn into a hamburger. We create and inflict violence internally, too. And by that I mean, we inflict violence on ourselves and on others without even raising our finger or opening our mouth. We can create and inflict harm with our very thoughts.
So, it’s fitting then that first step on the yogic path is ahimsa, the practice of restraining from harm, because yoga, at its core, is mastery of the mind. Yoga is the cessation of fluctuation of the thought-waves in the mind. It is learning how to use our breath, our body, our non-mind self (or “soul”), and, yes, even our mind, to quell the stormy sea of our rational monkey mind. Why not, then, begin this process by practicing restraint from harming thoughts? What better way to embark on the yogic path than to jump right in like this–jump right in to the place where most of our damage is created: in our own heads.
What does it mean to harm ourselves or others with our thoughts? We create violence every time we roll our eyes at our boss and think “what an airhead; I can’t believe I’m supposed to do what this guy says.” We create violence every time we tell ourselves that we were sorely wronged by that jerk who cut us off in traffic. We create violence every time we sit in silent judgment in our heads of something our lover or family member has said or done. If I’m remembering my New Testament correctly, I believe Jesus says as much when he tells his disciples that the man who thinks about murdering someone is no different from the man who actually does murder someone.
And we also create harm with the things we think about ourselves. I’ve been really sick the past several days (some kind of cold that took a turn for the worse and became an infection–long story), and, as a result of being run-down and riddled with infection, I’ve felt very disconnected from my body and not mentally sharp enough to do some of the things I love. In this state, it’s easy for me to turn against myself. My mind starts to say things about how lousy I am and I start to believe it. Violence in the first degree!
As we journey on the yogic path, we must learn to observe our thoughts before we can quiet them. If you think about it, it’s really not that hard to restrain from eating meat or to restrain from externally doing harm to people in obviously violent ways, but it’s profoundly challenging to restrain from harming thoughts. I do think the first step in truly practicing ahimsa is to catch our thoughts and notice their harming quality.
But what we do after that, I’m not quite sure.