Ahiṃsā, non-harming, is a practice that can lead us to yoga and is categorized as a ‘restraint’ or yama – a practice of holding back or restraining ourselves from causing harm. The idea of restraint implies that harming may already have been there – unconsciously – in our thoughts, words, and actions. The first step is looking with clear eyes at the way our actions impact others. It means reflecting on ourselves deeply and with clarity, honesty, and humility. We can start by trying to reduce the harm we are doing in the most outward ways in our lives, the harm created by action. This is a practice and implies returning again and again to the same action (or restraint) with intention and consistency, it does not imply perfection but the willingness to apply effort and persist, until we are able to sustain the new, desirable habit.
As we practice, we start to move more inwardly, going beyond action to our words, thoughts, and even where the deepest root of the motivation to cause harm comes from, our underlying beliefs and attitudes. Where does the motivation to harm come from?When we begin a new habit there can be a certain amount of discomfort. Shri Brahmananda Saraswati says “Submission of lower desire to higher desire is called yoga.” We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, go against the grain of our habits, our immediate desires, and culturally conditioned actions if we want to make a better world possible. The willingness to be a little uncomfortable is the first step.
After some time, giving up a harmful action ceases to feel like restraint but begins to feel more like an affirmation of life and an alignment with our innermost values. It no longer feels uncomfortable, but becomes an act of joy, love, and upliftment of all beings. At a point, ahimsā transforms from a turning inward, a ‘restraint’ into its opposite; an offering, an expansion of Self. Julia Butterfly Hill says, “ahimsā is to live so fully and presently in love that there is no room for anything else to exist.” As the practice grows and expands, ahimsā becomes much more than a practice of restraining harm, but as a practice of creating good. Ahimsā not just as a ‘no’ but as a resounding inner ‘yes’ to nurturing the web of life. As the desire to say no to unecessary harm transforms into a yes to increasing the good we may find that the sense of who/what I am expands.
We do not exist in isolation, we are interdependent on all that is. Think deeply on that, contemplate the sum total of beings that make your existence possible. In the yogic sense, liberation or freedom cannot exist for the individual as isolated from existence. Its all for all, and the yogi goes all in! In yoga we are trying to understand the self as expansive, as beyond what we usually consider the self – our body and our mind. Expand sense of “me” to include not only other people, but the plants which are responsible for the atmosphere that gives me breath, the butterflies, bees, moths, beetles, and bats (yes bats!) that pollinate the plants. The rivers and the oceans which evaporate and creating an ocean in the sky that turns into rain, the sun that creates evaporation and provides energy to so many. If we zoom out far enough, and contemplate the web of life and the interconnections between all molecules, minerals, elements, beings… There is nothing that is not me. The entire concept of self-care radically shifts to Self-care, that is care for the air, water, soil, and ecosystem that supports all of life.
In Jivamukti we emphasize the meaning of asana as our connection to the earth. We strive to cultivate a steady and joyful shape in the form of the physical practices. On another level, studying the connections and relationships that were previously unknown to us. Healing our relationship to the earth means honoring and nurturing our environment. Sharon Gannon would often suggest in class that we “feed the birds” as a way to practice yoga. It doesn’t literally have to be birds, the idea is that we have a daily practice of nourishing someone else. Her suggestion was that we look out into the world of our daily life and see where our shared spaces no longer benefit our fellow earthlings. We may not be able to remove all of the harm that a city creates but we can make an offering every day to those animals around us whose habitats have been lost.
Many of us may feel a sense of resignation or hopelessness in the face of this escalating climate crisis. When we see ourselves as separate we may not seek or create community support and collective action. We may feel that our actions won’t produce a desired result. Even the stories that our culture usually tells about activism and change, highlights the individual act, the individual person. This is almost never how powerful change occurs, it occurs in cultural context, an ecosystem, with many thinkers, activists, community builders, and change makers — sometimes working together, sometimes working in parallel — to bring about a cultural shift. Individual action is also the product of the environment it grew out of and you too can make a difference.