If you are trying to practice more yoga off the mat, non-violence is the place to start.
The first of Patanjali’s yamas or restrictions, ahimsa (Sanskrit for nonviolence) is best known for its role in promoting vegetarianism as the standard yogic diet. But there is so much more to it than that! In an earlier post, Cecilia asked you an important question: “Do you usually do any harm?” What was your answer?
As she pointed out, most of us think of nonviolence in terms of how we hurt other creatures through our own actions. We can also look at it the way her teacher did, in terms of how we harm ourselves with our thoughts and actions.
The Violence of Inaction
“It has become clear that Yoga has the transformative power to heal and liberate individuals and communities alike.”
While topics of social justice still sometimes seem taboo in yoga communities, both online and at your local studio, there are groups working to bring greater awareness to how yoga can help. The folks at Street Yoga emphasize how we can practice our yoga off the mat by bringing nonviolent practice into our daily lives.
“Although the gifts of yoga are seemingly endless and diverse; our community continues to lack in demographic diversity. What does this mean about access, privilege and social justice? Yoga calls us to practice ahimsa (thoughtful consideration of all beings) but how do we integrate yoga as social justice into our everyday practice?“
Understanding ahimsa to mean both nonviolence and the “thoughtful consideration of all beings” we can see how inaction in the face of suffering becomes in itself a violent act.
If we can recognize yoga’s power to transform the individual, to bring more love and hope into the world, certainly we can accept that it can also bring great changes to the world as we know it. But not without hard work.
Yoga advocacy group Off the Mat, Into the World breaks down what it takes to practice nonviolence in a way that can truly make the world a better place: “We believe it takes radical self-inquiry, collaboration, and conscious action to transform the world and ourselves.”
So how can you use these three stages of nonviolence to change the world?
Jacob Ballard, in his article for Decolonizing Yoga, explains the work of nonviolence by stressing that as we process collective and cultural pain, we become people who truly can change the world:
“We cannot bypass the important work of decolonizing our minds from systems of power, privilege, and oppression on the way to loving everyone. The fact that we are racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist is not our fault, and shame and guilt are not helpful paths to tread. But we must take responsibility for the world that our ancestors have created, and continue to transform it into one that celebrates all people, all bodies, all experiences in the world.”
Our privilege is a sign of great power. And as the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Here is how you can bear that responsibility wisely, on and off the mat, using your yoga as social justice.
This is, in part, what Cecilia was getting at when she asked, “does this thought actually serve me well in any way? Remember, the way you treat yourself, sets the standard for others.”
Practicing greater awareness of our thoughts helps us not only to recognize the ways our subconscious monkey mind sabotages our own wellbeing, but also the way that it allows prejudice and privilege to slip by unnoticed. We tend to assume that people who discriminate are all “bad people” and so it’s easy to then believe we don’t ourselves discriminate, because we don’t believe we’re bad.
But yoga teaches us that life is more complex than “good people” and “bad people” – there is always that bit of light in the darkness, that shadow in the light. We’re all the good people and the bad people, usually all at once.
Learn to dig deeper.
Practicing nonviolence means opening our eyes to the ways that the world is connected. It requires reaching out, hearing from people whose perspectives we have perhaps never taken the opportunity to hear before.
Once you learn how to observe your own thoughts and examine your prejudice, simply listening to someone else talk about how the world is different for them because an entirely new, heart-opening, mind-expanding experience.
Without prejudice, without the reactive self-defense or your feelings of guilt over the suffering of others, your mind and heart become free to create strong bonds and together seek out new solutions to age-old problems.
3. Conscious Action
Change begins with you, but it doesn’t end there.
The world is wide and full of possibilities to march, to sing, to dance, to pray, to shout and yes, even to fight against injustice and oppression. Weilding this power is sometimes called weaponizing your privilege, using the authority we have in the world to make it better for those who don’t.
But it doesn’t have to be a violent process if we remember what ahimsa means. Yoga reminds us to consider all beings, not all hierarchies. The creatures that live in this world, great and small, are lives we must consider. The structures and systems which bring suffering? Their destruction is the work of freedom fighters and Boddhisatvas alike.
So what do you say?