Practicing Ahimsa in Modern Day America
Yoga Sutra 2.35
“In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.”
What Do You Think of When You Hear “Nonviolence”?
When you hear the term “nonviolence” you probably think of certain political or religious leaders that have shown up prominently in history books, Instagram block quotes, and inspirational writings. Think Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. All three of these lovely beings promoted peace, nonviolent activism, and equality amongst all humans (along with many other various achievements, obviously).
You may also think of peacetime in between oil wars (has that ever really happened?), or the hippies of the 60s (and today!) promoting peace, love, and unity. You may think of vegans promoting nonviolence toward animals.
But how often do you think about nonviolence and how it appears in your regular, daily life? As I write this, George Floyd was killed in the streets of Minneapolis, MN just over a month ago, so violence/nonviolence are terms that are in the forefront of all conversations right now. If this had not happened, would you have thought about the violence that surrounds us? It seems to take a tragedy – a lynching, a mass shooting, a #metoo movement, a global pandemic – for privileged people living in a free world to acknowledge the violence that exists in the world. It’s hard to see when it doesn’t affect you personally on a daily basis (I speak from experience), but it’s there. It’s clever, it’s always lurking in the shadows. Violence surrounds us…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
How Nonviolence (Ahimsa) Shows Up in Yoga
Ahimsa, in Sanskrit nonviolence, in the first of five Yamas, which represents the first limb of ashtanga yoga (see more about the 8 limbs here). The Yamas are observances, or principles that we practice as yogis in order to effectively work the other 7 limbs of the eight-limbed path into our lives. I like to think of the yamas and niyamas (limb #2) as the 10 commandments of yoga, if you will (it’s definitely not the same and I know that, but it’s an analogy that has helped people understand it in the past). Basically these are principles for living. My yoga teachers put it very simply – “how to be less of an asshole.”
Ahimsa is the practice of nonviolence and this can show up in many ways externally. You can do a simple Google search or find many books with different experts and gurus over the years breaking down the yoga sutras and what ahimsa means and how to practice it daily. Not harming others, physically or emotionally, is top-of-mind, as well as not harming animals, and this is usually where the vegetarian diet comes in to the conversation.
I honestly used to feel attacked or shamed because I was not vegetarian and I thought “how can I be a true yogi?!” The more research I’ve done and the more I’ve experienced on this path, I realize that for me it is important to maintain at minimum a vegetarian lifestyle, sometimes vegan. But I also do this because farming harms the planet, eating unhealthy animal parts harms my body, and of course, the obvious harming of the animals that are raised in poor conditions just to be food for us.
Now the flip side of that is if I’m going to practice ahimsa externally, I cannot in good will shame, talk down to, or have any kind of feelings about someone else who is not vegetarian or vegan. They have to find their own journey and I have to believe that they know what’s best for them, not me.
Ahimsa also was taught to me in that I don’t harm myself while on my yoga mat. It’s important to enjoy my yoga practice without pushing myself too hard. It’s important to practice self-love and gratitude and appreciation for this body that I have that carries my soul, rather than to judge it for what upside down hand stand postures it cannot do.
Practicing non-violence as far as yoga goes can cover many more areas than this but I want to look at how violence shows up in our modern world, and in my modern American life.
How Violence Shows Up In My Life
As a cis, white, straight female living in America, with a house and a little bit of money in the bank, I cannot say that there is a lot of external violence showing up in my life personally. Most people of privilege living in countries like mine would probably be able to stay the same, but that does not mean that we don’t suffer from different forms of violence internally – emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
For me, violence shows up in the way that I hold myself to such a high regard and to extremely high standards. I am a perfectionist and I know it and I expect amazing things out of myself and if I do not perform, I punish myself. I believe that this violence that I show myself comes from the culture that we live in and other external things, such as limiting beliefs, the media, and political landscapes, for starters.
Whether you were raised religiously or not, if you are raised in a way to believe certain things just because you were told to, this can potentially manifest in being hard on oneself. I was raised to believe that I am a sinner that I am “bad” until I believe, and I’m saved, then I am forgiven. If I am saved and forgiven, then why do I still feel “bad” if I do “bad things” and why am I still so hard on myself for not being perfect and a godly woman all the time?
I’m not sure if this comes from the pressure of the church or the internal pressure to want to please my parents, but either way this is something that has stuck with me and something I still have to consider on a fairly regular basis as an adult.
I believe a lot of harm and violence, at least for me personally, comes out of all of our media systems. From a very young age, anyone with a television is exposed to fantasy, reality TV, advertisements, the news – all kinds of different media outlets that are trying to ultimately sell us on the idea that “the grass is always greener.” Growing up in a world where Victoria’s Secret supermodels are the only acceptable way to look and the only acceptable weight to be, and the news covers only heinous, horrible things going on in the world, and if you aren’t doing something about it to fix it, then you are a part of the problem, can be extremely taxing and weigh on a young girl.
The crazy thing about politics and laws in our country is that they affect us even as children before we are able to vote on them and decide what we want our lives to be. Again, this would be a very hard thing to complain about to somebody who lives in a war-torn country because we do have so many freedoms, but we are not fully there yet. Systemic racism built into our system, a #metoo movement that shows that women do not have control over their bodies, and the blend of church and state (whether anybody wants to admit it or not) can be harmful to our legislature, and therefore the lives of the citizens of this country.
How I (Try) to Practice Ahimsa
So now that I’ve recognized where violence shows up in my life, how hard I am on myself, and how I am affected by the environment that surrounds me, what do I do about it? As someone who suffers from alcoholism and generalized anxiety disorder, I tend very quickly toward anger and frustration when things go out of whack. Anger being the opposite of equanimity, to me, personally, does not feel like practicing ahimsa, so this is something I have to work on regularly.
While I have found many tools that work for my recovery and treatment of my anxiety, I still have to combat the deeply ingrained and rooted things inside me, and this usually involves one-on-one communion with my higher power.
Delimiting My Beliefs
While I believe and practice a lot of things from the religion I was raised with, I have been very uncomfortably unpacking and deconstructing it for my entire adult life. As I unpack duality, yin and yang, good and evil, high and low, darkness and light, I have to remain open-minded to God showing me what he wants to show me in different ways. Otherwise, I end up putting God in a box, defined very carefully the way that man has seen fit for thousands of years. As my husband likes to put it “a God small enough for my understanding isn’t big enough for my needs.”
So many wars in our history are wrought of religion and “my God’s right and your God’s wrong.” This goes to show that we cannot, as a species, practice ahimsa while fully believing “my religion is right and yours is wrong.” It’s literally in our history books. So for me, I cannot fully believe in this mindset while practicing ahimsa. Something that Jesus taught was to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to love especially those who seemed the most unworthy of our love. These are the teachings that I cling to as I work toward delimiting my belief system.
Unfollowing the Media
Something hit me about 6 years ago, around 2013, as I began to change my life. I realized that my career in retail and sales, where we convinced people that they would look better, feel better, do better, be happier, etc. if they bought this thing, was no longer apart from my core beliefs. If we come out of the womb naked, raw, bare, how can that not be beautiful? At first, I looked at these realizations as my defiant hippie ways, wanting to not shave my legs or wear a bra and give up makeup, but when I dug deeper I realized this was my true, core belief system.
I am very comfortable in my body and I have worked hard to believe that God made me exactly who I am and exactly how I look, on purpose, and so who am I to argue with that? I am skinny to the point where I was teased a lot as a child. I am pale, I was also teased about that. Now I see myself as a thin, pale, beautiful goddess. I have not worn makeup in 4 years, except for special occasions if I choose to, because I still do what I want! I do not wear a bra and I try my best (not perfect at it) not to shop designer brands or any mass-produced fashion items that may harm people because of their business practices (i.e. foreign child labor or free prison labor).
I also stopped watching the news and canceled cable, so I could control my commercial and news intake. Now if I watch anything it’s on Netflix or some other medium where I control exactly what I watch. I also don’t engage in reality TV or any other kind of show that shows me lives that I should be “dreaming to have.” I practice ahimsa and non-violence in this way by accepting myself for exactly who I am and accepting my life for what it is and being grateful for it and loving it. The media always pushing me to want what other people have just turns into an internal battle of self-harm and shame.
Trampling Through Political Landscapes
Dealing with political landscapes has been one of the toughest ones because this thought process always comes up – how can you be a yogi and practice ahimsa in such an, often, non-peaceful activist landscape? How can you bring equanimity to a gun fight and win? I try to follow in the footsteps of other peaceful activists as I mentioned previously: Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The balance between practicing non-violence and wanting non-violence for others, and then fighting for it with equanimity is a difficult line to walk. I do my best to do my part, continue to educate myself on all things political that affect all of God’s children and then take the next indicated action that’s right in front of me.
At the end of the day, the most application I get from ahimsa to my modern day life is that self-love is not prominent and it should be. There are so many available healing avenues – women’s circles, retreats, groups, meetings – and at all of these things I’ve seen promoted self-love and manifestation and love exercises and mirrors where you look yourself in the eye and say “I love you, I love you, I love you.” But can you truly love yourself if you don’t face your demons first? Can you truly love all the parts of yourself, even those demons, as you still fight them?
Deborah Adele explains this so eloquently in her book “The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice” –
“Our inability to love and accept all the pieces of ourselves creates ripples-tiny acts of violence-that have huge and lasting impact on others. I have, in my life, the privilege to hear many people speak their personal feelings, and I am constantly surprised by how much of their speech is a reporting of failings and self-loathing, and attempts to “fix” themselves. These attempts to change self, rather than love self, keep us trapped in vicious cycle that we can’t crawl out of . . . Non-violence is woven with love, and love of others is woven with love of self; these cannot be separated.”
This is a constant battle for me and I know it will be throughout the rest of my life, but I am more harmful to myself than I am to anyone externally, and becoming aware of it is the first step. Now that I’m aware of it, I will continue to work toward loving myself because I can only truly love others once I have loved myself first.