As mentioned last month, we will be drawing inspiration for our monthly themes throughout the year from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—and more specifically, from the Yamas (personal restraints) and the Niyamas (personal practices) that form the ethics of spiritual practice.
Though they’re defined as personal restraints—things we refrain from doing in our lives—the Yamas are one of the strongest elements for connecting our personal world with the world at large (and realizing that the two are never separate.) The first among these is Ahimsa, a Sanskrit term that is generally translated to mean “non-violence.”
Quite often, what is thought of as “violent” is some kind of direct physical harm to another being. As we look a little deeper, we begin to see beyond the more obvious, individualized expressions of violence, into the more systemic forms: poverty. Racism. Environmental destruction. Things that we may not always think to point to directly, but which nonetheless impact people’s lives in real and measurable ways, all the time.
The question of where to put our efforts for peace can quickly become overwhelming! How do we stop ourselves from participating in systems that feel beyond our control? Is it better to just shut ourselves down, leaving as minimal a mark on the world as we can, so as to avoid doing even unintentional harm?
I don’t think that’s what Patanjali was suggesting. Or at least, I don’t think that’s a strategy that’s going to work in the world we now live in. Ahimsa need not be limited to merely refraining from doing harm; we feel that Ahimsa, in the full-bloom version of the term, is not merely about the absence of aggression. It must also be about an abundant presence of connection, compassion and love.
As you are likely already aware, the building of that compassion and love is an inside job. The more capable we are of giving those things to ourselves, the more we have to share. So in thinking about ahimsa, the following inquiries might be of interest:
How have I shown myself kindness today?
What efforts have I made to connect with myself this week—to acknowledge my own feelings, thoughts, or physical state?
When I catch myself engaging in negative self-talk, what options do I have for being compassionate toward myself?
As we discover our options for caring for ourselves, we often find—hey cool!—those options are transferable. So the questions can become:
How have I shown kindness to someone else today?
What efforts have I made this week to connect with my community (whether that “community” is people you share a neighborhood with, an economy with, an ecosystem with…it’s great to think big on this!)
When I catch myself engaging in aggressive or damaging communication with someone else, what options do I have for turning toward compassion and connection?
It’s important to connect the dots. Taking care of ourselves doesn’t automatically ensure that we will extend that kindness to someone else. But practicing ahimsa toward ourselves is a crucial step in creating the conditions for skillful and peaceful work in the world.
Wishing you a happy February,
Erin H/Indi Yoga