Monday, April 1, 2013

Ahimsa Is As Ahimsa Does

To prepare for my classes this week, I’ve spent the past few days researching ahimsa. The first thing I should say is that I’m not going to define it for you. Not yet, anyways. So, if you don’t know what it means, you’re just going to have to wade through this sea of ideas with me until we come to a conclusion. Or, at least, an endpoint.

Ok, I lied. It’s too hard to proceed without a working idea of what the word means. Ahimsa is usually translated simply as “non-violence,” or “non-harming.” Some translators, perhaps seeking to focus on the deeper causes of violence, translate ahimsa as “the absence of the desire to harm or kill.” In the eightfold path of yoga (per Patanjali), it is listed as a yama, a restraint.

If you do a quick search, you will find roughly a million articles on the internet about yoga and ahimsa. 902,000 in 27 seconds to be exact. That’s a lot of people out there thinking about yoga and non-violence, which is great. Right? Right. Of course. I love the idea that yogis are out there thinking hard about philosophical concepts.

But the problem is that they’re not. Not actually thinking hard, I mean. The main gist of most of the missives out there seems to be something like, “just don’t hurt anyone, mmmkay?” Interspersed with this sort of impotent attitude towards ahimsa are a lot of conversations/arguments/apologies about why “doing no harm” does or does not include vegetarianism and is or is not compatible with capitalism.

Peppered in there are a few articles about how mean yoga girls can be and why we should protect the environment. In short, most discussions of ahimsa seem to equate not harming with being nice: being nice to ourselves, being nice to each other, being nice to the planet. But if we can’t bring ourselves to be nice, it’s enough for our intentions to be good. It’s sort of the, “If you don’t have something nice to say…” school of philosophy, as far as I can tell.

And it’s not good enough.

It’s not good enough because violence, intolerance, and oppression are real things in this world and they must be met with real action. And real action means taking what you learn off of your mat and into your community. It means not just, “not harming,” but actively doing good. It means that having good intentions isn’t good enough.

“But that’s not what it says in The Yoga Sutras.”

Okay, sure. You’re right. But, first of all, The Yoga Sutras were written a really long time ago, which means they may deserve a little re-interpretation here and there. And secondly, Patanjali did not write the sutras for middle class American yogis who have both the time and the resources to take political action.

The Patanjalian categorizing of ahimsa as a yama (a restraint), may no longer be accurate. The etymology ofyama suggests that its practice brings a kind of death to an aspect of one’s personality. The common meaning we retain today is that the yamas kill egoic selfishness. But if we restrain ourselves from justice, our selflessness is in question. In the face of multiple levels of actual and threatened violent oppression in the Majority World and our environment, ahimsa may be better positioned as a niyama (something to be unleashed). A promise to connect, and act.
 Now that’s more like it.

Think about it. Do you want your yogic commitment to be a flaccid negation of violence or a virile something to be unleashed against forces of oppression?

In his remix of The Yoga Sutras, threads of yoga, Remski offers a re-translation of ahimsa as protection.  He contends that making a vow of non-violence might be better thought of as an active process of protecting ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.

That means that instead of asking ourselves the somewhat benign questions, “Am I hurting anyone/anything right now?" or, "Are my intentions good?” that we should really be asking ourselves, “Am I actively protecting myself, my friends, and my community from violence and oppression?”

What are the consequences of reinterpreting Patanjali in this light? Well, for one thing, it means that coming to asana class is just a start. It's a start because it gets you out of your house and into your community and it prepares your body and your mind to do good things in the world around you. But that's all it is, a start. 

It means that you have to get off of your mat and engage. It means you have to put down your half-caff free-trade soy latte and pick up the newspaper and see what's going on in the world around you and what you can do about it. It means being active and it means being an activist. It means the people around you have to be more important to you than your yoga pants, and not just because they give you a mirror in which your own charms or flaws are reflected back at you. 

Hell yes.

Now that is a yoga culture I can get behind.

Want to get educated about yoga activism?

Street Yoga brings yoga and meditation to youth & families living in poverty.

Prison Yoga Project teaches yoga and mindfulness to people in prison.

Yoga Aid uses yoga classes to raise money for charities around the world.

Yoga Stops Traffick organizes events to raise awareness about human trafficking. 

Yoga Activist provides yoga teachers with the training and resources to reach out to underserved communities. 

Punk Rock Yoga trains teachers to provide low cost, accessible classes to their communities. 

This list is just a starting point. If you know of other organizations, or have ideas about using yoga to make a difference, please leave a comment below.


  1. Perfect! So I've been reading Iyengar's Light on Life and a few weeks ago I stumbled into the section about the Healthy Vrttis - more on that later. He gets to a passage about compassion, perhaps another possible translation of ahimsa that includes both the kindness aspect and the 'do something about it aspect.' It's too perfect not to share:

    "Compassion for the suffering of others is more than just sympathy. The superficial sympathy we express for the woes of others, when we watch the nightly television news for example, is often no more than a wish to feel good about ourselves, a sop to our own conscience. 'I am a person of sensibility and feeling,' we say. Without action, this is mere self-indulgence.

    It is a modern illusion to imagine that positive emotions, sympathy, pity, kindness, and a general but diffused goodwill are the equivalent of virtues. These 'soft' emotions can serve as a form of narcissistic self-indulgence. Often they are impotent. They make us feel good about ourselves, like when we give a coin to a beggar. They create the illusion of health and well-bring. But sensitivity should be used as a diagnostic tool, not as a mirror to our own vanity. Real compassion is potent as it implies the question, 'What can I do to help?' ... 

    Positive emotions are not the same as virtue. Virtue is valor, moral courage, persistence in adversity, and protection of the weak against the tyranny of the strong - not hand-wringing sympathy. Compassion is the recognition of sameness, of kinship with others. It is potent and practical....Similarly the virtue of others is not a reproach to our own inadequacy, but an uplifting example to us. Not only the great, like Gandhiji, fulfill this role. If you watch a sportsman who has won a cup speak of his victory with modesty and gratitude and with generosity toward his adversaries, is not his virtuous behaviors a feast for you also? These healing qualities are jewels that bring grace to our consciousness and life."

  2. Your site is rocking my face off. So delighted to have found it.

  3. Lacey,
    Thanks so much! It's really cool of you to say that.