Ahimsa: First, Ethic

Karin Burke Ahimsa

My practice began with asana.  It began in the body.  Words and understanding, all this ethics and philosophy, came later. I felt a strange, deep stirring when I practiced.  I didn’t know a thing about yoga philosophy; it would be a stretch to say I ‘understood’ it.  Yet I intend to say exactly that:  I think that strange and deep physical stirring was ethical, what the body said and the mind heard was the beginning of understanding.  This is who you are, body said; why can’t you remember?  What is it you must change?compassion

First, the body.  Later, the words. Like life its own self.

What I thought, at that point in life, was that philosophies and religions fail when you try to use them as actual tools to open jars with, relieve headache, or cope with a difficult human being.  They are pretty.  Pretty like a dress you wear on banner days when you yourself feel gorgeous and all the world is right.  But most of our lives – of my life, anyway – didn’t happen in the way of lace and poetry and kid gloves.  It happened with bitten nails and chapped lips, screaming alarm clocks, and much weariness.  Makeup, and make believe, church and ethics all amounted to the same thing.

Yoga’s ethics are different.  They are not an excuse or escape from the body, but an expression of the body.  They are part of the human, as skeleton is.

Harm none, honesty, purity, ahimsa are words written on and of bodies.  They are as much a part of us as is skin.  As is bicep, bone matter.  The smoke and heat of blood.


When I was a girl, I wrote poems.  Sometimes, lacking a notebook or simply trying to catch the moment of clarity, I wrote on the inside of my forearm.  But I don’t think convenience was the whole reason I wrote there; I think it was a part of what the words were, a piece of their meaning.  It was important to have the ink there, on my flesh like that; a constant flicker of ink in corner of eye reminder.

Like a branding.

Words for the sake of argument are sterile.  Words in a book may or may not be read.  Words around ideas are just words.  As marking, though, as witness, words take on gravity and dimension.  They are a manifesto taken to bodily extremes; a manifesto of the body and for it.

One of these poems little girl me wrote described a storm and a lost man.  It got cold.  The sky poured.  The man was alone, had nothing, and there was darkness.  Over and again the poem said naked, damp, and hungry.  Every human being of us knows what that means.  All the saints and native gods of all the corners of the world have known it.  We know.

As in, This is my flesh.  Our veins are veins of compassion, not of blood.

When I was a young woman, I still had poems inside me, but my lifestyle richochted from safety and fairy tales to darker, harder places.  New Orleans Parish Prison, for one.

I thought, while sitting there one day, that I was now qualified to write folk songs.

I have a tattoo, now, woman grown, on the pale and thin flesh on the inside of that left forearm.  Yes: the place I used to scribble and ink on day after day.  It is my handwriting, this tattoo; the needle traced over what I myself had written and made it stay.  Naked, it says.  Damp.  And hungry.

When people ask, I say it’s just a prison tattoo.  This makes them laugh and the conversation stray.  But it is exactly true: I laid my forearm across another woman’s lap and she patiently, slowly, branded me.

When people ask about the words, all that nakedness, they usually think it’s some innuendo.  All is sex.  I don’t correct them.  But the words are not about lusty, satisified desire so much as they are a description of need.  These are the words we know.

Is it strange, I wonder, or delightful, that the most rigorous intellectual exercises and sublime metaphysical contortions of yogic science echo what I’ve felt and tried to express my whole life:

We know what the words are.  We ought to know our veins as compassion.  We ought – because we do, in a sense – have first words branded into our arms and the palms of our hands.  To have the words bless and sanctify everything we touch, mark everything we do, witness our hours; we ought to be reminded of ethics as soon as we are reminded of body.

First, ethic; first.

All two year olds know what generosity is.  And every two year old knows selfishness.  We stay infants all our lives.  Unless we decide to grow up.

*Karin Burke Ahimsa

You stand, you breathe: the whole body trembles.  The nerves flash.  The breath roils.  It all says yes: yes, this has been true, all along.  This is who you are.  You were born to love, and yet you are alone.

Figure this out.  Go slowly.


Nonviolence is not a discrepancy or diversion of the body.  It is the logical outcome of having one.  Do this, and remember.


Still, I am a wordy, philosophical kinda gal.  It tickled me no end when I found the philosophy.  I found the philosophy to be a pure distillation of what I felt on the mat, knew with my hands and my eyes.  The the point of practice is not physical contortion and heavy breathing; it is a question of aliveness, sensitivity.  Yoga is ethics, first.  If it begins as a flash of physical knowing, it holds true all the way to the most rigorous of intellectual understandings.  Compassion is a truth we know across all the different fields of knowledge.

The logic of yamas and niyamas appeals to our highest level of intelligence.  At first glance smarts isolate us, put the smart one on a different level and lead to accolades, cloisters, academia. Intelligence separates us from the fold. But this isn’t the whole thing; intelligence taken to its conclusion resolves to withness and leveling. Full expression of genius lies in relation, not isolation.  I don’t say easy, I just say genius.

The fully developed human being knows his own self, and where he stands.  He knows everything amounts to this: either he sees the body of every other as equal in importance to his own, or he does not.

Compassion, ahimsa, is inborn and instinctual.  But it is also – and this makes it rare – a truth the mind can find no shortness with.  Any shortness found is with the self, and not compassion.

Like god, I suppose: bigger than mind, it contradicts the mind.  This doesn’t prove the smallness of god. It proves the smallness of self.


Ahimsa is historical. Hippocrates, father of medicine and citizen of ancient Greece, is credited with the healer’s code to ‘first, do no harm’.  He understood medicine holistically and humanely; illness is not the concern of wellbeing, wellbeing is.  When healers act out of their own diagnostics of what is ‘wrong’, they may injure the person while treating the limb.  To ‘fix’ a disease or wound at the cost of harming the person in some way is worthless, even if the disease is ‘cured’.  To not harm, then, takes precedence over the healer’s own accomplishment and the treatment of disease.

A doctor is concerned with physical pulp and tissue.  Oxygen, the grey matter of the brain, depression and anxiety and the muscle fisted heart.  From there, directly, a doctor is concerned with the soul and the being.  With communities.  With the bodies of history and the eyes of the not yet born.  Compassion, ahimsa, is the only way such disparate bodies of knowledge form a whole.


The body is knowledge, see?  To feel is to sense one’s humanity, however jaded and limping.  To sense is to know.  To know one’s own senses is to realize the mirror and shadow and echo of oneself in everyone else’s body.  It feeds directly into using one’s wisdom as a means of connection.  One’s history and secrets and accomplishments as communication.  One’s fear as the impetus to love.

The body is wild, and messy, and discordant.  There are reasons we prefer to live in our heads.  And yet to feel what one feels, moment by moment, is ultimately the kindness of telling the truth.  It demands bravery; it is frightful to see not with our expectations and ideals and shoulds and oughts and musts but with what is.

The word courage translates, in latin and old french, ‘with heart’.  Compassion, as translated as the greek of the new testament, means to feel ‘from the bowels and gut’.  It is not easy, no.  To face reality.  To stop living in the boundaries of our heads and enter the field of the body, where things are not so orderly and are, quite frankly, terrifying and hard to understand.

It is large and expansive, that land of what we do not understand.  To ground ourselves there we ourselves must grow huge.  We must, sooner or later, realize that courage, bravery, ethics, true self, are not things without fear.  But a place where the fear doesn’t matter any longer, where fear can be felt without leaving us paralyzed.


Our eyes grow gentle to see this way.

This is what eyes were capable of, all along.

You were born to love, and yet you feel alone.  Figure this out.  Go slowly.



Karin was an anthropologist, a barmaid, and a journalist before she bottomed out. Yoga saved her; she figures it might help others.  Karin’s teaching in jails, crisis centers, and church basements became a non-profit in 2007. In 2013, Return Yoga became an actual non-profit studio in St. Cloud, MN. More can be found at returnyoga.org.

“curve” image by Celine Nadeau

“do no harm” image by ShamEmCollins

~Love this article? Want to read more and learn how to support Gather and our incredible community? Join the family by signing up for our newsletter HERE!

~WE HEART LOCAL TEACHERS. See how you can support your favorite local teacher HERE.

~Want to write for us? We are looking for contributors with unique voice and original story. If authentic presence is your jam, contact us:

We love hearing from you! Contact us with feedback and we will get back to you. Personally.