A call for contemporary “ahimsa” rooted in action
I’ve been thinking about ahimsa all month…
I woke up on Monday 1 October to the news that rattled me to my core. A gunman had shot off several rounds from a semi-automatic weapon at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. As the day progressed, the news grew increasingly grim: at least 58 people had been killed, and an additional 520 were seriously injured. As a bookend on the month, a terrorist drove a truck into pedestrians and cyclists in Manhattan on Halloween. Just moments from Ground Zero, this again reminds me how pervasive violence has become in our society.
The immediate human response to this kind of violence is, almost uniformly, shock and horror. As a yoga practitioner, that gut reaction might be amplified in light of what yoga teachers learn on the very first day of yoga teacher training. One of the most fundamental tenets of yoga is the practice of ahimsa. As laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ahimsa is non-violence or non-harming. Sutra 2.35 states: “as a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-harming (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.”
It has always seemed to me that ahimsa is one of the most straightforward, accessible, and achievable of Patanjali’s yamas (restraints). I believe in non-violence and do my best not to harm others; surely that is the core of experiencing and upholding ahimsa, right? Maybe not. Events like the massacre in Las Vegas have led me to critically consider whether theoretical ahimsa is enough. When 21st Century society demonstrates the human capacity for extreme violence, I believe it is a yogi’s responsibility to do more than merely meditate on peace. Action and activism are tools yogis can be using to positively impact the broader world.
Coming back to the Yoga Sutras
Through these considerations, I returned to a Sutra I have often thought about over the past several years. It says in Sutra 1.33: “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
I have long been drawn to this wisdom as it seems to be such sound advice. Although it is admittedly something I struggle with every day. However, in the aftermath of a catastrophe where so much wicked has been demonstrated, I have to pause: is it right to sit quietly in meditation and “disregard” the wicked? Should yogis really read the news about the massacre of nearly sixty innocent civilians and merely ‘disregard’ it in an effort to retain our own undisturbed mental calmness?
In the modern world, there may be times when wickedness is so overwhelming that it is neither possible nor advisable for yogis to strive to retain a completely undisturbed mental calmness. Perhaps a break from our mental calmness is necessary for us to feel compelled towards action. When we encounter such levels of wickedness, especially when that wickedness leads to violence, the yogi’s task might be to step into action and activism in an effort to bring balance and goodness back into their community.
Sharing our practice and teachings
As yoga teachers, we have an opportunity to share yoga’s ancient teachings with our students. Devastating events like those of the last month can become a catalyst for helping our students. We can guide them to thoughtfully consider how ancient texts are relevant to our modern world. Yoga teachers have the opportunity to encourage members of our own communities to act selflessly. To act from a place of ahimsa, to counteract some of the violence that feels so prevalent around us. If we could all mobilise to action for the greater good, it would be at least as beneficial as our efforts to teach students how to breathe and move their bodies skillfully through asana practice.
Becky Farbstein is a no-nonsesnce yoga teacher in London. “I am uncompromisingly honest and make no apologies for challenging my students both physically and intellectually. My students appreciate my pragmatic approach and my straight-talking style. I expect students to be disciplined in their yoga practice. And I balance this with a dry sense of humour and a light-heartedness in the face of the challenge.”
Check out more of Becky, or Read more from Becky Farbs on the monthly here on Gather. Practice with Becky on the weekly in London at Yogarise Peckham, The Power Yoga Company, Union Station Yoga, Yotopia.
Feature Photos by Ben White, Cristian Newman, Ben Blennerhassett & Simon Wijers on Unsplash