The first of the Yama's 'Ahimsa' often translated as 'non violence' is perhaps one of the most pertinent. While non-violence can sound simple at the superficial level (i.e. don't kill or hurt anyone) it can be far more challenging when we turn this quest towards ourselves, particularly in those instances where we feel powerless, unhappy or out of balance.
The form of violence I speak about here is not just gross physical harm but also emotional harm. How many times a day do we direct criticism, unkind or unhelpful thoughts towards ourselves that we would never dare put on another (often out of concern for how it may impact their emotional/mental wellbeing)??
This is so easy to do and sometimes takes the simple form of looking in the mirror and making a mental observation of how undesirable we look today, criticising ourselves for taking a day off from exercise/training, calling ourselves stupid for not getting out of a less than ideal situation sooner or even just eating that slice of chocolate cake. It's so important to remember that we are all human - we make mistakes, need to rest/recharge and sometimes enjoy that slice of cake!
The art of living with Ahmisa not only applies to ourselves and other human beings, it also extends to all living creatures. This yama is very much in line with the buddhist precept of abstaining from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human). At this point one of the first questions that comes to mind is 'Do I need to be a vegan/vegetarian to practice Ahimsa'?
During my time in India studying at KYM it was interesting to get our highly regarded philosophy teachers take on this. Her opinion based upon extensive study of the scriptures was that being vegan or vegetarian was not essential for the practice of ahimsa, it all comes down appropriateness. As an example a fisherman killing fish to make a living and feed the family is considered to be in line with ahimsa however a commercial fisherman taking fish with the intent of turning over a profit would be considered to be acting against ahimsa.
The way that I understand it is that most yogi's are generally vegetarians because plant based foods are generally considered to be more 'sattvic' or pure which helps to keep us in balance (i.e not feeling lethargic as can happen after a big serving of spag bowl or overly energised which happens when we eat too much sugar). For me personally I maintain a vegetarian diet around 95% of the time as I feel much better without meat, especially red meat which I now find really difficult to digest. If however I'm craving some fish or chicken and this feeling sticks around for more than a day I'll generally eat it - after all if my body is asking for it there must be a reason.
One of the most personally relatable passages of text that I've come across in regards to Ahimsa comes from Deborah Adele's book 'The Yamas & Niyamas'. It talks about balance in our lives being a cornerstone for non-violence, it also speaks about the consequences of losing balance, she states:
'We are bombarded and we bombard ourselves. And if we have any doubts, our calendars will reveal the truth of our craziness. The repercussions are inescapable, immeasurable violence to ourselves and those around us".
I read this around a year after doing exactly that - loading up my calendar so heavily that there was no space for a 15 minute delay because everything that followed would fall down. At the time I didn't have the awareness (or the scheduled time to stop and reflect) to see how this was impacting myself and all those around me. I was constantly stressed/tired and my friends and family were left feeling like they were just another appointment in my calendar. I was proud of how much I was squeezing into my days and how productive I'd become. I only began to question my crazy scheduling when a good friend kindly expressed concern and opened my eyes to the flip side of my behaviour.
It's so easy to get caught up in all that's happening in our lives and not realise that we are inflicting this harm upon ourselves. I believe that the first step towards correcting/improving anything is the identification of the pattern/behaviour, after all how can we seek to change something that we cannot see? It's so important to give ourselves space and quiet time to reflect and study our own behaviours/patterns. I just spent a year doing it quite intensively and still feel like I'm in the first chapter on the book of Mandy!
The kindness and compassion that we cultivate towards ourselves will be directly reflected to those around us. Conversely if we remain extremely critical of ourselves, those around us are likely to feel our high standards being pushed upon them (even if this is not our intention).
So with all that said how has the practice of ahimsa impacted/changed my life, and what does it look like for me on a day to day basis:
Like all things my practice of ahimsa is still very much a work in progress although as the commentary on the Yoga Sutra's say 'even a bit of ahimsa is enough to elevate us to a higher state'.
Surely that's enough of a reason to give it go :)
Mandy Habener (Dumas)