One of the most basic principles of yoga is ahimsa, do no harm. Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, in word, thought, and action and is the first of the yamas, or disciplines, of yogic philosophy. While it may seem to be a simple concept, it can be a challenging and important practice to establish and maintain on a daily basis.
Many people who practice yoga already try to cultivate a lifestyle of ahimsa, but even in the yoga community, we are imperfect. Last July, one yoga teacher murdered another for unknown reasons, and in March, an employee of a yoga clothing store murdered her co-worker in what appears to be a dispute over stolen merchandise.
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These incidents are not just artifacts of American culture, where it may be possible to spend a lifetime practicing asana (the physical exercises of yoga) and never learn the underlying philosophies and traditions. In India, controversial yoga mogul Ramdev aspires to start an honest, morally driven, political party that will rid the Indian government of corruption; yet, despite his position as a swami and yoga guru, he wants to achieve this goal by shooting those found guilty of corruption.
These stories are potent reminders that yoga is not an escape from our emotions or a fast track to spiritual perfection. It is a tool, and although it can be a powerful one, a lot depends upon the skill of the user.
Mahatma Gandhi, a modern master of ahimsa, reminded us to be the change we want to see in the world. Imagine an entire day without a causing even the smallest amount of suffering, to your self or any other being. How would that feel, and how would it change your life?
What would it look like for you? It could mean letting go of all negative self-talk, eating only food that nourished your body, and considering the consequences of every action, from the products you buy, to how you dispose of them, how you treat friends, family, and strangers, and even how you fight insect invaders in and around your home.
What if you took it a step further and tried to intentionally ease the suffering of another?
Whether practicing yoga, practicing ahimsa, or practicing playing the guitar, a “practice” is an ongoing process. The key is to remember to keep practicing, even when you step off your mat, even when you are faced with challenges that evoke your most primal instincts; then, when you have forgotten, don’t beat yourself up over it, just begin again.