Non-Violence and Truth

The path of yoga as outlined by the sage Patanjali consists of eight limbs or petals to guide our journey toward wholeness. These are ethics, self-discipline, postures, breath control, sensory withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and complete meditative absorption. The Sanskrit term for the first limb is yama, the ethical precepts of yoga. The yamas deal with our relationship with others and how we can work together toward a more enlightened, altruistic society. As we face the trifecta of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and racist violence, I have been thinking about the first two yamas, which are non-violence and truthfulness. These two principles formed an important foundation in both Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s work for social change through non-violent means.

The first principle, ahimsa, is non-violence. This is the commitment to avoid causing harm to others or oneself. To avoid causing harm, we have to become self-aware, and recognize the possible effects of our thoughts, words and actions. Ahimsa means that we cultivate empathy and compassion for every living being. It is the most fundamental teaching of yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar taught that if we could fully encompass ahimsa, no other practice would be necessary.

The next principle is astaya, truthfulness. This means that we are not only honest with others, but also unflinchingly honest with ourselves when we examine our own behavior, attitudes and prejudices. Again, this truthfulness requires reflection and rigorous self-examination. Unflagging commitment to truth over time makes us trustworthy individuals.

To say that we agree with these ideas is easy, but to live by these principles takes constant attention. In the face of worldwide social injustice, I recognize that I am basically uneducated about how to talk about, or think about or respond to racial inequality and prejudice. While I say with conviction that I believe in equality for all, perhaps now is the time to face the truth that I have not done enough to help make that a reality. I am not sure how to go forward, but I know the first  step is to educate myself with wider reading, conversation and deep reflection about these issues. I am facing the truth of my ignorance, and am determined to learn how I can do my part to be of help, both as an individual and as a yoga studio owner.

Yoga practice can and should go beyond building our personal health and well being. Each moment of mindfulness contributes to a better world. When we practice present moment awareness in a yoga pose, we prepare ourselves for clarity when we have to make tough ethical choices or make a stand for what we believe is right. When we correct or adjust our posture, we learn how to correct course when we find ourselves getting pulled toward complacency or negativity. Each yoga posture is a situation in which we can practice the qualities that we hope to bring into our everyday behavior.

To build mental quietude and increase present-moment awareness, follow the Seated Forward Extensions video on the the Green Tara Yoga YouTube Channel. It’s a ten-minute practice of postures that will help you develop the clarity you need as you face tough ethical choices and make a stand for what is right.

The principle of ahimsa says that we must avoid harming others, but it also implies that we should take wise and compassionate action to help them. I am humbled by the magnitude of the problems that we face, and question not only what I can do, but also how much difference my efforts can make.  I hope to move beyond  my current uncertainty, and begin to learn how I can be part of a change toward a more just, equitable and peaceful world.

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One Response to Non-Violence and Truth

  1. Janet O’Brien says:

    Hi Karen. Your humble, honest self assessment is refreshing. I can relate. I admire your self study and goal of learning more.

    During this tough emotional time I am becoming aware of subtle thoughts I might have missed before. Talk about fluctuations of the mind…!

    I enjoyed your Saturday Lawrence workshop. That took some energy.
    Keep up your good work!

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