freedom fighting

Corner of Wabash and Balbo, circa 2012

Corner of Wabash and Balbo, circa 2012

Forgive me if I'm telling you what you already know, but asana is but a fraction of this thing we call yoga. (For the record, expensive stretchy pants and impossible body and beauty standards are zero part of it, but that's for another day.) The first two limbs of yoga, according to Patanjali, the Raja Yoga MacDaddy of them all, are the yamas and niyamas. These two breakdown into smaller tenets, and function as a social and individual code of ethics of sorts. Chief among them is ahimsa, or nonviolence. 

So sure, you can walk into any yoga class in America and hear someone prattling on about ahimsa as they caution students on misformed chaturangas or overdoing it in a backbend sequence. But violence is sneaky, and practicing nonviolence involves more than just modifying postures and working intelligently with sensation.

When I covet the backbend, the handbag, or the body of the person next to me, I stumble on ahimsa

When I get mad at my flat feet every time I fall out of utthita hasta padangusthasana, I stumble on ahimsa.

When I give the driver next to me side eye for driving while on the phone, I stumble on ahimsa.  

When I interrupt a colleague--again--I stumble on ahimsa

When I wish myself thinner, or smarter, more determined or disciplined, I stumble stumble stumble on ahimsa. When I judge another woman or berate another man, when I am impatient, dispassionate, unforgiving, self-pitying or numb: I trip over ahimsa and flat on my face.

Don't be fooled by the mediocre metaphor here. I don't mean that nonviolence is an obstacle; more that it's a garment that's too big. Rather than wearing it gracefully, it hangs off me, ill-fitting, and the way I wear it (or fail to) causes me to stumble. 

Right? Violence is everywhere, and it's as easy to perpetrate against the self as against others. Let's say nothing about how easy it is to speak ill of myself, to cluck my tongue in derision at some flaw I notice in the mirror, or to berate some stranger or celebrity for actions I find troubling. 

So why bother if it's so tough? Why not just give into the impulse in me to throw shoes at people, to stiff rude service staff, to curse at drivers, to refuse to forgive? Well, for one thing, the tradition says not to. B.K.S. Iyengar writes about ahimsa and the other yamas that they are "called 'mighty universal vows', as they are not confined to class, place, time or concept of duty. They should be followed unconditionally by everyone, and by students of yoga in particular, irrespective of origin and situation..." He makes allowances for situations jobs-- Arjuna was a soldier, after all--but there's not a lot of gray area: practice nonviolence because the practice of nonviolence is the study of yoga. Nobody gets a pass.

Beyond the doctrine as motivation, much like doing Side Angle Pose, when I do it, as hard as it is, it feels good. Choosing to be gentle and compassionate with myself and others feels way better than choosing to be angry and mean-spirited. This doesn't mean I don't get angry, nor does it mean that I don't hurt. But if I believe (and I do) in the connectedness of all beings, then violence toward another is as toxic to me as it is to them. My freedom is connected to yours, as is my peace and prosperity. We gotta do right by one another, even if we don't like it. 

So I'm trying. The Universe provides me lots of chances to try, and try again, to practice nonviolence. It still isn't any easier, but I feel more how important it is every day.