Yoga is not a religion or an exercise regime. Yoga offers a collection of practices for living a holistically healthy life. Having a sense of the wholeness of life means that we realise we are part of an interconnected whole, the web of life on this planet, and beyond. Yoga in the West is often centred around self care. However, yoga practice in its widest sense is actually much more concerned with the care and wellbeing of ALL sentient beings, the life on the whole of this planet. The work that we do to improve ourselves is actually work that is in service to all our fellow human and sentient beings. This is exemplified by the Shanti Path, or Peace Mantra, one of the most well known chants in yoga, translated below.
The Peace Mantra
Auspiciousness be unto all
Peace be unto all
Fulfilment be unto all
Welfare be unto all
May all be happy
May all be free from disease
May all look to the good of others
May none suffer from sorrow!
May peace, peace, peace, be everywhere!
Ahimsa – Non-Harming
There are eight limbs to the overall practice of yoga, the first two of which are a set of ethical principles called the Yamas and the Niyamas. The first Yama is Ahimsa, or non-harming. It is said to be the most important principle, it is also one of the hardest to truly follow in this world. It is not a simple matter to cause no harm to any living thing. Everything we eat, buy or use has potential for be harmful to other beings or the earth itself. Even if we choose to eat a vegan diet, there are many animals threatened by farming many crops, from avocados to wheat. Packaging and plastics cause harm to birds and sea creatures. Transporting ourselves and the food we eat causes much harm to many beings via pollution… Buying clothes and other items also come with harms attached. The list goes on. We can also harm ourselves by not eating a diet with the correct balance of proteins and fats. We can even harm ourselves by overdoing our practice of Ahimsa! However, despite all these difficulties and obstacles, the more we practice non-harming, the more benefits we will bring to ourselves and others.
Ahimsa and Nonviolence.
Wikipedia defines nonviolence as “the personal practice of being harmless to one’s self and others under every condition. It comes from the belief that hurting people, animals and/or the environment is unnecessary to achieve an outcome and it also refers to a general philosophy of abstention from violence.”
So you can see that Ahimsa and Nonviolence are virtually identical. Nonviolence is a powerful life practice that is used as a form of peaceful protest to end oppression by creating political change without recourse to war, violence of oppositional politics. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King both used this practice to great effect to highlight and challenge oppression in a powerful and novel way. The techniques of nonviolence have much to teach us about how to challenge oppression, without creating further harm or oppression of others. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the perpetrators of injustice, but seeks to defeat the injustice itself.
Nonviolent Communication was derived by Marshall Rosenberg. He realised he had to work out a way of dismantling his own oppressive behaviours so that he could be effective in his work as a high school teacher. Harm and mistreatment are not only physical in nature. We can mistreat people through our use of words, tone of voice, lack of attention and decisions we make. Learning the art of nonviolent communication can help us to challenge oppression without becoming an oppressor ourselves (see less harmless oppressive behaviours). Now NVC is taught in many US schools and is used widely by counsellors as well. There is a whole course of educational videos by Marshall Rosenberg on nonviolent communication here if you’d like to learn more about this.
Nonviolent communication can also help us to interrupt the sea of oppression that surrounds us and create new ways of relating to others that are more respectful and collaborative. In this way we might work together for the good of all rather than perpetuating the divisions, which ultimately serve to support oppression, as it goes unchallenged.
I find nonviolent communication very hard to do especially when I need it most! Both my parents experienced a lot of oppression in their childhood. Perhaps for this reason, I learned their oppressive language very well, something which is very evident when I get annoyed with my teenaged daughter! However, acknowledging and facing up this has helped us to understand each other better. Like most things in life, becoming aware of and dismantling my oppressive tendencies is an ongoing process. We’ll look at this next week when we delve deeper into how we are all connected and how we are so easily divided.