Yoga Sutras : Thoughts on Ahimsa

I’m coming to the end of my week on the first yama, ahimsa, and throughout the week I’ve been thinking about various aspects of that concept. In many ways, the concept of non-violence, both physical and non-physical, is something that just makes sense. Our lives are almost certainly going to be better if we treat ourselves and others with respect. There are some aspects, however, that for me required a little more thought.

The first is whether and how eating meat is compatible with ahimsa. Bryant’s book on the Yoga Sutras, and the sources it cites, are pretty clear that “a vegetarian diet is nonnegotiable for yogis”. This is also the view generally shared by various internet sources that I’ve looked at. The reasons for this are pretty obvious – that meat is the result of violence done to animals, and so is entirely antipathetic to a concept of non-violence. I was a vegetarian for about six months, around ten years ago. Why did I stop? Because I like eating meat. There’s no less selfless or more worthy answer than that, really. Do I want to stop eating meat now? No, not really. I guess the question then is whether I’m being a massive hypocrite by on the one hand trying to incorporate this concept of ahimsa into my yoga practice and my life, and on the other hand continuing to eat meat. I suppose my gut feeling is that yes, I would be, but it’s human nature to not want to have to give up something you enjoy. Having said that, I do know that there is such a thing as making sacrifices in service of the bigger picture. I think I could quite easily cut down the amount of meat that I eat (that makes it sound like I gorge on the stuff – I don’t), which is perhaps the first step, and I can then think about whether I want to take it further. (Am I putting off making a decision here? Probably, but did I mention that I like eating meat?)

The second aspect of ahimsa that I’ve been thinking about is karma. Bryant states, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, that “any involvement in violent acts of any kind requires that the perpetrator be subjected to the same violence at some future time as karmic consequence.” Now I don’t believe that there’s some kind of all-encompassing universal law of karma that causes our bad thoughts and actions to circle back round to us (at least, I’ve seen no evidence of such a law, and I do like to base my beliefs on evidence). That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t consequences to how we treat ourselves and others. If we get into the habit of treating ourselves badly, then we’re more likely to do so again and again – self-criticism is a very difficult habit to break. If we treat others badly, or with less respect than we should do, then they are surely more likely to treat us with disrespect in return. This might not come within some spiritual definition of karma, but it’s still important to recognise that our actions have consequences.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how ahimsa fits in with things like moral and political opposition and resistance. This seems particularly relevant today, in a divided world that feels full of hatred and division. Ahimsa surely can’t mean that we simply accept what is happening rather than fight for what we believe in? I don’t think it can. The basis of so many of the divisions in the world is violence and harm in the widest sense, whether physical or verbal, including things like discrimination, refusal to help those in need, or the taking of political action that actively worsens the situation of people who are already struggling. Opposing and resisting these measures can’t be contrary to a principle of non-violence, so I think it then comes down to what form that opposition and resistance takes. Gandhi, perhaps the most famous proponent of non-violent resistance, practised ahimsa, calling it “the way to truth”. Resistance and opposition based on truth (not lies, mendaciousness or FAKE NEWS!) and non-violence must be entirely in line with the principle. A key problem, it seems to me, is that it may be difficult to maintain opposition on that basis when what is being opposed and resisted has no qualms in basing its position on lies, using, or at least advocating, violence, and actively encouraging divisions and disrespect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though. In Michelle Obama’s words, “when they go low, we go high”.

Well, this first week on the yamas and niyamas has certainly been informative, and I think it’s helped me to deepen my understanding of my practice. Looking into the philosophy and theory that underpins yoga is also helping me to really tailor my practice to my own personal thoughts and beliefs, rather than just taking on board what a particular instructor might be saying. The next seven days focuses on satya, or truthfulness. Given that I’m a terrible liar, and so don’t tend to bother, you’d think this might be a pretty easy one, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than the name might suggest.

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