Thoughts on Ahimsa in the age of Covid 19

Ahimsa in the age of Covid-19
In our first online chat we discussed ways we might use the first limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to help endure our current situation. The more present we are, the more durable we feel. Wishing away the time is not necessarily going to help us come to terms with our predicament. Inhabiting the present tense is very important to Patanjali. He mentions it in his very first sutra,
Attha Yoganusasanam (1:1), literally translated as “Now, Yoga”. Or as my teacher Hamish suggests, “Yoga is Now”.
Before we talk about the fist limb, let’s reconnect with all eight. Just a quick note here: when studying Patanjali one can end up reading what looks like a lot of lists. But the astau – angani are not about box ticking. You don’t learn them one at a time. They are perhaps best visualized like the branches of a tree. They feed and support one another. In this way the first four external or practicable limbs give rise to the last four, often described as internal (although perhaps a better word would be innate). The first four are all about control. By observing the Yamas we control our drives or instincts. In contrast to this we cultivate Niyamas or ‘qualities’ that are more beneficial.
Asana is about controlling the body. Pranayama is controlling the breath, or more precisely using the breath to control our prana or ‘life force.
These four practices, if adhered to with diligence, can lead to Pratyahara: retreat, Dharana; concentration, Diyana: contemplation and Samadhi: supreme consciousness. Note that Samadhi (which in Patanjali’s system equates to the state of Yoga or Enlightenment) is described as the goal and part of the practice. He describes various levels of Samadhi and the ways to reach them in his first pada or chapter.
It is in the second pada that Patanjali introduces us to the eight limbs of a yoga practice. But before that he talks about the five Kleshas. These are hindrances or afflictions which lie between our perceived selves and our true, unfettered nature.
They are:
Avidya: often translated as ignorance but more directly it is ‘non knowledge’.
Asmita: ego or misidentification with the senses.
Ragas: desire.
Dukkha: aversion.
Abhinivesha: fear of death, often described as clinging to life.
Returning to botanical imagery could be helpful here. Patanjali describes avidya as the root cause of all five afflictions. If you like gardening you know that to remove weeds you have to uproot them. You can’t just snip off what you see above ground. The knowledge we are lacking is spiritual understanding and if we learn the truth of our existence we will be free of the other five afflictions. This is an interesting point of view because the one which looks like our most base instinct is surely Abhinivesha; the will to live. All species are hardwired to survive. Patanjali is possibly saying here that you can’t change the skin you’re in but you can work on the mind.
Returning to our tree for the Yamas. Ahimsa, the first one that is mentioned, is like the trunk. It is the source of all the others.
Patanjali calls the Yamas and Niyamas the Maha Vratam or ‘great vow’. Applicable to everyone regardless of time, place or birthright (2:31). This was unorthodox at the time. Various forms of the vow had been around since the Vedic age but exemptions were made for certain castes and their activities. Sacrificial duties allowed for the killing of animals and members of the Warrior (Kshatriya) caste could wage war.
Let’s remind ourselves of the Yamas as its these we are focusing on.
Ahimsa: non violence
Satya: honesty
Asetya: not stealing
Bramacharya: sexual control (sometimes interpreted as celibacy)
Aparigraha: non attachment (more directly, “non grasping”)
As with the kleshas, the first is the foremost. Apply ahimsa to all the others and the great vow falls into place. Apply ahimsa to your whole life and you’re a model yoga student!
The yogic principle of putting ahimsa first invites comparisons with medicine and its central tenet of “Do No Harm”. This brings us neatly back to our current predicament.
Lockdown is based on that principle. We are being asked to isolate ourselves to protect each other. And this difficult request sheds light on some of the questions we have to ask ourselves if we want to practice Ahimsa. I’ve always thought that the most helpful approach to understanding all the yamas is to see them as an opportunity to pause, acknowledge and then question our most basic ‘drives’ or ‘instincts.
Lockdown presented me with one such occasion. The idea of isolating oneself from strangers to protect them is, ironically, easier to accept than enforced separation from friends, families and loved ones. When it became clear that I could not continue to teach for the foreseeable future I was tempted to move in with my Mum for a while. She lives alone and was not relishing the idea of lockdown. The obvious course of action would be to go and keep her company. Unfortunately my partner is a nurse and was already seeing covid -19 patients at work. I had no way of properly quarantining myself for two weeks in our small London flat. I therefore risked doing more harm than good by acting on my gut instincts. Mum is doing fine and my family is learning to enjoy quite noisy zoom chats where everyone talks at once (so it’s a bit like being at home anyway)!
Gut instincts are one thing to be on the alert for when examining ahimsa. Another is piety, which can obscure or even un-do the acts of kind-ness required for it to happen. Take the example of vegetarianism. Its easy to say, “Oh I’m doing ahimsa because I’m a vegetarian “ before pouring scorn on someone who isn’t. Replace the pious instinct with a question and the subject becomes more complex.
If I am a vegetarian am I practicing Ahimsa? A vegan might suggest going further by avoiding dairy and eggs. A Jain monk might tell the vegan that he or she could go further by not pulling up root vegetables. And so on…
BKS Iyengar gives a great illustration of the piety trap when discussing that difficult yama, Bramacharya. There is so much debate around it that Bramacharya merits an article in its own right. To Patanjali’s earliest, monastic audience it almost certainly meant celibacy. In a multi cultured world this requirement would exclude almost all of us. The obvious alternative might be monogamy. But this is not practiced in all societies. He writes, “often what we call sexual immorality offends less against the code of bramacharya than against the other injunctions of yama.” Iyengar’s suggestion is to try and conduct your sex life by applying all the other yamas to it. That is to say without violence, dishonesty or possessiveness.
Having been forced to question my desire to rush off home I decided to ask questions about how I might be observing the other yamas at this strange time. I am sharing the exercise with you in case you want to try it on yourself.
At surface level Satya (honesty) seems like a fairly straightforward principle. But if you have to apply ahimsa to satya, questions arise. We all know the expression “the truth hurts” but as yoga students we are required to try and ensure that it doesn’t. Practicing satya does not require us to go around being brutally honest. It helps to look at the root of the Sanskrit word, which is ‘sat’ (being). Being true to ourselves is the first duty of Satya and it must not come at the expense of others. Nowadays, when the urge to speak a’ home truth’ or to be blunt arises, I ask myself these questions: First and foremost, can it wait (the answer is almost always yes). Then: is this really helpful and, perhaps most importantly, why am I so keen to say what I think?
In the context of lockdown I’ve been looking at satya and the news. Like many people I have been through a rather “news hungry” phase. Now before I reach for a newspaper article or cue up a podcast I ask myself, is this news or opinion? Do I need to read / hear it right now? Will it trigger a negative reaction (anxious / angry / depressed)? As an annex to that question…if I do absorb some “news” that made me feel any of those things do I really need to share it with all my friends on social media? How will it make them feel?
Since taking something which doesn’t belong to us is stealing, I have been relating asteya to the environment. Lock down has thrown our relationship with the environment into sharp relief. We have all noticed the reduction in air and noise pollution. We have seen and heard the wildlife become braver and the green spaces greener. The question I am asking is how can we return to normality without encroaching on those things again? How much of this planet can we enjoy without stealing?
Before I talk about aparigraha I do not want to appear glib about loss of income. This is understandably distressing for everyone affected.
The last yama can be examined on two levels. The first, which is how we relate to possessions, is easy to understand (and not dissimilar to Asetya).
On a more subtle level it can be about having less fixed ideas about ourselves. These questions in turn might make us question our relationships with material wealth.
I have always identified very strongly with my job and for the first weeks of lockdown I struggled to come to terms with a sense of loss. Now, however I am asking myself, did I really have a good work – life balance? Is there too much pressure on all of us to be endlessly enterprising and productive? How can we find a way to make work kinder for everyone when lockdown is over? To pay key workers better but also to make executive life less crazy, too?
Do you have any questions you’d like to share relating to the yamas or any of the other limbs? I’d de delighted to hear them.
Although Thursday’s chat focused on the yamas we also discussed the need to apply ahimsa to all aspects of practice. The obvious one is asana. Being kind to ourselves on the mat means not overdoing it. But it also means not admonishing ourselves about feeling demotivated. Lockdown is enough of an endurance test without adding extra layers of suffering. Being kind to ourselves makes it easier to be kind to others.
Take care, on the mat and off.
Here are some extra resources on ahimsa which might interest you. We will start with one of the most famous International ambassadors of non violence …
The website of the Gandhi foundation: a charitable trust and a collection of the Mahatma’s writings.
A pdf of Gandhi’s translation of and commentary on The Bagavad Gita here
A neat piece about Gandhi and non violent protest here
And an article about his take on violence in the Gita here
No exploration of ahimsa is complete without Jainism
Here is a summary of the Jain diet, which was briefly mentioned in the talk
Free audio of Dr Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm. The memoirs of one of the world’s top brain surgeons. Fascinating (NB descriptions of his work can be gory).
And a talk by him here
last but not least….
Cute but very helpful little book