(If you don’t wish to read this post in entirety, please do watch the video below)
Yoga can sometimes appear to be a bit like a slippery ball of yarn; difficult to grasp onto one comprehensive meaning that gives a lay person an understanding of the enormity and spectrum of the practice. While the direct translation of the word is solid – to yoke or unite – the interpretations and understanding of what yoga is differ enormously, and most of the time only capture a limited aspect of an all-encompassing practice. Regular practitioners can generally agree on one thing; there can be a passion regarding the practice that is on the same level of importance of life itself; in fact, the yoga practice is embedded into all aspects of life.
My experience with yoga is that it is a practice of relationship: relationship with self and relationship with other. The state of yoga is seeing ourselves in all other human beings; treating every living being as oneself. The world most of us live in is not created from this fabric. Holding a job, a home, a family implies a sense of self, or ego (‘my’ job, ‘my’ family). These labels, or containers, help to define and separate, it becomes a way of managing ourselves in the world. Yoga, however, is the process of integrating.
To the outside world, or those new to the practice, it may seem that the teachings of yoga can be radical, or extreme. These are two different words, with very different roots. Radical actually stems from the word ‘root’, or ‘inherent’, while extreme stems from the root word ‘outermost’, or ‘utmost’. These subtleties can easily be mistaken and overlooked by the dedicated practitioner, but make a very big difference in the intention of the practice and the ability to be integrated in the world, and in seeing ourselves in other beings, versus living a life of separation that opinates and judges.
In the eight-limbed path of yoga, otherwise referred to as ashtanga (literally translated to eight, ashtanga, attachments or limbs, anga) there are guidelines for practicing yoga in an integrated way in life; not just on a man-made yoga mat, and not just as a specific time in the day when one works on the body-mind relationship. Yoga states that the body-mind relationship extends well beyond time and our body, for yoga inter-relates all of animate life; yoga states we are one.
The first limb of the eight limbs are the yamas, or restraints. These restraints refer to how we relate to others. While we still see ourselves as separate, individual beings (jiva in Sanskrit), the first yama states that we should be kind to all other beings. In Sanskrit the word is ahimsa, or non-harming. This is a rich topic because there are many interpretations and mechanisms for harming others, some without even knowing it. For example, we may think non-harming suggests that it is better to lie to another being to avoid conflict, or to lie to ourselves to avoid a painful truth. Ahimsa does not imply lying, or making judgements (in fact, the second yama is satya, or truthfulness). Non-harming does imply compassion, the act of experiencing the suffering of others as one’s own. As yogis, we practice both not harming others, as well as identifying with others who suffer. The next step is an obvious one, and that is to not only not harm others, but to actively do something to prevent the suffering of others.
The link between practicing non-harming behaviour, consumerism and activism is a well documented topic, which my teachers, Sharon Gannon and David Life have spent their life articulating. Most of us can agree that when it comes to consuming other beings as food, it is clear that harming is involved-one being must be killed in order for the other to eat it. However, there are many misunderstandings of the conditions the animals in the average factory farm are treated, and the horrific conditions the workers in those factories must endure. In practicing ethical vegetarianism, or veganism (the practice of not consuming animal products), it is a proactive measure to not participate in the cycle of harming. Even so, lifestyle and diet choice can become a fixation point where other relationship falls by the wayside. It is possible, for example, for ethical vegetarians to harm to themselves if left undernourished for a lack of knowledge about how to eat healthfully in this manner or due to specific health reasons. There also may be a tendency towards harmful thoughts, or even actions towards others who do not assume the same label. This often is guided by ignorance, of relying labels which only ultimately feed the ego instead of relating to the other being. Practicing the yamas and yoga in general, implies having the awareness to catch and eradicate critical thought when it enters the mind. It is a practice, and like all practices, we each do the best we can within our abilities and constraints.
What is important to note is that as consumers, the choices we make and our purchasing behaviour is powerful. The more knowledge we have, the more we may make informed decisions and implement changes where possible. If the choice is to eat meat, for example, know where it comes from and how the animals are treated; subtleties and small details matter. This small step may change the lives of thousands, not to mention your own.