The practice of yoga does not just exist on our mats. If we embrace the teachings, they offer a moral compass so that the way we live our lives becomes our yoga practice. In Exquisite Love, Bill Mahony offers this suggestion: “(One should) follow the ways of approaching and living life that support the devotional attitude and enhance our ability to express love. These virtues should be fully protected and nourished.” This is a commentary on Bhakti Sutra # 78 which says:
Unwillingness to do harm, truthfulness, purity, generous compassion, the affirmation of Divinity, and other such modes of conduct are those that should be fully protected.
There are lots of suggestions here for living a mindful, meaningful life, but let’s focus on the first one “unwillingness to do harm”, or in Sanskrit, ahimsa. This word is usually translated as “non violence”, but the literal translation is closer to “non-harming” (himsa meaning harm, the a negates it). I’m assuming that all of us on a basic level think, ok, easy enough, don’t be violent. But I was thinking about it in practical terms of what might help us to put ahimsa into daily practice in our own lives, and empathy is what came to mind. Being willing to see the world through another's eyes, or to see another's view helps us to put ahimsa to use in our relationships because when we have judgmental or cynical thoughts towards those around us we do cause harm in a more subtle way.
Here’s an example. Food. I am very strict about eating non-GMO, organically grown food. I rarely eat meat, and only do when I know exactly how it was raised and where it came from. I get my organic, grass-fed milk delivered direct from the farm every week. I shop at the farmers market, and I drive 20 minutes to Fairway or Whole Foods to get everything else. I see this as a positive thing for myself and for my family, adding to our health, and something I do out of great love. However, although I try not to be, I tend to be very judgmental about other people's eating habits, especially those that don’t agree with my own. A while back I was chatting with another mom and she was sharing proudly that although she had run out of milk that morning, on her way to school she went through the McDonald’s drive thru to get milk for her children so they wouldn’t go without it for the day. Yes, I had the same reaction as you probably did. McDonalds? For mass-produced, hormone-filled milk? Don’t you know you could just give them some kale and they would get the same calcium? Right from love to judgment.
Of course I stopped myself from saying any of this aloud. When I stopped to think about it, I realized that what she was doing came from from the same well of love and devotion for her children as I have for mine. It was no less an act of love than driving out of my way to the supermarket I choose to shop at. When I back up and try to see things through another perspective I realize that of course we are all doing the best we can, that every mom is feeing her child in the way that she understands to be the best for that child and that I might not actually know better. Life is just not that black and white.
When we cultivate empathy we recognize that other's beliefs, ideas, and feelings are just as important as our own, and we expand our feeling of bhakti or love to encompass those ideas. When we practice empathy we practice ahimsa - we try to see how the other sees and realize that, for the vast majority of us, the way we choose to act comes from love. And since the way we all love is different, but no less valuable, or valid, or pure, it manifests in a million different ways – from the farmer’s market to McDonalds. This doesn’t mean we change our own ideas or beliefs, it simply means we try to see another perspective, and we acknowledge that that perspective has just as much validity as our own. And our ability to express love grows.
Off the Mat:
Practicing empathy is relatively easy when we’re talking about issues such as food. The bigger the issue is, the more people it affects, the harder it is to reconcile our beliefs with those who’s ideas oppose them. When the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began my Rabbi encouraged us to read all the press we could - including and especially those that we did not agree with so that we had a really full picture of what was actually going on - not just the version that felt the most comfortable. This week, turn on a radio program that you normally wouldn’t listen to, try to really hear what the contrasting voice is saying. Have an open minded, calm, respectful conversation with someone who has different political views from your own. Read a well-written article in support of an idea that is in conflict with your beliefs. Don’t do this with the goal of changing your mind – it probably won’t and honestly shouldn’t. But when we can practice empathy, honestly trying to see the world through a different lens, we soften around our hardcore ideas and we admit that perhaps we don’t know what’s best for everyone, just what’s best for ourselves. Then we can respond from bhakti – love – rather than fear, from compassion rather than judgment, and we put ahimsa into action in our lives as a guiding principle.
On the Mat:
We practice twists in my classes this week. When we twist, we have to keep one part of the body really stable, in most cases it’s the hips that stay steady, and the torso rotates around the spine so we get the really beneficial “wringing out” of the internal organs. In this way, we stay grounded in our own beliefs, and yet can still turn and see another perspective.
For the Anusara junkies:
Open To Grace:
Expand your breath and expand your vision to see the world from another perspective.
Breathe in and expand your awareness of the sacredness of all things.
Place your feet (in standing poses) to stand strong in your beliefs and ideas.
Firm the muscles to engage with your ability to empathize.
Engage the muscles of the legs and hips to stay steady in what you believe in.
Level and parallel your hips, staying rooted in your own beliefs but turning to see another view.
Turn from the deepest core of your being towards empathetic understanding of another.
Turn the whole upper body towards a deeper understanding of all that you encounter.
Expand sit bones and expand your capacity for compassion for all those around you – those you like and those you don’t.
Widen your sit bones back and apart and make space for all beings to live joyful, peaceful lives
Sweep your tailbone down and anchor yourself in sensitivity towards all beings.
From the core of your being, send loving-kindness to all those in the room.
Send out your intention to see all those around you with empathy and love.
Let bhakti radiate empathetically outwards, encompassing all beings.