Friday, December 25, 2009


Ahimsa is the first yama. As I mentioned in my last post, I am going to examine each of the yamas and niyamas and how they might provide some guidance in the legal community and in our everyday lives. A friend requested that I explain the yamas and niyamas a bit more along the way. The most basic definition is that the yamas are ethical disciplines and the niyamas are about self discipline. Thus, the yamas guide our actions within the world, and the niyamas guide our internal actions. Of course, the two are interrelated, and that which we do to ourselves influences how we interact with others and vice versa. So, with the first yama, we see how yoga instructs us to first interact with the rest of the world.

Ahimsa means nonviolence. This is far broader than physical nonviolence. It really means nonviolence in speech, action, and thought. It is because of ahimsa that so many yogis choose a vegetarian lifestyle. (For the record, I am not a vegetarian, but it is an easy way to understand how some interpret ahimsa.) The other side of nonviolence is compassion for all living beings. This means all living beings, from ourselves, to our best friends, to  those we sometimes do not want to be around, to animals, and even cockroaches (this one is tough, but that is the meaning of ahimsa).

Ahimsa is the first of the yamas for a reason - it encompasses all the others and provides the foundation for all the others. There is no way to interact with the world ethically if you are being violent, in any sense of the world. So what does this mean? How do we live in a nonviolent manner?

I have been facing many situations recently that have tested my ability to follow ahimsa, and many of them have had to do with customer service situations. These are often the situations that try my patience and my nonviolence. The most trying situation was with Sprint. I will spare you the details of the situation, but let me say that it required more than one phone call to the the customer service number, one of which ended with me being routed from a supervisor back to the main line, just to be put on hold indefinitely until I gave up. The final phone call ended up with them making an appointment for me at the service center, and when I got there, I was informed that those appointments are never seen by the service center. Luckily they still helped me - sort of. Throughout the entire situation, I was pretty upset with my lack of internet, and I made this known, but I also tried to be as polite as possible and tell everyone with whom I interacted that while I thought Sprint's policies were ridiculous and I was upset, that I also recognized that it was not the individual's fault, and I tried to thank each person. But I was upset, and I got annoyed, and I know that I was not as nice as I could have been nor as nice as I would have liked. These everyday annoyances, like phone companies and drivers who cut us off test our patience in ways we do not expect. They catch us in the moment, inconvenience us, and in the modern world, that is tough to handle. 

Our legal system is set up in a way that makes ahimsa seem nearly impossible. It is an adversary system, and by definition this usually means a winner and a loser. Lawyers are ethically bound to zealously advocate for their clients, even if it means toeing that ethical line discussed in the last post. But ask any successful and well-respected lawyer, and invariably he or she will tell you that you cannot get to be successful by being a jerk. Instead, respect and success come from treating the "other side" decently and picking up the phone to call the other lawyer before filing a motion complaining to the court when the other lawyer does something you do not think is right. These people have discovered their own definition of ahimsa - how to interact in a system that sometimes appears designed to cause violence without succumbing to it. It's about seeing the situation for what it is, a company's policies, not the person at the customer service desk. 

Ahimsa in modern culture is about not beating ourselves up when we choose to take some time for ourselves. What better day to experience this than Christmas, where nearly everything is closed? There are other days during the year when I have nothing to do, but there are so many distractions. Grocery stores and yoga studios are open. There are places to go, things to do, people to see. On Christmas, however, many of those distractions are gone, and except for movies and Chinese food, we Jews have had to learn to fend for ourselves. When I was a child, I remember being nervous - what if we needed food and nothing was open? To some extent, I felt the same way this year and remedied my fear with a trip to Trader Joe's on Tuesday. But why? Can I not spend one day in my house? What would that look like to others? I originally was going to spend Christmas in my house, but I have changed my mind, and instead, I'm going to take a walk - to the movie theater. I don't treat myself to very many movies in the theater, and it is such a tradition for Jews that I had to partake in it, but on my terms. And on Christmas, it's okay to do nothing because by modern definitions, there is nothing to do, except exactly what matters - spend time with ourselves and those we love. 

I walked out of the movie theater and felt an immense sense of love for the world. Today, even though I am physically alone (by choice), I feel more connected to everyone around me. On Christmas, it's okay to say hello to the person walking down the street. On other days, people look the other way. What a relief to be able to set everything aside for one day, to revel in the feeling of connection and not violence, and to be with each other, on any level.

I began this post by saying that the yamas are about how we, as individuals, interact with the rest of the world - the ethical precepts. But that begins with ourselves. Until we learn to be nonviolent with ourselves, we will carry that violence throughout our interactions with others. In the modern world, it is all too easy to carry our distractions with us, especially professionals like lawyers, whose jobs pay for the blackberry / crackberry. Letting go of obligations, realizing that it's okay to do "nothing," and taking care of ourselves are probably the hardest ways to be nonviolent with ourselves in modern culture. We can turn off our phones; we can say no to another obligation; and we can choose to take a day and not do anything, even when all the stuff and distractions are open. We can even smile at the person walking down the street. 

There is much more to say about ahimsa - about our speech, our clothes, our interactions with ourselves and each other - but for now, I'm going to leave it here. Thank you all for the support, the connections, and the opportunity to share this journey with you. I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Blessings and Namaste!


  1. I think it's something about everyone else having special plans, and knowing that people are going to ask you what you did on Christmas (even if they know you're Jewish) that creates this need to have something to do. I definitely struggle with that every year! This year I made a point to treat it mostly like any other day, and not freak out that stores wouldn't be open.

    As for saying hello on the street, you're totally right. I also felt that way right after the last two elections, as both times I lived in an area that voted overwhelmingly the same way I did. Anyway, the point is that I got a wrong number on Christmas. I never get wrong numbers. The guy said "Merry Christmas!" I said, "Merry Christmas... Who is this?" ;)

  2. Shanti! And happy new year :-) Here's to practicing ahimsa all year round.

  3. I love the story, Amy! Thanks for sharing. And Michelle, I agree - ahimsa for the year!!