Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Ahimsa Challenge

Years ago on this blog, I wrote about the yamas and niyamas. They are the first and second limbs of yoga, or the complete yoga path. My first post on ahimsa, the yama of nonviolence, focused on how we can be nonviolent with ourselves. The second post on ahimsa focused on the overabundance of violence in our world (and it has only gotten worse in the past two years).  But I find myself coming back to this topic. I find myself struggling with ahimsa on a daily basis, both internally and externally.

Certainly, the legal profession does not put Ahimsa as its pinnacle. Unlike doctors, whose oath states, “do no harm,” lawyers are asked to litigate. Sometimes it feels as though the lawyer’s job is to make the other party look bad. Certainly that is not the actual job, but unfortunately, some lawyers take on their clients and stories so intensely, that this is what ends up happening.

I see the opposite of ahimsa, however, in other places in life as well. There is little that bothers me more than speaking badly about people behind their backs. I am not going to try to say I have never done it. I probably do it on a daily basis. Somehow this has bothered me from long before my yoga practice, but it has been yoga that has taught me why it is so damaging to myself and the universe.

The energy we put into the world is the energy we receive. When we put out negative energy statements about others, we are only harming ourselves. We are harming the people who hear them. It creates a violent atmosphere. The violence is not with guns and rockets, but it is violence nonetheless. I look at so much of the larger violence happening in the world today (Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq), and I try to make sense of it. I try to understand how humans can be so awful to other humans.

And then I realize, war happens when we do not understand one another. I have been incredibly blessed to have traveled in many parts of the world. I have lived in two foreign countries, one of which I did not speak the language fluently (France), and one of which arguably does not speak the same language as me (New Zealand – I still sometimes don’t understand Kiwis). But all my traveling has made me believe one simple truth:

If everyone in the world lived in a country where they do not speak the language natively for six months, war might disappear. There is nothing more humbling than having to trust the people around you with them knowing you are not from there. I have been welcomed into peoples’ homes, provided directions, showed amazing places, and treated wonderfully everywhere I have been. And yes, I was an American living in France when the United States went to war against Irag in 2002.

There are other ways to reach this without actually living in a foreign country (though I highly recommend it). I think the first way is to do our best not to belittle others. It sounds cliché, but clichés exist for a reason – they are often correct. I will not say it is easy, but I do know it is possible. I work in a field where it is easy to be judgmental. Children’s lives are at stake every single day. People make decisions with which I do not agree every single day. I make decisions with which other people do not agree every single day.

None of that means, however, that we have to be cruel to one another. The idea that sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me is not actually accurate. Not only can words harm, they bring a lack of understanding for others, which can lead to physical violence in the future. In the world of domestic violence, we do not differentiate between emotional and physical abuse. I have actually heard victims say the emotional abuse was worse than the physical abuse. This is not something I understand personally, but the sentiment is not lost on me. Thus, our words are just as violent as our weapons even if they result in fewer immediate deaths. Words also have the power to bring positive change. What if instead of belittling others we attempted to understand them? What if we took the time to stop and think about the words we speak?

To be clear, venting is different than what I am talking about. We can vent and be frustrated, even angry, about situations and what happened, but we do not need to belittle people in the process. We do not need to, for lack of a more mature way of saying it, call people names. When I was a camp counselor, we were adamant that the children in our care were not bad even if at times their actions were bad. When we disciplined, we were sure to make that distinction. That distinction matters. It matters to the person making the distinction, the person about whom the distinction is made, and to the energy of the universe.

I have come to realize there is little I can do in my current circumstances to stop the Israeli-Hamas war or to stop the riots in Ferguson short of offering prayer/light/healing/etc. But there is a lot I can do to change my own way of bringing violence into the world in the form of words. This takes a lot of strength, and sometimes, frankly, it is strength I do not think I have. It is easier to follow the crowd and poke fun at the target who is not there. But I started practicing yoga to find a new way of living, and this is a very important step. It is taught that ahimsa is the very first step on the 8-limbed yoga path because it is the foundation. How can we proceed along a path when we constantly bring negative energy into our lives and the world?

As a positive affirmation, nonviolence means compassion. It means understanding, or at least attempting to understand. That means stopping and thinking – an act that is often lost on us in the digital age. But I am challenging myself, and those who wish to join me, to go one day without speaking unkindly about someone. Our words matter.  How can we use them to be compassionate instead of violent? And after that one day, try one day more. Start small and see how the changes affect you. 

There are so many ways to bring ahimsa into our lives, but this is one small step that can make a huge difference.

Are you willing to take this ahimsa challenge?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The Ahimsa Challenge, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. Rebecca,

    As you know I'm in Singapore this week and your post has resonated with what I have learned here about their culture. They do not have free speech like we do in the US, but mostly, that means that speech out to be restrained, so we don't speak evil of others. They have a multi-cultural / multi-racial (Chinese, Malay, Indians, Brits, Americans, ...) and multi-religious (Muslim, Christian, ..., though only about 300 Jews) society that doesn't tolerate hate speech. Along with a pledge of allegiance, Singapore school children learn a pledge of racial and religious harmony and respect. It's certainly not perfect here, and as I'm learning, they have problems with domestic violence (but without the guns) and high conflict and alienation, but the expectation of respect and restraint of speech is part of their culture. So, we in America need to learn restraint and responsibility in our speech and the way we talk about and talk to each other. If we could do this, we'd come closer to what you posted. As they say in NZ, "good on ya" for posting such an important blog. Namaste

    1. Thanks. And yes, other countries definitely have different ways of looking at free speech. It is definitely a test here in the United States. But here, the KK can march in Skokie, IL, and we have decided that is more important than limiting speech. Of course, we can protest their marching as well. Thanks for the comment.

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