The Dance Between Non-Harming and Truthfulness
"The seed of yoga comes up differently in each individual." ~ Krishnamacharya
Last week, the student council at the University of Ottawa suspended a free yoga class that had been offered for the past 7 years to students with disabilities, because someone complained that it was offensive and represented “cultural appropriation.” As I understand it, according to the person complaining, yoga’s ancient roots lie within a sacred Hindu tradition, and there are too many people who are not honouring this tradition.
Yoga is part of an ancient sacred tradition. The Bhaghavad Gita, “Song of the Lord,” is a 700-verse Hindu scripture written around 3000 BCE. In it, four yogic ideals are presented (Bhakti – the path of Devotion; Jnana – the path of Knowledge; Karma –the path of Service; Raja – the path to the Self). According to bhagavad-gita.org, “Its intrinsic beauty is that its knowledge applies to all human beings...”
The physical practice of yoga that we know is one arm of eight limbs,* delineated by Patanjali, a great Indian sage, in the Yoga Sutras around 400 CE. These eight limbs are the heart of modern yoga tradition, and they teach one how to live a meaningful life, a healthy life, and a spiritual life. The last of these limbs is Samadhi, or enlightenment. So Yoga is very much a spiritual path that can lead us toward liberation through the practice of self-awareness.
Spiritual traditions direct us to pay attention to the present moment. What is happening? How does it feel? What is happening in the mind, the emotions, the bodily sensations? We are learning, horribly to our detriment in the West, what happens when we ignore the present moment and rush from one thing to another. Our bodies and minds start to break down, and we suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic pain, digestive issues, and other stress-related diseases.
We have taken a very small piece of Yoga practice – the third limb, or Asana – and think of that as the whole practice. There is a whole iceberg underneath the tip of our Asana practice, and it does relate to a spiritual tradition about which many of us know very little.
In my studies, all of my yoga teachers have been very respectful and pay homage to their teachers. They consider yogic teaching to be part of a lineage, and see it as an honour and a sacred trust to be passing it on. Yoga was brought to the West by people of Indian descent – Swami Vivekananda, Krishnamacharya, Indra Devi, B.K.S Iyengar, and others - giants in the yoga world. This feels to me to be more of a “seeding” than an “appropriation.” Certainly the West needs Yoga. When practised with awareness, Yoga becomes an antidote to the illnesses that plague us.
Of course there are many people who don’t practise with awareness. Yet, awareness is something that develops, like a seed. We do not become gurus overnight, or even in a lifetime. For me, teaching and practising Yoga is about tapping into an ancient teaching that, if I approach it honestly and with reverence, has tremendous capacity to change my life for the better. I don't expect enlightenment. But it has helped me deal with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and fear. And is that not what was happening at the University of Ottawa? Were not these students being offered a chance to heal, both spiritually and physically? I am sad that this opportunity has been taken away from them, without much insight into the deeper issues.
We limit ourselves through our ignorance. Practice of Yoga is subtle and mysterious, however, and simply starting a practice can gradually draw us further and further in until we start to feel amazing benefits. Are we to be punished for our ignorance? Yoga is bigger than this. It embraces all of us, who we are, in this moment.
In her excellent book about the first two limbs of Yoga, The Yamas and The Niyamas, Deborah Adele describes the first two principles of Yoga. The first is Ahimsa or Non-harming; the second, Satya, or Truthfulness. She writes, “The compassion of nonviolence keeps truth from being a personal weapon. It asks us to think twice before we walk around mowing people down with our truth, and then wonder where everyone went.” Who was being harmed by the free class? Certainly not the students who were enjoying the class. There is more and more research showing that the practice of yoga is beneficial to both the mind and body. So these students were undoubtedly benefiting from the class. And we in the West are undoubtedly being offered the opportunity to benefit from an ancient practice designed to heal the very ills from which we are currently suffering.
What about the person who complained? She or he might have felt offended, and felt the need to speak her or his truth. But we do not have the right NOT to be offended. I am offended by many things each day. This is not harmful to me. Instead, it offers me the opportunity to practice another piece of one of the limbs of Yoga, the Niyamas – the practice of Svadhyaya, or Self Study. “I am annoyed/ sad/ angry/ miserable/ uncomfortable/ [insert emotion here]. How does this make me feel? What does my breath feel like? Where do I feel this in my body? When have I felt this way before?”
This mental practice is very similar to the physical practice of Asana. And through the practice of self-awareness, we are offered a priceless gift – the ability to begin to change our patterns, whether mental or physical. When we let go of patterns that don’t serve us, we move toward greater health. We can enjoy life more, it offers us more, and we can offer more to others. In practice, Ahimsa (Non-harming) and Satya (Truthfulness) need to dance together with respect and compassion.
*The Eight Limbs (Ashtanga) of Yoga
1. Yamas – The 5 yamas are guidelines on how we conduct ourselves outwardly. These are:
Ahimsa, or Non-harming
Satya, or Truthfulness
Asteya, or Non-stealing
Bramacharya, or Continence, self control
Aparigraha, or Non-covetousness
2. Niyamas – The 5 niyamas are guidelines on how to conduct ourselves inwardly. These are:
Saucha, or Cleanliness
Santosha, or Contentment
Tapas, or Heat, Discipline
Svadhyaya, or Study of oneself
Isvara Pranidhana, or Surrender
3. Asana – The physical practice or postures
4. Pranayama – Breathing practices
5. Pratyahara – The practice of withdrawal of the senses, turning them inward
6. Dharana – The practice of concentration, or single-pointed focus
7. Dhyana – The practice of stillness in meditation – where the mind is completely still
8. Samadhi – Transcendence. The small self merges with the greater Self, often described as Bliss.
Donna offers a holistic perspective on the relationship and healing of physical and emotional pain.