I am on this path towards compassion and non-harming, guided by Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Living in the United States, I have so much freedom to choose, and living in this time of the internet, I have so much access to information about those choices. I live and participate in a capitalist society, as much as I love to create, I am also a consumer. So naturally, I have to take into consideration ahimsa when consuming.
When it comes to consumption, I think there's three parts to it all:
1) The Food I Eat
2) The Products I Buy
3) The Information I Take In
Today I'd like to focus on food. Ahimsa is the explanation of why yogis are traditionally vegetarians. A commitment to compassion and non-harming have never went hand in hand with killing animals for their meat, fast forward to today's factory farms and slaughterhouses and it's obvious that is true even more so today. I began eating vegetarian when I was 13 years old, inspired by my readings of Buddhism and PETA's nightmare-inducing "meet your meat" videos circa 2004. The more into yoga and scripture I got, the less eating animals made sense to me.
Then, college happened: Full time art school, volunteering for a yoga studio, working at and designing for the Tea House, all without a car, that's 6 public buses a day 5 days a week and I worked weekends. Needless to say, I had found the world of vegan instant ramen and was honestly too stressed out to eat most days. Patrick was working full time as a sushi chef and eventually (weighing in at around 80 pounds) I began to eat fish again, and accepted the food offered to me. I'd gone 9 years without eating any fish or meat. I felt burnt out and defeated.
But ultimately, I was able to gain some weight and health back, and after graduation decided to amend my pescetarianism. I would only eat fish caught in the wild that were being taken from sustainable fisheries. Whole Foods Market does a good job of making that distinction easy with their labeling system and I've been eating that way for the last 5 years. Looking back, I know it was what I had to do to regain some sanity. At the time I didn't have the knowledge, cooking skill, or time to prepare balanced vegetarian meals for myself, or the money to pay someone else to do it for me.
So, years later, I am a much better cook, I am in a much less dismal financial situation and I have time and access to plenty of recipes. I think it really has been easier to eat fish and seafood than not in social settings. It definitely allowed our honeymoon in Japan last year to roll smoothly and enjoyably. Yet here I am now, in California, a vegan's dream come true, with a fresh air farmer's market every day of the week in different parts of the city. And I'm on this journey towards embodying ahimsa. So I think it's time.
This time, I'll be easy with myself. I've been reading up on the Ohsawa Macrobiotic Diet, and I think that it is a good fit for where I'm at right now. It's all about plant based whole foods that rely heavily on whole grains. Lots of pickled vegetables and fermented goodness, which I love so that's also a plus. This isn't a forever commitment, like my pact back at the age of 13 was, but a step towards getting away from processed foods, refined sugar and excessive caffeine. I'm going to be gentle with myself and remember that my intention is compassion not deprivation.
Does the concept of ahimsa play into your dietary choices? Are you compassionate to your own self when you eat? I realize now that I was pretty self harming in my ways back in college, physically in my lapse in providing nutrition for myself, and emotionally in my shame for eating fish once more. I personally don't think slaughterhouses can be reconciled and integrated into a compassionate yogic life, and I also don't think judgement or criticism internally or externally is part of that kind of life either.
On this journey through the Yamas and Niyamas, the first stop is Ahimsa, non-harming. This is of oneself, of others, of animals, really everyone with life, and so Divine Energy. Pretty all encompassing. Yoga, in its origins is all about reaching Moksha, liberation, and doing so by practicing different techniques, often including sitting in stillness. And so it's rules and tenants allow for a better practice of that.
Consider, if you trip your neighbor at the market, later on when you're in a meditative trance, there's a really good chance your neighbor will take advantage of your vulnerable state and cause you harm in retribution. Some Instant Karma if you want to think of it that way. This might sound selfish, to only be nice to the people around you so that they don't punch you when you're not looking, but being kind is a good investment in your community. Selfish motives aside.
The same goes for your own body, if you feed it nourishing foods, abstain from smoking cigarettes, and exercise regularly (this is where asana comes in), when you ask it to sit and meditate it will be able to do so with much more ease than if you sit down with a belly full of beer and nachos and a body that's spent the day binge watching Handmaid's Tale on the couch. (and hey these examples are judgment aside, I am speaking from experience on that last one!)
This goal of Nirvana and all that, is rather intimidating, I for one haven't committed my life to that end. Obviously. I'm married, own material items, and spend my days painting for people or searching for people to buy my paintings, hardly holy work. However, this can help me towards living into my intention of having healthy, clearly defined boundaries.
Ahimsa is not just about physical violence. Of course that is off limits, as well as killing animals for their meat, hence vegetarianism. It is an all inclusive code for conduct in thought, word and deed. That means strict adherence to the adage "if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all." Personally, I don't say many things that hurt people, and never intentionally. I tend to be non-confrontational and pretty good at avoiding people who inspire me to tell them off or tear them down. That being said, I get caught up in saying "yes" to things I shouldn't because I am afraid of hurting their feelings by declining their offer or request. Which is rather silly and egotistical to think their well being relies on a one word answer from me. Better to say "no thank you" or politely decline many of these offers than to hurt my own self.
Non-harming in thoughts, that is a whole other level of difficulty. The first step is identifying those harmful thoughts, be they about someone out in the world (drivers who don't signal turns or rude grocery store clerks and the like) or very likely and easily as nasty: about myself. I find calling these thoughts out and labeling them is a solid way to set up a little personal alarm system. Whenever a "you're not good/pretty/rich/worthy enough" thought shows up, like a motion sensor light I immediately say to myself "well that's not very nice," and I'll add a little compliment or mini pep talk for myself for good measure.
This is a very exhausting process at first, it's like a morning alarm clock, it can feel like I'm just pressing snooze for 4 minute breaks between negativity and resetting. But that tiresome reinforcement, I think actually helps. Eventually, my subconscious gets sick of being reminded all the time and gets with the program.
In Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra training, my teacher Jennifer Reis, really delved into the Koshas, the "sheaths" or layers or one's being. It is said that physical illness originates in the Manomaya Kosha or the "mind body". In other words, your thoughts can and do literally affect you on a physical level. Mind and body are intertwined. So it only makes sense that in accordance with Ahimsa, one's thoughts must also be of a non-violent and compassionate nature.
This Friday is my first day of training at Cafe Gratitude, a mission driven vegan restaurant in Little Italy. To contribute my fair share to this partnership (and our bank account) and to make up the financial losses from the Jeep saga, I decided to take on a part time job that is more stable than my illustration and yoga teaching careers. The service industry is something I have had mixed feelings and experiences with, so I knew while job hunting in San Diego that I wanted to work somewhere that I wouldn't have to sacrifice my values. It was very emotionally challenging for me to serve Diet Coke and chicken nuggets to toddlers every night and whiskey neats to the same customers at 11:30am day after day when I was working for a major American restaurant chain back in 2016. I feel really blessed for the opportunity to work at this particular company, and I think I'm going to meet a lot of like minded health conscious, animal and Earth loving people there.
As this commitment and practice of non-harming continues to develop, I plan to take this pledge and apply it to my choices as a consumer as well. More on that in a later post. Is Ahimsa something you practice in your daily life? Does it seem obvious and natural or do you have to work hard at staying the path?
The day I arrived in San Diego, after a month of traveling across the United States, I realized that my lesson to learn here on this coast is patience. This lesson will be forced upon me. The whole pace of this city is on a totally different understanding of what time is and how long things should take. Having been born and raised in New York the answer to when it should be done is "already" and no matter how quick you move it's definitely not fast enough not to annoy the people around you. A culture that has their hand on their car horn waiting for the millisecond the red light turns green. Here, in California, I am verbally reminded to "chill out" and enjoy the day. So what I have no job, no home, no car, isn't it sunny and isn't there a beach walking distance?!? Take advantage of this down time. The paranoid side of me thinks this is a slippery slope, the optimist side says there's wisdom to that ideology (within reason).
Two weeks later, I am hit in the face with a challenge that I must step up to and actively learn: boundaries. This one I'm not confronted with in the very nature of this city's attitude, this one is something more personal and internal. Something I have been struggling with since I was a child. For me it's a hard balance, I don't want to be an armored truck, impenetrable to outside experience. I like being a "yes" person to adventure, friendships, discoveries. So then I find my Piscean self watery and edge-less, flowing and drifting as others irrigate and dam. This is an obvious problem with manipulative or otherwise toxic people. A more subtle, yet equally time consuming, issue is with well-intentioned good-natured people. I'll often find myself invited here or there or having an open door policy (especially for tea and surprise over night guests) that leaves me with little to no time for my work, my dog, my husband, my Self, in lieu of giving friends and family advice, food, lodging and more than anything else attention for hours, often days and at times even weeks.
I often feel very lost as where even to begin this journey of having limits, saying "no" and preserving my time. In the mornings, after I write my gratitude journal entry, I set an intention. And that intention every day since landing in California is "right now, from nothing, I am the possibility of patience and boundaries." Today, I took a yoga class at Mosaic Yoga Studio. A modern, clean, well organized studio not 8 minutes walking from the house we're renting a room in. The yoga teacher tonight, Ryan, asks the room what they'd like to work on tonight. Answers called out from the class include: shoulder openers, IT band stretches, happy baby pose, and... boundaries. Are you kidding me? I know my eyes widened, my mouth may have even fallen agape. What are the chances? Who is this woman? Should I invite her to tea after class?!
So the instructor, seemingly effortlessly, weaves in the theme of boundaries to his shoulder opening, IT band stretching sequence. And he says something so obvious, something I know so well, that I literally smile and laugh out loud to myself in class. He says that in yoga, we build boundaries in alignment with the Yamas and Niyamas. They guide us in what to invite into our lives and what to reject.
Suddenly this overwhelming weight that I'd been carrying, about how and what to do about this was lifted. Like that moment of surrender into child's pose after a challenging sequence of Sun Salutation variations. I decided then and there: okay, this is how I will begin. I can start with this as my foundation, Patanjali's Ethics for Life, instead of starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. I'll be kind to myself and adjust accordingly as necessary, but here, written nearly two thousand years ago is a solid foundation from which to build.
So here I start on this journey of the Yamas; to do no harm (ahimsa), to speak only truth (satya), not to steal (asteya), to manage my energy (bramacharya), to live simply and generously (aparigraha). Further supported by the Niyamas; to keep clear and pure (saucha), live contently (santosha), to have discipline (tapas), to be in the study of self (svadyaya), and to surrender to that which is larger than myself (ishvara pranidhana).
These are precepts I have been studying since middle school. I first read Patanjali's Yoga Sutras when I was thirteen. They come up time and time again as I have grown, each time in a more developed and mature manner. I'm sure this won't be the last. I think taking them on one at a time will make most sense this round, perhaps, until I feel that it has truly been integrated into my self. So here's to tomorrow, and my intention of non-harming, ahimsa.