“We must be committed to harmony between man and nature. All things that grow live in harmony and benefit from the nourishment of nature. Mother Nature has nourished us and we must treat nature as our root. Respect it, protect it, and follow its laws.” – Xi Jinping, President of China
This past week in Glasgow our world leaders gathered to address the climate crisis. The tragic irony is that the author of this important message above, did not attend the summit. Yet, there is hope. There always is.
While our planet is in danger, it may be valuable to reflect on a word, in fact a concept that was introduced to the world around 1700 years ago. This word AHIMSA forms part of the Yoga Sutras as written by Patanjali, Sage, Philosopher and author of numerous important works that form the bedrock of yoga.
AHIMSA is a Sanskrit word meaning “non-violence”
The first time I heard its literal meaning I was struck by the harshness, the severity of the word ‘violence’. For most people it conjures up images of death and destruction, brutality, and hopelessness. So why include this word in the guidelines for living and performing yoga you may ask?
Violence 1700 years ago may have meant something different but remains equally important in today’s world as it simply translates to: do not physically or psychologically harm another human being or any living being including nature and oneself.
There are two way to practice the principle of ahimsa , the looking outward and by turning inward.
Outwardly, ahimsa is a commitment to live in harmony with one’s fellow man and our environment. To engage our world with care and divine love, extending this to all living, breathing beings, from animals to insects; the ocean, mountains, forests and plants. It is with many emotions that we acknowledge the role of humanity over the past 2 000 years in harming our planet to the extent that in the aftermath of a global pandemic, world leaders needed to meet to discuss the future of our planet. This was important, but not, nearly as important, and impactful as action by us, you and I and the rest of humanity. Practicing the concept of ahimsa would have us role-modelling attitudes and behaviours that will profoundly contribute towards reversing the impact of climate change and in so doing, save our planet. It’s hard, but the rewards are immense.
Inwardly, practicing ahimsa from within, relies on the crucial principal that one cannot build on weak foundations. To role-model the attitudes and behaviours that will save our planet, we must first change the way we treat ourselves, our minds, and bodies.
It is unlikely that we can become those people whom we’ve all at one point or another, engaged with – these are the people who by their mere presence inspire us to change. They glow from deep inside, their eyes sparkle with clarity, their bodies vibrate with vitality. This type of person, whether he/she is a Buddhist monk, a religious cleric or just a friend who has made different choices to us. You’ll find that they, either knowingly or not, practice ahimsa: they live by the law of doing no harm, causing no pain toward others, nature and of course themselves. Thus, living in harmony.
Let us consider the three areas of how we can live in harmony with ourselves – to impact our outer world more significantly.
By listening to our bodies, respecting boundaries, and letting go of unrealistic expectations, we give our bodies permission to respond and tell us what ‘it’ needs to thrive, to build and heal. Not what the world outside, the media or other people may dictate.
On the yoga mat, I’ve often heard a teacher tell us that yoga is not about how easily you can touch your toes, it’s about what you learn on the journey down.
You may ask, do I need to become a vegan or vegetarian to practice ahimsa? The answer is both yes and no. Of course, if you do not consume animal products, you are by default not harming any other living beings. This may provide you with space to explore the concept more deeply and add value in other areas.
While the guidance of ahimsa is not to harm another living being, we can seek a balance in our approach to what we put into our bodies. We can do this by making small changes, maybe reducing our animal protein intake, eating vegetarian two or three times a week, learning more about alternative sources of protein and importantly, the source of the protein we do eat.
Simply becoming more conscious of our consumption behaviours around certain types of foods can be considered as practicing in ahimsa.
Finally, Our Words.
Negative words whether spoken out loud or as thoughts, are equally harmful to our minds and body. Negative words generate the stress hormone, cortisol. Too much cortisol, whether generated from real events like deadlines, or, imagined ones, lower our immune system. They create anxiety and generate emotions of sadness, judgement, anger or resentment. These go on to trigger multiple physiological reactions as well as behaviours that lead to addiction and other negative personal and societal consequences.
On the other hand, kind thoughts and words, spoken or thought, generate the feel-good hormone, dopamine which enhances our immune system and generates feelings of joy, connection, and happiness. We all have that inner, critical voice. We also have the capacity to turn down its volume. If we were to believe in ourselves more, know that self-care is essential to our well-being, maybe we’ll do just that. Turn the volume down and in so doing cultivate a sense of inner peace.
Like President Jinping, we too were not at the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow – however it does not stop us from practicing ahimsa and changing the world from the inside out, one small act, thought or word at a time.