Ahimsa: the most important element in yoga

Let’s let the Martin Luther King holiday continue. Freedom, and Moksha, were the themes of our weekend in New York, and not Tim Miller this week has also focused on MLK, Gandhi and … ahimsa:

Listing ahimsa first indicates that it is the most important of all the yamas. The yamas are also the first limb of ashtanga yoga, suggesting that of all of the eight limbs, it is the most important. Since it is the first principle mentioned in the first limb of yoga, one could reasonably say that ahimsa is the single most important practice in yoga.


I like Patanjali’s approach. Rather than saying “Thou Shall Not” and giving us a list of rules that, if broken, will result in your eternal damnation in the fires of Hell, Patanjali says, “Hey check it out. You want to live a life of love, truth, prosperity, vitality, and clarity of purpose? This is what you need to do.” We are presented with choices, and to some extent at least, we are in control of our own destiny.

As Bobbie pointed out in her initial thoughts on our weekend in New York, we practice in order to be able to make the best choices and, perhaps, have the most control over our destiny.

Speaking of New York, I simply can’t help but link to this piece at the Daily Caller, a very conservative online publication. It’s about the New York City naked yoga studio that now will be holding coed classes:

Only in New York City, a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah, can you take totally naked, coed yoga classes.

Bold & Naked is a new yoga studio in Chelsea that offers completely nude yoga classes that are either all male, all female or male and female, Outside magazine reports. The studio also offers some clothed classes.

Imagine doing happy baby pose. Completely. Naked. (Hopefully you’re not eating lunch right now.)

I love that New York is either Sodom or Gomorrah, not both. I also bet it isn’t the only pace you can get naked, coed yoga classes.

This really doesn’t follow all that well from Tim’s nice post, but I link to this because I need the laugh; we’ll probably be able to post about what’s got me down in the coming days.

Finally, one more from New York, in the form of Guy Donahaye’s latest post, which is more in line with what Tim’s writing about.

Posted by Steve

Remembering Gandhi on his birthday


Today, Oct. 2, marks the birthday back in 1869 of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Via biography.com

A quick primer and some video on India’s great independence fighter — of course waging those battles non-violently — can be found here.

In thinking about Gandhi and his influence, two things strike me today:

  1. It is hard to overstate that influence in the West (and I’ll admit I’m probably skewing toward “America” this time when I refer to the “West”), from Dr. Martin Luther King through to President Obama. That’s one clear testament to his lasting and critical importance.
  2. His philosophy of non-violence — ahimsa — sadly seems more relevant and necessary today than ever. And by “today,” I really do mean this day. Passions and buildings are burning in parts of the Middle East; there seems to be some consensus that America is as divided as it ever has been (I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it certainly is no less divided — I think our divisions are just more on display); there has been the usual political fist pounding at the United Nations; the list, unfortunately, goes on. We have not come very far, in other words.

And that suggests all the more reason to reflect on his example and his teachings. Here’s a little taste:

I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. Thus when my eldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence. Hence it was that I took part in the Boer War, the so-called Zulu Rebellion and the late war. Hence also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.

But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment. Forgiveness adorns a soldier. But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her. I therefore appreciate the sentiment of those who cry out for the condign punishment of General Dyer and his ilk. They would tear him to pieces, if they could. But I do not believe India to be helpless. I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature. Only I want to use India’s and my strength for a better purpose.

Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. An average Zulu is any way more than a match for an average Englishman in bodily capacity. But he flees from an English boy, because he fears the boy’s revolver or those who will use it for him. He fears death and is nerveless in spite of his burly figure. We in India may in a moment realize that one hundred thousand Englishmen need not frighten three hundred million human beings. A definite forgiveness would, therefore, mean a definite recognition of our strength. With enlightened forgiveness must come a mighty wave of strength in us, which would make it impossible for a Dyer and a Frank Johnson to heap affront on India’s devoted head. It matters little to me that for the moment I do not drive my point home. We feel too downtrodden not to be angry and revengeful. But I must not refrain from saying that India can gain more by waiving the right of punishment. We have better work to do, a better mission to deliver to the world.

I wonder when that mission will be accomplished.

Posted by Steve


A teacher learns from her student.

A scene from Glass's opera. Via PhilipGlass.com.

Because quite a few of my students hadn’t seen it, I showed the now-infamous video of campus police casually pepper spraying a line of peaceful protestors at the University of California, Davis to my class today. I’d seen it many times, but this time I had the unusual position of standing at the front of a classroom, watching the faces of young people as they saw their fellow UC students being violently treated for peacefully protesting the same issues that they are angry about as well.

It was…difficult. There was shock. And anger. Those who had already seen it were shaking their heads in disgust. After class, I got this unexpected question: “Why didn’t the teachers do anything?”

One of the great benefits of the practice of Ashtanga for me has been the way it’s changed my classroom teaching. I’m more compassionate, patient. I’ve learned to expect the best from every single student. The question has given my pause, though. Have I ever actually helped my students in larger ways, ways that would change the world for the better?

Then comes this timely and thoughtful essay from Ian Desai at The New York Times. In it, Desai bids a thoughtful farewell to the  Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park while at the same time pondering the close of Philip Glass’s opera based on Gandhi’s life, Satyagraha. The essay asks, basically, what would Gandhi make of both the opera of his life, and the movement in the park. It’s clear the author finds both lacking

It can be difficult, though, to overlook the incongruity of Champagne corks popping at intermissions, the see-and-be-seen atmosphere and the steep ticket prices at the Met. These trappings have little to do with Gandhi’s ideas of social justice and make opera an uneasy medium for his political vision; in fact they lend an unhappy irony to the very deftness of the rendering of that vision on the stage.

Desai also thinks that Gandhi would find the divisive nature of the protests troubling, that “We are the 100%” would be a better motto. He concludes that our actions are “most meaningful when they set the stage for constructive social action, through which we might begin to mend the world.”

When my student asked me that question, I became painfully aware of how little I’ve really done on their behalf as their tuition skyrockets and budget cuts threaten the quality of their education. This, too, is yoga, yes? What I’ve been taught by my teachers as the real purpose of the practice, in the vein of Hanuman: service.

Desai’s review is a worthy read, but be prepared to question your own practice-in-the-world.

Posted by Bobbie

India’s latest Gandhi faces tough, promising political future

A little twist to the usual posts here, perhaps because it’s just been a politically heavy weekend for me. But still focused on India.

Rahul Gandhi is being called the “latest” Gandhi on India’s political stage, an up-and-coming 41-year-old with some serious heritage on his side: the eldest son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President of the Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi. He also is the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlar Nehru, as well as the grandson of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. (Nope, the lineage doesn’t go back to the Gandhi.)

Rahul Gandhi, via latimes.com

The Los Angeles Times has a piece on Gandhi today:

Reporting from Amethi, India—

Priyanshi Srivastava, a second-year student at the Footwear Development Design Institute here in Amethi, was quite taken with lawmaker Rahul Gandhi during his recent visit to the institute that he helped start.

“I never expected he’d have such a deep knowledge about leather goods,” Srivastava said of the scion of India’s most famous political family.

“And I never thought he’d be so damned handsome.”

As campaigning for legislative assembly seats in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh kicked off last week, Gandhi may hope other voters in India’s most populous state have the same reaction. This is no ordinary state and no ordinary contest for Gandhi, 41, the nation’s reputed prince-in-waiting whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers.

The key to things is this:

Although Gandhi has held a national position with the ruling Congress Party in New Delhi since 2004 and is not facing any reelection test in the state polling, the spotlight is on him during this election to see how effective he is in boosting his party’s showing in Uttar Pradesh. His performance now is seen as having a large influence on his chances of becoming prime minister one day.

The state has changed since the days when the Gandhis and the Congress Party expected to control Uttar Pradesh as a matter of right. As regional parties gained strength by the late 1980s and caste politics intensified, Congress lost its four-decade grip on the state, and it has never regained it. The party now finds itself in a vicious fight with the state’s governing party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, led by the colorful Mayawati, who used her status as a dalit, a caste once known as “untouchables,” to great political effect.

Ah, politics are the same everywhere, in other words.

Posted by Steve