Ahimsa and Santosha

Though a few of my fictional characters do practice yoga, this week it’s Amber the yoga teacher and college professor more than the novelist who’s talking.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa is usually translated as “non-harming.” It’s one of the principles of yoga philosophy, one of the yamas, which means abstentions or restraints. Ideally, we’re aware of it in our asana practice and also as we take our yoga with us into our lives. Ahimsa applies to self and others, to all life forms, not only to humans. Thinking unkind and hostile thoughts, saying destructive things, or doing harmful actions are all contrary to the principle of ahimsa.

When I teach, I remind students to stay in a pain-free range of motion and to come out of a pose completely when fatigued rather hang in their joints and possibly injure themselves. But then I’ll look around and see students succumbing to the competitive urge to do what a stronger or more flexible classmate can do. Santosha needed! This is one of the niyamas, the observances to be practiced without restraint. It means contentment. One does not fight reality but takes an attitude of receptive awareness. Objecting to reality with complaints and harsh judgment doesn’t change it. Change can occur, however, from this basis in contentment. Approaching one’s own body and one’s own character from santosha seems to go with having a sense of humor that is kind and open.

I do my best to integrate yoga philosophy into my teaching without giving a formal lecture. However, it’s incredibly hard to teach Americans not to hurt themselves, and when I instruct other kinds of physical activity it’s even harder. There’s no expectation of spirituality or stress reduction in a strength-training class, but of self-improvement, and for some reason, we seem to think we’re better people if we push ourselves beyond healthy limits. I’ve met young men who take pre-workout pills with so much caffeine they could cause a heart attack in order to force their exhausted bodies to work harder, when what they really need is eight hours of sleep a night. I think Americans subscribe to a pervasive cultural delusion that it’s virtuous to go without sleep or heroic to work sixty hours or more a week, and that a great athlete will sacrifice the long-term well-being of his or her body for the sport and for the team. I wish no one had ever come up with the phrase, “no pain, no gain.”

Well-rested, relaxed people get more done in less time. They fight less. Comprehend more. Pay attention and remember better. Procrastinate less. Have more energy. If we all slowed down and allowed our nervous systems to stop buzzing, what would happen? If we valued our health as a nation and as a culture, rather than seeing it as expendable in the pursuit of other goals, what would happen? How would employers treat workers? How would we treat ourselves?

Everyone is my Teacher

640px-very_large_array_cloudsIt’s surprising what you can have in common with someone when at first it seems there might be nothing. At a friend’s birthday dinner party, I was seated next to a graduate student in astrophysics who specializes in radio astronomy, a young man whose hobbies include ice climbing. All these things are fascinating, but far out of my realm of experience and expertise. We  managed to make conversation, though, and somehow discovered a mutual interest in meditation. I’m not sure how we got there. Perhaps from talking about his childhood in Vietnam and how he’s not a practicing Buddhist but follows the philosophy without the religion, or perhaps from talking about my work teaching yoga. “I can learn from you,” he said. “Everyone is my teacher.”

I didn’t feel as though I taught him anything. However, he did, through example, teach me. He was so enthusiastic about adopting daily meditation, so aware of its benefits in the stressful life of a Ph.D. student. I’m older and have been practicing longer, but his deep gratitude for the effects of this simple commitment reached me. Yes, I also practice daily, but how mindful has my mindfulness been? Could I take a little longer, become a little quieter?

His work in radio astronomy is listening—finding ways to hear the universe. It works for me as a metaphor for meditation and for everyone being my teacher. What subtle signals have I not yet heard?