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?

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Attention Span

It’s been said that we teach what we most need to learn. Many of my classes involve critical thinking and information literacy skills. While I’m still teaching, I want to pay attention to the lessons I learn from my work.

Back in November, I asked my first year seminar students to write down topics they felt were important and challenging to discuss. We then used the randomly drawn slips of paper like the talking stick in a talking circle. The person holding it got to say whatever he or she needed to say while others listened, and then that person handed the paper along. Anyone could pass who was not ready to talk. We got through three topics that day and I saved the rest for when we had time to do this again. Two weeks later, the first topic someone drew from the heap was “Politics.” Most of the students said they had cared about it before the election and right after, but now they didn’t pay much attention to it. One young woman said the election had been so unpleasant that she changed her major from political science. It drove a thoughtful, moderate Republican who understands that conservative includes conserve out of wanting to engage in politics. That’s a loss to her community. Every time a young person with a good mind gets disillusioned, we lose their years of future leadership. I hope she’ll get involved again in the future. Her burnout is deep, though.

Her classmates’ loss of interest in something they felt passionate about two weeks before is alarming. As a culture, we may be getting trained to the media’s attention span and the media’s focal point, forgetting that our personal lives’ deep needs interact with issues that take prolonged, thoughtful, patient engagement, regardless of the headlines.

The lack of information they had was also troubling. Not because they’re not smart—they are, but the only student who knew recent world history well was from Palestine. He was the only one able to knowledgeably talk about the Cuban revolution and who Fidel Castro really was and why people felt so strongly about his death. And of course, he was well-informed on the complexities of the Middle East, and the pros and cons and unintended consequences of American presence there, something his classmates barely understood. I was relieved that the majority do understand climate change and that only one person in two classes of nineteen didn’t. Even the most politically conservative of them comprehended the reality of climate science. They don’t see it as a political issue so much as a scientific one with an impact they’ll have to live with.

Today in my January term health class, students shared and discussed articles on their chosen research topic for this half of the week, public health issues and the environment. This discussion was encouraging. I think the young adult attention span is only short for things they don’t fully understand, which for some includes politics, but it’s steady for the concepts they grasp. I hope this understanding ultimately translates into engagement. The earth needs them.

Writing about this motivates me to stay engaged as well, and to pay attention to issues in depth after the headlines fade.