Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ahimsa, and More About Food :-)

I don't intend on writing a novel about yogic philosophy; others are much better at that than I am. All I am really planning on doing today is explaining a tiny bit about yoga and how it relates to the food I eat. Or don't eat.

In this country, we tend to think of yoga as a strictly physical practice. Stretching, posing, balancing and twisting come to mind. In its origins, yoga is much more than a physical practice. In fact, the physical postures (asana) are a very small part of what yoga is all about.

The first person to actually write down details about yoga was a man named Patanjali, sometime between 500 and 200 BC. His writings are known as "The Eight-Limb Path of Yoga", also called "The Eight-Fold Path." They describe eight different parts (or limbs), which are further broken down into 196 succinct lessons on the nature of the human condition, human potential, and how the potential can be realized. The asana (postures) are only one of the eight limbs.

Two of the limbs are the yamas and the niyamas, which are the five moral restraints and five observances, respectively. Narrowing our focus to the yamas, we look at the very first yama, which is ahimsa. Ahimsa roughly translates to mean "non-violence." When I first thought about non-violence, I thought about physical violence, and I was almost dismissive, thinking this couldn't possibly apply to me! I am not a physically violent person! However, as is often the case, non-violence goes much deeper than the physical level.

Ahimsa pertains to non-violence to self and to others, in thoughts, words and deeds. Oh. I get it. The very first thing I thought was: Oh, I am so stupid! The second thing was: Oh, wait a minute. Was that thought violent towards myself? And the simple answer: Yes. Listen to the chatter in your head. How often do you think bad thoughts about yourself? If you are like me, it's a scary realization how often I put myself down in my head. What about thinking bad thoughts about others? Gossip? Just being mean? These are all the things I work on, constantly.

Many people believe that ahimsa is the cornerstone of yoga, perhaps even the most important aspect. I have heard of ahimsa being described as "the opposite of love." When I was in my yoga teacher training program, my teacher just assumed we were all vegetarians. I admitted I was not and didn't understand what eating meat had to do with yoga. I came to understand that non-violence to others doesn't just refer to other humans. My teacher asked that I stopped eating meat for at least one month and studied ahimsa, and how it pertains to animals. That was the beginning of my vegetarian journey.

I stopped eating meat and I felt so much better, and happier, and... lighter, maybe. And I studied and learned and deepened my understanding of ahimsa, how it relates to me personally, and how it relates to our world. I don't expect everyone to agree with or understand my decision. I try not to be judgemental of what anyone chooses to eat. I understand that our society defines food as "meat and potatoes," and I don't forget that, for most of my life, so did I. This month, I celebrate my 10th year of being vegetarian. I am not, nor have I ever been perfect! To me, it's more about being aware and making conscious, informed choices, about the food I eat, and about the way I live my life.

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