Find Courage in the Habit of Ahimsa
This ethical discipline of yoga brings freedom from fear.
When we evacuated during the bush fires in January, I realized I’d begun my Ahimsa practice at the perfect time. We stayed at my parents’ house in the next town over. In the searing heat and smoke, spiders crawled up into the bathroom through a drain in the floor.
Being Australian, it’s common to pause and consider how dangerous a spider might be. Most of the time, I’d crush them with my shoe, if I could reach them. But I’d committed to easing into Ahimsa, the practise of non-violence and non-harm, so I didn’t. And guess what? Nothing bad happened. I didn’t get bitten, and the spiders scampered away, happy to leave me alone.
And so began a drastic change in my attitude and approach to life. I realized all humans and animals were in this planetary crisis together. The impact of the bush fires was as detrimental to the wildlife, if not more than it was to me.
So, what is Ahimsa, and where does it come from?
It’s the practice of non-violence, a virtue important to Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. At the end of last year, I took up the practice of Iyengar yoga. So, my experience of practicing Ahimsa has more of a Hindu influence.
Why did I adopt an Ahimsa practice?
For years, I’d been practicing the physical aspect of yoga; the stretching poses. The white-washing of yoga irked me, and the watering down of its principles by the Western world. I wanted to learn yoga from the source, in other words, from Indian practitioners. After some research, I decided Iyengar yoga was a good fit for me. I bought the book, Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar, which is a course in this strand of yoga.
I committed to myself that over time, I would immerse myself into the practice. I sought the full mind, body and spiritual experience of yoga, as opposed to stretching alone. I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved it all yet, because there’s so much to learn, and it takes time. But I have begun to ease into an Ahimsa practice, as a starting point.
How do you practice Ahimsa?
The short answer is to not hurt, harm or kill anything or anyone. The longer answer includes the following:
- Eating a vegetarian diet
- Avoiding harm to the earth
- Avoiding harmful thoughts, to ourselves and others
- Avoiding using harmful language
- Not killing any animals, including animals we perceive to be pests
- Avoiding habits that are harmful to our own bodies
How Ahimsa has changed my outlook so far
‘Violence arises out of fear, weakness, ignorance or restlessness. To curb it what is most needed is freedom from fear. To gain this freedom, what is needed is a change of outlook on life and reorientation of the mind. Violence is bound to decline when men learn to base their faith upon reality and investigation rather than upon ignorance and supposition.’ — B.K.S. Iyengar, from Light on Yoga.
In my own Ahimsa practice, I’m not at the stage where I’m doing everything by the book, yet. For me, it’s a process. For now, I’m a part-time vegetarian. I found I need to ease into the diet, and I know in time, I’ll be 100% vegetarian.
My starting point has been to stop killing spiders, bugs, and rodents. We live in an old house, so mice and rats are a recurring problem for us. I wish I could say I’ve stopped killing animals altogether, but I’m not there yet. Hey, I live in Australia, and sometimes I’ve been unsure if a certain type of spider is harmful.
What has changed for me, is that I always stop to think before killing an animal, nowadays. If a spider or bug is harmless, I leave it alone. When I do kill a spider, guess why I do it? Because it looks menacing and is rearing up at me. In other words, I’m afraid. And that is what Ahimsa is teaching me. It’s shining a spotlight on how fearful I can be.
I’ve started trying to move menacing-looking spiders outside without killing them. A few times, I’ve been successful. I puff up with pride when I’ve managed to do this. I experience a feeling of strength and courage. Other times, when a spider has been too fast for me, I’ve killed it. It fills me with guilt nowadays and makes me aware of how I’m still fearful of myself.
Ahimsa is teaching me to think harder about these challenges. I’m often researching new ways to remove a spider from my home. I try them out, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But I know the more I try to practice taking spiders outside, the better I will become at it. And as I develop this skill, I will become less afraid, and more empowered.
As for rodents, I don’t kill them anymore. I plan to focus on making our home less inviting to them in the first place. My partner still kills rodents, as is his choice. He doesn’t practice yoga or Ahimsa. If rodents enter our home after I’ve made it less hospitable, I’ll learn ways to remove them without killing them. What can I say? It’s a process. That said, we haven’t had any for a while.
I would consider myself in the infancy of my Ahimsa practice, so far. But with every tiny step I take, I gain greater awareness. I learn about how much I let fear dictate my life. I notice what other people and creatures are going through, more. Not that I was violent to people, but my thoughts and words towards them were often unhelpful.
Ahimsa teaches me to consider my actions, to empathize more. To see how connected all creatures are with one another, and to find a more peaceful way to share this planet. When I challenge myself this way, especially when I succeed, my energy feels stronger. I become braver and less stressed.
When we came home from evacuation, the destruction to our town was devastating to witness. So many black trees, the smoke laying low, weaving between them. It was like returning to an apocalyptic scene from a movie. Kangaroos roamed the road outside our house, which normally rarely happens. They were traumatized and had lost so much of their habitat. Were they looking for food, water, their babies? A safe place? Ahimsa forced me to consider these questions.
Our home was full of spiders and insects. Frightened, confused birds crashed into the sides of our house. Some birds cowered underneath our home. Before we’d fled town, we had filled up some large buckets with water. We’d been doing this before we left because we’d been expecting ember attacks and anticipated spot fires. We decided to leave them there for any wildlife in need.
When we came home, the water in the buckets was black with soot and ash. I cleaned them out and filled them with fresh drinking water. I put some old pet bowls full of water near the birds hiding under our house. I put the water buckets out the front, in case a passing kangaroo or other animal needed a drink.
The first night after doing this, I sat in my bed and could hear the water in the buckets splashing outside. I couldn’t see the animal using it, but it made me smile. After the loss and destruction, we’d felt helpless to contribute to the situation. Over the next few weeks, we watched in delight, as birds visited to drink and bathe in the water. After a few days of drinking from our pet water bowls, the birds under the house moved on.
So, what has Ahimsa taught me so far? It’s challenged me to confront my fears. To find my strength, courage and purpose on this planet. I will continue to challenge myself to do better with this practice, no matter how slow my progress may be. The peace and joy this practice brings me is priceless.