"Compassion is a verb."
I've been trying to write this for days. Although I want to write about why it's ok to risk imperfection in our actions against injustice rather than doing nothing, in all honesty I've been scrutinizing every single word to the point I've considered just sending you a list of links. I've softened the language. I've made it more direct. I've scrapped everything and started from scratch, then edited again. Bear with me as I now try to walk my talk. I may still put my foot in my mouth yet!
When we talk about yoga, what usually come to mind are poses like downward facing dog and maybe some deep breathing. But yoga is more about how we live than what our bodies can do. Yoga asks us to connect with the world and ourselves with more compassion and awareness.
A big part of yoga is ahimsa, which is often interpreted as nonviolence or compassion. We try to practice nonviolence in our thoughts, our intentions, and our actions. Emphasis on the word “practice” here! Nonviolence is something we continue to learn and develop; we aren’t perfect.
Ahimsa asks us to avoid pain in yoga poses and to say kinder things to ourselves instead of criticizing or comparing our bodies to other people in class. Beyond our mats and meditation cushions, it’s restoring our emotional, mental, physical, social, and spiritual reserves so we stay well.
Ahimsa is also trying to avoid harming others in our thoughts, intentions, and actions.
We all struggle with balancing self care and caring for others at times. When it feels like the world is on fire and we’re called to help, sometimes we neglect our needs and end up worn out. Other times we close ourselves off from others completely. Sometimes we try to help and our voices shake or we make mistakes.
We’re imperfect humans living in an imperfect world. Our ahimsa and self care practices are imperfect, too!
I’d like to speak to fellow white yoga practitioners and white people for a moment. It’s easier to center our ahimsa practice on “sending love and light” with only our thoughts and intentions. Loving kindness meditation and sending good vibrations can be wonderful self care, but positive thoughts don’t dismantle white supremacy. That requires action beyond the yoga mat. There are lots of steps we can take toward addressing systemic racism, and one of them is holding each other accountable even when it's uncomfortable or downright hard. When our white relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors say or do something we know is wrong, it can be awkward to talk with them about racism. They may react defensively or give us the stink eye at the family reunion.
It’s easier to not talk about racism with other white people or avoid looking at our own unconscious biases, but when our silence harms others, are we really practicing nonviolence? If we're so busy defending ourselves as "good" people that we close ourselves off from listening and learning how we unintentionally contribute to oppression, we can't begin to address the harm. Remember, ahimsa is a practice. What matters is that we keep learning and showing up.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Compassion is a verb.”
Even when we accept that it's a practice, ahimsa can be hard. In those times when you’re worn out or disconnected or frustrated by how imperfect your attempts at ahimsa are (mine are, too!), soothe your nervous system so you have the space to be present again. If you only have a minute, try this:
Take a few deep breaths.
Place a hand over your heart or belly and feel the warmth of your hand on your skin. (It might feel a little cheesy, but this little gesture can help lower your heart rate and stress hormones like cortisol, and it boosts feel-good, blood pressure-lowering oxytocin.)
Notice how you're feeling and remind yourself that whether you're tired, frustrated, overwhelmed, you name it, it's part of the human condition. Be present with these emotions so you can sustain yourself with care. Be present with these emotions and extend them into empathy for others. Be present with these emotions so you can build the courage to be keep showing up in ahimsa. You might repeat, "This is hard. Others are struggling, too.”
Let's keep doing the bigger work of ahimsa beyond our yoga mats. I'm imperfectly practicing alongside you.