Nonviolence: How to Ahimsa if You’re a Recovering Pitta

I’m on vacation this week, and while I travel a lot, this is the first time in a very long time that I’ve gone to a place without students, family, or work obligations (calm down senior portfolios, I’ll get to you . . . later). Something about giving oneself the time to go on vacation, and go on vacation without a full schedule, seems appropriate for talking about the first of the yamas, and arguably one of the most important: nonviolence.

(Although after my 11-mile run today, my hamstrings are asking if we could perhaps be nicer to ourselves tomorrow. Baby steps, I suppose).

When I was five, and later when I was twenty-five, I went through a phase of hitting myself. As a little kid, when I got disciplined I’d bite my hand, hit myself with a belt, or slap my face. I have some ideas as to why I slipped back into slapping myself as a married PhD student, but none of the reasons make a lot of sense. The self-hitting continued through coursework, a move from England back to America, and the first two years of a new job. One night during a game of Wii gone weirdly ugly and competitive, I was crying in the bathroom and hit my face hard, twice. This wasn’t the first time I’d done that, but it was the first time I hit myself so hard that I jarred out of my angry cry and felt the beginnings of a bruise. I hadn’t yet read about the yamas and niyamas, but what I had just done felt like a sin. According to yogic philosophy, it kind of was. I’d just disregarded the first yama: ahimsa, or nonviolence.

When people think of yogi stereotypes, they think of incense-scented vegetarians who name-drop Gandhi and protest war. Not necessarily true: plenty of people who do yoga also eat meat and drop f-bombs instead. But this concept of ahimsa carries through yoga, no matter how the practitioners look or act. Even the most vigorous classes tell students to respect their bodies and their limitations by not going too far into a pose. This is because any yoga teacher worth his or her 200-hour training knows you start the process of non-violence in the world with your own body. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Bible says, assuming that we have a shot at loving our neighbors if we have some experience with it towards ourselves. “Be the change you want to see,” says Gandhi. “Put on your own life jacket first,” said one of my yoga instructors. “You can’t help anyone else if you’re drowning too.” (The only person who ever really said the opposite was my eleventh grade Bible teacher, who, in addition to saying depression was a sin, also said that Jesus was saying to love our neighbors more than ourselves, and that loving ourselves at all was probably a sin too).

When I was a freshman in college I ate one meal a day while doing two-a-day workouts and participating on the track team. The wrongness of it was only apparent when I bombed a workout in mid-spring and my coach  ordered me to eat better. Since I’d wrecked my metabolism for years, I made up for eating right by longer and harder workouts. I didn’t lose any weight—proof that I needed to workout harder!—but I did give myself some overuse injuries and failed to meet most of my athletic goals.

This kind of self-abuse probably comes with the territory; as I’ve written before, Ayurveda would diagnose me with a very strong pitta dosha, probably bordering on a pitta imbalance at times. The pitta dosha is one of transformation, and is connected to fire and water, as well as the body’s hormonal, vision, circulatory, and digestive systems. While vatas are constant movement and kaphas are consistency and stability, pittas spread, and transform, turning food into energy, pumping blood around the body, pulling images through our eyes, churning out the hormones that keep us alive. To quote another yoga instructor, “they get shit done.” Like each of the doshas, pitta has value in our body, but an imbalance leads to anger, frustration, indigestion, acne, hypertension, and in some cases, hair loss or graying. The anger management issues in particular tend to lead to self-violence that extends into our relationships. I might not hit other people, but I get really irritated when they don’t respond perfectly. I might not beat my pit bull (who definitely has a pitta imbalance herself) when she tugs after squirrels on walks, but I sometimes react too aggressively, then I get frustrated for being impatient. And depressed because I can’t force myself to be better . . . which can make me more self-abusive. Struggling harder doesn’t get me results, but for a long time I didn’t know another way.

My student and friend Megan wrote a blog called, “You Don’t Have to Try So Hard” where she describes reaching for a shell in the beach. “I lunged for it, but as my hand hit the water, a wave broke,” she writes. “I caught only wet sand and worn shards of broken shells. They slid between my fingers as soon as I opened my palm.” This is how life goes when living with a pitta imbalance. On Saturday when I was trying to do a million things and get out the door for a long run, I snapped at my running partner. It took me an hour of running by myself before I figured it out that I’d been a jerk. “It felt like you were trying to control me, like I was a problem to solve,” he said, “and in the process you stepped on me. And it sucked.”

 In my old world, this would have been an opportune moment to put on the boxing gloves and swing back. But my old world sucked. Instead of fighting harder, I’m trying to not fight back at all. Deborah Adele says in The Yamas and Niyamas that “Our capacity to be nonviolent depends on our proactive practice of courage, balance, love of self, and compassion for others.” This isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not easy (if you don’t believe me, go watch Selma). In this case, not getting defensive and thereby violent again required courage to apologize (if saying sorry doesn’t sound particularly brave, I envy you). I probably would have also avoided this situation if I hadn’t been trying to multi-task, if I’d slept more during the week, if I’d scheduled fewer back-to-back events over the last few days. Because the Bible and Gandhi and all those yoga teachers are right, and all the people who preach martyrdom are wrong. I do a terrible job of loving other people and being kind to them if I can’t do it for myself.

Practicing nonviolence in my life has largely meant practicing kindness to my body. Treating it like an enemy didn’t work out, so I’m doing some new things that feel out of my comfort zone. Like running schedules that emphasize exercising smarter, not harder. Like doing yin yoga one or two days a week instead of power yoga. Like eating enough calories to reassure my body it can keep metabolizing food. Like avoiding workouts with descriptions like “body shock” or “get shredded,” because if I’m serious now about being a partner with my body, not an abuser of it, that has to extend to the language I use. It means I check in with what Ayurveda has to say about keeping a balanced doshas. Spicy, sharp foods and caffeine and alcohol all irritate pitta imbalances, as does rigorous exercise and too little sleep. It doesn’t mean I’ve cut these all completely out of my life, but it does mean I pay attention to what they do to me.

Deborah Adele’s last two suggestions for nonviolence—loving myself and having compassion for others—has developed with my Ayurvedic self-study. In October at an Ayurvedic workshop, our workshop leader, Tiffany, guided us through a metta meditation, which focuses on loving kindness for ourselves and others. Often, our concern for others gets masked as worry. Adele would say that worry is “a lack of faith in the other and cannot exist simultaneously with love. Either we have faith in the other person to do their best, or we don’t.” Instead of worry, she advises love and compassion. Love and compassion listen and support another person, rather than trying to fix them. Rather than trying to get them out the door faster.

When we did the metta meditation as a group, Tiffany told us to silently repeat the script she gave us three times.  Once was for ourselves, once was for a loved one, and once for a problematic person in our lives. I had tears in my eyes by the end of the first repetition. It was so simple to ask for love and safety and happiness for myself, but not easy. The script below is similar to the one we used. If asking for permission to be safe and happy feels foreign to you too, I’d invite you to try it.

May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live with ease.


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