Ahimsa: looking out for number one or putting others before yourself?

Not food but a sentient being

Not food but a sentient being

I got caught up in an awkward discussion with a yoga teacher I respect very much recently regarding the principle of ahimsa. This is non-harming, one of the five yamas, or rules for ethical living, outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classical-period text considered by many to be the foundation of modern yoga.

I’ve always interpreted that, as do many traditionalists, as a clear encouragement to follow a vegan diet, but the teacher I was talking to disagreed strongly, saying she had tried vegetarianism and that it had made her ill, therefore she was breaching ahimsa by harming herself. This struck me as unarguable, so I left it at that, on the basis of each to their own.

But I am discovering it is a relatively common view among yogis who seem to believe putting number one first is the most important element of ahimsa, and that this is frequently offered as a defence for killing our fellow sentient beings to eat their flesh. It strikes me as a peculiar way of showing compassion.

I have learnt to keep my views to myself on this one, but it feels like a lonely position in the world of modern yoga. It was therefore good recently to come across some words in a book that precisely express what I feel. I shall quote from the excellent Jivamukti Yoga, by Sharon Gannon and David Life, and leave it there as a bit of food for thought:

Some contemporary yoga teachers interpret ahimsa more as an observance than as a restraint, as a directive not to harm yourself. ‘Don’t be aggressive in your asana practice, be kind to your body,’ they say, or ‘Don’t restrict your diet with extremes like vegetarianism; it might harm you.’

“Not harming yourself is an aspect of ahimsa, certainly, but it is of less importance than the directive to avoid harming others. If you limit your practice of ahimsa to being kind to yourself, you will deny yourself the ultimate benefit of yoga practice, which is everlasting happiness. Everlasting happiness is achieved by putting the welfare of others before your own.”

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