Brains!

Here’s the thing, yoga is a huge, all-encompassing topic and ahimsa (non-violence) is just one microcosm of the much, much larger picture. And the truth is, we could go on and on for years talking about each fundamental aspect of ahimsa because for a microcosm, it’s pretty huge itself. But, we don’t intend to become a broken record – though I know we’ll make our way back to this topic, so this is it; part 4 of a 4-part series about nonviolence:

To recap, we’ve discussed that ahimsa is the first rule of all things (a.k.a. be nice), we’ve talked about the fact that the kiddos in our lives can easily identify how to be nice and that we as adults seem to be a bit fuzzier on the subject, and we talked about the fact that being nice should be ingrained in our hearts. Maybe none of that resonated (another topic we’ll get to…) with you and you’re sitting there wondering ok, but what does being nice mean for me? That my friends is in fact a valid question and we’re going to get to it today. – Nerd alert: this is about to get scientific.

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American Greetings card

If you’ve peeked at our site, beyond our blog, you may have noticed that we love to learn! As a result, we’re happy to read and report back on available research about yoga. The good news as it relates to ahimsa, it has been scientifically proven that through practice we can build empathy and compassion, 2 vital components of ahimsa, in the brain. Let’s start by explaining why yoga is different than other exercises which may also help in brain functioning, yoga is not an exercise… Yes, there is clearly a physical aspect to yoga asana (posture) and guess what, it builds strength, increases flexibility, and has the ability to lower our heart-rate and blood pressure just like exercise does. And it’s a lifestyle.

Meditation, pranayama (breath-work), and mantra (resolution), and yes even asana, help to change our mental and emotional bodies, too. And there is some evidence that different aspects of yoga change different parts of the brain: the physical work helps to build grey matter in the brain and meditation, pranayama, and mantra help to build grey matter in different parts of the brain, and/or in other ways than does physical exercise. Therefore, it would seem that if we practice yoga in multiple ways, we’re getting added benefits than had we just practiced one aspect of yoga or another type of physical exercise.

In fact, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have recently run pieces, and citing professional publication journal articles, regarding the positive changes of meditation on the brain. For instance, according to the study cited by the Post, a Harvard researcher found “thickening” in the walls of the left hippocampus (thought to be associated with “emotional regulation”) and the temporo parietal junction (“associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion”). That thickening created means more, a higher capacity for both of those things!

It would seem, however, that all of the studies available regarding the benefits of yoga on the brain suggests that much more research is needed as a result of the fact that the research is still so new. But, if these researchers turn out to be right and yoga in all forms can truly make our brains not only better at regulating our emotions, but empathizing and being compassionate for other’s experiences, won’t we in fact be a kinder, gentler, less (non-)violent society? Start practicing, take a personal 30-day yoga challenge and how your physical, mental, and emotional bodies will be rewarded!

A piece of clothing we never take off?

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”

Doing the ‘right’ thing is almost never easy, we’re faced with adversity each and every day and as a result, our conscious, ego-mind creates a response. Sometimes that response is automatic, involuntary and during other times it is meticulously crafted, these of course are extremes, we often live somewhere in-between these two states of action. But, when our hearts are heavy and we allow our purely instinctual responses to govern our behavior, we take action from the view-point of the individual-self.

The individual-self is responsible for ensuring that our personal needs are met and that we remain safe and secure, this is where our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can help. During times of real danger, our SNS creates our flight or fight response, preparing the body for exertion, but it can hinder us during times of unnecessary fear. Anxiety and excitement are two-sides of the same coin. The first stems from a perception of present danger and insecurity, while the second prepares us to be open to new experiences.

When we are standing in response to an injustice, our physical bodies are already on heightened alert. We fear danger, we seek change, and often we have anxiety. But, what if Gandhi is right? What if the act of ahimsa (non-violence) lives in our hearts? Then, it would stand that we should allow our hearts to be open, freely giving and accepting love. That, after all, is the most difficult thing to do; sharing love with those whom we recognize to be perpetrating injustice. We see our community in trouble and from a place of compassion and empathy we take action. It is intended as a pure act of global-Self expression, and then…

And then, we are tempted by anger and pain, we react to what is perceived as dangerous to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being and we respond with anger and himsa (violence). That is the act of taking off our nonviolent self like our work/school clothes at the end of a long and arduous day. We must start by opening our hearts and mindfully keeping them open. When we practice openness we invite love, balance, harmony, and care into our bodies, minds, and souls – into our hearts. And then, we must make a conscious effort to wear that love like the armor of a warrior. warrior II

Love is what protects us; with love we open ourselves up to pain, but to be human opens ourselves up to pain. The only way to close ourselves off from pain entirely is to become indifferent to all things. But, we’re not indifferent, as a community we stand together in response to injustice and from that community we create an army. But, as the first yama (self-control) reads, ahmisa (nonviolence): first do no harm, therefore we wear our love as armor and become an army of peaceful warriors, practicing peaceful resistance and making this world a truly better place, one act of nonviolence at a time

From the mouths of babes (aka, 4, 5, & 6 year olds)…

As it reads on our “What we do” page, I teach yoga. I teach yoga to all ages from grown-up to kiddos and no offense to the grown-ups, but the kiddos have got us beat – or at least they would if there were a competitive nature to yoga.

Let me explain; last week we talked about ahimsa (non-harming), the rule to govern all other rules and throughout July, we’d like to expand on the practical applications of ahimsa. Let’s start with those kiddos… You see, on Tuesday, I was blessed to teach a 4-hour Kid’s yoga mini-camp to six 4-6 year olds; it was an amazing day! But, 4-hours of movement is too many at one time and as you can guess, based on our love of doodles, we at the Playful Yogi believe whole-heartedly in the benefits of art. So, we did an art project.

As ahimsa was the theme of this month’s installment of the mini-camp I asked these kiddos, “What does it mean to love and be kind?” Their response, without hesitation, was to be nice in thought, word, and action. Sound familiar? Ok, ok, their words were a bit more “elementary,” giving examples rather than succinctly laying it out there, but when boiled down it meant exactly that. And then, they drew it.

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What love and kindness means to six 4-6 year olds and one grown-up

This begs the question, if several 4-6 years old can easily explain loving kindness, why can’t we act upon it? It seems to be a result of our ego… A primary goal of yoga is to remove ego, finding vidya (true knowledge) and working toward the universal self. Maybe we’re born egoless; it is our experiences which color and often taint our perceptions after all. If that is the case, what can we do to ensure that empathy and compassion, two primary characteristics of ahimsa, rule our behavior rather than fear and anxiety, two primary predictors of harm?

We start with imagining for a moment what it means to be someone else. Take some time this week to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and create an opportunity for a random act of kindness – it’s as simple as “holding the door for someone,” (their words, not mine).

A rule to govern all other rules…

Do not practice harm, this is rule number 1; it is the rule that governs all other rules. No matter which rules we follow we must always ask ourselves, “Will this cause harm,” before we proceed. The ashtanga (the eight limbs of yoga) read like a rule book. These eight limbs lay out a divine path and if followed culminate in the spiritual success of each individual life.

The first limb, the yamas, are a list of 5 straight-forward rules which are intended to govern our behavior. How we treat ourselves and more importantly others. And the first of these yamas? You guessed it, do not practice harm, (ahimsa). Harm rears its ugly head in many forms, it can take shape in thought, word, and action.

The thought of judgements about the way a person looks or dresses, for example, is not worth our time. We are inundated with sensory perception, concepts, and ideas all day, every day. Why do we insist on engaging these negative thoughts about ourselves or others? Especially when we consider the fact that if we wait 5 seconds we will likely be faced with an image or thought that we like and are interested in. Compliment the good and ignore the rest; why, because do not practice harm is rule number 1.  

Saying out loud the h-word, h*te, a word that in schools we consciously teach children not to say. There is no reason to hold onto such a distasteful feeling, there are plenty of other ways to describe your dislike of something. But, why do we feel the need to describe those feelings as they pertain to other people, at all? Sure, the second yama is satya (honesty or truthfulness), but if we first ask the question, “Will this cause harm,” we’ll likely find that the answer should stop us from expressing feelings of disgust. Why, because do not practice harm is rule number 1.  

Finally, acting on harmful feelings leaves physical and emotional scars on not only the one’s we’ve harmed, but on ourselves as well. Violence in the name of maintaining safety is still harm. That isn’t to say that we should stand by and watch as someone else is harmed, certainly we should thoughtfully find a way to intervene. But, lately there has been a pattern of seemingly unnecessary harming in the name of safety and as a result people are scarred, our community is scarred. And in these instances I have to ask why, especially because do not practice harm is rule number 1.

Peaceful warrior
Become a Peaceful Warrior

We have to remember that we are in fact 1, we are connected on every level. What happens to 1, happens to us all and we need to start thinking, speaking, and acting as such. There is a yogic chant which sums it all up: Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, may all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom.