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yogi’s guide to public health: ahimsa

We here at Hyde are not medical doctors, but we are pretty well versed in the theory and practice of yoga. A system which, as you likely know, is designed to move the practitioner from suffering to happiness — and ultimately to full spiritual enlightenment.

But given where we are in this global moment, let’s focus on getting out of suffering — the mental suffering of uncertainty.

Patanjali is yoga’s most revered hero because he codified the vast tradition into one discrete manual, the Yoga Sutras. In this text, he outlines an ethical path for personal transformation: the eight limbed path of yoga.

The first step on this path is called yama, a Sanskrit word meaning, roughly, things to stop doing or behaviors to give up.

And there are five instructions, five yamas. The first of which is ahimsa, translated as non-harming or non-violence. As the first lesson of yoga, ahimsa is our foundational practice. The entire path, including the physical poses we know and love, unfolds from here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as you practice looking out for others, preventing harm from coming to them, you develop a stronger and stronger sense of compassion.

How can we practice ahimsa now?

Since our first aim as yogis is to avoid hurting others, we endeavor to approach any situation, medical or otherwise, with this spirit of compassion. The global spread of COVID-19 means that the stakes are undeniably higher now, making the practice even more important.

When we hear from doctors that we should wash our hands for 20 seconds or from epidemiologists that we should avoid unnecessary social engagements, we weigh these advices through the lens of ahimsa.

We can hear these instructions differently when we have made the mental decision that as yogis, per Patanjali, preventing harm to others is our first priority.

Thoroughly washing our hands makes us less likely to carry the virus and transmit it to others. Staying off airplanes and mass transit, and away from crowded places, makes it less likely that we will come in contact with the virus and transmit it to others.

A compassionate intention makes it easier to stand at the sink for a full 20 seconds (it’s kind of a long time!). It makes it easier to miss out on social events we were looking forward to. Because even if we ourselves have a strong immune system, we’re taking ethical actions to avoid transmitting the virus to others. 

Try undertaking the challenges and inconveniences of these next few weeks (or more? we don’t know yet) with the commitment to protect others, to shield them from harm. The not-so-surprise benefit of this practice is likely to be that your mind gets happier, your outlook brighter, and your nerves calmer.

For more thoughts on ahimsa, including how we at Hyde practice in our business operations, read on.