The yamas and niyamas of the Yoga Sutras form the ethical and moral guidelines for yogis and yoginis who aim to practice Yoga in all aspects of their lives. In the following article, Madhavan Mark Wolz explores the first yama, ahimsa, and how to practice it in the workplace and beyond.
Ahimsa in the Workplace
Ahimsa means causing no harm. The first step to practicing ahimsa is becoming conscious of what harm is. The best way to do that is to consult your heart. When harm is being done—to you or to someone next to you—you feel it where your heart and mind are centered, in your soul. Another part of your mind might want to rationalize or minimize or make excuses in the situation, but if you place your hand over your heart and feel the movement and temperature of your breath, you will know whether harm is being done.
In the workplace, you’ll witness injury; sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s gross. Feelings are hurt, ideas are damaged, efforts are disregarded. Whenever you’re not sure if harm is being done, place your hand over your heart and check your breathing.
Whether we’re causing, enabling, witnessing, or suffering from an injury, we are affected by it. What effect does harm have on us? That’s one thing we can learn when we take up our Yoga practice.
Gossip in the Workplace
As a starting point, let’s look closely at a situation at work. What about gossip? The next time you find yourself engaged in gossip, observe the effects. First analyze the value and the worthiness of the information that is passed along. Then notice if there is a place in your body where you readily take in the gossip. How does it feel at the time, and how does it feel later on? Is there a place in your body where you resist the gossip—what does that feel like? How about your mind? See if there’s a part of your mind that accepts or rejects the gossip—not the information, but the activity of gossiping.
Answer true or false: A person who gossips about everyone enjoys a positive reputation and is on a fast track for promotion.
Return to observing your senses. When there’s gossip, check with an inner sensitivity to notice how it affects your body. Are the muscles along the sides of your neck and across your shoulders relaxed? Do you find tension in your jaw, thickness in the tongue? Are your eyes soft or hard? Are the cheekbones light? Is your breath soft and full, or is it hard and tight? What part of your mind is active, and what sorts of thoughts are winning your attention? How do those thoughts reverberate through the mind? What images and emotions do they resonate with?
Pause before you participate in gossip and ask yourself: (a) Is what I’m about to say necessary? (b) Is it helpful? (c) Would I say it if the person it is about were in the room? Just ask, and keep the answers simple. If you proceed with what you were going to say, observe the effects you feel now and later. If you choose not to go ahead with it, observe the effects you feel now and later.
Spend some time with these questions. Be quiet and let the answers come to you. No judgment. Just be observant in body, mind, and spirit. Let spirit include the social environment, now and later, as well as your own interior state. If you’re in doubt, remember, place your hand over your heart.
Test your response to other forms of harm. Notice where in your body you react. Mark what happens in your mind. Later on, when you move your body through a Yoga stretch, how does it affect those conditions you’ve identified in your body and in the state of your mind?
Learn to recognize the presence of harm by sensing the response pattern in your body, your mind, and your spirit. Be specific. Awareness is the first step toward disengaging from harmful or violent influences. When you stretch and breathe, remember your response pattern and invite accumulated tensions to release. Feel the release and enjoy the relief.
Are negative thoughts harmful? Observe. Is cursing harmful? Watch the response of an animal in the presence of cursing. Is there harm in impatience? Sarcasm? Allow yourself to sense the subtle effects.
You’ll learn the most by keeping the focus on your own role and on the effects of a situation. Try to recognize early stages that will lead to harm later. You’ll find most harm builds through an escalation.
Most harm points to an imbalance among people. When we can recognize the imbalance or sense a disharmony, then we can act to correct it or else disengage from it. Sometimes we’ll find we can’t disengage. That means we must correct the disharmony. And we must make the corrections in our own thoughts and actions. Practicing ahimsa in this way makes your Yoga proactive. Instead of allowing a buildup toward a reaction, you can create change proactively. The finer your sensitivity becomes, the more proactive you will be.
The precursor to harm is disharmony. Trace the antecedents to a bodily injury you’ve suffered: In what ways was your body out of sorts? In what ways were your thoughts or emotions disturbed? When you can feel in your body the presence of disharmony, you can correct it before it leads to injury. The same goes for the social environment or the workplace: when we can sense the beginnings of a disharmony, we can look for ways to rebalance the situation before injury occurs. The finer our sensitivity, the more proactive our practice of ahimsa becomes.