I grew up a pacifist. Along with an entire generation of anti-Vietnam War youth, I was devoted to and energized by the Gandhian principle of ahimsa and other ideas of nonviolence. Still true to these influences in later life, I cofounded the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which supports teachers who bring yoga and meditation to underserved populations.
But the younger me might not have predicted that part of its core mission would be to bring yoga to veterans, active-duty soldiers, and their families. Or that my son’s oldest and best friend, someone very dear to me, would be serving in Afghanistan, while my youngest daughter joined the Israeli Defense Forces. Thus, now in mid-life, I find myself standing in what appears to be a contradiction: I profess to be guided by ahimsa, and yet people I love, as well as those served by Give Back, are trained not just to defend but also to attack.
At times I allow myself to wallow in the apparent contradiction and can be quite convinced of the righteousness of my confusion. Other times I understand that even the appearance of this so-called contradiction is itself based on unfair and toxic judgments that are buried deep within me and that I even nurture and protect. Sometimes I confidently paddle around in my private sea of judgment; sometimes I can clearly see the whirlpool in which my judgments have caught me.
Recently, I joined a teleconference class called “Teaching Yoga in Military Settings.” The class was offered by Warriors At Ease, an organization that trains and certifies yoga and meditation teachers to work effectively within military culture and safely with combat-related injuries and conditions. Our first homework assignment was to examine our own thoughts and opinions about serving this military population. After three weeks, I still had not completed it. I found it so difficult to overcome the contradictions I had uncovered in myself. I was holding onto old feelings based on conflicting judgments about people’s choice to serve in wars. I needed to do some work on myself before I could do the homework.
I turned for help to the wisdom of Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras, in which he defines ahimsa as “nonviolence.” I figured out that for me, actively practicing ahimsa means replacing the judgments I cling to with compassionate acceptance, kindness, and forbearance of thought. This task will take me this lifetime, at least.
I’d hazard a guess that I’m not the only yogi who’s a prisoner of his or her judgments. Many people have an aversion to working with specific populations—whether it’s the homeless, incarcerated youth and adults, people with HIV, or people trying day by day to beat alcoholism or substance abuse. The challenge of working with underserved populations is the everyday practice of looking at that aversion and finding the common humanity in us all.
The Give Back Yoga Foundation and many other nonprofit organizations are dedicated to helping yoga teachers reach such underserved populations. Two of the most important things we do may be to model how we work with our own judgments and to help others do the same. It is this inner work that can help all of us feel inspired and empowered to step up and get involved.
Note: This essay originally appeared in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy (2011; Vol. 21).