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Ahimsa as a Roadmap for Abolition 

As the discussion over yoga’s place in politics and public life continues to be debated, Yoga Journal is committed to providing a platform for thoughtful conversations that grapple with how—or if—yoga practice includes space for activism. This is the first in a series of essays by yogis who have considered the matter and have an important perspective to share.

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I discovered yoga as a physical practice, but over time my practice evolved. It began weaving itself into my everyday life, no longer relegated to the four corners of my mat.  I began exploring the spiritual components of yoga as I contemplated my own healing as a Black woman. Then last summer, I became a certified yoga teacher during increased awareness around policing of Black bodies.  As I continued to deepen my understanding of yoga, people were marching and protesting the loss of Black lives. 

Yoga life and real life merge at the concept of ahimsa. 

We often simplify ahimsa to mean non harming. However, a deeper analysis of the sutras defines ahimsa more broadly as moving past non-harm to radical compassion. Living in pursuit of ahimsa means more than just demonstrating kindness to the person whose mat is next to yours in class; it means committing to dismantling systems rooted in violence.  We imagine ourselves as innocent of harm because we as individuals refrain from harming our peers. But what about our participation in systems designed to harm? 

How can we claim to practice ahimsa if we aren’t actively working to change systems?  

Look at the carceral system, for example. Originally, prisons were created as a more humane alternative to capital punishment. However, after the Civil War, the 13th Amendment legally abolished slavery “except as punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

From this loophole, states ushered in Black Codes which permitted mass imprisonment of formerly enslaved Black people. From then until now, legislation has continued the trend of policing people of color. Today, the ACLU reports, “one out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys—compared to one of every 17 white boys”. These demographics are not accidental; they are the consequences of a carceral system fueled to keep people subjugated versus the desire to keep us safe. How can we achieve ahimsa while allowing this system to exist? 

But I’m not the one shooting people, you may say. I’ve never imprisoned anyone. How can I change this world I don’t control?  There are small ways you can make a difference. You can start by learning the history, studying the facts. I donate my disposable income to mutual aid funds in my community. There are bail funds and legal aid non-profits that need support. You can also connect with your elected officials to encourage them to divert funds from prisons to community care. 

I recognize this is not an easy ask. Imagining a world without prisons at first sounds alarming. But the practice of yoga asks us to sit with our discomfort. We have all the tools we need to challenge our assumptions and grow beyond them. Using ahimsa as our North Star, imagine what type of world could we create.

A nouveau Southern Belle, Ryan Croom is based in Atlanta where she works at a small startup. She is passionate about the intersection of wellness and social justice. You can see more examples of her writing here.