Yoga Diary: Sidewalk Yoga

A remarkable quality that many New Yorkers share is the ability to move at top speed. Shortly after moving to Manhattan, I found myself grumbling at slow walkers and quickly zigzagging around them on sidewalks like a seasoned city dweller. Then one day I noticed a billboard that read: “Where are you going?” I was floored by the simplicity of the question. I was going to yoga class at a blurring pace, as usual, but I wasn’t even late. In an instant I recognized a conflict with my practice: I was violently throwing one foot in front of the other with a scowling mind, oblivious to the world, annoyed with people who had every right to walk comfortably as I went to my class, where I expected to find peace and relaxation on my mat.

I committed to practicing sidewalk yoga, which for me was a way of mindfully practicing ahimsa (nonharming) with myself and others. Walking became a meditation that immediately led to other revelations. Because I chose to focus on slowing down, I became witness to the miracles happening all around. A man in an expensive suit helping a young mother carry a giant stroller down the subway steps. Concerned passersby stopping to pick up oranges that had rolled off a fruit vendor’s cart. An old man quickly pulling a child back on the sidewalk as a car ran a red light. Kindness everywhere, in this city of fast walkers. I learned to appreciate the yoga of each moment, the yoga that occurs when we are in the world with open eyes and light feet.

First do no harm: Yoga Sutra in Action

Yoga Sutra II.30: The principles of respect for 
others include nonviolence, honesty, non-covetousness, moderation, and non-greediness.

The five yamas, the first limb of Patanjali‘s eight-limb guide to an ethical, meaningful life, are principles for interacting with the people and all other living things in the world around us. Patanjali begins the introduction to the yamas in II.30 with ahimsa, or nonharming, for good reason. Ahimsa, the first yama, is the foundation for the remaining four that follow.

For example, Patanjali uses the word satyam for the second yama. Often translated as “truthfulness,” satyam means “truth that doesn’t hurt.” Likewise, if we practice astray (noncovetousness), brahmacharya (appropriate boundaries), or aparigraha (accepting only what’s appropriate), we act from a place of kindness and respect for ourselves and others.

This is perhaps the key piece inherent in the teaching of ahimsa: While it is a wonderful and noble thing to act kindly toward our neighbors, when we act harmfully, the person we harm most is ourself. 

Kate Holcombe’s teachings apply the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali to daily life. She is the founder and co-director of the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco.

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