Ahimsa—non-violence—is one of the most important concepts in yoga. In fact, the Yoga Sutras say it’s not just important; they say that ahimsa trumps all. In other words, when in doubt about what to do in any situation, act with ahimsa above all else. But ahimsa’s not as simple as choosing not to slug your neighbor when he annoys you. Ahimsa means non-harming at all levels: actions, communications, intentions—even thoughts.
I don’t always succeed, but I’ve tried to live this way since long before I took my first yoga class. One memorable incident happened around third or fourth grade. I tearfully convinced my grade school science teacher to cancel the planned grasshopper dissection so I could release the small, winged creatures back out into the field. I’m pretty sure the grasshoppers were happier about my success than the school groundskeeper.
Fast forward 30 years and enter one willful, stubborn, and impossible-to-potty-train puppy.
I fell in love with Tasha the moment I saw her, even though she was only three weeks old. I gushed as I told the breeder all of my plans for the “soon-to-be-mine” puppy. Holistic vets, positive dog trainers—I even asked if Tasha could be vegetarian. The breeder’s expression changed from interest, to concern, to outright disbelief.
When I finished, she said, “I can’t sell a puppy to you. You’re too nice to own a German shepherd. This dog will walk all over you, and you’ll return her to me, ruined.” I begged her to reconsider. She did, but only after handing me a list of requirements: specific training books, Western vets, and high-meat dog foods. Then she sent me home and told me to come back when I could prove my worthiness.
Five weeks later, I returned, carrying a dog crate and looking my toughest. I threw around terms like prong collars, leash pops, and human pack leaders. Convinced she’d converted me, she sold me my dog.
Unfortunately, Tasha never read those training books.
She was smart as a whip, but had no concept of bladder control. I followed all the rules in the books. I tethered her to me; I took her out every hour; I carefully watched for the circling and sniffing they promised would happen.
It never did.
Tasha was a trickster. Her favorite trick was to wait until I went to the bathroom. Then she’d immediately squat just out of reach and do the same. I’m not sure who spilled more urine on our bathroom floor—her as she squatted, or me as I tried to grab her.
I e-mailed the breeder and followed her advice. I threw toilet paper rolls at my puppy; I rattled coins in jars; I sternly scolded her each time she was “naughty.” My tactics weren’t quite up there with shock collars, but they weren’t exactly ahimsa-like, either. The only thing that changed was Tasha. She had the same number of in-house accidents, but now she cringed, waiting to be punished, after each one.
This lasted a week; then I came to my senses. I tossed out the training books, stopped calling the breeder, and followed instead what I knew in my heart. Instead of punishing Tasha when she did wrong, I gushed with enthusiasm when she did right. The change was immediate. My puppy changed overnight from frightened and cringing to boisterous and happy. Perfecting her potty training took much longer, but I could live with that.
Over the years we’ve dealt with issues much more serious than soiled carpeting. But my training approach has stayed true. I treat Tasha with praise, love, and a complete lack of violence, in actions, words and vocal tone.
Tasha grew into a wonderful dog, but she wasn’t the only one changed. People noticed the shift in me, too. Since I’ve lived with my dog, people tell me I’m kinder; my interactions with others, more patient. Tasha taught me more about ahimsa than the sutras ever could.
Vets and trainers tell me that Tasha’s trust in me is impressive. Strangers walk by us, yelling at their own dogs while jerking their leashes. Then they stop and tell me they wish their dog was as well-behaved as mine. People even yell from the distance, “You two are so good together!” And they’re right. But only because I followed the yoga teachings instead of a well-meaning dog breeder.
My challenge to each of you is to examine your interactions with others—both human and animal. Notice your actions, communications, and thoughts. Try to act with more compassion—more ahimsa.
You may not change the behaviors of those around you, but you will definitely change yourself.
Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!
And for those of you interested, I did end up working with a great Seattle dog trainer, who shares this philosophy. They even use the word ahimsa in their business name! Ahimsa Dog Training. Here’s their link on ahmisa.