After the news of two mass shootings over the weekend, I arrived at my Gentle Yoga class Monday morning asking myself, “How does my yoga practice inform my response to these tragedies? What could I share with my students that would make them feel less powerless and more hopeful?”
My usual response to any challenge is to sit my butt on a meditation cushion and hope that inspiration sneaks in during my quiet contemplation. Monday, I didn’t feel inspired. In fact, like many other people, I felt jumpy and a bit fearful. Even the sound of the gardeners starting up the blowers to clear the parking lot of leaves made me tense up unexpectedly.
Finally, after what seemed like a long time…I had a thought. Like the tiniest flower growing up through a crack in a rock, I was reminded of the power of kindness. How could kindness help turn around the culture of hate and bigotry that feels so pervasive in our country right now? Might as well say we could create world peace by eating more chocolate. I wish that was true but likely it would only work in Willy Wonka’s world.
One of the most important tenets of yoga is ahimsa, or non-harming. This rule is supposed to be applied equally to yourself and to others. Ahimsa applies to words, thoughts and deeds whether you are on your yoga mat or in the grocery store, at the beach or even stuck in traffic! Keeping your thoughts positive, loving and free of expletives can be challenging when the guy in the Volvo next to you cuts you off right before your exit. Equally difficult is when you get the third robo-call in 20 minutes from an unknown caller. Even when you are trying to balance in tree pose, will power is needed to encourage positive self talk and not just lapse into reasons why you’re never going to be any good at one-legged yoga postures.
Kindness is ahimsa’s best friend. When I remind myself to be kind to my body, I listen more carefully to what its telling me in my yoga practice. I drink more water and eat less sugar. I walk more and sit less. I smile more frequently and hug more often.
Imagine then, after sharing this idea of kindness and ahimsa in class on Monday, how inspired I must have been, right?
After teaching, I stopped at Fred Meyer. You know the grocery store where you should go if the world is about to end, because they have everything you’ll need until you are rescued? This huge grocery store which I could have shopped in blindfolded for the last 20 years because I knew where everything was located has recently undergone an extensive remodel. The management of Fred Meyer clearly decided that it would be a fun social experiment to move absolutely everything from snap peas to orchids, from crab cakes to Scotch tape and then to take many weeks to put it back together. Nothing is in the same place except for the bathrooms. (Moving those would just be cruel! ) I am currently challenged to practice kind thoughts when shopping there because I can’t find anything! I really feel sorry for the shoppers who are dropped off by van every Tuesday from their various senior living facilities and have to try to find their milk and bread when remembering their own address is often difficult.
At any rate, I knew what I was in for on Monday as I hurried towards the store but decided it was easier than driving to another grocery store across town. As I approached the entrance I saw a tall young man, with saggy jeans and a T-shirt standing alone near what looked like a table full of Girl Scout cookies. I chuckled at the idea that he would be a Girl Scout and also reminded myself that cookies were not on my current “protocol.” (Kinder word for diet, don’t you think? ) Nearing the door, I saw him turn towards me out of the corner of my eye. He started shouting his practiced sales pitch. “We’re raising money for our basketball team to…”
I was half way to the avocados when I realized how utterly rude I had been to the poor guy who was just trying to raise money for his team. I had just finished teaching a class on kindness and ahimsa and yet I didn’t slow down, look him in the eye or even try to explain how cookies are not my friend. I just kept walking and ignored him. I don’t even know why the team needed money because I didn’t stop for the two minutes it would have taken for him to tell me his story. Maybe they needed new jerseys because the kids on the team couldn’t afford them. Maybe they were trying to go to Disneyland for the first time ever or maybe their coach has cancer and they wanted to help out. The reason doesn’t matter.
If I were really practicing kindness, I would have stopped. I would have listened. I could have donated even if I didn’t want the cookies. I could have told him to hang in there because its not easy to stand in front of Fred Meyer on a hot day and ask people to buy cookies, even though they are probably not going to find the cookies they are looking for inside the store because they are now located where the baby clothes used to be!
Some people think yoga is an advanced practice involving lots of Twister-like moves. The yoga postures, the breath practices and even meditation are not nearly as difficult or elusive as being kind. We have to break the old habits we’ve created of ignoring people we don’t know. We have to stop dismissing people who are trying to engage with us when we are in a hurry. Are we really too busy to stop and listen to someone for two minutes?
Changing a culture of hate starts with finding the small moments when we can connect with someone we don’t know, someone we think of as a stranger, and maybe making a difference in their life by listening to them or helping them.
The young man was gone on Monday when I exited with my avocados, quinoa and kombucha. He had packed up his cookies and left. I don’t know if he sold any or if he was going to have to eat them all himself. I didn’t get a second chance to help him, or to be kind. The next time I go to Fred Meyer though, I’m going to be ready. If he’s not there, maybe I’ll help someone else find the avocados or the new cookie aisle.
Tell me…have you found a way to be kind to a stranger lately? I want to hear about it! I want to know that we are all out there doing our best to shift our culture towards kindness. If you trip up and forget to be kind, like I did, you still have to practice ahimsa towards yourself. Give yourself a pep talk, ” You’re going to get another chance to be kind. Be ready!” I trust that like doing a yoga posture, kindness takes practice, but eventually it will get easier.