Image via WikipediaToday I spent 15 minutes sitting in a tub full of cold water watching dried blood flake off my heel and thinking about ahimsa. No, this is not a obscure yogic ritual. The cold water soak was keeping my feet and ankles from swelling after an 8 mile run on a warm afternoon. The blood was from a blister that gave up around mile 5 and failed to prevent the skin from being rubbed off my heel as blisters are supposed to do. And thinking about yoga's concept of non-violence? Maybe that's just where this yogini's mind goes after a fair amount of blood loss.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term from ancient yoga texts which translates as "non-harming" or "non-violence". How broadly the concept should be applied has been, and continues to be, a hotly debated topic among yogis. Some take it to mean that we should not harm any living thing and turn to vegetarian or vegan diets and animal rights activism. For others, it is enough to work on not harming ourselves when we practice yoga, being compassionate and caring about our own bodies in the asanas.
So why was I mulling over the idea of ahimsa while I sat in the cold tub?
The endurance athletes I know (distance runners and triathletes, mostly) tend to take pride in pain and injury. Not that we set out to injure ourselves, but if you follow any of our blogs you are likely to see pictures of road rash, lost toenails, blisters, knee surgery scars, etc. We wear scabs and bruises like badges of honor. They are a sign to our fellows that, in pushing our bodies to their limits, we faced adversity and we were tough enough to walk, or limp, away from it, ready to battle our limits another day.
If I'm beating myself to a pulp on a regular basis, am I violated the principle of ahimsa? Can I be a card-carrying, Yoga Sutra-reading yogini and run until my feet are bleeding? Isn't that harming myself? This is what I was contemplating in the cold tub.
Truth be told, I didn't come up with an answer during my icy soak. Nor have I found the answer since drying off, wrapping my heel in gauze and eating the entire contents of our refrigerator (running makes me hungry). All I know is that, despite the sore muscles and raw skin, running makes me feel good. The ultimate result is that my body gets stronger, my blood pressure gets lower and I have a great sense of accomplishment when, like today, I run further than I have before. Perhaps the means justify a non-harming end?
I'm sure I'll be mulling it over more, right after I contemplate how to get the blood stains out of my sneakers.