Ahimsa (non-violence) is an important part of yoga philosophy, and one of the yamas (guidelines for living well) on the eight-fold path (eight limbs) of yoga.
We can think of this in many ways.
Non-violence towards others.
It may be obvious that we do not want to harm or kill other humans. We also want to root out violence in our feelings, thoughts, words and actions towards all beings. Are passive-agressive remarks to your friend or spouse violent? What about violent thoughts about the driver that cut you off in traffic? If we take more resources than we need, are we being violent towards other people? towards animals? towards nature?
Is eating meat violent towards animals? Is eating mass-produced, highly processed fake-meat products loaded with GMOs and preservatives less violent than eating a chicken raised humanely by your neighbor on a nourished piece of earth? Every action we take has far-reaching results, and we can do our best to be informed and act according to our principles. There may not be easy answers.
When these subtle and complicated gray areas arise, we can sit with the ideas. We may watch our own feelings or thoughts, and notice any corresponding internal conflict. There’s no need to create more internal conflict by beating ourselves up. All we can do is our best at this moment. We are growing our awareness.
Notice how your actions and words make you feel. Do you feel better or worse if you respond angrily in a political debate? How do you feel if you listen, and take in the other person’s perspective, if just for a moment?
“Hate does not drive out hate. Only love can do that.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Buddha
Non-violence towards the self.
Most spiritual teachers agree that non-violence actually begins with the self, and that any internal conflict reflects as conflict in the outside world. The good news is that we have the ability to reduce the internal conflict through meditation, yoga & self-awareness practices.
“Either we accept the way of life as it is, with violence and all the rest of it; or we say there must be a different way which human intelligence can find, where violence doesn’t exist. That’s all. And we say this violence will exist so long as comparison, suppression, conformity, the disciplining of oneself according to a pattern is the way of life. In this there is conflict and therefore violence.”
~ J. Krishnamurti
Kindness towards the self.
When this all gets overwhelming, I like to come back to basic kindness towards the self. We can be very gentle with ourselves, very friendly towards the self. Laugh. That helps. Or cry. Whatever the experience is, experience it. There are no ‘shoulds.’
Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a dear friend, even in your thoughts.
Non-violence on the yoga mat.
Do you overstretching in your yoga asana practice, or hold poses when there is pain? Perhaps you are forcing your body into positions to mimic your neighbor or teacher, despite your body’s signals? Hurting yourself, even gradually (like with repetitive-motion injuries) is violence towards the self.
Ignoring your deep inner voice is violence towards the self.
In The Tree of Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar talks also about the violence that happens when we under-stretch in asana practice. If we are overstretching one side, we may be under-utilizing the other. It may seem that we are being kind to the side that we aren’t overstretching. We are not causing pain there, but he says, “It is also violence, as the cells will die when they do not perform their functions as they should.” So, inaction can also be violent.
In our practice, we work on intelligently integrating these dynamic forces, and “violence disappears.” (Iyengar) Some teachers call this “working on the edge.” Not over-stretching, not under-stretching, using intelligent action and effort. Energy flows, breath flows, and we can center in truth, in awareness.
So we practice. And we allow these inner kindnesses that we discover on the yoga mat to flow out into the world.