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Ahimsa, the practice of non-violence

The classical Yoga of Patanjali, an Indian sage who lived more than 2,000 years ago, was ashtanga yoga, or the eight-limbed path. Patanjali recognized that some of us might naturally be able to rest in a state of absorptive awareness, or samadhi. For the rest of us,

he laid out the eight-fold path, delineating all the steps to support the arising of steady, absorptive awareness.. The eight limbs of classical yoga are:

  • Yama

  • Niyama

  • Asana

  • Pranayama

  • Pratyahara

  • Dharana

  • Dhyana

  • Samadhi

For us to transform as human beings, to reach our full potential, we need a calm and steady mind. The eight limbs of yoga lead us there. Each limb contains all the other limbs, so we can practice all eight limbs within any one limb.

The first limb, “Yama” refers to those wise characteristics we practice in order to live in harmony with others and the world around us.  If we are not living in harmony with the world around us, it will be difficult or impossible to still our minds, or come into yoga.

The 5 yamas are:

  • Ahimsa – non-violence

  • Satya; truth

  • Asteya – non-stealing

  • Bramacharya – containment of energy

  • Aparigraha- non-grasping

The practice of Ahimsa (non-violence). 

Mukunda Stiles’ translates Patanjali’s sutra on ahimsa, II,35, with these words:

By abiding in nonviolence one’s presence creates an atmosphere in which hostility ceases.

Violence is enacted in big obvious ways through yelling, screaming, hitting, etc, and passive aggressively, through withholding love and care from others or ourself. We honk, give the finger, and yell in our cars, and we express our violent energy on those weaker than ourselves: those on the other end of the phone in customer service, the host at the restaurant or our server. We often harbor angry and resentful thoughts about people, gossip in ways that are harmful (is it ever not harmful?), yell and de-stress on our loved ones. We can be ruthlessly cruel with ourselves, and drive ourselves mercilessly.

Ayurveda teaches us to express the urges of the body (yawn, sneeze, fart...) but to hold our emotional urges. Holding allows us to feel the energy of the emotion in our body:the clarity and energy of anger, the steely cold intensity of hatred, and then to find the right outlet for the energy, so we can express what needs to be expressed without doing harm. This is ahimsa.

Non violence asks us to do what a good enough mother does with her child. When her child is angry and violent, she contains the child, and then helps the child express their feelings without hurting themselves or others. The child is held through the feeling, and is able to feel and then release/express the energy of the emotion. Afterwards, there is help with soothing, understanding, and, perhaps, making things right with another party.

Many of us were not taught how to be with our emotions, or worse, we were taught that anger and aggression is wrong, and so we suppress our anger, or act it out passive aggressively. This is NOT ahimsa, for suppressing emotions is self-violence, a cause of disease. Instead, we can learn how to be with, express and learn from our emotions. We can do this work with a body-based therapist or coach, with a spiritual teacher, a counselor, or a wise friend (reach out if you want a referral).

The Buddhist meditation teacher Stephen Levine once said that we learn to be loving by noticing how unloving we are.  This week, I invite you to learn to be non-violent by noticing how violent you can be.  Begin to pay attention to the ways you leak aggressive energy into the world in small ways.  Begin to notice the ways you talk to yourself, how often the inner voice is critical, harsh and unkind, and how you talk and behave with those nearest and dearest to you.

Don’t use your discoveries as more fuel for your inner critic (I am really a terrible person for being so unkind); instead celebrate the wakefulness you exhibit when you notice the aggression within yourself.  Feel humble, for we are all learning.  We learn to be non-violent by noticing how violent we are.

This week, practice ahimsa.


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