Ahimsa and the Yogic Path
“When the yogi has thoroughly understood the nature of violence, he is established firmly in the practice of non-violence. Peace in words, thoughts and deeds, whether awake or dreaming, is a sign of goodwill and love towards all.”
Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on Sutra II.35
While we understand ahimsa to mean non-violence, we may see the word and think, of course I do not wish violence on anyone, I do not harm others. But as BKS Iyengar states above, to be established in ahimsa (non-violence), we must thoroughly understand the nature of himsa (violence).
Rohit Mehta also describes the subtle ways that violence can express itself:
“But the yamas refer to habits and tendencies of the body and mind and not merely to certain outer patterns of behavior and conduct such as polished manners so as to be socially respectable. One may not do physical injury to the other, but this is not all that is meant by ahimsa or non-injury. To indulge in carping criticism, to use a language which gives offence, even to subject the other person to a process of comparison-all these are negations of ahimsa. To give up all such tendencies and habits is conducive to bodily and mental health.”
Yoga the Art of Integration by Rohit Mehta, page 145
So an important first step is to reflect on the subtle and yet potent ways that himsa (violence) expresses itself in our daily lives before we can come closer to ahimsa.
Here is another translation/commentary on the same Sutra II.35 on the effect of practicing ahimsa from Rohit Mehta
When one is established in ahimsa or non-injury no hostility or resentment can exist in its vicinity.
The Art of Integration, page 160
For me, reflecting on this effect of practicing ahimsa, shows me how far I am from this yama and gives me a sense of how pure and powerful this yama can be. When I am in situations where hostility or resentment are present, what is my part in this? If I was totally without a trace of himsa (violence), no resentment would be there.
BKS Iyengar states in the introduction to Light on Yoga that while ahimsa means non-violence it is more than a negative command not to kill but has a broader positive meaning, love. One who has not a trace of violence, can only have love for all creation. How can there be any hostility or resentment around such a person? While this may seem an impossible dream, it can serve as guide to help us step by step as yoga is a practice …to make the ideal the actual one step at a time.
Step by Step, Cultivating Ahimsa into our Practice of asanas
Asana practice serves as a space where we can study ourselves and from this self-study begin to cultivate the yamas and niyamas. Often how we respond to a particular asana can be similar to how we respond to difficult situations in life.
For example: When the posture is difficult
Why is my throat getting tight? Why are my eyes getting hard? This hardening of the nerves brings himsa (violence). Can I change this? Asana practice is not just cultivating the body, but the mind as well.
I notice tendencies in how I practice the poses. For example, I favor jumping up into handstand with one leg and it is easier to practice headstand with one interlock rather than the other so I favor this side more. However, this way of working is actually creating more harm because the weaker side only becomes weaker and I have not addressed the challenges but made them worse. When I can work through these challenges in the postures it gives me a confidence that I can handle difficult situations in life.
The imbalance in my legs in handstand puts different pressure on my shoulders and arms as well.
When we are in a yoga class, we may become self- conscious as it appears that others can do the pose more easily. Comparing ourselves to others is a form of harm as it takes us away from our own experience of ourselves. The asanas are meant to be tools to build self-awareness. BKS Iyengar has said the following about self- awareness and self-consciousness:
“However, it is necessary to point out that students should be self-aware, not self-conscious. Self-consciousness is when the mind constantly worries and wonders about itself, doubting and being self-absorbed. When you are self-conscious, you are going to exhaust yourself. You are going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch and not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.
“Self-awareness is the opposite of self-consciousness. When you self-aware, you are fully within yourself, not outside yourself looking in. You are aware of what you are doing without ego or pride.” Light on Life, page 31
If you experience places within your pose that carry himsa (harm), is there a way that you can transform that towards ahimsa?