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“In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”
 — from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, chapter 2, verse 35; translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda.

Practicing ahimsa can open the heart to beauty and joy, and create great shifts in how reality is perceived, or so has been my experience.

Ahimsa Defined

Ahimsa is translated as non-violence.  I’ve also seen it translated as non-harming.  I mentioned in a previous post that I think of ahimsa as the health care dictum:  First, Do No Harm.  To me, perhaps because health care has been a part of my entire adult life, this health care precept expresses the fundamentals of ahimsa.  Do what you need to do, but take care in the process that you are not making things worse, or causing harm… to yourself, to those around you, to the environment.

Here is a link  to an interesting read on the broader meanings of ahimsa. They suggest that the literal translation of ahimsa is  “lacking a desire to kill”  which of course brings to mind one of the ten commandments from the bible:  Thou Shalt Not Kill.   I could easily go off on a theological tangent here, but I will refrain and simply state that every religion that I know of has some directive that implies, at its core, do no harm.

Ahimsa Awakened

Here’s a story.  Years ago, I was working out at a gym.  It was a gym for adults, not for kids, and I preferred it that way.  On this particular day, I must have been very grumpy.  Who knows why – I don’t really remember the details of the day.  But I do remember the awakening that came from a moment of violence.

There was a woman present in the gym that day, and she had with her a young child.  I don’t know why – perhaps the management had made an exception for her for some reason. Children generally were not allowed in this area.  But there they were – mother and child.  The child was maybe 6 or 7, loud, and full of energy.  I was morose and wanting to be left alone.  For whatever reason (divine intervention, perhaps?) the child was constantly in my way – almost literally under my feet every time I turned around.  I was getting very exasperated.

At one point, I turned to the mother and said something – I don’t recall what – but it was not said with kindness.  I was clearly beyond annoyed. I was angry, and an irrational rage was stirring inside of me. The child backed off, startled and afraid.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, and called the child to her.  She said something else too, I don’t remember what, but I remember her genuine apology.

The woman spoke with kindness and a sincerity born of compassion, and my rage receded, the way boiling water immediately stops boiling when you turn down the fire beneath the pot.  Really, the child hadn’t actually been in my way. I was annoyed because she was there at all.  In reality, she was just a child, and enjoying the novelty of those great big exercise balls.  There was no danger to anyone, and there was plenty of room.  It was not the child who was the problem, it was me, my attitude.

The rage had receded, but I couldn’t quite let go of my defensive posture.  I mumbled something, I don’t recall what, and left the area.  I left the gym, got in my car and drove away.  In my mind, I saw the child’s reaction to my anger, and felt it as if I were the child.  I saw the mother doing the best she could, and I saw my own mismanagement of energy.  My anger turned to tears, and with a gift of sudden clarity, I saw the whole exchange from several points of view.

My attitude had been an act of violence.  My rage wanted to destroy that mother and child simply for being where I did not want them to be, and my anger was palpable.  I don’t know how our exchange affected the rest of their day – if they were able to shake it off and go on and have a good day, or if, as sometimes happens when someone gets angry at me, they carried a grey cloud of “yuck” with them.  What I do know is that I had caused harm to an innocent child and her mother.   I had been violent, and it had repercussions.

Ahimsa Embraced

I am grateful for that encounter.  It changed me.  I saw clearly that violence is not just a physical act.  Violence can also be subtle, and come in the form of words, or attitudes, or thoughts.  Violence can be a harsh judgement of someone, or a selfish need to make someone be who we want them to be instead of accepting them as they are. Preceding any physical act of violence  is a more subtle expression of that violence.

Violence is something that we are all capable of at any time.  It is important to know that.  If we really understand that within us we have the capacity for violence, then we can also understand that within us we have the capacity for peace. Some of the most violent people I know are peace activists.  I wonder…. if all of those protesting violently for change were willing to first change their own behavior…. what would happen?

“Learn to manage your energy and you will come to know real peace.”  A teacher said this to me once, and he was right.  Cultivating kindness, compassion and non-violence is a process.  Begin with yourself.   If violent impulses arise, don’t judge yourself as no good. That becomes an act of violence toward yourself.  Instead, be compassionate.  Yes, I am angry, and in the recognition, maybe the anger can recede just a bit.

Ahimsa on the Mat

It takes practice to embody ahimsa.  The yoga mat is a useful place to begin.  Which pose offers the best opportunity to practice ahimsa?

Whatever pose that causes you to judge yourself as not good enough.  Whatever pose you want to push through harshly so that you can “get past”  this place you don’t like.  Whatever pose brings up anger, or annoyance, or impatience.  In general, the poses we don’t like! 😉

Be kind.  Be kind to your body on the mat.  Be kind to your mental energy, and honor the practice style you need for this day.  Be compassionate, and trust that your yoga practice will give you exactly what you need.

You wouldn’t turn to the person on the mat next to you and say “That is a really lousy expression of that pose! You really suck at this!”  Would you?  Then why say that to yourself?  Honor where you are, what you look like in the pose, and the opportunity it gives you to practice ahimsa.

Ahimsa Off the Mat

Be kind.  Practice random acts of compassion.  Be patient with the person who bumps into you as you both reach for the same item on a grocery store shelf.  Slow down a bit on the road, and generate compassion for the driver who just cut you off, because maybe he just lost a best friend and he doesn’t know how to manage his pain and fear.  Smile at that really annoying child and recognize that she just needs a bit of laughter or a kind word.

It’s fun, really to watch what happens when you begin to live like this.  People smile more, doors open easier, joy slips in almost unnoticed.

Ahimsa.  It’s a pretty awesome yama.

How does ahimsa factor into your daily practice, on or off the mat?

Read: Ahimsa ~ Part 2