In Patanjali’s Eight-Fold exposition on the path to enlightenment he succinctly states the stages all seekers must go through to realize the Self, the goal of all Yoga. The first stage or limb of that journey in yogic development is a series of psycho-physical self-restraints called the Yamas. It seems that if we are to truly know the Self, be enlightened, or realize unity with creation, we need to experience a definite change in our own physical and mental attitudes. The single most important attitude that must be developed in the Yogi is that of Ahimsa, often translated as non-violence or non-harming.
If the Yamas were the building blocks of personal transformation, then ahimsa would be the cornerstone of that foundation. Ahimsa was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi who practiced it as a penance. He took ahimsa to an extreme and in doing so set an almost unattainable standard for the rest of us to strive towards. Our world today is a chaotic one where individual drive and self-righteousness easily bring people to blows, our leaders consider war and direct violence an answer to many difficult international situations, and the vast majority of our TV shows and movies are filled with violence and aggression. As one Yogi stated this world is not conveniently arranged for the practice of ahimsa!
For sure the first step to non-violence is related to our physical actions. Hopefully everyone reading this article has already established non-violent behavior towards other people! A cursory glance at the Yoga Sutras and you might think you have cracked it…the pondering student reflects that he has not engaged in any fights this year, so this ahimsa is not so hard after all. However, for someone to perfect ahimsa, it goes much much deeper than our physical actions: we must conquer the psychological and emotional traits. The Yoga sutras are notoriously cryptic. The individual sanskrit words are like a technical and logical code to be unpacked and examined by those with intuitive insight. One thing my own teachers have expressed to me is that with each Yama (restraint) the Yoga Sutras provide a definition of what it means when someone has perfected that state of being. This gives us a clue to what Patanjali really means when he tells us to have ahimsa. The Sutras state that the evidence that one is established in ahimsa is as follows:
Sutra II:35 In the presence of one who is firmly grounded in harmlessness all hostilities cease.
Ponder that statement for a moment……have you ever been in the presence of someone who radiated such inner tranquility that you felt a palpable peace just by being next to them? The consciousness of someone established in harmlessness would essentially override or transform the state of someone who harbored negative thoughts and emotions toward them. That’s profound and a highly advanced state of consciousness!
Many Guru devotees like to tell tales or even show pictures of a wild tiger who, on approaching their Guru, becomes as tame as a pussycat. This is proof to them and to skeptics that ahimsa has been perfected and their Guru is an advanced Yogi.
So there is more to this non-violence than just restraining outward actions and even your inner thoughts. Sure, it’s good work to not get furious when traffic is bad on the way home from work. This is yogic training but to really advance your practice (yes this is a yoga practice in itself) can you face traffic and not react? Remain calm and equanimous as you navigate frustration, challenges and crises. What about when someone criticises or hurts your feelings and your mind plays the game of payback trying to find the ego’s victory in your imagination?
These mental scenarios go on and on. Those of us endeavoring to improve our state of ahimsa are each trying to figure out what is the most appropriate non-harming response in every significant situation. This causes a lot of reflection and consternation as we have to balance being truthful and standing up for what we believe in. This interpersonal scenario opens up the most controversial element of ahimsa. How far do we take non-violence even in the face of attack? When do we walk away versus have the courage to stand up for ourselves, perhaps even in the face of abuse, and strike back? This dilemma has been debated for ages. For this article, all I will offer is the guidance of Yogis who state there is a Dharmic (righteous) duty to the truth and overcoming negativity. Hence we must take action in the face of such negativity both individually and as a society. To allow ourselves and even our society to be downtrodden by negative influences is in itself harming to people. Therefore, it is our duty to stand against negative influences. The big differences are that, as Yogis, we recognize people’s harmful actions as coming not from their true Selves and we act for the good of the whole not just ego based reactivity.
The line of action versus passivity is a fine one between seeking the highest good in each situation and assuring ourselves that our initial reactions are not just our ego trying to win its corner. Discernment and self-observation need to be developed throughout our lives. For the purpose of this article I want to remind you of the Yogic tools that can help you develop equal mindset in the face of challenges.
Integrate meditation into your daily yoga routine. If you have an hour to spend on yoga, I suggest 5-15 minutes of that time spent in sitting meditation. Even if your meditation abilities are not so great, it still works wonders. Studies show and yogis describe how our sense of self expands in meditation: we are less concerned with the little things and we feel more compassion and even a direct connection to others. When we meditate daily our reactive mental process quietens. With compassion, lower reactivity, and expanded sense of self, we literally don’t want to harm other people, animals or our planet because we are connected in our consciousness. Ahimsa develops naturally with regular meditation.
Develop inner listening and introspection. This applies to the steady stream of subconscious thoughts flowing through your awareness. We all know about negative thinking, criticism, doubt and despair, however at any moment we can change the thought. Take charge of your mind and develop new mental habits for your well being. Ask yourself, does this thought or comment present harm to another or myself? What would be a more benevolent thought in this situation?
Once inner listening is established and meditation becomes more commonplace, you can take ahimsa practice to the next level, become aware of mental and emotional patterns, and begin to root out the weeds of the heart chakra.
When contemplating any tenent of yoga philosophy especially any of the yamas, mental conditions to be restrained I suggest taking a moment to reflect on the greater goal of yoga that is uniting and absorbing our individual consciousness to spirit or cosmic consciousness. Much is made of “being one with the Universe” it appears from frontier science that we live in an ocean of consciousness, we are interconnected beings literally so how we think, speak and act has a direct impact on the greater consciousness whether we ignore it or not. Simply put if we are all One then if I harm another I harm myself. If I strike another the energy created must circle back in the unknown future in the same way a pendulum swings it must swing back. This is the hidden natural law of cause and effect known in the Yoga tradition as karma. Could you truly realize a unified at-one state if you harbored harming thoughts? It’s just not possible.
For yogic development to occur there needs to be a positive flow of energy that works alongside the restraint of negative harming energy. Each Yama (restraint) can be partnered with a Niyama (observance). We need to redirect the flow of energy. If we just resist the negative flow, the energy builds up like water at a dam. Develop purity in your thoughts and your feelings, fill your life with kind people, enjoy uplifting music and film, find beauty in the simple things, and place yourself in others’ shoes so as to know their suffering. Speak your truth, yet listen to others, and know we are all brothers and sisters in this ocean of consciousness.
May your heart be filled with Peace
May your thoughts be calm and collected
May your words be as sweet as honey
May all hostilities cease