Thoughts About Ahimsa

This week we discussed in some of our classes the principle of ahimsa – non-violence, or non- injury. This principle is the beginning of Ashtanga Yoga as it is the first principle of the first element (Yama) of the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Presumably, we all want to live violence-free and without harming ourselves or those around us; nevertheless, the full realization of Ahimsa is difficult and requires thorough observation and practice.

We need to take into account that our survival instinct can be contradictory to the principle of non-injury. The debate over the fundamental question whether “men is created good” is ancient and can be looked at through various lenses. Are aggression and violence necessary for survival, or as Mahatma Gandhi said: if everyone enacts on “a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye” soon we will all be blind (or is it that only spiritually blind people hold this saying to be true). Some studies actually show that altruism among animals is a feature that promotes survival.

But let’s leave the philosophical/global arguments; last week I asked you to examine the following questions:

  • Which mental states arise the mood of Himsh (injury or aggression) in you?
  • When during practice (or outside of practice) do you tend to hurt yourself?
  • What are the situations or triggers that bring you to the edge, creating an anxiety in you that can potentially lead to violence?
  • When can neglect lead to violence?

During our conversations last week some interesting insights arose; we examined situations in life where injury transpires. Practice allows us to observe and study these situations. For example, I may decide to practice a pose that challenges my boundaries, or, for example, stay in a headstand well past my ability. This decision is ‘ head’ driven as it ignores my real physical capacity. If practice does not contain honest attention to the real ability of the body, then such a decision could result in injury.

One can generalize and say that every time I expect or demand something of myself or others, I can potentially create injury. When I demand something from someone else and am pressing them to meet my expectations regardless of their needs and desires, I can potentially create harm because I might hurt their autonomy and free will. On the other hand, expectations can sometimes be positive if they prompt action and serve as positive motivation.

Seemingly, if we do not practice we do not risk self- harm. But is it indeed so? Don’t we impoverish ourselves unintentionally in many other ways in our everyday life? Practice can be used as a laboratory to help us examine these conditions, so that we can recognize them in everyday life and avoid them.

Going a step further on this thought, if we feel that the practice makes us better, revitalizing our body and mind, then giving up practice that makes us feel so good is a form of injury.

Neglect can be damaging.  Iyengar writes about this beautifully in his book “The Tree of Yoga” when he says that in an unbalanced stretch there is dual harm: the side that over stretches is hurt deliberately, but the side that is under-stretched is hurt undeliberately because a partial stretch means we are not nourishing the body on that side as we are supposed to.

Another interesting question is how to maintain my boundaries and not let others hurt me, without being offensive?

I don’t think there are definitive answers to these questions and I leave them to you for further contemplation. Practicing yoga in classes and especially at home is an opportunity to look within ourselves and to examine these questions.