Our minds immediately go to historical figures like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. when we hear about nonviolent concepts like theirs. Several articles incorrectly call Gandhi the "father" of nonviolence, failing to realise that he was symbolically reclaiming India's rights and identity from the British Raj by embodying what had long been integral to ancient Indian spiritual teachings: ahimsa.
Nonviolence, or ahimsa as it is more accurately translated from the Sanskrit, means "absence of injury," and it is a concept that has its roots in the Vedas, the Indian spiritual and philosophical texts that date back to at least 1900 BCE, or nearly 4,000 years ago. The Vedas, whose name means "divine knowledge," were originally transmitted orally over many centuries and were widely held to have no single author. Vyasa, a wise man, compiled and recorded the four Vedas (including the Bhagavad Gita) in Sanskrit. Another sage, Patanjali, is credited with studying these Vedic texts and creating the Yoga Sutra, the foundation of the eight limbs of classical yoga.
The first of the eight limbs, yama, or self-regulation practises, ahimsa is meant to free us from succumbing to our baser nature. In order to lead more mindful and free lives, Yama practises are often compared to cleansing rituals for the mind, body, and spirit. In addition to being one of the yamas in yoga, ahimsa is a central tenet of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Nonviolence is the highest path we can take, and great leaders like Gandhi understood this. Unfortunately, it may be difficult for us to adhere to ahimsa as a sole way of life given the demands of our modern day jobs and responsibilities. Instead, there are ways to go about our daily lives that put ahimsa to good use.
Nonviolence in Asana Practice
When our physical yoga practise doesn't advance as quickly as we'd like, it's easy for anyone, from total beginners to the most experienced yogi, to feel frustrated.... With Ahimsa in mind throughout our yoga practise, we are able to let go of self-criticism and learn to fully accept our bodies as they are right now, strengths and flexibility included. In this context, nonviolence means not harming oneself physically; we challenge ourselves to grow, leaning into the unknown even if it scares us, but we never harm ourselves. Who gives a crap if you can put your leg behind your head, or if you can hold a handstand long enough to satisfy your vanity?
Sustainability and genuine self-discovery can be achieved through setting and honouring healthy limits and tuning in to one's body.
When we release our rigid beliefs about what we'should' be able to do and refrain from berating ourselves with negative self-talk, our bodies become allies rather than adversaries. We can relax into the idea that our physical form is a means, not an obstacle, to personal independence.
Ahimsa in Eating Habits
Do I have to be a vegetarian or vegan now that I'm practising yoga? is a question frequently asked by new yogis. While it's true that following the teachings of Ahimsa, which advocate for nonviolence toward all living things, may lead one to believe that they should avoid eating animals, a balance must be struck... If you find that restricting your diet has negative effects on your health, you should reconsider your approach. Do you think you could make some adjustments so that your spending prioritises businesses that don't harm the planet? What do you think of organic food? Try going meatless at least a couple of times per week.
No matter your personal beliefs about eating meat and other animal products, we can all play a role in doing what's best for our bodies and the planet.
Ahimsa in our thinking
How we think affects our physical and mental health tremendously. Even if you're the healthiest person you know on the outside — in terms of diet, exercise, and the use of vitamins and minerals — negative thoughts can still have an adverse effect on your mental and physical well-being.
Ahimsa means not letting our minds wander. Negative thoughts trigger the body's "fight or flight" response, releasing cortisol (also known as the "stress hormone"). When our defences are down, we're more likely to get sick or hurt. We shouldn't just watch the thoughts we have about ourselves; even if they're directed at another person, negative emotions like jealousy, judgement, anger, or resentment will eventually make us feel bad about ourselves.
However, dopamine (the "feel good," "relaxation" chemical) is released into the body in response to "non-violent," loving thoughts. Our immune systems are bolstered, and we may be able to recover from illness as a result.
It has been shown in a number of studies published in medical journals that patients who were classified as "optimists" had stronger immune systems, recovered faster from injury and illness, and lived longer than pessimists.
In addition, the joy we feel when we focus on positive thoughts spreads to those around us. Having a happy friend increases our own likelihood of happiness by 25%, according to research. Having a friend or neighbour who is happy boosts our own happiness levels by 6%.
When we look beyond the physical challenges of yoga, like headstands and splits, we can see that the yoga path has so much more to offer than just physical benefits.
Ahimsa begins with compassion for self
The effects of a life dedicated to nonviolence are felt on more than just the outside. We need to practise self-compassion as well as external kindness and compassion. For some, this challenge may be more daunting than being hospitable and affectionate. This is a common obstacle faced by grapplers. It's possible that your pursuit of excellence and development will lead you to constantly push yourself to work harder, stretch further, and go beyond your comfort zone. Such an effort is self-destructive and violent.
Try to grow more self-aware rather than aggressive if you find that you have this tendency. Whenever you feel the urge to recklessly test your limits, pause and take stock of the situation at hand instead. See if you can hold yourself in the moment before you reach your physical or mental limit whenever you feel compelled to do something your body is fighting against.
This doesn't give you licence to coast through life; on the contrary, you need to be alert and in tune with your limits at all times. An individual's edge is the point at which they are pushed to their limits but are able to keep their balance, focus, and breath even as they do so. Realizing where your personal limit is helps immensely when trying to practise ahimsa on the mat.
The central tenet of ahimsa is not its prohibition on killing, but rather the love that it promotes. The first and most important principle of classical yoga is love, both for oneself and for all other living things.