June 4, 2012

Ahimsa: Nonviolence on Your Yoga Mat and Beyond

The concept of ahimsa - non-violence - has been weighing heavily on my heart for the past several weeks.  When I say "weighing on my heart" I don't mean to imply that this is a negative experience, but rather that my awareness of this yogic concept has been in the forefront of my mind.  In particular, I have noticed a heightened consciousness of the importance of ahimsa while leading my students through their yoga practice.


As I have mentioned in previous yoga posts, the physical practice of yoga is just one of its eight limbs.  Yoga is an art and a science dedicated to creating union between body, mind, and spirit.  To seek this union, there are eight branches of yoga, none higher or more important than another.

  1. Yama - morality (i.e. non-violence, truthfulness, and non-greed)
  2. Niyama - observances (i.e. purity, contentment, and study)
  3. Asana - physical postures
  4. Pranayama - breathe exercises
  5. Pratyhara - control/withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana - concentration
  7. Dhyana - meditation
  8. Samadhi - union

Every individual is unique, and therefore might find themselves connecting to one or two of the branches of yoga more strongly than the others.  For instance, I find asana to be a particularly powerful branch of yoga.  I feel unified when I work with my body, as opposed to against it.  For me, asana is akeen to a moving mediation.  There are times when I feel as though I am in communion with God when I am practicing, and for that unity, I am so very thankful.

Regardless, the eight limbs of yoga are not designed to operate in silos apart from one another.  On the contrary, they are designed to complement one another in a manner that creates a holistic and complete yoga practice that addresses the mind, body, and spirit equally.

So what do any of my ramblings have to do with ahimsa?

Well, I explained all of that to say that there is a very important role for the yama ahimsa in the physical practice of hatha yoga.  Although, you don't necessarily have to take my word for it.  Take, for instance, yoga master Judith Lasater's musings on the subject:
Ahimsa refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts.  What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm.  To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions.
It is often said that if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all the other practices are subsumed in it.  Whatever practices we do after the yamas must include ahimsa as well.  Practicing breathing or postures without ahimsa, for example, negates the benefits these practices offer. 


I remember a time when I acted violently toward my own body.  Not only did I starve myself, but I also binged, purged, worked-out beyond my bodies limitations, and ignored any cues of injury or harm.  I harbored no love for my own body, and as a result, felt no qualms about harming it intentionally, repeatedly, and for years on end.

Until yoga came into the picture.

Combined with the unconditional love of family, friends, and a great psychologist, yoga began to open my eyes to the giftedness of my physical form.  Yoga taught me to listen, to honor, and finally to love my body. I began to view my body for its strengths, as opposed to its weaknesses; and I began to focus on what my body could do, as opposed to what it looked like.  In summary:

Yoga brought my focus from the outside in,
taught me how to practice from the inside out!


So many physical activities in life tell us to "feel the burn" and "no pain no gain."  In many cases, we are taught that the only way we can get the body we want - or think we need - is to inflict harm upon it.  But yoga teaches us to embrace the balance between effort and ease.  To find your "edge" - that place where you feel the body growing and strengthening - where you can still breath, relax, and enjoy a peaceful state of mind.

Yoga reminds me that I don't have to be violent to myself in order to become the person I want to be physically, mentally, or spiritually.


As a teacher, I want to create a space that gives my students the freedom to practice ahimsa.

I want my students to know that I don't expect perfection - ever - and neither should they.  

I want to give my students permission to listen to their bodies, and modify accordingly.  


According to Sri Swami Sivananda:
Practice of ahimsa develops love. Ahimsa is another name for truth or love. Ahimsa is universal love. It is pure love...Where there is love, there you will find ahimsa. Where there is ahimsa, there you will find love and selfless service. They all go together."


How can we bring the practice of ahimsa off our yoga mats and into the world?


Next time - a protein-enhanced "Panzanella Salad" recipe perfect for a light, cool dinner (not to mention a great way to use up the stale bread in your pantry)!

Question of the Day:

Do you believe in nonviolence?

Ally and Bo

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