Ahimsa: Nonviolence, Compassion and Kindness by Melissa West Ph.D.

by Melissa West on May 11, 2010

  In my yoga classes right now I am doing a series of classes centered around the yamas and niyamas from Patanjali’s yoga sutras. The Yoga sutras are one of the primary, and definitely most popular spiritual text associated with the practice of yoga. The yamas and niyamas are often compared to the ten commandments from the Christian bible, partly because there are ten yamas and niyamas and ten commandments, but also because they are the ethical rules we choose to live our life by. 

    When I hear the word ethics, part of me wants to yawn and fall asleep, and yet there is this other part of me that totally perks up and becomes interested in the shadow parts of our personalities that we try again and again to hide from the light of day. By studying  the yamas and niyamas we are able to explore and bring awareness the moral principles that guide our daily interactions. 

    The yamas are a series of ethical guidelines designed to help us get along with other people. Yama means social observance and the root of yama, yam, means restraint or control. So many times we evaluate our yoga practice based on our ability, or inability to be able to create certain postures within our body. In reality the true barometer of our practice is revealed in our interactions with other living beings. As Ram Das says, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

    It is easy for me to express kindness and compassion as a yoga teacher in front of my yoga class. The real test is when I’m trying to get my eight year old daughter to school in the morning, or when my husband is experiencing a sugar low and is less than amiable. (please note that husband could easily be interchanged with when I’m experiencing a sugar low). When it comes to our spiritual progress, the rubber hits the road when we are in relationship with other people. 

    The first social observance, or yama is ahimsa. Nicolai Bachman translates ahimsa as nonviolence and compassion. Chip Hartranft calls ahimsa a commitment to nonharming. Nischala Joy Devi  refers to ahimsa as reverence, love and compassion for all. What I love about ahimsa is it trumps all the other yamas and niyamas. Ahimsa is the first and most important social observance, in fact, all the other yamas and niyamas are meant to be practiced alongside ahimsa. 

    When I first bring up ahimsa in my yoga classes, I think most of my students believe they are non-violent people. However, there are many ways that we inflict violence towards ourselves and others. Our body is one of the main receivers of this violence, from eating the wrong foods, to not getting enough sleep, to pushing it towards endless hours of overwork, we inflict violence on our bodies on a daily basis. When it comes to our inner dialogue, that can often be quite negative, and as a result, violent by nature. How many times to you berate yourself for not doing something right or measuring up to some impossible standard?

    When it comes to practicing ahimsa there are three was of observing it 1) physically (or our actions) 2)  verbal (our words) and 3) mental (our thoughts). In the context of a yoga class this can mean treating our bodies with kindness and compassion and not forcing ourselves into poses in an injurious way. It can also mean watching the self-judgment and criticism that goes on in the mind in terms of comparing ourselves to a) ourselves in the past, b) our hopes for the future version of the pose, c) some ideal of ourselves, or d) to other people in the room. In fact the list of inner dialogue that is violent is really endless. We can practice being kinder in our inner dialogue in a yoga class. 

    During my training with Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy after having my butt kicked by satya (truthfulness – we’ll get to that next week), I decided to cultivate ahimsa for an 8- week period. My intention around choosing ahimsa was to bring some kindness and compassion to the incessant analyzing, negative contemplation, judging and criticism that goes on in my head. Sharon Salzberg calls it, ” the deifying voice within us that mocks us, humiliates us and mercilessly puts us down.”  I chose to cultivate ahimsa by practicing loving kindness meditation towards myself for 30 minutes every day. 

May I be free from inner and out harm

May I be happy and peaceful

May I be healthy and strong

May I look after myself joyfully

    On one level it worked, I was able to find greater peace in my mind. Unfortunately I lost sight of the fuller picture of ahimsa. During my practice of cultivating nonviolence, I was so fiercely protective of my own desire to create ahimsa within my own mind, that I lost sight of my relationships. I’ll never forget the moment I realized that I had simply shifted the internal violence to an expression of violence that took place outside of my mind. Instead of internalizing my violence, I lashed out at those I loved the most. I pointed out their shortcoming and lack of support.  I had been so focused on nonviolence towards myself that I had lost sight of nonviolence towards those whom I loved the most. This was an important shift in how I experienced and practiced ahimsa in my life and relationships. 

    I think this is an important time to remember that practicing ahimsa is not license to repress the shadow sides of our personality. Cultivating ahimsa does not mean censoring so-called negative emotions. Anger, for example is a completely normal human experience and there are healthy places and ritual spaces, such as therapy, where the expression of anger is advantageous. Practicing ahimsa means accepting all of our human experience with kindness and compassion. 
    Reflect back on this article, what aspect of ahimsa stands out for you as most significant? Is it to practice ahimsa from a physical or action perspective? Would you like to be more nonviolent in your communication? Or, are you in need of a detox for the mind? Notice how violence shows up in your everyday life… in your relationships, in your work, in your relationship to your mind and your body, in your play, in your finances. In what way could you cultivate ahimsa, loving kindness and compassion in your life? What could you do in the next 24 hours to take that first step towards ahimsa. Share your experiences, thoughts and findings below. 

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