How to Practise Ahimsa
The Yama of non-violence pertains to life on and off the mat.
“Negative feelings such as violence are damaging to life, whether we act upon them ourselves or cause or condone them in others. They are born of greed, anger or delusion, and may be slight, moderate, or intense. Their fruit is endless ignorance and suffering. To remember this is to cultivate the opposite.” – The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Chapter 2, Sutra 34.
In a time when fellow human beings are being persecuted simply for the colour of their skin, when cyberbullying is rife, and politicians smear the reputations of rivals just so they can get ahead – the wisdom of Patanjali is a balm that the world needs more than ever.
The harm that human violence has caused creates a downward spiral of negative mental and emotional states that perpetuate even more violence. However, the Yama of ahimsa, or non-violence, wants to help us choose love over harm, holding us back from inflicting negativity by way of thought, words, or deeds.
But how can we reach out with kindness after we have been provoked or hurt? Here, we should cultivate the instinct to meet pain with compassion. When we are mindful of the suffering of others, we are able to take the important step of acknowledging their suffering instead of retreating into aversion. From here, we remember that their actions stem from a place of hurt and suffering, and our acknowledgement of their suffering is an opportunity for us to redirect the energy of a situation; to replace anger with love, and frustration with compassion.
With yoga being an embodied practice, we learn to feel into what is true and to live from that truth. Below, some ways to help us focus on cultivating non-violence, to be fully present with our bodies, and hold that sense of peace.
Practise Dharma Yoga
Rooted in Dharma’s key message of intuition and compassion, Dharma Yoga is an introspective practice that combines asanas with meditation and breathwork. Practitioners are also mindful of the belief that “the goal of yoga is self-realisation” and that the practice of yoga will help to reach that goal.
A typical session of Dharma Yoga would include a full spectrum of asanas with an emphasis on heart and hip openers, which according to yoga teacher Pearl Bhasin, is “linked to the fact that the core message [of Dharma Yoga] is intuition and compassion. It’s believed that a lot of emotions are stored in the hips, and an open heart is more receptive of the gifts of God, or the higher power you believe in”. Pranayama (breathwork) is also incorporated to purify the nervous system.
Be gentle with yourself
The precept of non-violence also applies to you. Our body is not the same each time we step on the mat. If holding an inversion feels particularly trying, stop. Don’t let your ego guide your practice or you’ll injure yourself before realising that something isn’t working. Listen to your body, be aware of how it feels, and recognise where your limits lie. Slow down when it is necessary. Let your mat be a safe space for yourself.
Don’t let your ego guide your practice or you’ll injure yourself before realising that something isn’t working.
Draw your attention to ahimsa
“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” You may incorporate this mantra, borrowed from Jivamukti Yoga founders Shannon Gannon and David Life, as an intention for your yoga practice. It reminds us that no true or lasting happiness arises from causing unhappiness to others. Here, the practices of yoga are able to guide us compassionately toward a lifestyle that considers not just our sole existence, but also the happiness of other beings. So as you move your body into Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose), take a moment to attune your warrior energy towards upholding the virtues of peace and non-violence.