This is a four-part article:

  1. Ahimsa
  2. Physical Ahimsa,
  3. Emotional Ahimsa,
  4. Mental Ahimsa.

Ahimsa: Active Processes of Non-Violence

*Note on terminology: I use the term “Patanjala Yoga” to refer to the schools that claim their heritage in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This is synonymous with “Ashtanga Yoga” (distinguished from Ashtanga-Vinyasa) and “Classical Yoga.” Many modern schools of Yoga including Ashtanga-Vinyasa, Hatha, and more, claim foundation in Patanjala Yoga.

Aggression, the many-headed Hydra of our mind. Can we ever be free of violence? Should we be free of violence, or is it natural and healthy in a deadly world? Is it really possible to live a peaceful life, and. if so,  how would we get started? These questions are addressed by the first Yogic yama: ahimsa.

The first of the yamas (yogic guidelines) is ahimsa, or nonviolence. This is something a bit different from peacefulness or lack of aggressive activity. We have been given some clues: the prefix “a-” and the fact that this is a yama. Furthermore, in texts such as the Yoga Sutra ordering of information is quite important. The first thing listed is typically the most important, and subsequent passages tend to expound upon the first term.

Himsa is the quality of violence or enmity, derived from the Sanskrit word “hims,” to strike. The prefix “a-” means “the opposite of” or “to negate.” Yamas are active processes, and I propose a translation of ahimsa as “the negation of violence.” Perhaps my statement that the yamas are actions, rather than lack of action or restraint as it is sometimes translated, will be controversial. Yet if considering the yamas as a whole, and even more broadly, Yoga as a whole, we will see that this is a set of very active processes. The yamas are not a moral framework to avoid “sin”, but rather a practice with a specific goal (liberation from ignorance). The teaching of Yoga, as seen in the Sutras, is that we are embodied because we have accumulated many mental impressions that shape our mental processes (samskaras).

The Case for Non-Violence

“What’s so great about non-violence? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and we need to protect what’s ours.”

This line of reasoning is what the teachings of Yoga spend most of their time helping us to undo. It’s called a vikalpah in Sanskrit, with the English equivalent of “wrong perception.” The wrong perception, in this case, is mis-identification of your self with a body or social group. If you’re not actually a body desperately grasping at a limited number of resources, what do you have to protect? Nothing. Undoing violence is fundamental to Yoga because violence not only perpetuates suffering, but reinforces identification with the body. There’s no simple way to explain or understand this. If there was, Yoga would be redundant, as the goal of the Yoga process is to correct this perception.

At the level of your life, non-violence is important because it will eliminate suffering, pain, depression, anxiety. These, and many other, negative emotions are caused by unhealthy relationships tinged by violence. Relationship in this context refers not only to romantic partnerships, but every social tie we have, no matter how weak, the relationship between the parts of our own mind (at risk of oversimplification, self-esteem), and our relationship with the entire universe, which includes our perceptions of reality and the rules that govern the workings therein.

Abstinence or Action?

Simply avoiding violent action/speech is not enough to accomplish the goal of Yoga.  Through the samskaras, violence has taken root deep in our consciousness. Abstinence from violence may prevent accumulation of further conditioning within the mind, but it will do little to reduce and eliminate the traces of violence already present within us. If we practice ahimsa, we must actively take steps to find and extirpate violence however it manifests within us. We must examine it, stare it in the eyes, understand it deeply. To do less than this invites repression, rather than elimination, blurring our awareness without dulling the razor edge of aggression.

The metaphor of a seed is often used in Yogic teachings to describe this  phenomenon: think of a garden. The plants growing here are the result of samskaras, mental impressions and imprints from our previous experiences. Tending a garden carefully will  allow many flowers to take root, and the garden will be beautiful (positive karma, or action, in the past). If you don’t pay much attention, however, weeds will take over.  The weeds are the result of actions produced by and producing suffering, pain, fear, anger. Even if you decide one day to go into your garden and pull out all the weeds, the problem isn’t solved. Weeds drop thousands or tens of thousands of seeds, which can remain dormant for decades. They wait for an opportune time, when they germinate, quickly sprouting and growing. It’s a similar story in our minds: although we may have pulled out the visible manifestation of negative emotion in our life, the seeds remain deep in our consciousness, dormant, waiting for favorable conditions to sprout. If you ignore the seeds hidden just beneath the surface, you may delude yourself into thinking you have reached the goal of attaining happiness and perfect peace. After all, you can see nothing around you but beautiful flowers! What could be wrong? Over time, weeds emerge from their hiding, and establish themselves while you are looking away. Patanjali cautions that no matter how far the Yogi advances in this practice, he cannot become complacent:

[The Yamas] are the great vow: they are to be practiced universally, without any limitation imposed by time, place, birth [e.g., accomplishments, social status], or circumstances.
-Y.S. 2.31

It is clear, then, that this is a continuous process that does not abate until all the seeds of suffering have either sprouted or been destroyed. This is why ahimsa is an active process. For some, perhaps, waiting for each and every seed to sprout and dealing with it is acceptable. To the Yogi, however, another option is available. Future aggression and suffering can and ought to be avoided. Through the practice of Patanjala Yoga, the seeds can be sought out and burnt, rendering them inert and powerless. How? By sifting through the dirt: the deep layers of our mind.

Non-violence, peace, love: this is our natural state. Rather than trying to actively cultivate these qualities, however, Yoga teaches us to instead focus on removing the barriers that prevent our inherent characteristics to shine through and manifest in our lives. Once the obstacles have been removed, non-violence will occur naturally. To bring fresh water to the garden of your consciousness, create a channel, regularly remove the debris that accumulates and blocks it; create an environment that allows the water to flow. Constant focus on the water serves only to distract from the real problem: the accumulated rubbish that is preventing the flow, creating stagnation.

As mentioned above, the fact that ahimsa is prominently placed at the forefront of Patanjali’s instruction for the practice of Yoga suggests that it is very important. It may even be the most important lesson of Yoga, which is refined more and more by subsequent instructions:

The practice of Yoga is the elimination of violence, by means of the entire Patanjala system.

In my opinion, the first seven limbs of Patanjala Yoga system as outlined by Patanjali can be viewed as a process of finding and releasing subtler and subtler forms of violence. Each limb supports every other: practice of the physical techniques (the third limb, asana) of Patanjala Yoga supports ahimsa. Yet dedication to ahimsa likewise supports the practice of asana. In this way, each of the limbs is interconnected with every other, creating a self-supporting and dynamic system, rather than a linear progression. The eighth limb, samadhi, is the experience of true perception, suspended in the middle of the web created by these linkages.

The spectrum of violence.

What is violence? I define it for our purposes as, “any action or thought that results in harm.” This is slightly more complex than it first appears: for example, you might have a violent fantasy that does cause direct physical harm to someone else. However, you would be causing yourself harm in this case (on an emotional or mental level; see below), and therefore it is a violent action. Similarly, if someone intends to harm you, but does not succeed in physically damaging you, you may nonetheless experience emotional or mental hurt. Unkind words, prejudices, or emotional manipulations are all forms of violence.

This definition also includes negligence (unintentional harm), as the characteristic we are looking at is whether or not there is hurt, rather than if there is conscious intention to cause that harm or not. This is distinguished in the American legal system by the tiers of first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter. The difference is in the presence or absence of intention. Yet all result in harm. Obviously, there is a substantial difference between intending to kill someone and being in an accident, but for the purposes of the Yogi, both have unwanted repercussions and must be avoided.

I have heard the case made that intention is an important distinguishing factor here, and that unintentional violence does not result in undesirable consequences. Often texts including the Bhagavad Gita are referenced, since on the surface there seems to be some support for violence committed not out of desire for violence, but rather from a sense of duty. The story of the Gita is a war, and focuses on Arjuna, a warrior. Arjuna is reluctant to participate in the killing, but is instructed by the god Krishna that it is his dharma (duty/natural order) to participate in the war. I think that it is more appropriate to take this as a metaphorical lesson: that we are being instructed to root out and destroy the demons (obstacles) within us that litter the path of Yoga, which is our duty (dharma). Do not interpret the Gita as license for war, killing, or aggression!

This is a four-part article:

  1. Ahimsa
  2. Physical Ahimsa,
  3. Emotional Ahimsa,
  4. Mental Ahimsa.