When you think about the concept of non-violence, what comes to mind? Protest groups, Martin Luther King, Gandhi? Do you think of not hurting other people, or maybe turning off some of those less-than-savory television shows? Non-violence is a lot more personal than all of that. It starts right in our thoughts, our actions, and on our yoga mats.
The first ethical principle
In yoga, non-violence is the first ethical principle discussed in the Yoga Sutras, the essential philosophical text that modern yoga has evolved out of. Non-violence is called ahimsa, and it literally means “to not be lion-like” or “not to kill”. It is the practice of restraint of any violent or negative impulses that could harm another.
Frankly, it’s relatively easy to think about not physically harming someone or something else. We know we shouldn’t hit others or harm the environment, and we even may think about “not hurting a fly”. It’s concrete and palpable, and thus easy to understand non-violence in that context. A more challenging aspect of ahimsa, however, is not harming ourselves. This goes far beyond physical harm: it touches all our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Non-violence = love
One of the problems with an idea like non-violence is that, whenever you think of it, what do you think of? Yep, you think of the violence that you’re not supposed to do. So I like to think of ahimsa as kindness. BKS Iyengar describes ahimsa as having “a wider positive meaning – love.” So ahimsa is really about kindness and love to all beings, and in this article, we’re looking at kindness and love towards ourselves.
The discipline of ahmisa
Kindness and love require discipline. We may be pretty good at disciplining ourselves to go to work, to make our bed, to do the dishes – but how disciplined are we at being kind and loving towards ourselves?
I use the word discipline very intently here, not as the form of punishment, but as a commitment that involves 1) restraint and 2) practice. After years of negative self-talk, it takes a good chunk of discipline to change our inner attitude to one of kindness and love for ourselves.
Whenever you have a bad habit, it’s a challenge to stop the unwanted behavior and replace it with a desirable one. We must hold ourselves back from smoking or overeating – that’s restraint. It takes fortitude to stop the bad behavior. If you’re the type of person that over-schedules, drives yourself to exhaustion, or exercises to excess, maybe even to physical injury, then the practice of ahimsa may be to discipline yourself to go easy, say no, rest, or relax.
However, if you’re more likely to just stay at home on the couch, or go back to sleep rather than give your body the movement it needs, it will take restraint to keep from crawling back under the sheets. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that ahimsa is just about gentleness – being truly loving to yourself may require discomfort in order to improve your health or resolve a conflict in a relationship. We must be willing to be uncomfortable if we are to master ahimsa.
The discipline of ahimsa – towards ourselves or others – requires restraint of the harmful behavior and practice of what is kind, loving, and healing, like doing yoga, taking a walk, or cooking healthy food. We practice replacing those negative thoughts and behaviors with acceptance, compassion, and encouragement. It doesn’t happen overnight – we practice and practice the new behavior for weeks and months and years until it is well-established.
However, keep a careful eye on the mind while practicing ahimsa. As you attempt to be more loving and kind in thought, word, and deed, you may chastise yourself for falling short. It’s easy to fall back into habits of self-criticism, causing harm with your thoughts.
If you find that you’re beating yourself up for once again overdoing it in your workout or snapping back at your child, can you embrace yourself with compassion, kindness and love instead of castigation? Recognize that you won’t be perfect. Forgive yourself instead of feeding the self-rage that will only grow the next time you falter. Rather than putting the energy into how much you have fallen short of being loving and kind, brainstorm how to respond better next time – creating positivity out of a negative situation.
Treating yourself as you’d treat others
The bottom line is that when we’re able to love ourselves as we are, forgive our mistakes, and treat ourselves with kindness, it becomes easier to practice ahimsa with other beings. A good internal habit supports a good external one. Whenever you forgive yourself for getting angry, think of someone else whose anger you can forgive. If you’re more patient with yourself, you’ll find that waiting in a line at the grocery store won’t irk you so much. Recognize that we’re all just human beings, trying to do our best. As BKS Iyengar says, “This love [ahimsa] embraces all creation, for we are all children of the same [Divine Being].” Practicing ahimsa supports every being on the planet in becoming their best. Including yourself.
Copyright 2009, by Constance L. Habash