Ahimsa and the Art of non-violence

The Freedom Tower and the Oculus (Lower Manhattan, April 19, 2018)

The Freedom Tower and the Oculus (Lower Manhattan, April 19, 2018)

As I was passing through lower Manhattan earlier this month, this magnificent view appeared before my eyes. I thought, truly, what better symbols of Triumph over violence could there be? (I do allow for the fact that some of you may not like these buildings and what they stand for, and thus will disagree.)

In Yoga, Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, non-harming, non-injury. I consider it an Art form in and of itself to try, in each moment, not to be harming toward my own self and others.

So why should we and how do we practice this in our lives? Can we attract more happy people into our lives through the practice of Ahimsa?

Classically speaking, Ahimsa is the first of the Yamas in yoga. According to Swami Jnaneshvara, the yamas are the "codes of restraint ... and involve our relationship with the external world and other people." Ahimsa, is the practice of existing in and relating to the outer world in a non-harming way. It is said that one should step onto the yoga mat having first practiced ahimsa out in the world. Then, with that as a starting point, it becomes easier to experience the higher realizations that yoga can offer through adding the other steps of the practice, the various physical and mental purification processes.

Specifically, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutra 2.35 reads:

ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah

Swami Jnaneshvara's translation is:

As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.

I think we all have experienced a natural gravitation of people towards us when we are acting in a peaceful and loving way. Conversely, I am sure we've all experienced not wanting to be around people who are hurtful, pushy, and harmful to us and others. So why would anyone want to be around us when are hurting, pushy, and harming others, whether it be physically or mentally?

This article on Gaia.com entitled What is Ahimsa and How to Practice it in Everyday Life helped me to understand Ahimsa in more practical terms better. Particularly, this passage resonated with me:

... move with intention. Consciously put non-violence into action. ... 

Yes, slowing down, putting down my iPhone, and moving through the world -- on the way to the subway, during eating -- with more awareness is an act of Ahimsa.

These passages also caught my attention:

... Instead of letting the limits of your body create stress, make the decision to intentionally respect and even love the limitations your own body has. Perform yoga poses gracefully, but do them without force. ... In the physical sense, non-violence means not pushing yourself over the edge. You can, of course, still challenge yourself so that you can grow; in fact, you must. But embracing ahimsa means not pushing yourself to harm. ...

Indeed, how often do we allow the limits of our bodies to make us feel more stressed out? The idea of loving my own limitations -- not just my physical ones, but my mental and emotional ones as well -- surprisingly seemed almost revolutionary to me. I ask myself now, do you really think you're superman and can do everything? By trying to do more than I reasonably can, isn't that bordering on being an act of violence towards my own self? So, at moments in this past month, I gave myself the liberty to do less. In so many words, I said to my little self at times:

  • It's OK to slow down and do less
  • It's OK not to be perfect
  • It's OK that I have flaws, all humans do
  • It's OK that I have limitations as to what I can reasonably accomplish
  • It's OK that I want to have a work-life balance, and allow myself to indulge in watching one of my favorite shows at the end of a long workday
  • It's OK that I need to hit the snooze button a few more times
  • it's OK that I can't respond to people's emails in a timely manner
  • It's OK that I need to miss some deadlines
  • It's OK that I am not Superman!

Can you relate?

Practicing Yoga asanas (postures) is a great way to practice perfecting the Art of Ahimsa. When doing a challenging yoga pose, it is such a balancing act between considering "can I do more?" and asking one's self "should I do more?" Experienced Yogis and Yoginis know the better questions at times are "can I do less?" and "should I do less?"

The Gaia article also points out these potential positive effects of cultivating non-violent thoughts in our own minds:

... When we think lovingly, these thoughts trigger dopamine's release into the body. Dopamine is that chemical that makes you feel good and relax. Unlike cortisol, dopamine brings strength to the immune system. It can even cure illness. Those who think of themselves as optimists tend to have stronger immune systems and recover faster from illnesses and injuries. Optimists may even live longer than those who think of themselves as pessimists.

So whether you think you might want to live longer or just have a better quality to your life, consider practicing the Art of Ahimsa daily. A benefit is that you just might begin attracting more happy people to you. And that happiness will keep growing and growing!

And finally -- and most importantly -- as we finish celebrating Earth Day month, please remember to try practicing being non-violent toward the Earth. As President Emmanuel Macron of France said in his speech to the U.S. Congress this month, "there is no Planet B."

May you be happy,
May you love the limitations of your own body,
May you push yourself to grow, but not to harm,
May you attract more peaceful and happy people, 
May you practice the Art of Ahimsa, ... for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni Chun