Do you feel like you are someone who practices nonviolence? I think many of us would agree we don’t harm or murder so we are nonviolent. However, there are many ways we all practice some form of violence and aren’t even aware of how this shows up in our lives. There are much more subtle practices to pay attention to. When we feel hurried, afraid, powerless, out of balance, or harsh with ourselves we may find ourselves speaking words of unkindness to ourselves or others. We may respond with anger, withdrawal, and frustration in ways that our mind shuts down. We are caught up in our own violence.
Nonviolence is part of the ethical practice of yoga. The practice of yoga encompasses your physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual self. There are 5 Yamas (a Sanskrit word) as part of this practice, in translation meaning restraints. These restraints don’t limit us from living life, rather they begin to open life up to us more and more fully in ways that are practical and easy to understand. The first Yama is Ahimsa, meaning nonviolence or noninjury.
Finding our Courage with Nonviolence
Fear creates violence. How do we place harm on ourselves and others when faced with fear? Building walls of protection when we feel threatened. Taking more than we need when we feel worried by not having enough. Using unkind words or gestures toward others when we feel powerless. Being harsh with ourselves when we fall into judgment. All of these things are ways we practice subtle forms of violence or harm to ourselves or others. Addressing our fears is an important practice of Ahimsa. For example, knowing the difference between the fears that keep us alive and the ones that keep us from living. Knowing how we show up when we fear the unknown and what we are closing ourselves off to because of our fears.
Courage is found by facing our fear – the small ones, the embarrassing ones and the really big ones. If we keep ourselves safe all the time how will we grow this practice of nonviolence? Showing up even when life gets confusing or difficult. Learning to stay in the moment and developing the courage to let ourselves be afraid and do it anyway.
Creating Balance in our Lives
Courage demands our best self and our best self is a self in balance. How many times have you been snappy at someone because you have too much work to do or have had too much caffeine and sugar or not enough sleep? Imbalance in our system creates violence. The dis-ease we feel inside will find ways to express itself on the outside. What if we could sink more into nonviolence with ourselves?
Creating balance in our lives is not easy. We are bombarded with stimulation and live in a society full of promises to fulfill our every desire and need. We can fill every moment with appointments and activities and all the responsibilities that go along with having a busy schedule. Bombarding ourselves and our calendars leads to a practice of harm. This shows up as burnout, constant doing, and stress. This is a recipe for violence to ourselves and those around us. Spreading ourselves too thin may look impressive on the outside but we are the first to lose.
The body, mind, and soul need time to rest and replenish. More time than we usually give ourselves. Take time to breathe. Not for more clutter for our schedules but more time for space. Space to reflect and journal. Room for imagination and closure. Space to hear and feel the life force within. We need balance. When we are in balance, we are living in nonviolence. We are practicing Ahimsa.
Powerlessness Creates Violence
When we feel powerless we feel like we have run out of choices. We’ve run out of options and that can lead us to feel incompetent and hopeless. This can lead to outbursts of anger and frustration or a withdrawal inward. Ahimsa invites us to remember how much choice we really have. We have a choice to change. A choice to take action. A choice to change the story we tell ourselves. We can ask ourselves, “What do I need right now to feel competent to handle this situation?” We can remain loving toward ourselves and revisit our approach to how we treat ourselves without inflicting harm.
Yogiraj Achala says, “I excite myself with my incompetencies.” We can practice shifting our lens realizing that feelings of powerlessness can become opportunities to become competent rather than violent.
Self Love and Nonviolence
Staying balanced and courageous has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. How we treat ourselves is how we typically treat those around us. If you are someone who is constantly marking things off of your to-do list others will feel your bite. Maybe you are someone who is critical of yourself. Others will feel your high expectations. If you have a go-with-the-flow attitude and are forgiving with yourself others will feel at ease when they are around you. If you find humor and pleasure in yourself, others will be restored in your presence.
Practice falling in love with yourself. Falling in love with someone is such a joyous experience. The other can do no wrong and you want to be with them all the time. The intentions of love are pure and true. Love lies at the core of nonviolence. And, it begins with our own self love. A love that is forgiving and lenient. A love that sees the humor in imperfections and accepts the fullness of being human. Our inability to love and accept all the pieces of ourselves can create tiny acts of violence that have lasting impacts on ourselves and others. When we constantly try to fix ourselves we get trapped in a vicious cycle that is hard to get out of. A cycle of disconnect. Fear and harm create violence. Love creates expansion and nonviolence.
How we Cast Violence onto Others
When we cannot find love for ourselves it becomes easy to look outward and cast our fears onto others. This shows up in constant concern for others and how we feel like we need to manage the lives of others because we know better. It soothes our own fears. We can even end our day feeling prideful for all that we have done for others. When we don’t have the courage to look deeply within, we can easily violate the lives of others and not have any awareness because we think we are helping. This is a subtle practice of violence. We take it upon ourselves to help.
Ahimsa asks us to trust. Trust that others will find the answer they need. Have faith in the journey of others and love and support their highest image of themselves (not our image). Ahimsa asks us to stop managing and let others be free of our needs. Free to be themselves. It can often feel impossible to watch someone we care about sit in suffering or challenge. We want to rush in and make it better. Practicing nonviolence means we have to trust suffering and trust challenge and trust mistakes.
Worry is another way violence gets masked as caring. Worry can be experienced as a lack of faith in the other. It can send the message that we don’t trust someone to do their life right. Almost like we know better about how someone should be handling their own life. We know the answers. Support, on the other hand, meets the other person equally. A place of listening and respecting. What happens when we choose love over worry? We are practicing Ahimsa.
Expanding our Compassion with Ahimsa
As we let go of the version of the world and how we think things should be and look through gentler eyes that see a messier world, we can grow our compassion. Living through our hearts and remembering that every person that we see or meet has a painful story to tell. When we can sink into this knowing, perhaps we can ease ourselves out of the judgments and preferences that we hold so tightly. We can practice more compassion and engage in Ahimsa.
How Can We Practice Ahimsa Today?
Inviting you to take time this week to bring awareness to the ways in which you may be bringing subtle harm or violence toward yourself or others around you. How will you practice softening, expanding, and trusting the Yama of Ahimsa? Here are some ideas…
- Toward the environment by reducing our plastic waste, volunteering to clean up a local beach, or generally living a more sustainable life.
- In relation to our family and friends by carefully choosing our words when we speak, treating them with love and respect, or generally acknowledging their worth.
- Toward ourselves by speaking to ourselves with dignity and respect (even after we’ve made mistakes), feeding our bodies healthy foods, or nourishing our minds with meaningful spiritual practice or positive affirmations.
Want to learn more? Check out this book (told from a 10 year old’s perspective) for ages middle school and beyond to learn more about Ahimsa and the caste system with regard to the India Freedom Movement in the 1940’s.