AHIMSA ON AND OFF THE MAT

Ajda Pristavec, AHIMSA ON AND OFF THE MAT

 

INTRODUCTION

As I started to explore yoga and all its philosophy has to offer more in depth, yamas and niyamas as rules resembling ten commandments quite well matching my own values quickly grabbed my attention. Although they were at least briefly mentioned in the classes I attended, these sets of guidelines deserve an important place in every aspiring yogi’s studies of Yoga. I believe that yamas are unjustly overlooked because people integrated in today’s yoga industry are mostly asana-oriented and pay little to no attention to yamas and niyamas, while they should certainly be considered as a lifestyle basis for anyone wishing to deepen their practice and consequently master their mind and ultimately become enlightened.

Patanjali, the author of the fundamental text of classical yoga, Yoga Sutras, introduces the eightfold path of Ashtanga yoga which includes yamas (moral imperatives), niyamas (habits of virtuous lifestyle), asanas (postures), pranayama (energy control), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration with effort), dhyana (meditation, effortless concentration) and samadhi (state of absorbed mind).

Yamas are five ethical abstentions which describe how a yogi should act towards others and thus create harmony within himself, from which an expansion of consciousness can arise. Together with Niyamas, the positive values (self-purification, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and self-surrender), they represent the basis of the ethical theory in yoga philosophy.

Yamas can be understood as the negative values that should be avoided. As listed in sutra 2.30, these are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non-coveting) and brahmacharya (continence). There are also mentioned the benefits a practitioner gets when he devotedly puts yamas into practice.

As I see it, yamas and niyamas are the core values adopted by a person who is about to create a firm basis of a harmonious life, so that he can reach for advanced yoga components and thus higher states of mind and truly get what this astonishing discipline, Yoga, teaches us. It is not that some limbs of ashtanga yoga are more important than others – on the contrary they are all to be practiced on the daily basis – yet some are easier to be exercised when one is only starting to implement a yogic lifestyle. A beginner is not able to meditate for an hour without distractions of his senses, aching body and buzzling thoughts while yama, e.g. non-stealing mostly does not require more than clear motives and discipline. However, one might stand on his head or practice pranayama, but if he acts violently off the mat, higher states of consciousness remain unattainable for him.

I am indeed very passionate about yamas and I do my best to integrate these principles in my everyday life. This also includes reflection on the actions, words and states of mind in various situations, be it in accordance with yamas or not – it is up to a practitioner to give a certain positive or negative connotation to each. Only with constant contemplation one can improve habitual behaviour towards oneself and other beings. In this way consciousness gets clearer and practicing the more demanding limbs of the eightfold path more accessible. In any case, we should not forget about the mental state of non-attachment since only unattached to the fruits of my habits a person can do what he does in the best way possible and evolve optimally (without attachment to this evolvement).

Among Yamas, Ahimsa is the most important one for me – I believe that everything good roots in being non-violent towards yourself, other humans and animals. In a way, ahimsa encompasses other yamas as well. By avoiding as many violent actions and the actions with potentially violent or hurtful consequences as possible one creates a sense of harmony in his life and gets rid of toxic, unnecessary impulses that are withdrawing him from deepening the practice, taking it to a higher level with pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana and dharana, all up to samadhi.

In this essay, I will discuss the concept of Ahimsa in two fields: one being on the yoga mat, where we traditionally practice what is yoga commonly perceived to be and second being off the mat, that is in the real life in which we are engaged the rest of the day. On the mat, I am either having my personal yoga practice or I am in the role of a teacher, guiding others through it. In either case, it is important to introduce, develop and nourish ahimsa. Off the mat this same thing appears to be more challenging because of numerous unpredictable situations which trigger responses we might not even be as aware as we are when fully on the mat. I believe that every action, word and thought matters. Striving to make them as clear of violence as possible is a big goal and at the same time the path towards higher forms of Yoga.

 

AHIMSA

Ahimsa is an ethical principle that refers to harmlessness, not wanting to do harm to any living creature or even a non-living matter.[1] Some definitions point out that the state of mind of having no intend to harm anyone is crucial, not so much the actual actions – one might e. g. unintentionally step on a bug, but it is his desire to be non-violent nevertheless that matters principally.

In different religious schools the definition of ahimsa varies. In Jainism, ahimsa is the central concept and it is understood as both the absence of intention to harm and as actually being nonviolent. Every action is judged from the perspective of Ahimsa. Violence is perceived primarily as injuring one’s soul which is therefore unable to liberate from samsara (attaining moksha). Here we should notice that it is not compassion or emphatic emotions from which ahimsa arises but chiefly a self-centred responsibility of an individual. However, the practitioner’s soul is also harmed by harming others because it is bonded with karma. In Jainism, they believe that life is sacred and thus they expand Ahimsa to humans, animals, plants and beings having life potential. It comes as no surprise that this broad protection of life or abhayadanam involves vegetarianism.

Ahimsa in Jainism is even formalised in a form of a vow as a part of Mahavratas (major vows) where injury, falsehood, stealing, unchastity, and attachment are all recognised as himsa (violence) and should be avoided if one is to have a pure soul. Here I notice a parallel with yamas: Jianists obviously recognise that Ahimsa is the major and all-pervading concept. If practiced with devotion, not much additional effort is needed to live satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha as these are logical extensions of a nonviolent lifestyle. If anyone truly Living ahimsa, these are Jain monks and nuns who strive to walk, speak, eat, handle things and even dispose feaces so as not to injure any living being. They practice ahimsa with devotion and extraordinary carefulness knowing that every action leaves a trace in their karma, meaning that it either enhances or inhibits the liberation of the soul. [2]

Buddhism mentions ahimsa in five precepts where it means the absence of killing. Although it is not as strict as in Jainism, it is again deeply related to karmic importance of each action and to samsara. By killing humans or animals one is likely to be reborn in hell, whereas by saving humans’ and animals’ lives one is supposed to be reborn in better conditions and make a step towards liberation. Buddhists also emphasise non-violence regarding the objects of trade saying that selling and buying meat, living beings, poisons, intoxicants and weapon should not be performed. Another interesting thing is that sanctions are exercised upon monks who disobey the principle of ahimsa. If they kill, they are expelled. [3]

Mostly from Buddhist and Hinduist beliefs, Yoga has shaped its own system of values, prohibitions and directions. Ahimsa is one of the highest virtues in yoga. As mentioned in the Introduction, classical yoga bases its understanding of Ahimsa on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras written around 400 CE. There the concept of non-violence or harmlessness is described as the first and the most important out of five Yamas which represent an ethical conduct of a yoga practitioner.

In Sutra 2.35 it is written: “As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility (ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah).”[4] Putting ahimsa into practice thus naturally brings harmony and inner peace and causes that other beings feel no violent emotions and perform no aggression towards us. However, Swami J in his comments on Sutras points out that we should not mix love and ahimsa: here we are rather getting rid of violent impulses so that our inner bliss can shine through, not so directly forcing emotions of love towards someone we otherwise intended to hurt through actions, speech or thoughts.[5]

 

ON THE MAT

When a practitioner purposely steps on the yoga mat to do some sort of self-work he puts the seeds of yamas and niyamas into the soil. Moral imperatives and positive virtues are cultivated carefully and with full attention of the practitioner, so that they harden enough to be Lived once we step off the mat or leave a yoga studio. For me, ahimsa stands out compared to other yamas because it is so elementary yet universally applicable no matter the situation, whether I practice meditation or buy vegetables at the farmer’s market. However, it all starts on the mat – it is the place where most of us heard of ahimsa in the first place.

From my observances, the non-violent moves, speech and thoughts in yoga on the mat are most deeply related to nonattachment since it is precisely the attachment to goals, ideals, material and spiritual possessions that drives us towards violent behaviour that restrains from spiritual development. The ego overdrives our moral intentions with lower instinctive desires and by striving to get them, violence often arises at least in thoughts, if not also in words and actions.

Application of ahimsa has some obvious nuances which include our bodies and speech and many subtler, more demanding that happen in the mind and sometimes seem to be unattainable. In this chapter I am exploring ahimsa through one’s own practice, be it as a student in a yoga class or on the mat at home, and secondly through the activity of a yoga teacher who guides her students in yoga sessions.

 

TOWARDS YOURSELF

The asana practice, the bodily dimension of yoga, can be practiced differently. It can be taken to a higher spiritual level by moving consciously with a still breath, while alertly observing if at all and how the mind reacts to different shapes of its outer material shape, the shifts of the point of focus and any emotional responses. The shallower form of yoga practice is perceived as a stress-managing physical exercise which leaves you nicely relaxed and stretched afterwards, and not much more than that. It is obvious that ahimsa can be truly cultivated only in the first case where also the goal of the entire practice coincides with the one of ahimsa and includes it thoroughly, that is to self-actualise through more subtle forms of yogic practice.

Social media, famous “yogis”, even many yoga teachers, yoga books and clips of yoga classes contribute to a skewed image of yoga in general and its purpose, mainly by putting the physical body in certain poses to a pedestal where it is not meant to be, yet the effect on people’s perception of asana and the role of body in yoga is tremendous.

It is sad to observe the effect of so-called yoga industry on ever deeper misinterpretation of yoga and on the alienation of “yoga” practitioners from the core of this extraordinary discipline. That core can be many things, but if we simply take Patanjali’s definition saying yoga is calming the whirls of thoughts, the imposing ideals about how a yogi should look in general or in asana occupy the mind at least with an unnecessary comparison of the body and the performance of e.g. ustrasana to the ones of a “yoga” superstar on the cover of Yoga Magazine that amazes with a body in accordance with current definition of beauty and seems to bend seamlessly into whichever posture. If not sooner the mind’s occupation with this probably ends when a severe pain in lower back or knees calls for attention because of pushing the body over its limitations.

Right next to the negative comparison, are expectations (of any kind) and ego, which often, if unsatisfied, cause frustrations, anger and violent patterns in mind, speech and finally in the body. Even before you get to practice yoga, one can easily feel pressed to look and be fit, strong and lean and even of a certain skin colour, gender or religion. This non-inclusivity of presentation of yoga to masses really gets on my nerves since it is the exact opposite of what yoga is about – a universally applicable discipline meant for everyone. Nonetheless, it is certainly violent to undergo strict unhealthy diet regimes, over-exercise and do any other ideals-oriented procedures on the body to meet the unreal expectations of yoga industry that could not be more further from Yoga.

Asanas are publicly almost always presented in the most eye-appealing way. Numerous yoga books and teachers in yoga classes do not stress enough the importance of bodily safety and comfort. If an individual merely imitates a bodily shape without following precise anatomic instructions and does not adjust asana to her strength, flexibility, (past) injuries and illnesses, she is clearly doing harm or himsa to her body that can have long-term consequences.

Severe pain and injuries of muscles, tendons and even blood vessels and can follow because of overstretching muscles, overbending back or laterally can cause spinal and nerve injuries and by not actively engaging muscles enough (“hanging” on ligaments) one can do an awful damage to his joints. Pregnant women and people with chronic diseases can cause a serious harm to their risky condition as well. Weak muscles and disrespect of one’s real strength can even lead to dangerous falls from inverted asanas where head, neck and spine are especially vulnerable. It is sad to see how the principle of ahimsa is far from included to yoga practice of many people not even on this most obvious level, bringing so much unnecessary risks and suffering because of disconnection from the core ideas of yoga.

If nothing else, quality over quantity should guide an aspiring yogi to have a physically safe practice. Doing a shorter, but mindful and violence-free sequence of asanas can contribute so much more to a well-centred further practice of advanced yogic techniques and conscious, nonviolent coping with everyday situations. In addition, now highly popular hot room flows are rather a burden to already physically challenged body, especially when a person has cardiovascular and similar risky conditions and the heat can mask the limitations of stretches a body can perform, which leads to injuries. The body should be accepted as it is and treated with respect by acknowledging its limitations and letting go of ego-driven expectations. Each of us is responsible to do yoga safely. You should strive to be a well-informed practitioner rather than an imitator of asanas.

Furthermore, the comparison and expectations I mentioned earlier also fruit violence in thoughts. Self-image and self-worth can be challenged, frustration and negative emotions such as anger and disappointment can arise because of the incapability to e.g. put a leg behind the neck. Even some violent words can be said as a reflection of such state of mind. Putting yourself down, judging and over occupying with looks, progress and perfection in asana, pranayama or more advanced yoga practices leads to deepened negative feelings and violent behaviour.

One should bear in mind that the goal of yoga practice is the journey itself and that it is unique for each of us. There is nothing shameful in using a yoga block, holding your breath for a shorter period or performing a less advanced version of asana. Ego’s aspirations should be quietened and any attachments to goals, shapes and looks released.

It might sound easy, but we all know implementing ahimsa on the mat for start requires a lot of dedication and disciplined work daily. However, throughout the journey we can and should reflect on feelings and thoughts that come out of physical and mental challenges yoga gives. Am I pushing myself over my limitations? If yes, why? Do I listen to my body or do I imitate? Am I true to myself? Am I non-violent? Is the will or ego that drives me?

TOWARDS YOUR STUDENTS

Ahimsa is inseparable from a person in the professional field as well, especially if her occupation are yoga classes. As a teacher, I am supposed to be an example to my students, therefore I should live according to yamas and niyamas and reflect this in my classes. Nonviolent and not-ego driven lifestyle is crucial for someone who teaches yoga, since it is not, again, gymnastics or mere stretching, it is a discipline which, according to ashtanga, includes 8 equally important limbs. Values of a yoga teacher should be based on yamas and niyamas, she should Live ahimsa as a state of mind.

Actions, words and thoughts of a yoga teacher should have as little himsa as possible. Gentleness and kindness in talking before, after and during the class are important, but also the content of what is said. Swearing, gossiping, negative opinions and similar have no place in yoga class (and off the mat, of course). You want to show the students the power of nonviolent communication and messages and thus influence the way they speak, move and think. If there is a chance that something might hurt a student, you do not say it. The words of encouragement, gentle guidance and calming but clear instructions embody ahimsa on a vocal level. Moments of silence in class are also a form of nonviolence, preventing saturation of oral directions.

In communication with the practitioners, however, it is also important to set boundaries to protect yourself from being a trash bin for their negative thoughts about their private life or external events. By practicing ahimsa, I believe you should still put nonviolence towards yourself first and kindly refuse to be in such a role, even though the student might expect a yoga teacher is a therapist and be hurt due to you saying no.

When fixing the alignment in asanas, you want to make people feel safe and comfortable, stepping up to them calmly with clear, unambiguous and gentle touch. Pulling, pushing or even sitting on practitioners is most probably a violent act causing a bodily, if not also a psychological damage on your students. Using force like hitting or kicking and sexually contentious adjustments have no place in yoga class.

The sequence of asanas and pranayama techniques must be carefully chosen according to the physical and mental capabilities of the group and further tailored to individual’s needs so that the risk of injuries and the chance of light-headedness are reduced as much as possible. By doing so you also increase the chance that a practitioner gets as much as possible from the class because he is challenged just enough yet content with the progress.

Finally, although your thoughts are not directly perceivable to the people you teach they are the root of your words, actions and overall vibration. Positive and open mind, avoidance of judgemental thoughts, patience and calmness are important virtues for a yoga teacher to live ahimsa on the mat.

 

 

 

OFF THE MAT

When I presented ahimsa in different religious systems there was no mention of yoga practice as an average person might imagine it to be: rolling out the mat, flowing through asanas and sitting in sukkhasana for a few moments at the end. Not only this is a very shallow, populistic and commercialized modern image of yoga, we should bear in mind that yoga, including ahimsa, is practiced throughout our lives, mostly away from the safe frame of asanas, pranayama techniques etc. In this fraction of our time spent on the mat, we deliberately focus on ourselves and create an environment that minimises outside stimuli that tend to trigger “non-yogic” behaviour.

However, it is essential to effectively transmit non-violent vibration from the mat to day-to-day situations in ever-changing conditions that pose a real challenge. I am aware that ahimsa is not completely unambiguous concept and as do different religious systems, so do different individuals understand an exercise it to various extends, some are perceived to be radical and others superficial or even two-faced, e.g. when non-violence is reserved only for some sentient beings but not others.

In contemplation about ahimsa off the mat the different interpretations are very noticeable because of the results they give. One might follow ahimsa as a predisposition for a personal development which roots from a rational and rather selfish impulse, while another can base his non-violent state of mind on an empathic emotion. However, empathy and ahimsa are not synonymous. Off the mat, I divided the application of ahimsa into three sections: ahimsa towards yourself, towards other human beings and towards other sentient beings, focusing on animals.

 

TOWARDS YOURSELF

The violence a person performs towards oneself is very diverse though rarely recognized by others, sometimes not even by the person herself. On a physical level, there are various forms of self-harm, abusing your body by excessive drinking, abusing drugs, over-eating, neglecting physical exercise and succumbing to the negative stress. I believe that having a healthy and balanced lifestyle is necessary to maintain ahimsa on a physical level. However, it is often challenging to break the bad habits since it requires a lot of discipline and devotion, especially in unfavourable living conditions.

It all roots in our thoughts – negative mental patterns lead to bad self-image, stress perpetuates stress and one is caught in a vicious cycle. When we add the accompanying emotions of anger, contempt, jealousy, fear and disappointment, violent mental contents and oral communication are a logical consequence. Once a non-violent and self-accepting mind is restored, the aggressive thoughts towards others vanish as well. Personal ahimsa is the basis for its expansion to other beings.

Unjustly overlooked part of ahimsa towards yourself is also the protection from unjustified aggression from others that should be provided by each of us. Remember the comparison with a trash bin I made earlier. It is important to sometimes say no and put yourself first if a violence threatens, even though you risk that the other person might feel offended. Ahimsa is sometimes a two-edged sword where you must decide for a lesser evil while minimizing suffering for yourself and other beings. This is obvious particularly when you are forced to choose between himsa towards yourself, your loved ones and other people or beings.

 

TOWARDS PEOPLE

Physical aggression is the most obvious layer of “public” ahimsa. Extreme examples are murders, slavery, sexual abuses, intentional starvation and fights with fists. There are instances when people for example help themselves with elbows in a crowd or destroy each other’s property to hurt. They tend to justify their actions with external conditions or the victim’s unjust behaviour, but these excuses are useless when we remember that ahimsa is a state of mind from which such emotion- and frustration-driven acts cannot happen. Touching other people, although if the move itself might not appear disputable, it can come as a violent to the person being touched, so a great carefulness is needed and a consent from the people helps. When in doubt, rather do not come in a bodily intercourse with another human. However, things are not black and white e.g. in cases of self-defence or when our loved ones are involved.

On a verbal level, we should stay away from conflicts and words that (might) hurt. It surely helps to surround yourself mostly with people who have similar vibration and tend to speak non-violently. Being quiet when another person is talking or when there is nothing undoubtedly harmless to say is also important. There should be a well-thought filter of what is appropriate to be put into words.

The hardest and the subtlest form of ahimsa is clearing your mind of harmful thoughts. Although they are not said out loud, they are still there, influencing your consciousness, karma, emotional responses and the way you move. With harmful mind towards others I mean thoughts of jealousy, anger, fear, disappointment, offence, comparison and expectation. All make the mind more turbulent, far from calmness one strives to achieve when practicing other limbs of the eightfold yoga.

 

TOWARDS OTHER BEINGS

While putting ahimsa into practice regarding you and other people, it only makes sense to expand and round up this virtue with harmless actions, words and thoughts towards other sentient beings. In my culture, violence towards pets is widely condemned while himsa towards cows, pigs, hens, turkeys, horses etc. is a part of everyday life of most people. Kicking a dog is perceived as a monstrous act, while visiting circuses, zoos and aquaparks, wearing and eating parts of animals and using them for entertainment is completely ordinary because of tradition, raising and speciesism because of emotional impulses. Ironically, questioning these normalised activities stirs quite aggressive responses.

With ahimsa as a state of mind, animal abuse, consumption of their flesh and secretions and the support of leather, silk, fur, wool and other industries that exploit “animal resources” are out of question, especially in places and time when we can choose to buy food, clothes, cosmetics and other products free of cruelty on animals.

About three times a day we are confronted with a decision whether to hurt animals or not, depending on what finds its way to our plate. To not contribute to killing, it is obvious to stop eating meat of the land and the sea animals. Besides, egg and dairy industry in a similar way cause completely unnecessary, yet immense suffering of tremendous numbers of exploited beings.

Many religious systems from which yoga originates order a lacto-vegetarian diet, meaning that one is allowed to consume a plant-based diet with dairy (Jains avoid milk as well), but not eggs and meat. However, by consuming dairy we are contributing to suffering of cows who are by force inseminated, bulls that are sexually abused to get the sperm and calves who are taken away from their mother and deprived of the food made for babies of cow species, not to mention the life conditions on farms and the fate of cows once their production power decreases. We should not be deceived that most of this is not happening in free-range or organic dairy farms and that every yama is disrespected in a non-vegan lifestyle. A yogi is the closest to ahimsa if he adopts a strictly plant-based diet which is today, in time of supermarkets, in most parts of the world easily accessible and provides all nutrients we need.

Some might ask where the line should be drawn regarding the groups of beings that we harm in one way or another. For me, the existence of nervous system in an animal indicates at least a potential to feel pain and to suffer, thus I do not (intentionally) harm animals with this characteristic. Following this, unicellular animals, plants, fungi and bacteria are excluded. Surely this does not apologise destroying non-animal nature because in this case himsa overflows the mind of the aggressor regardless of the “victim” of aggression. And if there is anyone (because there always is) concerned about eating “sentient” plants, I would add that by being an herbivore or a primary consumer you eat (and “hurt”) a few times less plants than you do indirectly when consuming animals fed with them. However, this is solely my personal criterion. Some Jain monks swipe the floor in front of them while walking so that they do not step on tiny creatures, cook only in daylight just in case an insect falls into their cookery, put cloths over their mouths to prevent accidental inhaling of small animals, strain water and avoid eating underground parts (roots) of vegetables. It is up to each aspiring yoga practitioner to do some research and contemplate how much himsa is in his power to prevent.

CONCLUSION

Ahimsa is a negative guidance in the sense that it tells us what we must not do – do harm. However, it is a great basis for many positive habits: for being kind, emphatic, altruistic, gentle, tolerant and patient, for volunteering, doing charity or raising awareness about violence towards oneself, other people (some specific groups) or animals. Ahimsa is often associated with empathy because the results often cover, however, as I made clear before, they are far from being synonymous.

Absolute ahimsa is an extremely rare if not inexistent occasion, not so much because of an insect one might unwarily step on, but because ahimsa as a state of mind requires a complete clearance of violent thoughts of any kinds. The closest to this are probably the monks and nuns in Jainism by resisting (external) violence regardless of the given circumstances and the consequences for themselves, thus creating an optimal environment for harmless mental content.

By devotedly seeding the seeds of ahimsa on the mat we gradually replace the actions, words and thoughts (potentially) causing suffering to ourselves, people and other sentient beings with karma-erasing non-violent versions that benefit us and those affected. On the one hand, ahimsa as one out of five yamas represents a necessary virtue for a person to reach for advanced limbs of ashtanga and ultimately come to samadhi. On the other hand, it is undeniable that society would be much better off if individuals strived for living ahimsa, not to mention trillions of animals killed yearly in food industry only.

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES

 

[1] Ahimsa. 2017. [Internet]. [Cited on 17/4/2017]. Available at: https://www.ananda.org/yogapedia/ahimsa/.

[2] Ahimsa in Jainism. 2017. [Internet]. [Cited on 17/4/2017]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa_in_Jainism.

[3] Ahimsa: Buddhism. 2017. [Internet]. [Cited on 17/4/2017]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa#Buddhism.

[4] Yoga Sutras 2.35-2.45: Benefits from the Yamas and Niyamas. [Internet]. [Cited on 17/4/2017]. Available at: http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-23545.htm.

[5] Ibid.

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