“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This week, we honor the man who practiced nonviolent activism. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought to undo racial injustices through peaceful resistance. He taught from a place of love. He was a leading example of how change can come about with persistence, kindness, and service.
In yoga, ahimsa or nonviolence is a yama or guiding principle that accompanies a yogi’s physical practice. Similar to Dr. King’s teachings, ahimsa reminds us to avoid external and internal violence. Here are a few examples of how ahisma applies on and off our yoga mat:
- Awareness of our physical limitations. The poses on the cover of Yoga Journal are beautiful and awe inspiring. That doesn’t mean that we can do them on the first try. The models on the cover have likely been practicing that pose for weeks to prepare for the photoshoot. When our ego takes over and we attempt to do a pose that is beyond our present ability, we do violence to our body. We put ourselves in a situation where we strain a muscle, pull a ligament, or put wear and tear on a joint. Our practice digresses rather than progresses. Knowing our limitations and practicing from a place of awareness allows us to push up against our edges and challenge ourselves to go deeper without causing harm.
- Balancing left and right, front and back. You might notice that one shoulder is tighter than the other shoulder or that one leg is stronger than the other leg. With this awareness, we can examine what asymmetrical activities are causing an imbalance. Do I carry my bag only on my left shoulder? Do I only cross my left leg over my right leg? When we continue to strengthen the strong leg or continue to stretch the more flexible shoulder, we are perpetuating an imbalance. Similarly, if we consistently practice forward folds without practicing backbends, we are creating an imbalance in our body that becomes painful one day. A well-balanced practice will create length, space, and stability while preventing injuries due to imbalances.
- Nonviolence towards others. When we see this one, we typically associate it with physical harm. While most of us would not punch another person in the face or draw blood, what behaviors or actions are we doing that cause harm to others? Are we unintentionally doing things that prevent others from freely living their full lives?
For example, a few years ago, North Carolina passed a law preventing transgender individuals from using the restroom of the gender they identify. Instead, they were told they were perverts and child molesters and they had to use the bathroom of the gender they were given on their birth certificate. Violence was done towards transgender individuals by keeping them from being the person they are and making them feel shame.
Across the South, much debate is currently happening about whether or not Confederate soldier statues should stay erected and flags kept flying high. Proponents of keeping the statues in place feel that they are symbols of Southern pride and honor the history of the United States. Those that want to see the statues removed feel they are symbols of oppression and are reminded of the United States’ history of enslaving people. They feel intense fear, sadness, and anger when they see these statues and flags raised. If prominently displayed Confederate figures actively hurt people, we are enacting violence towards others.
Some may extend this idea of nonviolence towards others to include nonviolence towards any living being. Vegans and vegetarians avoid nonviolence towards animals as one of the primary reasons for not eating meat.
- Nonviolence towards ourselves. What actions or behaviors cause harm to ourselves? Is it an abusive relationship? Is it continuing to work a shitty job? Drugs and alcohol? I am violent towards myself when I engage in a downward spiral of negative self-talk. I catch myself thinking thoughts like: I am so lazy, look at my disgusting pot belly, I am an impatient jerk, I can’t believe I said that, I am so insensitive, I am a terrible friend/sister/daughter, and so on. These thoughts are not loving and kind. They are violent, limiting beliefs that cause me harm by preventing me from thinking I am the lovely, amazing, awesome person that I know I am.
When discussing ahimsa in Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar says, “Violence arises out of fear, weakness, ignorance, or restlessness.” He goes on to say that violence declines when we find freedom from fear, base our faith on reality, and help others be happy. Just like achieving that gorgeous pose on the cover of Yoga Journal, these things do not happen overnight. It takes practice.
When we practice yoga, we start to become aware of little things, like how tight our hamstrings are or how far we can take our arms overhead. With this awareness, we make adjustments and with practice, we make small gains over time.
In much the same way, when we start to notice little things, like when fear comes up or what we choose to put our faith in, we can make adjustments. When I start the violent, negative self-talk cycle and tell myself that I am never going to be successful, I realize I am afraid of failure. When I frame it this way, I am more gentle and encouraging with myself. This awareness transforms violence into nonviolence.
Dr. King put it aptly when he said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.” When we practice ahimsa on our yoga mat, towards each other, and towards ourselves, we stand squarely on the side of love.
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. p. 32
King, Jr. M.L. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 8
King, Jr. M.L. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? p. 67