Thoughts on Nonviolence - Part 1

This is the first draft of a chapter on Ahimsa (nonviolence)

For the past number of years Sarah Trelease (co-founder of Sola School) and I have been working together to redefine ubiquitous terms and question our assumptions around them. Especially in the yoga world, terms like nonviolence and oneness are used a lot but questioned or explained rarely. Whenever words are used routinely, often hand-in-hand with generalized assumptions and cultural biases, they tend to lead towards unproductive, binary thinking styles. The dualistic moralism that is often the takeaway of these terms only reinforces oppression and suffering through creating the false idea that a person or technique can be good or bad. It is my hope that together we can explore and continue to redefine what these terms mean through a spectrum of experience and personal practice.

Nonviolence is the first of the yamas. The yamas and the niyamas function as an ethical code which has been put forward through the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga (not to be conflated with the style of Ashtanga Yoga which was fostered by Sri K. Pattahbi Jois in the early 1900’s which has a stronger emphasis on asana (postures) practiced in a specific sequence.) Ashtanga translates as eight-limbed and is also sometimes called Raja Yoga, or Royal Yoga. As you probably know, the word yoga is often translated as union. Other translations include to yoke or to bind. An eight-limbed yogic path addresses the disparateness between our minds, bodies, emotions, psychic faculty, spiritual awareness, our connections to other beings, and the natural world in its entirety. Of the eight limbs, the first four are things one can “do”. The logic goes that by practicing the first four limbs, the second four will naturally arise.

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:

  1. Practice of the yamas - these are the “don’t do’s” or conscious abstaining

    1. Ahimsa - Nonviolence, not killing

    2. Satya - Not lying, telling the truth

    3. Asteya - Not stealing, taking only what is offered freely

    4. Brahmacharya - Celibacy, correct sexual conduct

    5. Aparigraha - Non-attachment, not clinging

  2. Practice of the niyamas - these are the “do’s” personal practices

    1. Saucha - Cleanliness

    2. Santosha - Contentment

    3. Tapas - Disciplined use of energy in your body, speech and mind

    4. Svadhyaya - Study of sacred texts and spiritual guides/mentors. The accompanying self-study. The practice of knowing yourself as a spiritual being

    5. Isvara pranidhana - An awareness or reverence for the divine. Meaningful worship.

  3. Practice of Asana - Postures
    Attending to the temple of your body by intentionally counteracting the force and effect of gravity, aging, mental and emotional stagnancy that manifests as physical symptoms (psychosomatics.) Asana practice should be followed in accordance with the yamas and niyamas… So this means that you have a judicious practice that honors the truth of your body and doesn’t create violence in it or steal from it.

  4. Pranayama - attendance to your breath and conscious breathing. Pranayama can include complex breathing patterns but it doesn’t have to. Again, it should be practiced in accordance with the yamas and niyamas. Simply observing the breath is a good place to start.

  5. Pratyahara - open awareness through the sense organs without distraction. Staying aware of your senses without attachment to what you are perceiving.

  6. Dharana - naturally follows Pratyahara and it is the state of concentration that can arise internally when one is not distracted or focusing on external stimulus

  7. Dhyana - While Dharana is still effort to concentrate without distraction, Dhyana continues from Dharana and is the state of effortless abiding in non-distracted awareness.

  8. Samadhi - The state of Samadhi is described as complete absorption or bliss. When the efforts to concentrate and tune out distractions have subsided and one is effortless in awareness then unity is perceived. In the state of Samadhi there is direct perception of the spiritual flow and interdependent connection between all life forms.

Since nonviolence comes first it takes crucial importance, practice of all eight limbs of a yogic path are dependent upon it. As we continue to explore other concepts of practice, nonviolence is the concept that must ultimately be our foundation.

What does nonviolence mean? We can start at the obvious. Don’t physically abuse or kill others… This may seem simple but in fact we already have ethical problems on our hands. It is literally impossible to be alive on this planet without killing or abusing. Even if we don’t kill or physically abuse others directly we are still implicit in killing and abuse through our choices as consumers. Even if we are vegetarian we still purchase products that have moved through global commerce which means that we are complicit in abusive labor policies, land rights violations, and wars. Even if we buy only local, organic, and handmade, the folks we buy from (and ourselves) use petroleum products to power cars or machines so then we are complicit in wars and human displacement due to oil. Even if we live completely isolated in a rural place, make all of our own furniture by hand, grow and process all of our food, and never drive a car, we still kill insects and microorganisms regularly.

To go beyond the above-mentioned impossibilities it’s also important to take certain things into consideration. There are, in fact, many contexts in which the use of violence might be appropriate. For one example, I think it’s important to acknowledge the deeply embedded oppression of women through systemic gender inequality and societal standards that are associated with females. There are countless stories of rape and other acts of violence against women in which we are unable to defend ourselves – because of both a lack of training in physical defense and aggression, as well as deeply held psychological barriers that prevent women from feeling justified in our rage and encouraged to express it.

In this case we have a circumstance of dependent arising. The violence that a woman might engage in order to protect herself is only arising because of pre-existing conditions of violence against her. The pre-existing conditions function on multiple levels: On a mental level there are ingrained ideas of male supremacy that instill beliefs in both men and women that women’s bodies are male property and objects. On an emotional level women have been trained to believe themselves to be caretakers. We have been socialized to believe that if we exhibit “masculine” qualities like aggression we will no longer be desirable or needed. The impact of violent self-preservation goes directly against many women’s emotional self-understanding – it is inconceivable and/or deeply shameful. On a physical level women have lower levels of testosterone meaning that we have smaller statures, less muscle mass, and significantly less instinct towards aggressive behaviors. However, if a woman was able to transcend her mental and emotional conditioning and was strong enough to inflict violence upon an abusive perpetrator, the question remains about whether or not this violence is justified within an ethical code of nonviolence.

This scenario can be modified to fit any group of people who are less dominant and/or oppressed by another group of people. Systemic racism, homophobia, prejudice against those with disabilities, violence against those experiencing homelessness… In all cases we can see that societal conditions currently exit which inflict violence upon people due to the circumstance of their bodies, location, or class.

Here in the United States we have an extremely divided populace and a newly elected future president who has openly encouraged hateful sentiment and violence against women, people of color, and people with disabilities. In other parts of the world we are also seeing a rise in xenophobia and extremism. With such hostility and growing violence it may seem necessary to many to take precautions now by preparing for violence by training for violent retaliation or defense. On the other hand, we also have a world population that is significantly more informed and connected than ever before. More people are organizing and nonviolent resistance efforts like Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL are garnering significant attention. Throughout the world people are responding in solidarity and creating their own nonviolent resistance movements and peace efforts.

My first questions for you are these:

  • Is violence ever ethically appropriate or justified?
  • What are the conditions that must be present for violence to be justified?
  • What nonviolent responses or actions can be taken to counter pre-existing systemic violence?

My prompt for you to consider in personal practice is the question, “How do I kill?” This question is meant to provoke an inquiry into the (probably small) ways that each of us kill, shut down, and stop listening. I recommend doing this either as several consecutive journal entries over a number of days, or with a trusted friend in a question and answer format. In our yearly teacher trainings Sarah and I offer this as a question for diads in which one person takes the role of questioner for 5-10 minutes simply asking, “How do you kill?” The person who is answering then offers the many ways that they reflect upon the question. After each answer the person who is questioning simply says, “Thank you” and repeats the initial question. Here is a brief personal example:

  • I kill when I drive my car
  • I kill when I buy petroleum products
  • I kill when I refuse to have a conversation
  • I kill when I don’t pay attention
  • I kill when by ignoring
  • I kill by blaming instead of forgiving
  • I kill when I eat meat
  • I kill when I buy and discard plastic packaging
  • I kill by holding onto a grudge
  • I kill through judgment

There are many ways of killing. I might kill a conversation with a sharp remark, or kill intimacy through my distraction… This is not a time to discuss or explain but rather an exercise to penetrate your own logic through repetition and force a confrontation with yourself.

It’s important to watch what your mind does during and immediately after this exercise. You very well might find that you get attached to self-blame or guilt. This is not the point. But it is interesting. Self-blame and guilt are also ways of killing - these instincts kill our vibrancy, agency, and capacity for perspective. At the same time these emotional responses are quite common, and you might notice that they are part of a self-perpetuating behavior. We feel guilty and ashamed so we are less aware, less present, more critical, and more destructive.

So the second part of this practice is to notice the sensations that arise when we admit to our own impact… and then to let the sensation pass without shutting it down or trying to avoid it. In this way we practice turning towards our own discomfort, turning towards our own shadow, and ultimately turning towards our own power. Violence and destruction in large part are not created by sole individuals. Most of violence in our world is the accumulated force of many individuals’ small acts of violence that go unnoticed and unchanged. Through engaging this practice we make a conscious choice to wake up to our own impact, and potentially to make different choices. So as you practice turning towards the pain you feel when realizing this, keep in mind that you are no different than any of the other 7.6 billion people on earth who are all also complicit in cumulative violence. And in deciding to wake up to your impact, you are making the first step towards nonviolence.

My experience as a yoga teacher and student in the US has been that nonviolence as a concept is easily associated with Gandhi and Martin Luther King but few actually know much about these two men or the resistance that they practiced. Nonviolence often gets mentioned in relationship to asana and students are encouraged to “listen to their bodies” but rarely is the inherent violence within the human psyche a topic of focus. Similarly, both nonviolence and oneness as concepts often seem associated with other concepts of bliss. The result is that many people who have been raised in a culture that values outcome/goal rather than process end up in a state of spiritual bypass. The inner personal work is not done and a façade of blissfulness is presented. This kind of situation can lead to extremely distorted personalities where the shadow (unresolved inner conflict) acts out in strongly unconscious ways through a person who projects consciousness and altruism. We will all find ourselves in these moments and this is the importance of Sangha. Because we can’t often escape our own egos it’s necessary to have friends and mentors who can help reflect to us what they see. My hope is that the Western yoga community will evolve to include more awareness of psychological impact and more emphasis on inner work and engaged communities.