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Don’t You Hurt a Fly

March 29, 2010
Ahimsa, or non–harming, is the very first principle of right living outlined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, and is by many considered to be the only starting point for an authentic practice. Of course, the grossest forms of violence are so pervasive in our world that many of us simply become overwhelmed in the face of such an order, and perhaps shut down before making the simplest attempt to practice non–harming.  As we become inured to the prevalence and brutality of physical violence committed in war, random or deliberate acts of terrorism, domestic abuse, and so on ad infinitum, we are less likely to tune into the subtler forms of violence we each commit often and unwittingly, thus subtracting peace from our lives and the world. How do we subvert the vicious cycle of violence that invariably and endlessly creates suffering for all creatures inhabiting this world?

“Why do you think of the violence of the world? Why don’t you think of the violence in you?” asks B.K.S. Iyengar in The Tree of Yoga. This sounds a little more manageable! However, once you begin you will find that it’s still an on–going and tremendous task to practice non–harming. Take heart, Yoga is not an hour and a half in the studio, it is in fact a way of life. You might say to yourself, “I’ve never thrown a punch, never shoved my little brother (who was a complete pest!), I rescue animals, and I’m a vegetarian!” Slow down Mother Teresa, ahimsa does not refer to physical violence alone.

According to Patanjali, ahimsa must be practiced completely, meaning in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  Too, not having thrown a punch at others doesn’t constitute complete non–harming in deed if you are causing harm to yourself (for example, jamming yourself into an asana you simply aren’t ready to actualize).  For many of us our asana practice is a useful place to begin integrating a commitment to ahimsa into our daily lives.  Some of us might choose to back off a bit from a more extreme posture that we know is causing us pain.  If you are trembling, not breathing smoothly and easily, in physical pain, or turning red in face these represent only a sampling of outward indicators that you are not incorporating ahimsa into your practice.  If you are a teacher who is addicted to the glory of the pose or perhaps aerobic in your approach so that you love watching your students struggle to keep up with your miraculous demonstration of advanced asanas— then you are not practicing ahimsa, and thus are not founded in an authentic Yoga.


We’ve all heard teachers talk about bringing your Yoga off the mat, and many of us have likely read articles and books, perhaps listened to lectures by esteemed yogis that ask us to do the same.  Hey! I’m asking you to first become more conscious of what you’re doing on the mat!  If you are committing violence on the mat, please don’t bring your ‘Yoga’ off the mat.  Unfortunately, if we practice without awareness, we likely do most things in our lives with the same degree of mindlessness. The unexamined practice is not Yoga! (Hmm, that sounds familiar.) If we cultivate awareness and begin integrating the yamas and niyamas into our asana practice, we will experience a deeper and more profound practice.  It’s not so strange!  Most of us work to ‘become aware of our breath’ and to ‘use our breath to move into the posture,’ and so on, this is typical asana class script, right? Although ‘being aware of your breath’ isn’t equal to pranayama, it is the door leading into that fourth limb. Why then should we find it so strange to incorporate the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight–fold path into our asana practice with dedication and discipline?

Take time to focus and meditate on your new (or continuing) practice of non–harming in your asana practice.  Start with the obvious stuff: no shoe–horning yourself into positions you aren’t ready to assume, no castigating yourself for not being a Yoga rock star (because that’s not the point anyway), no skipping out on Sivasana or other resting and counter–poses that rejuvenate your body and mind and allow your system to integrate all the hard work you’ve done.  Treat your teacher and other yogis with respect.  Don’t gossip, compete, or engage in drama.  Recognize your practice, the practice of others, and the space in which it takes place as sacred.

Now let’s expand our commitment to non–violence to reach outside the studio.  You’re running late, you’re grouchy because you overslept, you’re on a deadline, and about to be late for Yoga class— which means, you think to yourself, an even greater sense of imbalance.  En route you see a person struggling with an awkward and clearly cumbersome object that she is very slowly and painfully trying to move into the trunk of her car. What’s your first inclination?  Look past the struggling woman and rush on to your destination?  DO YOUR YOGA NOW, IN EACH MOMENT, IN ALL PLACES.  Stop and offer to help.  Non–harming does not only mean to not inflict obvious and brute violence, it also means to be generous and loving— especially to those who are apparently in need.

How else can we practice non–violence?  Gradually stop using hurtful language in your mind and out loud toward yourself and others.  Work to no longer deliberately ‘push the buttons’ of people in your life in order to frustrate or hurt them.  If you have been hurt take steps to heal yourself in a loving, patient, and honest way.  Revenge is not an antidote for any injustice or pain. Listen attentively.  Speak honestly and from your heart.  Become aware of behaviors that create tension and discomfort in your body and begin to reprogram yourself.  For example, you love to smoke cigarettes and drink cases of soda and your lungs and stomach feel like a rusted gas–tank; be kind to yourself.  Perhaps you have a tendency to engage in casual sex and often feel depressed, isolated, and disappointed in yourself (yet again) the morning after; examine your motivations, look into your impulses and begin practicing non–violence by having compassion for yourself and your stumbling.

It is becoming apparent through these examples that the ongoing practice of ahimsa requires us to go deep inside ourselves in order to evaluate our behavioral, emotional, and thinking patterns.  Yes, of course— Yoga is after all a methodical approach to self–realization. When we go into ourselves with the intention to embrace and live the yamas and niyamas, we find a greater clarity of mind, a significant reduction in mental and thereafter physical tension, and a much altered perception of the world we live in.  The gradual and consistent incorporation of the ten principles, beginning with ahimsa, brings us closer indeed to a realization of the inner unity of everything.

I would like to leave you with a few bits to chew on.  First, a question posed by Georg Feuerstein in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, “how can we translate the ideal of non–harming into daily practice— for ourselves, our community, and our global society?” Please ask yourself this question throughout your day, in your work, in your exchanges with strangers and intimates alike.  Many of us have our eye on the prize, hoping for that ecstatic experience of inner unity, oneness, Samadhi— we (think we) launch ourselves onto the fast lane headed for enlightenment, as if that were a Happy Meal to be ordered and grabbed at on a drive–through.

“The practice of the perfect discipline is achieved in stages,” (Patanjali Yoga Sutra) and Yoga is not something to do to be done.  It is an honor— though not always a pleasure— to be embodied, and we are each in fact charged with the opportunity and responsibility to learn and evolve continuously.  And yes we will incrementally become aware of the inner unity but our individuality is significant.  First, make non–harming yours; make it your experience and your gift to your environment.  Don’t only read about non–harming; understand it through your own experience. Remember the words of Iyengar, “You develop original intelligence by rubbing the thought with the experience, and that originality is meditation.” Already, in delving into the practice of ahimsa we are traveling from the first limb further along the path toward meditation! Why all this work? Iyengar continues, “Each one has to train himself or herself, for without discipline we cannot become free, nor can there be freedom in the world without discipline.”

Be kindness, be love, be non–violence, be original, be meditative, and FREE yourself. Hari Om Tat Sat.

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