I could see it on their faces, every time, each man who has sat in training with me and hadn’t yet heard about Ahimsa, would shrink in their seat, or puff out their chest, or scoff out loud.
There are two general mindsets around non-violence: there is the crowd that thinks, “obviously!” then there is the crowd that thinks, “impossible!” No wonder Yoga has a reputation for being soft, coddling, and easy, no wonder so many who might benefit from the practice, feel left out.
This first Yama can either invite a practitioner in, or turn them off completely. In my work with veterans and men, they cannot reconcile their personal history and the culture of “masculinity,” against the idea that non-violence is the beginning of a yogic path.
Violence is defined as; behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. “Well fuck,” says every soldier, LEO, or fighter, seeking the practice; "what now?" How do people who’s occupation, skill, and training ask them to use force, sometimes deadly force, call themselves Yogis? Let’s sort this out.
First, let's look for context and nuance because nothing in this world is actually black and white.
The Bhagavad Gita is another sacred Yogic text, it’s a “song” a hymn, and it takes place on a battlefield, yup, it's about war. Broken down into its most simple terms the Gita studies how to manage conflict. Yoga is about management and efficiency, in its most pure essence, it instructs us to exercise the maximum amount of self awareness and self control.
This brings us back to the word ‘violence.’ If we take the blanket definition I’ve previously shared, any act which causes harm is out of bounds. Let’s go deeper first, violence isn’t just about outward physical acts, we do violence, harm, to ourselves too. We do harm to ourselves when we allow unhealthy things into our lives, we do harm by not creating boundaries, we do harm by not putting ourselves first, we do harm by participating in unhealthy relationships and circumstances, we do harm when we don’t value and respect our own needs. This goes deep.
The meaning behind ahimsa isn’t just about doing no harm, it’s about not tolerating harm; here is where it gets interesting. A person who is not strong or skilled enough to protect themselves is not more virtuous than one who is. A person who’s weakness allows themselves or others to be harmed, devalued, or victimised, is not better than one who can enforce boundaries and provide protection.
Conflict is an inevitable part of life, and myself, as a conflict avoidant person, cringe at this fact- but it’s true. Ahimsa asks us to pause in conflict, to reflect before responding, ahimsa asks us to slow down. Violence is the product of confusion, fear, and disconnection, met with conflict at an accelerated pace. Violence is the result of a narrative about fear, lack, injustice, and power; pressurized by the weight of resolution. The irony in all of this is that often violence is justified in the name of peace, or so we say.
We need each other. Humans are not meant to live isolated, numb, disconnected lives, chasing a carrot, wasting their days in a flurry of anxiety. Of course we’re pissed off, of course we want something deeper, we want to be accepted, we want to be of purpose, we want to be valued. Ahimsa steps in here too, because if these desires go unchecked, our Ego comes into play and desire becomes demand. Who hurts now when we are "fighting" to get what we "deserve."
Ahimsa is the guiding principle which allows us to soften our grip on the things we believe we need to survive. It allows us to humanize the world around us, it allows us to relax against healthy boundaries, it empowers us to stand firm when they need to be defended.
Yoga doesn't ask you to put your arms down, it asks you to only raise them when there is no other choice, to raise them in skill, to raise them in protection.
This Yoga is for you, you scrappy, soulful human, welcome.