“At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Sanskrit word ahimsa means “non-injury”or “nonviolence,” and as B. K. S. Iyengar wrote in 1966 in the seminal Light on Yoga, “It is more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love.” Ahimsa is the first yama, the very first principle of a path to Samadhi (a state of “peace that passeth all understanding”) laid out by Patanjali 2000 years ago.
Love and Compassion vs. Fear and Violence
Imagine that there is a spectrum of thoughts, words, and deeds ranging from love and compassion on one end to fear and violence on the other. The midpoint represents actions that are neutral—they neither generate love, nor do harm. Every interaction is an opportunity to diffuse negativity and generate more love in the world. Consider the effects of offering a friendly “Good Morning” to a stranger versus staying quiet. Consider the effects of reacting calmly to a frustrating situation versus “dishing back” the anger or negativity someone throws at you. It is not always easy, but we always have the choice to react with love and compassion for ourselves and others. Through practicing yoga, we become more fully aware of what is happening inside ourselves physically and emotionally in any given moment. If a situation causes us to feel fearful or angry, it is common to react in a way that only generates more fear and anger. Yoga offers us tools to improve our ability to pause before reacting and decide which response will likely generate the best outcome, which response might diffuse that negativity and foster more love.
“Violence arises out of fear, weakness, ignorance or restlessness. To curb it, what is most needed is the freedom from fear. To gain this freedom, what is required is a change of outlook on life and reorientation of the mind. Violence is bound to decline when men learn to base their faith on reality and investigation rather than upon ignorance and supposition.”
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Yoga as a Pathway to Love and Compassion
How do we attain freedom from fear and begin to operate from a place of love and compassion? Yoga teaches us how to:
- use the breath to become calm
- cultivate awareness of mind and body
- develop a habit of pausing before reacting
- allow our best self to shine through
Just Breathe: Finding a steady, deep, relaxed breath has a calming effect and affords us an extra moment before reacting.
Mind/Body Awareness: When practicing forward bends, back bends, and twists, we increase our awareness of our internal terrain, including our heart. Paying attention to physical sensations in our chest area in particular can provide clues to when we are operating from fear versus love. For example, in situations where one perceives danger, it is instinctual to hunch forward to protect the throat and vital organs. Whether the danger is perceived as physical or emotional, the physiological reaction is the same. So even in typical everyday interactions, it is not uncommon for the nervous system to perceive innocuous events such as a criticism or getting the cold shoulder from a loved one as a threat to one’s well being. Thoughts often pass through the mind so quickly we don’t notice them. Other times, we dismiss thoughts that seem irrational or inconvenient and push them into the shadows, where they operate in the darkness. This is why taking note of our physical posture can offer some insight into our underlying emotional state.
Pausing Before Reacting: The real key here is to notice our physical and mental reactions and ask ourselves questions such as, What have I just told myself about this interaction? Was it a fear-based thought? (e.g. “This person is upset with me. What if she never forgives me and I’m alone forever?”). Or, did my reaction come from a place of love and compassion? (e.g. “Wow, he seems grouchy. I wonder if something is bothering him?”)
Sometimes our thinking patterns become habitual, and we are (at first) so convinced that our perception of reality is true, we cannot even entertain the possibility that we are reading a situation wrong. Perhaps this is an example of what Iyengar meant in the quote above regarding learning to “base their faith on reality and investigation rather than upon ignorance and supposition”.
Non-violence, which is the quality of the heart, cannot come by an appeal to the brain.
Developing increased body/sense awareness is also valuable in that compassion is centered in the heart. Many notice a warm, open feeling in the chest when feeling compassion, versus a hard, tight feeling in the heart space when afraid. So rather than utilizing the brain’s logic to decide if you are about to react from compassion, instead try feeling into your heart. Notice the sensations there, and if possible take a little extra time if needed to relax and connect with your breath and your heart.
Allow Your Best Self to Shine Through: Ultimately, the concept of nonviolence is one more lens through which we can view our relationship to self and the world, and create more ease and contentment in life. As the turmoil of fear and anger give way to steadiness and equanimity, we become clear and bright. Our inner light can shine thorough from deep within, like the crystal depths of a lake visible through a calm, glassy surface.