In yoga, ahimsa (non-violence) is the first of the five Yamas, which are moral values or abstinences that enable social harmony. Non-violence is defined by honest compassion and true love. According to Debra Adele, the author of Yamas & Niyamas, the practices for non-violence include refraining from acts of violence, harm, and unkindness to others, to the earth, and to oneself. Yoga is not reinventing the wheel, as non-violence has been at the heart of many social justice movements and religious traditions worldwide. During January, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for his use of ahimsa in the face of deadly violence. As we are yogis, it’s good to understand this principle in light of our yoga practice on and off the mat, and from a Christian perspective. Ahimsa translates as ‘do no harm.’ It is a stance of right relationship with ourselves and others. “In this sense, we’re talking about non-violence in all aspects of life. When we act with ‘Ahimsa’ in mind, this means not physically harming others, ourselves, or nature; not thinking negative thoughts about others or ourselves; and making sure that what we do and how we do it is done in harmony, rather than harm” Emma Newlyn, Ekhart Yoga.
Practicing Ahimsa Every Day
To understand how we can make ahimsa a part of our daily lives we must first learn how our subtle daily thoughts, actions, and responses have some elements of violence. More often than not, this happens to ourselves and to those who are closest to us. When our thoughts are tainted with negative responses such as anger, guilt, shame or resentment, we are subtly creating violence. If you find it hard to forgive others, or yourself this becomes an act of violence because love is pushed away. Expecting too much from yourself, not knowing when to say no, acting out of fear which leads to inner and outer battles. Gaia envisages that finding inner peace through ahimsa will, in turn, allow us to come to peace in interactions with others.
What does the science say?
Compassion – non-violence in action – has been described as “a distinct affective experience whose primary function is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer.” A meta-analysis of scientific studies shows that there is a large effect size for the relationship between compassion anxiety, depression and stress. People who demonstrated higher levels of compassion were associated with lower levels of mental health symptoms (r = -0.54, p=<.0001). Compassion is, therefore, a significant predictor of mental health and resilience. Another systematic review looked at a group of studies, some of which measured three aspects of intrapersonal peacefulness: peaceful attitude toward self, emotional dispositions that are peaceful, and harmony between aspects of self. “Nonviolent and harmony promoting attitudes towards self (i.e., self-acceptance and self-compassion) were shown to correlate with various measures of interpersonal peacefulness including physical non-violence, psychological non-violence, agreeableness, and positive relationships with others.” I guess the Biebs was right, ‘Oh baby you should go and love yourself.’
Source: The Scientific Benefits of Self Compassion
How do you practice ahimsa?
According to Google Trends, ahimsa is a topic that people want to know more about.
I teach this non-violence principle to my yoga students on a weekly basis for two reasons: first, I am working to better integrate it into in my own life. My drive to succeed is coupled with an unparalleled ability to sit for hours without a bathroom break, water, or any attention to human needs. Sometimes I overwork myself and get sick. But does that stop me – noooooo! My husband will ask me with pleading eyes, “why don’t you just rest today?” Both he and I know that that is just one more rhetorical question for the record. In light of my situation, I have been working on increasing self-compassion through practices such as loving-kindness mindfulness meditation. I have included the Metta prayer at the end of this blog post. You can also find it here. Second, I want my students to sustain their yoga practice, and I believe that the only you can do this is through the practice of non-violence to self and others.
Ahimsa in the Bible
So what’s love gotta’ to do with it/ gotta’ to do with it? Contrary to popular belief, the opposite of violence is not non-violence. The opposite of violence is love. On Patheos.com there are several types of love mentioned throughout the Bible. Phileo, (the root of Philadelphia) is brotherly love; eros, is erotic love; storge, is a love between family members; and agapao love is mystical in nature. While the Greeks often referred to storge, the Greek word agape was not used hardly at all in Greek-speaking societies –although it occurs more than 320 times in the New Testament!
It seems as if the New Testament writers divined the selfie culture that would pervade future societies, and wanted to drill down that something higher than self would be required for us to overcome our basic instincts that make me first – the most intelligent way forward. I find it fascinating that although it’s easier to agapao ourselves, we still end up committing violence against ourselves as witnessed in the high proportion of people that suffer from lifestyle-related diseases and chronic stress. This situation is analogous to having plenty to eat while being malnourished at the same time.
Compellingtruth.org nicely summarizes the Bible teachings of the practice of agapao. We are to agapao God with all our hearts (Matthew 22:37), agapao our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and agapao our enemies (Matthew 5:43-46). We are advised to not agapao money (Matthew 6:24), not agapao darkness (John 3:19), and to not agapao men’s approval (John 12:43). Yeah, I know, you had me at ‘love your enemies.’ This is why agapao is mystical – at times the situations where it’s required runs counter to common sense. Therefore, agapao is not something we can will ourselves to practice– even on a good day. To generate that ‘good energy’ that everyone loves to talk about — we have to go to the source –agapee – which is God.
What Does the Bible Say about Self-compassion?
Self-love and self-compassion are often used interchangeably. I will use the latter for the rest of this post. The question of what the Bible teaches in regards to self-love is a good one. The straight answer is that the Bible doesn’t say much about it. What we can do is put our logical, scientific heads to work and engage in a bit of deductive reasoning. If we are to agapao our neighbors as ourselves—are we not supposed to apply these same acts of love to ourselves? If we practice self-hate and are not compassionate with ourselves, then this is the form of love we will extend to our neighbors. Of self-compassion: [it] is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address mistakes directly). I have analyzed some of the scriptural references to give you a sketch of what a Biblical self-compassion might look.
|How To Treat My Neighbor||…Applied to Myself|
|Eph 4:29||No unwholesome talk about others, Only words to build them up.||No negative self-talk. Use positive affirmations to encourage yourself, especially when you are feeling low.|
|Eph 4:32||No slander, bitterness, anger and wrath, malice.||Forgive yourself; don’t hold on to anger against self; let go of the bitterness inside that has to do with things in your past that you cannot change.|
|2 Cor 13:10
|Do not exercise the harsh authority of those under your care.||Do not be harsh on yourself. Be gentle and exercise self-care.|
|Pro 12:18||Watch your words as rash words can pierce like a sword; speak wise words as they can heal.||Seek wisdom, speak wise words to yourself as these have healing power.|
The linchpin of ahimsa (non-violence) is love. As this love is not of human origin, it requires that we seek a power higher than ourselves to daily put these lofty principles into practice. Self-love (self-compassion) is one key to non-violence toward others, as we often hold others to the same standards (or higher) that we hold ourselves. If we are harsh, unforgiving, and speak negatively about ourselves; we will most definitely be harsh, unforgiving and speak negatively of others. No one said this was going to be easy. Things of value almost never are! I invite you to take up this Yoga Off the Mat #ahimsachallenge and invite your friends and loved ones to do the same. This is a heart opener, and you should expect the love in your space to multiply with this challenge – even if you take it up alone.
How to Practice Ahimsa
- During your daily meditation and prayers ask for the increased ability to love your neighbor, including those who have wronged you.
- Memorize and meditate on 1 John 4:19.
- Read the ultimate love verse: 1 Cor 13:4-8
- Print out the #ahimsachallenge self-affirmation based on 1 Cor 13:4-6. Replace “Love” with “I am.” Repeat this to yourself throughout the day. This is how it will read:
Ahimsa self affirmation
I am patient, I am kind
I do not envy, I am not boastful, I am not conceited
I do not act improperly, I am not selfish, I am not provoked
I do not keep a record of wrongs
I find no joy in unrighteousness but rejoice in the truth
NIV Lifehacks Bible: “Lifehack” describes any advice, shortcut, tip or skill that will help you get things done more efficiently and effectively. I like the NIV Lifehacks Bible as it uses “lifehacking” methods that give you practical and achievable tools to integrate spiritual habits into your busy, technology-centric, 21st-century life. It has 365 articles that comprise 30 life-changing disciplines. This Bible not only illuminates wisdom on spiritual practices, but it also provides practical tips and strategies to apply them to your daily life. A promising review “The NIV Lifehacks Bible is unlike many of the study Bibles out there…. Just Commonly
Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice I started reading this book as part of my yoga teacher training and found it to be clear and accessible. It takes an in-depth look at the Yamas, (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess and non-possessiveness); and Niyamas (purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender). This book does a superb job of looking at each ethical tenet in an in-depth, you strengthen your understanding of and growth in each area. The author uses examples and inspirational quotes from a broad pool of sources including personal accounts, historical, literary, and religious. One reviewer wrote, “Great book on some of the basics of yoga philosophy. I found that it opened my eyes on multiple levels regarding issues in my own life,” Stuart & Laura Nottingham
Namasté. I look forward to meeting you on the mat!
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