Yoga and Nonviolence–Practice Makes Perfect
To me, nonviolence means: gentleness, self-control, kindness, and compassion. It isn’t simply the absence of violent behaviors, it is the awareness of the potential for our actions to be harmful and to deliberately choose what will benefit instead of hurt. Violence can be acted out physically, verbally, and mentally–toward others and toward ourselves. If we are to be nonviolent at our core, we need to choose in each moment thoughts, words, and actions that acknowledge and nurture the spark of divinity in each of us.
This week in my group classes, before we started into our asana (yoga postures), I’ve asked my students to shout out qualities of a non-violent person. I’ve heard answers like “peaceful,” “strong,” and “patient.” Last night one of my students mentioned Rosa Parks. I asked her what about Rosa Parks’s behavior was nonviolent to her. She replied, “Rosa Parks stood up for herself without being aggressive.” Another student mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. and the whole Civil Rights Movement, all of the protests that got the message across without harming those whose behaviors they were protesting. This is something to keep in mind as we walk the path of nonviolence. It doesn’t mean that we’re wishy-washy, that we condone the outrageously violent behavior that we frequently witness and sometimes directly experience. It’s so much deeper and stronger than backing down in the face of our aggressors, just to “keep the peace.” It’s the ability to stand up, speak up, and find alternate ways to answer back besides engaging in physical, verbal, and mental aggression. This takes consciousness. It takes strength. It takes practice.
All violence, indeed all everything begins as thought and manifests outwardly from there. To master gentleness and kindness toward others, we must first begin to bathe ourselves with these qualities. Sounds great, but how to we proceed from where we are, today, perhaps with a mind plagued often by unkind thoughts directed at ourselves and others–to a life lived through a nonviolent approach? Come to a yoga class! One of the reasons I love teaching and practicing the postures of yoga is that it offers us a chance to directly experience all of these concepts that might otherwise look good on paper but seem too far out there to grasp and incorporate in real life.
What does nonviolence have to do with yoga class, besides not punching the person on the mat next to you because they can do that advanced pose and they’re just showing off? You begin, very simply, by setting the intention to not injure yourself while practicing asana. It sounds simple, right? Confession time: I have injured myself multiple times in multiple yoga classes because I lost awareness of what I was doing. More confession: this is kind of embarrassing to admit, but most of these injuries happened after becoming a teacher. With all of my knowledge as an instructor of yoga, knowledge about alignment in postures, the importance of the breath, the supreme importance of being present–I have injured myself with shocking predictability the past few years because I failed to stay alert in my own body.
It’s an old hamstring injury that won’t go away, but that keeps flaring up because I have a tendency to demonstrate the poses while I teach. During the demonstration I’m dialoguing my students through alignment, the benefits of the pose, trying to keep them focused…I pop into and out of my poses a little too quickly to go adjust students’ alignment. I forget myself. And then ouch, there goes the hamstring. I’ve also hurt my biceps tendon from chaturangas (yoga push ups) done too quickly, and I’ve had tendonitis in one elbow from too many chaturangas. I have hyperextended my knee in hanumanasana (a split), and I felt that one for days afterwards. The injuries have been mild enough that they don’t slow me down too much. But they’ve been real enough to keep reminding me that if I can’t live ahimsa in my own body, I can’t really teach it authentically. Enough of this confession, let me get to the point here–my injuries have taught me some really important stuff.
Slow down. Stay awake. Maybe you hurt yourself yesterday, but it can be different today. Preceding each injury there was–without fail–a lack of awareness, a lack of focus, a lack of compassion. The understanding was gone. So was the purpose for why I was there practicing yoga in the first place. Am I trying to keep up with everyone else in the class (competition, a fear of falling behind), to impress other students and the teacher? Or am I here to awaken to my true nature? And can’t that happen regardless of the outward appearance of my body in the pose? If we all had to perfect handstand to be enlightened, most of us would be screwed. Luckily, no handstands are required. Just our own awareness.
By staying alert, by slowing down, by honoring the body where it is in this moment, we can practice ahimsa in a very real way on our yoga mat. We can be kind and gentle to our bodies and our selves. Our minds, and the thoughts that tell us that we need to do better, be more, be stronger can fade into the background of our awareness. They can loosen their hold on us and we can experience for just a little while the spaciousness of our inner selves. As we keep practicing and establishing continuity, what was previously just an a lofty concept is now firmly rooted on the cellular level of our bodies. Now we can step off of the mat and walk out into the world radiating the kindness and the gentleness and the patience we’ve nurtured in our asana.
This, like everything else in life, is a process. It takes time and determination, perseverance and focused intention to allow the seeds of nonviolence to take root and blossom in our bodies and lives. But each little step along the path counts. Imagine how safe we would all feel in each other’s presence if we all did this work. In the absence of animosity and rage in ourselves and others, we could let down our defenses and allow our authentic selves to emerge. Imagine relating to the people around you authentically–no fear, or competition, just connection. What a wonderful world that would be.
Do you have any ideas about how you can incorporate gentleness and kindness into your daily life right now? Who would you be in the absence of anger or fear? How would you experience yourself and those in your life if you could live with gentleness, kindness and patience–and if these were offered to you?