The Eight Limbs of yoga 2.0. Ahimsa: Pacifism, or the Resistance of Oppression?

Via yoga 2.0 lab
on Mar 10, 2011
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by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie

This post is number two of 33 on the subject of “Eight Limbs in the 2.0 Age”. #1 gives an outline of our general inspiration and approach (– check out the comment-thread as well to get a sense of how we invite and facilitate interaction on the levels of form, content, and tone).

Here we navigate some delicate theoretical dimensions of ahimsa, currently translated as “non-violence” within modern yoga. We’ll follow this blog next week with a more colourful and personal account of this rich landscape. Our thoughts are by no means complete: our goal is to provoke continual enrichment and revision through discussion.


Is the principle of non-violence vibrantly clear to us in modern yoga culture? Does it appreciate the difference between the internal attitude of pacifism, which serves a metaphysical ideal, and the externalizing promise of resisting oppression, even through violent means, to serve the causes of justice and equality? Do we as modern yogis hold pacifist ideals? Can this obstruct our embodiment, and perpetuate distrustful attitudes towards the flesh? Can this excuse us from difficult decisions?

As always, language complicates the issue.  The popular translation of ahimsa as “non-violence” blurs the distinction between pacifism and embodied action by implying that violence per se is our problem, and not the intention to oppress others that motivates systematic violence.

Violence is often seen from a metaphysical stance – as a catastrophic virus that must be rewired or deleted through spiritual practice. But open eyes show us that violence exists on all levels of relational being. We eat and are eaten. The body itself violently disposes of parasites. We have no qualms about the tiger pulling the zebra to the dust in an ecstasy of hunger, blood, and surrender. We do not criticize (anymore, at least) the woman who maims her would-be rapist in a surge of rage and indignation. We indeed have moral and emotional room for far more vitality and assertion than “non-violence” would suggest. In our hearts, most of us may actually value violence, even if we can’t quite define its uses or limits, because we are looking at our world in much different terms than the ascetic framework of pacifism contains.

Our 2.0 age demands a complex awareness of all of the effects of our actions and non-actions, both upon those plants and beings we know, and upon those we have never seen nor will ever know. No generation in history has been more aware of interconnectivity, and therefore more primed for empathy. Most people in the world can’t buy a pair of shoes without contemplating even for a moment where they were made, and whether by children or economic slaves. It is upon the loom of this globalized socio-economic network that older visions of ahimsa must now be stretched.

To the extent that the Yoga Sutras are inspired by the transcendent ethics of the Jains (the yamas are directly transposed from the Mahavratas), the ahimsa of the 1.0 era is posed not as non-violence for the sake of empowering others, but rather as “non-contact” for the sake of personal karmic withdrawal and purification. The Jains and the early yogis didn’t refrain from harming others so that they could build conscious community, but so that they could escape the stickiness of karmic bondage. This ascetic version of ahimsa might be better translated as “non-involvement”. The reduction to social and logical absurdity of this stance would be: “If I keep myself from hurting you for long enough, I might just be able to leave this sorry planet and never see you again.”

This may ring empty for those of us who want to stay, and who feel there is much work to be enjoyed.

A 2.0 attitude would shine a questioning light on every corner of non-involvement in modern yoga practice.  It might also help to develop the awareness that non-contact is an impossible ideal in a world so deeply interconnected and interdependent. Wherever an impossible ideal lurks, it may be concealing a hierarchical model of reality that will never satisfy the heart, and may separate people into those who think they are living it, and those who know they cannot. Holding an impossible ideal may also reflect a yearning for the perennial and illusive goal within our shared developmental psychology: to re-establish contact with the perfect parent.

As modern yogis living in paradoxical world of disembodiment and institutionalized physical oppression, we need to define more clearly what the energy and intention of both personal and communal violence actually is.  This is very difficult, but we can begin with this: violence that seeks to assert human rights and redress oppression can be yogic, while violence that seeks to deprive human rights is always pathological.

If we can agree this far, we can posit that defending ourselves vigourously, with our bodies, against verbal, physical, and ecological abuse is never an act of oppressive violence.  It is an act of self-assertion.  It does not seek to establish permanent power over another through force and to deny that other’s uniqueness. It expresses the very real need to restore relationship and mutual self-existence between ourselves and our aggressor. Without that restored balance, we die inside, and leave the Other to his bitter solitude.

The list of actions that are violent but not oppressive is as long as our inquiry into intention needs to be. Boxing is not oppressive in itself. Stone-throwing is not oppressive in itself. Strategic industrial property destruction to save ecological resources is not oppressive in itself.  But the intention to gain permanent power and control through force – whether actual or threatened, through machinery or diplomacy – is both violent and oppressive. Any institutional and systematic denial of a person’s rights and freedoms is oppressive violence, even if that person is never acted upon physically. Violence must be an act of power over another to be oppressive.

The Patanjalian categorizing of ahimsa as a yama (a restraint), may no longer be accurate. The etymology of yama suggests that its practice brings a kind of death to an aspect of one’s personality. The common meaning we retain today is that the yamas kill egoic selfishness. But if we restrain ourselves from justice, our selflessness is in question. In the face of multiple levels of actual and threatened violent oppression in the Majority World and our environment, ahimsa may be better positioned as a niyama (something to be unleashed). A promise to connect, and act.

If we train ourselves psychologically to restrain ourselves, rise above, overlook, withdraw from or otherwise lie down in the face of oppression, we may well be oppressing ourselves, as well as others. As a yama, ahimsa is an internalized threat against a certain behaviour. But any metaphysical ideal that would encourage a practitioner to not engage with potentially conflictual actions for the sake of personal karmic gain is psychologically crippling, and socially dysfunctional. Ahimsa taken to a dogmatic, pacificist, and self-directed ideal can actually constitute a deep form of dissociative cruelty.

If we reframe ahimsa as a niyama – a necessary observance, a vow we swear– we can begin to stretch its application into the realm of fighting oppression, which can indeed involve violent actions. Holding ahimsa as a denial of violent action is neither attainable nor honest with regard to human behaviour. Viewing ahimsa as a harmonizing of anti-oppressive intention for all actions, both violent and peaceful, transforms it from self-concern to self-and-other concern, and makes it a necessary and relevant tool for fighting oppression.

Through this reframing, the beauty of the battlefield that Krishna displays in the Bhagavad Gita becomes clearer: the yogi sees life and death feeding each other in a circle of evolutionary passions, and he vows to participate. His very body, like the world he surveys, contains both peace and violence. They oscillate in perpetually imperfect balance.

In her essay “Justice is a Woman with a Sword”, D.A. Clarke writes: “Non-violence is far more impressive when practised by those who could easily resort to force if they chose.” The modern yogi can ask herself: “Is violence in the name of non-oppression morally and psychologically accessible to me?” If it is not, has ahimsa stolen her relational power? Has ahimsa regressed her into an ascetic ideal of non-participation?

If her force is psychologically accessible, her warrior pose will not only exude ease and grace, but also a silent warning to all who see her that oppression will not be tolerated.

Empathetic ahimsa casts a wrathful shadow.


How do we practice non-dogmatic, anti-oppression ahimsa? There won’t be any rules – this much is clear. It all comes down to what we are willing to do in any given situation.

Here’s the wiki-bait: What would you do, as a yogi, to combat oppression? What violence might you engage in – towards re-establishing dignity, equality, and the elevation of self and other?

(Feel free to comment anonymously if it this is more comfortable. Self-exposure isn’t the point, although it can be declarative and motivational for some. For now, we’re just concerned with free-thinking.)

photo by EK Park

Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.


About yoga 2.0 lab

Matthew Remski is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Yoga Teacher Trainer in Toronto. His latest book, Threads of Yoga, is gathering international acclaim. He's teaching this online course starting 1/7/14. It's currently full, but there is a reduced-tuition option for auditing. The 12 weekly lessons will be available online for six months following the course. Participants receive a 130-page manual of notes.


35 Responses to “The Eight Limbs of yoga 2.0. Ahimsa: Pacifism, or the Resistance of Oppression?”

  1. Chelsea says:

    Love this!! Especially the clever creation of the term "Patanjalian"– I'm so stealing that.

    We discussed ahimsa several weeks ago at our Sutras study group and touched on several currents that run through your post, Matt. We ended group that evening by taking a few moments to reflect on our present lives and behavior, noticing a place where we are perhaps not living true to the ahimsic ideal, and then making a commitment out loud to the group to engage in a concrete, measurable action daily to become less violent in that area of our lives. One participant vowed to buy all her produce that week from local producers and another committed to saying something kind to herself every morning upon looking in the mirror.

    I resonate with the notion that ahimsa/non-violence is not merely restraint from harmful actions (to ourselves or others); I think it is ALSO a commitment to walk the path of engaged and active Love. Maybe we can reconceptualize ahimsa as both a yama and niyama? I wonder if Gandhi would agree…

  2. fivefootwo says:

    Is it too simplistic to define the goal of ahimsa as to renounce the advantages /pleasures that we derive from oppressing? Right now I find myself mostly working on not being the jerk that wants everything according to my"correct" most convenient for me way. Then maybe when we/I get reasonably competent at passing on opportunities to hassle others, we can move on to the other oppressors who are really effing stuff up. I think elective violence is ahimsa for experienced pros. Most of us are mucking around with reactive violence.

  3. matthew says:

    Thanks for the note Chelsea — glad to hear about your vigourous and fertile discussions…

  4. matthew says:

    hey 5'2" — i agree that elective violence seems to be at the Gita-level. but sometimes i wonder how much what we have been trained to call reactive violence is an authentic embodied attempt to restore order. does the immune system express reactive violence? it's such an interesting question…

  5. Roger Wolsey says:

    Very interesting and very informative. That said, I'm more of a *satyagraha* guy myself — you know, the "non-violent, yet assertive soul force" that Ghandi got the masses to employ to break the yolk of imperial oppression and which Martin Luther King Jr. got the masses to employ (along with Jesus' radically assertive nonviolence and non-cooperation with empire) in furthering the liberation of people of color in the U.S.

  6. Provocative blog, Matthew.

    I'm reminded of the biography of Einstein I just read in which it is related that he and a whole generation of European intellectuals were devout pacifists, until they were faced square in the face with Hitler, at which point they converted almost instantly to the world's most passionate and erudite warriors, developing the most cosmically destructive tools of violence in the history of mankind, which were eventually used to kill and maim hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, all in the name of scaring the original oppressors into ceasing their violence.

    I'm not the right person to do this, but I hope someone will compare your situational violence point of view with the philosophies of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. I'm sure they thought there were good reasons for them to reject your easy and ready embrace of violence to fight oppression.

    As for the Gita, which was, after all, Gandhi's bible, here's what I wrote as part of Gita Talk:

    Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?

    Thanks for starting what I'm sure will be another fascinating discussion.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  7. Sonyata says:

    "Every revolution that ends at the barrel of a gun is not better than the revolution which preceded it." – Sonyata

    I read in the Yoga Sutras translation by Satchadananda, his commentary. He laughingly wrote that if a man is completely given to God, then if he struck another man of the face he could say to him – "It was not I who struck you, because I am completely given to God, such that my self has died and God lives through me. It was God who slapped you. He was just using my hand to do it."

    I reflected back to the teachings of Jesus, "If a man strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek." I get it. If we are slapped on the cheek and strike back, we don't know if it was God slapping us, merely using this other person's hand, or if it was this other person who slapped us. In other words, we do not know if it was our own karma coming back to us or not. So if we strike back, we perpetuate the violence. Rather, if we let it pass and refrain from perpetuating this violence, then the other person's karmic debt will be settled through another channel. We cease our involvement in violence to rise above the karmic cycle, just as you stated above.

    I have seen the effect of this – others who are violent. I stay out of their way if I can. Eventually they meet their maker. Their own karma corrects the problem. The more we can stay out of their karma, the more quickly it comes back to them. Such is the nature of the karmic clearing house.

    We practice Ashtanga, which is built on ancient warrior training. And the Bhagavid Gita delves deeply into this subject. I say I practice non violence. Practice makes perfect. But I am not yet perfect. There are certain situations where my spirit man has kicked in and over-ridden my restraint and I have acted on instinct. Generally, I believe that these issues can be best addressed in the spirit, long before they are reflected into the lower, carnal world. If you walk in the spirit, you will not cross the path of the violent. When a man of peace enters an environment, all come to peace. But should you suddenly find yourself in a dangerous, life threatening position, one where even others are in danger of harm, it is best to prepare for war and hope for peace. Ashtanga Yoga is good preparation, so far as I am concerned.

  8. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  9. Mark Welte says:

    There must be something in the air, for I posted on the subject a few weeks ago myself. My post isn't quite as academic, but at core the spirit is the same. I've included it here:

    At the yoga conference here last month, there was a lot of talk about Ahimsa. One of the five yamas, the moral and behavioral restraints that help guide the total yogi, Ahimsa is the practice of "no violence," to do no harm. While there are many shades and nuances to the concept of ahimsa (some that actually condone the use of violence under certain circumstances), the current chatter of the ahimsa crowd is often not a so much a moral aim as it is a form of resignation. If you do nothing, you don't hurt anyone or anything. (There's a lot to refute that thinking, too.)

    How often does ahimsa–passing over the lips of a contemporary yoga enthusiast–come to mean something more akin to withdrawal and disengagement, to shrink away from confrontation and action? The current fascination with ahimsa robs humanity of the more vibrant expressions and vehicles of courage it deserves: it also lines the pockets of merchandisers able to seize on an ever-growing flock of broken-winged birds. "The bankers are evil! People have too much stuff! Big farming and big pharma are bad!" True enough statements perhaps, but are these problems going to be solved by doing more mat time, vegan potlucks, and kirtan fests? All you can eat Ahimsa?


    More than ever before, the world needs its conscientious warriors. A few more brave spirits to peacefully but deeply confront the status quo do and something about it, not just rabble-rouse among a like-minded crowd.

    If you want to effect real change, run for office, start a business, or join the efforts of others working to create the ripples in the machine that make the changes happen. Be mindful of what you're doing, but do something. Remember, Ghandi was a lawyer. MLK Jr. was a Baptist minister, and Lincoln was a Republican. These are some of the heroes of the Western yogi. They didn't cower from the confrontation, or fear insult turning into injury.

    Let's not allow yoga to become just a lifestyle choice: make it a moral one. Build your core and go create something that arises from your one true self. There's a danger in ahimsa of becoming an accomplice, because when someone's really busy practicing ahimsa, they're also becoming prey.

    With apologies to Tracy Chapman, stop talkin' 'bout a revolution. Make one. Peacefully, deeply, subtly.

    That's when "what's divine in me salutes what's divine in you."

    Namaste, and out.

  10. matthew says:

    Great points, and I'm so glad you raised the karma question, because it is perhaps the stickiest aspect of how the metaphysical blends with the existential in this whole theme.

    You raise a question for me: when your spirit-man has kicked in and over-ridden your restraint, how often have you been pleased with the result? It would seem to be that the violence that begins and ends in the body is often a natural tool of rebalancing.

  11. matthew says:

    Great post, Mark. We'll follow you on the examiner, with which I was not familiar…

  12. Roger Wolsey says:

    Sonyata, here's what most scholars say about Jesus' teaching to "turn the other cheek":

    Jesus gives three examples of what He means by not returning evil for evil. The first of these is, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek…" I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

    Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, "When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek."

    Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, "I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed." This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.
    (this from Walter Wink) for more see:

  13. Hilary Lindsay says:

    Love the relocation of ahimsa to an ethical observance rather than a restraint although of course one does have to restrain from violence on a daily basis which can be done through awareness. Many yoga practitioners I know look at ahimsa as shying away from unpleasantness on all levels. Phooey.

    I addressed this in my last post… which had Mark Welte's post in the comment section at the bottom. I see he posted it above as well.

    Well done.

  14. matthew says:

    Thanks Hilary… More and more I'm interested in unveiling the individual moments of restraint in my own life — because it seems like they fall into 2 flavours: well-considered reins on my reactivity, and then an unconscious but well-trained doubt about what my body is for. It's the latter that I think is tinged with the desire to avoid unpleasantness…

  15. nathan says:


    The way I often see this discussion playing out is that on the one side, you have people who are so afraid of upsetting anyone that they refrain from everything, and just curl up on themselves, thinking this is the way of non-violence. And on the other hand, you have people who aren't interested in examining their intentions, and because they don't deliberately use their practice as a vehicle to see the violence and hatred within, they end up – when things get tough – intending to be violent and then being violent.

    Another point to consider is the difference between militancy and violence. While it's fair to argue that MLK's group needed Malcolm X's group to achieve some success, it's questionable whether the most violent and hate filled elements of X's group were at all beneficial. The fierceness of Malcolm's critique was extremely valuable, and probably influenced MLK's later turn towards a more radical, systemically critical vision. His organizing of black Americans who didn't resonate with MLK's earlier vision was also important. But I also think Malcolm's shifts towards the end of his life – including seeing what was happening in the U.S. as part of a global struggle against imperialist forces, and his de-emphasis on hatred towards individual white Americans – demonstrates an approach less focused on hatred, factionalism, and more focused on radical coalitions.

    There's also this Malcolm quote: "It doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time, I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence."

    Self-defense is certainly a term misused at times, but I think this is different than advocating violence as the solution to problems.

    As a student devoted to non-violence, I still find some of Malcolm X's views problematic. But I think it's worth considering that a major shift in the Civil Rights movement occurred around the time X began to question his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad and started joining MLKs actions. Another piece of Ahimsa, in my view, is breaking through the enemy-making paradigm that eliminates the possibility of seeing the interdependent nature of things, and acting from such a position. Malcolm's fierce critiques of everything from the Democratic Party to the structural racism in the North had – in my view – more power that last year and a half of Malcolm's life because he had seen the need to work across racial lines, and saw that injustice worldwide had to be addressed.

    Finally, when I see people bring up World War II, I always think – yeah, millions of people spent years either thinking there wasn't anything dangerous going on in Germany, or that they, personally, didn't have the skills or knowledge to do anything that might shift what was going on. Who knows what the outcome would have been if there had been huge groups of people organized non-violently to deal with Hitler long before it got to the point where war was probably the only option. People widely under estimate the power of small actions done on a large scale. The conversations with family and friends who have fallen into patterns of hate and revenge. The standing up for someone being abused in the streets. The well written commentary on ways things can be done differently that's shared online. The support given to those who are involved in large scale social actions.

  16. Hilary Lindsay says:

    Well I'm with you and right next to you on the featured posts with one that approaches the discussion of restraint from a personal stance. Why don't you read it?

    Love to hear your take on it.

  17. nathan says:


    What "riots in Toronto"? What happened in Toronto at the G20 was almost a carbon copy of what happened in my hometown – less than 2 miles from my doorstep – during the 2008 Republican National Convention. The creation of a highly militarized police state, complete with hired fake protesters who stirred up the passions of people and arrests by the hundreds of people standing in the wrong place. The violence in St. Paul, and the violence in Toronto was minimal – and restricted to tiny groups who either just wanted to bust up property or who were stirred up by law enforcement. I saw this shit day after day in St. Paul with my own eyes. Thousands of people peacefully marching and protesting, while the police swarmed and threatened us again and again. Mainstream news coverage was completely biased, designed to ramp up the broken windows and single flipped police car (in the case of St. Paul), and turn it's back on the legitimate concerns of the vast majority of people out there. There were no riots in Toronto and none in St. Paul either.

    I'm pretty much in agreement with you that these kinds of mass demonstrations, especially without being attached to ongoing, differentiated forms of action, don't work. The war protests during the Bush years failed, in part, because every 2 years, the groups involved would splinter and lose steam in order to get Democrats elected that ultimately just joined the war machine. Again, I watched this happen in multiple groups before finally stepping away, feeling that the momentum built during any mass demonstration was just going to be wasted on electoral politics.

    However, just as we saw with some coverage of the revolution in Egypt, much of the "dangerous violence" of mass demonstrations in North America in the past decade was made up or grossly overblown. Hell, Fox News tried to use fake protest footage recently to make it seem like people in Wisconsin were attacking police officers. Of course, the fools didn't think that viewers would realize quickly that a background of palm trees and no snow was not Wisconsin.

    In my opinion, a failure to deconstruct media images and reports is another weakness of many on the left.

  18. matthew says:

    It's a great piece. And it stretches a lot — especially when the context of svadhyaya is typically instructed to be centered on study of the shastras. Today, we have an ever-expanding cannon, and EJ is part of it.

  19. matthew says:

    "Breaking through the enemy-making paradigm." Yep. Thanks for a great note on what's becoming a co-authored piece…

  20. matthew says:

    That is precisely what we are getting at. Although we think there's probably no stripping the P-perspective out of modern yoga culture, and so we'll have to dialogue with it strenuously to force it to look postmodernity in the eyes.

  21. Hilary Lindsay says:

    Oh, I was referring to Pine Tree Pranayama, the most recent post which is featured next to yours. It was a quiet essay on restraint in a different context. Yes, I also was on a similar path to you in the Svadhyaya in the Jungle Post. It appears there is a common thread of inquiry here. Mine often begins in politics and then into personal relationships. My wonderings about the meaning of yoga in history usually is a curiousity about other cultures and history and how that translates today.

  22. Carol Horton says:

    Nathan – Good to have your voice hear! Yes, I stand corrected. But my larger point is perhaps reinforced. The media is now well orchestrated to keep street protests from being effective the way that they were back in the '60s. Those protests were studied carefully with a view toward how to prevent them from gaining that sort of leverage again. Hence, all of the things that you list, as well as others: the pathetic designated "protest spaces," etc.

    Also, I still feel that even if there had been full-fledged riots, they wouldn't have done any good. So the question is, what would? We've gone around om this question before . . . and the answers that we come up with, so far, feel to me both like the best available and not enough.

  23. The Michael Stone article, for those who missed it:

  24. Nadia says:

    hi all!
    this question i love! what does it feel like in my body reading, pondering, evaluating all this:
    surprisingly (or not?) my body feels pretty exhilarated, a bit bubbly in the chest, tightness and uprightness fills my back body, fight or flight definitely kicks in and i really want to run towards (something!), some unsettling warmth in my torso but as if reading the posts was a call to action that my reptilian brain heard and wants to heed. and at the same time there are tears that come from all historical references.


  25. MadTownYogi says:

    PS: Carol, Michael Stone will be in Madison for a 3-day retreat in May; we'd love to have you visit!

  26. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  27. CarolHorton says:

    Thanks so much! 🙂

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