Yoga, Yamas, and an Eight-Limbed Approach: Anti Violence
Are you seeing what I’m seeing?
The violence, lack of responsibility, the fear? How long have we been on this spiral, and where does it end? Can we gain composure without shutting down when we’re living in constant fear? Is it already too late?
We’re exhausted, we’re indifferent, and we’re accustomed to fear. It’s not a choice we’ve made so much as something we’ve slipped into. We’ve okayed violence within and without as if we’ve been set there by default. But I agree with Notorious B.I.G. when he said, “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.”
I first began a yoga practice in college, a weekend hobby that escalated to a lifestyle. Now, my study and practice of yoga inform the way I care for my body and mind but also how I treat myself and the world around me. Yoga is my grassroots, my personal approach to fighting the violence I see and feel every day.
As I went through yoga teacher training, I learned that the scope of yoga reaches well beyond the posture and deep into philosophy as a guide for healthy, meaningful living. A thousands-of-years-old tradition that seems more relevant than ever. For me, the physical benefits of yoga were immediate. After a yoga class, I felt the way I imagined I was meant to feel—integrated, whole, and kinder.
When my body is relaxed, it takes so much less effort to be patient, grateful, and compassionate. As Mister Rogers would say, “Yoga gave me something to do ‘with the mad’ that I felt, with the violence I felt on the inside and saw on the outside.”
Instead of holding it in or letting “my mad” blow up, through yoga, I learned to observe it. To notice what strengthens my mad, what weakens it, and how to manage it when I catch it getting out of control. I’m not special in this respect—we all have “mad” that we feel. We all see the violence, and we don’t know what to do with it.
It was also in teacher training that I first learned of the yamas and niyamas (the first two limbs of Patanjali’s 8 Limb Yogic Path), and they blew my mind. The yamas and niyamas are like the steps in a recipe that guide us to live life skillfully, navigating personal and societal needs. Like the technical challenge in the Great British Baking Show, the yamas and niyamas leave room for interpretation, but if you stray too far, you’ll be knocked off balance/out of the competition.
The yamas and niyamas are what I wish we’d all learned in school. They’re ways of building personal fortitude, which gives insight into managing stress, disease, and internal and external conflict. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word and concept for nonviolence, the first of the yamas, and the keystone of all yogic thought.
I’ve come to think of it as anti-violence, as ahimsa requires us to face ourselves and our community and live life courageously in the face of fear. To practice ahimsa is to stay and be present in each wild and true moment. To live with wonder and courage by developing awareness and empathy toward ourselves and the whole of society. To stay in the moment is to stop and feel, to notice, relate, and gain insight before moving on.
Violence shows itself in a multitude of ways, from brazen (murder, abuse, inequality) to shrewd (indifference, impatience, shame, the disrespect we show ourselves).
To practice anti-violence is to be self-possessed and live with tenderness and grace. Ahimsa is a choice, an antidote, a grassroots opportunity at resistance to our current default setting. I chose to see each moment as an opportunity to face violence with love.
So, where does your journey to ahimsa begin? Where do you need anti-violence the most right now? Is it in the way you treat or subvert yourself? The way you interact with your loved ones? What about the way to approach those who look or behave differently from you? This is your invitation to begin right now. How will you launch your grassroots approach to the violence we see every day?