On 2nd October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, it is the ‘International Day of Non-Violence’.
As a practitioner of yoga for over 20 years and a teacher of yoga and meditation, the theme of non-violence is often something I find myself exploring both within myself and in my classes. The practice of non-violence, or Ahimsa as it is referred to in the Sanskrit language, is one of the foundations of yoga, documented by the sage Patanjali in the ‘Yoga Sutras’ more than two thousand years ago.
Ahimsa is practiced by yogis seeking the goal of yoga – which is union with the divine, or as many people translate – the divine within themselves. Although there are many different types of yoga, all forms of yoga share this same goal. One of the obstacles in achieving this goal is our inability to see things as they are. Put another way, we are ignorant to the truth, clouded by a busy mind and the conditioning that begins from the day we are born.
Our lack of clarity means that most of us are unaware of the violence we hold within ourselves; our negative self talk, the dishonouring of our needs and boundaries, our competitiveness and our need to control. Nor are we fully aware of the violence we inflict upon ourselves with what we choose to digest – what we eat, drink, read, watch and listen to. We don’t need to be physically or verbally violent to be perpetrators of it. The violence within is often in our thoughts and emotions toward ourselves and others. This violence is more subtle, but never the less, just as powerful.
Whether I’m sitting in meditation or practicing the yogic shapes called asanas, my intention is to be present and to heighten my awareness of my body, mind, thoughts and emotions. Yoga teaches us to become quiet so that we can begin to see what is real. When we catch glimpses of our own violence, toward ourselves and others, it is the first step toward reducing it. It is a constant practice which must be practiced both on and off the yoga mat.
Not only does yoga teach us to quieten the mind and see with more clarity what is real, it also helps us gradually understand our own interconnectedness with the world. As such, we begin to realise that when we are violent toward ourselves and others with our thoughts and emotions, the world mirrors this violence.
The ancient yogis taught that each of us replicates the world at large, embodying ‘rivers, seas, mountains, fields, stars, planets, the sun and moon’ (Shiva Samhita). We are each the microcosm for the macrocosm of the universe. Most of us live in a way that assumes we are helpless. That the world around us is violent and that we have no control. However, through yoga we can come to realise that we actually hold more power than we think. Through our own actions, words, thoughts and feelings, we have the ability to effect the whole.
When we work deeply within ourselves to quieten the mind, heighten our awareness and acknowledge both our interconnectedness and the power we hold, we can not only reduce the violence within ourselves but in the world around us. When we treat ourselves and others with kindness and compassion, eventually peace will permeate every aspect of our being and radiate into the world that we all share. As the Dalai Lama said ‘we can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.’
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