Non-Violence (Ahimsa): When we are firmly established in non-violence, all beings around us cease to feel hostility. – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2:35
Non-violence is the first of yoga’s ten moral tenets. It is typical for yoga students, when pondering this sutra, to first focus on the ways they are or are not violent. This is fruitful study, as all of us (even nice people like you and me) act violently way more often than we would ever suspect. For example, consider all the mosquitos you swatted this summer. In fact, the process of developing awareness of all the subtle ways we can cause harm in the world can continue for a very long time – a lifetime even.
That said, to get stuck in self-study is to miss the promise of the sutra. Just as we are not practicing yoga to develop perfection in any of the postures we do on our mats, we are not practicing non-violence to become perfectly non-violent people. Neither is possible. Both a perfect posture and the ideals of a sutra are intended to draw us along in our journey of becoming the kind of person we hope to be.
The promise we miss if we get hung up on achieving perfection is that the changes we make in our own behavior as we try to become less violent can change the people (and therefore the world) around us. Now that’s quite a promise! To think that we can actually change the world! It’s a promise I know you’ve seen come to fruition every time you disengage in an argument with someone you love, every time you choose to smile rather than snarl back at a grouchy cashier, and every time you have ever hugged a child in the midst of a tantrum. These are all acts of peace and love and they have the power to defuse situations teetering toward violence.
Every time I teach the principle of non-violence, the discussion turns toward the fact that there will always be arguments to be had, grouchy people to encountered and out of control three-year-old’s in the world. Since this is the case, does all of our hard work to manage our own reactions really change the world? I’d like to share a little story of my own that I believe answers this question.
There I was, doing my best impersonation of a yoga teacher – in the moment, mindful, grateful and serene. I was driving through beautiful countryside on Sunday afternoon, feeling grateful and fortunate to live where I do. The sun was dropping toward the horizon, sending golden rays through foliage, making the trees around me look like they were glowing red and orange and gold. A song I loved was on the radio and the breeze through the open windows of my car smelled like cut grass. It was a perfect drive. Actually, it was a perfect moment.
Until it wasn’t.
I was jarred from my moment of bliss by the aggressive sound of a car horn being repeatedly honked behind me. I jerked my eyes to the rearview mirror to see that a car was right up my tail pipe. I looked down at the speedometer to see if, in my haze of nature-loving, I’d dropped below the speed limit, but I was going a reasonable speed. Then the driver yanked her car across the yellow line, accelerated to a ridiculous speed on that country road, and passed me, all the while honking. As she whipped back in front of me, I saw the silhouette of her middle finger shaking at me in her back window.
I’m not going to lie. I was shaken. My emotions skittered from flustered to indignant in about two seconds. I wasted another few minutes crafting the story of this crazy woman that I was going to tell when I arrived at my destination.
That’s when I caught myself.
Was that the story I wanted to share? The story of an angry, aggressive stranger who I somehow managed to upset simply by being in front of her on a road and who managed to upset me in return? Or did I want to share the story of the beauty I had experienced as I drove? The choice was mine to make.
Let me tell you, the upset energy churned up in me by that driver made what now seems an obvious decision a hard one. A part of me yearned to have someone validate my outrage and join me in scathing commentary about what had happened. But the yoga teacher in me stirred and I thought, “This is an interesting opportunity to practice non-violence.”
While I could do nothing about the violence the driver had wreaked upon me, I did have the power to prevent her act from rippling onward. By telling her story, I would allow her negative energy to touch my listeners, impacting their moments. Or, I could choose to take a breath. I could choose to recognize that (fortunately) no real harm had been done other than the ruffling of a few of my proverbial feathers. I could choose to rebound – to refocus my awareness on the peace and beauty I’d been experiencing just prior to her hostile actions.
And so that’s what I did. I chose non-violence or ahimsa.
I spent the last minutes of my drive smiling as I thought about sharing the beauty I had noticed in the world around me. As I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that my choice of non-violence had, before I even had the chance to tell my story, already worked its “magic,” but in an unexpected way. While I did prevent the spread of violence in the world around me, and I had been the immediate and grateful recipient of the gifts of my own non-violence.
With that, I walked into my meeting restored to my serene, in the moment, mindful, grateful, yoga teacher self.