Exploring the Yamas and Niyamas: Ahimsa

Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is one of yoga’s ethical practices. When I first began exploring the Yamas and Niyamas, Ahimsa appeared to be, on the surface, a given. Of course yogis are nonviolent: they’re gentle and kind, they don’t eat meat, they hug trees, they don’t kill bugs, right? I had an almost childlike reaction to seeing “Nonviolence” on my new code of ethics, an of-course-I-already-know-that kind of reaction that makes you want to skim the paragraph and move on with your life, because you’re better than being told things you’ve been pretty solid on since kindergarten.

But the more I read about Ahimsa, the more hidden facets I found in the definition. Nonviolence extended far beyond the physical- it seeped into every fraction of my life. It is the practice of gentleness, in every motion, decision, and thought, to yourself and to others.

That’s the thing that got me the most: to yourself and to others.

It’s hard to grasp the idea of being unkind to ourselves, as we often think of humans as self-serving, and even selfish, creatures by nature. Our innate desire is to survive, above all else, so how could we exercise violence against our own being? As it turns out, it’s fairly easy. In fact, we do it all the time: negative self talk.

I’m not smart enough.

I’m not good enough.

I’m not pretty enough.

Each of these phrases are an act of violence, and chances are, you’ve thought something similar in the past day or two. I’d go so far as to assume some kind of self-doubt or self-negativity has crept into your mind in the past few hours alone. It happens to everyone, at some point or another, and more often than not is so common it becomes background noise in your head- repeated so often and so casually that the cruelty of it doesn’t stand out to you anymore.

Suddenly, practicing nonviolence seems a lot more difficult. How do we rewire our brains to eliminate this nasty pattern of violating ourselves? Habit research shows that it takes time to form a habit, and it takes time to break one, too. While self-violence may be a habit you’ve developed over the course of a lifetime, however, it won’t take the same amount of time to reverse it. Your brain is fairly easy to train if you approach it from the right angle, and this means using the identify-replace-reenforce method to do so.

The first step is to identify any negative self-thoughts as they occur: simply noticing them will bring them back to the forefront of your attention and label them as unwelcome behavior. Set the intention to notice any violent self-talk throughout your day, and you’ll suddenly become aware of just how often they make an appearance.

The next step occurs immediately after the first step. Every time you notice self-doubt creep into your mental vocabulary, pause, rephrase, and replace. Literally take the phrase and put a positive spin on it. At first it will feel awkward, forced, and unbelievable, but your mind is a creature of habit. Soon, a positive phase will feel much more welcomed and natural to your brain than a negative one, and your perspective and inner dialogue will begin to shift.

I’m not smart enough. –> I’m capable and dedicated.

I’m not good enough. –> I am enough exactly as I am.

I’m not pretty enough. –> I love myself for who I am and how I appear.

It will feel corny. It will feel forced. That’s okay- the point is to rewire your perception of yourself and your thoughts. Think of it like learning a new language. You’re replacing the phrases you know with new ones, and in the beginning, actually using them will feel awkward, or even impossible. It takes time, practice, and the third step: reenforcement. Uphold your inner practice of negativity replacement by filling your surroundings with positive influences. Bracelets, sticky notes, or phone wallpapers with uplifting mantras will make the shift into nonviolent thoughts easier and more effective. The more your brain is exposed to consistent stimuli, the more likely it is to absorb and implement a new way of thinking and reacting.

Nonviolence isn’t just a mental practice, however. We can explore nonviolence in every action of our day. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you nourishing your body? Are you moving and exercising in a way that supports growth and strength development? Ahimsa teaches you to view your own body as something greater than yourself, something that is valuable and should be protected and cared for. If you under-rest, under-nourish, or under-challenge your body, you’re committing a violent act against yourself.

Consider viewing yourself as a nice car. There sure are parallels there: it needs fuel to go, it takes you from place to place, it can be wrecked in an instant. If you were given only one car to drive for the rest of your life, you would take pretty good care of it, wouldn’t you? You certainly wouldn’t be reckless with it, and goodness knows you wouldn’t be violent against it by swerving around or slamming on your breaks all the time. No, you’d fill it with high-quality gasoline, drive it enough to keep it going but not so much that you run it into the ground. You’d learn to love and appreciate everything it does for you, because it’s the only one you have, and the only one you will ever have for the rest of your life.

I struggled with the idea of applying nonviolence to my food for a long time. When I struggled with my eating disorder, I was being downright violent to my body: forcing it to run on empty, not giving it enough to survive, let alone thrive. Today, I’ve learned the importance of feeding my body enough to allow me to be active, happy, and healthy, but the style by which I eat is not considered “nonviolent” by many. Why is that? I consume animal products.

A large debate in and out of the yoga community is whether or not it is appropriate to eat the meat and other components of animals. For a long time, I deeply sympathized with the anti-cruelty movement. I was, and still am, horrified by the conditions and practices of factory farms that abuse and mistreat animals for mass production. For many years, I refused to consume any kind of animal product: from meat, to eggs, to dairy, to even honey. I had a deep belief that if I were to eat anything from an animal, I would be mistreating and abusing my place on the food chain. This kind of restriction, however, absolutely contributed to my eating disorder and was not a healthy lifestyle choice for me. I became weak, underweight, and malnourished, even during the times I was eating what was considered a “balanced” vegan diet, filled with dairy replacements, legumes, whole grains and seeds, and supplemented with vitamins. This kind of lifestyle just didn’t work in my body at all, and by attempting to force my body to accept it, I was eschewing nonviolence for dogmatism.

Today, I do consume animal products. I eat meat, eggs, and fish every day. But I still consider my diet to be nonviolent, because I refuse to support any kind of large-scale or conventional farming practices that disrespect or mistreat their animals. I only eat meat that is raised in a natural way to the animal (grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, wild-caught fish), and go out of my way to purchase from local farms and ranches that raise and butcher their animals humanely. Some may argue that there is no way to “humanely” kill an animal, but I’ve come to look at it from a Native American-influenced perspective. I am truly grateful for the gift the animal is giving me, and so I go out of my way to respect it. I feel good purchasing my meat from ranchers and butchers who I know will honor and utilize every part of the animal, and would never disrespect or mistreat it during death or life. I’ve come to recognize that I am not above the circle of life or the food chain, and if my body needs these tools to thrive, it would be an act of violence against myself to not use them.

It’s also important to extend our nonviolence out to others in our lives. Negative internal dialogues aren’t always self-centered, and by using the identify-replace-reenforce method, you can help rid yourself of the common but nasty habit of judging others. We all have done it: thought a rude thought about someone for what they do, look like, or say, but just because we aren’t communicating it to them or expressing it in anyway, it is still shifting our lives away from the gentleness we aim for. Perhaps as important as avoiding violence to to go out of our way to tip the scales in the opposite direction. Committing acts of selfless service, or simply sharing compliments as often as they come to mind, are ways to ensure your life is dedicated to love and not hate.

How we treat ourselves becomes the way we treat those around us, and that’s why it’s so important to cultivate nonviolence within. If we think about ourselves negatively, we will think about others negatively. If we berate ourselves in our head, we will bring down others as well. But if we come from a place of love and compassion first to ourselves, we will find it effortless to extend that same courtesy to everyone we meet. And the street runs both ways: if we go out of our way to find compliments for those around us, we will soon start to recognize the good aspects of ourselves. Just like hate breeds hate, love breeds love. To live a nonviolent life is to help others do the same, and if enough people embrace Ahimsa into their lives, the world’s dynamics can shift dramatically.

All it takes is a change of perspective.

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