Ahimsa means “without violence” and is the first yama, or moral precept, of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The yamas are not a list of things we should “do”. They are affirmations of who we truly are. Therefore, when we act violently, we are actually acting in a way counter to our true nature. This hurts other beings, the earth, and even our very selves.
The yamas are practices. As physical beings living in a physical world, we forget our innate connection to others and the universe. Filled with fear and the illusion of disconnection, we act in ways contrary to our true loving nature. As a person with white privilege must diligently work to become antiracist, yogis must actively choose to live in alignment with their true selves. Ahimsa may be what we are, but the choice as to whether or not we express it through our thoughts, words, and deeds is ours.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. studied with Mahatma Gandhi and formulated the six principles of nonviolent resistance. These principles inform much of the antiracist and civil rights work being done all over the country today. They also give us an example as to how we may more diligently put ahimsa into practice in our own lives in meaningful ways.
King’s principles are presented here as headings in the text.
“First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist.”
There are three basic ways humans are biologically wired to react when they encounter stress: fight, flight, or freeze. For ongoing threats, such as oppression and systemic racism, humans can choose to respond in other ways. For example, we can choose the path of nonviolent resistance. This requires awareness that there is something to resist, courage to choose to resist it nonviolently, and patience and persistence in our efforts to resist violence.
Actively choosing nonviolent resistance is critical for those of us with white privilege. People of color are confronted with racial injustice every day. They are acutely aware of it. It is an unearned privilege for white people to navigate the world essentially oblivious to their race. However, being white does not protect anyone from the harm done by racial injustice. In fact, when we choose not to reckon with our own racial privilege, we choose to cling to a destructive and unsustainable way of being. This is infantilizing and ultimately disempowering.
“A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
Violence is a learned reaction to fear. It is not innately who we are. When we practice nonviolence, we teach others who would disagree with us through our example and lived experience. A teacher does not seek to humiliate her students. Instead, she offers an alternative: a new way of relating to one another, and indeed, to ourselves. Practicing nonviolent resistance means we hold the vision of what King called the “Beloved Community” for those who cannot yet see it themselves.
“A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing evil.”
There is a misconception in the mainstream Western yoga community that because yoga discusses the union of the light and dark aspects of ourselves, it is a morally relative practice. This couldn’t be further from the truth! For example, if through our yoga practice we become aware of a tendency towards self-sabotage, a manifestation of darkness, most of us will actively engage in practices to release this aspect of ourselves. As yoga practitioners it is important that we realize that these light and dark energies are more than interesting ideas. We cannot claim to serve the light without acknowledging the darkness.
By accepting there are dark and light forces at play in this world, we realize there is more at stake than racist, sexist, and homophobic institutions run by a few “bad” people. We are no less than choosing to align ourselves with good or evil. Violence is a fear-based reaction that denies the essential self. When we deny that self in one of us, we deny it in us all. While violence may be a deceptively tempting solution, it merely perpetuates its own destructive cycle. Nonviolent resistance seeks to educate, rehabilitate, and offer oppressors a path towards transformation and integration through confronting evil within and without.
“A fourth point that characterized nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back.”
King taught that nonviolent resistance takes courage. Yoga does as well. Like yoga, nonviolent resistance is a transformative practice. There are times where we will be uncomfortable. Yoga and nonviolent resistance do not teach us to run away from discomfort, but to lean into it. Whether we are confronting racism on the streets or in ourselves, yoga and nonviolent resistance teach us to find a way to be with discomfort. For the nonviolent resister, suffering is not undertaken in vain. Rather, it becomes a path towards healing, integration, and redemption.
“A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.”
Hate is a sickness that impacts us on all levels. It causes violence in our homes and communities, but it also creates violence within ourselves. The human body is not equipped to carry hate, judgement, bitterness, and vengeance… at least not for very long.
Hate creates an unbearable stress in our bodies. Yoga practitioners know a stressed body is more prone to pain, fatigue, disease, and disorder. This is not only true in our individual bodies, but in the collective body of our society.
Hate begets more hate. Violence leads to more violence. Nonviolence resistance empowers us to live the alternative. Whether we have been oppressed or oppressed others, we liberate ourselves (and others) when we affirm that the cycle of violence stops with us.
“A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.”
Nonviolent resistance affirms that the universe itself seeks wholeness and supports actions that lead to integration. People live in fear when they believe they are disconnected and ultimately alone. Violence is a product of that sense of profound isolation. Love actively expresses our innate connection through the conviction that your well-being is of my utmost concern, as you and I are ultimately one. Justice is a product of our oneness and an expression of love.
Putting nonviolent resistance into practice:
- Notice the violent tendencies in yourself first. It is easy to slip into judgements about what other people are do or don’t do. Blaming other people doesn’t bring about greater judgement or freedom. In fact, it only further binds us. In order to confront evil in the world, we must first meet our own demons and make amends for our mistakes.
- Get involved in hopeful solutions to violence in our communities. For some this may be participating in marches and demonstrations. Others may financially support institutions aligned with racial justice. We all have platforms from which we can share accurate information regarding the continuing civil rights movement and our condemnation of institutionalized racism in all of its forms. All of us are responsible for the health of our communities through engaging in and educating ourselves about local, national, and global affairs.
- Learn from great teachers of nonviolent resistance, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Educate yourself regarding the history of the American civil rights movement, especially in your own community.
- Commit to nonviolent resistance for the long-haul. This is not a sprint. It is a marathon. It may not be easy, but if we stay the course and do the work that is ours to do, it will be worth it.
“It’s those folks who stay at it, those who do the long, hard, committed work of change that gradually push this country in the right direction, and make the most lasting difference.” -President Barack Obama
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