Beyond Ahiṃsā: Restraining & Releasing

by Jessica Stickler |
May, 2022
sarve bhavantu sukhinaḥ
sarve santu nirāmayāḥ
sarve bhadrāṇi paśyantu
mā kaścid duḥkha-bhāg bhavet

May all be happy.
May all be free from sickness.
May all look to the good of others.
May none suffer from sorrow.

—Vedic Prayer

Ahiṃsā, non-harming, is a practice that can lead us to yoga and is categorized as a ‘restraint’ or yama – a practice of holding back or restraining ourselves from causing harm. The idea of restraint implies that harming may already have been there – unconsciously – in our thoughts, words, and actions. The first step is looking with clear eyes at the way our actions impact others. It means reflecting on ourselves deeply and with clarity, honesty, and humility. We can start by trying to reduce the harm we are doing in the most outward ways in our lives, the harm created by action. This is a practice and implies returning again and again to the same action (or restraint) with intention and consistency, it does not imply perfection but the willingness to apply effort and persist, until we are able to sustain the new, desirable habit.

As we practice, we start to move more inwardly, going beyond action to our words, thoughts, and even where the deepest root of the motivation to cause harm comes from, our underlying beliefs and attitudes. Where does the motivation to harm come from?When we begin a new habit there can be a certain amount of discomfort. Shri Brahmananda Saraswati says “Submission of lower desire to higher desire is called yoga.” We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, go against the grain of our habits, our immediate desires, and culturally conditioned actions if we want to make a better world possible. The willingness to be a little uncomfortable is the first step.

After some time, giving up a harmful action ceases to feel like restraint but begins to feel more like an affirmation of life and an alignment with our innermost values. It no longer feels uncomfortable, but becomes an act of joy, love, and upliftment of all beings. At a point, ahimsā transforms from a turning inward, a ‘restraint’ into its opposite; an offering, an expansion of Self. Julia Butterfly Hill says, “ahimsā is to live so fully and presently in love that there is no room for anything else to exist.” As the practice grows and expands, ahimsā becomes much more than a practice of restraining harm, but as a practice of creating good. Ahimsā not just as a ‘no’ but as a resounding inner ‘yes’ to nurturing the web of life. As the desire to say no to unecessary harm transforms into a yes to increasing the good we may find that the sense of who/what I am expands. 

We do not exist in isolation, we are interdependent on all that is. Think deeply on that, contemplate the sum total of beings that make your existence possible. In the yogic sense, liberation or freedom cannot exist for the individual as isolated from existence. Its all for all, and the yogi goes all in! In yoga we are trying to understand the self as expansive, as beyond what we usually consider the self – our body and our mind. Expand sense of “me” to include not only other people, but the plants which are responsible for the atmosphere that gives me breath, the  butterflies, bees, moths, beetles, and bats (yes bats!) that pollinate the plants. The rivers and the oceans which evaporate and creating an ocean in the sky that turns into rain, the sun that creates  evaporation and provides energy to so many. If we zoom out far enough, and contemplate the web of life and the interconnections between all molecules, minerals, elements, beings… There is nothing that is not me. The entire concept of self-care radically shifts to Self-care, that is care for the air, water, soil, and ecosystem that supports all of life.

In Jivamukti we emphasize the meaning of asana as our connection to the earth. We strive to cultivate a steady and joyful shape in the form of the physical practices. On another level, studying the connections and relationships that were previously unknown to us. Healing our relationship to the earth means honoring and nurturing our environment. Sharon Gannon would often suggest in class that we “feed the birds” as a way to practice yoga. It doesn’t literally have to be birds, the idea is that we have a daily practice of nourishing someone else. Her suggestion was that we look out into the world of our daily life and see where our shared spaces no longer benefit our fellow earthlings. We may not be able to remove all of the harm that a city creates but we can make an offering every day to those animals around us whose habitats have been lost.

Many of us may feel a sense of resignation or hopelessness in the face of this escalating climate crisis. When we see ourselves as separate we may not seek or create community support and collective action. We may feel that our actions won’t produce a desired result. Even the stories that our culture usually tells about activism and change, highlights the individual act, the individual person. This is almost never how powerful change occurs, it occurs in cultural context, an ecosystem, with many thinkers, activists, community builders, and change makers — sometimes working together, sometimes working in parallel — to bring about a cultural shift. Individual action is also the product of the environment it grew out of and you too can make a difference. 

Teaching Tips

  1. Acknowledging Interconnection:  Find ways to acknowledge all of the people and energy that contributed to the present moment, the land that the yoga class is taking place on, the generations of yoga teachers and practitioners who have led to us practicing yoga in this moment, the others in the room (or online) the people and earth energy that went into making your yoga mat, your blocks, your clothes, the transportation (and the people running the transportation) that brought you to the place you are practicing, the food and water that supports your body’s energy to be here. You could use one example or you could try to imagine the field of beings, including all of the above that made this exact moment possible. 
  2. Play with the idea of restraint leading to freedom — Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s description of meditation is like guiding the mind down a narrow mountain stream until it reaches the vast ocean. Asana in itself can be understood this way, as a practice of limiting movement in specific ways in order to expand our ability to move (to act) in the world. Pranayama is restraint of the breath and of prana in order to experience an ultimate expansion of that life force. 
  3. Encourage the class to “stick together” through vinyasa — Moving together entrains our brains and its been shown that moving together increases our tendency to act compassionately for others. Understand how your practice has an effect on those immediately around you… If you have a beginner next to you, doing your own thing and doing advanced variations can be intimidating and/or confusing. On the other hand, your practice could support others in the room.
  4. Share stories of positive change in the world — if you are sharing stories where one person is written as the main actor, remind the class that those people were supported by an entire community and culture around them. Every individual activist has an ecosystem of other activists working to support their work. No one person acts alone.
  5. Practice twists, relating to the relationships in which we have caused harm to others due to a limited sense of self. Twists also relate to raga/dvesha or desire/aversion. Where do these preferences come from? Do we see those preferences as innate or changeable? Can we practice feeling desire for something without consuming the desired object or feel aversion to something without immediately rejecting it, but rather sitting with each feeling? Can we practice feeling desire and aversion without immediately taking action to ease the discomfort of desire or to relieve the pain of aversion?
  6. How do our preferences play out in yoga practice? Do I avoid certain asana or parts of class by… arriving late, coming out of an asana early, leaving the room, distracting myself, blaming the teacher, etc? Do I prioritize certain aspects of practice, like forward bends and avoid inversions for example?
    • These questions are important to ask ourselves as teachers as well…. Am I leaving enough time for      sufficient savanna and meditation? Do I prioritize teaching hip opening focused sequences and de-prioritize other areas? Noticing this, we as teachers can challenge ourselves to expand our range and thus not limiting our students to what we feel most comfortable teaching.