Non-violence (ahimsa) is the first abstinence of the five abstinences of the first limb of ashtanga yoga.
Non-violence means to protect ourselves from bodily and mental harm. To resolve or avoid conflict. Protect others who can’t protect themselves is not violent, but retaliation or retribution are. Truth (satya) the second abstinence of the first limb requires discernment of what is protective coercion from what is punitive coercion.
Nonviolence has inward and outward mind and body. Physical inflows are air and food, and outgoing are our actions to the world. Mentally the incoming and outgoing are communication; information like speech and art.
These four parts, actions to ourselves and others and communication from ourselves and from others, are all intimately connected. They’re vehicles that can carry us toward curing violence. In my life I practice these as nutrition, asana (posture practice), psychology, and social communication. I regard nutrition foremost because it is most tangible and accessible.
Food ahimsa is an action when we question where our food comes from. Was it harmful to the biosphere to grow this food? What is harmful to animals capable of experiencing suffering? Was it harmful to people somewhere? We control the upstream consequences of our diet. If we don’t buy it, somewhere, another is not produced.
The subtler link between food, action, and non-violence, is how food can be harmful to ourselves. This is a sensitive subject, as diet relates to cultural and familial heritage, but let me explain.
Nutrition is from the ground and makes our body. It makes our thoughts. Alcohol changes our thoughts and which thoughts we express as action. Chocolate changes our thoughts. Coffee changes what thoughts we express. Peppers, bananas, kale changes our thoughts. Some say thoughts are just faster on coffee, or more loving on chocolate, or whatever mental state people claim. They’re all just molecules. Chemicals we consume that interact with our body’s chemistry and cause effects. Which thoughts become actions changes when we’re on those chemicals. What we put in to our body becomes our thoughts and some of these thoughts become actions.
If I eat only celery and kale, my thoughts will be different than if most of my intake is alcohol. Some people live on mostly alcohol, and their thoughts are different than grazers.
Most diets fit between these two extremes of the dietary spectrum. And most people would agree that an alcohol and candy bar diet is not healthy, and that swallowing air and eating only kale is not sustainable.
Notice how thoughts change as we move closer to the nutritional balance. This is the science of self-observation. Our bodies are the test subjects, our diet the experimental method. Live on beer with hot dogs and candy bars and have those thoughts. Live on kale and celery and have those thoughts. Evolve toward the center of balanced nutrition and experience what thoughts may come. Decide for yourself which thoughts you prefer. Journaling helps with this, as we can more objectively critique words on paper than our thoughts as we’re having them.
There is the ‘drunk I love you’s count’ rationale that drunken words are sober thoughts. In either case, actions change with diet, and this is where we practice the ahimsa of action.
Somewhere in the middle of the dietary spectrum a person maybe eats some meat medicinally, and they also eat plenty of green chlorophyll, and enough vegetable protein and calories. I don’t know where exactly the middle is and it’s for each person to discover for themselves. This is our power and our responsibility. In the middle is where deviation from the center of our needed chemical balance is minimized. And most importantly, balance occurs due to our choice and does not require changing the choices of others. Only we are responsible for what we eat (as adults of course).
Like a foot itch on a muggy hike, nutrient deficiencies are distracting and curable. A nagging sensation changes how we respond to the world. Hunger will change how we respond to the world. Wrestling taught me that. If we’re only ‘hungry’ in a part of our nutrition, this too has an effect. Protein deficiency changed me differently than iron deficiency.
Similarly, accumulations to an undesirable level tugs intellect. This is obvious with, for example, salt. Too much salt requires more water to sequester our thirst, otherwise thirst drives us to different actions. I personally approach nutrition from a minimalist perspective. That is, what’s the least harm I can do while still nourishing my life purpose. Equally valid is the perspective of what have I accumulated that holds my body back. Arguably all chronic degenerative diseases are caused by toxicity or deficiency, I simply choose to focus on the latter for myself because I’m vegan. I’m not worried about toxicity since no-one ever died from wheatgrass overdose.
With smaller daily requirements the effects of deficiency become increasingly subtle. Selenium, copper or iodine are needed in small amounts. Bernard Jenson claimed that insufficient iodine consumption leads to irritability and poor human communication. He claimed this for why people living far from the oceanic source of iodine are generally fundamentalist and aggressive. It’s interesting that severe iodine deficiency leads to goiter, which is a disease of the thyroid. The thyroid gland is the approximate anatomical position of the 5th meridian chakra, vishuddha, which is said to control our communication and expression (Anodea Judith). Thus iodine deficiency literally effects our communication through a disease of the throat. Perhaps a coincidence. Nonetheless nutritional deficiency is an undesirable nag. There’s enough deficiencies in the world! I don’t want to be nutritionally deficient also, unless I’m punishing myself. Svadyaya (self-study, the 4th niyama) reveals our intentions.
In nutritional balance our thoughts are tugged least by our bodily environment through which our actions sprout. Thus our actions will grow most productively when our thoughts are least distracted by nutritional deficiencies.
Personally, I eat to live, not live to eat. Taste is not enough incentive for me to habitually eat unkindly. Controlling our flavor craving is aparigraha (non-attachment, the 5th yama) and pratyahara (sense-control, the 5th limb). I get more enjoyment from communication with other people during a meal than with what I eat with them. And nutrition effects my expression. Charlotte Gerson says in her book ‘The Gerson Therapy’, most criminals eat lots of processed sugar and drink lots of milk, but it turns out they have glucose issues and are lactose intolerant. They’re scratching a open wound which irritates their actions. When they changed their diet, many of them became less aggressive.
Thoughts root into the environment of the body, and through the body they sprout into action. The quality of the sprouts won’t change if the soil stays the same. Metabolism and nutrition are the keys to overturning the body’s composition. This can take years to educate ourselves on what balanced diet means to us, then discover how far from nutritional balance we are, and then re-nourish our bodies from this place. During this time we can resolve our accumulated residual violence through asana practice, and self-study and communication with others. Here I’ll explain.
Residual accumulations in the body
We accumulate tension in the body when we withhold our expression. Repressing our natural inclination to act requires energy. Literally like holding in a fart, the body clinches to suppress communication. Why we suppress communication is a longer topic. What’s better to know is that un-clinching is possible with asana (posture; the 3rd limb).
Clinching limits the body’s ability to relax and let go. Repeated clinching becomes as tensions of the body and complexes in the mind. A major role of asana is to resolve these tensions. Then, from an open and receptive posture we can study and practice communication to reconstruct behavior patterns, but I’ll get to that in a moment. In essence, we can simultaneously reconstitute our bodily composition through nutrition reconstituting our posture and minds through asana and self-study.
Repressed actions are not non-violent. Yogananda tells when he raised his hand to swat the mosquito and his teacher said “go ahead”, and he said “I decided I shouldn’t because it’s violent” and his teacher said “the violence is in the thought”. The word should will come up in a moment with non-violent communication.
Non-violent action must discern protective coercion from punitive coercion. I need to stop overtly aggressing toward people before I need to consider my vegetable intake today. Maybe the suggestion to stop acting violently stops the violence, like they just needed permission to not hurt others. To whatever extent that works that best happen first. If the suggestion alone doesn’t stop someone’s violence, we are given the choice to coercively stop the violence. Non-violence compels me to consider whether I’m coercing from a moral high ground or a protective instinct.
Coercion works to pause violence, but if any violent desire remains the violence lives on and will find an outlet.
Our mental state manifests as how we treat our bodies during stretching and breathing. This is easy to prove, if you practice… especially alone and right after waking. Asana, the stretching that most westerners associate with yoga, can help dissipate mental and physical accumulations such as suppressed or repressed thoughts and actions.
Our own mental state is more easily observed by recording and studying our practice. In fact, our state is always present until we become aware of it and resolve it internally. Biofeedback from video and audio (to capture how we stretch and how we breath when we stretch) can show us how aware we are of our state.
Personally my enjoyment of life and of my own self-dialogue has skyrocketed since my abstinence from the word should. Should guilt me into repressing expression which accumulated in my mind and body. Marshall Rosenberg, in ‘Non-violent Communication’, clearly spells out the violent subtext in the using words like should, need, and other guilt language in our internal and external dialogue. The inner non-violence of mind is psychology.
Psychology can help to identify the language patterns of our internal dialogue. Study of our internal dialogue is the abhyaya (self study, the 4th niyama) and requires dharana (concentration, the 6th limb of yoga), not to mention the ability to sit comfortably for a long time (asana). Noticing when we use violent words, and replacing word patterns is part of practicing abstinence from mental self-violence.
Outward mental non-violence is communication with others. Identical to action, communication also carries the information of our expression.
Communication feeds back to us others’ reactions. Their reactions reflect our actions, plus whatever they have going on within themselves. Like looking in the mirror, others reactions partially reveals our self. Our full self is revealed in our reaction to others reactions. All this is possible only through communication (the 9th limb). Communication shares all the fruits of the first 8 limbs. Without this 9th limb the first 8 may as well be in their own universe.
As the saying goes, how we do anything is how we do everything. Other’s reactions to our communication mirrors the qualities of our actions, and thus our thoughts. Enjoy the observation and examination of others feedback. How we use words like should with others and observing vocal tone and posture during communication reveals how we communicate with our self.
Perceiving the social mirror (really a matrix) enlightens us to which group consciousness we are aligning with. Ultimately this awareness (samadhi; the 8th limb) is bliss.
Hold firm to self-worth and self-esteem and assert convictions non-violently and without coercion. Never stop growing. Always be student, and practice non-violence as often as practical.
Nutrition, asana, psychology, and communication. These are the four healing modalities I look to in my practice of ahimsa. I’ve given more emphasis to nutrition in the realm of non-violence. Just start where you are and grow. In my experience other modes of non-violence followed nutrition.
9th limb yoga.