Yoga begins with Non-violence

Non-violence is the beginning of yoga. As a general rule I like to stay out of controversies, current events, or trumpeting my political views from the platform of a yoga teacher. As a general rule I spend very little time focused on current events besides the daily process of becoming a sadhaka (or true seeker in yoga). I have even found I can keep up to date with current and world events by simply listening to the conversations of those around me. But when I heard last Friday about the killings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, something gripped me in my body. I had to stop and pay attention . . .

You probably know the facts but these hit me hard:

20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 were shot at least three times, some up to eleven times . . . some at close range.

The adults that were killed at the school were killed in the act of trying to stop the gunman, one young woman was shot to death while using her body as a human shield to protect the children.

I first read “a rifle” was used. It was an assault rifle–a “Bushmaster .223.” I’ve seen pictures. It’s a machine gun.

According to the investigation, the gunman had a noticeable inability to experience physical pain, like the pain of being burned, and had to be protected while playing baseball so as not to inflict severe injury upon himself due to some apparent lack of appropriate biofeedback and pain response.

So what in the hell do I have to say about this? Nothing really. I have nothing to say. No insights. No answers. But something in me demands that I write this and see what emerges in the process. There are just thoughts that keep popping into my head that are asking me to put them into writing so I can get a different look at them–perhaps a desperate but futile attempt for my human mind to try and answer its compulsion to make sense out of the facts it is presented with.

Here’s what I know. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has four parts or “pada.” The first pada focuses on Samadhi. One translation of samadhi is “blissful absorption.” It is a state associated with superconsciousness, tranquility, goodwill. It is described as a state of union with one’s true, abiding, blissful self, the entire creation–God Almighty. This is the state that gives rise to the experience (as opposed to the slogan) “we are all one.” In B.K.S. Iyengar’s words, “samadhi is yoga and yoga is samadhi . . . it is both the means and the goal.” This first pada of the Yoga Sutras goes on to acknowledge this state doesn’t exactly come easily as the path is wrought with obstacles. However, the sutras state, these obstacles can be overcome through the cultivation of certain states of mind. Iyengar calls them “healing states of mind.” They are: Maitri or friendliness, Karuna or compassion towards suffering, Mudita or rejoicing in the success of others, and Upekshanam or indifference to the vices or shortcomings of others (as well as to pleasure and pain). Let’s think about that: to overcome the obstacles to supreme happiness (the goal of yoga), and to deal with the sorrows that come in life, it is suggested we cultivate friendliness (maitri has also been translated as loving kindness), compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity . . .

Adam Lanza shot 20 children and 6 adults multiple times with a machine gun. What was it inside him that crowded out the maitri, the karuna, the mudita, the upekshanam?

After the luminous description of the exalted state of samadhi (or Union, or Yoga), Patanjali then turns the focus to more specific means for its attainment. The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras is entitled Sadhana Pada. Sadhana means “practice.” This chapter contains in it an inescapable implication that a definite and conscious effort is required to move to the state of Samadhi. It essentially begins by acknowledging that ordinary human life is subject to affliction. These affliction grow as naturally within the life of a human being as a vital seed grows in fertile soil. Having established this, Patanjali then goes on to describe the purpose and the practice of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to enable the human being to overcome the afflictions and attain to a state of supreme happiness (I know I said this before, but it strikes me as so relevant).

What a different story would be told about Adam Lanza had he attained to such a state. I know I might step on some toes with this statement, but I don’t think that can hurt any worst than what’s happened.

Impossible, you say? Nope. Sorry. It is possible. Anyone with a human nervous system and physiology can be “tuned up” in a certain way through the yogic process. Anyone. Period. I’m not talking about putting your leg behind your head, or executing the perfect Warrior posture, or sweating and stretching your body to fit size 0 spandex. No. I am talking about the yogic process as the application of a highly refined and luminous science that creates certain conditions in which the optimal expression of life must happen.

I realize I may be entering a debate with certain skeptically-minded folk who will wish to challenge these assertions and argue vehemently that nothing is a cure-all, that there is a thing called sociopathy . . . that some people are simply beyond aid . . . that nothing works for everyone. Again, I say, Nope. Sorry. That isn’t true. But that is another discussion, which I welcome, for another time and another place.

Just two points here. First, Yoga exists as the answer to affliction and suffering. I assert that yoga exists solely to cause an absolute and total liberation from affliction and suffering. Said another way, yoga exists to unite its practitioner with, again to borrow Iyengar’s words, the state of “unalloyed bliss, purity, wholeness and joy.” What else could be left after sorrow and affliction are eradicated? Second, yoga provides a systematic process for this emancipation to occur. This process is called the “eight limbs,” or ashtanga yoga. These limbs are as follows*:

  1. Yama or self-restraint (also known as “the don’ts”)
  2. Niyama or internal observances (also known as “the dos”)
  3. Asana or posture
  4. Pranayama or regulation of the breath and life force
  5. Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana or concentration
  7. Dhyana or meditation
  8. Samadhi or blissful absorption

At this point I want to look at the yamas. Patanjali enumerates five yamas or ethical observances. They are:

  1. Ahimsa or non-violence
  2. Satya or non-lying
  3. Asteya or non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya or continence
  5. Aparigraha or non-hoarding
And so we arrive at the title of this article: Yoga begins with non-violence. Said more accurately, the practice of yoga begins with the practice of non-violence. This has significant implications in the realm of yoga itself, to say nothing of the perspective it brings to the Sandy Hook shootings. I want to focus on simply one idea: the fact that one cannot “not do” something. I cannot not take a not action. I can only take an action. So, while the word ahimsa, translated literally is a=not + himsa= harming, killing, or violence. One can only practice it in the positive sense by engaging in behaviors that are the direct opposite of these. So ahimsa really means the practice of caring for life, respecting it, protecting it. It implies the cultivation of love, the cultivation of an attitude of goodwill. It also necessitates the development of self-control, of calm, of forgiveness, and the surrendering of malice. There is so much more. One other thing that is said of ahimsa is that it applies to all types of violence–that is, violence not just in deed, but also in thought and word.
As someone attempting to walk the path of yoga, the practice of ahimsa, for me, requires that I not only scoop up the ant in my kitchen and set it outside rather than squash it under foot and throw it in the trash can; it requires that I consistently and continuously ask the question, “What would be the expression of non-harming here?” As I write this I am wondering to myself, “What does non-harming look like as an action, as an expression?” I must admit I see the question with much greater clarity than I do the answer. But I do know this, today: I am the only one who can practice ahimsa in my life. No one else can do it for me. When I think of Adam Lanza, I have so many different emotions. One that I have noticed regularly is rage. Out of that thought definitely comes vengefulness. I have to admit that on more than one occasion in the last three days I have done violence to this man/boy in my mind. And come to think of it . . . that’s not so different from what he did. I have to breathe that in: Somewhere within me, I am the same as Adam Lanza. In the realm of thought, we have both done violence. This is where the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school began: in the realm of thought, not at the house on–did you notice?–Yogananda (the word means the bliss of yoga) Street.
It has been asserted that Adam Lanza”s actions were the outer manifestion of an inner turmoil within the collective consciousness of humanity (or at least U.S. humanity). That this violence is the physical expression of our own mental, moral, and spiritual dis-ease. I am sure a few more toes just got stepped on. Perhaps there will be another welcome discussion. I do not want to debate that here. I mention it because it has caused this idea to keep ringing in my head: After delineating the eight limbs of yoga, Patanjali goes on to discuss the effects of their practice. It is immediately clear that these effects extend beyond the individual practitioners themselves, especially when said practitioner is pratisthayam or “firmly established” in the practice. Consider if you will, the following sutra, number II.35 (I use Iyengar’s translation here from his book Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali): “When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.” (pg. 149, my emphasis). I hope you read this again. I can’t read it enough.
This–the practice of ahimsa–is the beginning of the true practice of yoga. Consider what an impact could be had on this planet (or in this country) if enough human beings became firmly established in this one aspect of yoga alone? Such a world is the one I want to live in. This is the world I want to create. This is the world I want to create for my son who, in just over three years, will be in elementary school. The question is, will I take the necessary action? The question is . . . will you?
Chris Briney 16 December 2012

*-For those who wish to study this further, please read Sadhana Pada in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, especially Sutras II.28 – II.55.