Ahimsa is the first branch of Yama, which is the first limb of Yoga – which suggests that lack of ahimsa weakens the foundation. If yoga means union, and the goal of practice is to achieve mind-body-spirit union, then violence prevents this harmony. Yoga writer Doma Djenab stated that “The essence of ahimsa is non-violence of our own heart. The violence we inflict on each other is only the outward manifestation of the war raging inside ourselves and it is only by stopping the war within that we can stop the war without.”

Inner disquiet, then, disrupts practice. This is intuitive when we consider pushing too hard; for instance, you could tear a muscle if you don’t listen to your body’s warning signs. This can be rooted in harmful thoughts like “You should be better than you are” or “You’re no good if you can’t do this.”

When Gabriel taught at TriBalance in October, he mentioned that pushing yourself too hard violates ahimsa, but that not living up to your potential also does violence to your practice. How could we violate ahimsa in not pushing?

There is a wonderful Indian legend that illustrates ahimsa. An enormous serpent once terrorized a village, biting and menacing the citizens. The villagers asked a wise yogi to talk to the serpent, so he taught it about ahimsa. A year later, he came across the serpent and was shocked at its appearance. The once magnificent beast was bruised, shabby, and pitifully thin. “What happened to you?” the yogi asked.

“No one fears me anymore,” the serpent said. “People kick me and throw rocks at me.”

The yogi shook his head. “I never told you not to hiss,” he said.

Yoga is a journey, a process of unfolding. Every journey requires a little healthy aggression. When you’re ready to take the next step and don’t, then you’re stopping the journey. Complete passivity isn’t growth; rather, it’s like withholding light from a plant.

This applies to inner growth too, which can require confronting dark thoughts or painful memories. Djeneb states that “When we allow ourselves to fully experience the hate and pain within us without cringing, violence, hatred and pain will disappear and open doors to new understandings and liveliness.” It can be harder to take an unflinching and nonjudgmental look at your soul than it is to do a strenuous physical posture. Asana is the third limb – so asana without ahimsa is just doing empty poses.

Author Amey Mathews reminds us that ahimsa is a practice, and it’s okay – even inevitable – to falter at times. “Just as some days we have immense amounts of energy and attention for our asana practice, and other days we are lazier or distracted, these same processes will be reflected in our practice of ahimsa. The yamas are steadfast in their instruction, however, clearly implying that we are each capable of refining our finest qualities and disciplining our more base impulses.”

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