Ahimsa (Non-Violence) and Communication

Feeling connected to other people is a fundamental human need. Research for decades has shown that babies will fail to thrive if emotional connection is missing, despite having all physical needs met. Susan Pinker has a TED talk titled The Secret to Living Longer Might be Your Social Life, which describes how social ties extend life spans in blue zones, areas in the world where a notable percentage of people live past the age of 100.

How can we cultivate more and deeper human connections? The yoga sutras have something to say. Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras takes us to the deeper practice: control of thought forms and study of the mind, Raja Yoga. In this chapter, the eight limbs of yoga are introduced.

2.29  yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayaḥ-aṅgāni

The eight limbs of Yoga are social ethics, personal observances, physical discipline, expansion of prāṇa through mastery of the breath, focusing attention away from external objects, choosing what to focus on, maintaining the focus, and assimilation of the object of focus. 

Physical practice is noted (asana); it is only one of the eight limbs of yoga, though it gets the most attention in our culture. The first limb, yama, provides guidelines for dealings with others and the second (niyama) in the list instructs us on developing ourselves. I’d like to focus on the first limb, yama, the teachings for social ethics:

2.30  ahiṁsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahāḥ-yamāḥ

The social ethics are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation to serve the pursuit of the Absolute, and absence of greed. 

In my life I’ve noticed, if I’m focused on non-violence (ahimsa), the other social ethics are more accessible to me.

But what does that look like, ahimsa, non-violence? Is there a way I can actively cultivate something that is non-action?  Frustration!  We are creatures built for action! At the surface level, non-violence is abstaining from action. I won’t hit, bruise or kill another being. This is at the level of the physical where I can easily recognize this sort of violence. It leaves a mark.

We are also familiar with the violence of some words, when we hurl insults like rocks with the intention to hurt at the level of feeling. So much more clever than the primitive use of sticks and bullets. Certainly I am practicing ahimsa if I keep it to myself when I’d like to take a verbal jab.

It can be harder to recognize the violence in the thinking that precedes the judgment, and the harm that does to the relationship and to me, as these thoughts live in my head.

Judgment is so acceptable in our language. Sometimes we disguise this as the language of improvement. If I don’t tell him (or myself) what is wrong with him (or me), how will anyone be motivated to change?

Much judgment is built right into our language. The verb “to be” is rarely used alone and quite frequently followed by a judgment. “She is so insensitive” is used as commonly and casually as “she is tall,” as if we could see inside another person. And when I tell myself the story that I know how you are, it justifies my retaliatory reaction.  Dr. Brene’ Brown writes, “Dehumanizing always starts with language.”

I’m interested in communicating more mindfully, at the least, questioning my first reaction. How can I move from my judgment to a space where I have the chance to connect more deeply with another human being? Slowing down, I can check what I have perceived, watch my thoughts and choose my response. Each step provides an opportunity to practice ahimsa.  These active choices allow me to abstain from violence, and possibly, cultivate deeper human connection instead.

Mary Kluz, RYT-200, has been actively teaching yoga since 2015 and is part of the faculty for the 240 hour River Flow Yoga Teacher Training. She is an Associate Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin-Extension. Mary is offering workshops on Mindful Communication, September 15, 2018 – 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM and September 27, 2018 – 12:30 to 4:30 PM. Her yoga classes on Thursdays (5:30 pm) and Fridays (5:00 pm) are focused on stress relief and centering.