Courting Nonviolence: How Yoga Helps Keep the Peace

Water drop from leaf and butterfly into the water with summer scene backgroundThese days we’re in the middle of a storm of violence from which there seems to be no escape. Many people feel angry and afraid; I know I do whenever I listen to the news, so I try to get the facts, and then I shut it off to avoid the endless repetitions which only make me feel worse.

It’s nothing new. The world has experienced vicious times since pre-history. Patanjali, a famous yoga philosopher who lived thousands of years ago, wrote about keeping the peace, about ahimsa, or nonviolence. His words have direct application today.

I can’t do much about the world at large, but I’m not powerless. Like charity, nonviolence begins at home. Our little world of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers we bump into on the street can be pretty fierce, too. Families can be the worst!

Which makes me think about my cousin Henry. His name isn’t really Henry. In fact, Henry isn’t even my cousin, but everything else is true. Henry is notoriously belligerent and gets into fights all the time. One time, Henry and his family were going to Mexico. He was so nasty to border police that he wasn’t allowed into the country, so there was no vacation for them after all.

Once or twice a year, Henry and I meet up at a big family dinner. I usually try not to sit next to him, but last month I had no choice. Henry and I sat right next to each other, and he went out of his way to make just the kind of nasty, bigoted remarks he knows drive me crazy. He is an expert at pushing my buttons; he’s been doing it for years. And I’ve been fighting back for years. But I’m starting to wise up. This time I chose not to respond because he was looking for a fight and I was not. I mostly succeeded, even though my anger can be an issue. I kept my feelings to myself and cooled off after a while.

I know what happens when I let go and lose my temper. And I know just how awful I feel afterward. So I try to keep my temper and practice ahimsa, nonviolence, even with Henry. He’s a really good teacher. I know if I stay peaceful I’ll feel better toward Henry and toward myself, too. I try to remember to turn off my internal “news program”—the one about what Henry said and what I wanted to say back. I focus on breathing peace instead.

Ahimsa is like the physician’s pledge, “First, do no harm.” Don’t make things worse. Don’t react thoughtlessly or by reflex. Measure the reality presented to you as accurately as you can, and then reflect on it rather than reacting thoughtlessly.

Of course, I can’t claim not to have been annoyed, so I was not nonviolent in the strictest sense. I was steamed up, but I was going in the nonviolent direction. If I were truly nonviolent, I would not have been riled up by what Henry said. In, fact, if I were deeply and completely nonviolent and surrounded myself with the aura of peace, Henry might not have been annoying at all. Maybe he would have been peaceful, too. Who knows? Peace begets peace, after all, just like violence begets violence.

Hindu mythology states when the saints lived in the forest and practiced ahimsa, the wild animals would kill only when they were hungry, and the cows and the lions drank water side by side. They were doing better than Henry and me, but we’re getting there. Each time I choose ahimsa, there is one less violent encounter. And Henry and I get to sit at the same dinner table in peace.

Ahimsa is like the physician’s pledge, “First, do no harm.” Don’t make things worse. Don’t react thoughtlessly or by reflex. Measure the reality presented to you as accurately as you can, and then reflect on it rather than reacting thoughtlessly.

So let’s think about Henry.

Why is Henry always picking fights? He experienced awful violence in his youth, which has left an indelible mark on his feelings about the world. He sees the world as intrinsically violent and dangerous. When I remember where he came from and I remember he’s afraid, I get less irritated. His anger is his way to protect himself. It’s faulty, of course, and he makes a lot of people angry with him. If I also get angry, I add to his burden, as well as my own. It’s tough to practice ahimsa, but tougher still to live in a world like Henry’s.

Patanjali addresses nonviolence in Sutra II 35, where it is written “ahimsa pratisthayam tat samnidhau vaira tyagah”—or, in English, “In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.” Even for me and Henry.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ted

    Ted

    April 22nd, 2016 at 12:43 PM

    Sadly for Americans it looks like we are always poised for a fight. Nonviolence doesn’t seem to be in our genes anymore. It is always how we can prove that we are the biggest and the baddest and this is not winning us any points around the globe.

  • Leigh

    Leigh

    April 23rd, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    Yoga is the one thing in my life that helps to keep me centered and balanced, not only physically but especially mentally. For me it is a little workout for my soul, and that might sound weird to you if you haven’t ever tried it but I believe that the others who practice yoga will know exactly what I am talking about when I say that. There really isn’t much of anything else that makes me feel better than it does.

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 23rd, 2016 at 7:09 PM

    Hey Ted- You’re so right. And Leigh- that’s exactly how I feel.
    Thank to both of you for writing.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • terrell

    terrell

    April 24th, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    I often feel like you know, this is something that I should try but rarely do I feel that I have the time or the patience for it. I am a little too focused on the fast paced things I guess? Thoughts on how I could incorporate this into a few days of week without this overwhelming feeling that I am not doing anything that is making a difference?

  • erin

    erin

    April 25th, 2016 at 7:19 AM

    Gosh I really can’t stand those people who will intentionally try to goad you into doing or saying things that you do not really mean!

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 25th, 2016 at 8:38 AM

    Hi Terrell- You’ve got the idea– slowing down can be a big help. How about picking out a few days a week and then deciding to spend 5 or 10 minutes with yourself–no distractions. Maybe you could breathe in and out slowly too.
    Try it out and then let me know what happens. It sounds easier than it is.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 25th, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    Erin, about those people who like to poke–that’s just who they are. And it is hard to stand them, I agree.
    Thanks!
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Abi

    Abi

    April 25th, 2016 at 11:17 AM

    this is more of the way that the rest of the world needs to start thinking. i am wondering if there will ever come a time when we can simply learn to let go of the underlying anger and animosity and live a little more freely and with love?

  • NanaJ

    NanaJ

    April 26th, 2016 at 8:23 AM

    do you find that more people are most successful practicing alone or in classes?

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 26th, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    Hi Nanaj,
    Great question. I think both ways work, but you can feel more supported in a group. Thanks for asking!

  • Colton

    Colton

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:30 AM

    You are so right. The phrase First do no harm should be something that we are all a little more wiling to incorporate into our daily lives. So often we speak and act before pausing and thinking about the ramifications of our words and our actions.

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