Yoga, Ahimsa and Martial Arts
Ahimsa is the first Yama or restraint, listed in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. These eight limbs are followed by yoga practitioners all over the globe, they form a vital part of the first ever written record of yoga, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. This first record of yoga has survived thousands of years, it has formed the basis for all yoga practices and has played a crucial role in the evolution of yoga.
Ahimsa translates from Sanskrit to mean no harm or non violence. “Himsa” means harm and the prefix of the “A” reveals that the word has the opposite meaning.
Yoga complements martial arts in so many ways, but eventually a question arises. How can a dedicated yoga practitioner progress in a martial art when they are required to fight or how does the martial artist continue their practices once they have discovered Ahimsa?
Ahimsa is one of the biggest challenges to integrate into a martial arts practice. The mere action of combat with another feels as though this first Yama or restraint has instantly been broken. This can create inner turmoil. It also raises the question that maybe these two practises no longer belong together?
After much thought and research, it became apparent to me, that yoga and martial arts can complement each other, for this to happen Ahimsa needs to be explored and integrated. Living without harm or creating harm is a wonderful goal, but does doing so mean that we never stand up for our beliefs? Or that we turn our backs on those creating angst? And in doing so, are we then allowing a continuation of harm to develop?
"If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito." The Dalai Lama
We all know that mosquitos spread terrible diseases, so is it bad then to destroy a mosquito? Especially if that mosquito would go on to create further harm? This example could help us decide what Ahimsa means to us.
From my understanding martial arts today are not performed to encourage fighting or to arouse any negative emotions. Many martial arts evolved to provide protection from enemies and thieves.
Both yoga and martial arts are spiritual practices and have evolved over time for the greater good. Each practice encourages the practitioner to be the best version of themselves. Martial arts and yoga encourage a strong code of ethics that can be followed to live a life of truth and integrity. In yoga these are detailed in the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) which are the first two limbs of yoga.
Both practices promote transcending the ego or at least searching for an inner strength that means the ego is not in the driving seat and motivating behaviour and actions.
Ahimsa exists on all levels, it includes how we treat ourselves as well as how we treat others or anything that is living. It is therefore important to consider that for the protection of all living beings and to stop or prevent a continuation of harm, force or dissipation could be the action that leads to protection. This does not need to be aggressive or brutal. To be true to Ahimsa maybe it is useful to possess skills that help to dissipate and disperse harmful behaviour?
In the dojo these skills can be safely practiced and shared with others to help cultivate them. Discovering the strength to stand tall in the face of adversity whilst remaining calm and focused is a life skill that could help anyone achieve and maintain Ahimsa.
Initially Ahimsa might be viewed as an obstruction or a barrier for those that practise both yoga and martial arts. After consideration it soon becomes apparent that Ahimsa also provides direction and motivation, it highlights many personal strengths and weaknesses too.
Ahimsa is not walking away from harm, sometimes we need to stand tall to prevent harm escalating.
This short story might illustrate this further.
Once upon a time there was a mighty warrior who had defeated all the Swords Masters in his country. On his travels, he heard about the fame of one very great Master who was said to live alone in a mountain. The Warrior decided to try to find this Master to see if he was really that great. His plan was to challenge him in a duel to test his skills. If the Master was as powerful as he was said to be and if he didn’t die in the duel, the warrior would ask him to become his disciple. So the Warrior set out on his journey. After many days of travel through the forests and the mountains he finally reached the Master’s hut. He saw an old man standing there and enquired if he was the famous Master. As a reply the Master asked him who he was.
“I am a great warrior, undefeated in combat, and I think I can say the greatest swordsman the world has ever seen.”
“You are a Warrior? You are dirty. You look ridiculous. And what’s this thing pending on your side? Is that supposed to be a sword?” replied the Master
After a few more of these comments, the Warrior could not take it anymore. He drew his sword and was about to lower it on the Master’s head to cut him into two.
The Master stayed calm and raised his hand and said, “Here open the gates of Hell.”
Although in a rage, the Warrior was somehow struck by this reaction, he held back his blow and withdrew his sword.
“Here open the doors of heaven,” said the Master.
This story reveals the powerful force of Ahimsa and how it can create a positive reaction. We can also see that the Warrior was being driven by his ego. However when the Warrior was confronted by a force that was non harming but powerful, the Masters inner strength overpowered the Warrior and he restrained himself.