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Ahimsa: Non Harming for Positive Change

No matter how angry we are, the unbreakable vow of the yogi is ahimsa. The Yoga Sutras state that the great vows, and ahimsa is one of them, are not to be broken no matter the circumstance. I know. That is a tough one. It is hard not to seek revenge when we are hurt. This is different from making sure that a criminal is off the streets and won’t hurt someone else.  This is different from fighting for equality and rights like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.   Unlike war, the fighting was not done to take from and hurt others, it was done with the intention of stopping pain for marginalized human beings.  I am talking about wanting to see others pay or be hurt because of how you feel.  Wanting others to rally around our pain, not for the purpose of stopping the pain of others, but simply so our pain can be validated.  This is not ahimsa. Causing further pain to others, even if they did us wrong, is not ahimsa. By acknowledging our pain and using it as an agent of positivity,  we stop the cycle of pain in our lives and in our community.

A teacher once said to me, “if you have something going on, practice as if you have something going on, teach as if you have something going on.”  He entreated me to use whatever was going on in my life as a mechanism of enrichment for myself and to serve others. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:21 says, “the seen exists only for the sake of the seer.” Everything that is happening in our lives is happening for our sake. It is a gift that gives us experience or liberates us.  If we interact with others, from this place, it can also serve as an enriching experience or a mechanism of liberation for others.

Suppressing or ignoring pain in our lives has two results, explosion or bypassing. If we explode and let it all out on whomever is around or ignore it while storing it inside, we get the same results; a negative reaction that is outside of our control.

“Part of the reason for this is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, both personally and collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing “solutions,” regardless of how much suffering such “remedies” may catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely subtle.

Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many ways, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.

And when we’re caught up in the grosser forms of spiritual bypassing, we’d usually much rather theorize about the frontiers of consciousness than actually go there, sedating the fire rather than breathing it even more alive, espousing the ideal of unconditional love while not permitting love to show up in its more challenging, personal dimensions. To do so would be too hot, too scary, and too out-of-control, bringing things to the surface that we have long disowned or suppressed.

Spiritual bypassing distances us not only from our pain and difficult personal issues but also from our own authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo, a zone of exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality. Its frequently disconnected nature keeps it adrift, clinging to the weight of its self-conferred spiritual credentials. As such, it maroons us from embodying our full humanity.- Robert Augustus Masters PHD”

Using what is going on in our lives as a catalyst for positive action, is under our control and transmutates negativity into positivity. To do this, we have to be real with what we are feeling. Yoga is not suppression.  The cessation of the mind, spoken of in Yoga Sutras 1:2, is not done through forced control. The yogic process takes us to a point where the negative impressions are so weak that they don’t effect us.  At that point, we can then do yogic practices that burn the seeds of these weak impressions so they don’t sprout again.

For example, a smoker who is trying to stop by using control, is still heavily addicted and emotionally charged in the presence of other people who are smoking cigarettes.  They may not pick one up but there is a internal struggle going on that consumes them.  They cannot relax and the whole interaction is spent in inner turmoil in an attempt to not smoke.   Someone who has significantly weakened the addiction, when in the room with other smokers, will fondly remember the experience of smoking, but will have no desire to partake. The final phase is that the ex smoker can be in the room with other smokers without even giving smoking a thought.

When we ignore our emotions, impressions get stronger.  Like a kidnapper in the closet of our house, they stay dormant and silent until we get close enough to them to strike.  The right catalyst comes around and our yoga practice falls apart. All the work we have done, which never went deep enough to truly stick, is easily wiped away. However, if we acknowledge the kidnapper, if we acknowledge our pain, we can take the necessary steps to weaken its power in our lives.

Whatever you show up with, ask yourself, how can this be used to benefit myself and others? 

For instance, when I show up to my mat angry, I am hyper energized.  Anger is like adrenaline. Anger is a call to action. It is the universe’s way of saying “wake up.” I use that energy to stay moving and not dawdle on my mat, to execute difficult poses and to work on new ones. By the end of my practice, the anger is spent and I can then have a nice relaxing closing sequence and release everything when I rest.  I have seen people do poses that they have never been able to do on a day that they showed up with anger. Even after the episode was over, they were still able to execute the pose. Something inside of them unlocked.  Anger brings determination.  If I am teaching, and I show up mad about something, I use the energy as a passion that can enliven my own student’s practices and unlock their latent potential.

If I show up to my mat feeling dull, sad, lazy or tired, I focus on my breath.  I find that my breath is slower when I feel tired or dull. I use this as an opportunity to stay longer in poses. By staying longer in poses, I break through tightness and negative responses that come up in challenging poses. By the end of practice, my energy increases because, by holding poses longer, deep seated emotions and sensations come to the surface.  My muscles catch on fire.  My body wakes up and my mind wakes up to deal with it.  If I show up to teach this way, I use the energy to bring about a sense of calm in the students who are beating themselves up, having trouble breathing or working with difficult poses.  As the students do the deep work of dealing with their stuff, my energy raises to help them do their work.

If I show up to my mat with an injury, I use the injury to learn about my body and how to deal with this injury in others. I also use the injury as an opportunity to awaken other parts of my body that the injury has not touched. If I show up to teach with an injury, it is an opportunity to use my body in a different way and to come up with new ways of assisting. I can also use the injury to develop stronger verbal cues and get better at verbal assisting.

This technique, of transmuting emotions for positivity, works for everything.  Late last year, I got into a funk around social media. Whenever I would get on Instagram, I turned into a judgmental bitch. I could have gotten off Instagram but I knew that Instagram was not the problem. The problem was me. It was my inability to do, as Yoga Sutras 1:33 states, “Cultivate attitudes of friendliness towards the happy.”  The people, I was getting into my feelings about, were having the time of their lives.  However, how they chose to use their time was different then what my inner hater wanted to see. This sent my inner hater on a hater spree.  Hating leaves you alone and tired. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.   I started a game. Before, you judge it, it worked.  Every time I got all judgey about someone, I made myself give them a heart!! LOL. The reason it worked was because it showed me just how judgmental I was because I had to give out a lot of hearts!!! It made me stop and question what was going on inside of me that a picture could have such a response.  This game benefited me by forcing me into a state of inquiry where I got my inner hater to chill. It benefited others because they got hearts LOL.  It also helped me to develop enriching relationships with people on Instagram.  It made Instagram fun again. If you feel judgmental about this post, give me a heart or a like!!!

I use it to write blogs. Everything I write about, is from a recent experience. If you haven’t noticed, my posts usually come out at the end of the week which gives me lots to draw from! When people  say to me, “I cannot find any inspiration to write or for my teaching”, I think to myself, “ummm, i often have too much inspiration.”  I have a friend who wants to do a bit more in the world and she said to me, “I feel like I shouldn’t write or talk about things unless I have overcome them.” Well, guess what, she never talks or writes about things! Wanting everything in our lives to be perfectly resolved keeps us from doing the work we want to do in the world.  Since the death of MLK and Gandhi, negative stories have come out about their personal lives.  Boy am I super glad MLK didn’t wait for all of his issues to be resolved before he hit the streets fighting for freedom!  Judging from the stories, it may not have ever gotten done! Gandhi and MLK were able to stay focused on their work while also fighting their demons. Sometimes, the demons won. However, it didn’t negate their positive work in the world.  As a Black person in America, I reap the benefits of MLK’s work every day. Even with your demons, people can reap the benefits of your positive work, too.

We don’t want to hear this. We want our leaders to be perfect. We sit around immobilized waiting for ourselves to be perfect. Not using our full potential. Judging the imperfection of others, who had the courage to make positive changes in the world in spite of their demons. Judging them with righteous indignation so that we can feel better about sitting around and doing nothing. Until you reach the final samadhi, you will always have things that you have not overcome.  Instead of using these as a reason to not do something, use them as a reason to do something.  I ask myself, how can I use the events of this week to write something that will heal not only myself but possibly others? This post is a combination of a thought that came up while reading a book and a recent experience of pain.

Hurt people, hurt people.  During these emotional times, when we are hurt,  is when we are most likely to hurt others, make bad decisions, and speak unkindly. This is because we allow common sense, discernment and intelligence to take a backseat to our pain. A way to get back on track is to use the fresh pain as a mechanism to see how you may be causing the same pain in others. Since the pain is so fresh, if we stay conscious, we can look at the chain of events that caused the pain and see how we can stop that chain of events for others. For example, “when Suzy said this to me, I felt unloved. How are my words possibly causing others around me to feel unloved?” Not only do we learn about ourselves, we also develop empathy. We can see how, those who have hurt us, could possibly have gotten to that place. We can see how we possibly could get to that place.

I also do an exercise where I make an effort to make others feel the opposite of the negativity I am feeling. Often, when we are hurt, we are like crabs in a barrel. We want our emotions validated. We want people to feel how we feel and to wallow with us. I often try to do the opposite.  This is part of a practice, mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, called Pratipaksha Bhavanam, cultivating the opposite.  If I feel unloved, how can I make everyone I meet today feel loved? I open the door for people.  I say thank you to the check out girl. I compliment a student who has a new haircut.  Don’t get this confused with being fake. I still acknowledge my own emotions and use them to uplift others. By doing so, I always feel better at the end of the day. The Yoga Sutras tells us that, when we practice Ahimsa/non harming, hostilities around us cease. By showing love and kindness to others, people around us are more likely to be loving and kind and the drama in our lives starts to dissipate.



Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail