Is it possible to be a warrior and still do no harm? (Reflections on Ahimsa)


Does a yogi fight?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Conflict and confrontation seem to be common themes in our world, in our country, right now, and I feel them seeping into my personal life too, the way ink on paper sometimes bleeds out in thin, wispy lines.

Strong new words and phrases are commonplace in my daily speech: “stand up for myself,” “fight for what’s right,“ “resistance.” I’d be lying if I said ALL of this was about creating great change on a grand scale for the world. That’s there. But also present are these tiny battles in my personal life, creating struggle, spinning stories: me vs. you, us vs. them, one side against another.

How do we think about struggle? Haven’t we learned as yogis that struggle leads to suffering?

When do we resist and when do we accept?

How far should we go to protect what we believe to be true?

Yoga philosophy teaches the principle of ahimsa, non-harming. And most of the time, I am able to take a straightforward approach to embracing this concept. I believe in people searching for peaceful solutions to manage conflict. I don’t believe in physical violence.

So I’m not planning on throwing a punch the next time (or any time) I’m angry, righteous, or riled up. But there are many ways to engage in violent behavior. Unkind words and actions, bad intentions. Seething anger. These are the tools we employ for violence, to cause harm to others, and also to ourselves. Restraining ourselves from physical violence doesn’t begin to address the destruction we are capable of.

Where does that leave us? Are we doomed to become doormats, destined to roll over, take it, stand by for living in integrity with our principles? No. That can’t be right either.

I am trying to learn how to be a warrior, fierce when needed, but without acquiring the taste for blood. I think the middle path is some combination of dedication and commitment to our principles but also detachment from anger, fear, and vengeance.

As it turns out, I’m not the first to think about this concept (!), and others have articulated it better than me.

I want to share a story passed on by one of my teachers. It addresses this question of “Does a yogi fight?” I’d love to hear what you take from it.

There was a sage yogi, an old woman and a wise teacher, who asked “What does ahimsa mean? What does it mean to be non-harming?”

Students answered “Avoid physical violence.” “Become a vegetarian.” “Be pure of though, speech, and action.”

The teacher nodded. “Yes, those answers are all good. But they are not the meaning of ahimsa.”

“What happens,” she asked “if you came into a yoga studio and saw somebody hitting a student over the head?  What do you do? "

The students are unsure, tentative. The conflict is clear: there is violence occurring, but to stop the violence requires violence itself.

There are some whispered suggestions: “Try to talk to him.” “Call the police?”

The teacher says “I’ll tell you what I would do.”

“I would hit him over the head until he stopped. But not one hit more.”

That is ahimsa.