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Violence against Self

Are you relating to yourself in a manner that results in your life being more emotionally or physically violent than it need be?

By Phillip Moffitt

One of the yamas, or moral restraints, in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence, and this includes nonviolence toward yourself. Of course, you may well want something in your life so much that you are willing to take a chance of hurting your body by driving it too hard. But usually a conscious, short-term exertion to reach a goal is not what causes violence to self. More often it is a matter of long-term disregard of the signals of imbalance. This disregard comes from repeatedly getting so caught in wanting or fearful mind-states that you're unable to reflect on your own behavior. You may have a surface-level awareness of the distress you are feeling in your body, but you don't sincerely respond to the discomfort. In such instances you are in a driven state, controlled by your mind's imaginary creations rather than your inner values.

Inner development and maturity come from acknowledging to yourself that you are being violent with a human being; the fact that you happen to be the human being who is being hurt does not change the truth of the violence. From a spiritual perspective, it is never right to hurt any human being—including yourself—for selfish reasons or because of sloppy attention to the consequences of your actions. Understanding this is your first step in practicing ahimsa toward yourself.

It is often hard to make the distinction between the mind-states of fear and wanting and your inner values because there is such a strong tendency to identify these mind-states as "you." But if you observe yourself, you will see that an endless number of mind-states arise each day independent of any intention on your part. The way to freedom from self-violence is to separate from these thoughts by getting to know your mind. This is the underlying purpose of yoga, mindfulness meditation, and selfless service, called karma yoga or seva.

Violence against self through the body can also occur in situations where you are ostensibly taking deliberate care of your body, such as in doing yoga. How many times in a yoga class do you get lost in your willfulness to get a pose right and actually add tension and strain to the body rather than freeing the tissue for movement? It is good to hold a pose longer or to work to get more lift in a backbend, but not if you tense or harden the body as part of the effort. The skin should stay soft even when the muscles underneath a particular area are engaged, the face should stay relaxed, and the breath be free of any holding. Even more importantly, the mind needs to stay soft and gentle; my teacher describes it as the "mind staying cool." Practicing yoga in this manner can help you learn how to release the tendency toward violence to yourself in the rest of your life.

When you go to a hatha yoga class, if you don't observe and work with all of the emotions and moods that arise, you are missing half the value. Watch yourself the next time you go to class: Do you get angry at your body? Do you load it with the frustrations of your day and then expect it to do what you want? See for yourself how every strong emotion—from frustration and fear to longing—is felt in the body as tension, pressure, heat, tingling, and so on. In turn, each of these bodily sensations can be released through the yoga, which will free the body from violence and usually quiets the mind. Once you learn to do this in yoga class you can utilize this awareness—at work, driving in traffic, or in difficult home situations—to release the body when the mind starts to feel pressure or anxiety. Moreover, the cultivation of a soft spaciousness of body and mind points to the true intention of yoga, which is liberation from our separateness. It is this fear of separateness that leads to self-violence.

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