Late in 1971, I became fascinated by two of the primary teachings of Jainism, India's third largest religion: ahimsa (nonviolence, or as the Jains say, reverence for all life) and anekantavada (the multiplicity of truth). By 1974, I was on my way to India to study with Jain monks and nuns and observe their practices firsthand.
Many of us who practice yoga are familiar with the principle of ahimsa from our studies of the ashta-anga (eight-limbed) path set down in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. But ahimsa is a key idea in many Indian religious traditions, including both Buddhism and Jainism. It is a central theme in the Jain teachings, which influenced Mahatma Gandhi in his development of the policy of satyagraha (nonviolent action; literally, "holding fast to truth") and his work with the freedom movement in India.
All Jain monks and nuns are vegetarians and practice an even more stringent application of the principal of ahmisa: They walk everywhere they need to go. They don't ride trains, planes, or even bikes, because they feel that any mechanical or motorized conveyance is potentially harmful to some life, somewhere. Of course, they would never ride a horse or donkey or use one to pull a carriage. Members of the more orthodox Jain sects don't even walk outdoors in the rainy season, as they want to avoid stepping on the worms, insects, and other small creatures that come out onto the paths and roads when the monsoons arrive.
Despite the enormous emphasis Jainism places on ahimsa, Jain teaching is equally careful to emphasize that it is not possible to be perfectly nonviolent. Just the acts of breathing, of walking, of being embodied are violent to something or someone. The concept of anekantavada helps temper the Jains' understanding of ahimsa: Anekantavada holds that a true understanding of any situation requires seeing it from every possible point of view. If we even attempt to do that, we realize it's impossible for any action to be completely negative or completely positive. Every action can be seen as violent or nonviolent, depending on whose backyard it happens to be affecting.
Jiddhu Krishnamurti, who was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century and one of my teachers in the early '70s, echoed many of the Jain teachings about ahimsa. He taught that the idea that we could be completely nonviolent was an illusion. Furthermore, he taught that we can't even begin to understand the principle of ahimsa until we have come face-to-face with the seeds of violence deep within ourselves.
As practitioners and teachers of yoga, we can learn a great deal about ahimsa from teachings like those of the Jains and Krishnamurti. Although we may practice diligently to experience yoga (union with the Divine Consciousness) and to end suffering by following the doctrine of ahimsa, there are times we get discouraged as we look around and see the omnipresence of violence. We find ourselves wondering, "Is ahimsa really possible? Can we really end suffering in this world? What can we actually do?"
The Jains teach that what we should do is simply the best we can. In their terms, we should work in each moment to maximize reverence and minimize violence. That means we go along day by day, mindfully watching, calmly acknowledging the world as it is, and releasing attachment to the fruits of our labors. We breathe. We practice. We walk as carefully on the earth as we can, given our perspective and level of awareness. And that's it. That's all.
The Jains call this form of practice upa yoga, the yoga of constant vigilance, of constant watching—the practice of witnessing everything inside and outside ourselves, including violence, as accurately as we can. Krishnamurti recommended a similar practice. I vividly remember him encouraging us in his talks to see the violence in ourselves and make friends with it, to recognize and not be afraid of it. Only when we do this, he said, can we begin to transform it.
Nonviolence on the Mat
A good time to learn about maximizing reverence and minimizing violence is while struggling with a posture like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Standing Forward Bend).
Yoga practice is designed to increase our awareness, amplify our sensitivity to the suffering of the world, and develop our compassion. One of the ways it does that is by teaching us to recognize what hurts and what feels good within our own body. If we catch ourselves pushing a little past our edge, greedily grabbing for more than our body can do safely, we can learn to recognize that behavior as a manifestation of himsa (violence). Hopefully, that recognition will help us avoid getting hit over the head by the lesson in the form of a painful injury.
The sequence of postures I have chosen to lead up to Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana will help us see, in tangible, physical terms, just what it means to practice ahimsa. The four preliminary postures we will explore are Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), a variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), a modified version of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, and Ardha Baddha Paschimottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Seated Forward Bend).
In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition I practice and teach, Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana is one of the basic standing postures; Janu Sirsasana and Ardha Baddha Paschimottanasana actually follow it in the standard sequence of poses. Over time, however, both of these latter postures are important in developing Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana; they help us a great deal with the challenging work of "binding" the pose—reaching around behind the back to catch the foot in Half Lotus—and bending forward. They do this by assisting with the hip opening and hamstring stretching required for Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana.
Prior to practicing the work recommended in this column, it's a good idea to spend ten or 15 minutes warming up your body. If you are familiar with Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) and the energetic locks Mula Bandha (Root Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), I strongly suggest you use them throughout your practice of this sequence. If you're not familiar with these practices, simply breathe in the manner prescribed by your teachers.
Minimize Violence(Figure 1)
The first pose we will explore is Janu Sirsasana. It's a fairly basic yoga posture, but it's also an incomparably useful way to start the processes of stretching out the hamstrings, opening the hips, and twisting the spine.
To come into the pose, sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you in Dandasana (Staff Pose). On an inhalation, bend your right knee and bring the sole of the right foot to the upper inner left thigh. Try to draw the right knee back so the two thighs form an angle of at least 90 degrees, slightly more if possible. Then, as you exhale, twist your torso so it's centered over the left thigh, moving from deep in your lower spine.
Leading with your right hand, arm, and shoulder, reach forward with both hands and take hold of your left foot. Keep your shoulders and elbows equidistant from the floor; this will help keep your chest centered over the left thighbone. If you can, reach past your left foot and catch your left wrist with your right hand. As you inhale again, look up. Then, as you exhale, draw yourself forward over the extended leg; your spine should feel as though it remains long. Gaze out toward the left foot but take care not to scrunch the back of your neck. Take five to 10 breaths in this position, then return to Dandasana and repeat the pose to the other side.
It's very important in this pose not to try to appear more flexible than you truly are; you should never overround your spine in an attempt to bring your face down to your left leg before your body is really ready for that movement. Overrounding your back closes down your heart center and can injure your spine, which is certainly not maximizing reverence and minimizing violence. In fact, it's a clear example of lobha (greed) and the violence that results from it.
It is also important in this posture, as in all forward bends, to pay attention to the contraction in the quadriceps of the straight leg. This work requires constant attention; the quads won't stay in place by themselves. Also, since muscles work in opposition to each other, the quadriceps need to be fully contracted for their opposing partner, the hamstrings, to fully release. So I think it's best, especially for beginners, to start out focusing on the quadriceps. Once the quad contraction becomes automatic, you can begin to filter a bit more awareness into the hamstrings, encouraging them to release even more deeply.
This quadriceps action is an opportunity to feel physically the kind of effort it takes to minimize violence. We squeeze the quadriceps muscles, pulling our energy inward. I like to imagine this as the same kind of effort we make to pull back from violence when we're off the mat. We hold ourselves in check, exercising viveka (discernment) about when to move energy out and when to hold it in.
Conversely, as the hamstrings let go and extend, we can actually feel the kind of mindful effort it takes to maximize reverence. We allow any holding within the muscle to melt away, creating space for energy to expand and circulate. For me, this letting go brings to mind the kind of work it takes to expand compassion into the world; we need to release fears, anxieties, the comfort of familiar conditions, and pictures of how we want others to act, putting into practice vairagya, or "nonattachment."
Maximize Reverence(Figure 2)
To continue opening the hips, let's move on to Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. If you dislike this posture, you're one of those, like me, who need it the most. The variation offered here is fairly passive and gentle, yet it's also one of the most powerful hip openers. If your hips are tight, it can be really intense. You may find yourself struggling and try to force your body into the pose. As with Janu Sirsasana, let it be a chance to exercise your watchfulness. Engaging Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha can help relax the nervous system and protect the body from overstretching. And your Ujjayi breathing can be a valuable anchor, helping you find stillness and reverence in the posture.
To come into Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, begin on all fours. Swing your right knee forward to the floor at your right hand and place your right heel in front of your left hipbone. Then extend your left leg straight back behind you, inviting your pelvic floor to descend down toward the ground. Proper alignment is critical for the pose to be effective, and achieving that alignment requires awareness. With the right leg in front, you'll tend to lean the right hip over to the right and bring it forward of your left hip, but both of these movements take you away from the challenge the pose offers tight muscles in your right outer hip and left groin. If necessary, you can lift your weight up off your right buttock to arrange your pelvis so that it is squared to the front and level with the floor. To open the left groin, it's also important to overcome the tendency of the left leg to turn out, which makes your knee and foot point a bit to the side. Instead, be sure that your left leg faces directly down.
Next, center your torso over your hips and arrange the right shin so it is nearly perpendicular to the midline of the body. If you have tight hips, it's quite possible that the right sitting bone and left upper thigh will be well off the floor. If this is the case, place your hands on either side of your hips and use your arm strength to steady yourself and regulate the intensity of the stretch.
Most of the focus in this position is on letting go. As you become more open in the posture, you may want to bend forward and lower your torso over your right shin; this movement often increases the stretch in the right outer hip. Whichever position you choose, you can hold it for as few as five breaths or as long as five minutes. Then come back to all fours and repeat the pose on the other side.
The Hips Have It(Figure 3)
As we move on to the poses that include a Half Lotus position, it becomes even more critical to be mindful and to not strain the knees. Minimizing violence and maximizing reverence becomes of utmost importance. To many people, Padmasana (Lotus Pose) seems like the quintessential yoga posture, and most yoga students want to learn it. Many students also begin with the misconception that all versions of Lotus, like the challenging bound Half Lotus in Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, require flexible knees. But the real key to success lies in the hips. Achieving the necessary mobility may take much patience, and it's best to realize this before you tweak a tendon or ligament by pushing a knee too far. To safely bind the foot with the hand in the Half Lotus position, most yogis need to move slowly and reverently toward this goal. The tiniest greed can manifest itself violently as an injury, and even a little tweak can cause a major setback. So go easy. I can't say this enough.
Fortunately, the hip opening required to bring the foot into Padmasana position will be much easier after the work we've already done in Janu Sirsasana and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. For 20 years, to further help people (especially athletes) with tight hips make progress toward the bound Padmasana position, I have taught a modified version of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. It directs the focus to the hips, which is where the movement must occur for a safe Half Lotus to be possible.
To come into this Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana variation, begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose): Stand with both feet together and your arms at your sides. As you inhale, lift the right knee up and slightly to the side and take hold of the right shin with both hands. As you exhale, pull the right ankle and heel in toward the lower left quadrant of your abdomen. Most students at this point tend to drop the right knee toward the ground and let the right foot slide down on the left thigh, but these actions don't help open the right hip. Instead, keep the right knee lifted and try to draw it in toward your body's centerline. Aligning the leg in this way concentrates the opening in the right hip and protects the knee from inappropriate twisting.
Tighten the quadriceps of the standing leg, pulling up on the kneecap. Lift the torso and drop the tailbone toward the ground. If you know Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha, make sure you use them to help hold the pelvis in the proper neutral position, tilted neither forward nor back. If you don't regularly practice the bandhas, simply pull in slightly with the abdominal muscles; that will help you maintain a properly balanced pelvis. To encourage balance and steadiness, gaze at a single point in front of you. Take five to 10 breaths, then come out of the posture by lowering the leg to the floor and returning to Tadasana. Repeat the pose on the other side.
In a Bind(Figure 4)
Now that we have worked on opening the hips for Half Lotus, let's sit back down on the floor and practice Ardha Baddha Paschimottanasana; here we'll see if we've achieved enough movement to allow us to bind the hand to the foot. In my teaching of this pose, the adage "No bending before binding" is practically religious dogma. I feel this admonition is of critical importance to the safety of the knee. If we allow the ego to rush us into bending forward before our Half Lotus is deep enough to bind, we're putting dangerous pressure on the knee; we're being violent toward ourselves.
To move into Ardha Baddha Paschimottanasana, begin in Dandasana. Bring the right foot up toward the lower left abdominal quadrant, much like you did in the preceding posture. Pull the heel in toward the belly, just inside the left hipbone, and rest the anklebone and the top of the foot on the center of the uppermost part of the thigh. If necessary, use the left hand to hold the foot in place. Then inhale and reach up with the right arm, externally rotating it so the palm faces toward your midline. As you exhale, internally rotate the arm so your palm faces out to the side and reach the right arm around behind you, turning to look back over your right shoulder. Try to take hold of the right foot with the right hand, placing the hand over the top of the foot. (Twisting the torso so the right shoulder moves back makes it easier to do this.)
If you cannot catch your foot to bind the pose, use your left arm to bridge the gap; holding the right foot with the left hand, grasp the left forearm with the right hand. If you are catching your left arm instead of your right foot, do not bend forward. Just sit up straight and breathe. Eventually, as you become more open, you may be able to bind and then begin to bend forward.
If you can bind, turn back to face forward again and take hold of the outside of the left foot with the left hand. Inhale and look up. You may hold the posture here—or, if you are more flexible, exhale and bend forward, drawing the torso out over the left leg and directing your gaze toward your toes. Whichever position you choose, keep the left quadriceps muscles engaged and the left kneecap pointing straight up toward the ceiling; to accomplish this last action, you'll need to engage the muscles that internally rotate the leg. After five to 10 breaths, release the pose, return to Dandasana, and then repeat the pose on the other side.
True Ahimsa(Figure 5)
As you come into Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, the final pose in our sequence, focus again on maximizing reverence and minimizing violence. Stand in Tadasana. As you inhale, bend your right knee, grasp your shin, and bring it up to the level of the hips, pulling the heel into the belly as you did in the two previous poses. As you exhale, reach your right arm around behind you and grasp your right foot. If you're close to binding, you may find that bending your left knee and squatting down a bit can give you the movement you need to reach the foot.
As in Ardha Baddha Paschimottanasana, observe the "No bending without binding" rule. If you can't catch the right foot with the right hand, continue to practice the upright variation. If you practice it patiently, you will eventually be able to bind and begin to bend forward.
Once you can bind, straighten the left leg completely. Then inhale again and, on an exhalation, bend forward, placing the left palm on the floor alongside the left foot; ideally, the left fingertips will be in line with the tips of the left toes. See if you can move your chin to your shin without overrounding your back or straining your neck. Take five to 10 breaths here. Then inhale, look up, and exhale in this position.
On your next inhalation, push firmly into your left foot and lift your torso back to an upright position. This movement can be challenging, and you may at first find that bending the knee of the standing leg just a bit may help you ascend. Once you're standing upright, exhale and release your right foot back down to the floor. Take a full breath cycle in Tadasana. Then move into the pose on the second side.
What I find so extraordinary about the eight-limbed methodology of yoga is the way it moves us, slowly and steadily, from the gross to the subtle. As we work with the "outer limbs" (the more basic practices, like asana), yoga quietly prepares us for the more subtle work of the "inner limbs," like dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation).
As we experience on the physical plane what violence feels like—when we become angry at our lack of progress and force a posture, creating pain or even injury—it's as though we have cracked a code that allows us to decipher even more subtle ways in which we are violent in our everyday actions and thoughts. Our asana practice can provide a key to moving past our illusions about ahimsa and developing a true understanding of how to work in this world to maximize reverence and end suffering.
1. Janu Sirsasana
Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Inhale, bringing your right foot to your inner left thigh. As you exhale, contract your left quadriceps, twist to center your torso over your left leg, and grasp the left foot with both hands. Inhale again, looking up, extending your spine, and lifting your chest. Then exhale, folding forward from the hips; bend your elbows and use your arms to lengthen over the extended leg. If your abdomen and chest press into your thigh, take your chin to your shin. If you can’t fold so deeply, don’t round your back to bring your chin down; instead, just draw the head and spine forward. Hold for at least 5 breaths, release the pose, and repeat on the other side.
2. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana Variation
Begin on your hands and knees. Bring your right knee forward to the floor at your right hand, and your right heel to the floor in front of your left hip. Keep your hips as level and as squared to the front as possible, and keep the left kneecap pointing straight down. Maintaining these alignments, stretch through your left leg, sliding it back and lowering the groin toward the floor. To keep the stretch at a manageable intensity, you may place some of your weight on your hands. Continue to release and relax as you hold this posture for up to 30 breaths.
3.Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana Variation
Stand with your feet together. As you inhale, draw the right knee up and slightly out to the side, grasping the ankle or shin with both hands. Make sure you contract the standing-leg quadriceps to lift the kneecap. As you exhale,
pull the right heel toward the lower left quadrant of your abdomen. Rather
than pointing the knee out to the side and down, work to point it forward and up. Use your arm strength to lift the right leg. Take 5 breaths, then release the foot to the floor and repeat the pose on the other side.
4. Ardha Baddha Paschimottanasana
Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend the right knee, grasp the right shin or ankle, and draw the right foot in toward the lower left abdomen. Place the ankle as high on the left thigh as you can; hold it in place with the left hand. On an exhalation, reach your right arm behind your back to grasp the top of your right foot and reach your left hand forward to grasp the outer left foot. If you can’t reach your right foot with your right hand, keep the left hand on the right foot and grasp your left forearm with your right hand. Take 5 breaths. Release and repeat on the other side.
5. Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana
Stand with your feet together. As you inhale, lift your right leg as you did in Figure 3, taking hold of the shin or ankle with both hands and drawing the right foot up to the level of your left hipbone. Pull the right heel in toward the belly with the left hand, place the ankle on the upper thigh, and reach your right hand behind you to grasp your right foot. As you inhale again, lift the left arm overhead; as you exhale, bend forward. If possible, place the left palm on the floor, fingertips in line with the tips of your toes. Without forcing, draw your chin toward your shin. Take 5 to 10 breaths. To come out of the pose, inhale while looking up and lifting your chest. Exhale here. Then, as you inhale, press firmly down through your standing leg and draw your torso back up to vertical. (Bending the standing leg a bit can make this easier.) Release the lifted leg to the floor, then repeat on the other side.