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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Spence

Teaching ahimsa and karuṇā: Yoga's Blueprint for Empathy


There is no better time to create an empathetically enhanced world through the practice of yoga. The place to start is with today’s generation of children. In so doing, we must teach our children how to develop a peaceful mind. But where best can we begin?




Today’s educational model is outdated for the need to address the envisioned change. To enhance the educational model, we could teach yoga as secular ethics. Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, empathy, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from belief in supernatural revelation or guidance which is the source of ethics in many religions (Wikipedia 2007). Additionally, we should also include emotional intelligence, altruism, mutual respect, reason: how to analyze things through investigation (making every effort with full confidence) and give explanation of our minds. Cultural heritage would need to be addressed in this new model. Specifically, each cultural heritage may need a different explanation on how to develop a peaceful mind.

Furthermore, this new model must include ahimsa (non-violence) and karuṇā (compassion) and teach future generations about a peaceful mind and mental health. While it wouldn’t be easy, one thing is certain; to achieve the level of empathy necessary to change the world, we must start with education. The time for this new model is now.



With the current escalation in violence in the United States, now is the time to teach children about the emotions that destroy our peace of mind; anger, fear, and selfishness/ego.

This paper dives further into two concepts of yoga: ahimsa and karuṇā. If we remove the broad adoption barriers such as prayer and references to common religion from yoga, the message of love/empathy (which is contained in all religious traditions) would be the catalyst necessary in achieving an empathetically enhanced world (allowing all seven billion of us on Mother Earth to live better together). We can learn to respect all life, reducing anger, fear, and selfishness.

By using hermeneutic analysis, I took my initial idea of how to teach children to develop a peaceful mind and searched through the ancient yoga text, the Bhagavad-Gita, for insights into my thesis. I gathered information in books and online from different religions, ancient yoga texts, and my personal modern yoga practice. I sorted through numerous books in my personal library, some of which were required through my university as part of my pursuit of my Master’s in Yoga Studies. I selected numerous sources, which I site, to support my thesis. I read and analyzed the text through my cis gendered, Caucasian, Buddhist, feminist post-modern self-identifying champion of the ancient science of this tool of transcendence, the yoga of my understanding.

I would like to acknowledge the ancient texts that I used were not only translated by different people, but the commentaries were also unique to the time and place of its commentators. Although the critical thinking and commentary that I present is nuanced by my over forty years of practicing yoga, it is my personal views and opinions that have helped me identify and refine my opinions. My views and opinions are also shaped by the neoliberal and capitalist western modern yoga that exists here in the United States. This has all helped me develop my ideas about issues of social justice, which is ultimately the focus of this paper, but I understand that I may have biases. I applied the filters of living in this time and in this place. This has all helped me develop my ideas about issues of social justice, freedom from suffering, and co-existing in a peaceful world which contributes to the underlying themes of this paper. It goes without saying that rectification, comments, criticism, current research or relevant data, and any useful information that someone reading this thesis may be able to contribute will be gratefully received.

What if we could help children identify certain emotions that give us a distinctive flavor of self-love? Many children today are so desensitized to violence and anger that they are developing an unconscious growing sense of division among people. Self-love could perhaps then be reconciled (through the teachings of yoga) with love for humanity, and love for the earth, a more holistic experience of love.

In addition to teaching children how to identify, and honor, all of their feelings, we need to direct them into healthier alternatives. Nourishing their emotional landscapes with a broader spectrum of emotions that shift them beyond the self, into a state of interconnectedness. Awe has been identified as an emotional state (along with inspiration, gratitude, and compassion) which transcends the self.

What if we could teach children to actively seek out and celebrate emotional experiences that move beyond a fixation with self to reinforce our connectedness to other human beings, and the wider planet? As we face far-reaching environmental and humanitarian challenges, self-transcendence will be more necessary and significant than ever before. Emotions, long seen by some as irrational or inconsequential, actually lead to tangible behaviors because they could also positively propel decisions and actions.

Self-transcendence is the final, and often forgotten, peak of Maslow’s pyramid (Courtney E. Ackerman 2021). When psychologist Abraham Maslow created what he called the hierarchy of needs, it is meant to represent the various needs and desires that make up and motivate the totality of human behavior. As we would teach children yoga, through something as simple as a system like Maslow’s (that is usually taught in traditional public schools anyway), we would teach yoga as a part of this pyramid. This, of course, would also come under the umbrella of having the most basic of human needs met, which belong in the realm of human rights. There is a genuine degree of personal authenticity and purpose for someone that is able to achieve their greatest potential through self-actualization. We all deserve this, and I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our children and generations to come have an opportunity to learn how this is possible. Teaching the foundations of yoga to our children is the answer.

The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (YS) constitute the foundations of yoga. This, along with teachings from the Bhagavad-Gita and others, could be secularized so that mainstream fears could be alleviated that somehow yoga is a religion. But, for the purposes of this paper, I will identify a couple of specific moral values and/or abstinences from the YS which will offer guidance both on and off the yoga mat.

Bhavani Silva Maki, yoga teacher and author, espouses a wholistic view of wellbeing.

The natural state of living in spiritual balance is called Dharma, and comes from the root dhar, meaning “to support, to hold”. Dharma is the principle that there are basic fundamental standards requisite in maintaining human life in harmony with nature. Not only do the dharmik codes support an environment conducive to our personal wellbeing, they are also our responsibility to uphold in order to support a general atmosphere of human happiness, social harmony, and the highest good for all. (Maki 2013)

Maki goes on to say that,

Dharma is not only our responsibility and duty, but also our right, and privilege. (Maki 2013)


The tenets of dharma, according to Patañjali, are the yama and niyama. The first limb of yoga, according to Patañjali, is made up of the yamas. The teachings illustrate a very important principle: if you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. Ahimsa, often thought of as the most important yama, means ‘Non-violence’ or ‘non-harming’. (‘himsa’ = ‘hurt’ and ‘a’ = ‘not’). In this sense, we are talking about non-violence in all aspects of life. If we could teach children that when we act with ahimsa in mind, this means not physically harming others, ourselves or nature; and making sure what we do (and how we do it) is done in harmony, rather than harm. If children could leave behind (tyāghaḥ) anger and violence they would not only have a peaceful mind, but a peaceful daily experience. Sutra II:35 of the YS is ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyaṁ tat-sannidhau vairatyāghaḥ ॥35॥

When in the presence of one established in nonviolence, there is the abandonment of hostility. (Chapple 2008)


And according to Hariharānanda Āraṇya, Sutra II:35 also means that

As the Yogin becomes established in non-injury, all beings coming near him cease to be hostile. (Aranya 2017)

Therefore, inwardly and outwardly, the life of yogis (and those around them) would be more peaceful.

The idea of living in harmony need not seem like some kind of “spiritual dogma” that has come from a religion that seems out of sync with the understanding or sensibilities of people that have never studied religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and/or Jainism. Most religions of the world believe in harmony, treating others as we would treat ourselves, and love as basic tenets of right-living, so this could be taught more as a code of right conduct. This all-encompassing teaching of ahimsa brings to light that anger and even negative thoughts bring pain, to self and others.

According to Nicolai Bachman, author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga,

When we harm others, we harm ourselves, and vice versa. (Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga 2011)

Bachman goes on to add that,

A quiet heart-mind calms, whereas an agitated one disrupts. Whenever we direct thoughts toward other people, they receive the energy of those thoughts. On the other hand, thoughts of unconditional love and support will uplift another person. Being considerate by performing acts of kindness stimulates friendship and goodwill among people. (Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga 2011, 144)


Children need to understand that,

Each person has the potential to be kind or be mean. Practicing ahimsa can strengthen our kindness and weaken our meanness. All sensory information, especially sights and sounds, will influence our heart-mind and create impressions on it. Every time we have an experience, we are colored by it. Therefore, if we want to cultivate nonviolence, we can consciously choose to reduce experiences that expose us to violence… and replace them with positive input that has the character of kindness and compassion. (Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga 2011, 145)


Growing up in an extremely abusive household I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of violence. When my parents would use corporal punishment, rage, and argue, the energy surrounding them would permeate every part of our house. I could see that they were not only harming me and my brothers but harming themselves as much as each other. I tried to protect myself, but the psychological effects were profound. I was fearful most of my childhood. I could have benefitted from being taught about the concept of ahimsa.

In a recent workshop I attended chaired by Reverend James Lawson, he shared that Mahatma Gandhi, the father of non-violence, translated the Jain word ahimsa in a positive way. Ahimsa had been translated by many at the time to be do no harm, but Gandhi thought that the non in nonviolence had to be translated in a way that meant that we practice love as the energy that shapes our behavior, even in conflicted situations. This supports the idea that in order to use yoga as a tool for transformation we must act; ahimsa does not mean passivism. Reverend Lawson also shared that ahimsa is the single passageway to experiencing the fullness of life. And to love another as we love ourselves. I believe we owe that promise, to experience the fullness of life, to our children and future generations to come.

Dr. Christopher Chapple, yoga scholar and professor, shared his commentary on Yoga Sutra II:35 which further supports Reverend James Lawson’s point of view:

When in the presence of one established in nonviolence, there is the abandonment of hostility. (Chapple 2008)


When I was the CEO and editor of my wellness magazine, I had the great honor to be in the presence of H.H. The Dalai Lama. I had heard stories prior to our meeting of people who would hear him speak and would remain calm and peaceful for days afterwards. Not only can I confirm that I, too, had this same experience after being with him but I also have this experience after being in a group yoga class. As the old saying goes, you are who you surround yourself with.

Another Sanskrit concept, karuṇā, is generally translated as compassion and self-compassion. Karuṇā signals the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. ‘Compassion’ is composed of com (‘together with’) and passion (‘to suffer’) but we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors have been trained to do this. We could also teach others how to do that too.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world[1]. Compassion contains deep concern. One compassionate word, action or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring them joy. One word can give comfort or confidence. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle. We need to be aware of the suffering, but we also must retain our clarity, calmness, and strength. We can help transform situations that effect our children. Karuṇā could be a cornerstone of their existence and is applicable in daily life.

There are also clear teachings of Karuṇā in the Yoga Sutras, including Yogasūtra

I:33: maitrī-karuṇā-muditā-upekṣāṇāṁ sukha-duḥkha-puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ-citta-prasādanam ॥33॥

Dr. Kausthub Desikachar, a yoga scholar, translates and comments I:33 in the following way:


In daily life, we see around us those who are happier than we are and those who are less happy. Some may be doing things worthy of praise, while others engaged in ignoble deeds. Whatever our usual attitudes towards such people and their actions (Desikachar 2020)


Desikachar further comments:

If we can be happy for those who are happier than ourselves, compassionate towards those who are not as happy, appreciative towards those whose actions are praiseworthy and non-judgmental towards those who commit sins, our minds will remain tranquil. (Desikachar 2020)


This is an important sutra for creating a more grace-filled life. The cultivation of feelings of friendliness and compassion would be extended to all who have ever crossed the path of our life. Imagine what a world like this would be like? There are instances where a person may not delight and be happy over the fortunes of their friend. They might even pretend to be happy for them, but if things are not going well in their day or life, it could be challenging for anyone to align true feelings with delight. This would reflect a mind where division and separation exist. This leads to suffering.

This sutra would be taught to apply to someone we may not call a friend, and/or perhaps have been taught is an “enemy.” If this “enemy” experiences misfortune and we delight in their suffering on a subconscious level, we can create more turbulence rather than serenity of mind. Ease of mind refers to that which does not disturb the vṛttis, or mind waves, either on a conscious or subconscious level.

Rama Jyoti Vernon, author of a book titled Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment, shared:

As Swami Hariharānanda Āraṇya says in his commentaries, ‘To overlook the lapses in others is indifference. It is not positive thinking or denial but is restraining the mind from dwelling on the frailties of others.’ This is so important considering a common theme throughout the Sutras is that if we dwell on the defects of others, we take on those defects. (Vernon 2017)

The author goes on to say that,

As the Swami continues his commentaries, he writes, ‘Feelings of envy, cruel delight, malevolence or anger disturb the mind and prevent its attaining concentration. By cultivating the opposite feelings, the mind can be kept pleasant and happy, free from any disturbing element, then it can become one-pointed and tranquil. (Vernon 2017)


Thinking back to my childhood as it relates to this commentary, I remember struggling with concentration. Taking tests were difficult because I could not focus for long periods of time. Practicing yoga has helped me, as it would children, learn how to calm my mind and remain tranquil even in situations to require long periods of concentration. Instead of rushing through tasks, I’ve learned how to remain undisturbed and tranquil so that I can slowly, and effectively, accomplish more in a joyful way.

Ahimsa and Karuṇā, taught together, could bring about a global shift of empathy. Patañjali gives specifics to what we now call positive thinking but is essentially honoring our emotions and senses.

The practice of Yoga seems to make our conscience more sensitive. This is what the commentaries of Vyāsa refer to in Sutra II:15 when he says, ‘To the yogin who is as sensitive as an eyeball, the world is painful.’ The analogy of the cobweb is used, when it is brushed on the less sensitive skin of the forearm, we will not feel it. But if we brush it across the ball of the eye, it is painful. As our conscience becomes more developed through our practices, we will instantly feel the effects. (Vernon, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment Chapter Two 2018)


Vernon further states that:


Through the practice of ahimsa, we can learn to walk softly upon the earth, and speak softly from our heart. The commentary that alludes to the Yogin, who is as sensitive as an eyeball, also means that as our sensitivity grows through our practices, we are no longer just absorbed in our personal pain, but we then feel the pain of others. Once we face our own tears, we can see and feel the tears of others. (Vernon, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment Chapter Two 2018)


This leads to Karuṇā, and growing compassion leads us back to Ahimsa; and together they create a more peaceful heart and mind.



Human rights must include access to yoga and other wholistic solutions, including health literacy. The definition of health literacy was updated in August, 2020 with the release of the U.S. government’s Healthy People 2030 initiative (Prevention 2020). The update addresses personal (and organizational) health literacy, which could be supportive of policy changes which would enable this to become a reality. The new definition outlines that people should have an ability to use health information, rather than just understand it. If we, through this initiative, are able to make “well-informed” decisions don’t we have a responsibility to provide our children and future generations new tools to develop their body, minds, and emotional life in a healthy way? I believe so. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Businesses, educators, community leaders, government agencies, health insurers, healthcare providers, the media, and many other organizations and individuals all have a part to play in improving health literacy in our society. (Prevention 2020)


The yoga community exists as community leaders (and educators) and together, with the others identified, we could be a part of a positive radical shift in the future of the United States. We could then take these teachings to a global governing body, like the United Nations and/or The World Health Organization and work together for the common good of all nations, people, beings, and the planet.

As yoga teachers, we can teach children how to identify their internal world, to investigate their mind and emotions. The could radically change how, as a society, we interact with each other and the world and we could call into existence a new future where citta-bhavana (the development or cultivation of the heart/mind) and metta-bhavana (the development/cultivation of lovingkindness) is normalized and offers transcendence.

Transcendence, the very highest and most inclusive of holistic levels of human consciousness, would be possible for anyone and everyone. The ways and means of achieving this through yoga, could be tailored to young minds. This will revolutionize behavior. We as a species can learn to relate to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos in an empathic way.



Bibliography

Aranya, Hariharananda. 2017. Yoga Sutra Study. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://yogasutrastudy.info/yoga-sutra-translations/ysp-sutras2-21-2-40/.

Bachman, Nicolai. 2011. "The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga." In The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga, by Nicolai Bachman, 143. Colorado: Sounds True, Inc.

Bachman, Nicolai. 2011. "The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga." In The Path of the Yoga Sutras: a practical guide to the core of yoga, by Nicolai Bachman, 143. Colorado: Sounds True, Inc.

Chapple, Christopher Kay. 2008. "Yoga and the Luminous; Patañjali’s Spiritual Path To Freedom." In Chapple, Christopher Kay, by Christopher Kay Chapple, 175. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Courtney E. Ackerman, MA. 2021. What is Self-Transcendence? Definition and 6 Examples. 02 18. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://positivepsychology.com/self-transcendence/.

Desikachar, Dr. Kausthub. 2020. Viniyoga Singapore. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://www.viniyoga.com.sg/yogasutra/i-33.

Maki, BhVni Silvia. 2013. "The Yogi's Roadmap." In The Yogi's Roadmap, by BhVni Silvia Maki, 134. Hawaii: Viveka Press.

Prevention, CDC and. 2020. Health Literacy in Healthy People 2030. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html.

Vernon, Rama Jyoti. 2017. "Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment Chapter One." In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment Chapter One, by Rama Jyoti Vernon, 99. Oregon: Lighthouse Publishing .

Vernon, Rama Jyoti. 2018. "Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment Chapter Two." In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Gateway to Enlightenment Chapter Two, by Rama Jyoti Vernon, 172. Oregon: Lighthouse Publishing.

Wikipedia. 2007. Secular Ethics. August 1. Accessed April 15, 2021. Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_ethics.




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