So how do we harmonize martial arts, so focused on violence, and the yoga concept of non-violence − ahimsa? There’s really no problem. A notion of incompatibility likely arises from a misunderstanding of martial arts. Over the years, I’ve pursued these two similar paths of self-enrichment, yoga and karate. There is quite a bit of cross-pollination between these disciplines and I’d like to share that with you.
Of course the world being what it is, there are some impoverished souls who misuse their karate or whatever martial style they follow for personal aggrandizement, attempting to demonstrate their prowess to the detriment of others. But any true martial artist knows that (s)he would do just about anything, including fleeing even in apparent disgrace, to avoid a violent confrontation. The peace-lovingness of the true martial artist is a sentiment often expressed in training. This comes down to the concept that a potential opponent could use any threats, could invade my personal space, could jerk me around, even superficially humiliate me, and I would do everything I can to evade them and their intentions. However, if this opponent crosses the last line in threatening me or someone whom I am protecting, if violence is imminent and absolutely unavoidable, there will be dire consequences. If I would fail I would be destroyed, if he fails he is destroyed. This is an outcome filled with horror, and I hope to God I am never in such a situation. But one must be prepared, the world being what it is. In a way I wish there was no need for karate; if we were gods residing on Olympus, one presumes there would be no need for karate or yoga; but the world is what it is.
Would I feel justified in trying to destroy another person? It’s a tough question! Rory Miller in Meditations on Violence warns that the psychological ramifications of real violence are rarely anticipated. Perhaps in the right circumstance it would be better to sacrifice one’s own safety. On the other hand, there might be a situation in which a person overcome by malicious intent needs to be halted, say in the case of a rape, and it would be even harder to deal with the repercussions of doing nothing.
The origins of yoga and martial arts are quite similar. There is evidence of movement for health in China even before such a thing blossomed in India. There was doubtless communication between what we’ve come to come to know as yoga and the study of physique and movement in China, where one of the earliest types of self-defense, what has been called White Crane kung fu, developed. White Crane kung fu seems to have origins in both a “hard” and a “soft” outlook, and the softness has a lot in common with yoga. The Okinawan martial artists who developed karate often travelled to China to study Shaolin, and were in turn exposed to much of the philosophy which had roots in India. In Japan the samurai, followers of bushido or the Way of the Warrior, cultivated the highest arts. When karate took up residence there, there was even more linkage in the Zen Buddhist concepts such as empty hand, empty mind.
Both pursuits meld the physical and the metaphysical. In yoga we work with the prana, the life force, to master the body; in karate one works with the ki, or ch’i, the life force. The breath is key, of course, in this sort of work. A karate master must know the breath, same as the yogi. Interestingly, yoga masters talk about the nadis, which relate to the meridians in Chinese medicine and philosophy, roughly equivalent. But that’s really beside the point.
I would venture to say that the ultimate aims of both pursuits are similar although possibly not identical. With both practices we are cultivating peace. Now this may confuse people who think that the martial arts are a violent pursuit. And yes, in a sort of narrow way, one might say that karate involves becoming familiar with violence. One can’t train without learning to strike and be struck, for example, and this is violent. However if one accepts that this violence is just part of nature, then one is in accord with nature. There is aggression and defense in nature, and so too, in human nature. The ultimate aim for a karateka, as for a yogi, is peace. Both arts cultivate relaxation in response to stimuli, and both have as their ultimate aim, inner peace.
Yoga and karate are both ways, ways to know ourselves. Both use forms and shapes to achieve peace and calm. Both accept that the world is imperfect, and we are striving, without striving. Both ways accept these paradoxes as the essence of life.
In yoga there are three warrior poses. I pose this question to my yoga students: if yoga is about peace, why are there three poses called warrior one, two and three? A warrior goes into combat; combat is adversity, and we all have plenty of that. Coming closer to the truth of one’s self is the struggle we all face, right? And adversity tries to knock us off center. One might here even invoke some poetic license and bring in some heavy William Shakespeare to say that perhaps yoga invites us “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” All of us have been there, at sea. But if we look at a pose like Virabhadrasana 2, we see the attitude first of all, the brilliant right angles, the firmness, the forward-seeingness.
If I were to choose an atmosphere created by these disciplines, it would be a tough call. The over-competitiveness and defensive mockery in martial arts sometimes turns me off. There’s too much one-upmanship and ball-breaking. On the other hand I find the pseudo wisdom and the everything-is-so-beautiful attitude in the yoga world perhaps even more annoying. I would hope for a balance. One can imagine a compassionate inner light enclosed in tough exterior.
One more thing about ahimsa. I used to crush bugs if they had entered my space. I felt that they’re on a fairly low rung on the evolutionary scale, and it was just a release from a body. I would say “Go further” (Cf. The Merry Pranksters) as I crushed them. A while ago after reading more about the Jains I thought, okay, I’ll give non-killing a go. So I’ve been chasing down bugs and delivering them to the outside. The other day I found a silverfish in a sink and went and got some cardboard, and he was freaking out, but I got him out the window. And it made me feel pretty good. I swear to God the little guy seemed somehow grateful as he skittered away. I wondered as well if it were a kind of a useful analogy. Maybe sometimes when things seem so threatening, the higher forces are actually helping us, just when we think they’re trying to murder us. What an everything-is-beautiful metaphor that is, eh?