Teaching a yoga style heavily influenced by martial arts is a complicated task and often one that requires long hours of philosophical debate with critics and supporters alike. Many practitioners cling strongly to the argument that a Yogi when faced with aggression should surrender themselves to non-violence at all costs. At first glance this position is reasonable and in line with yogic principles of ahimsa (non-violence) found in the Upanishads, the philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu Yogic tradition. And if this were the one and only yogic source regarding the subject of violence the discussion might end there; this, however, is not the case.
Enter the Bagavagita, a 700 verse Hindu scripture considered one of the most influential yogic texts. The context of the Gita is a conversation taking place in the middle of a battlefield between Krishna (God) and the prince Arjuna before the start of the Kurukshetra War with armies on both sides ready to battle. Responding to Arjuna's confusion and moral dilemma about fighting his own cousins who command a tyrannical force within a disputed empire, Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a warrior: “The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind... You will go to heaven if killed, or you will enjoy the earth if victorious. Therefore, get up with a determination to fight, O Arjuna.”
The understanding of these statements made by Lord Krishna can only be comprehended if one learns that there are two main types of ahimsa in the Yoga tradition. The first is ahimsa as a spiritual principle of complete non-violence, followed by yogis, monks and sadhus. The second is ahimsa of a warrior or the Kshatriyas. That ahimsa is followed by those who govern and protect society, which allows the use of violence to counter evil forces, including the protection of spiritual, innocent and defenseless peoples. Even our beloved Gandhi, had this to say: Taking life may be a duty. Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man goes furiously about sword in hand, and killing everyone that comes his way, and no one dare to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man.
Gandhi learned that being a true yogi was not gross ignorance in regard to one's ability to protect one's loved ones and community but rather to know when that time has arrived and be resolute in one's duties. To learn to ethically judge between the two types of ahimsa and to show up in the defense of the defenseless is the duty of all Yogis. Therefore, it is not the renunciation of violence, but rather the ethical application of it that defines one's yoga.