Ahimsa means non-violence.
Ahimsa is the very first given yama (YS 2.30) and therefore is of the utmost important.
Gandhi made this simple Sanskrit word famous in his non-violent political activism in India, but the religious tenet of peacefulness is eternally constant and universal.
“Thou Shalt Not Kill.” This is one of the 10 Commandments, but sadly, this rule is rarely observed by the majority of modern Christians. As a college kid in Colorado Springs (a pro-life, pro-military, evangelical town) I had a bumper sticker that said “War is not Pro-Life,” needless to say, wasn’t very popular on the local roads!
A stance of peace is foundational for a yogi. In this light, I encourage you to read this post by Ashtanga teacher Paul Dallaghan.
Ahimsa applies to our actions towards others and to our environment but also to ourselves. While true that in order to perform our dharma, some level of harm is inevitable (even for the most hyper-vigilant, think microbes and bugs), one’s goal as a yogi is to minimize the harmful effects of one’s actions as much as possible.
In Vyaasa’s commentary (the original commentator on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali), ahimsa is explained as the root of all the other yamas. Ahimsa covers the other yamas, and the purpose of these subsequent yamas is to strengthen our commitment to and practice of non-harming.There is no yoga without ahimsa.
According to this, if there is ever a conflict sensed between the yamas, we should always refer to ahimsa first. Think about this in terms of satya – truthfulness – if speaking the truth would cause real harm to another person, then it is best to refrain from such words in order to uphold ahimsa. “If you don’t have something nice to say, better to say nothing at all”…..I’m not the exemplar of this! I’m a bit of a sassy-pants and sometimes I do speak unkind truths….really working on that!
Which brings me to the practicalities of ahimsa. What does it mean to live a life in the world as a non-harming yogi? How does this affect one’s diet, actions, asana practice and lifestyle?
For me, it starts off with being a vegetarian/vegan. Our dietary choices have a major impact on the health of our bodies but also on the health and well-being of the planet and the entire human race. Aside from the awful fact that gazillions of innocent and beautiful animals are being killed so that Americans can eat meat 3x a day, our national meat-consumption leads directly to the world hunger problem. It takes way more resources to raise a single cow for slaughter then it does to grow pounds of nutritious grains.
Eating as cruely-free as possible for you is a simple way to practice non-violence every day.
Another thing I try to be aware of (and I am sooo far from perfect in this regard) is to be extra conscious of my choices as a consumer. Choosing to buy products that are made with sustainable materials and practices with fair-labor laws is a way in which you can minimize the harmful effects of your consumerism. Buying lots of chemical-ridden, sweat-shop made stuff ties you karmically to the unfair and violent labor practices of these business, whether you like it or not.
In terms of asana (I think this is a fairly talked-over point in modern yoga). ahimsa means that we should never inflict harm on our bodies in the pursuit of yoga. Obviously I will admit (I am an Ashtangi after all), there is some pain involved in the learning, growing and healing that occurs through intense tapas. But, I believe that one important job of the practitioner is to learn how to identify the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain” so that unnecessary harm is avoided.
Refraining from speaking unkindly about others is another powerful practice of non-violence and conscientiousness. I feel like in our society we are trained to constantly be judgmental of others and too often, these judgements are about the most trivial and materialistic things! It’s all over the news and the internet everyday. Gossip magazines and websites thrive off of our culture of schadenfreude (and jealousy too, both of course are inextricably linked).
One of the habits that I’ve worked to instill in myself over the past few years is that I’ve stopped looking at gossip magazines and celebrity websites. I try as a practice to avoid making ill-informed judgements of others, such my acquaintances and also people like celebrities or even other yoga teachers (guilty as charged, sometimes I’m the meanest about other yoga teachers! Bad Frances!).
I believe that thinking ill-willed or mean thoughts about other people has a karmic effect of negative energy. As I become more aware of the power of vibration and intention through my yoga practice, I realize how broadly my impacts span and I try diligently (and often I fail) to be extra conscious of my words and thoughts towards others.
Being a practitioner of ahimsa does not mean that you are passive or dis-attached from the world. Gandhi, MLK, Nelson Mandela and so many other inspiring activists have shown the true power of peace.
A practitioner of ahimsa is a conscious consumer, a compassionate eater, a respectful citizen, and a kind and careful person.
I’ve given you just a very few examples of how to practically incorporate the philosophy of non-violence in your daily life. What rings true for you?
How can you orient yourself to the practice of non-harming?