This is part one of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
Ahimsa, the first of the 10 Yamas and Niyamas in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, means ‘no harm’ and speaks to leading a life that doesn’t hurt other living beings, or oneself. Patanjali was very clear that ahimsa is the cornerstone of yoga. Without adhering to ahimsa, all the other limbs will never bear fruit.
It is a message echoed in the great spiritual texts and in every religion—that humanity should denounce violence—and, for most of us, this message seems obvious. “Violent? Me? No way,” we proclaim, and we check the ahimsa box and move right along to satya.
But harm can come in many forms. We happily declare ahimsa while we swat at a mosquito, harm the planet by not recycling, or hurt ourselves by working long hours and not taking care of our health.
Mahatma Gandhi was the father of ahimsa. For him it went beyond actions. “Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word, or deed,” he said.
Our harmful thoughts can be subtle; sometimes we may even mistake them for love. In her book, The Yamas & Niyamas, Deborah Adele describes « worrying about others » as a form of violence—saying that by trying to fix others we take away their power to help themselves. Instead, it would be more loving to support them and encourage them.
When we lead our lives according to ahimsa, we find the courage to look at why we, in our collective human experience, seek to cause harm. Why do people hurt others? Why did our partner say unkind words to us? Why are we envious of our friend?
What we often uncover at the very foundation of harmful actions, words, or thoughts is fear. Why do people hurt others? Because they are afraid of being hurt. Why do people kill others? Because they see them as a threat to their own security. Why do we worry about our children? Because we are terrified of losing them.
This is a wonderful realization, as we can reduce all the violence and craziness we perceive in the world down to fear, at its core. And how would our courageous best selves respond to one who is scared? Surely with love. Surely with compassion.
Those who believe ahimsa to be weak are truly mistaken. Pacifists are activists. You cannot help but stand up and take compassionate action once you have seen the suffering that fear causes.
But this is not how our society works. We are taught that people must be punished for hurting others or they will do it again. If we do not act, then we are weak; we are allowing people to take advantage of us. We apply this same philosophy to ourselves—we feel guilty for having unkind thoughts, or we deny when we are angry or afraid. We have created a society that punishes itself under the pretense of control and order. How the world would change if—instead of judging—we gave love to those in fear, including ourselves.
Those who believe ahimsa to be weak are truly mistaken. Pacifists are activists. You cannot help but stand up and take compassionate action once you have seen the suffering that fear causes. One need only look to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa to see the great change that a peaceful approach can bring to the world.
These warriors of ahimsa teach us that conflict is inevitable in our human experience, but we can bring love to those conflicts and thereby change them. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu asks us that if we must enter a battle of any kind, to do so with great compassion and sorrow, « as if attending a funeral. » This is the way of ahimsa. It is having a strong back and a soft heart.
It can seem a daunting challenge by Patanjali—that we must master ahimsa before we can hope to succeed at yoga—but Gandhi says it is not elusive to us. Ahimsa, he said, is “the attribute of our soul.” That means it is our very nature. Ahimsa goes beyond all its translations, said Gandhi, for it is—quite simply—love.
4 Ways to Put Ahimsa Into Practice
The Yamas and Niyamas are part of the eight-fold path of yoga. To ponder upon ahimsa without putting it into practice would be like reading about asanas without ever stepping onto the mat.
So how can we practice ahimsa in our daily life?
Speak lovingly and kindly to yourself. Ask yourself throughout the day–how may I be more loving to myself right now? Removing the word “should” from your vocabulary is a great start.
Sitting with someone in their suffering, with an open heart and judgment-free mind—this is compassion. Go on a criticism fast. Give to a stranger. Call a friend you know needs someone to listen without advising. If you notice judgmental thoughts, let them go with a smile.
3. Love Nature
Change your interaction with nature. Perhaps you’ll ride a bicycle instead of driving. Perhaps you’ll start to compost your food scraps. Perhaps you’ll opt for eggs from cage-free hens? Or try out being vegan for a week? We can’t do everything, and indeed we don’t have to, but never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness. Mother Nature will be thankful.
4. On the Mat
Our yoga practice allows us ample opportunity to practice ahimsa. Sometimes it’s obvious we’re being cruel when we chastise ourselves for not being able to balance on one leg. Other times it’s so subtle we don’t even notice. Perhaps we’re thinking how ugly our toes look when we’re hanging in a forward bend or rolling our eyes at our love handles in a side bend. Other times we’re mad ourselves for our chattering mind in savasana. But if you want to practice love to all, you can start right here by being kind to yourself. Settle into your Virabhadrasana II and see if you can become a warrior of love.
Join us next week as we explore the second Yama, satya: truthfulness.
Photo by Ali Kaukus
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom, and Wellness channels on wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.