Whether you are new to yoga, or a long-time practitioner, you will inevitably come across the word ‘Ahimsa.’ Ahimsa, Sanskrit for non-violence, is probably one of the most recognized Sanskrit words in yoga not related to a pose. Ahimsa is also the first of the Yamas. The Yamas are yogic rules for ethical living and proper conduct put forth by the Sage Patanjali sometime in the last 2500 years.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll present all of the Yamas; Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. Let’s continue with Ahimsa, meaning ‘do no harm.’
At first glance, the precept of ‘non-harming’ or ‘do no harm’ seems like the easiest of all guidelines to follow. I wouldn’t call them commandments, and lucky for us, there is no yoga hell to contend with (other than having to hold chaturanga or chair pose for more than a minute). Most of modern culture in the west, teaches us not to kill, hurt, or maim other people. Ahimsa, however, is so much more than refraining from physically hurting living things. We should seek to bind Ahimsa to our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Before undertaking this endeavor, let’s seek to understand the purpose of adhering to the Yamas. Again, there is no Yoga heaven or hell. So, why should we bother? According to the Sage Patanjali, the whole point of the Yoga Sutras is to obtain peace or equanimity (in a nutshell). Part of this journey takes place by practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Yamas are the first rung in the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
So, how do we benefit by restraining ourselves from harming others. The Sage Patanjali tells us that when we practice Ahimsa, all hostilities cease. Practitioners of non-violence, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., have led by this example. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that “We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built. ” So by practicing non-violence, we can help establish peace in the world around us. I know that sounds a bit pollyannish, but we can begin by thinking small. What if we treat our inner circle of family members and friends with non-violence. What if we remove hurtful words from our conversations or stop vindictive behaviors. Think of how these changes may spread.
Non-violence should be practiced within our own minds as well. How many times have we called ourselves ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ for merely making a mistake? How we treat ourselves, ultimately, is how we treat those around us. Our exercise in Ahimsa should begin with ourselves. First, attempt to become aware of the times in which your inner voice to yourself is condescending, abusive, or critical. Do not be angry with yourself. Simply recognize when it happens. Once you realize it and stop it in the process, acquire some techniques that you can use to redirect that attention. You can sing a song, repeat a loving mantra, or simply take a deep breath. Eventually, once you’ve begun to perfect that practice with your thoughts towards yourself, you can start to apply it when you feel the compulsion to harm others.
All of this is much easier said than done. However, by perfecting loving-kindness towards ourselves, we can begin to extend it outward and make a peaceful world around us an attainable goal.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Dreams of Brighter Tomorrows,” Ebony Magazine, March 1965.
Frank de la Cruz, E-RYT 200, YACEP is a Yoga teacher and writer who lives in Central Florida. Frank began his Yoga journey in 2011 and strongly believes that Yoga is for everyBODY.