Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our beingMahatma Gandhi
The first of the five Yamas, ahimsa is the concept of non-violence or non-harming. This is one of the most important principles for every individual on the spiritual path.
You might be thinking ‘I am definitely not a violent person and I would never intentionally harm anyone, so I must be living by this Yama‘, but the concept behind the ahimsa definition goes far beyond this.
The violence may not necessarily be apparent and it can be much more of an internal process than you might first think. Just because we aren’t using physical violence toward others, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are following ahimsa.
There are ways in which we can harm both others and ourselves without realizing it. Ahimsa is not just a Yama, it truly is a way of life.
We’ll be taking a look at:
- What Is Ahimsa?
- The Art Of Ahimsa Yoga
- Living By Ahimsa
What is Ahimsa?
Let’s recap the ahimsa definition – ahimsā: a – non, himsa – harm or injury. Quite literally, then, this can be taken to mean non-harming or the absence of injury, applied to all living beings.
So we have our basic understanding of ahimsa. This is a great place to start, but this doesn’t really give a full idea of what the Yama is all about.
It’s so much more than just refraining from harming anything or anyone, it’s about unconditional love and unrestrained compassion.
It’s about transforming negativity through the power of love. It’s a firmly held belief that all living beings have the right to live unharmed, free, and respected.
So you can see, ahimsa is not just about the people we already love and care about, it’s about people we don’t know and have never met, people we have met and don’t like, sentient beings that we might not even know existed, and that other person that you often overlook.
Ahimsa urges us to stand in unity with one another as if we are all one – because we are.
Your non-suffering is my non-suffering. Your peace is my peace.
‘But I can’t live perfectly all the time!’
This does not mean that we should all be living a perfect life with impeccable morals, because this just isn’t realistic. Unless we lived outside of normal society, it would be very hard to live in absolute ahimsa.
Just by being a person that needs to work, earn money, eat, drink, travel, and generally function in the world, it’s highly likely we are going to harm something in the process of all of this – whether intentionally or not.
This is why it’s best to think of ahimsa as a spectrum:
- At the bottom end of the spectrum, you can put outright immoral acts that, hopefully, the majority of people would agree are harmful and wrong. E.g. murder or assault.
- Ahimsa sits in the middle, this is simply non-harming. Living a life where maybe you don’t gossip about others, you avoid lying, and you smile at strangers.
- At the top end is this unrestrained love and compassion for all of humanity. This could be called perfect love or love in action.
You might think of Gandhi as a good example of this, someone who actively tried to live by the principle of ahimsa.
Simply avoiding violence isn’t the goal of ahimsa – it’s not enough to praise ourselves for the things we aren’t doing. It is an active effort to try to show unconditional love, compassion, and respect for all things. And it takes effort and practice!
Nonviolence does not just occur automatically. It is the highest quality of the heart and is only acquired by practiceMahatma Gandhi
We all do things that are closer to the bottom end of the spectrum. This might be the things we do, the things we say, or the things we think – whether it’s directed at ourselves or others. This is simply because of how our brains have been wired and our thoughts conditioned.
We might get frustrated at someone at work, get drawn into an argument, say something negative about someone, hate someone’s outfit choice, or forget our best friend’s birthday. We’re human!
You might want to start by trying to first reflect on your speech, thoughts, and actions towards both yourself and others. As Gandhi has attested, it takes practice and no one is expecting you to do it perfectly.
By taking this step towards ahimsa, you can begin to see where you have attachments to pain or fear. Attachments that are standing in the way of love.
The Art Of Ahimsa Yoga: Applying It to Your Practice
1. Respect Your Body
Are you harming yourself by pushing your body into asanas that don’t feel good?
We’ve all been there, getting frustrated because your paschimottanasana doesn’t feel as deep as it did last time you practiced it or you can’t seem to balance in your ardha chandrasana.
Learn to love and accept where you are at. Ahimsa is a way to meet your body on the mat because your self-worth is not defined by whether you can do a certain pose to its ‘full’ expression.
Or, you might be doing the opposite. You could feel overly sluggish and not want to shake the lethargic energy off. Neglecting your practice might be a way of neglecting your health, and choosing not to prioritize your body and mind.
This can harm your wellbeing too, and being challenged is how we grow (and part of the fun of asana practice).
2. Respect Your Mind
If there is one thing that I have learned through meditation and yoga, it’s that you are not your thoughts.
Getting frustrated at your racing and chattering mind in savasana or meditation is not exactly non-violence. Let go of the need to control your mind and just allow it to be, resting in the knowledge that thoughts will come and go. You are simply their observer.
3. Quit Comparing!
This one might particularly ring true if you go to an in-person yoga class. It could be a familiar feeling – suddenly feeling like you’re the ‘worst’ in the class or that everyone else is ‘better’ than you at yoga.
In reality, we know that the level of someone’s yoga practice can not be deduced alone by how ‘advanced’ their asana practice is. They might be really great Parsva Bakasana, but struggling with constant self-criticism.
They might practice 108 sun salutations without breaking a sweat, but gossip about others all day long. Or they might have been practicing asana every day for 10 years. Anyway, you get the picture.
You are on your own journey!
Living By Ahimsa
1. Self Talk
I think we are all too familiar with the negative self talk that we give ourselves, words that we would probably never dream of speaking to our friends and loved ones.
By applying ahimsa to our thoughts about ourselves, we will reflect and radiate the peace that we seek to promote. It starts with us!
Throughout the day, check in with how you could be kinder to yourself or show yourself more love and compassion. You might want to replace any negative sentiments with positive affirmations.
2. Resistance & Promoting Peace
As we’ve already looked at, ahimsa isn’t just about avoiding doing harmful things, it’s about actively standing up for what’s right and for the greater good of humanity.
Ahimsa has been applied to huge campaigns of social justice across the globe, such as the civil disobedience campaign in India against colonial rule and the civil rights movement in America.
Gandhi termed this resistance ‘satyagraha‘, which means holding firmly to or standing by the truth. He famously said: “truth is my religion and ahimsa is the only way of its realization.” Martin Luther King also wrote about how Gandhi was a ‘guiding light’ for him.
You don’t have to start as big as this, start to think about how you can promote more peace, love, and kindness in your neighborhood, family, community, or country.
This is one that’s regularly talked about when it comes to ahimsa, and yet not all yogis agree on this topic.
I have certainly had teachers and mentors that have spoken about the importance of a plant-based and vegetarian diet, whilst others have believed this isn’t necessary to be a true yogi. That’s up to you to decide!
It could just mean being more ethical about where your produce comes from, or it could mean cutting out animal products altogether.
As well as this, our organs work really hard supporting and detoxifying our body all day long, so the least we could do is help it out a little! You could try thinking about including more natural, fresh, home-cooked, or organic food in your diet.
4. Your Impact On The World
I like to think that, with everything, we should all try to leave things a little better off than when we found them. I apply this to the planet, too.
This could mean something different to everyone; from recycling, using a bike instead of a car, and voting in elections, all the way to supporting local businesses, volunteering for a charity, and ‘paying it forward‘.
I personally love this quote from Nelson Mandela when it comes to applying ahimsa to our lives.
People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.Nelson Mandela
At the heart of ahimsa is love. If we can not strive for unconditional love just yet, then let us strive to find kindness over hate, joy over misery, and hope over despair. This is the essence of non-violence.
You can learn more about the yamas and niyamas in our other articles.