The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a revered text written over 2000 years ago. Legend says that Patanjali was a sage that first wrote down the longtime oral tradition of yoga. In this article we take a look at ahimsa, the first of the yamas (ethical guidelines) of the Yoga Sutras, and how you can apply it to your life on and off the yoga mat.
The (Yoga) Sutras are threads that weave our life harmoniously into union. Each one has importance, which is understood by the order in which they appear in the text. The earlier it appears, the more significant. In chapter 2.30-2.34 of the Yoga Sutras we are presented with the yamas and the niyamas translated as the reigns with which to steer life and the inner observances. The Sanskrit can be challenging so let’s learn a trick to help us remember ahimsa.
Many years ago in a yoga teacher training, my friends and I created this pneumonic device: “Ahimsa: Don’t harm him.” I have since easily recalled that ahimsa is a practice of living life nonviolently, and furthermore, summoning peace whenever possible. Ahimsa can be integrated into a conscious yoga practice and life beyond the mat. Let’s allow ahimsa to inspire us all to live with more peace and kindness.
Ahimsa is the first of the yamas and each of the subsequent yamas and niyamas should be filtered through the lens of ahimsa.
To develop this lens we can ask ourselves three questions prior to making decisions: Will the action be violent towards others? Will the action be violent towards the planet? Will the action be violent towards the self? In the following scenario, I confront ahimsa on the yoga mat and apply the three questions.
Imagine I walk into a yoga studio and roll out my mat. I notice that the other practitioners are more advanced than I am. I have been striving to improve my practice. The instructor reminds us to be where we are in our practice and to only do the variations that feel safe to us today. I feel compelled to try some advanced variations. As I pull my foot behind my head, I start to feel pain and my breathing grows shallow.
How to Practice Ahimsa on the Mat
Looking through the lens of ahimsa, I ask myself the three questions:
1. Will getting my foot behind my head be violent toward others?
Attempting this pose might inspire other practitioners to try a pose that they are not ready for, either. I don’t want them to feel pressure to perform and potentially hurt themselves as I nearly have. I decide to let my ego take a bow and to abstain from this pose, for now.
2. Will getting my foot behind my head be violent toward the Earth?
The Earth will be just fine regardless of the pose I choose. Even if I fall on my face.
3. Will getting my foot behind my head be violent toward myself?
Because my groin is starting to snap, I’m feeling the not-so-good kind of pain. Sharp pain is yoga is a sign of possible injury. Self-inflicted violated ahimsa. Doing this pose would also be dishonest because my practice is not ready to advance and doing so would be a form of pretending. That means I am not heeding satya, the second of the yamas, meaning truthfulness. I know it’s time to take it back a notch.
Now let’s explore ahimsa with 10 simple practices to help us live more consciously:
10 Simple Ways to Practice Ahimsa Off the Mat
1. Be An Example of Self Care
To live a life of non-harm is to embrace wellness with an open heart. There are people in the world that radiate wellbeing. Observers see their radiance and know that it is a result of the way they love and honor themselves through strict practices. Their regular self-care regimen is inspiring, albeit intimidating. Don’t let the progress of one person’s practices deter you from beginning or continuing a journey of your own. Life is not a race. Here are a few tips to care for yourself. Eat food that’s good for your guts. Exercise regularly. Get plenty of sleep. See the world through grateful eyes. Let go of what you cannot change so you may rest your face, heart, and mind. Live ahimsa through loving self-care. After all, “Love is a skill that can be practiced, refined or even perfected,” according to Greg Burdulis in Introduction to Open Your Heart.
2. Practice Gentleness in Your Speech
Whether muttering to yourself under your breath or talking to or about others, use the kindest and most compassionate language. Try imagining that the person you are speaking of is physically present and can hear you. Remember that negative language makes the environment feel darker and when we speak with such negativity we tend to dwell on what’s wrong rather than looking for solutions or acceptance. Positive Psychology theory highlights, “neurons that fire together wire together.” If we complain about something or someone, we will continue to associate them with problems rather than solutions.
Instead, practice gentleness in your speech toward all beings. To speak with the utmost care is to live ahimsa.
3. Choose the Products You Buy Wisely
Americans make a habit of buying things and disregarding the container and sometimes even the product itself. There is a campaign in the New York City subway system that encourages people to bring reusable mugs for coffee and water bottles to drink the high-quality New York tap water. Will you take a look at your consumer habits? How many disposable water bottles and coffee cups are you using every week? Now think about the throw-away fashion industry. How many cheap items do you buy and barely wear before you get rid of them? Some clothing is now made of fabrics of such low quality that they cannot be recycled. Think about the pile-up or garbage just from those two industries.
Will you make positive change by less clothing of higher quality? Will you commit to the practice of being responsible for keeping reusable drinking cups handy? Little changes can make a huge difference and our planet deserves to be protected. Will you start to make better purchasing your practice?
4. Give Back to the Planet To Live Ahimsa is to Honor Gaia
When we consider the groups of people that do no harm to the planet, we can look to tribal people. They live off the land and only use what is absolutely needed. Although as a society we can’t snap our fingers to eliminate our big house and skyscraper living, we can take some cues from the tribal people and only use what we need and give back however we can. That may mean starting an urban garden or buying second hand rather than new. Are you up for it?
5. Treat Yourself the Way You Treat Others Part 1
My good friend and fellow yoga teacher Hannah Landes described this practice as the inverse of the famous golden rule to, “treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Treating ourselves with loving-kindness is the peaceful path. We see the vast majority of people waiting for a romantic interest to provide them the love they could generously afford themselves.
If you would give a loved one fancy dinner, luxurious bath, compliments, and bodywork, why not give to yourself? Will you start to care for yourself the way you hope to or already care for others? Parents, I am also talking to you.
6. Treat Yourself the Way You Treat Others Part 2
Most people are much harder on themselves than they are on others. If we decide to treat ourselves the way we treat others when we make mistakes or fall short, we are kinder to ourselves. When others have shortcomings, it is pretty easy to love, honor, and accept them. Why, when we make mistakes, don’t we choose to love and accept ourselves? After a difficult event, stop to notice self-critical thoughts, words, and actions, and then pause to consider ahimsa.
To embrace the meaning of ahimsa is to treat yourself with the same leniency and love you treat others with every day.
7. Honor the Paths of Others
To live a life of non-harm (ahimsa) and to live with truth (satya) means to respect how others live and see the world. One of the worst stereotypes of newly spiritual people is their inability to accept others living a supposedly less enlightened lifestyle. The judgment and “better than thou” mindset is off-putting to others who may now doubt that the path has much substance to it. Although you may be an inspirational person, will you honor others and not judge them? And when you inevitably judge others, will you pause to notice?
8. Do What You Yearn for Even Though It Scares You
Not following your hearts’ desires can feel harmful to the core. To get out of the prison of your own fear, you can try something that scares you. You don’t need to risk your life. Rather simply step outside your normal realm of behavior and experience to tap into this new energy. A huge sense of freedom and joy comes from facing fears and trying something new. Even if it scares you, will you dare to be happy by doing what you yearn for?
9. Let the Bugs Go
Some people laugh at my boyfriend when he painstakingly lets out the bugs from our Manhattan apartment. He never squishes an ant or fly. The only exception he makes is for mosquitos that would have us for dinner. This is his example of living by ahimsa and choosing self-preservation over getting bitten. Will you let the bugs go free?
10. Care for Animals
“Given that all life forms are part of the same continuum, the consequences of ones actions require great consideration.” – Christopher Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions
Many on the yoga path believe that the yamas state that eating animals is off-limits. We should honor and respect all sentient beings. Yet, not everyone will choose to be a vegan or vegetarian and that has to be okay, so we can honor the paths of others. Therefore, non-harm in a very strict sense means to eat meat- and dairy-free. In a more inclusive sense, it means to purchase meat ethically and to care for pets, wildlife, and strays in one’s life. If veganism is not your thing, you might try buying cruelty-free eggs or volunteering in an animal shelter.
Off the Mat
Practicing ahimsa off the mat has a greater impact than simply practicing asana (movement) with ahimsa in mind. Going beyond peaceful yoga posing means living a life of non-harm to the planet, to others, and to the self. In a world filled with violence, pollution, and carelessness, will you be a model of conscious conduct It is the highest calling. As Troy Hadeed says in Being Present to Everyday Love, “Every single moment is an opportunity to create positive change in the world.” To steer your life by the powerful and positive reigns of ahimsa is your choice. What will you decide?