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What is Ahimsa in Yoga?

by Arundhati Baitmangalkar
What is ahimsa in yoga-Aham Yoga

I have been thinking on this blog post for a while now, and today I feel compelled to write it. I watched a documentary on Netflix last week, ‘The White Helmets‘. It shows how common people, like you and I, are operating as unarmed emergency respondents in Syria when attacks occur. It was horrid to watch – graphic footage, people under the rubble, buildings collapsing on children, and war in its full form. It was only 41 minutes long and it shook me to the core of my being. I have no words to describe the atrocities that are being done to people in that country. My heart wept for days on end, and I secretly pray each night for this war to end. The political instability around us makes me think more and more of Ahimsa, and what it stands for in Yoga. With current affairs as they are, how can we use this ancient Yogic wisdom to live more peacefully within ourselves and with others?

To understand Ahimsa, we first need to understand something called ‘Ashtanga Yoga‘ or the ‘8 Limbs of Yoga‘. These 8 limbs were documented by Patanjali in a book called the Yoga Sutras. He laid out a system that helps navigate one to achieve the state of Yoga, or ultimate freedom, and was given to mankind thousands of years ago. Even back then, ancient sages and yogis identified man’s innate aggressive nature – his ability to create and cause destruction to himself and to those around him. Since then, Ahimsa has been an integral part of yogic philosophy and is the first subdivision under the Yamas in the 8 limbs of yoga.

What is Ahimsa in Yoga?

What is Ahimsa in Yoga?

Origins of the word Ahimsa

The Sanskrit language has 52 alphabets, and a lot of the words do not have sufficient or adequate English translations. Knowing that, a lot of scholars prefer to call Ahimsa as ahimsa in the English language as well. ‘A‘ means not, and ‘himsa‘ comes close to violence, mischief, or harming. Simply put, Ahimsa can be referred to as ‘non-harming’ or ‘non-violence’

What is Ahimsa?

Ancient yogis understood the importance of living in harmony with oneself and with those around you. They recognized that even though we look different, speak different languages, have different cultures, etc, that inherently we all possess the same divinity with us. Harming another meant harming oneself as well. This created an environment of peace and tranquility, and allowed sadhakas (spiritual aspirants) to focus all of their energy on walking the path of Yoga, or self-transformation. A lot of ancient seekers held Ahimsa as the core of their being. Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi are great examples of leading a life based off Ahimsa.

Ahimsa has a trifold application – by word, thought, and deed. How often do we think something and not say it out aloud? Imagine if all our thoughts were visible to the world – we would run away from some of our own thoughts! But Patanjali advocated Ahimsa in not only our actions, but more importantly, in what we say and how we think. To him, all three parts were equally important and necessary to have a balanced, tranquil attitude that a seeker should develop walking the path of Yoga. If we could create harmony between our words, thoughts, and deeds, then our being would be purified and all of our energy could be utilized to walk the path of Yoga.

How to practice Ahimsa?

In modern times, a lot of people practicing Yoga believe that to practice Ahimsa one needs to turn vegetarian. This is a narrow way of looking at Ahimsa. While it is an aspect of Ahimsa, it is not the end of it. Most of the Yamas are so subtly linked to our everyday lives that it is difficult to create an absolutely perfect system of practicing Ahimsa, and no two people are alike. But what we can do as yoga practitioners is take the underlying principle of Ahimsa into everything we do. I like to think of Ahimsa being represented in my behavior as kindness, compassion, or love for myself as well as those around me. I remind myself each time that there are two ways to which I can react to life: one, that makes me feel good about myself, the situation, or the person involved; or two, a more ‘react first think later’ approach. I must admit I don’t always get it right, but at least I try 9 out of 10 times.

As I grow older, I have learned to be kinder to my body. This means that sometimes I have to work really hard to push it out of the lazy rut that I find myself in, or to back off when needed. I have learned to treat people around me with more kindness and respect, and have become more loving to those who are in my innermost circle. Most importantly, the chatter inside my head has become more positive. Being a typical type A personality, I have been guilty of demanding too much of myself every so often, but Ahimsa towards myself has taught me more than I can express in this blog post

“But practicing Ahimsa all the time is hard…what is your intention?”

While Ahimsa sounds easy, it is much harder to put into practice. Nothing in our lives is black and/or white. If a soldier kills to protect his country, can we call that violence? But he was just doing his duty, correct? If a mom disciplines her child, is that an act of violence or is that an act of love? When on the road, we kill so many bugs who are in the way of our car. Can we label ourselves as being violent? No, we cannot.

It would be helpful to look at the intention behind your actions, thoughts, and words. If your intention is clean, and one of non-harming, then according to Patanjali you are in the clear. But like all philosophy, this needs more discussion and practice; otherwise, these are just words.

As a yoga teacher and student, these are some tips to bring Ahimsa into practice on the mat.
  • Learn to step back – sometimes we force our body into yoga poses that it may not be ready for or too tired to do. Our practice stems from a place of ego. What’s the worst that will happen if you give up a chaturanga dandasana when your wrists are super tired? Know that none of these yoga poses have an expiration date on them. They will always be available tomorrow, the next day, and beyond.
  • Sometimes we need a pushAhimsa, by no means, is asking you sit back,  smell the roses, and let life happen. We often fall into habitual patterns in our yoga practice. Try identifying if you are being too lazy in your practice, and give yourself a push as needed.
  • Mind your thoughts – Let’s face it, you cannot do this all the time. No one has the time for that, but what you can do is become more aware of the quality of your thoughts. Maybe spend a few minutes every night or day reflecting on the day gone by – without judgement. How have you reacted to things and people that came up? What could you have done differently? What kinds of thoughts went through your mind? Know that you can always do better tomorrow, and just a small amount of self-reflection will take you a long way.

And remember, nobody is perfect, but if we want to live happier lives, find peace with our fellow humans and animals sharing this planet, then Ahimsa is our key. Let us know in the comments below how you plan to put Ahimsa into practice with yoga, and with life!

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