You might have already heard of Ahimsa (Sanskrit for ‘non-violence’) during yoga classes, as your teacher may have mentioned it. But perhaps you are a little uncertain as to what it really means and how to apply it to our fast and busy modern lives? The truth is that, although it is a concept dating back thousands of years, its wisdom can most definitely be of help to us today.
“As the Yogin becomes established in non-injury, all beings coming near him cease to be hostile. In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”
The yoga sutras of Patañjali.
In around 400 BCE a philosopher called Patanjali wrote and compiled the yoga sutras, a series of texts intended to help us follow the right spiritual and ethical paths. They are meant to help build the right foundations in our lives to be good to ourselves and to others. As well as to avoid suffering (or minimise it as best as possible!) and to find wisdom and clarity. Basically, the sutras are an all-encompassing guide to being a decent and loving human being.
The sutras are actually comprised of about 196 texts, through which the eight limbs of yoga are explained:
- Yamas: Moral imperatives that encompass abstinence: non violence/truthfulness/refrain from stealing/abstinence/a lack of possessiveness.
- Niyama: Observances such as: purity/contentment/perseverance/self-reflection/contemplation.
- Asanas: Postures and discipline of the body.
- Pranayama: Control of one’s energy and breath.
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal from or transcendence of the senses.
- Dharana: Concentration.
- Dhyana: Meditation.
- Samadhi: Oneness with the object of meditation. Transcendence of the self.
To achieve these eight vital limbs and to arrive at a state of clarity, stillness, oneness and bliss, we need to work very hard and remain vigilantly focused. Not an easy task. In the Western world, the problem is that when we practice Yoga, we completely ignore the first two rules of right living, thinking and self observance, the Yamas and the Niyamas. We are so conditioned by strong and most of the time unachievable beauty standards that we are consumed with wanting a ‘beautiful’ body, jumping straight to the Asanas and the physical labour of Yoga whilst we disregard the mental and emotional work of Yoga in favour of aesthetics.
Traditionally Asanas are a very small part of the Yoga practice. They were designed to open up the body and to prepare us to sit or lie for a very long time in meditation and self-contemplation. Yoga is about creating happiness with all the tools that it offers, not just the physical practice. Yoga will only work effectively if we unify and practice together with the eight limbs of yoga.
So what exactly is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa is part of the Yamas, the first limb of yoga which includes abstinences. Ahimsa means non-violence or compassion. Non-violence to other people, any living creature and to ourselves. Thus Ahimsa calls on us to avoid all physical violence and other behaviours detrimental to the wellbeing of living beings. In class, I notice that it is the first rule that new Yoga practitioners grasp and strive to work with. It is the easiest rule to understand but isn’t so easy to put into practice. The reality of trying to live a life in which you cause no harm is difficult indeed. That’s why Ahimsa requires mindfulness, it is not enough to just never get into fist-fights! True adherence to Ahimsa demands that you purge all harmful and dangerous ways of thinking from your mind.
Is Ahimsa relevant to our modern life?
More than ever. The modern world is one of turbulence, characterised by frustration, spite, cruelness and indifference. Ahimsa as empty promise to ‘do no harm’ is not enough when we live in a society that thrives off us turning ourselves against each other. We need to put active effort into Ahimsa and engage in practises, activism and conversations that tackle the root causes of strife in life, rather than just seeing yourself as an atomised individual. We need to try to live together in harmony.
How do I practice Ahimsa?
These practises below are based on my own experience. I am not writing this list to impose anything upon anyone. Each person will find different ways to practice the rules of the sutras and in this case, Ahimsa.
1. Mindfulness, minute by minute and day by day:
Meditation and mindfulness help me keep in control of my moods and any flares of anger, judgement etc. I was lead to meditation by my practice of Yoga Nidra, an incredible technique which teaches us to be aware, to observe ourselves in a gentle and kind way without any expectation and any goals. Meditation styles are all the same at the end of the day, they may utilise different techniques but they all have the same focus on observance and acceptance. I chose mindfulness via Yoga Nidra, but you must choose what you feel comfortable with, try a few before choosing which suits you.
One word of advice, go step by step. Don’t rush. It is hard to move away from old ‘bad’ habits, thoughts or behaviours with no judging and self-hatred. You might find out things that you don’t like about yourself and it is hard. You have already made the step of observance and you are going towards acceptance. Instead of punishing yourself, congratulate yourself. It is a process of endless discovery and it is never completely smooth and easy.
2. Tender loving care on and off the mat:
Sometimes I feel that I never stop and rest and take time for myself. I find it difficult to slow down. I felt rushed and stressed all the time until I fell ill and was forced to stop pushing myself so hard. I was doing the same thing in my Yoga practice, I had to injure myself several times to realise something was not working. I stopped forcing myself hard in my practice, slowed down and ignored my ego. We need to learn to recognise where our limits are. We need to avoid the injury zone by ‘listening’ to and observing the body during our postures. Don’t let the boastful, impatient mind take over your practice. Be open to whatever your body is telling you and slow down when necessary.
“You must never have in mind what you want to do but what the body can accept”Vanda Scaravelli.
3.Charity and compassion:
I see a lot of people being charitable to feel better for themselves. Ego and self-importance have no place within charity. I decided to serve charities going straight to the people who needed it in my own community. In the past, I had donated to large organisations such as Oxfam or Greenpeace, and although they do important work, the model of large-scale charities is inherently flawed. Therefore I decided to look for something in my neighbourhood and have been teaching women who have experienced domestic abuse and those who have alcohol issues for years. This is my way of giving back to the world with the skills that I have. I also regularly go to the same coffee shop in Kentish town which is staffed by adults with special educational needs. The way that disabled people are treated in the workforce is despicable and is rife with wages below the minimum, abuse and invisibility. Supporting businesses that go against this grain is a small way of showing support for eradicating prejudice. Find something in your community and serve a local charity, small things go a long way.
4.Vegetarianism and Veganism
This topic is most controversial in the yoga world. Some yogis believe that you are not truly practising Yoga if you eat meat; others including some Ayurvedic Yoga teachers, says that not all body types can live on purely vegetarian diets.
Ahimsa prevents us from doing harm to any living creatures including animals, so being vegetarian or vegan would seem to come naturally as part of our Yogic way of living. However, some practitioners who once tried to be vegetarian but didn’t feel healthy whilst being so, move back to eating meat. So what shall we do? This is a battle. My ethics lean towards the vegetarianism, and for many years I have refrained from eating meat. However lately I have been diagnosed with health conditions and my therapists have asked me to eat meat again. It is a huge dilemma for me as I am keenly aware of the terrible effects of eating meat on our planet. As such, I’ve decided that if I do eat meat then it will only be locally and ethically sourced, in order to minimise the harm it does.
Being vegetarian or vegan is not to be taken lightly. It is a big step. Learn to eat without meat by talking to people with real experiences. Books are great but they can get confusing with mixed information. It’s simple enough to replace meat in your diet if you just ask around about how other vegetarians and vegans do so.
Hopefully this short introduction to Ahimsa has helped you get to grips with its basic concept and will be the catalyst you need to start transforming your way of living to a more compassionate style.
However don’t forget that we are only human and that our faults and our suffering are also part of us. Don’t beat yourself up if you notice that you are not behaving perfectly! We don’t want to practice Ahimsa and the sutras like if it was imposed rigidly on us. Rather that we take responsibility for our own harmful behaviours and direct ourselves towards kindness, compassion and love.
Books which help me study the Yoga Sutras and the practice of Love and compassion:
- Yoga sutras of Pantajali by Sri Swami Satchidananda
- Yoga sutras of Pantajali by Georg Feuerstein
- Smile to your heart meditations by Irmansyah Effendi