Yoga’s eight-limb path begins with a set of guidelines for how yogis should relate to the world. These are known as the five yamas. The first is ahimsa, a term many yogis have heard but may not have given much thought too other than the awareness that term means nonviolence.
To practice ahimsa is to take care not to harm others—other people, other beings, or the universe itself. Many yogis are vegetarians, for example, because they consider eating animals a violation of ahimsa. You may know yogis who will not kill an insect, not even a wasp, under any circumstances.
There’s a classic concept of a yogi so committed to the practice of ahimsa that he scrupulously watches where he steps so as not to kill a bug. Others argue that even eating plants is killing. Obviously it’s not possible, then, to avoid doing harm in some sense if we want to stay alive
How to practice ahimsa
Of course, most of us do not want to harm others, but putting ahimsa at the forefront of our lives can be a challenge, especially if “doing harm” and “violence” are considered the same thing. But even if we don’t consider sparing the lives of insects or forgoing food a necessary part of ahimsa, most of us inadvertently do harm in some way.
In Inside the Yoga Sutras, Reverend Jaganath Carrera explains violence as “a reaction to fear.” It is, he says, what happens when we want to see another harmed, and it includes our thoughts. So the key to practicing ahimsa is to act without intent to do harm.
Perhaps, then, we’re not violating ahimsa when we nourish our bodies—something we need to do—by eating plants (or in certain cases, even animals) or when we protect ourselves from a wasp. Still, the choices are not simple. Can we be sure the wasp will sting us or that the foods we eat have not come to us in ways that involve violence to living beings or to the environment?
Watch your thoughts
If violence is the intention to see another harmed, then we need to consider the possibility that we can be violent in our thoughts as well as our actions. We tend to think of violence as something that is physically harmful—that is, something that inflicts bloody physical wounds or results in death. But it’s also possible to be emotionally violent. The way we treat others can cause internal wounds and scars. It can even cause a kind of death of spirit.
And it’s not only others that can suffer from our violence. We can be violent towards ourselves as well.
The opposite of violence, it seems, is kindness, and that’s really what the idea of ahimsa is all about. As yogis, we need to continually check our thoughts, actions, and motivations to be sure we’re acting in the kindest way possible toward ourselves and others.
Violence and kindness can also be directed toward the planet. When we abuse the environment, waste resources or generally disregard Mother Earth, we are being violent and acting against the principle of ahimsa. Instead, if we are careful to conserve energy and resources by consuming less, recycling and looking for “green” alternatives, we are practicing ahimsa.
Is ahimsa part of your practice? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this first step on the path of yoga.