Ahimsa: Non-harming

Ahimsa is the first of five yamas, or restraints, in the eight-fold path of yoga. The yamas are meant as restraints regarding our actions and interactions with the world around us. Ahimsa is translated as “non-violence,” “non-injury,” or “non-harming.” Ahimsa is widely considered to be the foundation of the practitioner’s yogic path.

In the effort of non-harming, we are guided to cease harming the beings and world around us by purifying our thoughts, speech, and actions. Sometimes this seems impossible! So, where can we start?

It is good to remember that ahimsa is a practice, just like our asana practice, and at times we will falter. Just as some days we have immense amounts of energy and attention for our asana practice, and other days we are lazier or distracted; these same processes will be reflected in our practice of ahimsa. The yamas are steadfast in their instruction however, clearly implying that we are each capable of refining our finest qualities and disciplining our more base impulses.

Each of us has suffered, in some way, from violence and hurt. We know the pain these feelings cause, and the time that it can take to heal. We would not want to be the source of that suffering for others. Ultimately, there simply cannot be lasting joy in causing another being to suffer. When you find yourself thinking or acting with anger and hurt, remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Our asana practice has already begun to develop in us the skills and sensitivities we will need for our practice of ahimsa. Asana teaches us patience, sensitivity, observation, and dedication. With these skills we can begin to observe our reactions to challenging situations. When we find ourselves acting or speaking hurtfully, we can ask ourselves (even after the fact!): Why did I respond in that way? Why did I think hurting someone would make me feel better? Do I, in fact, feel better? How could I have handled that situation in a way that would have diffused my hostility, and possibly even helped to diffuse the hostility of others who were present?

There are also some very simple actions that we can begin to cultivate in our lives to reduce the amount of suffering that we cause:
* Eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The reality of today’s meat, dairy, egg, and poultry industries is that millions of animals are painfully restrained, fed un-natural and medicated feed, often tortured while alive, and brutally murdered. Each of us has looked in the eyes of a family pet or a friendly puppy and felt the unspoken communication of affection. Farm animals are no different, and eating meat and dairy contributes to one of the most violent and sorrowful industries today. Eliminating these from your diet is not as hard as you might think, and the process of becoming vegetarian is a profound process of realizing your own power and strength of conviction.

* Eliminate needlessly speaking ill of others
Even if you are “just joking,” speaking ill of other people feeds a dynamic of hurt and nastiness which cannot nourish your spirit. Laughing at the expense of others, especially those who may be suffering or worse off than we are, is truly a sad state of affairs. When pressed, most of us would instantly retract such statements, and sincerely regret any hurt that was caused. Ideally, we will discipline ourselves to speak in such a way that if someone quotes us tomorrow, we will feel no shame or regret. This includes eliminating gossip and nasty, petty commentary regarding the appearance or actions of others.

* Cultivate the power of empathy
When confronted with someone or something different from you, allow yourself to learn from the experience. Learn about other people, cultures, and perspectives. If someone is hurtful or harmful toward you, remember the hurt and confusion and fear that you may have been feeling last time you acted that way toward another person or being. Remember that each of us would hope to be forgiven and that each of us possesses the ability to forgive. This is not a weak stance, or it would certainly not require such restraint and discipline.

* Do not harbor negative thoughts about other beings or elements
At times, each of us is likely to experience harmful thoughts or dreams, even directed at others. The goal of ahimsa is not to repress these thoughts, but to observe them, try to treat their source, and hopefully eliminate them over time. Like boats moored at a harbor, negative thoughts may try to take up lasting residence in our minds and hearts. Rather, through observation and gentle deconstruction we can enter a habit of not feeding and perpetuating such harmful ways of thinking.

There is a great deal of anger and violence and harm in the world around us. It seems that the world has always been this way, and possibly always will be so. Our power and responsibilities lie in transforming our lives and the impacts that our lives have on those around us. The less we harm others, the less we will perceive harm around us.

Some quotes on ahimsa:
Ahimsa is the greatest gift. Ahimsa is the highest self-control. Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice. Ahimsa is the highest power. Ahimsa is the highest friend. Ahimsa is the highest truth. Ahimsa is the highest teaching.--Mahabharata XVIII:116.37-41.
May all beings look at me with a friendly eye. May I do likewise, and may we all look on each other with the eyes of a friend.--Yajur Veda: 36.18.
When one is established in non-injury, beings give up their mutual animosity in his presence.--Yoga Sutras (II.35)
The peace in the sky, the peace in the mid-air, the peace on earth, the peace in waters, the peace in plants, the peace in forest trees, the peace in all Gods, the peace in Brahman, the peace in all things, the peace in peace, may that peace come to me. -- Rig Veda X
"Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible."--Mahatma Gandhi My Socialism, 34-35.
Here they say that a person consists of desires. And as is his desire, so is his will. And as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap. -- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (IV, 4, ii, 6)
Quotes taken from “The Hindu Ethic of Non-violence” published by Hinduism Today

I offer limitless gratitude to Sharon Gannon & David Life for their inspiration and teaching on the path of ahimsa

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Updated January 10, 2005   amey@yogawithamey.com