The first of the five Yamas (moral precepts) as explained by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras is considered to be the most important which is why it is the first to be introduced to the practitioner:
Patanjali says of Ahimsa or non-violence (II.35):
“When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.”
In this Sutra, Patanjali says that those firmly established in non-violence are so unthreatening that man and beast alike can be in their presence, abandon their hostility and become peaceful. Aggression is often based on fear and can be relinquished once we see there is no reason to fear, showing mutual tolerance and kindness. At its root, Ahimsa means maintaining compassion toward yourself and others. It means being kind and treating all things with care.
Yoga in the traditional sense of the word has always meant the propagation of non-violence toward all beings. However, when considering non-violence, it is not only conceiving this prospect in terms of refraining from the physical act of killing any sentient being—but as a more subtle form of violence, the one that slips into our minds as a seemingly innocent negative thought that then transforms into detrimental verbal words of expression and then finally manifests as violent and aggressive actions.
Anything from thoughts of hatred or dislike, speaking ill of others, harsh and rude speech, gossip, lying, hurting someone’s feelings, being aggressive, causing pain or being deliberately discourteous towards someone all violate Ahimsa.
The yoga scriptures say: “Ahimsa Paramo dharmah”. Non-violence is the highest virtue.
But in the real world, what does it actually mean to do no harm?
This is an important question to ask of ourselves as individuals but also collectively.
Few of us get through life without causing harm, whether by ignoring someone’s feelings, using more of the earth’s resources than we need or by buying products and supporting companies that are unethical.
But we also do things that are hurtful, harmful and cause violence to ourselves. How many times a day, consciously or otherwise, do we put ourselves down, reaffirm our hopelessness, dislike our appearance or see ourselves as incompetent or unworthy?
For many of us, our favourite pastime can be to berate and judge ourselves. But how can we bring peace to the world if we can’t find it within ourselves? And how much resentment, guilt or shame do we hold on to perpetuating the negativity cycle?
Can you recognise that you can be violent with yourself in a yoga class for example by pushing when you should be pulling back, by resisting when you need to surrender, by forcing your body to do things it isn’t ready to do yet?
In a world where selfishness and self-interest are the norm, it takes great courage not to react with greed or anger, which can so easily lead to violence. Like everything we need to move past, it’s important to acknowledge the violence we feel welling up within us. Acknowledgement can lessen it’s power over you.
Yoga teaches us to be honest, respectful and to take care of ourselves and others. Ahimsa is integral to these fundamental yoga teachings. Simply through the intent to cause less pain, each of us can bring greater dignity to our world, so that harm is replaced with harmlessness and disrespect with respect.
There is a lovely story about Ahimsa written in the Vedas, the vast collection of ancient philosophical teachings from India. A certain sadhu, or wandering monk, made a yearly circuit of villages in order to teach. One day as he entered a village he saw a large and menacing snake terrorising the local people. The sadhu spoke to the snake and taught him about Ahimsa. The following year when the sadhu returned to the village, he saw the snake again, but this time he was so changed, he was a mere shadow of his former self. This once magnificent creature was skinny and bruised, so the sadhu asked the snake what had happened. He replied that he had taken the teaching of Ahimsa to heart and had stopped terrorising the village. But because he was no longer menacing, the children no longer saw him as a threat and now threw rocks and taunted him, and he was afraid to leave his hiding place to hunt. The sadhu shook his head. “I did advise against violence,” he said to the snake, “but I never told you not to hiss.”
Protecting ourselves and others does not violate Ahimsa, it means we take responsibility for our own harmful behaviour and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral is not the point. Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love.
Here are some ways you can help yourself when violence arises within you.
- Practice mindful yoga
- sit in quiet reflection
- meditation or prayer has an immediately calming and peaceful effect. When we get off the cushion, that peace stays with us, highlighting any tendency to cause harm and making such behaviour far less likely. It becomes even more improbable as we deepen in awareness of our fundamental interconnectedness, for then violence toward another is the same as causing harm to ourselves.
- Self care becomes a big issue from refraining from violence in any form. When we are agitated from lack of sleep, a stressful or tight schedule, not eating right, then our ability to manifest violence heightens as our irritability does.
Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
– MARTIN LUTHER KING