Integral to our understanding of yoga, Ahimsa is part of the first of the eight limbs known as yama, or practices of self-regulation designed to free us from being a victim to the challenges of our humanness. Yama practices are likened to cleaning techniques for our minds, bodies, and spirits that allow us to live more conscious, liberated lives. In addition to being a yama in yoga, ahimsa is also a foundational principle of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. 

The word “practice” allows us to accept that whatever we may be focusing on is something that takes work, time, and refining. It also allows us to accept that there will be lumps and bumps and roadblocks along the way and that perfection is not to be expected.  Ahimsa as a practice of not injuring others might seem relatively straightforward  : Of course I shouldn’t physically attack someone. Of course I shouldn’t bully someone to get in front of them in a queue. Of course I shouldn’t lie. But is it so simple?

Beyond physical harm

Inflicting injury does not only mean causing physical harm to other people. Words, tones, behaviors, and even our thoughts can turn into weapons if used destructively. On a fundamental level we can divide the transaction of injury into the inflictor and the recipient but, if we dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that over the longer term no one comes out on top, and both or all participants suffer —both in the moment and beyond.

Ahisma as mindful reflection

How is this possible that an inflictor also suffers? If we take the time to look deeply and mindfully into the experience of hurting another, we’ll understand that when we inflict pain on others, we suffer ourselves, whether consciously or not, and perpetuate a cycle of hurt. If we live our lives by smiling and saying one thing, only to turn around and say or do the opposite, we also likely imagine a world where others are doing this to us. This contributes to ongoing insecurities and a defensiveness in relationships, which negatively impact our lives and those of our loved ones.

The ahimsa-based practices of pausing, looking ahead, empathizing, and choosing well move us closer to a stress-free life. If we have nothing to hide or regret and live that way as a practice, we live more simply and freely. This is yoga.

Interpretations of ahimsa

As Gandhi said, “If one does not practice nonviolence in his personal relationships with others, he is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home.” Our homes and interpretations of Ahimsa may look a little different from one person to another’s. 

For some people, choosing to limit animal products in their diet is a process guided by Ahimsa, whereas for others, Ahimsa may mean choosing to consider more ethically sourced products as part of their food choices. Maybe instead of killing that bug inside your house you carefully place it back outside. Same belief… different action and interpretation. Here, fellow yoga practitioners and teachers share their unique understandings of ahimsa:

Ahimsa within self

“I believe and try to teach that ahimsa is foundational in yoga in and of itself, but also is a foundational principle of the other four yamas. For example, with the yama satya, or truthfulness, truth is relative and embodies ahimsa: Be honest but not if it’s causing unnecessary pain or harm. Ask yourself, “Am I looking to speak my truth at any cost, or should I stop at the moment of possibly causing harm?” Another way ahimsa is practiced in the yoga community is by becoming vegan or vegetarian. While having a mostly vegetarian diet is good, going completely meat- and dairy-free doesn’t work for every individual. A kinder option is to teach people to discern what is best for their bodies and their health. And… not shame people for their choices.”—Sangeeta Vallabhan, a yoga teacher in New York City

Ahimsa with community

“Equally, we are all co-creators in a community of learning. I have learned to practice a Gandhian model of nonviolent classroom management that centers on equality and mutual respect. Each group of learners creates a list of expectations that we have for each other, and we emphasize that the teacher is one among all in this community. Students request things like ‘teachers and students should be fair and not have favorites.’ We all follow these guidelines and counsel each other as needed.” —Susanna Barkataki, Founder of Ignite Yoga

Ahimsa within humanity

“Primum non nocere, or ‘First, do no harm.’ I grew up in a family of scientists. My mom is a plant pathologist-turned-pharmacologist, and I have an older brother whose disillusionment with the US health-care industry led him to take his MD and PhD to new frontiers and startups in the Bay Area. Perhaps because of these two, my relationship to ahimsa has been shaped by bioethics, medical ethics, and what today are known more generally as sustainability and public health. For example, I feel uncomfortable attending a yoga studio that sells exorbitantly overpriced swag, not only because it’s silly to think you need fancy pants to practice humility and self-awareness, but also because studies have shown that the athleisure industry is polluting our oceans. If what’s best for you ends up coming at a cost to the environment and someone else’s well-being, what you’re perpetuating is a culture of harm even if it’s sold to you with the feel-good rhetoric of ‘self-care.’”—Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Georgia

 

When we see ahimsa in action, it keeps us in a positive connection with ourselves and the world. I see Ahimsa in a news story about an eight-year-old boy helping another eight-year-old boy with autism feel better on the first day of school. I see it when my mum looked after my dad with compassion when he was ill or when I learn that a sports team has been involved with a Clean Up The Coast Day. It’s there when I choose a nourishing meal to serve my body in the midst of a busy workday. Ahimsa is present and relevant to all, in each of our unique lives. Bringing awareness to it as a practice is key to its continuation and expansion. Where are you going to look at exploring Ahimsa in your life?