• Paige Bradley-Pecoul

AHIMSA - The Foundation of Yoga Practice

It seems certain that when people think of yoga, they imagine someone in a

pretzel pose, or sitting crossed legged with their eyes closed in some serene landscape.

However, the work of yoga begins with simple practices that have nothing to do with our

physicality. The actual first step to practicing yoga is to practice being kind. This is

simple, but not always easy.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out an 8 limbed path of yoga. The first limb,

known collectively as the Yamas, consists of 5 lifestyle practices that bring about

greater peace and happiness, and primarily affect our relationships. This applies to all of

our relationships: with ourselves, with the Earth, with loved ones, and not so loved ones.

The Sanskrit word for the first Yama is Ahimsa. It is often translated as

“non-harming” and teaches us that it is beneficial for us to think, speak, and act in ways

that do not have a negative impact on ourselves or others. If you stop to think about that for a moment, you may get a sense of the magnitude of potential transformation this practice holds.

Another way of translating Ahimsa is “reverence for all of life” (Nischala Joy

Devi). When we adopt this attitude of reverence for all, we see ourselves and others as

worthy of our kindness. This often requires a mindset shift, especially in the modern age

where we have been taught to compare ourselves to others and rank people and

animals in order of importance. Ahimsa reminds us that the life force that moves the

slug, moves the blood in our veins. When we regard life in these terms, we can act in

ways that preserve and support life, rather than disregard or mistreat some expressions

of life force.

Remember that Ahimsa asks us to practice kindness in thought, word, and deed,

towards self and others. This is going to require different types of effort from different

people. For some, it may be that practicing kindness towards oneself proves infinitely

more difficult than practicing kindness toward others. Especially when the focus shifts to

the way we think about ourselves and talk to ourselves. Is the tone one of compassion

when a mistake is made, or one of punishing and cruel lack of forgiveness? When we

can be compassionate towards ourselves and show ourselves the grace of accepting

our humanity, we naturally become more tolerant and loving towards others.

This is why Ahimsa is first. When our actions are rooted in kindness, love informs

all that we do. We gain the ability to allow others to be human too. Where our reactions

may have once been harsh and critical, we find opportunities to be forgiving. This is not

to say that we become a doormat for others to walk on. It is possible to practice Ahimsa

and uphold personal boundaries. In fact, establishing boundaries can be a wonderful

way to stay rooted in Ahimsa. When we have reverence for ourselves, it becomes

easier to ask that others treat us with respect as well. In this way we are doing

ourselves a kindness. Ahimsa would ask that we uphold these boundaries in such a

way as to cause as little harm as possible, choosing our words and expressing

ourselves in a direct, but kind way.

Sometimes, other people just refuse to be kind. This can make the practice of

Ahimsa difficult. To do so will require that we strengthen our resolve. It has been said

that when our kindness is stronger than another’s negativity, we will know the practice

has taken root. Until then, we may falter and utter an unkind word or lose our temper.

This is an opportunity to forgive ourselves, and move on. We will be given other

opportunities to get it right.

What about when we witness injustice? How do we reconcile understandable

feelings of hurt or anger with our practice of Ahimsa? At times like these, we can pull

from other pieces of the yoga puzzle, such as applying, viveka, or keen discernment, to

help us determine right action. In regards to Ahimsa, we can learn from some of the

great leaders of the world, especially non-violent resistors such as Martin Luther King or

Mahatma Ghandi. We can dislike the actions of men, and yet hold in our hearts hope for

a peaceful resolution to the situation. It may help to remember that the antidote to the

violence in the world is love and kindness. As MLK said “Hate cannot drive out hate,

only love can do that.”

In return for our commitment to Ahimsa, we receive many blessings. Our

relationships improve, our sense of self worth improves, the world around us becomes

less hostile, and we are able to make decisions based on love instead of fear. It takes

time and commitment to cultivate reverence for all life, but it is possible. In the Yoga

Sutras, Patanjali writes that for the one who is rooted in Ahimsa, no violence will happen

in their presence. If it is true that we are the creators of our lives, and that what we live

is born of what we think, then it would be plausible that when we think and act in kind

ways, our world becomes kinder. Then it becomes easier to be kind, and the

momentum behind our practice grows.

Can we find it within ourselves to be kind no matter what? It is a tall order, and

the question itself may cause us to focus on the mountain ahead, and trip over the

molehill at our feet. It may better serve us to focus on making small shifts. Beginning

with thinking kind thoughts about ourselves, then working to be kind to the people we

encounter each day, and then growing our capacity for kindness to apply to all beings.

There is a chant that yogis like to recite, “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu”. It means

“May all beings everywhere be happy and free. May my thoughts words and actions contribute to this happiness and freedom for all.”

May you find it in your heart to offer loving kindness to yourself and others, today and everyday. Aho (and so it is)!

Written by: Paige Pecoul

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