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