The first yama, ahimsa, is usually translated as non-violence or non-harming. Just like the Hippocratic oath instructs fledgling doctors to “do no harm,” this first yama includes the same fundamental idea for the rest of us: In part of our quest to do good things, we also have to be mindful not to do bad things. Seems pretty simple, but once you start thinking about what this actually entails, you’ll realize it’s not so straightforward.
Beryl Bender Birch, who’s spent a lot of time studying and contemplating the limbs of yoga, says that on the surface, ahimsa would seem to simply instruct you not to be a thug. “The obvious manifestations are to not shoot my neighbor or beat my dog.” But there’s much more to non-violence than this, and to penetrate the concept fully really takes some reflection. “What about eating animals? What about using animal products? Some people are vegan, but they wear leather shoes or purses – is that in alignment with ahimsa?”
The answer is probably different for everyone, but these are the kinds of questions that ahimsa should get you thinking about. And you can go deeper: How are you interacting with your kid, your sister, your spouse? Are your behaviors affecting others negatively? What about your self? Are your behaviors or thoughts serving you well, or doing harm to your well being? Once you start thinking about the definition of “non-violence,” you realize there are increasingly intricate ways to conceptualize it.
It should be said that it’s almost impossible to be 100% non-harming 100% of the time. (As Bender Birch said last time, when you step out the door, you’re bound to be stepping on something living.) But it’s important to think through one’s actions on a deeper level, and to feel comfortable with what ahimsa means to you.
Of course, there’s also a dark side to this first yama. The danger lies in feeling like you’re a perfect executor of ahimsa, and with this can come a sort of “spiritual arrogance,’ which quite counterproductive, says Bender Birch. This spiritual superiority “is something that you may be aware of in others but which you watch most closely for in yourself . . . . it may seem subtle and insignificant, but it can be as violent as punching someone in the nose.” Contemplating all your actions and their ramifications is not always pleasant but it’s necessary. “We have to look at our actions across the whole spectrum, from gross to subtle.”
Reverend Jaganath, the founder of the Yoga Life Society, says that what ahimsa means for him is that “We should not knowingly cause harm to human beings, animals, and so-called inanimate objects in thought, word, and deed. Ahimsa, like most moral and ethical precepts, challenges us to have our beliefs, motives, and actions in alignment.”
And challenging it is. Just like the limb of yoga we’re most familiar with, asana, can be uncomfortable at times (or downright painful the day after), the yamas can be just as demanding mentally. But the mental “pain” that comes along with them is probably important, and it might just mean we’re doing it right. “The practice of the limbs of Yoga takes self-reflection,” says Rev. Jaganath. “That takes a little time and is not always comfortable. But the rewards are incredible.”
How do you interpret ahimsa and integrate it into your daily life? Please share your thoughts with us below.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.