Ahimsa, which translates into non-violence or non-harming, is the first Yama in the Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient scripture often resourced by yoga schools in their online yoga teacher training programs. The Eight Limbed Path acts as a guide for practicing yogis and the impact we each have in the world. Yamas are the first branch of the Eight Path Limbs, and they focus on how we interact with the world.
What Is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa translates to non-harming or non-violence. In Sanskrit, ‘A’ means ‘not’ and ‘himsa’ means ‘hurt’. The practice of non-harming applies to physical, mental, and emotional harm towards ourselves and others.
Sutra 2:35 says, “In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.” With ahimsa, we can work to make sure what we do and how we do it is done in harmony. Without ahimsa, the other limbs won’t flourish.
Violence and harm often arise out of fear and lead us disconnected from ourselves, others, and the world around us. When harm and violence come out through actions and/or words, we can see the fear create a widespread ripple effect throughout our homes and communities.
With ahimsa, we can learn to no longer use fear as our motivation for action. Instead of fear, we use love and compassion to motivate our words and actions. Powerful leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi are examples this works.
How To Practice Ahimsa
At My Vinyasa Practice, yoga is seen as an integrative practice that moves throughout four energetic bodies: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual (PIES). Let’s take a look at the practice of ahimsa through PIES.
To not practice violence physically means not physically hurting others and ourselves. This means no violent acts to people like hitting, slapping, etc. and this includes animals too. You can practice ahimsa with yourself by practicing self-love. This can be treating yourself well with an uplifting vinyasa yoga class, healthy eating habits, getting 8 hours of sleep, drinking enough water a day, etc.
On the yoga mat, practicing ahimsa looks like honoring your body each time you show up, and not pushing yourself physically beyond your limits or needs. Ahimsa also means speaking kindly and compassionately to yourself when you meet a challenge. Try to take the time on your mat to fill each action, thought, and breath with love, curiosity, and kindness.
Ahimsa is a practice of awareness and mindfulness. Mentally and intellectually, we don’t want to cause violence with harmful thoughts or words, towards yourself and others. As Deborah Adele mentioned in her book, The Yamas & Niyamas, even worrying is a form of violence because you’re trying to fix others by taking away their power to help themselves. Instead, you can practice ahimsa by supporting and encouraging them.
To practice Ahimsa in our life, we must observe, understand, and release self-limiting beliefs and fears. Our fears exist because, at one time, they kept us safe and secure. But fears can also stop us from living a joyful and fulfilling life. To overcome these fears and feeling powerless, you can practice gratitude, trusting the moment/higher power/universe, and thinking empathetically towards and about others.
Emotionally, you can work on experiencing compassion for yourself and others. Compassion will help make yourself and your environment a better place. To open your heart and have a judgment-free mind can look like stop giving criticisms, volunteering your time, or talking to a friend who needs to be listened to. Small kindnesses may not seem to make a big difference in someone’s life, but they are powerful. When those judgmental thoughts arise, take the time to notice them and then release them.
As we’ve seen, ahimsa includes practicing non-violence on and off your mat. In online yoga certifications, the spiritual application of Ahimsa might come up. In a broad sense of spirituality, we see ourselves as part of a larger whole. Practicing ahimsa and leading with kindness and compassion can help to support the wellbeing of our families, communities, and the world around us. We practice moderation in our consumption so that we don’t harm or over-stress our natural resources. We walk mindfully, pick up any waste we see on the sidewalk or in our water sources, and we eat mindfully, too, considering the treatment and harvesting practices of the food we eat. Keeping all of these things in mind reminds us that we are part of something larger than, and asks us to think outside of ourselves.