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The Yamas of the Yoga Sutras, Part I – Ahimsa, Non-Violence: Yoga Off the Mat

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Ahimsa, or non-violence, in sanskrit.

Last Thursday, we began an exploration of the yamas (social disciplines) and niyamas (self disciplines) defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  Today we’ll explore the 1st of the 5 yamas in the Yoga Sutras: ahimsa, or non-violence.

The word himsa means cruelty/injustice/violence. The prefix “a-“ means the avoidance of something.  Therefore ahimsa is the avoidance of cruelty/injustice/violence, which is to have kindness, goodwill, and pure intentions toward all living things, including ourselves.

Ahimsa is discussed in the Yoga Sutra, II.35:

ahimsapratisthyam tatsannidhau vairatyagah

I am fond of Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation in his book Light on the Yoga Sutras: “When non-violence in speech, thought, and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.”

It’s not that our lives are magically free of conflict once we cease to be violent.  Instead, by gradually diminishing mental, physical, and verbal hostility, we induce fewer opportunities for conflict to arise.  We also train ourselves to better deal with whatever conflict still ensues.

How do we deepen our understanding of ahimsa and refine our behavior accordingly? Through honest self-investigation, constant reminders about what we can improve upon, and repetition.

It’s crucial to note that violence is not always blatant.  Someone might have never hurt a fly, but if their mind is flooded with self-deprecating thoughts, they are not practicing inward ahimsa, and therefore limiting their happiness.  Investigating the origin of this unhealthy mind chatter can help their self-perception improve.

Nor is ahimsa about being submissive and non-confrontational.  I can think of times when I should have been more direct or established better boundaries, but didn’t out of fear of not sounding “nice.”  This happy-go-lucky, ambiguous attitude only created conflict in the long run!  Well-tempered, clear, and direct speech is a form of kindness.

Ahimsa isn’t always black and white.  We might, for instance, need to physically defend ourselves if our lives are in danger.  Another example is vegetarianism/veganism.  Of course, not eating animals reduces physical violence.  However, as scientific studies have shown, a vegetarian/vegan diet is not appropriate or can even be harmful for some individuals.  Did you know that the Dalai Lama’s doctors insist he eat meat?  Being a vegetarian for over 3 years negatively affected my health.  While re-introducing meat into my diet was a moral challenge, my health issues rapidly went away.   I do try my best, though, to buy humanely raised animal products.

Finally, observing ahimsa includes being empathetic towards those whose principles differ from ours.  As T.K.V. Desikachar says in The Heart of Yoga, “It would show a lack of consideration and arrogance to become stuck on our principles.”  We must empathize.  It’s good to reason and discuss varying points of view, but in a compassionate and non-condescending way.

Challenge yourself today:  Watch your mind.  When are your thoughts about yourself or others not peaceful?  When are you overly judgmental?  Are you empathetic towards yourself when you act in a less desirable way?

Observe and take responsibility.  By catching ourselves in the act, we can begin to alter our thought patterns bit by bit.

Self-investigation and self-improvement are amazing abilities—ones we all have!

Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.

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