what is ahimsa

A while back in a yoga class I attended while living in New York, the yoga teacher cued us into Salamba Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand). My heart sank a little.

I knew I could do it, but every time I do the pose I end up with a huge pain along my thoracic spine no matter how I modify or support the pose. I had decided a long time ago that this pose is not for me – at least not for a while. Yet, there was such a great hype in the class that I felt very tempted to just do it. 

Can you relate? That temptation to go over your edge for a moment of glory to satisfy the ego mind? Not just in yoga, but life in general.

I looked around the room only to watch the majority of the class entering a perfect Tripod Headstand. When my teacher asked me if I wanted her help to enter the pose my ego mind was about to say yes, but my heart knew better. I shook my head and went into a dolphin pose instead.

Being able to cultivate ahimsa – non-violence – in my own practice is something that has taken a lot of patience. Yet, I believe we can always bring more of it into our lives and it will improve how we experience life.

Want to learn more? Keep reading!

We’ll get into all the juicy details on what ahimsa is, the benefits of it, and how to practice it on and off the mat.

What Is Ahimsa? The Art of Non-Violence

In the English language, we often interpret ahimsa as non-violence or the act of not hurting any being including ourselves. In Sanskrit, ahimsa derives its meaning from the prefix ‘a’ (meaning “not”) and the root word ‘himsa’ (meaning “to cause pain”, “violence”, or “injury”).

Ahimsa is one of the five yamas, which are ethical guidelines for how we interact with the world. The yamas form the first of the eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s yoga sutras

Yamas can be seen as universal practices that relate best to what we know in biblical terms as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

Just as the Golden Rule is a staple in Christianity and Judaism, the principle of ahimsa is considered an essential requirement to live a moral life in the Indian religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.

Why Is Ahimsa So Important?

Ahimsa is more than simply not physically hurting others. Practicing non-violence means to avoid causing any harm through our thoughts, speech, and actions towards any living creature including ourselves.

Through ahimsa, we detach from our harmful thought patterns and stay in the present moment. It is only in the present moment where we learn to forgive and move on. Yet, many of us are caught up in the past or worried about the future — which can often cause us harm. 

Ahimsa can help guide every aspect of our lives: the thoughts we have, words we say, and actions we take. In doing so, not only do we become content with ourselves, but we also create a sense of belonging with everyone around us. 

More than that, as in Hinduism the law of karma teaches that whatever we do through our words, thoughts, or action will return to us whether it is in this life or the next.

What Is an Example of Ahimsa?

The most obvious scenario of ahimsa in our daily life seems to be one of not hurting others physically. 

Let’s say your friend stood you up the second time in a row of unfortunate events, which led you to being upset – however, you wouldn’t hit your friend, neither would you head over to destroy their car to let go of your anger. 

Why? Because you love your friend and care about them.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t an experience that only relates to friends and family. Just think about how often people go to war in this world. 

Practicing ahimsa relates to all those around us, creating a sense of connection with everyone in this world. It’s much more than simply not hitting other people. What you say and how you act play a part in ahimsa as well.

You might be able to relate when participating in a yoga class – how often do you tell yourself off for not doing a pose “correctly” or being too “inflexible” or “weak“? 

These thoughts are hurting yourself. Whereas non-violence in this scenario would mean being aware of these thoughts and accepting what is, without judging.

The Essential Elements of Ahimsa

Ahimsa is non-violence in mind, speech, and action towards any creature. Specifically:

  • In Mind – to avoid negative thoughts towards others and yourself. For example, learn to let go of resentment or jealousy against yourself or someone else. Holding on to those thoughts is what causes actions or words of violence. 
  • In Speech – to avoid violent language towards others and yourself. For example, learn to respond with kindness and compassion. The words you choose represent the thoughts you hold. When you find peace with yourself it will in turn allow you to create peaceful interactions with others.
  • In Action – avoid action of physical harm to any person, creature, or nature. As written in the Yoga Sutra 2:35 ‘In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease’.

Where Does Ahimsa Come From and its Relevance Today (21st Century)

Ahimsa has its roots in the Vedas, which are considered the most sacred texts of India. The Vedas (meaning “knowledge”) were written in Sanskrit around 4,000 years ago – some believe even more than that. The Vedas initially were passed down orally for centuries before they were written down. To this date, the authors are unknown. 

You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita, which is a compilation of four of the Vedas. The eight limbs of yoga by Patanjali were also based on the Vedas.

Besides being one of the five yamas, which form the first limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs, ahimsa is also considered a foundational principle of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Many leaders, scholars, and philosophers spoke of ahimsa as an essential teaching well before Patanjali.

More recently you might have heard of Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu himself) living his life guided by the principle of ahimsa. 

Especially, in our modern world where many of us watch days fly from busy schedules, social media, and the generally fast-paced nature of our lives, the practice of ahimsa serves as a reminder to take a step back and reassess. Ahimsa brings awareness to your actions and thoughts to avoid any harm.

This is a practice of self love that everyone benefits from. It’s a concept that extends to every living thing including the protection of our environment – which is an ongoing topic of interest in the face of global climate change.

Different Interpretations of Ahimsa

You can look at ahimsa from a religious or yogi perspective and many people will give different answers to what ahimsa really means to them. Regardless of your religion or yogi stage you’re at, ahimsa can have a place in everyone’s everyday lives.

What Does Gandhi Mean by Ahimsa?

Mahatma Gandhi is well known for his teachings on not only ahimsa (non-violence), but also Satya (Sanskrit word for ‘truth’). He referred to ahimsa as being the foundation in the search of Truth. In his view, without truth and non-violence there can be nothing but destruction of humanity.

Gandhi, a born Hindu, introduced ahimsa to the Western World. Many leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, and Nelson Mandela were influenced by his principles and teachings such as ahimsa paramo dharma – “non-violence is our greatest walk of life”. 

Gandhi embodied this ancient Indian doctrine being an advocate for peace and initiating the freedom movement during the British Raj.

Benefits of Incorporating Non-Violence
In Your Life

There are endless benefits of practicing non-violence in your life. A truthful practice of ahimsa leads to acquiring Siddhi (power) of peacefulness, which reflects on those around you. 

Imagine you are in disagreement with someone else. Instead of accusing the other person or showing your anger, honestly stating how you feel in a calm and respectful way will most likely make the other person respond more calmly, too.

Some other benefits include:

  • Spreading the feeling of love, peace, and acceptance
  • Establishing true self-acceptance
  • Letting go of negative thought patterns
  • Growing your confidence to speak your truth without causing harm
  • Creating a sense of belonging
  • Establishing healthy relationships with ourselves and others
  • Encouraging honest communication

How to Practice Ahimsa in All Parts of Your Life

As we know, yoga is not just what happens on your mat. It includes what you do when you step off it too! That’s where the real transformation begins – bringing concepts like ahimsa into all aspects of our being and lifestyle.

Incorporating Ahimsa in Your Yoga Practice (In Asanas)

As many yoga teachers will tell you, the most advanced yogi is not one who can do the fanciest poses, but one who knows when to adapt their sadhana (daily practice) to suit their true needs.

If you have never practiced yoga asana before, you might feel very uncomfortable when joining a class. You’re not alone!

Just like if you were to start running, you wouldn’t expect to run a marathon on your first run. Your body needs to adjust and build strength through committed practice. This is easier said than done as we humans tend to have very high expectations of ourselves, but it’s important to go easy on yourself.

Even if you have a well established asana practice and have been practicing for many years, it’s still important to be gentle on yourself. Our ego mind can easily push us into doing more and causing our bodies harm.

In yoga, suffering really is optional, but there are many yoga students who hurt themselves going too far in a yoga pose.

It might not even be physically hurting yourself like pulling a muscle. If a pose doesn’t work out the way you wanted, you might tell yourself you’re weak or not good enough — those are hurtful words! Would you tell that to a good friend? Probably not.

Incorporating ahimsa into your yoga sadhana allows you to cultivate compassion and a positive attitude for yourself and those around you.

A few tips to incorporate ahimsa into your daily practice may include:

  • Slow down. Rushing from one pose to the next takes away from the opportunity to tune into your body and notice what feels good (and what doesn’t)
  • Acknowledge your boundaries and pay attention to where your healthy edge is. For example, does it cause more pain than pleasure to go into a deep forward fold without using props? How could you enter the pose more comfortably?
  • Set a clear intention for your practice. Let this intention be your guide when entering poses. A few ways to set positive intentions can be asking yourself, how would you like to feel by the end of your session? What is the one thing you need today?

Practicing Ahimsa With Your Thoughts

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Thoughts are constantly running through our minds. Just like our diet or exercise routine has an impact on our health, so does our mind and thinking patterns. 

If you are constantly talking negatively to yourself, it will show in your overall well-being. As Gandhi said “non-violence, like charity, must begin at home”. When it comes to ourselves, we can hold a very harsh attitude telling ourselves mean things that can bring us down.

On top of that, speaking our truth to others can be a tricky balancing act. Truthfulness and non-violence go hand in hand. Ahimsa means to balance truthfulness and not causing pain to others with your honesty (including yourself).

Here are some tips to help you bring more ahimsa to your thoughts:

  • Allow yourself to experience your negative thoughts and not engage with them. It’s normal to feel sad or upset at times, yet, try to approach this with compassion instead of blaming yourself for feeling these emotions).
  • Meditate. This is a great way to observe and bring awareness to your thoughts. By becoming quiet and taking note of what you are thinking, you can let go and allow your emotions to pass without acting on them.
  • Give yourself the love and care as you would with anyone around you. We often have very high expectations of ourselves — higher than we would for our friends or family. Ask yourself if these expectations are helping or harming you. Do you need to have more compassion for yourself? Life can get in the way if your plans for many reasons out of your control and blaming yourself will only cause harm.
  • Journal your thoughts. This is such a great way to keep track of what is keeping you up at night and also see any patterns or habits. When writing down your thoughts, you get a chance to reflect on your thoughts in a more objective way. Once they’re out of your head, you can really examine them and if you need to, find kinder ways to move forward.

Ahimsa Within Your Community

A common practice of ahimsa within your own community is refraining from eating meat. Vegetarianism can be a great practice of ahimsa in that it translates to not causing harm to any living beings, not just humans. 

However, the practice of non-violence also means to not judge or blame anyone for their diet choices. Instead, you might develop curiosity as to why someone chooses to eat or not eat meat.

Speaking of diet, ahimsa in the community can also be seen by choosing organic products over processed or otherwise manipulated foods. 

More than that, pollution, energy consumption, food waste, and so much more can be addressed through the lens of ahimsa to create less harm in your community and the environment. The list is endless!

A few ideas how you can bring more harmlessness into your community:

  • Make healthy and clever food choices. Think about how the food not only nourishes your body, but also how its production and supply impacts your environment and whether there are better choices to cause less harm. This accounts for vegetarianism, too.
  • Keep an attitude of self love towards everything you do in life. This then naturally is reflected in your daily activities spreading love and kindness into your community.
  • Approach your relationships with a mindset of mutual respect. Keep your eyes and heart open to every living being – even the tiniest insects. We are all contributors to the health of our planet – humans, animals, and plants.

Remember, through compassion you can transform your negative energy, creating peace not only within yourself but in the world around you too.

How Do You Teach Ahimsa?

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Ahimsa is a concept that can be taught in so many ways and can be integrated into any yoga class. 

A great way to start would be simply to teach yoga philosophy. For example, incorporate a bit of background to non-violence in yoga, its Sanskrit meaning, and how it’s linked to the eight limbs of yoga or the yoga sutras. This might be part of the introduction to the class or linked to the wider theme.

On top of that, as yoga teachers we need to be careful in the words we choose. What cues are we giving to introduce a pose or sequence

 Choose words that show compassion and allow students to focus on self care. For example, instead of saying “lean forward to deepen the stretch” you could say something like “if it feels safe and supported in your body, you may explore a gentle forward fold”. 

Teachers and students are there for each other. There is a mutual relationship between a group of yogis and their teacher and it’s important to support and cultivate that relationship in a loving and respectful way.

Some other ways ahimsa you can teach ahimsa include:

  • Breaking down a pose and providing modifications for every student to be safe and supported.
  • Checking in with students outside of class to do a bit of conflict resolution and help them bring more self awareness into their practice.
  • Offering meditation, pranayama, journaling, or study sessions to allow students to clear their mind and reflect on their life experiences.
teacher training 200 hour
teacher training 200 hour