Ahimsa: The Practice of Love in Action
This is the first part of a 10-part series exploring each of Wanderlust TV’s Yams and Niyams to learn how we can use them both on and off the mat for a deeper and richer yoga life.
Ahimsa, the first of the 10 Yamas and Niyams in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, means “without harm” and means leading a life that does not harm other living beings or oneself. Patanjali clearly said that ahimsa is the cornerstone of yoga. Without the observance of ahimsa, all other limbs will never bear fruit.
It is a message that echoes in the great spiritual texts and in every religion—that humanity must condemn violence—and to most of us the message seems self-evident. “Cruel? I? No way,” we declare, check the ahimsa box and go straight to satya.
But damage can be different. We happily proclaim ahimsa by swatting at a mosquito, harm the planet by not recycling, or harm ourselves by working long hours and not taking care of our health.
Mahatma Gandhi was the father of ahimsa. For him, it was beyond action. “Ahimsa means not harming any being by thought, word or deed,” he said.
Our harmful thoughts may be invisible; sometimes we can even mistake them for love. In his book The Yamas and Niyamas, Deborah Adel describes “caring for others” as a form of violence, saying that by trying to fix others, we rob them of their power to help themselves. Instead, it would be more loving to support and encourage them.
When we live our lives according to ahimsa, we find the courage to look at why we, in our shared human experience, tend to cause harm. Why do people hurt others? Why did our partner say unkind words to us? Why do we envy our friend?
What we often find at the root of harmful actions, words or thoughts is fear. Why do people hurt others? Because they are afraid of being hurt. Why do people kill others? Because they see them as a threat to their own security. Why do we worry about our children? Because we are afraid of losing them.
This is a wonderful realization because we can reduce all the violence and madness we perceive in the world to fear. And how would our bravest best respond to someone who is scared? Definitely with love. Definitely with compassion.
Those who think ahimsa is weak are really wrong. Pacifists are activists. You can’t help but stand up and take compassionate action when you see the suffering that fear causes.
But our society does not work like that. We are taught that people must be punished for harming others or they will do it again. If we do not act, then we are weak; we allow people to use us. We apply the same philosophy to ourselves: we feel guilty for unkind thoughts or deny it when we are angry or afraid. We have created a society that punishes itself under the guise of control and order. How the world would change if, instead of judging, we gave love to those in fear, including ourselves.
Those who think ahimsa is weak are really wrong. Pacifists are activists. You can’t help but stand up and take compassionate action when you see the suffering that fear causes. One only has to look at Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa to see the great changes that a peaceful approach can bring to the world.
These ahimsa warriors teach us that conflict is inevitable in our human experience, but that we can bring love into these conflicts and thereby transform them. IN Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu asks us, if we must enter into any battle, to do so with great compassion and sorrow, “as if at a funeral.” This is the path of ahimsa. He has a strong back and a soft heart.
This may seem like a daunting challenge to Patanjali—that we must master ahimsa before we can hope to succeed in yoga—but Gandhi says it is elusive to us. Ahimsa, he says, is “an attribute of our soul.” It means that it is our nature. Ahimsa transcends all its translations, Gandhi said, because it is—quite simply—love.
4 ways to put ahimsa into practice
Yamas and Niyamas are part of the eightfold path of yoga. Thinking about ahimsa without putting it into practice would be like reading about asanas without even stepping on the mat.
So how can we practice ahimsa in our daily lives?
Talk to yourself with love and kindness. Throughout the day, ask yourself: How can I be more loving to myself right now? Removing the word “should” from your vocabulary is a great start.
To sit with someone in their suffering, with an open heart and a mind free of judgment, is compassion. Be quick to criticize. Give to a stranger. Call a friend you know who needs someone to listen to them without advice. If you notice judgmental thoughts, let them go with a smile.
3. Love nature
Change your interaction with nature. Maybe you’ll be cycling instead of driving. Maybe you’ll start composting food scraps. Maybe you’ll choose eggs from chickens that live in cages? Or try being vegan for a week? We can’t do everything, and we shouldn’t, but never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness. Mother nature will thank you.
4. On the mat
Our yoga practice gives us ample opportunity to practice ahimsa. Sometimes it becomes obvious that we are being cruel when we punish ourselves for not being able to balance on one leg. Sometimes it’s so subtle that we don’t even notice. Maybe we think about how ugly our toes look when we hang forward, or roll our eyes at our hands to the side. Other times we ourselves become angry because of our chattering mind in savasana. But if you want to practice loving everyone, you can start right here by being kind to yourself. Settle into your Virabhadrasana II and see if you can become a warrior of love.
Join us next week as we explore the second pit, satya: truthfulness.
Photo by Ali Kaukus
Helen Avery is a section editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom and Wellness channels on wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and always walks her dog Millie.