What is ahimsa? Learn how to incorporate this yogic principle into your daily life
Ahimsa or non-violence might seem like a fairly self-explanatory concept, but there’s more to this yogic practice than meets the eye. This is because ahimsa applies not only in a physical sense, but verbally and emotionally too, as well as on and off the mat.
A non-violent practice
As you may already know, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras there are eight limbs of yoga, one of which is the yamas. These are five ethical and moral guidelines for living a spiritual life, and the first of which is the practice of non-violence, or ahimsa in Sanskrit.
Practising ahimsa requires you to resist knee-jerk reactions where violence, in any form, is directed towards yourself or others. Instead, it asks that you treat yourself with kindness, love and respect, as well as others, even when they might not be doing the same to you.
Chances are when most of us hear the idea of non-violence we think along the lines of do no harm, don’t use force or non-aggression —things we like to think we practise naturally already. And chances are you do, in some form. However, there is a lot more to ahimsa than the physical and literal violence that the term implies, and like many of the other yamas, the practice of ahimsa focuses on both the way we conduct ourselves and our relationships with others.
By momentarily putting aside the physical aspect, you start to think about the other forms of himsa (violence) you might express or encounter. For instance, those bouts of road rage and mutterings about that not-so favourite neighbour — that’s right; they’re verbal forms of himsa. The impact of putting yourself or others down is seen as emotional violence and pushing yourself to the point where you cause pain or injury on the yoga mat is also a form of himsa.
At its essence, practising ahimsa requires you to resist knee-jerk reactions where violence, in any form, is directed towards yourself or others. Instead, it asks that you take a completely opposite approach. This means treating yourself with kindness, love and respect, as well as others, even when they might not be doing the same to you.
Go gently on the mat
Respecting your boundaries, listening to your body and quieting the ego are ways to practise ahimsa on the mat.
We’ve all been guilty of pushing ourselves too far in yoga that we actually do harm to our body. Often this happens because instead of being fully present, we are instead looking around and comparing ourselves to others in our class. We say to ourselves, “I should be able to do that” “I’m the worst in the class” or “I need to keep up”. It’s easy to forget that your practice is just that and no one else’s. Even though you may be in a class setting, you can always determine your pace and level of comfort. This doesn’t mean you can never challenge yourself, but knowing your boundaries and when enough is enough is important.
Ahimsa challenges you to be mindful of your thoughts, words and actions and to transcend. Yes, someone may have done something to hurt or wrong you but you must relinquish your ego and the urge to respond from a place of reactivity. Instead, these are the greatest times to practise compassion and love.
Only you can decide if you are ready to try that fancy-looking arm balance and even if you are the only one in class who decides to go into child’s pose instead, that’s OK. Placing unnecessary pressure on yourself and the expectation to go deeper into a backbend or inversion you really aren’t ready for can do serious harm.
This respect for your body and your limits is a key part of ahimsa. So many students will decide to press through the pain or risk flaring up an old injury as they are embarrassed to be the only one not doing a pose. However, when you let go of your ego and accept where you are in your practice, you can achieve something much greater. Try to approach yourself and your practice with love, compassion and respect and work within your boundaries. Bringing ahimsa to the front of your mind allows you to use it as a lens to see how far you can go in your practice in any given moment, accepting whatever this may be and relishing in that space, instead of loathing.
Your thoughts and words
Your thoughts and words are powerful. However, when you use these in ways where they are negatively directed at yourself and others it becomes toxic.
In the 1990s Japanese scientist Dr Masaru Emoto helped illustrate the power of thoughts and words, along with the energy and vibrations they create. Emoto performed a series of experiments observing the physical effect of words, prayers, music and environment on the crystalline structure of water. When directing negative thoughts towards the water, such as insults, distorted large clusters formed. Positive thoughts of love and affection, on the other hand, created beautiful tight clusters.
It really makes you think. If your words and thoughts have this effect on water crystals, what are they doing when you direct them to yourself and others — especially if you consider the human body is roughly 60 per cent water?
Unsurprisingly, directing anger and negativity towards others, even when they have wronged you, isn’t exactly a yogic approach. Ahimsa challenges you to be mindful of your thoughts, words and actions and to transcend. Again this comes back to the ego. Yes, someone may have done something to hurt or wrong you but you must relinquish your ego and the urge to respond from a place of reactivity. Instead, these are the greatest times to practise compassion and love.
Taking this high road when practising ahimsa can be easier said than done, but the next time negative thoughts arise or the temptation to act or react in a way that could be considered “violent” occurs, step back and become an observer. Violence, no matter where directed, has a toxic, draining effect on the body and mind. Such negativity, whether on the giving or receiving end, can contribute to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can affect the body in myriad ways including lowered immune function, increased blood pressure and risk of depression, to name a few.
When you realise the effect himsa has on yourself and others, you can start to move away from resorting to violence and begin fostering greater peace internally. Remember, ahimsa shouldn’t be confused with suppressing anger or negativity. Instead it’s about becoming more conscious of your response process. By becoming an observer of your thoughts and emotions, but not acting on them in ways that will cause further violence, you can build understanding and compassion. For instance, you can acknowledge what has happened and say, yes, something has made me angry or caused me harm but I won’t respond in kind. I accept what has happened and will take a compassionate and loving approach to find a solution.
Ahimsa and food choices
When it comes to your diet and practising ahimsa, there are many ways this principle can be applied. Traditionally, ahimsa advocates a vegetarian diet. Ahimsa’s talk of doing no harm to other living things is naturally conducive to this; however it is ultimately a personal decision. There are other ways non-violence can be interpreted when it comes to food. For instance, are you giving into that sweet tooth too much and causing your body harm? Could you skip buying food from a chain supermarket and try out the farmer’s market instead? Are you purchasing foods or products that might be hurting the environment? Could you consider buying organic, fair-trade or going meatless a few days a week?
Regardless of how you choose to apply ahimsa to your diet, it allows you to reflect on how your food choices can affect your body, your mind and the environment. At the very least, this allows you to become more conscious of your food decisions and perhaps start to consider more wholesome, nourishing options in whatever form is realistic for your personal circumstances.
In a much larger context, non-violence has been adopted in various political movements as a technique to bring about social change.
Mahatma Gandhi used the principle of ahimsa in the Indian Independence movement against the British. Civil disobedience founded on the principles of non-violence was used to fight colonial rule. Gandhi called using non-violent techniques to bring about change “satyagraha” and referred to it as a “weapon of the strong”.
When speaking of ahimsa, Gandhi said, “Non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us.” While we may not be facing struggles as large, the power of non-violence speaks for itself and can provide some inspiration to adopt some smaller-scale techniques that might say, make your workplace or home life more harmonious.
The practice of ahimsa is in its essence about acceptance — acceptance of yourself and others and embracing love, kindness and compassion over anger and violence. It is a useful practice for you to build awareness of yourself, your choices and actions and how they affect others. It also encourages you to go gently and not be so tough on yourself and others.
Considering this, it naturally makes sense for an ahimsa-focused asana practice to draw upon these principles and focus on restorative, reflective and nourishing postures.
While practising the following asanas, focus on cultivating a “feeling” sense of awareness. Think about what your body and mind truly needs and allow yourself to relax and regenerate.
Reclined butterfly pose
This version of the cobbler’s pose is relaxing and restorative and opens up the hips and chest. Begin seated on your mat. Join the soles of the feet together and allow your knees to splay outwards and your hips to open. Slowly lower your back onto the mat and lie on the floor with your palms facing upwards. If you have a bolster or a rolled-up towel, place this lengthwise and in line with the spine to further open the chest. Relax in this position for several minutes.
This is an old favourite with an endless wealth of benefits. To enter child’s pose, bend the knees and sit on the shins. Place the fingertips by the hips and lift up through the spine to the crown of your head. Bend from the hips and slowly lower your head towards the mat. Keep the arms by your side or stretch them forwards in extended child’s pose.
For a restorative variation of pigeon pose, bend the right knee and place the shin on the mat. Extend the left leg backwards and try to lower the hips as much as possible to the mat. Keep your hands propped by your hips and push up through the crown of your head, lengthening the spine. Then, slowly walk the hands forward and lower your head towards the mat. Allow your arms to extend forwards and once you have lowered the head as far as possible, rest in this position. Feel the stretch through the arms and back, and feel the hips opening as you go deeper into the pose. If you have a bolster, you can place this lengthwise under the chest and rest here for several minutes for a truly relaxing and nourishing pigeon pose. Repeat on the opposite side.
Forward bend variation
Begin standing upright with your feet hip-distance apart. Interlace your fingers at your back and slowly bend forwards from the hips. Allow gravity to take over and the head and neck to relax as the arms float upwards. Bend the knees as needed to reduce any pressure on your back. For a variation, try rag doll pose by bringing the arms to the front and touching opposite hand to elbow. Bend the knees generously and allow the body to release.
Cow face pose
Sit on your mat with your legs extended in front on you. Firstly bend the right leg and place the foot just outside the left hip. Then, do the same with the left leg and stack the legs on top of each other, with the foot also just beside the right hip. Bring your hands together in prayer position and hold this pose. You can also attempt raising and bending the left arm and placing the hand between your shoulder blades. Then, feed through the right arm, going around and up the back, to grab hold of the opposite hand. If this position puts too much pressure on the knees, simply sit in a cross-legged pose or on the shins in vajrasana. Repeat on the opposite side.
Humble warrior pose
As the name of this pose might suggest, humble warrior is a pose about introspection, surrender and humility. To practise, enter a lunge with the right foot forwards and your knee bent over the ankle. The left foot should be towards the back of the mat with the heel off the mat and your leg straight. Bring your hands to the hips and centre. Interlace your fingers at your back and extend the arms to open the chest. Hold for a breath and then slowly begin to raise your arms upwards and move the crown of your head towards your ankle, lowering your front body over your bent leg. Repeat on the opposite side.
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