Discover ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence in thought, word and action

What is ahimsa? Find out how you can practice nonviolence in thought, word and action

Ahimsa, a concept categorised as a yama (moral, ethical and societal discipline) in yoga philosophy, is introduced in the second book of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Sadhana Pada, the book on yoga practice.

Patanjali mapped out an eightfold path for a yoga practitioner, with yamas being the first on the list. There are five yamas and they are the precepts guiding us to live peacefully and exist in harmony with ourselves, other human beings and the entire universe.

Patanjali valued the concept of ahimsa and included it as a core ethical foundation of his yoga philosophy, making it the first yama of the first of yoga’s eight limbs. He describes it in sutra II.35: Ahimsa pratishthayam tat samnidhau vaira tyagah. “In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease,” translates Sri Swami Satchidananda.

Ahimsa asks us to love one another, truly honouring our relationships.

In Sanskrit, himsa means “to harm or to injure”, a stands for “not”; hence, ahimsa is translated as “nonviolence” or “not causing pain” to all beings. Yoga master Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati (aka Ramamurti S Mishra, MD) classified himsa into three divisions:

  1. Physical, by body and instruments including wars for financial gain and power
  2. Vocal, by speaking against oneself or others, inclusive of psychological warfare
  3. Mental, by thinking against oneself or others

Ahimsa, therefore, demands the cessation of enmity in all aspects of life by not having physical, verbal and psychological motives or engaging in actions that may cause harm to yourself, other human beings and the environment you live in.

As Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati noted, “Nonviolence and abstinence of injury means abstinence from ill will toward all living beings in every way and at all time.”

Ahimsa today

If you meditate and practise yoga, you’re unlikely to engage in gross forms of violence, such as killing or physically hurting and abusing another being. However, have you ever considered what other expressions of harm you may be causing not only to humans, including yourself, but to all living creatures and the environment?

As a modern yogi, you can incorporate the more subtle aspects of ahimsa into your daily practice by first mindfully examining the daily choices you make. To start with, consider these questions:

  • What cosmetic products do you regularly purchase? If they are cruelty-free, it will be stated on the packaging, which again can be recyclable or not. Unfortunately, many companies still test their cosmetic products on animals and use packaging that is not friendly for the environment.
  • Where do your clothes, towels and sheets come from? What about the footwear you recently purchased? Sadly, the cheap garments and shoes you find in developed countries are often still produced in sweatshops, where workers face hard conditions and are not paid a fair wage for their labour. Consider, too, the impact that synthetic fabrics and artificial toxic dyes used in the manufacture of your clothing and bedding may have on your skin, the sewers’ health and the environment. There’s further harm involved in the use of animal skins and fur.
  • Which cleaning products do you use in your household? Are they harmful to you and your family when you inhale them, and bad for the environment?

The exciting news is that you can dictate demand for these goods by making more “ahimsic” (nonviolent) purchasing decisions. It’s easy enough to do, too — we are so very fortunate these days to have access to organic fabrics and ethically made footwear together with environmentally friendly self-care products, cosmetics and household supplies.

You may argue such products are more costly, and that generally is the truth. However, there are also plenty of exciting, widely available resources educating on how to make your own natural, eco-friendly moisturisers, soaps, shampoos and household cleaning products.

Ahimsa in the kitchen

What foods do you choose to eat? Do you know where they come from? Do you eat fruits and vegetables that have been processed or sprayed with pesticides? Do you consume animal products? Have you ever considered the treatment of the animals you choose to consume?

To practise ahimsa requires courage, awareness and love — firstly towards yourself, so that you can project it onto other beings and the environment.

Sadly, intensive farming — where animals are kept in captivity and endure suffering throughout their lives and stress and fright in the slaughterhouse — is all too common in the modern world. If you consume animal products, inclusive of dairy and eggs, research the producers thoroughly and choose to source your produce from organic farms where animals are grass-fed, free and lead happy, healthy lives on open pastures.

Himsa (harm) also occurs when you consume substances that harm and injure your bodily tissues and mind. Think pesticides, drugs, alcohol, overly fried foods, preservatives or processed foods robbed of vital nutrients.

Contemplate ahimsa in the ways you prepare food in your kitchen. Do not prepare meals in a rush but rather slow down, take a few deep breaths, express gratitude for the nourishing foods you have access to and cook with intentions of love for yourself and those you prepare a meal for.

Ahimsa in the yoga studio

The way you approach your yoga practice is a great indication of how you live your life.

Ahimsa practice on the yoga mat involves conscious awareness of yourself and being able to remain focused and present in your body and the breath. When you are fully present, you will not push yourself beyond your limits, you will not try to “pretzel” yourself into a pose your body is not ready for, you will not give in to comparing your practice to that of your fellow yogis. Rather, you will listen to your body, notice changes in your breath and be aware of the distractions that may arise in your practice.

Breath is a great guide in your asana (posture) and meditation practice. If it feels short, choppy, restricted, laboured or non-existent, you are likely either pushing yourself past your limitations or are carried away by a thought or some other distraction, such as an emotion or reaction.

If you catch yourself not breathing or getting distracted, use it as a learning tool. Examine whether this has become a habitual behaviour, notice whether you over-exert yourself physically in your practice, observe where you hold tension in your body, note if your thoughts are harmful in any way toward yourself or others and, when you’re ready, return to breathing mindfully and moving consciously through your asana practice.

Ahimsa and your relationships

What is your relationship like with yourself? Have you ever caught yourself thinking you know better than others about what is good for them?

The way you treat yourself reflects in how you treat others. “If you are critical of yourself, others will feel your high expectations of themselves as well,” writes Deborah Adele in Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. “If you are light-hearted and forgiving with yourself, others will feel ease and joy of being with you.” Further, according to Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati, “One cannot injure others without injuring oneself because injury is the result of psychological planning.”

Negative self-talk affects your endocrine system, releasing adrenalin and cortisol and preparing you for the “fight or flight” response to the invader or the attacked — who, in this case, is you. With increased cortisol, your stress level elevates, which can result in anxiety, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, mood swings and lowered immunity.

… Choose to source your produce from organic farms where animals are grass-fed, free and lead happy, healthy lives on open pastures.

Plus, as researchers Guido Peeters and Janusz Czapinski found in a study published in the European Review of Social Psychology, human brains are wired to esteem negative thoughts. “The negativity effect can be roughly defined as a greater impact of evaluative negative than of equally intense positive stimuli on the subject,” they wrote.

Rick Hanson, PhD, the author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, elaborates: “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones — even though most of our experiences are neutral or positive”.

As you can see, negativity bias — which includes toxic thoughts, harsh self-judgement, worries of “not-enoughness”, guilt and comparing yourself with others — isn’t entirely your fault. Instead, it’s a shared human trait developed through evolution — which you can alter through the practice of ahimsa and compassion.

Ahimsa asks us to love one another, truly honouring our relationships. And, rather than constantly trying to change ourselves and those around us, it invites us to be gentle, to ground and to soften, as ultimately through compassion we see ourselves in other beings.

To practise ahimsa requires courage, awareness and love — firstly towards yourself, so that you can project it onto other beings and the environment.

Ahimsa and the mind

When it comes to your mind and formal meditation, observing ahimsa involves the generation of compassion, empathy, love and kindness to all beings. This leads to the incorporation of metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion) practices, which embrace the concept of ahimsa and originate from Buddhist psychology.

These practices are becoming increasingly popular and some convincing research demonstrates the positive effects of loving-kindness meditation on the brain and overall wellbeing.

One study directed by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin found that the practice of metta meditation, among long-term practitioners, increases the activity of the insula and activates the temporal parietal juncture (TPJ): two areas of the brain connected to empathy and emotional sharing. The insula plays a significant role in the physical representation of emotion by being responsible for how you empathise with others; the TPJ is linked to how you process empathy and perceive the emotional states of others.

Another study, led by professor Barbara Fredrickson of The University of North Carolina and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, revealed that cultivating positive emotions through loving-kindness meditation raises the “vagal tone”. The vagus nerve is a central component of the parasympathetic nervous system and its increased tone was found to enhance feelings of calm and relaxation, allowing your body to repair itself as well as boosting positive emotions and wellbeing.

Generating loving-kindness and compassion through meditation also transforms your brain, releasing the calming and “feel-good” hormone oxytocin and increasing brain plasticity. These practices can boost your immune system, reduce stress and help you cultivate joy, contentment and gratitude, together with promoting faster healing and life satisfaction.

A metta meditation

Loving-kindness meditation is a practice that involves sending out heartfelt loving wishes for the welfare of yourself and others, generating compassion, love and healing in your life and theirs. This meditation practice is inspired by the Metta Sutta, an ancient Buddhist poem about loving-kindness, and can be used in your daily practice and done anywhere. Sit in a comfortable seated position with your eyes closed and your spine erect, either cross-legged or on a chair with your legs uncrossed and feet flat on the floor.

  • Begin by sending loving wishes to yourself:

May I be healthy, happy and free from suffering.

May I feel safe and protected.

May I live in peace and with ease.

  • Bring to your mind a loved one and send your love and kind wishes towards that person:

May you be happy, healthy and free from suffering.

May you feel safe and protected.

May you live in peace and with ease.

Repeat this process with another person or two you love.

  • Now, bring to your mind an acquaintance who you don’t know that well and begin to send warm wishes to that person:

Just as I wish to be happy, healthy and free from suffering, may you too be happy, healthy and free from suffering

May you feel safe and protected.

May you live in peace and with ease.

Repeat for another acquaintance or neighbour who enters your mind.

  • Finally, expand your awareness toward the community you live in, the country you reside in or to the whole world, and generate loving wishes towards them:

Just as I wish to, may you too be happy, healthy and free from suffering

Just as I wish to, may you feel safe and protected.

Just as I wish to, may you live in peace and with ease.

Reaffirming ahimsa

You may choose to use the following mantra to accompany your ahimsa practice: lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu.

In the Ashtanga yoga lineage, this mantra is recited as the second-last line of the closing chant; it also represents the core concept behind the Jivamukti yoga tradition. Many yoga practitioners and teachers also use this mantra daily to reaffirm the concept of ahimsa and propagate kindness and compassion in the world.

Do not prepare meals in a rush but rather slow down, take a few deep breaths, express gratitude for the nourishing foods you have access to and cook with intentions of love.

The simplest, most well-known meaning of this powerful mantra is: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” The Jivamukti Yoga school, founded by Sharon Gannon and David Life, popularised a more complete and comprehensive translation of this chant: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”

You can incorporate this mantra as an intention for your yoga practice, chant it as a finishing prayer after your practice or recite it — whether silently or out loud — in your meditation 108 times using mala beads (Buddhist prayer beads).

As a yoga practitioner, it is important to remember that you embark on a life-long journey of ahimsa. It’s a practice and can seem overwhelming at first — yet very exciting. The advice here is to strive to cause the least amount of harm by beginning to make shifts in your life that feel right and resonate with you and your beliefs.

Ahimsa is the practice of nonviolence in thought, word and deed toward others, the environment and yourself.

Mascha Coetzee

Mascha Coetzee

Mascha Coetzee is a yoga teacher, holistic health coach, nutrition assistant and linguist, and a practitioner of hatha yoga, inclusive of ashtanga, vinyasa and yin yoga. She integrates the wisdom of yoga, Ayurveda, CTM and modern research in her lifestyle and teachings. Mascha is based in Launceston, Tasmania.

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