Ahimsa, the first of the five yamas laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is the practice of non-violence, both towards oneself and toward all other living beings.
When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.YS II.35
In Sanskrit, the word ‘ahimsa’ translates to ‘non-harming’ or ‘non-violence,’ but compassion is also used as a loose interpretation. Ahimsa is respecting your own body and extending that same respect to all other sentient beings of the world. This includes family, friends, strangers, people you may not like, people of different races, cultures, sexual orientation, religion, dogs, horses, elephants, grasshoppers, spiders, sharks, fruit flies etc.
One can interpret the yogic concept of ‘ahimsa‘ in a multitude of ways – as is generally the case when translating from Sanskrit. One can interpret non-violence in its literal sense, as doing no physical harm to another living being. One could also interpret non-violence as adherence to a vegetarian or vegan diet. It can refer to taking care of yourself, and it can also be applied to your physical yoga practice.
ahimsa & diet
One of the most common discussions on the subject of ahimsa is the yogic diet. Do yogis have to be vegetarian to be a ‘true’ yogi? The answer can be both yes and no. It depends a lot on individual circumstances, not to mention the fact that the vague translation leaves a lot up to interpretation. Kino MacGregor explains it best in her book The Power of Ashtanga Yoga. She explains that the practitioner of yoga cannot claim ignorance in regard to the cruel farming practices that provide food.
You are responsible to your body for what you feed it. Similarly, you are responsible to society and to the world for what things you contribute to on a larger scale.
Yoga demands of us that we determine what moral codes we will abide by in our lives. It demands that we stick to them with conviction. As your practice progresses and the empathetic pathways throughout your body begin to open up and dilate, you begin to resonate more with that which you formerly deemed as ‘separate’ – other people, other species, other races, etc. A dedicated yoga practice dissolves this word – ‘other.’ There is no separateness, only oneness.
Your consciousness evolves, and fosters a connection with the rest of the world rather than a sense of detachment. In this you’re reconnected with all sentient beings, and the desire to eat less animal product comes naturally. Make no mistake, I’m not talking about becoming enlightened. It’s simply a realization that comes with time in your practice.
For most of us, this realization doesn’t come the moment we step onto our yoga mat for the first time. And before this realization comes, it’s difficult to see in the same sense. Converting to a vegetarian diet when you don’t particularly want to would undoubtedly be much more difficult. Perhaps so difficult that it becomes forced, and it becomes an act of violence against yourself.
small change is still change
Take your time, honor the journey, work in small steps. Don’t go too far too fast – just as in your physical practice. Set your goal in increments, beginning with attainment of a diet that minimizes harm to other sentient beings. Sourcing your food from local farms that have humane practices and ample space in which the animals can reside, for example.
There are steps that can be taken to reduce your impact without feeling as though you’re making a sacrifice.
the power of thought
“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draws it. Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.”Gautama Buddha
Ahimsa is also the absence of violent thoughts. Conscious or unconscious, our thoughts and our belief system becomes intertwined. We say our thoughts and our beliefs aloud, and they become our actions. Our actions define who we are as a person. So you can see the problem.
When do you have negative thoughts? See if you can bring your awareness to these thoughts as they’re occurring. See if you can relinquish aggression and impatience and instead create room in yourself for acceptance and growth.
Notice negative thoughts as they occur. Sit with them, allow them the space to exist within you without judgement, if only for a moment or two. And then, let them go.
ahimsa & travel
One can apply the basic tenets of ahimsa when traveling as well. There are many destinations in the world that are in need of compassion and metta, loving-kindness. You can choose to not support forms of tourism that exploit or harm animals (i.e., elephant riding).
Abiding by the principle of ‘leave no trace’ is a good one. Meaning: pick up after yourself! If you’re going to a park or somewhere similar, don’t leave evidence you’ve ever even been. You can exhibit compassion toward the local people of wherever it is that you may be by keeping an open mind. Even the simple realization that the world as you know it is not the world as it is can have profound impact.
This realization trickles down to our subconscious, then to our conscious thoughts, then our intentions and actions. The result is a more open, accepting world.
ahimsa & asana
Bringing the yama of ahimsa into your physical yoga practice is crucial for both tenacity and equanimity on the mat. If you are silently criticizing, judging, berating yourself in your mind while you practice, your body will register that on a cellular level. Everything is connected.
The next time you step onto your mat, set the intention to infuse ahimsa into your practice. Use the wholeness and the depth of each breath to hone your thoughts and tune in to your inner witness.
Are your thoughts belittling? Do you treat yourself too harshly? Are you busy comparing yourself to the person next to you? As you inhale, take in and maintain those good thoughts that sustain you. On your exhale, release any self-limiting thoughts, judgments, or comparisons.
As you begin to flow into physical postures, gauge your energy levels. Determine whether or not a particular asana is appropriate for you today. Some days, forcing yourself to practice a posture that isn’t working for you could be considered self-imposed harm. It all depends where you’re at both mentally and physically. Don’t fight your way into the postures. Take a few breaths in child’s pose if that is what will best serve you in the moment.
Honoring your body with appreciation and respect in your asana will lend more love toward your practice in its entirety. Bring these principles with you when you step off of your mat – the changes will start subtle, growing more and more profound with practice.
Check out this pre/post flight yoga sequence for your next trip!