Ahimsa, directly translated from the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, means non-violence and compassion towards all living beings, including plants and animals. Ahimsa is founded on the principle that all living beings hold within them the energy of the divine. Thus, if we commit an act of violence towards another, we are only dimming theirs, and our own, divine light. Committing violence and harming others also effects our karmic yoga, our “points” system that is developed throughout our lifetime. Karma is a system of reciprocity. When one performs an undesirable or harmful act, they may be dealt something in their life that manifests as a struggle or punishment. Compassionate actions are rewarded with benefits and appreciation. Additionally, living based on ahimsa helps to create a nurtured self, a beautiful version of self, that is inspiring to others to live a life of nonviolence and deep compassion towards all.
In thinking of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, ahimsa is the first of the Yamas, which are the five that pertain to the self. The Yamas relate to self-restraint and self-control, finding within the self, how to act appropriately in situations and not act out of deep emotion, whether that’s sadness, anger, etc. By applying the yamas to the self, we can approach events in life with a clear mind, thinking subjectively, and not become overly tied to any emotion or event. In terms of ahimsa as a yama, there are many ways we can apply this in our lives to live wholly and respectfully.
1. Ahimsa as veganism.
Veganism is a form of diet or lifestyle where you do not consume any products derived from an animal. This includes most majorly meat, eggs and dairy. Additionally products such as gelatin, shortening, some food colorings, etc. are made from obscure animal products such as bones, hooves, and insects. There is a surprising amount of food products that contain animal derivatives, as well as non-food products. These might include but are not limited to alcoholic beverages (both beer and wine contain filtering agents that might be derived from animal bones), nail polish and other make-up, and shampoo and conditioner (many contain dairy). Purchasing leather and fur goods are also seen as going against the principle of ahimsa. Even if we are not doing the acts of violence ourselves against these helpless animals, by consuming these products we are directly supporting those and the businesses that do harm these beautiful creatures. We want to aim to treat animals kindly, with compassion, just as we do to other human beings. Animals are sentient, meaning they can feel, and many have the ability to process emotion from other beings. For example, adult pigs have the intelligence level of a 3-year old human, and cows are able to detect emotion in humans and respond accordingly. Why is that we love dogs and cats and welcome them into our homes, yet we carelessly slaughter other animals for our pleasure to consume? There should be no difference. It personally took me sometime to make the connection between what I’m consuming and how it arrived to me. I was raised in a family where we ate meat frequently, had leather shoes and furniture, and drank cow’s milk first thing in the morning. While I do not judge my parents for raising me as they did, it wasn’t until I moved out of home and really began taking a look at my life, my values, and how I wanted to more consciously consume. It’s taken me nearly 7 years to truly identify as a full vegan. Change most certainly does not happen overnight. It is quite easy to be hard on ourselves. As you are reading this, please do not take offense to what I am writing, or try not to criticize your personal consumption of everyday food and products. However, by slowly making choices to consume consciously and avoid products that were created on the basis of violence towards living beings, eventually there will be a ripple effect, and others will begin to catch on as well. In thinking about how we educate others about ahimsa and veganism, we must remember to treat other human beings with ahimsa in doing so. If we so readily attack others for their personal choices, their response to our teachings will undoubtedly be negative, and no thought would be provoked to start change. It is massively important that we practice ahimsa towards others whilst educating them about living with ahimsa. While not everyone you may speak to will go vegan, there is a possibility that something will spark within them, that divine light, that may lead them to consume more consciously in a way that is meaningful to them. Most people are very willing to listen as long as information is presented to them in a neutral, kind, and understanding manner. We must practice what we preach. Practice ahimsa, teach ahimsa, and ahimsa will be learned.
2. Ahimsa as self-love.
Self-love is not arrogance. Self-love is not narcissism. Self-love is acknowledging that you are a useful member of this world, that you have something valuable to contribute to the greater good, and that you feel you are the best version of you that you can be. It is so important for our self-esteem to feel love towards ourselves as we do towards others. If we practice ahimsa to all living beings, then we must absolutely include ourselves. We are responsible for keeping our divine light shining as bright as possible, and to do this, we need to be compassionate and kind to ourselves as we are to others. As someone who had difficulty looking at themselves positively for many, many years, particularly through the formative ones, I can tell you that self-love may not be an easy feat. However, if everything in life were easy, that would make it far less interesting! But, to be the best version of ourselves is what will keep our divine light shining, and it will certainly attract bright lights that surround you. Compassion, kindness, and nonviolence towards the self is an essential concept that we must embody in order to live a life where we experience deep and unconditional love that comes from the self and from others.
3. Ahimsa in practicing yoga.
While practicing yoga, you may have heard your instructor say “practice today with ahimsa.” What does that mean exactly? In yoga, practicing with ahimsa is another way of developing self-love. Practicing yoga asana with compassion and nonviolence towards the mind and the physical body is an extremely valuable concept to curate. Yoga has quickly become something that appears as a competitive activity. We so often find ourselves subconsciously competing with those on the mats around us and yogis on social media. We may discover in yoga that we are pushing ourselves to limits that perhaps should not be pushed. When it comes to our bodies, they are completely different to anyone else’s. We all have unique figures and frames, and our limbs and joints have abilities that others may or may not have. Thus, while practicing yoga asana, we must try to not compete with others and push our bodies into a range that could cause damage or injury. This is not the purpose of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to unite within ourselves, to unite with our divine light, and to appreciate our bodies for its natural abilities. Certainly in yoga we want to achieve and improve. However, achievements and improvements should be tangible goals that are perfect for our unique bodies. By inflicting violence on our bodies in yoga asana, we are going against everything that the practice attempts to teach. Pushing our bodies to places they may not ever be able to go is a waste of time, and does not help us to positively develop self-love. Rather than focusing on what your body might not be able to do, focus on what it can do, because I truly feel that it can do so much more than it cannot. If you attempt to shift your focus, you may start to gain more self-love and self-appreciation, and practicing asana with ahimsa will be in full effect.
4. Ahimsa in teaching yoga.
If you are a yoga teacher, it is crucial to your students’ wellbeing that you teach with ahimsa. Every student that is walking through the studio doors, placing their mat in a line and participating in your class is coming to the studio with something. Whether that is a terrible day at work, a speeding ticket, a break-up, loss of a family member, it doesn’t matter what battle they’re fighting. They may not be fighting anything at all at the moment. However, everyone is either going through something or has gone through something, and we must remember that when teaching others. Let your students know that yoga is not a place to compete with anyone but yourself, and that it is key to listen to what their bodies are telling them. There is no need to push oneself beyond limits, and if they feel the need to modify an asana or rest, that that is wholly and beautifully encouraged. Teach with compassion and kindness. Acknowledge that your students are individuals with individual needs. Teach with nonviolence. Adjust your students as gently as possible, and if they do not want to be touched, respect that with the utmost regard. You might also want to approach students before or after class to gauge how they are feeling. It is important as a teacher to engage with your students off the mat as well, and show genuine interest in anything that might be going on for them in their lives. If you notice a student struggling during class, quietly and kindly approach them, and ask if there was anything you might have been able to do better to accommodate their needs. Rather than making it about the student’s struggles, gear the conversation first towards you as an instructor. By approaching the conversation this way without attacking the student and their difficulties, they will be more likely to open up and a compassionate conversation can naturally occur. In teaching yoga with ahimsa, you may also want to try to open up about yourself to your students. When I begin a yoga class, I get my students into supta baddha konasana (reclined butterfly pose), or another comfortable reclined or seated position, and I tell them a short story. Typically, I try to tell a story about a concept that I’m working through or an idea I’ve been thinking about, or even something that happened in my day that I’m reflecting upon. More likely than not, you’ll have students that connect with what you are speaking about on some level. By letting even just a small portion of your personal life into the class, you are allowing your students to see you as a human being, a compassionate human being that wants to connect authentically with others.
5. Ahimsa in interacting with others.
Generally, we are inclined to interact positively with other people and animals. Humans want to be good-natured, and most of us take what we think and say into account and how it will affect those around us. However, events in our lives shape who we are, despite our nature to be good and well intended. We all have days where we need to be alone and interacting with other people would just be too much of a burden. We all have days where we might lash out at someone, and project our feelings about something unto them without meaning to. We all have days where hurt someone’s feelings, make someone angry, or make someone sad. We are humans, and because so, we are not perfect. In recognizing this fact though, we can all try to do our best. Our best might be the best for some, but not the best for others, and that is okay, too. It should be a personal goal every day to be kind to those we meet in the day, because the golden rule from kindergarten still applies all the way into adulthood and throughout the rest of our lives: treat others how you want to be treated. You are a direct projection of how you want others to see and treat you. If you act with violence, anger, and judgment, those are the acts that you will see come upon to you. If you act with compassion, understanding, empathy, and genuineness, these are the acts that you will see come upon to you.
6. Ahimsa in how we treat Mother Earth.
Mother Earth, our beautiful planet, especially in present day is in extreme danger and she is struggling to find balance. Natural disasters all over the world are aplenty, global warming is occurring and destroying the natural climate, there is tons and tons of greenhouse gases being emitted from vehicles and factories, and there is over-farming and deforestation of gorgeous lands, amongst many other global issues that humankind is contributing to, rather than working to help solve. How we treat the planet directly correlates to our quality of life. Without trees to breath fresh oxygen into the air, our immune systems become comprised and disease is inevitable. By making small changes in our lives, similar to veganism, there will eventually be a ripple effect and more and more people will become tuned in to these major issues. There has already been a large response by the young generation, and there are many documentaries warning humankind of the repercussions of the damage we have caused, as well as advice on how to work to make things better. It is so important to educate ourselves about environmental issues, and ensure that we are treating Mother Earth as kindly, compassionately, and nonviolently as we possibly can. We can consume less meat, and in turn that would save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year, massively decrease deforestation, and prevent deadly gases from being released into the atmosphere from slaughterhouses. We can save water also by reducing the amount that we use in our daily lives (i.e. shorter showers, turning off the tap whilst brushing teeth, washing dishes by hand rather in a dishwasher, etc). Again, these may seem small, yet the more people who begin to abide by a more conscious way of living, these small changes will eventually grow into a more global scale. We can grow our own organic vegetables, we can recycle all plastics, paper, and other materials we use daily, we can grocery shop with reusable bags, we can donate old or unused clothing, we can drive less and take more public transportation, we can turn off the lights when we leave a room, we can volunteer for organizations that work towards solving environmental issues, we can plant trees, we can consume from and support businesses that are ethical and sustainable. There are endless compassionate acts we can do in order to treat Mother Earth with respect and care. It is truly to our benefit to treat her well, as when she is happy, we reap the benefits.
Ahimsa is a beautiful concept to introduce into your life in any way that you see fit. These are mere suggestions of ways to incorporate ahimsa daily in various aspects. How you interpret the meaning of ahimsa to you personally is your prerogative, and I compassionately respect your feelings and opinions. We may all want to strive to be supportive, respectful, empathetic, and authentic. The world is in a current state of struggle and confusion, where violence appears to have become the norm. Mother Nature is in a state of turmoil, acting with natural disasters that are causing significant, life-affecting damages. Whichever path you walk in life, walk it with care. Likely along the way you will meet people that need you, that need your help and your compassion to carry them through. Likely along the way you will meet people that you need, that you need help from and their compassion to carry you through. Human connection is extraordinarily powerful. We all need it, despite our feeling sometime to want to be isolated or alone. We cannot get through this life without the support and connection from others, thus living with ahimsa is key in creating beautiful and true connections not only with other humans, but with you as a being as well. Just as importantly, if not more important, is our connection to the self, to our glowing divine light. Ultimately, we are the guides of our own lives. We are in the longest committed relationship with ourselves, so we must recognize that, and ensure that this relationship is the strongest and most secure one in our lives. Without a positive relationship to the self, we cannot have positive relationships with others. Practicing ahimsa towards the self and lighting your divine spirit is a beautiful rehearsal for exuding that towards others. We can all use kindness in our day, so be a pioneer and show that compassion and empathy can guide us through this rollercoaster of life.
A lovely way to start actively practicing ahimsa is through loving kindness meditation. Through loving kindness meditation, you might repeat a mantra silently in your mind that sends cosmic messages of love, kindness, compassion, and positive thought towards yourself and others. For more information of loving kindness meditation, techniques, and mantras you may want to visit the following websites:
- The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
- Greater Good in Action at UC Berkeley
- UNH Health & Wellness YouTube
Take small steps, make small changes, and undoubtedly you will being to see their effects in your life, in others, and globally. We live in such a beautiful world, and it is up to us to sustain it, nourish it, love it, and treat it preciously.