Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the first yama in Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga path. The yamas are ethical restraints and are the first step of the eight-limbed path to enlightenment laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
In essence, these are the things not to do on the spiritual path. There are five of these “don’ts” that include:
All of the eight limbs of the Ashtanga path are important, including each yama. However, the path is a hierarchy and a yogi cannot progress to the next step before mastering the preceding step.
So it could be argued that the first limb is the most important step on the path toward enlightenment, and it could be further argued that the first yama is the most important step of all.
The practice of non-violence is of the utmost important to most spiritual practices, but to yogic philosophy, this basic tenet is one of the core values of yogic practice.
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Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence and non-harming. This principle can be applied to so many different aspects of our everyday lives.
When we first think of violence, our minds often go straight to bloody scenes of gore and mutilation. But violence isn’t always so apparent or grotesque.
Violence can be a much more internal process as well. We don’t have to outwardly murder others in order to be violent. Violence can often be quite subtle actually.
The practice of ahimsa includes restraint from all kinds of violence—even the seemingly innocuous kinds. Violent thoughts, words, and actions are all restricted by this principle.
So to practice ahimsa, we must carefully watch our thoughts, words, and actions—whether that means sparing the harmless bug you find in your bedroom or refraining from harmful self-talk, the practice of non-violence applies across the board.
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To practice ahimsa, we must be mindful and aware of everything that crosses our minds.
If we feel angry, frustrated, or upset, we often think negative or even harmful thoughts. We may wish harm onto others because we feel they “deserve” it or we might even speak harmfully toward ourselves.
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These are all violent actions, and in order to practice ahimsa, we must actively refrain from violence like this.
Even though most of us aren’t committing homicide, we can—even unintentionally—be violent with our thoughts or words.
Yogis believe strongly in the concept of karma, the law of action and cause and effect. Karma follows us throughout our lives and even into future lives. So in order to erase negative karma and accumulate positive karma, it’s incredibly important to practice non-violence.
There are a number of ways that we can practice ahimsa, but some are particularly important.
To truly embrace non-violence, we must view all sentient beings as valuable and all life as meaningful. This means that we shouldn’t kill harmless insects or value one life above another.
This means that we don’t follow the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” mentality, but instead, practice compassion and understanding with the lives of all beings.
Ahimsa is a practice of complete non-harming, so in order to truly follow this tenet, we must do no harm—to anyone or anything.
This can include refraining from violence to the planet by living a more sustainable life or adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet to not harm animals or the environment.
To truly practice non-violence, we cannot leave any destruction or devastation in our wake. We must consciously choose to do no harm.
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Violence doesn’t always manifest physically. Violence can also manifest in our thoughts and words. So to practice ahimsa, we must diligently practice kindness—toward ourselves, toward others, toward other sentient beings, toward the environment, and so on.
It isn’t always easy to manage our raging tempers, but we can always choose our words carefully. If we all stopped to think before we spoke when angry, the world might be a much more loving place.
If we all treated ourselves with kindness and respect, there might be a whole lot less suffering. If we all cared for our bodies, nourished ourselves and our relationships, and acknowledged the precious gift of all life, then we would live in a drastically different environment.
Kindness must prevail over violence, and as yogis on a spiritual path, it is our duty to uphold this practice.
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The great yogic tale Autobiography of a Yogi perfectly expresses the internal practice of ahimsa in one of its poignant anecdotes.
The author was visiting his guru when a mosquito landed on him. He quickly lifted his hand to strike the insect when he suddenly paused and thought about the concept of non-violence, the principle of ahimsa. He decided to spare the mosquito’s life and, instead, brush it away.
His guru, however, witnessed the entire scene and told him that he might as well finish the job because he had already killed the mosquito in his mind.
This story clearly demonstrates the true meaning of ahimsa. Ahimsa is not just an outward refrain from violence, but an inward one as well.
Of course, to practice ahimsa, we shouldn’t kill—mosquitoes or otherwise. But we also shouldn’t even think those harmful thoughts. In order to truly practice ahimsa, we must purify our actions and our thoughts to live with our hearts wide open.
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To live a truly harmless life is challenging, but it is attainable. If we diligently watch our thoughts, words, and actions, we can work to make the world a more loving and safe place.
According to the laws of karma, every thought, word, and action ripples out into eternity, forever changing the course of the world. If we consciously choose those thoughts, words, and actions to represent non-violence, then just imagine what a better world we could collectively create.
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