Ahimsa

Yoga Sutra 2.35 says”ahimsā pratishthāyām tat vaira-tyāgah”.

  • ahimsa = non-violence, non-harming, non-injury
  • pratishthāyām = having firmly established, being well grounded in
  • tat = that, of his or her
  • vaira-tyāgah = give up hostilities (vaira = hostility, enmity, aggression; tyāga = abandon, give up

When translated into English, it means – “As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility”.

Ahimsa, traditionally translated to non-violence or non-injury, is the first Yama (restraints). Non-violence, non-injury, extends to others, nature and ourselves. One may think of non-violence in a physical situation, but again, life is more than this. What about our actions, language, and even our thoughts? The mind is difficult to control. Thoughts of a violent nature, toward ourselves or others, can occur and spin out of control. An important lesson to learn here is to differentiate between truth and “chatter”. Truth tends to be penetrating, direct, and without a lot of words. Whereas chatter tends to be just the opposite – disturbing, noisy and senseless.

Ahimsa, as an emotional practice, involves one’s ability to deal with the feelings of anger and its various subtleties. Anger is an emotion that demands change. When it is left to simmer, it can lead to all kinds of resentment, sulking, tantrums, and irrational fear. Anger is the emotion that underlies any level of hostility, outrage, or violent behaviour, so it must be dealt with immediately and not be denied or ignored. If we can recognise and experience anger simply as a kind of energy, we will be able see and then choose another way of feeling and behaving. The key is to come face to face with the intentions of violence, hatred, or fear, accept them and the hostility within us can then be neutralised.

Question: What does Ahimsa in yoga practice mean?

For many of us, it means backing off and learning to let the competitive ego go. Many yoga practitioners believe that pushing their bodies beyond the limit is a mental win. But yoga is not about competition. There is no competitiveness in yoga. In fact, we need to focus on ourselves – not on other people – while practising.

In my first few years of yoga practice, I pushed myself a lot, breathed through the pain and ignored the injuries in my left hamstring. It affected me physically and mentally. I could not do simple poses like paschimottanasana and uttanasana properly. I was frustrated and angry with myself so I disregarded the pain and continued to push myself further. I feared that I would not be able to advance in my yoga practice because of the injury. My morale was hit and I did not feel good after every class. The consequence of my ignorance and egoism – my right hamstring was also injured. I deceived myself by continuing with the practice despite the injuries, thinking that miracle would happen one day and the pain in my hamstrings would disappear. Then one day, I decided to stop the “nonsense” and “listen to my body” during the practice. I realized I need to do less to get more. So I bent my knees in poses like paschimottanasana and uttanasana. I stopped pushing when I felt sharp pain (and not a stretch) in my hamstrings or any parts of my body. I began to practise awareness in yoga classes. The pain in my hamstring went away a few months later and I felt better physically and mentally in my yoga practice thereafter. I have learned that modifying postures to compensate for injuries, weakness, or a low energy level is practising ahimsa on our mats. Rather than gaining satisfaction from fancy postures and physical feats, I find that consistent practice that matches breath to movement is what that benefits us the most and makes the most changes in us.

The challenge in a yoga practice is not in pushing ourselves and learning not to compete with ourselves is a more difficult skill. The challenge is this – rather than push ourselves physically to gain a mental benefit, consider that we can do the same by practicing Ahimsa. It might just change the way we practise yoga and transform our practice…and us. Once we have learned to practise ahimsa and compassion with ourselves, and to let go of our messy egos and their expectations, then we have become true yoga practitioner. The mark of an advanced yoga practitioner is not that he or she can wrap his leg behind his head. It is that he/she treats his/her body as the valuable temple that houses his/her mind and spirit.

Start practising Ahimsa on the mat today! It will go a long way to making you not only learn more about yourself, but challenge you in new ways you never thought possible.

Yoga is a journey and not a process.

Namaste.