Ahimsa is one of the first Yamas in the Eight limbs of Yoga.
In Sanskrit the word HIMSA means to injure, to violate or to harm. AHIMSA mean the opposite- non harm, or non violence.
The English word violence immediately brings very strong imagery to my mind. I consider physical abuse violent, swearing and aggressive bullying as violent, murder as violent, war as violent. In short violence to me seems like something quiet severe.
Now in general I would consider myself a non- violent person, I don’t hit anyone, I am not a bully, I have never murdered someone so how can I practice Ahimsa? In order to understand how ahimsa is practiced I needed to revisit this idea of what it means to injure, to harm or to be violent.
Violence in essence can be in our actions- subtle or extreme, in our words – subtle or extreme, and in our thoughts- loud or soft. Just like abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional so to can violence. We can see violence every day and we do not just do it to other people but to ourselves as well. In an extreme sense violence on ourselves may manifest as self harm, like cutting ourselves, or a more subtle form of self harm is constantly berating ourselves and telling ourselves we are not good enough, it can also manifest as guilt and resentment.
We also are committing violence on others by being passive aggressive. In outward aggression it is easy to see this as bullying, but passive aggression is far more cunning and as violent too. When someone does not do what we want them to do and we behave in a way that makes them feel bad by being passive aggressive we are not practicing ahimsa. When someone cuts us off when we are driving and we swear at them and become enraged we are essentially being violent to another and being violent to ourselves by allowing the full range of emotion to overtake us. When we buy something because we want it without any thought or concern about where it comes from and who potentially suffered for us to have it are we creating violence? Well the truth is yes, we continue the cycle and create its demand.
But how is it truly possible to practice ahimsa? When we broaden the idea of Ahimsa, then it becomes apparent almost everything we do can cause harm or violence in some way. If we have a car we are creating pollution and destroying the environment, if we eat vegetarian we need to destroy many tiny insects and flora to create fertile land for farming, almost every item of clothing that we can buy is manufactured using extremely poor people who work under unacceptable conditions. Having hateful thoughts about our colleague at work and gossiping about them with other colleagues to make ourselves feel superior. The list goes on and it becomes overwhelming to think about how much violence we cause in our world.
Maybe the idea is not to perfect or be Ahimsa, rather to allow this to be a principle to try our best to live by. If we broaden the idea even more and think about Ahimsa not as non- violence, or non harm but rather as its positive as love, acceptance, compassion, sacrifice, and forgiveness. In other words instead of cultivating hate and anger and selfishness and feeling the ripple affect that it causes we think of the other sides perspective and question our immediate conditioned responses.
As always with Yoga the first step is to start observing, to watch yourself first and see how you react, but we need to watch for the small acts of violence and from watching this we can begin to behave in a different way, with more love and compassion for ourselves and for all around us too.