Yoga Philosophy: Ahimsa, the First Principle of Yama
Yoga is a practice both on and off the mat. The eight limbs of yoga help us to lead a more fulfilled life and guide us through a process of personal transformation.
Yama, the first of these limbs, teaches us how to establish a harmonious relationship with the world around us, and we can start doing it through Ahimsa.
What Is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa is the first principle of Yama. Translated from Sanskrit, it means “non-harming,” “non-injury,” or “non-violence.” On a more positive note, it is kindness or compassion. You can practice Ahimsa by being kind and compassionate toward yourself and others through your actions, words, thoughts, and choices.
Below are some ideas for how you can incorporate Ahimsa into your everyday life.
How to Practice Ahimsa on and off the Mat
Ahimsa in Relationships
OK, you may think, I don’t hit, yell at, or abuse anyone. I talk kindly, help others, and do not give in to bouts of road rage. I’m not being violent.
You’re definitely on the right path. Though there are a few more things that you can focus on.
1. Be Aware of How You Talk about Others
The first of these is judgment. People watching or talking about others simply to share information is harmless. It can actually be a wonderful source of inspiration and personal growth.
Nonetheless, there’s a difference between neutrally observing or saying: “She dyed her hair pink.” and doing it with a judgemental tone: “She dyed her hair pink.”
When we judge others, we often make assumptions based on our own beliefs, experiences, and preferences. A lot of times, these have nothing to do with them but everything to do with us. And it does more harm to us than anyone else.
Negativity breeds even more negativity. Neurons don’t like to overwork and make shortcuts instead. Same as you would if you had to do a repetitive task all day, every day.
So, if you continuously judge, complain, or criticize others, your neurons will create new pathways and rewire your brain to automatically respond negatively.
2. Be Aware of How You Talk to Others
Passive-aggressiveness is another form of behavior that doesn’t get us places. It stems from anger, fear of confrontation, and a sense of helplessness. It addresses the symptoms rather than the root of the problem.
Each of us sees the world through our own lens, and no one can hack into our brains to know what exactly we mean. A passive-aggressive approach is rarely understood in the way it was intended. Instead, it builds tension and escalates the conflict.
To avoid these behaviors, we need to be aware of what we say and how we speak, and how it may affect other people. If you ever catch yourself judging or being passive-aggressive to someone, think about how you could have handled the situation differently. Take note of it, and try to act accordingly in the future.
Ahimsa Toward Yourself
Often, we tend to be our own most ruthless critics, and it affects us on a biological level.
Each thought we have releases brain chemicals. While positive thoughts do many good things for us, negative ones have the opposite effect. They raise stress hormone cortisol levels and slow down brain coordination. This makes it difficult to find solutions and creatively solve problems.
Negative thoughts also spike up fear, affect our mood, memory, and impulse control, and can even change our cells and genes. Pessimists have a higher risk of depression, rockier relationships, poorer work or school performance, and can die sooner.
We can’t get rid of our thoughts, but we can control their frequency. That’s where we can apply Ahimsa to ourselves.
1. Keep Your Inner Critic in Check
So, next time you look in the mirror, find something kind to say to yourself. Catch yourself criticizing or shaming yourself and think of something positive. Don’t beat yourself up over something that you did or didn’t do. Take it as a learning lesson and adapt your future behavior accordingly.
Sit down and write a list of 10 amazing things about yourself. Then save it somewhere easily accessible and reread it whenever you feel down.
Think of what you can be grateful for right before going to sleep. Write some inspiring quotes on post-it notes and place them on your mirror or computer.
Since we can rewire our brains, do anything that would help you rewire yours to be more positive.
2. Check Other Areas of Your Life
Thoughts aren’t the only way you can be doing harm to yourself. How about other aspects of your life? Can you integrate Ahimsa into them too?
- Are you sleeping enough?
- Are you eating regular nutritious meals?
- Do you have some “me” time or time for your hobbies?
- How’s your work-life balance?
- Do you delegate tasks to others, or do you do everything yourself?
There is a reason why boarding announcements on planes urge you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. By overclocking ourselves and running out of fuel, we end up causing more damage not only to ourselves but also to others around us.
Ahimsa in Asana Practice
No matter what your level is, I bet that at least once, you’ve looked at another person doing a yoga pose and felt frustrated that you weren’t even close. Or you weren’t satisfied with the speed of your progress.
If that’s true, there are two things you can do to integrate Ahimsa into your asana practice.
1. Respect Your Body’s Limits
Firstly, don’t push your body harder than it is ready to go. Don’t get me wrong, pushing our limits isn’t bad in itself. It gets us out of our comfort zone, and that’s where growth and awesome things happen. But if you are doing it solely to meet your expectations and gratify your ego, you risk injuring yourself.
So, learn to let go of expectations. Instead, listen to what your body is telling you. Is it ready to handle this pose? Are there any aches or discomfort? Is it a really good idea to go to a Power Yoga class, or would your body benefit more from gentle Hatha?
Could it be better to sleep in rather than get up after just 4 hours of sleep to fit in a gym session before work? Pay attention to the cues your body is sending you. It knows what it needs, and by ignoring it, you may be doing yourself more harm than good.
2. Help Your Body to Progress
The second thing you can do is help your body to progress. If you want to master a certain pose, figure out the steps of how you can get there.
Identify what muscles are involved, which of them you need to strengthen and which – to lengthen. Then, find postures that do that and incorporate them into your practice. Work on them consistently, and you’ll be surprised at how much faster you’ll be able to reach your goal.
Ahimsa in Diet
Adhering to a plant-based diet is perhaps the most popular interpretation of Ahimsa. While it has its benefits, and there are people who thrive on it, a plant-based diet may not work for everyone.
You need to consider your individual needs. If you feel and function better with some meat in your diet, then eat your meat.
It’s not about whether you eat meat, but how consistent you are in all of your actions, not just your choice of food. I’ve seen plenty of vegans being very rude and judgmental towards meat-eaters. That, too, is a form of violence.
So, if you’d like to eat meat and practice Ahimsa, choose organic food from local farmers and butchers. And don’t criticize others for what they eat.
A Final Thought
There won’t always be situations when you can do no harm. Sometimes you’ll have no choice but to do some amount of harm or may not even be aware of how you may be causing harm.
Do the best you can. View Ahimsa in terms of grey rather than black and white, and choose the lighter shade.
In what ways do you practice Ahimsa? Feel free to let me know.