Ahimsa is the first of Patanjali’s Yamas, or the Yogis’s ethical and moral guidelines towards society. Directly translated as “non-violence”, we can also understand Ahimsa to mean non-harm, compassion, mercy, peace, and love towards all beings. Patanjali called this practice of Ahimsa ‘Mahavrtam’, or the Great Vow which sincerely resides within the Yoga practitioner’s heart. Without Ahimsa, we cannot progress along the path of yoga.
This principle is the driving force behind the yogi’s daily decisions and behavior. From the food they eat, to the clothes they wear, products they use, and how they interact with others, they try to remember Ahimsa in every moment. This is the primary reason why most yogis follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. They make the conscious decision to not harm any other living being, or indirectly contribute to the pain and suffering of any being, including animals being raised in industry. We can all do our best to not add to the suffering of animals, the environment, or any other living being. Think about where your food is coming from, and whether it’s being sourced sustainably and responsibly. If you choose to use meat products, take a moment to thank the animals who sacrificed their lives for your nourishment before you eat your meal.
In our interpersonal relationships, we should do our best to practice Ahimsa, especially when we are dealing with a person we may find difficult. Notice when you start to have negative thoughts or feelings towards someone – whether it’s someone you live with, a neighbor, a public figure, or a stranger. Instead of wishing them harm, send them thoughts of metta, or loving-kindness. Wish for them to be happy so that they may themselves be free from suffering, both for their own benefit as well as for the benefit of all others whom they come into contact with. This will make them more tolerable and hopefully one day, enjoyable to be around!]’
Though the Yamas are meant to be ethical guidelines towards society and other beings, contemporary yoga scholars also discuss the importance of practicing Ahimsa towards oneself. They say you must do this first in order to extend this feeling of compassion towards other beings. In ‘The Yogi Assignment’, Kino MacGregor says “Start by ending the violence in your own life. Cultivate an attitude of acceptance, tolerance, and compassion for yourself… make peace with yourself.” Only once you do this, can you begin to extend Ahimsa towards other beings and the universe. Notice times throughout your day when you engage in harmful thoughts or actions towards yourself. Instead of being hard on yourself, and telling yourself all the reasons why you “aren’t good enough,” practice self-kindness, self-love, and self-respect. When you begin to think something negative towards yourself, immediately let it go and replace it with one of love and kindness. Only then can you truly treat others in this way.
Engaging in the practice of metta, lovingkindness, is a powerful method to practice Ahimsa towards yourself and all other beings. Start by calling to mind someone you care for deeply, who automatically brings up a feeling of love within your heart. It could be a romantic partner, a parent, a friend, or even a cherished pet. Envision this being, and offer them the following mental wish: “may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering and harm, may you be filled with love.” Repeat this contemplation for a neutral person (someone whom you neither feel positively or negatively towards), a difficult person, and yourself. Conclude by offering these wishes towards all beings, human and non-human, throughout the entire universe.
Take a few minutes to journal or contemplate the following:
How will you practice Ahimsa towards yourself and others today?
By Barri DeFrancisci
Barri was born to move. From childhood through her early adult life, she studied ballet intensively with renowned teachers across the US, Russia, and Israel. Barri received a BA in Dance at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, and performed professionally with Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Israel and Dissonance Dance Theatre in Washington, DC. Barri discovered Yoga in high school, and started practicing regularly. It not only improved her balance, strength, and flexibility, but also taught her tools to calm her mind, love her body, and ease the stresses of daily life. She received her 200 hour certification from international Ashtanga Yoga teachers Kino MacGregor and Tim Feldmann at Miami Life Center. In December 2019, she traveled to Mysore, India, where she studied for an extended time under Ashtanga Yoga Paramaguru, Sharath Jois. Barri takes pride in not only dedicating her life to teaching, but also continually being a student. Follow Barri on Instagram!
This blog was originally posted on yogibarri.com.