In the Yoga Sutras, the great sage, Patanjali, divided yoga into eight essential "limbs," or steps, to wholeness. These eight limbs can enhance our yoga practice in many ways. There is a good reason why the Sutras are required reading in most yoga teacher trainings. (Learn more in 5 Qualities of a Good Yoga Teacher.)
The first two limbs discussed in the Yoga Sutras are the yamas and niyamas. The yamas and niyamas are behavioral observances and codes for ethical behavior necessary to lead a spiritual life. The yamas are further divided into five categories: ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (celibacy or abstaining from pleasure-seeking) and aparigraha (non-possesiveness). (Learn more in The 8 Limbs of Yoga.)
All of these virtues enrich our lives and can easily be applied to our yoga practice. Cultivating these qualities shows us how to stay grounded. They illuminate the discipline necessary to walk the road of yoga. We need to practice a certain amount of control over ourselves. If we’re not able to do this, we will feel as if we are always putting out fires and cleaning up the messes we’ve made in our lives. (Read more about leading A Life With Integrity.)
The yamas are outlined in a very intentional order; when you master one, the next one typically comes much easier. Therefore, ahimsa is the perfect yama to start with and will be the focus of this article. Meaning "non-violence" or "non-harming," it is a way of being in one’s life that eliminates harmful actions, words and thoughts. Ahimsa is a form of compassion, friendliness and kindness for all living beings. Some people include animals in this perspective and refrain from eating meat or using any animal byproducts. This is one of the reasons why so many yogis are vegetarians or vegans.
Ahimsa needs to take place in every situation that occurs in our lives if we are to walk the spiritual path. Ahimsa can be as simple as refraining from gossip because talking harmfully about someone else is considered to be himsa (harming) in action. We would also not want to support someone else’s harmful behavior. This is seen as himsa, too. Even looking at a beggar on the street with disgust goes against the practice of non-harming. Really, any thought, word or action that acts as an obstacle to freedom for ourselves or another is considered harmful in nature. This total sense of non-violence and non-harming brings about love, positivity and goodness – all qualities that we want to develop as yogis and spiritual aspirants.
When we apply ahimsa to our yoga practice, the same holds true. Sometimes we can approach our yoga and meditation practices with a kind of aggressive striving (sthira) or competitive energy. We think, “I’m going to conquer my mind or get into that asana if it's the last thing I do!" Sometimes the intention beneath the path of self-improvement is far from being one of self-love. It can often have a jagged edge to it, feeling like we are beating ourselves up, instead of accepting ourselves as we are. We all need to work to cultivate ahimsa toward ourselves and our yoga practice. Refraining from violence toward ourselves may be one of the greatest challenges of being human. Negative self-talk and self-sabotage are constantly acting as obstacles on the path to Self-realization. If you were to record the negative voices in most people’s heads on any given day, you’d understand better just how difficult self-acceptance is. So many of our thoughts are unconscious and deeply ingrained – like the grooves in a record.
The beauty of yoga and meditation is that they help us to stop the needle on the record from making new grooves or making those grooves deeper. Within our practice we learn self-love and self-care practices in order to cultivate ahimsa toward ourselves.
Another way of looking at ahimsa is to understand our animal nature and then rise above it. By nature, animals are violent; they take from others in order to survive. But we humans can rise above this though our ethics and code of conduct because we’ve been given all the faculties to do so.