Uncommonly, my first introduction to yoga was through a text discovered on a basement bookshelf (which might be why the study of original texts is still an important part of my practice). But in the West, most people meet yoga through asana, the physical poses. During a yoga class, one has the space to learn to be present in their body and mind without judgment. It is a refreshing and healing way to experience being, and it’s often what keeps students coming back to the mat. Because at least during the class, we consciously avoid thoughts and actions that harm ourselves. This also serves as a beautiful example of the principal practice of yoga: ahimsa, or "non-harming."
The reason we keep returning to yoga class is that we feel, intuitively, the importance of speaking kindly to ourselves. We notice how different we feel after class, and even how we are less reactive with those around us. Even if we don’t know the words, we are feeling the practice of ahimsa begin to take root.
In this and even more ways, our yoga practice is not limited to the mat. Indeed, we begin to flourish on the yogic path when we embrace a yogic worldview, the first step of which is ahimsa. Here I'll explain more about the philosophy of ahimsa, what it means to practice it and what to do if you're finding it difficult.
Meaning of Ahimsa
A Sanskrit term, ahimsa is formed from the root words, himsa, which means "to cause harm" or "to engage in violence"; and the prefix, a, which negates what follows it. Therefore, ahimsa means "non-violence."
Most people don't consider themselves violent, so it might seem like there’s nothing to learn here. It’s worth asking, "What is the opposite of harm?" To do the opposite of harm requires more of us than simply not hitting people. Ahimsa is a positive, chosen action, rather than an absence, and it begins in our minds.
The Gateway to Practicing Yoga
The yamas and niyamas of "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali" are suggestions for how to interact with the external world and how to treat ourselves, respectively. The yamas and niyamas lead Patanjali's list of The Eight Limbs of Yoga, and ahimsa is first among the yamas, or "abstentions." This is no accident. Ahimsa is the first of the first because it’s the most critical. If we only engage in one yogic practice, this is the one to choose. Until we are seriously committed to the practice of ahimsa, we have little chance of realizing the goal of yoga: union.
How to Deepen a Practice of Ahimsa
Is an accepting, non-injurious voice the first one you hear if you break a dish, or are running late or make a mistake at work? If so, wonderful! If not, there might be space to cultivate ahimsa.
Luckily, even though The Eight Limbs of Yoga are prioritized, we don’t need to have mastered ahimsa before we begin doing asana. Rather, doing asana can be a way for us to practice ahimsa.
When we notice how we talk to ourselves each time we step onto the mat, we can foster a voice that doesn’t harm. We can turn away from self-criticism and self-injury, and toward insight. Even if a mean voice pops up, we don’t have to use that as an opportunity to further the meanness. Instead, we can simply observe it and think of a way to talk to ourselves differently.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t have expectations of ourselves. It means that the best we can give changes from day to day. By asking without judgment whether we have found our limit, we can be safe in our bodies, foster nonviolent thoughts and speech, and find our daily best.
Self-talk Influences Our View of 'Others'
If I am unforgiving and a perfectionist with myself, if I mentally say unkind things to myself when I am disappointed or frustrated with myself, there’s a good chance I apply the same treatment to those around me.
Everyone has used sharper words than intended, or judged someone else unkindly and acted on it. These thoughts, words and actions are usually based in our experience of separateness—our sense that we are distinct from other people. Yoga teaches that this distinction between "I" and "not I" is false. We have little chance of realizing the spiritual truth of yoga—union—if we continually reinforce the notion of separateness through unkind thoughts, words and actions.
(To help get the positive juices flowing, here are 7 Modern Mantras for Positive Self-Talk.)
When It's Hard to Be Kind
If we’re struggling to be kind to ourselves, either on a particular day or in general, we can situate our practice differently. A loving-kindness meditation is the act of consciously sending thoughts of kindness or love to another person. When we bring to mind someone we care about, we can naturally be filled with a feeling of warmth. Directing that kindness to a loved one and, ultimately, to all beings everywhere (ourselves included!), is a loving-kindness meditation.
Each Day a New Opportunity
To put ahimsa first in our practice doesn’t mean we have to master it before we can engage in any other part of yoga. Instead, ahimsa practice means committing to learn every day how to better think, speak and act without harming ourselves or others.
(Read on about non-harming and self-loving in Self-Love Practices to Teach Yourself How to Love You.)