What is Ahimsa?
This post is the first in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. Stay tuned to our blog over the next few months to learn about each of the 10 concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.
Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The first yama is ahimsa. This Sanskrit word comes from the root “hinsa” – to injure – and the preposition “a-”, which means “not.” Therefore, “not injure” or “non-violence.” In his book Threads of Yoga, Matthew Remski (who is part of our Teacher Training faculty) tentatively interprets ahimsa as “protection,” as in, “Do I offer protection to the lives of others, and thereby reduce cruelty?” (pg 108)
The concept of ahimsa is not exclusive to yoga philosophy; it is considered an essential virtue in Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It can also be interpreted as compassion; all beings are connected, and by hurting others, we hurt ourselves.
But what does that mean?
Having compassion for others and not doing anything to overtly hurt anyone can seem like a vague, passive practice; however, there is far more to it than that. There are many active ways that you can practice ahimsa in your everyday life, starting internally.
Thoughts are the foundation for our words and actions. Because of our big human brains, thinking about stressful situations triggers the same responses in our bodies as being in those stressful scenarios for real. Because our big brains are capable of imagining violence and other negative outcomes, even if they’re remote or illogical possibilities, that imagining triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol. This stress-hormone release is what’s known as “fight, flight, or freeze,” and it increases your heartbeat, quickens your breath, dilates your pupils, and opens up your sweat glands – all so you can fight or run away.
This diversion of energy to “essential” systems means your digestion and immune systems (among others) are suppressed during the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When your body and mind are in the habit of feeling stressed, anxious, angry, or negative during daily situations, the constant release of cortisol can have immensely harmful consequences for your digestive health and immune system. What’s more, anger, jealousy, resentment, judgment, and self-criticism are all types of stress that trigger the same type of response within your body.
Stress is stressful!
Before you start to stress about how often you get stressed (you know you went there), you should understand a couple things.
- Nobody is asking you to be positive all the time – it’s unrealistic and trying to be relentlessly happy would probably end up being stressful anyway.
- Having “negative” emotions like anger and sadness is normal and healthy; what we are looking to examine and potentially change are habitual thought patterns where those reactions are not helpful to you.
- Changing habitual patterns is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable if you want to make this kind of change in your life.
Let’s come back to ahimsa. The beginning of the practice of ahimsa is to practice non-harming thoughts towards yourself and others. Try noticing your positive and negative thoughts today, and when you find yourself being judgmental, negative, or angry, see if you can reframe your thoughts to include compassion for the subject of your thoughts. Imagine where they are coming from; extend a little forgiveness their way.
The next step
Once you begin to extend ahimsa to yourself and others in your thoughts, you can begin to integrate ahimsa into your actions. Ahimsa means to treat everyone and everything with respect, including yourself. Remember: this does not mean not protecting yourself or not setting boundaries – setting healthy boundaries is part of treating yourself with respect. Taking care of yourself is also part of the practice of ahimsa; you need to make sure you have the reserves of energy to take care of others, and that means looking after your own needs.
Consider the impact of the economic choices you make. Was child labour used to create your clothing? You can also think about the impact of the foods you eat. Do your diet choices cause harm? You may choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle; some do, and others don’t. You have to choose what is appropriate for your life and your body. If you have the economic ability, you can choose cruelty-free meats and free-range eggs; also worth thinking about is that some “trendy” foods (like quinoa) cause serious hardship in the places where they are grown. Educating yourself about sustainable food choices can be another way to integrate ahimsa into your life.
Ahimsa in your yoga practice
Practicing ahimsa during your yoga practice is about treating your body with respect. Try practicing without force, listening to your body and making mindful choices about how far to push yourself during class. Watch out for unkind judgments about yourself and the people around you. Give yourself space to move (or rest) in the way that makes you feel good.
Integrating the yamas into your everyday life may be a challenge, but the process can increase positivity and decrease stress. Give it a try, and if you have questions, feel free to reach out to us online or talk to one of your teachers.