Yoga is not just a set of physical poses. It is an ancient system of physical, mental, and spiritual practices that aim to unite the mind, body, and spirit for clarity about our purposes, feelings, and beliefs—self-realization.
One way to achieve this self-realization is through the yamas—one of the eight limbs of yoga, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the most authoritative texts on the science of yoga. The yamas primarily focus on how our actions should be while living in the external world.
And one of the essential practices among the five yamas is ahimsa—non-violence in thought and deed. Why is ahimsa so crucial to the path of yoga? Because we can’t reach self-realization without being kind to ourselves and others.
Meaning of Ahimsa
The root word here is ‘Himsa,’ meaning to cause harm, and the prefix ‘a’ makes it the opposite, meaning ‘non-violence’ or ‘to not cause harm.’ While not many of us think of ourselves as violent, ahimsa means a lot of things—non-violence not just in action but also in speech, thought, or intent.
It is not just about not physically hurting someone but also reflects a state of mind where even the idea of causing the slightest harm to someone does not arise. It is a conscious act of having a say over our emotions so that they do not hurt us or others. It is about being kind to ourselves as much as others.
The constant and overwhelming exposure to provocative circumstances and information makes practicing ahimsa difficult. Still, it is worth cultivating as part of our nature, and spiritual practices make it easier to shed patterns and impressions in the mind that lead to violent thoughts, intent, and actions. In our purest nature, we are non-violent. It is all about living from that space.
Senior Art of Living yoga faculty Seja Shah explains, “Ahimsa…enables us to live in such a way that we cause no harm in thought, speech, or action to any living being, including ourselves. In its purest form, ahimsa is the spontaneous expression of the highest form of love—universal love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness—an unconditional sense of belonging to everyone and everything.”
“Already without your knowledge, you are destroying many creatures. You walk, and many ants are dying under your feet. You are not killing anyone. It is just happening. But an intention to destroy something, an intention to do violence, can destroy your very basis, your very own root. Dropping this intention for violence is ahimsa.”
—Art of Living Founder and global humanitarian Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Balancing Ahimsa and the Other Yamas
The yamas, or the five principles of restraint for spiritual growth and self-realization, do not work in isolation. As mentioned in the beginning, some effort and awareness are needed to balance practicing ahimsa and the other four yamas. For example, being truthful is another important yama, yet being honest without being mindful can hurt or cause pain. Is brutal honesty worth it if it doesn’t nurture love and support in another being?
This skill to balance the five yamas comes only through culturing awareness or mindfulness in every waking moment. Otherwise, the feverishness to be honest can step on your intention to be non-violent, or obsessively holding on to non-violence can lead to pride and a lack of fair judgment.
Nature of Ahimsa
One of the most beautiful sutras or aphorisms in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra #35 states, “Ahimsa pratishtayam tat sannidhau vairatyagaha,” when a person is established in non-violence, then violence is dropped in his or her presence.
According to sage Patanjali, when someone practices non-violence with full awareness, violence ceases among those near them. Perhaps the most symbolic explanation of the beauty of Ahimsa is the story of St. Mahaveer, founder of the nonviolence-based faith of Jainism. According to lore, he was so established in ahimsa that ‘fierce animals mellowed in his presence, and even thorns would not prick him.’
How to Overcome the Intent to Harm When Angry
We must practice ahimsa in thought and deed until it becomes our very nature. But when someone irritates us or says something harsh, our immediate reaction is typically one of violence or anger. Sometimes, these feelings are also aimed at our own selves for making a mistake or doing something we did not mean to do.
Gurudev explains how to deal with this, “Violence draws violence. Suppose you are sitting and someone nags you. In your mind, you start getting angry and think, ‘Oh, God. I am going to hit this person, squeeze this person. These thoughts arise in you. You do not hit that person. You do not do it. But watch those thoughts which make you feel like hitting somebody. Why is that violence arising in you? What is the source of the violence? As you watch the source of violence, you will see that violence disappears, dissolves, and peace dawns. Yoga brings that inner peace which in turn establishes non-violence. Ahimsa brings about the union of the mind and peace of mind, and when you are peaceful or calm within, you naturally become non-violent.”
Start Small…and Forgive Yourself
A life of nonviolence doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a work in progress. You may have an intention or Sankalpa to be nonviolent, and two days later, lose your temper and yell at someone or have harmful thoughts. And realizing that you broke your resolve, you get angry at yourself and begin to feel like this is not your thing. On the other hand, you may begin to repress difficult emotions because you have decided not to be violet in your mind and actions. Do not give up. It is perfectly normal to slip up. All your spiritual discipline will aid you in this.
For instance, on days you meditate deeply, you may notice that your mind is effortlessly peaceful; unpleasant events aren’t affecting you. This is where it starts! Living a nonviolent life doesn’t mean repression or pretension. Instead, it is choosing differently—choosing an outcome established in peace.
On days when ahimsa seems like a far-fetched goal
Some days can be more challenging than others. Observe your thoughts and the conversations with yourself and others. Notice when you are too hard on yourself. At that very moment, you have the free will to choose differently. Don’t remain stuck on the past version of yourself. Forgive yourself—the version of you who made all those mistakes is no longer here. Practicing nonviolence begins with being kind to yourself. You are free, beautiful, and kind simply because you have intended it.
On other days, you may find it hard to be kind to others because they are being extremely difficult. On those days, you do not have to try too hard to continue the practice of ahimsa. Trying too hard is counter-productive. Instead, sit back and let it be. Plug in your headphones and take refuge in loving-kindness meditation.
When your mind is at ease, external situations affect you less. You’re able to share the vibrations of the loving-kindness you are feeling with people who were initially a cause of irritation for you. With practice, it becomes more accessible, and then the magic unfolds. You start observing that you don’t get angry as often as you used to—when things don’t go your way or someone tries to hurt you, you can see the big picture and stay established in your peace.
Ahimsa is Not Passivity
Ahimsa is not the same as non-action. World history is witness to the power of ahimsa. From Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., great leaders have lived and walked the path of love and nonviolence. They’ve unseated violent forces and colonial, unjust regimes without ever picking up a gun. Adopting vegetarianism or veganism, fighting for animal rights, and making people aware of how we can conserve our environment and biodiversity are all small ways in which ahimsa finds an expression in our lives.
But you don’t need to be Gandhi or Dr. King to live these values. Just set a pure intention not to cause harm or pain in return for pain or otherwise. Choosing to actively practice kindness with all beings is enough to get you started on the path of ahimsa.