The very first step on Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga is the first yama: ahimsa. The word means nonviolence or non-harming. It can also be thought of as kindness.
Understanding the First Yama
Practicing ahimsa means doing no harm. We take care to act with kindness toward other people, other beings, and the universe itself. Most of us do not want to harm others, but putting ahimsa first each time we make a choice can be difficult. There is the classic image of a yogi who has gone to extremes in practicing ahimsa: an ascetic walking carefully along a road so as not to accidentally step on an insect. But it’s not necessary to go to that extreme to see how challenging the concept of ahimsa can be.
Violence From a Yogic Perpective
Reverend Jaganath Carrera says violence is a reaction to fear. It’s what happens when we want to see another harmed, and it includes our thoughts. The key is whether or not our intent is to do harm. So perhaps we’re not violating ahimsa when we nourish our bodies—something we need to do—by eating plants (or in certain cases, even animals) or when we protect ourselves from a wasp. Still, the choices are not simple. Can we be sure the wasp will sting us? Are we certain the foods we eat have not come to us through means that are violent to living beings or the environment?
Ahimsa also asks us to consider the possibility that we can be violent in our thoughts. We tend to think of violence as something physically harmful. The word conjures images of bloody wounds or harm that causes death. But it’s also possible to be emotionally violent. The way we treat others can wound or scar them internally. It can even cause a kind of death of spirit.
And it’s not only others that can suffer from our violence. We can be violent toward ourselves as well.
The opposite of violence is kindness, and that’s really what ahimsa is about. As yogis, we continually check our thoughts, actions, and motivations to be sure that we’re acting in the kindest way possible. And remember, we need to be kind to ourselves as well as others.
Violence and kindness can also be directed toward the planet. When we abuse the environment, waste resources, or generally disregard Mother Earth, we are violent. Conversely, if we are careful to conserve energy and resources by consuming less, recycling, and looking for “green” alternatives, we are practicing ahimsa.
Anger fuels violence, of course, so managing anger—not the feeling of anger, but the violent behavior that often comes from it—helps us practice ahimsa. When you feel angry, can you simply observe and acknowledge the feeling without judgment and without “acting out”?
With practice (mindfulness), anger will evaporate before it fuels the flames of unkindness, fighting, and a vicious circle of verbally or physically violent behavior.
The first yama helps us see the world in a more loving light. Once we can practice kindness and avoid harm, we’re ready for the next step in the yogic journey. Anger, hate, or defensiveness no longer distract us. We can take the journey into the light and become our true selves.