The First Yama: Ahimsa (Non Violence)

Explore the first Yama – Ahimsa (Non Violence). A part of the first limb of yoga from “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”.

After our introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga (  lets take a look at the first Yama in more detail…

The word ‘Yoga’ is understood differently by many of us; for some it’s purely a physical exercise, a way to get stronger, healthier and more flexible; for others it’s meditating each day, and for others still it might mean chanting mantras or worshipping a deity.

If there’s one thing to be sure of though, it’s that Yoga – meaning ‘unity’, offers us a way of life that can be much more transformational than a 60 minute Yoga class once a week….

Beyond asana

While all the stretching, twisting, balancing and occasionally falling over (or a lot of falling over) is very beneficial, and certainly opens the gateways to a healthier, more vibrant and ‘alive’ sense of being, it is just once branch on a very big tree of Yoga.  Ancient texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and The Yoga Sutras focus very little on physical Yoga postures (asana), and in fact when Patanjali speaks of ‘asana’ he is in no way at all referring to Headstand or Warrior II; he’s talking about the position you choose to sit in while meditating – your ‘seat’. It’s the tantric traditions that focussed more on what the body could do, and these texts show more evidence of where the postures come from…

The Yoga Sutras

The Yamas and Niyamas originate from the very well known text ‘The Yoga sutras of Patanjali’, which many yoga teachers or teachers-in-training will have attempted to decipher at some point. Patanjali is known as a sage, but it’s very unlikely that one man wrote these texts – and far more likely that the texts are the culmination of what a group of Patanjali’s disciples wrote over a period of time.

Without going into too much detail – the Yoga Sutras are essentially less of a deep and philosophical book like many may think, and more like a guide or instruction manual on how to live in order to advance along a spiritual path towards enlightenment.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

There are eight ‘limbs’ to the Yoga sutras, each describing a different aspect of the Yoga practice, and a different step on the ladder to realisation. These are commonly known as the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’:

1.Yama (moral discipline

2.Niyama (observances)

3.Asana (physical postures)

4.Pranayama (breathing techniques)

5.Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)

6.Dharana (concentration)

7.Dhyana (absorption or meditation)

8.Samadhi (enlightenment or bliss)

After practicing Yoga for a while, many of us may wonder if there’s more to it than what we do on that rubber mat; and of course, there is.

The idea of a Yoga practice is really not just to focus and be aware and mindful and calm for the time that we’re on the mat, but to carry this state of being with us when we leave class, so it can have a much deeper impact than just making us look good. Sure, we might initially come to class for the physical benefits, but the reason so many of us stay is because there’s an inkling that there’s some other sort of magic at work here….

The Yamas and Niyamas are often seen as ‘moral codes’, or ways of ‘right living’. They really form the foundation of our whole practice, and honouring these ethics as we progress along ‘the path’ means we’re always being mindful of each action, and therefore cultivating a more present and aware state of being. It’s interesting to note that these five Yamas and five Niyamas resemble the ten commandments, and the ten virtues of Buddhism, so we’re all ‘different’ yet ‘united’ at the same time….

The Yamas

The word ‘yama’ is often translated as ‘restraint’, ‘moral discipline’ or ‘moral vow’, and Patanjali states that these vows are completely universal, no matter who you are or where you come from, your current situation or where you’re heading. To be ‘moral’ can be difficult at times, which is why this is considered a very important practice of Yoga. Remember that the word ‘Yoga’ means ‘unity’, ‘wholeness’ or ‘connectedness’; of course it’s important to be mindful, gentle and present in class, but if this doesn’t translate off the mat and connect into what we do in our day-to-day lives, we will never feel the real benefits of Yoga.

The Yamas traditionally guide us towards practices concerned with the world around us, but often we can take them as a guide of how to act towards ourselves too. There are five Yamas in total listed in Patanjali’s Sutras:

1. Ahimsa (non harming or non violence in thought, word and deed)
2. Satya (truthfulness)
3. Asteya (non stealing)
4. Brahmacharya (celibacy or ‘right use of energy’)
5. Aparigraha (non greed or non hoarding)
We will focus on the first Yama in more detail.

Ahimsa (non harming or non violence in thought, word and deed)
The very first – and often thought of as the most important – Yama, is ‘Ahimsa’, which means ‘Non-violence’ or ‘non-harming’. (‘Himsa’ = ‘hurt’ and ‘a’ = ‘not’)  In this sense, we’re talking about non-violence in all aspects of life. When we act with ‘Ahimsa’ in mind, this means not physically harming others, ourselves, or nature; not thinking negative thoughts about others or ourselves; and making sure that what we do and how we do it is done in harmony, rather than harm.  Sutra 2:35 reveals;‘In the presence of one firmly established in non violence, all hostilities cease’ 

This implies that those who do not cause harm emit ‘harmonious vibrations’, encouraging others to live peacefully too. Ghandi’s life was lived by the vows of Ahimsa and Satya, and if that isn’t one reason to at least consider this practice, I don’t know what is!Real transformation happens when we begin to practice yoga in all aspects of our being, so here are three ways to incorporate more Ahimsa in to your life:

Ahimsa in Asana

From complete beginners to the most experienced yogi, we can all feel frustrated when our physical yoga practice doesn’t progress as quickly as we’d like…. Remembering Ahimsa throughout our yoga practice guides us to let go of thinking negatively about body; accepting ourselves completely – no matter how strong or flexible we are at this moment. Non-violence in the physical sense here means we don’t push ourselves over the edge; of course we challenge ourselves in order to grow, leaning in to that sometimes scary edge, but never pushing ourselves to the point of harm. Who really cares if you can put your leg behind your head, or hold a handstand long enough to please your ego?

By respecting our boundaries and listening to our bodies, the practice becomes sustainable and a way to really learn about ourselves.

When we let go of clinging to the expectations of what we ‘should’ be able to do, and stop scolding ourselves with harmful thoughts, our body responds by working with us, not against us. We can open to the fact that the body is a pathway to freedom, not a road-block!

Ahimsa in Diet

A question a lot of people often ask is; ‘Do I have to be vegetarian or vegan now I’m practicing yoga?’. While the guidance of Ahimsa advises not harming another living thing, and therefore suggesting abstaining from eating animals, there has to be a balance… If cutting out certain things from your diet causes you harm, then it’s important to consider what works best. Can you change things a little so you’re supporting environmentally friendly companies? Eat organically? Maybe eat vegan or vegetarian at least a couple of times a week? Buy fair trade?

Whether you choose to eat meat and animal products or not, doing what is right for your unique body and helping to support the environment at the same time is something we can all be a part of. Learn more about eating with Ahimsa in mind in Irina’s article: Yoga in the Kitchen.

Ahimsa in Thoughts

Our thoughts play such a big role in our overall wellbeing. You may be the healthiest person you know; eating well, exercising lots, drinking your green smoothies, and taking supplements you need.. doing everything ‘right’ – but if your thoughts are still harmful, you can bet you’re not feeling as good as you could.

Ahimsa means being mindful of our thoughts. When we think negatively, we send messages through our body that cause the fight or flight response, secreting cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) in to the body. This lowers the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness and physical pain. It’s not just thoughts about ourselves we should be mindful of; Jealousy, judgement, anger and resentment – while directed at someone else – just come back to bite us by making us feel bad too.

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
– Lao Tzu

On the other hand, ‘non-violent’, loving thoughts cause dopamine (the ‘feel good’, ‘relaxation’ chemical) to be released in to the body. This strengthens the immune system, and actually has the power to cure us from illness.Multiple studies in medical journals have shown that patients who were considered ‘optimists’ had stronger immune systems, recovered quicker from injury and illness, and actually live longer than pessimists.

As a bonus; the happiness we experience when we’re thinking good thoughts is contagious! Science has shown us that if a friend of ours is happy, we’re 25% more likely to be happy ourselves. Even if a neighbour or acquaintance is happy, our chance of happiness increases by 6%!

When we pay attention to the aspects of yoga that don’t involve balancing upside down or doing the splits, we begin to realise that there is a much deeper meaning to our practice, and that the path of yoga has so many amazing gifts to offer.

By considering these aspects in our daily practice on and off the Yoga mat, all of our decisions and actions come from a more considered, aware, and ‘higher’ place, and this leads us towards being more authentic towards ourselves and others.