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The First Yama: Ahimsa

A friend once asked me, how advanced are you in yoga? Can you do a handstand?

A famous yogi once said, it took her a year to press up to handstand, and 10 years to get a standing forward fold (uttanasana) right, without feeling pain or struggles in her mind.

Patanjali never said yoga is fancy poses. Yoga's biggest benefits have nothing to do with mastering advanced yoga poses, and everything to do with mastering the mind. In the eight limbs of yoga, asanas are just one small part at the beginning of a yoga journey. Practitioners of advanced asanas might not necessarily be mastering their mind as they go into the pose, be in the pose, go out of the pose or live their lives beyond the pose.

So what are the eight limbs of yoga? They are the eight-step guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life, according to the yogic traditions. It is compiled in the early centuries CE by the Indian sage Patanjali within the Yoga Sutras (which I will write about another time) from much older traditions. The yoga we usually know in modern days is just one part and the third step of the Eight Limbs: the asanas (or the physical yoga poses). The first two steps elaborate on your moral, ethical conduct and your self-discipline (yamas and niyamas), even before you step on the mat for your yoga poses. The fourth step is about your breathing (pranayama). And the last three steps relate to concentration, meditation and intellectual realisation.

The first Yama is a concept after which U2 has created a song of the same name: Ahimsa. Watch the lyrics video, it's just beautiful! In Sanskrit, Ahimsa means non-violence. The name speaks for itself: not physically, verbally or mentally 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 causing harm.

To me, B.K.S. Iyengar has the best interpretation of Ahimsa from his study of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In the following part of this article I will merely content to give you an extract from Iyengar's book Light On Yoga on Ahimsa. The teaching is vast and profound, and it is really up to you to decide what applies to you the most.

Ahimsa. The word ahimsa is made up of the particle 'a' meaning 'not' and the noun 'himsa' meaning killing or violence. It is more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love. This love embraces all creation for we are all children of the same Father-the Lord. The yogi believes that to kill or to destroy a thing or being is to insult its Creator. Men either kill for food or to protect themselves from danger. But merely because a man is a vegetarian, it does not necessarily follow that he is non-violent by temperament or that he is a yogi, though a vegetarian diet is a necessity for the practice of yoga. Blood-thirsty tyrants may be vegetarians, but violence is a state of mind, not of diet. It resides in a man's mind and not in the instrument he holds in his hand. One can use a knife to pare fruit or to stab an enemy. The fault is not in the instrument, but in the user.

Men take to violence to protect their own interests - their own bodies, their loved ones, their property or dignity. But a man cannot rely upon himself alone to protect himself or others. The belief that he can do so is wrong. A man must rely upon God, who is the source of all strength. Then he will fear no evil.

Violence arises out of fear, weakness, ignorance or restlessness. To curb it what is most needed is freedom from fear. To gain this freedom, what is required is a change of outlook on life and reorientation of the mind. Violence is bound to decline when men learn to base their faith upon reality and investigation rather than upon ignorance and supposition.

The yogi believes that every creature has as much right to live as he has. He believes that he is born to help others and he looks upon creation with eyes of love. He knows that his life is linked inextricably with that of others and he rejoices if he can help them to be happy. He puts the happiness of others before his own and becomes a source of joy to all who meet him. As parents encourage a baby to walk the first steps, he encourages those more unfortunate than himself and makes them fit for survival.

For a wrong done by others, men demand justice; while for that done by themselves they plead mercy and forgiveness. The yogi on the other hand, believes that for a wrong done by himself, there should be justice, while for that done by another there should be forgiveness. He knows and teaches others how to live. Always striving to perfect himself, he shows them by his love and compassion how to improve themselves.

The yogi opposes the evil in the wrong-doer, but not the wrong-doer. He prescribes penance not punishment for a wrong done. Opposition to evil and love for the wrong-doer can live side by side. A drunkard's wife whilst loving him may still oppose his habit. Opposition without love leads to violence; loving the wrong-doer without opposing the evil in him is folly and leads to misery. The yogi knows that to love a person whilst fighting the evil in him is the right course to follow. The battle is won because he fights it with love. A loving mother will sometimes beat her child to cure it of a bad habit; in the same way a true follower of ahimsa loves his opponent.

Along with ahimsa go abhaya (freedom from fear) and akrodha (freedom from anger). Freedom from fear comes only to those who lead a pure life. The yogi fears none and none need fear him, because he is purified by the study of the Self. Fear grips a man and paralyses him. He is afraid of the future, the unknown and the unseen. He is afraid that he may lose his means of livelihood, wealth or reputation. But the greatest fear is that of death. The yogi knows that he is different from his body, which is a temporary house for his spirit. He sees all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings and therefore he loses all fear. Though the body is subject to sickness, age, decay and death, the spirit remains unaffected. To the yogi death is the sauce that adds zest to life. He has dedicated his mind, his reason and his whole life to the Lord. When he has linked his entire being to the Lord, what shall he then fear?

There are two types of anger (krodha), one of which debases the mind while the other leads to spiritual growth. The root of the first is pride, which makes one angry when slighted. This prevents the mind from seeing things in perspective and makes one's judgement defective. The yogi, on the other hand, is angry with himself when his mind stoops low or when all his learning and experience fail to stop him from folly. He is stern with himself when he deals with his own faults, but gentle with the faults of others. Gentleness of mind is an attribute of a yogi, whose heart melts at all suffering. In him gentleness for others and firmness for himself go hand in hand, and in his presence all hostilities are given up.

On the yoga mat, especially during a more strenuous type of yoga asanas, such as Vinyasa Flow or Core Power, I often reminds students about Ahimsa and ask them to apply it during their practice. While we might try to struggle to achieve something, whether it is an advanced pose or just fitness in general, Ahimsa reminds us not to be too violent with ourselves during our physical exercises. There is a very fine balance between Ahimsa - non-violence and Tapas - self-discipline in achieving your goals. We will talk about Tapas in another article.

As on the mat, so in life. How do we practice Ahimsa in our daily life? Here ar3e a few examples:

  • Become an observer of your thoughts. When something happens, how do you react internally?

  • Cultivate the seeds of positive and loving thoughts

  • Ahimsa on the wheel - be a calm driver

  • Care for Mother Earth and our ecosystems

  • Don't deny your body rest when needed

  • Think seven times before you say something that might verbally hurt someone's feelings.

  • Don't judge or get mad at yourselves for your chattering mind

  • Try to resolve conflicts by peaceful measures

  • Get involved with non-violence initiatives to spread peace

  • Practice meditation

Hope this helps,



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