What Everybody Should Know About Ahimsa

Can you relate this?

You’re in class. You’re in a plank. Your legs, arms and core are engaged. You are pushing the floor away using all the right muscles. The teacher walks by you and says, “make sure to practice ahimsa”.

You check yourself. Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I harming myself? Nope, You’ve been doing this for a a while. You’re strong and you can handle the challenge.

So check, well done, you’ve practiced ahimsa

Or have you?

What if Patanjali didn’t mean for you to check yourself in plank? What if he meant for you to check yourself in life. To always be asking yourself am I practicing ahimsa?

Here are a few things everyone ought to know about ahimsa

Ahimsa means non-violence or non-harm.

Ahimsa is the first of 5 yamas. And the yamas are the first of 8 limbs of the yoga sutras. We’ll dig into what all this means in future blog posts but for now know that ahimsa is important.

It was the first thing Patanjali thought to mention in his yoga sutras coming before asana, pranayama (breath) or pratyahara (sense withdrawal –  similar to the meditation you would do in a yoga class). 

So ahimsa is a big deal.

There is no easy checklist to practice ahimsa

Not pushing yourself too hard in yoga class is the easy check but really it’s much more complex than that. Rather than providing us with a strict do and don’t list, Dr Shyam Ranganathan, our yoga philosophy teacher, asked us some important questions. (Leave it to a philosophy teacher to use the socratic method)

The key takeaway – practicing ahimsa is not about checking off lists. It’s about always being aware of the impact you are having.

Ahimsa is about both our actions and our inactions

It’s usually pretty easy to see when our actions have directly contributed to harm or violence. We know when we have said mean words. And hopefully we really know if ever we have hit someone.

But our inaction can contribute to harm as well. According to Dr. Shyam, we should be asking ourselves always

  • What are the harmful things that you are accepting in the world?
  • What are the harmful things that you are ignoring or have made peace with?

From there, a hard to swallow but irrefutable truth comes to the surface regarding ahimsa….

Ahimsa is about activism

At least in our modern world, to truly practice ahimsa means you need to be active. You need to engage.

So much of the harm we see in our world today has to do with us turning a blind eye to what’s wrong. To us ignoring the things that need to be changed. According to Dr. Shyam,  a key question we should always be asking ourselves is

  • How can we disrupt the harmful things that we have made peace with?

Because practicing ahimsa – heck practicing yoga – means disrupting those things.

And there’s still more….

When practicing ahimsa we should consider

  • Harm against all beings. Not just those in our immediate circle
  • Both the short term and long term

Against that expanded criteria, key questions we might ask ourselves are

  • How are my direct actions contributing to harm or violence in our world?
  • How are my inactions contributing to harm or violence in our world?
  • How are my actions or inactions contributing to harm or violence against not only the people, animals, earth I can see. But also the people, animals, earth I don’t regularly see
  • How are my actions or inactions contributing to harm or violence today as well as in the future

We know it’s a lot.

Answering these questions honestly and making a deep commitment to practice ahimsa would require a total change in how all of us are living. When you truly practice ahimsa it’s no longer possible to ignore the breadth of problems existing in the world today -from environmental to animal rights to racism to wealth inequality. Unfortunately, the list goes on…

Which is why we loved Shyam’s final words to us in our most recent lesson with him

Always aim for better.

We’re not looking for perfect.

We’re just looking for better. Every damn day.

That our dear friends is the practice of ahimsa.