Ahimsā is the practice of not causing harm to ourselves or others – in other words, being kind and considerate. Sound easy? Read on to find out if you may be bringing unnecessary pain into your life – and how you can practise more ahimsā both on and off the mat.
Ahimsā, pronounced ‘a-hymn-sa‘, is a combination of two Sanskrit words: ‘himsa‘ which literally means ‘to cause harm‘, and ‘a‘ meaning ‘not to‘. So, ahimsā literally means ‘not causing harm‘. It’s also sometimes translated as non-killing or non-violence, but whichever way you look at it, it’s a pretty important concept. The first of the ten yamas and niyamas, ahimsā is considered so powerful that according to the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, animals would only kill when hungry, meaning cows and tigers could drink water side by side. I think the cows got the better deal.
Ahimsā was also thought to be the reason that the Buddha brought peace, harmony and friendliness everywhere he went. Have you heard the expression ‘reap what you sow’? It’s kind of like that. By not causing pain to others, your own life will experience less pain. Chances are you prefer spending time with people who are nice to you, and my guess is that you’d be pretty nice back.
Another way of looking at ahimsā is to think of it as meaning to be kind and considerate. Kind and considerate I hear you ask? You like to think you’re a good friend, a loving partner, a hard worker. You definitely aren’t going around being deliberately unkind and inconsiderate to others. Is there much more to it than that?
Taking Ahimsā To The Next Level
For people who devoutly follow the yamas and niyamas, practising ahimsā takes constant vigilance and mindfulness. While most of us don’t have several hours a day to contemplate what not causing harm means in our lives, we all have time to bring a little awareness to one of the common ideas behind ahimsā: our capacity to cause pain.
Ever found yourself feeling really angry at a colleague when they talk over you in a meeting? Or fuming at someone who cuts you off in traffic? How often do these negative thoughts and feelings become tangible in our lives, turning into angry glares, frustrated thoughts and even hostile words that we may later regret?
I’ve found these negative thoughts and feelings we have towards others usually stem from our own securities, and the overly harsh, critical and judgemental thoughts we direct towards ourselves. So, although ahimsā is technically listed under the ‘yamas’ – our attitude towards others – it might be worth taking a looking at ourselves first, especially on the yoga mat.
Ahimsā Through Āsana
When was the last time you were in a yoga class, and found yourself frustrated/angry/annoyed/all of the above because your body just wouldn’t move the way your mind wanted it to? These thoughts, as fleeting as they may be, can cause us pain, so just how do we start to practise with ahimsā? A good place to begin is by watching your thoughts to see when we go astray.
- Watching other people in class? Gently bring your attention back to your own posture and your own breath. Feel satisfied with the fact you made it to class that day, and don’t worry about where your, or anyone else’s, hands are in your forward bend.
- Exhausted after a hard day of work and ready to collapse? Try showing yourself little kindness! Choose the right class for you. Just because you went to Ashtanga last Tuesday doesn’t mean you need to go this Tuesday. In fact, perhaps you can find a great beginners or restorative class that will give your brain and your body the gentle movement and rest it needs on this particular day.
- Frustrated with your progress? We can also practise ahimsā by being truthful with ourselves. If you’ve just started yoga, and you’ve been working in an office for the last ten years and your shoulders are feeling tight, then you’re probably not ready for shoulder stand. If we force our body to move faster than we’re ready for, we really will cause ourselves pain – and a physical injury is definitely not part of a kind and considerate yoga practice.
- How much are you breathing? It’s not just in our poses that we can practise ahimsā. If you practise prānāyāma – the practice where we begin to learn to control the movement of the breath – then you can make sure you’re keeping the breath soft. As soon as you start to sound like you’re doing your best Darth Vader impression, perhaps you can soften the breath a little, begin to increase the quality of ease in your practise.
Ahimsā In Our Lives
Off the mat, an easy way to bring ahimsa into our lives is by being more kind with our words. What is wonderful about ahimsā is that it can be practised any time of day, with anyone! Below are a couple of situations which I know I’ve found myself in before and how we can begin to apply ahimsā:
- Desperate to say I told you so? We all have friends who choose the wrong sort of partner time and time again. Sometimes the desire to say I told you can be overwhelming. Can we try biting our tongue at times like this, and just listen sympathetically when they come to us as a shoulder to cry on?
- Got a tricky situation at work? It’s not just friendships that can benefit from a bit of ahimsā. More often than not our work relationships are fraught with power struggles, and increasing pressure to meet tight deadlines. Can you take a moment to sympathise with your boss’s situation, or refrain from snapping back when a colleague takes a dig at you in a meeting? Will it really help to stew on it for hours (or even days), or will it save you a lot of pain – and energy – to just quietly let it pass you by?
- Stuck in traffic? Next time you’re stuck in a seemingly endless queue of traffic, can you take a big sigh and then sit back and enjoy the song on the radio instead of getting angry and frustrated with the cars ahead of you? After all, you’re not just in traffic, you ARE traffic!
For more information on ahimsā try grabbing a copy of the Yoga Sutras — there are loads of translations out there, grab the one which seems most relevant to you. For more in-depth information about the yamas and niyamas, keep an eye on Zen Monkey for my next article about practising satya!
As always in yoga, the best way to learn is to practise. This week, why not try bringing ahimsā into class with you? Keep an eye on your reactions to the poses your teacher guides you into, and reward yourself with a silent, ‘Well done!’ at the end of class. We’d love for you to share your experiences of bringing more kindness and consideration into your life – both on and off the mat – in the comments section below, and check out how others are getting on.