I have been working with a teenage girl for several weeks now, and yesterday we were talking about the Yamas and Niyamas. We have been briefly touching on them since we started our yoga lessons, and she requested that we dig a little more in depth with them. I thought the idea was fantastic, and I had just finished a workshop as well as 3 books on the topic, so I was itching to spread my spiritual wings. I was humbled by how incisive and discerning her questions were. In fact, several required a next day email so I could think them through before answering.
I decided to break down the first Yama, Ahimsa, a little more based on her insights and those that I have acquired throughout trainings and readings. With her permission I summarized our conversation and put it into a digestible format to show how easy it is to incorporate the yamas into your life.
Wait, what’s a Yama?
Yoga is made of 8 different limbs.
Yamas- Moral restraints – How we interact with the outside world- There are 4
Niyamas- Practices – How we interact with ourselves and our environment – There are 4
Asana- Poses – Movement – What most people envision when they think of yoga
Pranayama- Breathing techniques
Pratyahara- Turning inward – Detaching from the world
Dharana- Concentration – Calming the mind
Samadhi- Bliss – Zen
Ahimsa is the first yama. It literally means abstention/restraint from violence. Most today refer to Ahimsa as practicing compassion or not causing harm.
Cool, I’m not violent so I’ve mastered this one, right?
Okay, I’ll admit, this was my first thought when I started learning about the yamas. No, I do not go around physically inciting violence, but ahimsa stretches beyond physical violence and includes violent words and thoughts. When we hear the word violence, most of us think of weapons or fists, but in yoga, violence means anything that causes harm. Most of us are far less innocent on that front.
But as long as it remains a thought, it can’t hurt anyone.
Your thoughts cannot hurt other people, but fostering harmful thoughts in your mind will hurt you. Can you be a non-violent person if you have aggressive thoughts running through your mind? Most likely not. That aggression will come out in one form or another. It may be a hurtful look, unwelcoming body language, or an unkind slip of the tongue. Unfortunately, conquering thoughts is the hardest part of the process. You literally have to learn a new way to think.
So be kind and compassionate to every person and I’ve got it?
Not quite. Ahimsa does not only apply to people; it applies to all living things. Those little ants on your picnic blanket, the mouse in your garage, and the cow in the field all deserve compassion. This is the tenant of yoga that leads many, but certainly not all, yogis to a vegetarian lifestyle. Trees and flowers and rivers and oceans are all living things that deserve to cared for and exist free from violence. So your non-harming lifestyle must reach out to every being on the earth.
Okay, so compassion to people, animals, and nature and then I’ve got it?
Almost. One of the most important people to show kindness and compassion to, is yourself. You cannot be a compassionate being if you think violent or harmful thoughts about yourself. I do not mean this in a form of reprimand for those self-deprecating thoughts, but as something that everyone needs to watch about themselves. Your needs and your well being matter. You are just as worthy, if not more, of your compassion as everyone else you encounter. You need to remind yourself of all the good inside and outside of you. Tell yourself how smart, attractive, funny, amazing, and fantastic you are. You need your kind thoughts, and those kind thoughts will make every aspect of your life better.
Seem easy? Here’s where it gets tough.
The tough part about living Ahimsa is that you do not get to choose who to bestow your compassion upon. EVERY LIVING BEING is one that you must treat with compassion and non-violence. Many people are easy to be kind to, but just as many make it difficult. You do not get to give up Ahimsa if you are dealing with a difficult person, or in a bad mood, or have different religions, or different political beliefs, or … I could go on and on. If they are alive, they deserve to not be harmed by you in any way.
So should I not fight for my political/social beliefs?
Yes, please do! The world needs passionate people working to make things better! Just make sure you do it without attacking individuals. It is a mark of maturity to be able to voice an opinion without attacking all those who have different views. Can you disagree with their beliefs without allowing violent thoughts toward them? Not everyone makes this easy, especially if a passionate issue is the topic, but the point is to strive for that one good thought.
So I don’t have to remain neutral on all topics?
No! A key aspect to Ahimsa is intention. What you do is less important than why you do it. The example that I use is 2 people applying for the same job. 1 person applies because he finds out he’ll be the boss of a guy that was mean to him in high school. Person 2 applies for the job because she thinks she could do a lot for the community by improving the state of this business. Applying for the job is not what matters, what differentiated the 2 was their intention. The same is true when working towards a political project; are you doing this to crush the opposition, or because you truly believe your cause could improve lives? Check your motivation and you will have your answer.
What if someone is being rude to you?
Ahimsa absolutely does not mean complacency and it does not mean that you should accept mistreatment. Sometimes, it is an act of compassion towards yourself to cut someone out of your life, or remove a toxic relationship. If someone is mistreating you and there is simply no way to resolve the situation, there is nothing wrong with ending the relationship. Unfortunately, it’s part of life. Love and respect yourself enough to know that you deserve kindness from others. Ahimsa will come up again in how you talk about this person to others, and in how you respond if/when they attempt to remedy the hurt they caused. Once again, check your motivation and think about the greater good.
It’s also worth noting that Ahimsa does not mean that you will never feel angry again. Anger is a very natural emotion, and it inevitably will come up sometimes. The important thing is what you do with that anger. Yelling, cursing, berating, and physical violence are not acceptable ways to handle anger. See your anger for what it is: a temporary emotion. It only has the power over you that you allow it to have.
What do you mean by greater good?
Sometimes the most compassionate choice is one that may not look very compassionate on the outside. An act may not look very Ahimsa on first glance, but it is not a black and white topic. Physical violence is wrong, right? What if a parent hurts someone attempting to abduct their child? Then that parent chose the greater good. The greater good is making the choice that benefits the most people in a situation. Like the mouse in your garage we talked about earlier – leave him be if he’s not bothering anyone. Now, if he starts chewing up your wiring or spreading diseases to your pets, then removing him may be the most compassionate choice. What was harmful to the mouse may have saved the lives of several dogs or cats. Again, look at intent not necessarily the act.
That concludes my Ahimsa run down! One thing that I did not have in my notes, but is worth mentioning, is that I urge you to practice compassion with yourself in those moments when you fail to master Ahimsa. This is a big and broad teaching, and not something you can conquer in a day. It is a process, a beautiful process, but a process none the less. There will be slip ups and mistakes but I truly believe that anyone who is dedicated to changing their life can master this.
Check back soon as I will run through all the yamas and niyamas and be releasing a daily journal to help you on your yoga path!
Namaste my friends!