The Yamas and the Niyamas: Ahimsa: the Foundational Observance

Ahimsa, "to do no harm" is the first precept and root observance of all of the other ethical restraints in Pantanjali's yogic system.

Without first establishing ahimsa, all of our efforts to follow the other ethical observances are precarious at best.

We cannot tell the truth, practice contentment, live in purity, and so on, without first establishing an attitude and a heart-mind committed to compassion and non-harming.

Ahimsa in its grossest sense can be understood as an obvious form of non-violence. Abstaining from overt acts of violence and the intentional harm of others. Most commonly, this is understood practically as adopting practices like vegetarianism and veganism to prevent the suffering of other sentient creatures.

On a deeper level to practice ahimsa is to cultivate a consciousness and a life committed towards reducing harm in every capacity. Through our relationship with self, with others, and with the very Earth we tread upon.

The practice of ahimsa begins internally, because ultimately we can only love others to the degree that we love ourselves. As we develop a kind and compassionate heart towards ourselves, love and compassion for others is the natural outflow.

The practice of noticing first how we are with ourselves, is a window and a mirror into how we are harming others.  Ultimately, how we treat ourselves is how we treat others.

If you are impatient with yourself, you will be impatient with others. If your self-talk is harsh and critical, your thoughts towards others will be tainted with the same harshness.

In this understanding, violence can take the form of damaging self talk

Ultimately the practice of ahimsa begins in our own internal world. We will always manifest and recreate externally, our internal environment. In a practical way, ahimsa begins with witnessing how we are in any given moment with ourselves and a commitment to radical self-care and love.

When our lives are out of balance, when we are overworked, over tired, or feeling powerless, we enter into heightened emotional states and are more prone to reactivity and fear-based interactions with others. When we operate in these heightened states of stress and anxiety our reactions to stimulus are more likely to manifest and spill out unaware.

Our conditioning is so much stronger than our integration, and when our bodies are not well tended we are more prone to operating out of our base conditioning rather than our highest consciousness.

When we take the time to ensure that we are well nourished, we are better able to choose our responses with grace and compassion. Operating from our highest self more of the time.

 The practice of ahimsa then begins with self care and monitoring of our thought life. Harming and violence can occur in our thoughts towards others, in what we allow to be cultivated in our hearts which ultimately is manifested in our words and our deeds.

Words and deeds aside, the energetic output of our thoughts has an impact on those around us. Learning to take captive our thoughts and to manage the ways that we offer ourselves energetically to the world is to practice ahimsa.

Meditation is one such path to this observance. As we get quiet and willing to see the ways in which we are cultivating a harmful attitude in our heart-mind, we can shift and begin to plant seeds of compassion to cultivate a new way of being and operating.

Every emotional experience is imprinted on our citta, our heart-mind field of consciousness. So like the unwinding of all habitual patterns, if we wish to embody ahimsa, we have to counter violence by proactively practicing kindness and compassion.

In Pantanjali's yogic system we counter ignorance by exposing ourselves to truth. Similarly, we cultivate a life of non-violence by exposing ourselves to less violence.

We surround ourselves with others that are embodying love. We practice compassionate listening with ourselves and others.

And when we mess up? We take the steps necessary to reverse the harmful consequences that caused by our behavior.

We create a life of non-violence by proactively pursuing practices of our highest selves.  Courage, love, compassion, and kindness.

Allowing ourselves to be led more of the time by purusha, the inner light of awareness. To develop ahimsa in our love, our relationships, our diet, our environment, and our politics.

There is a story, it's short....

Once upon a time a crow landed on a coconut tree and a coconut fell to the ground.

Did the crow cause the coconut to fall? Or was it simply the coconut's time?

The lesson? To paraphrase the Buddha, live as if every action has profound consequence, knowing that perhaps nothing you do has any impact at all.

Interested in diving deeper into the broader system of yoga? Join us in Costa Rica this July for our 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training.