Let’s dive into the Yoga Sūtras together.
Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras are an ancient yogic text, and a practical guide to self-understanding and enlightenment (as we saw in this article). They outline eight limbs for achieving the goal of yoga, including the yamas, niyamas, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi.
Ahiṁsā-satyāsteya-brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ (II.30)
The five yamas, (ahiṁsā, satya, asteya, brahmacarya and aparigraha), relate to our relationship with the world. They support us to live in the world in a way that cultivates sattva, or clarity in ourselves and others.
Ahiṁsā is the first of the yamas, and translates to mean non-violence.
Ahiṁsā relates to thinking and acting in a way that is kind and thoughtful to all living creatures.
T. K. V. Desikachar, author of The Heart of Yoga, defined ahiṁsā as always adopting a kind and considered attitude, and suggests being flexible in your approach, as sticking concretely to your principles can show a lack of consideration and arrogance (1).
Similarly, B. K. S. Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga, stated that ‘non-violence may be a precise judgement in that spur of the moment’ and one must ’analyse, investigate, enquire, introspect and weigh’ before taking action, as non-violence to one may be violence to another, and care and intelligence is required to weigh up a response (2).
Clearly, ahiṁsā requires thoughtful consideration, and isn’t a precept we can mindlessly follow.
Some commentaries indicate that ahiṁsā includes not eating meat, or even not eating root vegetables (as farming may result in the harm of creatures in the soil), but others allow for some flexibility and state that ahiṁsā doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to be vegetarian or that we can’t defend ourselves if we need to (1, 3).
As a long-time vegetarian, when I was experiencing some long-term health challenges, it was suggested to me by ayurvedic and yoga therapy practitioners that eating meat might be healing for me, and was appropriate from a yogic and ayurvedic perspective as it was required for health reasons. As my Buddhist acupuncturist said when she was trying to convince me to eat meat ‘even the Dalai Lama ate meat when his doctors told him he needed to for his health.’ In the end, after much soul searching, I decided to try eating meat again and see if it helped improve my health. It didn’t, but I did come to a new understanding of ahiṁsā and I knew that I’d tried everything to improve my health, even if it was outside my comfort zone.
While I haven’t read much about non-violence to oneself in the commentaries on the sūtras (perhaps because the yamas are related to our relationship with the world), to me this is an important part of ahiṁsā, particularly in relation to mental health, where the inner critic is often powerful. I believe we would be well-placed to extend our kindness, thoughtfulness and compassion to ourselves as well as those around us.
While one of the great Ayurvedic physicians of India, Caraka, observed that causing harm to others reduces our own life span, and practising ahiṁsā lengthens it (as it is a positive, life-enhancing state of mind), yogis practise ahiṁsā to nurture the attitude of oneness; that we are all one (1).
Practicing ahiṁsā might mean smiling to people in the street, it might mean choosing words that are kind rather than harsh or judgemental when speaking to others, it might mean reducing your use of plastic, speaking lovingly to yourself, planting trees, making time to listen to a friend when they’re going through a hard time or practicing yoga in a way that meets your needs in that moment.
Like all the yamas and niyamas, ahiṁsā is a practice.
Ahiṁsā doesn’t need to be restrictive or denying, and we don’t need to get it right all the time.
Ahiṁsā can act as a gentle compass to live in a way that is nourishing for our self and the world around us. I encourage to try it out, and see if it makes a difference in anyway in your life.
Are you willing to try practicing ahiṁsā in your life?
What is one way that you could bring the quality of ahiṁsā into your life?
Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear it.
1. Desikachar, T.K.V. (1995). The Heart of Yoga. Rochester, Vermont, US: Inner Traditions International.
2. Iyengar, B.K.S. (2000). Light on Aṣṭāṅga Yoga. Mumbai, India: Tata Press (p.105).
3. Bryant, E. (2009). The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. New York, US: North Point Press.
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