Ahimsa: The Yoga of Non-violence
Non-violence is an active force of the highest order.
- mohandas gandhi
The greatest writings we have on yoga are linked by a shared belief in non-violence. If you have been connected with the practice of yoga for some time, you have likely come across the practice of non-violence, ahimsa (sanskrit: ahimsā.) Our greatest modern yogis, Gandhi among them, based their life's meaning on this principle, which is often said to be the essence of yoga.
Yoga is the act of directing and concentrating one's attention toward objects of truth with the belief that there exists no particular path by which one must follow in order to move toward such objects of truth, for our deepest truths are essentially universal. Yoga is not to be misunderstood as a recipe for the removal of suffering or as a remedy for any ailment, but as a method of self-examination... a moving toward wisdom and understanding. Yoga is born from the understanding that sometimes we do not see things as they are and act out of misunderstanding. Whatever the chosen path toward truth may be, it requires that we venture down it with our entire mind, body, and soul... we must commit to our own self realization with all of our being, but never abandoning our developed awareness, compassion and a deep, often complex understanding (of others, of the world, of all the various aspects of life, of the way things just are sometimes, no matter what we wish could be). The aim is ultimately the lifting up of the human spirit. One such 'truth-object' is known throughout the entire spectrum of the yoga tradition as the principle of ahimsa.
ahimsā: a - non, himsa- harm or injury;
The essence of ahimsa, one of the outward-observances or yamas is non-harm. It is unconditional love and unrestricted compassion. It is a discharging of the physically harmful as well as the mentally taxing. It is expressed in how we treat others and our attitudes toward ourselves. It is taking negative energies (shame, resentment, disapointment, fear, anxiety, quit, self-pity, aggression and force) and transforming them through the power of love, respect and positive intention from within our selves and outward to the world.
What is Ahimsa?
Ahimsā is often referenced as the virtue of non-violence. But the term is much more encompassing than the limiting notion implied by the translation of ahimsā as simply meaning "non-violence." It is a condition beyond description, beyond our ability to pin-point or grasp logically through sense-perception or reason (some words are simply beyond our ability to translate or definitively define), although many attempts have been made, most notably in texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā, and we continue to certainly try. Ahimsa is an urge for all beings of the world to be relieved of their suffering. It is that deep, gut level feeling we get when tragedy unexpectedly, but inevitably strikes on unfathomable levels... on levels that knock us off of our feet, seep into our minds, and go on to disturb our sleep. It is the feeling we get that brings us in solidarity with our neighbors in Paris, those in Beirut, and others around the world. These attacks on the human spirit strike us to the core; ahimsa comes from the Sanskrit root √hiṃs meaning 'to strike', with 'a' being a prefix of negation. a+hiṃsā is the wish to remove, counter, or dispel that very strike. We experience the essence of ahimsa when we ask the universe to deliver us and others from pain and sorrow (which by the way, yogins believe is caused by the restless and relentless desire that leads us to feel unfulfilled.)
Ahimsa is a social, ethical, (and I suppose we could say) a religious precept, which has been used to express the idea of security and safe-ness. Patañjāli places ahimsa as the first of the yamas (or universal moral commandments for harmony) of an eight-limbed path of yoga enumerated in his Yoga Sūtras. Ahimsa has deep roots as one of yogas most foundational virtues. It put yoga on the map as a viable vehicle for social change. Ahimsā has been implemented in more modern times by Gandhi, who taught it to Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others; he considered the principle to be of the highest order; it was the fulcrum to his resistance movement which he termed satyagraha or, literally, a 'grasping at truth'. He firmly stated: "Truth is my religion and ahimsā is the only way of its realization."
The practice of yoga and ahimsa
There is no yoga without ahimsa. Yoga is the practice of moving toward peace, while recognizing there is no easy solution. In the extreme, the tenet of ahimsa is interpreted as absolute harmlessness in thought, word, and deed, upheld by vows of non-injury, non-killing, and non-suffering to all living beings. As the late and great Iyengar puts it, "The yogi believes that to kill or to destroy a thing or beings is to insult its Creator." Absolute peace and non-violence is a state which every being inherently yearns to move ever toward. Despite how impossible attaining perfect peace may seem, we are all capable of making a call for total world peace and for an end to suffering for all existent beings... lofty, I know. But on a more directly achievable and no less impactful scale, ahimsa calls for simple love-and-kindness, even to those who are hardest to love: others, strangers, enemies, and most importantly, our selves.
Lokāḥ samasthāḥ sukhino bhavantu
May all beings be happy and free.