Yoga studios continue to pop up on every street corner in every city in America with an amazing regularity. Celebrities have their own personal yogis, and many of the most popular yogis are now celebrities themselves. Yoga is no longer a strictly Eastern practice or a hot trend in the West, it has officially taken hold and is here to stay. With this being the case, it is amazing how little most of the mainstream public understands about yoga, even many of those who practice it daily.
Yoga is so much more than a trendy workout or a fitness routine, but even those of us who know this still find it hard to actually practice the more spiritual elements of yoga. The perfect example of this is the concept of Ahimsa. The spiritual aspect of yoga is probably even more important than the physical one, and Ahimsa is the core of the spirituality of yoga.
What is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “nonviolence” or “not to injure,” but like so many Sanskrit words, there is no English translation that can properly express the full depth of the word. “Nonviolence” implies an action (or inaction) of simply refraining from fighting or physically harming other human beings, but the concept of Ahimsa means much more than avoiding physical conflict. In fact, it means more than any action whatsoever, and is mostly about a certain state of mind.
Abstaining from violent actions can be easy in most scenarios, but Ahimsa involves avoiding even the thoughts of violence. Beyond that, to fully practice perfect Ahimsa, one should have such complete compassion for every being in the world that the thought of harming any living being could never cross the person’s mind. Ahimsa is just as much about the thinking and intent as it is about the action, and striving for Ahimsa is striving for a level of perfect benevolence towards all living creatures.
Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga
Most of our concepts of modern yoga come from Patanjali’s eight-limbed system described in the Ashtanga Yoga. This system is made up of yamas (self-restraints or things you should not do) and niyamas (things that a yogi should do), and Ahimsa is the very first of the yamas.
Because the eight-limbs are seen as a progression, the placement at the head of the list is meaningful. The significance of Ahimsa as the first yama (which is the first of the two limbs) is that it defines the necessary foundation for progress through yoga. It is a precursor to Asana, implying that success in Yogasana can only begin with a purification of thought, word and deed through the self-restraint of Ahimsa.
The Real Meaning of Ahimsa
It is relatively easy to not physically harm another human being. It is slightly more difficult to not physically harm any living creature. But to never even think of harming another person, animal or plant in the world– that can be incredibly hard. That is why Ahimsa is viewed as a virtue; it is a condition for which we should strive and hope to eventually achieve.
However, this concept invokes several questions. The main question involves exactly how far one should take his or her idea of Ahimsa, and how far should we be willing to go to achieve this. Because Ahimsa is a core virtue in Hinduism, many people in India are vegetarians and avoid killing animals for food. Some even go as far as not boiling drinking water to avoid harm to the germs inside. And this still only deals with the action of Ahimsa, not the thought which is even more difficult.
While the example about the germs is obviously unrealistic for most people, it does show how far many people are willing to go in order to achieve this virtue of nonviolence. However, all actions begin with thoughts, and it is the thought of violence which we must concern ourselves with eradicating. The Buddha explains this concept perfectly:
“The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its way with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings… As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”
Refraining from what we typically view as violence is obviously the best start to achieving Ahimsa, but refraining from violent thoughts can take time. This is because any thought of harm to yourself, another person or any living creature puts you out of whack with the universal being and keeps you from growth. When you think of the divine connection between all living creature, it helps you to be more benevolent towards all beings and is a large step on the journey towards Ahimsa.