The first limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is Yama, which translates to “restraint”. The idea behind the five yamas is to cultivate a way of thinking-acting-being that creates harmony and connection – with ourselves and with others. This often involves restraining our instinctual fear-based behaviours, and practicing a more conscious way of interacting.
The first sub-limb of these restraints is Ahimsa, which translates to “non-harming” or “non-violence”. This is the disciplined practice of thinking-acting-living-being without harming ourselves and others. According to Nicolai Bachman, it is the “abstention of deliberate harm or pain to other creatures on all levels – thoughts, words, and deeds”. The sutra itself translates as:
YS 2.35 In the presence of one practicing non-violence, hostility cannot exist.
I would like to highlight something I believe is very important. Patanjali was very deliberate and conscious in the Yoga Sutras – everything is in its proper place and order. It is no coincidence that ahimsa is the first of the practices the Yogi is to undertake. It is not a leap to say that ahimsa is the basis of a yoga practice – without this, it is not yoga.
At the beginning of this practice, the yogi works to restrain her or himself from any thought-word-deed that would be harmful to the self, or to another. As the practice unfolds, we realize that there are a few moving pieces to the ahimsa puzzle.
In her book The Yamas & Niyamas, Deborah Adele talks about a few practices we will need to engage in as part of our ahimsa practice:
- Courage: it takes courage to face our fears. Deborah states that fear creates violence, and so we must work through our fears. It also takes courage to live differently than those around you.
- Balance: balance creates harmony. Without that harmony it is challenging to practice non-violence with dis-ease inside us – the dis-ease is going to find an outward expression.
- Empowerment: when one feels powerless, it leads to aggression. We need to learn to empower ourselves by recognizing that we have choices, by cultivating gratitude, learning to trust (in a higher power, in ourselves, in the moment), and to re-assess the story we are telling ourselves (more on stories in the next sub-limb – satya).
- Self-Love: how we treat ourselves is how we treat others. Here we work with forgiveness, non-judgment, humor and acceptance. The root of non-violence is love.
Nischala Devi, in her book The Secret Power of Yoga, translates ahimsa as “love, reverence and compassion for all beings”. I believe that this is an active form of the practice. We go from “not doing” things that are violent or harmful, to actively cultivating a loving and compassionate approach to living. This is a huge game changer.
Remember that yoga is not about “becoming” someone new… If you want to be someone else, don’t pick yoga as your method cause it won’t work. Yoga is about removing the obstacles-challenges-veils that keep your True Self from shining forth. The light inside you is loving, compassionate, joyful, and sees the brilliance in all things. The yamas are not to make you into someone else, they are to allow your deepest self to come forward. It’s about being the most you that you can be.
Mona teaches Ayurvedic Yoga at the Janati Yoga School in Kingston Ontario, where she lives with her wonderful husband, their enthusiastic dog, and ninja kitten. When she’s not teaching, practicing or talking about yoga, you might find her enjoying a good meal, kayaking, climbing a mountain in Ireland, or zip-lining over a forest in Costa Rica, Roatan, or Whistler BC.