You may be wondering, what is ahimsa? Ahimsa is commonly translated as non-violence, and comes from the yoga school of Hindu philosophy. In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, the first two limbs are the five yamas and five niyamas. I’m going to be exploring these ten teachings in my series on Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas. I’m starting with ahimsa because it’s the value that has inspired me the most, (so much that I’ve intertwined it into my blogging name!) Also, most people who see hannahimsa wonder what ahimsa means.
Before we get to discussing ahimsa, I first want to give you an overview of the yamas and niyamas in general. If you want to skip past that and get straight to ahimsa, scroll down to ‘A Brief History of Ahimsa’. For those of you who believe in the law of attraction, you may like to perceive the yamas and niyamas as energy cleansing work. As you move through them, you will naturally elevate your vibration, and therefore attract a better and brighter reality.
So, let’s discuss:
YOGA PHILOSOPHY: THE YAMAS AND NIYAMAS
There are five yamas and five niyamas. The yamas teach us what behaviour to avoid, and the niyamas teach us what virtues to focus on.
In the West, we tend to think that yoga is just a physical practice, but that’s not accurate. Yoga is much more than just focusing on your breath, learning poses and improving your flexibility. Yoga has a important spiritual side to it, and the poses are simply a physical representation of the values that yoga teaches. They are wise ancient teachings that are just as relevant to our lives as they have been to people in centuries past. Here’s a diagram that illustrates the eight limbs. You can see the yamas and niyamas are the first ‘leaves’ of the plant.
THE YAMAS: AVOIDING TOXICITY
Ahimsa and aparigraha are (currently) my favourite two values of the whole framework. They are the first and the fifth yamas. The yamas highlight behaviour that is toxic and destructive, so that we can recognise these in our lives and practice reducing them. You can think of the yamas as a moral guide. Their English translations often have a ‘non’ in front of them. The Yoga Sutras interpret the yamas as the attitude we have towards our environment.
Ahimsa is usually translated as ‘non-violence’, but I also like to translate it as compassion. The ultimate goal of ahimsa is an aura of peace that protects both the self and others. It’s always the first step in yoga because it teaches the yogi to stop harming ourselves and others, (including non-human animals). If you’ve ever noticed that most people who get into yoga become vegetarian, ahimsa is why!
Second is satya, which can be translated as ‘non-lying’ or ‘non-deception’. It teaches that the spoken word is powerful. I understand satya as meaning truthfulness or authenticity. We all know that lying or being deceptive is wrong, but satya challenges us to live more authentically. I believe living authentically means truly accepting who you are and what you believe in. When you think of satya, think of it as a reminder that your words are powerful, and that you should avoid being fake. Learn all about Satya in this post!
Next is asteya, which can be translated as ‘non-stealing’. This yama teaches us to avoid jealousy. I understand asteya as meaning more than just not stealing or entertaining the green eyed monster. Asteya also teaches honouring (e.g. not wasting or stealing) other people’s time or ideas.
Adikara is another Sanskrit word, which means the right to have something. The two words are often taught together because in order to have something we want, we must first own the competency to have it. So, don’t waste your energy being envious of what someone else has, honour your desires by attaining your goals legitimately.
Then there’s brahmacharya, which traditionally taught as fidelity, or ‘non-cheating’. However, I’ve also seen it translated ‘non-excess’. Naturally, I already think being faithful to my partner is vital, so I’ve focused on learning this other interpretation, ‘non-excess’. I think about it as the yogi’s take on minimalism. The less ‘stuff’ you have, the more freedom and vitality you feel.
As with all the yamas and niyamas, this extends beyond the physical. So, it is also a warning against unhealthy habits. Everyone has some unhealthy behavioural patterns. This can be anything from blaming other people too much, sleeping too much, worrying too much or eating too much. Brahmacharya teaches us to avoid going overboard.
Last is my second personal favourite, aparigraha, which can be translated as ‘non-possessiveness’. I think aparigraha is about living without the burden of attachments or the need to possess things, a.k.a greediness. This is probably the most difficult yama of all, because we’re all really attached to our creature comforts. Aparigraha uses the breath, through its natural pattern of inhaling and exhaling, to teach us to hold things lightly.
SUMMARY OF THE YAMAS
The yamas teach you to avoid:
- Violence in all forms
- Theft and jealousy
- Excess and cheating
By avoiding these toxic behaviours you create the necessary room in your life to embrace the values taught in the niyamas!
THE NIYAMAS: HEALTH AND WHOLENESS
The niyamas are about including values that promote peace and wholeness in our lives. The Yoga Sutras interpret the niyamas as our attitude towards ourselves. They are:
Saucha, the first niyama can be translated as purity. Purity sounds daunting to me. I personally don’t like the word because of the connotations it has with virginity, and what it means to have worth as a woman. In learning more about this Eastern perspective of purity, I’ve come to understand the word as the emotional version of cleansing. I have no problem thinking about cleansing my body through a healthy lifestyle and exercise. So, I now think of purity as cleansing my inner world from toxic patterns (like the behaviours covered in the yamas! 😉 ) Purifying habits can be; meditation, keeping a gratitude journal, working on forgiveness, going to therapy, doing affirmations – in other words, habits that bring you greater ‘emotional hygiene’.
Second is santosha, which is often translated as contentment. While most people aim for happiness and success as their ultimate goal in life, I think it’s more prudent to aim for contentment. Being content means being in love with your life, and santosha teaches us how to get to that place. It teaches us to notice when we are seeking fulfillment from outside sources, and the benefit of embracing life’s challenges. It also reminds us that our emotional disturbances often have more to do with ourselves, than the other person. Therefore, our most important work is the work we do on ourselves. I think of santosha as the result of acceptance, self-honesty and a disciplined practice of gratitude.
Next is tapas, which can be translated as self-discipline or perseverance. The word tapas means ‘to heat’, so I think of it as allowing yourself to feel and learn from the heat of the ‘fiery’ challenges in life, in order to develop perseverance and discipline. I don’t think you should seek out difficult experiences in order to grow, I believe life gives us all the lessons needed to challenge and strengthen us. When I think of tapas I think of two things; one, choosing to use an unpleasant experience to shape me into a better version of myself; and two, encountering life’s difficulties and frustrations with a big picture perspective.
Fourth is svadhyaya, which means self-study or reflection. This niyama is a tough one. It challenges you to see that 99% of what bothers you about someone else, is also in you. So when you’re angry at a stranger for being rude, svadhyaya reminds you that that same rude behaviour is a part of you too. It teaches us to stop blaming other people for our problems, and equally as important, to stop taking responsibility for other people’s actions or problems. If you’ve encountered the psychological theory of projections, I see this as the yoga equivalent! It’s important to find the balance between taking responsibility of your wrongdoings, while still rejecting any undue blame that someone else is projecting onto you. You are never to blame for the abuse you suffered from someone else. Svadhyaya also teaches us to not take responsibility for other people’s behaviour.
ISHVARA PRANIDHAMA ईश्वरप्रणिधान
Last is ishvara pranidhana, which can be translated as surrender or trust. This niyama teaches us to surrender to the flow of life, and trust the process. I think of it as the antithesis to anxiety. Ishvara pranidhana teaches a belief that life has our best interests at heart, and that we need only let it unfold. I think that meditation is a powerful tool in cultivating this sense of trust in the flow of life. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook of “The Surrender Experiment: My Journey Into Life’s Perfection” by Michael Singer. I highly recommend this book. Singer beautifully demonstrates how he transformed his life by the simple, repeated action of letting go.
This last niyama is probably the most challenging of the five. It’s so difficult to let go of outcomes because we’ve spent our whole lives chasing them! There’s also so much fear surrounding what might happen to us if we’re not in control.
SUMMARY OF THE NIYAMAS
The niyamas teach us to cultivate:
- Purity, through taking care of your emotional hygiene.
- Contentment, through accepting your circumstances and practising gratitude.
- Self-discipline, through persevering through tough experiences.
- Reflection, through understanding your own psychology and creating distance between yourself and other people’s behaviour.
- Surrender, through meditation and the consistent habit of letting go.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AHIMSA
The word ahimsa is a Sanskrit word. The root of the word, ‘hims’ means to strike and ‘himsa’ means injury or harm. The addition of ‘a’ at the beginning of a word means the opposite of it, so therefore ahimsa means to do no harm.
Ahimsa is an important spiritual doctrine that is shared by the Indian religions of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Ahimsa teaches that every living being has a spark of divine energy, so hurting another being means you also hurt yourself. This is why ahimsa has meant compassion towards animals since ancient times. I think the recognition of the sentience in animals is a beautiful thing in itself!
Ahimsa was mentioned in some of the oldest versions of the Vedic texts, which were written between 1500 BC and 1000 BC. By 500 BC, after centuries of revision and refinement, ahimsa had become the highest virtue. One of the oldest texts uses ahimsa as a code of conduct that forbids violence against all creatures, and promises that the practitioner of ahimsa would escape from the cycle of rebirths.
I think this is a key part of understanding the history of ahimsa. I assume you are familiar with the idea of karmic consequences, as it has recently become a popular idea in Western culture, and ahimsa can be seen as an important tool of minimising one’s karmic load.
AHIMSA’S ‘GENTLE FEARLESSNESS’
Ahimsa also inspired a great amount of ancient works that discussed the morality of violence including war, self-defence and punishing criminals. One thing I love about ahimsa is it’s ‘gentle fearlessness’, the true spirit of ahimsa does not shy away from justice. Ahimsa greatly impacted the ancient Hindu texts that discussed violence. It also inspired theories on just war, reasonable self-defence and punishment for criminals. Arthashastra, an ancient Indian treatise on military strategy describes the ‘Raja-rishi’, the sage king as being the best type of king. This sage king is specifically described as practicing ahimsa, and being loved by his people because he is just and non-violent.
Mahatma Gandhi brought ahimsa into the modern world through his advocacy of using it in politics through his non-violent resistance movement. His interpretation of the concept increased its popularity, and even influenced other great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi taught that we have an obligation to use non-violent civil disobedience to actively protest unjust laws or societal practices.
“Gandhi believed ahimsa to be a creative energy force, encompassing all interactions leading one’s self to find satya: divine truth”.
– Ahimsa Explained
1960 saw the founding of the first American Vegan Foundation, and the first vegan magazine was called ‘Ahimsa’. These founders created this fantastic acronym as a means to explain the principles behind this Sanskrit word:
Abstinence from animal products
Harmlessness with reverence for life
Integrity of word, thought or deed
Mastery over yourself
Service to other beings and nature
Advancement of understanding and truth
As I mentioned earlier, most of us have come across ahimsa through an interest in yoga. This is because ahimsa is the first and foremost restraint in the code of conduct from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which is yoga theory. You will find ahimsa in all branches of yoga from bhakti to hatha.
MY EXPERIENCE OF AHIMSA
I first embraced ahimsa because of how it addresses a need within the vegan community, where I’d seen and experienced vicious smear campaigns, harassment and stalking. It was truly shocking how ‘compassionate’ vegans were hurting other people under the banner of animal rights. The hypocrisy of these ‘vegans’, who were purposefully causing hurt in the lives of other vegans made me look for an explanation. Up until that point I’d naively believed that all vegans were good people. I knew that the problem was not with veganism, but with the psychological problems that those people have.
I read a quote around that time, which expressed to me what I was seeing happening around me. The quote is: “A fish rots from the head down.” It means that if an organisation or group fails, it’s because of corrupt leadership. I watched the ‘leaders’ of the vegan community I was part of conduct themselves horribly; from stealing other people’s content, to lying about their qualifications on national television, to accusing a (fellow vegan) cancer patient of faking her stage 4 breast cancer. Their behaviour was so destructive that their community was very accurately called, a cult.
Being vegan means becoming conscious of how your actions affect other beings and the world at large. I’ve found ahimsa has taken me even further. It’s helped me build on the foundation of veganism because it includes the self. In essence ahimsa means going through life doing the least amount of harm, while protecting and caring for your own well being too.
MY INTERPRETATION OF AHIMSA
By practicing ahimsa, I’m better at recognising the intention behind other people’s behaviour. My therapist has taught me that every behaviour has a ‘good’ intention. This was a difficult idea for me to grasp initially, but I understand it now. Let me first clarify that while I don’t believe in giving excuses for abuse, I think learning about the psychology of abuse can help victims. This is because it puts shame and guilt back where it belongs, with the perpetrator.
Our culture tends to dismiss non-physical violence. When you look at the dictionary definition of violence, you can see why: “behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something”. The fact that we define violence as being physical clearly shows why our society is so apathetic towards non-physical abuse. I think non-physical abuse is equally, if not more, destructive because of how victims suffer in silence.
AHIMSA AS THE PHILOSOPHY OF EMPATHY
I see ahimsa as the philosophy of empathy because when you feel empathy, another being’s joy fills you with happiness, and likewise another being’s suffering fills your heart with sorrow. In my opinion, a person’s ability to empathise is a vital part of their humanity. I’m convinced that a lack of empathy is the root of a lot of abusive behaviour.
What I love most about the concept of ahimsa is how it transcends mind, body and soul. It’s obvious that punching someone is violence, but ahimsa teaches that verbally insulting or degrading another person is a form of violence too, because it is a violent act on their mind. This non-physical understanding of violence extends to the self too. So, indulging in thoughts of self-loathing is also a violent act towards yourself.
WHY AHIMSA IS NOT PACIFISM
Ahimsa calls us to a higher standard when we observe violence taking place. If you, hypothetically could stop violence then you must do that, even if it means using some violence to stop the abuser. Ahimsa is not ‘an eye for an eye’ kind of justice, in my understanding. It’s not about retribution, but about ceasing the cycle of violence altogether.
Let me give you an example. If you saw a child being abused, your moral imperative is to intervene and stop the abuse. Under ahimsa your motive would be about defending the child. It wouldn’t be about continuing the cycle of violence by then beating up the perpetrator. I think ahimsa teaches using violence as a tool for protection or defense, but not for self-interest or revenge.
AN EXAMPLE FROM MY LIFE
As I mentioned previously, I was part of a vegan cult where the leader was grooming, abusing and blackmailing many young women. Unfortunately, I was one of his targets. After I met my partner Michael, he quickly learned that something was wrong. To summarise a very long story, Michael took it upon himself to publicly expose this horrible person for the crimes he had been committing and covering up. A whole community of people have had their lives touched by Michael’s Unmasking series, and his goal has been accomplished. This ‘leader’ is now a known sexual predator and fraud. He can no longer target and abuse with the same ease that he used to.
Many people have reached out to Michael and thanked him for exposing this person. A lot of people have said that he’s a good man for choosing to expose the abuser publicly, instead looking to inflict physical violence on him. This is ahimsa, because it was about disabling an abuser, defending his targets and protecting future victims.
AHIMSA AND AIKIDO
In Japan, the martial art Aikido teaches practitioners how to successfully defend themselves without harming their opponent. The founder Morihei Ueshiba describes ahimsa as being one of his sources of inspiration.
“The aim of self-defence, suggested Ueshiba, must be to neutralise the aggression of the attacker, and avoid the conflict. The best defence is one where the victim is protected, and the attacker is respected and not injured if possible. Under Ahimsa and Aikido, there are no enemies, and appropriate self-defence focuses on neutralising the immaturity, assumptions and aggressive strivings of the attacker.”
AHIMSA AND VEGANISM
I want to start this section with a beautiful story from Yoga Journal that is used in the Vedas to teach ahimsa. It illustrates how protecting ourselves is a vital part of living with the goal of non-violence.
“A certain sadhu, or wandering monk, would make a yearly circuit of villages in order to teach. One day as he entered a village he saw a large and menacing snake who was terrorizing the people. The sadhu spoke to the snake and taught him about ahimsa. The following year when the sadhu made his visit to the village, he again saw the snake. How he was changed. This once magnificent creature was skinny and bruised.
The sadhu asked the snake what had happened. He replied that he had taken the teaching of ahimsa to heart and had stopped terrorizing the village. But because he was no longer menacing, the children now threw rocks and taunted him, and he was afraid to leave his hiding place to hunt. The sadhu shook his head. “I did advise against violence,” he said to the snake, “but I never told you not to hiss.”
AHIMSA AND THE VEGAN DIET
I’ll keep this section short, because I’ve written a book called ‘Lessons From Veganism‘, in which I discuss how veganism has helped me to evolve. You can grab a free chapter here. Having said that, I’m sure by now, you can see why ahimsa and veganism are so compatible. Ahimsa is an established path to vegetarianism, and in my opinion, veganism.
HOW AHIMSA REACHES FURTHER THAN VEGANISM
A vegan lifestyle is non-violent in relation to our diet and consumption; but it is lacking in how we treat ourselves and other people. Vegans can tend towards becoming misanthropes, which I can understand when you see just how cruel humans can be. However, veganism at it’s core should be a stance against violence entirely. I align myself with ahimsa, because I believe in non-violence towards everyone.
Another good example of how ahimsa reaches beyond veganism is fast fashion. It’s becoming common knowledge now that high street brands like H&M, Primark and Topshop use sweatshops. While their clothes may be vegan, shopping with them definitely causes harm because of the companies’ mistreatment of their workers.
Ultimately, I look at ahimsa as an ideal, not a goal. While we can’t be perfect, we can minimise the harm we cause as much as possible.
FURTHER READING ON AHIMSA:
The best book I’ve read on the yamas and niyamas is, “The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice” by Deborah Adele. This book because is succinct and includes exercises at the end to help you apply the yamas and niyamas in your own life.
The other book I recommend is, “Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas: 10 Principles for Peace and Purpose” by Courtney Seiberling, which is a more recent and personal account that will keep you hooked from start to finish. I also love how Seiberling includes suggested mantras and asanas.
Thanks for reading this first post in my series on Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me in exploring ahimsa!
I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave me a comment. I’d also love to know, what yama and niyama interested you most?
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