Ahimsa is the Yogic concept of non-violence, or non-harm to other beings. Himsa means to strike, injure, or harm and adding an ‘a’ before a word in Sanskrit makes the meaning opposite; in this case meaning non-injuring, non-harm. This is especially important in the yoga practice that occurs in the studio, but plays an equally important role in getting you to and from the yoga studio and all around in your life. Ahimsa is one of the Yamas, or principles for living that Patanjali expounded in writing the Yoga Sutras. I believe it is one of the most useful and important concepts in yoga and philosophy in general. Words, deeds, even thoughts have the ability to create harm; and by renouncing violence you allow life to flourish around you.
All beings have a divine spark within them, trees, plants, flowers, animals, and humans. God, or divinity (however you want to define it, “the universe” is also useful here) is intrinsic in all things, so harming another being is really harming the shared divinity within yourself and the other being. By hurting others, you hurt yourself because of the connection we all shared. Separateness is an illusion, as any astrophysicist, molecular biologist, or mathematician will tell you, electrons are constantly colliding and interweaving in everyday objects that appear to be still. Everything is vibrating and melting, but the human eye does not perceive these realities; instead we construct a conscious image that is useful for things like eating, hunting, and surviving. By truly allowing other beings to grow and flourish you are allowing yourself to prosper simultaneously.
But the concept is even more useful on the yoga mat. Instead of working against the body, work with it to relax and sooth the tension and stress within muscles. Mostly this becomes apparent in the breath, in how relaxed and focused you are on the sensations of the muscles. Injury is probably the easiest way to completely halt the journey of yoga; avoiding it is the key to progress and cultivation of joy within a yoga practice. Make your yoga sweet, not forced, and gentle instead of moving through physical strain, even in the intensity of a pose like Warrior 3. You can amp up your breath to match a difficult pose, but don’t force your body to do things. Mindfulness and care of your body will keep you on the yoga mat working to relieve the stresses of the body even with very intense asana practices rather than being injured and not being able to work on the physical asanas and prana-yama.
As I mentioned earlier, it is also an extraordinarily useful concept off the yoga mat. Mahatma Gandhi was a huge proponent of Ahimsa; you could offer that Martin Luther King Jr. was too, though he was likely unfamiliar with the Indian concept. Violence is cyclical, meaning that is progresses in a downward spiral and the only way to allow for it to cycle is to put energy into it. If everyone in the world could find a way to be non-violent with one another, than world peace wouldn’t even be discussed. It would be a given.
I lived in Paris when I was 20. I also drank a good amount in this time, because I was a rebel, liked being a rebel, and loved to party. So one Saturday night, while in the center of the city (I lived in the 13th, a solid 45 minute or hour walk from the center of the city) my friends and I decided to take one of the night buses home. We were at a club before, drinking and dancing on tables so we were all tired and still quite drunk. All 5 of us got on the public bus and right when I got on, I knew it would be a shit-show.
There were a few younger guys in the back smoking what was obviously hash and cigarettes. They were being pretty rough, so my ground and I sat in front of them, by the door. But these kids were drunk so eventually someone smacked me in the back of the head, for no reason. I turned around and looked to see what happened, I was a rugby player back then so I was a bit more inclined to violence than I am now. I saw a guy just a bit older than me, staring back drunkenly. His friend started to apologize and I said thanks and just turned around. But I was pretty heated; it took every ounce of energy not to yell, or get up, or get my friends to start something. I took the headshot and sat quietly.
When I was 14, I got my black-belt, so I had committed myself to only using violence in self-defense and this did not fall under that category. This is the biggest reason I didn’t react. But as the older kids continued to push each other around in the back of this public bus, the police pulled the bus over; the driver had called in because of his passengers breaking the law. Five squad cars pull up with their lights blaring and we all exit the van. I see the kid that hit me and the others that were causing the trouble get to put the side and the rest of us were allowed to walk from there; we were at the Bastille which was 15 minutes from my foyer, or apartment building. As I began to walk home, I saw the one that was behind me resisting an officer that was questioning him. Then the officer searched him, found more drugs and a switch blade. A big one.
I probably would have been stabbed if I had given that dude just a comment. If I had defended myself, I am sure that someone would have been hurt badly. Sometimes it is really better to end the cycle of violence immediately, as soon as you come into contact with it. Absorb it for everyone else, process it yourself and you just made the world a better place. The story reminds me of the commitment to pacifism. If everyone could sit still and process their own emotions including fear and anger, the world would be peaceful. But it requires commitment from each individual, everyone has to be disciplined to serve the same vision.
Ahimsa is powerful. It shifts the ego lens inward rather than externally making you more aware of your projections of insecurity and fear. Use it in the yoga room and your practice will flourish. Add some love and knowledge to the mix and you will be flying in no time. Then take it outside the studio and live by it; violence in society is never a good thing. Help to make the world a better place.