Often translated as ‘Non-Violence’ or ‘Non-Harm’ ahimsa is the first step on the first rung of the Yoga ladder, as described by the ancient Sage Patanjali. In the West we have come to equate the word Yoga as being synonymous with the physical posture work or as a set of exercises, however in the older yoga texts physical posture, known as asana, forms only one small element of a much wider set of mental, behavioural, spiritual and meditative practices. Long before we get into our leggings and onto the mat, the Yogic idea of non-violence or non-harm is advocated as a way of living in the world.
It can be easy to tick this idea off with a shrug and think ‘well I don’t go around harming anyone or being violent’, but on deeper inspection ahimsa is more complex and difficult to achieve than simply avoiding an overt act of aggression or violence. What if ahimsa applies not only to gross actions of attack but the more subtle forces within each one of us and the unconscious harm we can cause to the environment or ecology through our everyday choices? What if it means not only ‘do no harm’, but also ‘allow no harm’? What would that mean for our responsibilities towards the environment and society?
Long before an act of harm or violence takes form, it has been cultivated in our minds. Revenge, intolerance, impatience and ignorance can all lead us to think the actions we take are justified. So ahimsa means non harm, not only in our actions, but also in our thoughts and words. Looking inward I sometimes find a subconscious stream of damaging thoughts around self-worth, a harsh voice of self-criticism or self-depreciation. I am prone to compare myself to others, even in the yoga class as I see the person on the next mat ‘doing better’ that I am!
If the idea of ahimsa extends itself to actively preventing or allowing harm then we are faced with acts of Yoga in every consumer choice we make. Gandhi’s definition of ahimsa, the cornerstone of his powerful political movement of non-violent protest was “the avoidance of harm to any living creature in though or deed.” He often gave examples in terms of the diet that we choose. Surely now his words bear the testimony of time as the search for sustainable agriculture and protection of the natural world come to the fore. The consequences of our actions and inactions related to the world’s resources; our consumer choices and use of the environment are now more important than ever.
All of this can seem overwhelming and depressing! I have felt so. But in thinking about ahimsa I am beginning to see that being here, in this world with all its messy challenges is a calling to embody the idea of ahimsa and feel not hopeless but encouraged. It will be a privilege to be part of a solution, as we seek ways to live in harmony with the natural world. There is a way forward and it has been there as a massive clue all along in the first step of the first rung of Yoga!
So my practice now, as I step onto my yoga mat is to bring the idea of non-harm to mind. I resolve to be kind to myself whilst listening and learning how to work with my body and breath. Then at the end of the practice, I resolve to take this discipline of non-harm with me through the rest of the day. I think Patanjali was right in putting non harm at the top of the Yoga list, with this foundation, everything else will surely come right.
Ahimsa now more than ever needs to sit at the heart of our every individual action and form a centrepiece of national and international social, environmental and climate policies.
Thank you for reading.