The Five Yamas (Part 1 – Ahimsa)

29 January 2013
The Five Yamas (Part 1 – Ahimsa)


This article begins a five part series based on this post: The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Part 1 – Yama)

The first of the five Yamas is Ahimsa – a Sanskrit term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violence – hinsa). The word is derived from the Sanskrit root hims – to strike; hinsa is injury or harm, a-hinsa is the opposite of this (non harming or nonviolence).

Ahimsa is indispensable for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Along with the other four Yamas (restraints) it establishes the Yoga Sutra’s code of conduct. Patanjali says of Ahimsa: As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in Ahimsa (non-injury), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.” (Yoga sutra 2.35 – Ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah)

Ahimsa is perhaps the most famous of the Yamas; usually translated as “nonviolence.” it not only refers to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or even thoughts. Whether we realize it or not, our thoughts about others (or ourselves) can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly attentive, observing ourselves in all our interactions with others and to diligently watch our thoughts and intentions.

When the practice of ahimsa is perfected, it becomes an integral part of all yoga practice. Whatever practices we engage after Ahimsa and the other yamas and niyamas including the successive “limbs” of yoga must embrace Ahimsa as well. For example, asana and/or pranayama practiced without Ahimsa, diminishes their benefits.

Observing Ahimsa does not necessarily mean we must roll over and play dead, turning our back on violence – its practice is positive, not negative. Protecting ourselves and others does not violate Ahimsa. Practicing Ahimsa simply means we take responsibility for any harmful behavior and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral is not the objective. True Ahimsa practice springs from the clear intention to live and act with clarity and love.

Although completely compatible, Ahimsa and love are two different things. Non-harming is not a method where you practice love in order to offset or stop the impulse to harm others. Rather, the first step is to focus fully on the cessation of harming, on all levels (action, speech, and thought). Then, the natural love will effortlessly come shining through. This has extremely practical applications in the student or yogi’s daily life. Trying to directly cultivate love for a person you dislike may be extremely difficult, but working on letting go of the negative is much more effective and immediate. Furthermore, it might then come more naturally to like or even love that person.

A note on Ahimsa and Veganism…

The Five Yamas (Part 1 – Ahimsa)

Veganism is a complete lifestyle, which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for all sentient life. It applies to the practice of living solely on products from the plant kingdom, excluding all flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey and dairy, and encourages the use of plant-based alternatives for all foods and commodities derived either wholly, or in part from animals.

Veganism is not entirely about personal purity or isolating oneself from today’s society, but rather it’s about applying Ahimsa; a sense of compassion and justice to our (often unseen) relationships with animals.

Abstinence from animal products
Harmlessness with reverence for life
Integrity of thought, action and deed
Mastery over oneself
Service to humanity, nature and creation
Advancement of understanding and truth

Stay tuned for: The Five Yamas (Part 2 – Satya)

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