This post is the first in a series on the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Ahiṃsā is the first of five yamas, or universal ethics.
“In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.” – Patañjali, “The Yoga Sutras” II-35
Ahiṃsā is frequently translated as “non-harming.” Some people have translated it as “non-killing,” but it’s broader than that. “Hiṃsā” is literally “to cause pain” or “to cause violence,” so ahiṃsā is “not to cause pain.” In the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions, it includes respect for all living beings and avoiding violence toward anyone.
One question that repeatedly arises is whether one must be vegetarian or vegan to practice ahiṃsā and be a true yogi. B.K.S. Iyengar said yes. Personally, I say no. While it’s better for the planet (and certainly for the cow and the chicken!) if we were all vegetarian, some people can’t be for health reasons. Others choose not to be in order to avoid causing friction in their families. Simply knowing where our food comes from and how it’s treated can definitely help us develop ahiṃsā. (Learning how chickens are treated in factory farms drove me to become vegetarian without any further prompting.) In the philosophy of yoga, all creatures have an equal right to live.
In practicing ahiṃsā, we need to keep in mind that there are many ways to cause pain. The Buddha cautioned to watch out for our body, speech, and mind, and these three are all ways we could cause harm. The body seems obvious: if we punch someone in the nose, we cause pain. Speech has many paths to hurt others: lies, hateful speech, and gossip are three examples that come to mind. When we hold angry or violent thoughts in our minds, we are harming ourselves. On a subtle level, when our thoughts contain emotions like resentment, disappointment, or guilt, we are committing violence against ourselves.
Where does all this violence come from? Fear and ignorance are major causes. Studies have shown that the more news a person consumes, the more frightened they become. Letting go of fear, trusting that “whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should,” gives us less cause for fear and therefor less cause for violence. So go ahead. Turn off the news for an evening. See how it feels.
People also tend to fear what they don’t understand. The fear of “the other” results in behavior from bullying to hate crimes. We can practice ahiṃsā by both getting to know the thing we fear and by not allowing our fear to control us. We can base our lives on reality and investigation rather than on ignorance.
We can bring ahiṃsā into our lives through compassion and equanimity. Compassion means caring for others so much that we’re willing to take on their suffering. Think of a mother with her injured child, wishing she had the “boo-boo” instead of her child. Equanimity means making peace with all that is in each moment. If something needs changing and we can change it, we go ahead. But if there’s nothing to be done about it, we simply lean in and accept. Both compassion and equanimity help us practice ahiṃsā.
An excellent practice for training in ahiṃsā is meditation. When we meditate, we learn to dispassionately observe our thoughts as they come and go. Eventually, our practice comes off the mat, and we find ourselves noticing when we have thoughts in all kinds of situations. Our negative thoughts can cause our bodies to produce cortisol, a stress hormone. Loving thoughts, on the other hand, trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us relax and feel good. With meditation training, we notice the negative thoughts and consciously choose to replace them with positive ones. This results in less fear and greater kindness toward all.
Another practice for cultivating ahiṃsā is forgiveness. When someone harms us, we offer mercy rather than demanding justice. When we make a mistake, forgive ourselves. This doesn’t mean that when we forgive someone on Thursday we have to have lunch with them on Saturday. Healthy boundaries are never a bad idea. But we don’t have to hold on to our anger – which is a violence against the self.
If you’re looking for people who embody ahiṃsā, think of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. All three of them model how to work for change while practicing ahiṃsā. While we may not be able to live up to their examples fully, we can certainly try. And just by trying, we reduce the amount of pain in the world.
 Patañjali, “The Yoga Sutras” II-35, Sri Swami Satchidananda, trans.
 Iyengar, B.K.S., “Light on Yoga”
Ehrmann, Max, “Desiderata”