In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ahimsa is the first yama. Yama is the first of 8 limbs that constitute yoga and is seen as the foundation, gateway or threshold to the practice and the state of yoga. Yama has five to ten aspects depending on which text we look at, here I’m going to go with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which is still viewed as the most important compilation of texts on yoga (That´s about to change it btw., more on this later).
We normally translate yama as “restraints”, “self-control”, “observances” or “rules” (see source translation list below). Yama can be seen as a compass that steer our embodied self-enquiry in the direction of Yoga as a ground state. It can also be seen as a set of lenses or glasses through which we see ourselves more clearly and learn from experience (Devereux, 2012). Ahimsa or non-violence is the first quality of yama, and a pretty important one. In some translations and commentaries of Patanjali, the remaining four yamas are all extensions of this first and one:
“The other rules and observances are rooted in it. They are practised in order to practice it, with the aim of perfecting it. They are being expounded only for the sake of bringing about it´s pure form” (Patanjalayogasastra, translated by Mallison and Singelton 2017, p.80).
In translations of the yoga Sutras, we see the word Ahimsa divided up in two parts: “a” being a negation and “himsa” meaning harm, injury or violence. In that translation “a”+”himsa” would mean “non-violence”, “non-harming” or “harmlessness”. The most common translation used today is non-violence. There is debate, however, whether the “a” really should be translated as a negation, in some interpretations that take into account the older root of “a” it may also have meant “getting to know” or “inquiring into” (Soham Johansen personal communication). So ahimsa could both mean, “do no harm” but it could perhaps also mean “get to know harm”. How and from where do harmful actions arise in us? “How does it feel when that happens?” “How does harm work in ourselves and in relationship to others?” “What is harm?” I´m not a Sanskrit scholar, so my reading of Patanjali is coming from a practitioner’s perspective rather than a scholarly one. From the perspective of my experience as a practitioner, it makes sense that the word ahimsa could imply both a practice of getting to know the nature of harm and a practice of doing no harm. In my experience, the latter depends very much on the former. If we don´t want to know about harm, acknowledge harm, investigate harm, we can´t recognize or feel it when it´s happening, hence we can’t learn and change.
How does one practice ahimsa, for example, in the context of a modern yoga posture class? The root of all inquiry, all forms of investigation into the nature of your experience goes through ypur body. More specifically, it goes through sense impressions or sensations generated in and as your body. You know there is a body and a world because you feel, see, hear, touch, smell, and taste things. So if there is such a thing as a practice of ahimsa, it would begin with honoring our natural ability to experience things as bodies. On your yoga mat, it would therefore begin with your ability to feel physical sensation. Godfrey Devereux translates ahimsa with the word sensitivity (Devereux 2012). Becoming sensitive to what is happening, becoming gradually more attuned to feeling and discriminating between different kinds of sensations. Sensitivity lies at the heart of our ability to respond to what we experience, responding according to the situation at hand requires that you can feel what’s going on. Yoga posture practice is a great way to inquire into, and allow oneself to become affected by, physical sensation.
Ahimsa, in this perspective is not so much a rule for practice as a mode of practice. A mode of somatic self-inquiry. Ahimsa is set of questions you can ask yourself: What does this feel like? Is it soft or hard, spacious or compressed, painful or delightful, local or nonlocal? When moving as we do in yoga posture practice we can ask ourselves: What can I do with my hands that support my wrists and shoulders when they carry weight? What can I do with my feet that soften my knees and lower back when standing? How and how much should i lift my head in cobra in order for the back of the neck to still feel long and soft? When my jaw and lips soften, what else can soften with it?
How does ahimsa expres itself i our lives? In the yoga sutras of Patanjali, it is said that when one become deeply grounded in the practice of ahimsa one’s presence “creates an atmosphere in which all hostility ceases” (Stiles, 2002 p.25).
This – to me- does not mean that you will walk around smiling in an atmosphere of undisturbed peace no matter what happens around you. Neither does it mean that you will never ever hurt anyone’s feelings again or that because you are doing yoga your exhalations magically cease to contribute to climate change or that the people around you will stop fighting when your super natural aura of pace, love and rainbows is shining in their vicinity. Ahimsa simply means being sensitive enough to recognize when something harmful is actually happening. Being willing to feel the impact is has on you. When grounded in ahimsa we become ready to recognize and respond to what is happening and it´s more likely we will cease from harm when we feel the pain it creates in others and ourselves.
Ahimsa, according to my former teacher Godfrey Devereux, is not a moral commandment used for social control as if humans were naturally prone to violence and need to be restrained. Rather than a restriction, ahimsa is an invitation to inquire into our own nature. To feel more deeply and respond more directly to what is happening. To honor your body´s natural wisdom which will always move towards nourishment and non-harming (ahimsa) and away from harm (himsa). All life does this, from the amoeba to the human being. Ahimsa is an inquiry beginning with our own body but extending to all life.
When we become deeply rooted in the practice of ahimsa nothing special or super natural has happened. Rather, we have become aware that something is happening naturally all the time. Something that was already in our nature has been allowed to express itself freely.
“Sensitivity generates love,” Godfrey writes in his interpretation of the Yoga Sutras (p.90). Love and compassion are natural qualities that flow from sensitivity. Ahimsa is perhaps not a discipline or a self-controlled practice that can be claimed by some moral yoga-elite. Ahimsa is perhaps nothing other than the basic functioning of life. A natural sensitivity that generates love towards all of life.
In that sense it´s a bit funny, to say we will “practice ahimsa”. In a sense, the invitation to practice ahimsa is here with you right now. Sensation is always available to you. Your sensitive body is constantly feeling things. The practice is becoming willing and able to recognize what it is we are feeling and understand the implications of that.
References for further reading:
Devereux, G: “Yoga unveiled – a user’s guide to the yoga sutras of Patanjali” (available from Satcit books)
Feurstein: “The yoga-sutra of Patanjali”
Mallison, J & Singelton, M. (2017): “Roots of Yoga”
Iyengar, B.K.S.: “Light on the Yoga Sutras of patanjali”
Stiles, M: “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”