What does Ahimsa mean in Sanskrit?
In Sanskrit, many words are derived from their opposites. Himsa means “to injure”, “to harm”. Adding the prefix “a” to a word negates it. Therefore, Ahimsa means “absence of injury or harm”. However, the term is most-commonly referred to as “non-violence”.
Where did the concept of Ahimsa originate?
The Four Vedas are the oldest texts of Hinduism, written between 1500 and 500 BCE. The Vedas, meaning “knowledge”, were transmitted orally before being recorded in written form. This is why they’re claimed to be over 5,000 years old!
Throughout centuries, Ahimsa has been mentioned in many different texts, the oldest of them being the First Veda – Rigveda.
In yoga, Ahimsa is known as the first of the five Yamas – the yogic principles of social discipline. Yama is the first of the eight limbs of yoga, outlined in the Yoga Sutra. The Yamas together with the second limb Niyamas (principles of self-discipline) shape the yogic code of conduct.
How can I practice Ahimsa in my life?
As a yoga teacher, I have studied and researched a lot on the topic of the eight limbs of yoga. Recently, I read “The prison”, a book by Bulgarian yogi Hristo Iliev who clarifies how yogic philosophy can be used to escape the prison of your own mind. Never before had I come across a text that looks into Ahimsa in so much detail, with everyday examples anyone can relate to.
The advice on practicing Ahimsa in this article is largely based on my notes from “The prison” which is not available in English. Through this book, I have gained a deeper awareness of violence and non-violence. This allowed me to examine how I apply or disregard Ahimsa in my personal life, and relate the concept to cases and quotes which will give you a broader understanding of the subject.
The role of Ahimsa
Patanjali’s Yamas are:
- Ahimsa – non-violence
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – moderation, the right use of energy
- Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
What’s the difference between a person who’s alive and a dead body? The presence or absence of life. Life is not an element to a living person, it’s the essence. This is what Ahimsa is to yoga. Without fully understanding Ahimsa you cannot advance in yoga.
As Ahimsa is one of the five Yamas, many consider it as an element. It is, though, the first Yama of the first limb. Why was it placed ahead of asana, pranayama, meditation?
Ahimsa is the foundation of yoga. It is in direct contact with every element of yoga. If Ahimsa is not connected to an element, this element becomes its polar opposite.
Imagine Ahimsa as the thread of a mala (a strand of beads used for keeping count while chanting a mantra). If the thread is missing, the beads spill and they cannot serve their purpose.
Ahimsa beyond the definition
Think of Ahimsa not only as non-violence but as “creation of harmony, empathy, love”. In Ahimsa there is no ego as it dissolves. If there is ego – then this is not Ahimsa. The ego itself is violence and the way to deal with it is not by suppression (violence) but by letting go. The key to letting go is to become fully aware.
“I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there.” ― Mother Teresa
Ahimsa is a state in which there is no violence at all. It needs to be experienced rather than understood. Essentially, yoga is about taking things into practice, not simply learning theory.
The practice of Ahimsa determines what is yoga and what is not. A person can get some benefits from asanas, such as feeling healthier, more flexible, more composed, even without implementing Ahimsa. However, this is just scratching the surface. Experiencing Ahimsa breaks the walls set by your ego, letting you start a new life in this same lifetime.
“Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Yoga has many different practices. They are different paths all leading to the same door – the spiritual side of yoga. The only key that can unlock the door is Ahimsa. There’s no breaking in.
All yogic techniques and their results aim to make you more aware. The more awareness you develop, the more you will take note of violence, including the violence in you. The more nuances of violence you recognize, the better you will understand what non-violence is. To understand non-violence, you need to first understand violence.
Types of violence
Here is a simple categorization that will point you to different types of violence. No act of violence falls entirely only in one category but this simplified division will help you grasp the concept.
- Based on awareness – conscious and unconscious
- Based on source – internal and external
- Based on attitude – absolute and relative
- Based on the subtle body* it affects
* The seven subtle bodies are layers of vibrating energy that surround the physical body of a person. Violence can affect only the first four bodies. It does not exist in the spiritual, cosmic, or nirvanic layer.
Verbal abuse, assault, stealing, and murder are some expressions of conscious violence we might be experiencing or inflicting on others.
Unconscious violence has a strong influence on our inner world and determines much of what we think, feel, or do to ourselves, others, and the world. Becoming conscious of unconscious violence is vital. We can only control what we’re conscious of. What we’re not conscious of controls us.
Internal and External
External violence comes from a source outside of you – when someone offends you, attacks you, steals from you, etc. Yet, external violence can also be unconscious. You might not be aware of how communicating with certain people affects you on a deeper level.
Internal violence, for instance, is when you’re stressing about something that’s out of your control. I see this is so common that people consider it normal. Let me ask you, when’s the last time you worried for no reason?
Absolute and Relative
Absolute violence cannot be weakened or overcome by resistance. Nuclear bombs are a form of absolute violence that has detrimental health effects. The effects vary in intensity (depending on the health of each individual and their proximity to the explosion) but no resistance would make a difference.
Violence is relative when the victim does not oppose the act to the best of their abilities. To an adult who smokes, despite that they know the health risks of it, violence is relative. If this person smokes close to their child, to the little one the violence is absolute because the child has no means to resist it.
Violence to the subtle bodies
The Etheric body is the first layer of the human energy field and it stands 2-4 inches away from the physical body. It delivers life energy (Prana) and contains the chakras. Because the Etheric body has the closest connection to our physical form, our lifestyle directly influences it.
With this said, I want you to guess the most common form of violence to the Etheric body. You probably won’t guess it right as the answer is so obvious it’s easy to miss. Breathing.
If you look at a sleeping newborn, you will observe their belly expand with each inhale. Abdominal breathing is natural to all of us. Due to cultural and environmental factors, many seem to “unlearn” the skill of proper breathing. Chest breathing, common in women, draws minimal air into the lungs. As a result, the lower part of the lungs never gets used, which hinders the oxygenation of cells. This leads to higher carbon dioxide concentration in our blood which has harmful effects on our stress levels and overall health. Conversely, abdominal breathing is related to improved focus and stabilized blood pressure.
To yogis becoming conscious of physical violence is most important in their asana practice. Forcing the body to fit into poses it is not ready to perform leads to injuries. Injuries, in turn, slow down progress and can wreak havoc on long-term physical performance or even impair everyday movements. Practicing Ahimsa on the mat means being gentle and caring towards our bodies while avoiding pain and discomfort.
Other forms of violence to the Etheric body include: dehydration, emotional eating, or consuming unhealthy food, abusing substances, chronic lack of sleep, smoking, overworking, laziness, bad posture, illnesses, the list goes on.
All negative emotions – fear, anger, jealousy, greed – are violence towards our Emotional body. According to yogic philosophy, an enlightened person is contented, calm, and with a steady mind (Sthitaprajna in Sanskrit). The inner world of such a person is unaffected by the dualities of life. This means someone enlightened does not experience negative emotions at all.
Regular human beings deal with such emotions daily, even several times a day. When you experience negative emotions fully and without judgement, they flow. When you suppress them, they can create chronic stress, which disturbs brain functions as well as the body’s hormonal balance and immune system. To practice Ahimsa in regard to negative emotions, I think it’s not realistic to expect to never have them. Let emotions pass rather than associating yourself with them and becoming attached to them. This would be a perfect example of practicing the fifth Yama – Aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
The Mental body holds our mental processes and thoughts. A common type of violence in this body is exposure to advertisements. You search for something you need and then ads of it start to pop up wherever you are online. Day after day the retargeting campaign is trying to convert you into a customer. On a larger scale, all advertising is trying to feed consumerism by brainwashing us into “needing” something. In this case, again, to avoid giving into this violence one can practice Aparigraha, which is also referred to as non-accumulation.
Social media or rather the way we use it can also be violence to the Mental body, and the Emotional too. Almost half of the world’s population is on social media and the average time a user spends on it is over 2 hours a day. Among people aged 16-24 years the average daily use is 3 hours. With so much time spent on social media, it’s worth asking yourself if the way you use it benefits you. Mindless browsing, gossip, and comparing yourself to others are just some examples of toxic social media behaviour.
The Astral body is a bridge between the physical to the spiritual planes. Hypnosis, telepathy and precognition are some of the potential abilities of the Astral body. These are abilities that most people do not develop as they hide risks for them and for others. However, this does not mean that you’re not the subject of violence in the Astral body.
Subliminal advertising was born in the late 1950s. It delivers a message that is not consciously perceived by the mind and supposedly affects buying decisions. There have been numerous pieces of research looking into the effectiveness of subliminal advertising. Scientists confirm that it does work but it depends on many conditions and its effects duration is arguable. Such messages were found to be most influential when they stimulate a pre-existing desire. Without a desire or enough attention, they may be fully ignored by the brain.
Subliminal messages are not as powerful and scary as many believe them to be. Nevertheless, they have been continuously used by rock songs, in cartoons and advertisements, for fun or in the hope to trigger some response or feeling.
In 1989, British band Judas Priest went to trial for the alleged use of a subliminal phrase in a song that caused two young men to shoot themselves. Although the judge ruled the band not guilty, he also explained that people have a right to be free from unwanted speech. As subliminal messages cannot be evaded, they are an invasion of privacy. With regard to Ahimsa, it does not make a difference whether the subliminal message would influence you or not. It is still a form of violence depriving you of your freedom of choice.
Practical guide to realizing Ahimsa
I hope these descriptions have guided you on identifying violence in you and your environment. To help you on your journey to practicing Ahimsa, I have prepared a downloadable pdf file with journaling prompts and exercises. They will help you dig deeper and become aware of more forms of violence. Awareness is key to let go of these toxic patterns.
To apply or not to apply Ahimsa in our lives is a choice everyone makes, even unconsciously. To me, choosing a path of non-violence goes far beyond being a yogi. It’s about the person you are, with others, and with yourself. Whether you practice yoga or not, I hope you feel inspired to practice Ahimsa.