Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Want to learn more about the yama? Join teacher Rina Deshpande for her online course, The Culture & Practice of the Yama. Through lectures, holistic practices, reflections, and discussions on yoga’s roots and evolution, Rina will bring depth and nuance to your understanding of this rich philosophy. Learn more and sign up today!
When we hear about concepts like nonviolence, we often think of historical figures such as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. leading movements for peace in the face of oppression. Several articles mislabel Gandhi as a “father” of nonviolence, not aware that he was symbolically reclaiming India’s rights and identity from the British Raj by embodying what had long been integral to ancient Indian spiritual teachings: ahimsa.
Ahimsa, commonly referred to as “nonviolence” but more literally translated from Sanskrit as “absence of injury” is an ancient concept originating in the Vedas—Indian spiritual and philosophical wisdom dating from as far back as 1900 BCE, or nearly 4,000 years ago. The Vedas, approximately meaning “divine knowledge,” were considered authorless and were originally passed down in oral tradition for centuries. Four Vedas, which make up the Bhagavad Gita, were eventually compiled and written down in Sanskrit by a sage known as Vyasa. Another sage, Patanjali, is said to have studied these Vedic texts and developed what we know as the Yoga Sutra and the basis of classical yoga’s eight limbs.
Ahimsa is part of the first of the eight limbs known as yama, or practices of self-regulation designed to free us from being victims of our own human impulses. Yama practices are likened to cleaning techniques for our minds, bodies, and spirits that allow us to live more conscious, liberated lives. In addition to being a yama in yoga, ahimsa is also a foundational principle of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Great leaders such as Gandhi lived by the teaching ahimsa parama dharma: “Nonviolence is our greatest walk of life.” But with our modern-day responsibilities and jobs, we may not live ahimsa as a sole way of life. Instead, there are ways we can live day to day that allow us to see the benefits of ahimsa in practice.
The word “practice” implies something that takes work, time, and refining. Ahimsa as a practice of not injuring others might seem straightforward in theory: Of course I shouldn’t throw a tantrum if I don’t get my way. Of course I shouldn’t bully someone to get in front of them in line at the store. Of course I shouldn’t lie. We also recognize that this theory is often so much harder to put into practice—and maintain.
As I was writing at a coffee shop in New York City recently, three women came in and sat next to my table on what appeared to be a work break. They laughed as they shared comments on the weather and talked about their jobs and upcoming travel. Soon, one of the women said she had to get to a meeting and headed back to the office while the other two stayed behind, all of them waving and smiling. When she was out of sight, though, the remaining two women began talking poorly about the person who had just left. In a few minutes it went from a few whispered comments to bonding in laughter over criticisms between sips of coffee. What they didn’t realize was that the woman had left her cellphone behind and had run back into the coffee shop, overhearing the last jab. The pain from injurious words that flushed through each of their faces, minds, and bodies was palpable. Even as an observer, I felt it.
Inflicting injury does not only mean causing physical harm to other people. Words, tones, behaviors, and even our thoughts can turn into weapons if used destructively. In the Vedas, the ways of delivering harm are kayaka (“of the hand,” or physical actions), vācaka (“expressive,” or words), and manasika (“of the mind,” or thoughts).
Technically, no one was physically hurt in the coffee shop, but the injury through an expression of words—vācaka—led to what felt like physical pain. The women’s flushed cheeks almost looked like the mark of a physical slap or sickness, and the nausea in my stomach made me feel like I had been winded by a blow—kayaka. Based on the looks in their eyes, it was obvious that painful thoughts were coursing through their minds—manasika.
Though we can consider physical, word-based, or thought-based forms of harm as separate, we should understand that all of them are inextricably linked. And we can see that while the incident in the coffee shop was seemingly divided between inflictors of pain and a recipient of pain, it was everyone who suffered—both in the moment and beyond.
It’s easy to assume that the moment of pain happened because the person being secretly ridiculed returned to the café. If she hadn’t come back, then she wouldn’t have found out, and no harm would have been done. But if we take the time to look deeply and mindfully into the experience, we’ll understand that when we inflict pain on others, we suffer ourselves, whether consciously or not, and perpetuate a cycle of hurt. If we live our lives by smiling and saying one thing, only to turn around and say or do the opposite, we also likely imagine a world where others are doing this to us. This contributes to ongoing insecurities and a defensiveness in relationships, which negatively impact our lives and those of our loved ones.
The ahimsa-based practices of pausing, looking ahead, empathizing, and choosing well move us closer to a stress-free life. If we have nothing to hide or regret and live that way as a practice, we live more simply and freely. This is yoga.
Interpretations of Ahimsa
As Gandhi said, “If one does not practice nonviolence in his personal relationships with others, he is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home.” Our homes and interpretations of ahimsa may look a little different from one another’s. The Vedas encourage honoring our own dharma, or path, as we follow principles such as ahimsa.
My mom and dad have always shown my sister and me that we coexist with all beings, including small ones. Bugs take care of weeds and pollinate our Earth. Birds feed on bugs and fish. We all contribute to the health of our planet. If we can show ahimsa by being kind to even the smallest creature—such as letting an insect outside instead of killing it—we start to see the world differently, through a much wider lens. Here, fellow yoga practitioners and teachers share their unique understandings of ahimsa:
Ahimsa Within Self
“I believe and try to teach that ahimsa is foundational in yoga in and of itself, but also is a foundational principle of the other four yamas. For example, with the yama satya, or truthfulness, truth is relative and embodies ahimsa: Be honest but not if it’s causing unnecessary pain or harm. Ask yourself, “Am I looking to speak my truth at any cost, or should I stop at the moment of possibly causing harm?” Another way ahimsa is practiced in the yoga community is by becoming vegan or vegetarian. While having a mostly vegetarian diet is good, going completely meat- and dairy-free doesn’t work for every individual. A kinder option is to teach people to discern what is best for their bodies and their health. And… not shame people for their choices.”—Sangeeta Vallabhan, a yoga teacher in New York City
Ahimsa Within Community
“Equally, we are all co-creators in a community of learning. I have learned to practice a Gandhian model of nonviolent classroom management that centers on equality and mutual respect. Each group of learners creates a list of expectations that we have for each other, and we emphasize that the teacher is one among all in this community. Students request things like ‘teachers and students should be fair and not have favorites.’ We all follow these guidelines and counsel each other as needed.” —Susanna Barkataki, Founder of Ignite Yoga
Ahimsa Within Collective Humanity
“Primum non nocere, or ‘First, do no harm.’ I grew up in a family of scientists. My mom is a plant pathologist-turned-pharmacologist, and I have an older brother whose disillusionment with the US health-care industry led him to take his MD and PhD to new frontiers and startups in the Bay Area. Perhaps because of these two, my relationship to ahimsa has been shaped by bioethics, medical ethics, and what today are known more generally as sustainability and public health. For example, I feel uncomfortable attending a yoga studio that sells exorbitantly overpriced swag, not only because it’s silly to think you need fancy pants to practice humility and self-awareness, but also because studies have shown that the athleisure industry is polluting our oceans. If what’s best for you ends up coming at a cost to the environment and someone else’s well-being, what you’re perpetuating is a culture of harm even if it’s sold to you with the feel-good rhetoric of ‘self-care.’”—Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Georgia
When we see ahimsa in action, it keeps us in positive connection with ourselves and the world. I see ahimsa in a news story about an eight-year-old boy helping another eight-year-old boy with autism feel better on the first day of school. I see it when my neighbor helps his wife through illness with love or when I learn that a friend is organizing plastic cleanups on beaches. It’s there when I choose a nourishing meal to serve my body in the midst of a busy workday. Ahimsa is present and relevant to all, in each of our unique lives. Bringing awareness to it as a practice is key to its continuation and expansion. What is your understanding of ahimsa, and where do you see its positive impact in your life, community, and world?
About the author