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The definition of ahimsa (अहिंसा) is most often translated as non-harm. The first yama or ethical code of yoga, it is associated with the concept of nonviolence. But it also means to be mindful of each action and then to perform each action with the least harm and the most love. So its message is non-harming, yes, but also love in action. And the beautiful truth about ahimsa is that it can be both practical and aspirational.
My first significant experience with ahimsa was when I was teaching in India, the land of my ancestors and the place that is the source of yoga practice. Hungry to see ahimsa in action, as well as to grow as a teacher, I went looking for places that were living models of that yogic principle.
I found such a place in the village of Bihar. For a year, I worked at a small rural school there called Maitreya, named after the Sanskrit word maitri, or love. Guided by yogic and Buddhist philosophy, the school provided free education for disadvantaged children and infused the values of nonviolence into everyday life. The aim was to help students develop compassion and universal responsibility. I was there as an educator to share instructional techniques with the teachers. But working and living in this community, I learned important lessons about ahimsa in practice.
Joining with community
For the year that I lived and worked at the school, I experienced firsthand how that community brought the value of ahimsa into daily life. We woke at five each morning to sweep ficus tree leaves from the school grounds. Working in the half-light, we used each stroke of our broom to sweep dust from our school grounds and lay the foundation for clean, quiet minds to begin the day. After our morning work, some students would practice yoga to stretch their bodies and minds.
A little later, we all gathered for morning assembly—four hundred students and teachers sitting cross-legged in a quiet circle. We might sing a favorite prayer of Mahatma Gandhi—we called him Gandhiji—followed by a Muslim prayer, a Christian prayer, a Jain prayer, and so on. No spiritual or religious preferences were made at the school; the non-violence movement honored all faith traditions. Students might practice meditation and concentration exercises, share stories that emphasized ethical values, or perform skits about conflict resolution. The assemblies were designed to provide positive motivation for each day.
Peace with purpose
While the school actively cultivated the yogic principles of peace and love, it did not teach students to be passive.
We practiced being fair—and expecting fairness. Each class group created a list of expectations for one another—students and teacher alike. We all agreed to follow these classroom guidelines and we counseled each other when someone didn’t.
We did not shy away from the truth of problems such as poverty, landlessness, inadequate health education and care, inter-caste violence, crime and illiteracy. Instead, the school challenged us to find nonviolent solutions through ahimsa in action.
One of the ways that students practiced ahimsa was through projects that gave them work experience and provided needed services to the community. For example, each year, more than 4,000 villagers came from miles away to the free eye clinic held near the town. Maitreya students helped care for the patients, making sure they were fed and comfortable, even changing bandages of people who had surgery. In this way, they implemented ahimsa by not just caring for themselves, but sharing with others.
The Maitreya school, in one of the most under-resourced parts of India, showed me that it’s possible to practice ahimsa everywhere. Though there were many problems in the community and different ideas for how they should be addressed, the fundamental message of love, equality, and nonviolence encouraged children to find ways to be of benefit to their families and their communities.
Cultivating soul force
In India, practitioners of ahimsa are called ahimsakas. As teachers, students, or practitioners inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolence philosophy, they are devoted to practicing ahimsa in every aspect of life. This practice helps develop an immutable inner power called “soul force.” The Maitreya school helped students—and all of us—develop that power.
There exists no single formula for becoming an ahimsaka. Soul force comes alive in the love we share in our classrooms and our families. It is cultivated in all of our actions. We harness it every time we are listening to our own hearts, attuned to the moment, and acting from truth, connection, commitment, integrity, and equality.
My experience in Bihar helped me understand possibilities for how I and other teachers, yogis, practitioners—even schools and communities—can bring these yogic principles into our daily lives. I share the lessons of ahimsa and soul force from the Maitreya School because I know they can apply to a yoga studio, to a school in Los Angeles or Orlando, or to any community. I know that, in bringing ahimsa home, we liberate ourselves, one another, and our communities.
Implementing ahimsa at home
So how can you begin to explore ahimsa in your life and context now?
The first yama or ethical code of yoga applies to ourselves and also to our community and world. We can practice ahimsa as self-care. But we can also explore how, within a system of structural violence, being nonviolent actually looks like standing up to harm to others, structurally and to the world. Ahimsa may start in small ways, but it ripples outward.
Making ahimsa part of your practice
Let me make this clear: Ahimsa is not tone policing folks of color and requiring them to “be patient” or show up “nicely.” Or policing the way folks of color express anger, grief, frustration, fear, or joy. Or thinking that being vegetarian or vegan means you are done with your practice of ahimsa. And it’s not simply being “kind” or being a “good person.” It’s not enough to be nice.
Ahimsa in action looks very different from passive kindness. Ahimsa is:
Willingness to be uncomfortable. Take action even when it causes us discomfort. In a system that violently suppresses and attacks some lives, standing up to that system is an integral part of ahimsa.
Taking direct action. We thing of yogis as meek and peaceful, but under the violent British economic and political occupation and colonial oppression of India, some yogis resisted by disrupting the mechanisms of the empire. They interrupted trade routes, destroyed property of the British East India Company, and waged rebellions. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. Yogis made themselves known.
Standing up to injustice in all its forms. Ahimsa is taking a stand for social justice and equity. That may mean voting, marching, writing a letter, providing a safe space for someone who has been hurt, or speaking up for someone who has been harmed.
Practicing yoga beyond the poses. That includes studying ahimsa as direct action. Self education is inner ahimsa. Abolishing a police state is a form of structural ahimsa. I have learned to practice an ahimsa model of nonviolent yogic teaching that centers equality and mutual respect. We can care for ourselves as we care for the world in our embodied practice of ahimsa.
अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः॥३५॥
“In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.” (Sutra 2.35)
About our contributor
Susanna Barkataki, M.Ed, E-RYT 500, is a yoga therapist, Ayurvedic practitioner, and Indian yoga teacher in the Shankaracharya tradition. She is the founder of Ignite Institute for Yogic Leadership and Social Change, and the bestselling author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice.