pronounced exactly as it looks: short “a” sound, “him” as in the male pronoun, “sa” with short “a” sound at the end
Non-violence. Ahiṃsā is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs, which means to strike. The word hiṃsā means injury or harm. The prefix a means “non”.
Ahiṃsā is first of the moral principles in yoga. It’s like the biggest of a set of nesting toys. All of the other moral principles fit inside it.
Like many yoga teachings, this seems pretty simple on the surface. It’s pretty easy for me to look at the world and identify violence occurring between humans everywhere. It’s also pretty easy to look at the way I treat other people and confirm that I am not acting violently towards other people, most certainly not in a physical way.
Ahiṃsā and How We Treat Ourselves
Considering ahiṃsā in relation to how we treat ourselves makes the the principle seem less cut-and-dry.
I have a tendency to get sleep fewer hours than I need, over-schedule my time, and push the limits of my physical capacity. Is that being violent towards myself?
Trappist monk Thomas Merton says yes. He writes: "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times."
Is the way that you arrange your daily life - doing these pretty normal things like staying up too late and working too many hours - causing you harm?
We all know that sometimes pushing hard, staying up late, demanding super-productivity from ourselves, might be necessary to reach a goal in the short term. But what happens when we repeat these patterns over and over again?
Overworking on the Yoga Mat
There’s a long discourse on the dangers of yoga posture practice. While some poses are certainly risky and no one should do just any posture without prerequisite, I honestly don’t think there are inherently dangerous yoga poses. Just like it’s not inherently harmful to stay up late or work a lot to accomplish a single short term project or goal.
But how many times in a yoga class do you get lost in your willfulness to get a pose right and actually add tension and strain to the body?
Certainly there is value in holding poses longer than strictly comfortable, working to get a new or different experience of a posture, or trying to understand the intricacies of a complicated posture.
But what if there is repeated and continual tension or hardening to the body as part of that effort?
When you are on your yoga mat, do you get angry at your body?
Do you load it with the frustrations of your day and then expect it to do what you want?
What kind of conversation do you have with yourself about your ability to do the postures?
Ahiṃsā is a simple concept, especially to understand intellectually. But it’s not always as easy as it might seem.
Meditation teacher and author Phillip Moffitt writes, “It is never right to hurt any human being; including yourself; for selfish reasons or because of sloppy attention to the consequences of your actions. Understanding this is your first step in practicing ahiṃsā toward yourself.”
An Invitation for Non-Violence
Can you be nicer to yourself when you are on your yoga mat and in your daily life?
What happens when you pay closer attention to the consequences of your actions?
I think these inquiries are the key to experiencing the non-violence of our times.
Want to take it easier than usual on your yoga mat? Grab your props and settle in for this free Restorative Yoga class on me YouTube channel.