In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we are presented with the 8 limbs of Yoga. The first limb is Yama (Restraints) and there are 5 – Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Continence), and Aparigraha (Non-greed). They are moral guidelines that we want to practice in society, our relationships, and with ourselves.

Lately I’ve been drawing my students’ awareness to the first Yama – Ahimsa (Non-violence). When we hear non-violence most of us probably think, “I’m not a violent person. I don’t punch, kick, bite, yell, etc.” But these are not the only forms of violence. Here are some harmful behaviors you could be participating in – judgment, criticism, pushing through pain, irritation, and holding grudges. Instead think about non-violence from this perspective: “It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things.” – from The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar.

Patanjali further explains that, “In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.” When we practice non-violence in thought, word, and deed, we “emit harmonious vibrations”. – from The Yoga Sutras Translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda. You may know someone this compassionate. Someone who is kind and generous to everyone they meet. In return, they almost always receive kindness and generosity from others. These people seem to have compassion in their very being; every word they speak and every thing they do is done with mindful awareness.

How can we practice non-violence in our lives? Again, I like to reframe it to the positive, so you’re not thinking so much about not being violent and thinking instead about how you can be compassionate and kind to all living things. Here are a few examples:

On your mat

  • Throughout your asana practice, observe your thoughts. Start to notice how often you judge and/or criticize yourself and others. For example, “That person in front of me is so good/bad/flexible/stiff. That makes me feel really good/bad about myself and my practice.” Simply notice these thoughts, let them go, and reframe it to something kind. “That person in front of me is so good. How inspiring!” Then refocus your attention on your own breath and movement.
  • Another way to practice Ahimsa on your mat is to pay attention to how you move your body. Are your movements fast, jerky, hard, or painful? When we first start practicing this is often the case. Our movement feels awkward and we might push ourselves too hard in the, “no pain no gain” mentality. Instead can you move slower, smoother, softer, and pain-free? Try matching the length of your movement with the length of your breath. This takes a lot of awareness, patience, and practice. Give it time to develop.

Off your mat

  • Consider how you speak to others. Do you participate in office gossip? Do you berate or belittle others? When you feel bad do you try to bring others down? In The Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi she says, “We must then be constantly reminded that even though people and things appear to be different, in our essence we are all the same.” In this respect, we should speak to and treat others as we would like to be treated. Ask yourself the following before speaking: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

*Side note: When you notice yourself slipping into these harmful behaviors, remember to be kind to yourself as well. It doesn’t help matters to start thinking you’re a bad and mean person. Remember that this is something that may have been engrained in you for years. Practice being kind to yourself in these moments and reflect on how you could do better next time.

There are, of course, many other ways to practice Ahimsa. The first thing we need to do is to become aware of our violent/harmful/mean behaviors. You may even ask your family and friends for some honest feedback about this matter. There may be things that you don’t know you are doing. Then take it a step at a time. Contemplate where this behavior comes from and how you might do something different in the future. It may be challenging to have your attention drawn to these actions, words, and thoughts. And this work will likely be a life-long process. Again, remember to start with kindness towards yourself. When we treat ourselves well we show others how to treat us and in turn, how we will treat them.

“If you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another.” – Lord Buddha