The introduction to the first two limbs of Rāja Yoga, Yama and Niyama, lists the five restraints and five observances which make up the ten ethical principles that operate on every action, word and thought.
We begin our study with the first restraint, Ahimsā.
Ahimsā, non-harming, appears in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda, of the Yoga Sūtras (2.35). It is listed as the first of the ten ethics because the remaining nine depend on it (Christensen).
Here is a wonderful introduction to this ethic by Charlotte Bell. In fact, the complete chapter on ahimsā and really, her whole book, is a must read.
“Mahatma Gandhi said that nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. Jesus encouraged his followers to love their enemies. The Buddha taught that hatred never ceases by hatred but ceases only through love. The philosophies of every spiritual system in this world share one common ground: the intention to not cause harm.”
I thought it best to present commentaries of a few yogis who have shared their wisdom after years of practice. Their words have made these principles come alive, making it both a pleasure and bane to practice.
अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः॥२.३५॥
Ahimsā-Pratišthāyām Tat-sanidhau Vairathyāgaha (Y.S. 2:35)
A few translations of this sutra.
- Becoming perfect in Ahimsā means no harm will come to you.
- On being firmly established in nonviolence there is abandonment of hostility in (his) presence (Taimni)
- When a yogi is grounded in non-harming, all enemity is abandoned in his presence (Feurstein)
In the sections that follow, the first paragraph under the heading of the author briefly introduces the writer, followed by their commentary on the topic at hand. Their books and others are listed below for further study.
Dr. I.K. Taimni (1898-1978), a professor of chemistry at Allahabad University, India, made a deep study of Kashmir Shaivism and yoga. He is revered for his contribution to theosophical literature and his books have been translated into several languages.
Ahimsā really denotes an attitude and mode of behavior towards all living creatures based on the recognition of the underlying unity of life. Ahimsā stands for the highest degree of harmlessness which is found only among adepts and yogis; any ordinary person trying to practice it seriously will begin to feel that perfect harmlessness is an unrealizable ideal. It does not deal with superficial aberrations nor is its purpose to make a good law-abiding individual. Practice of ahimsā and other ethics goes to the very bedrock of human nature and lays a foundation for yogic life.
This sūtra is essentially pointing out the direct result of practicing ahimsā – “no harm will come to you”. An individual who has developed ahimsā carries about him an aura surcharged with love and compassion – a positive and dynamic quality of universal love, not a mere attitude of harmlessness.
Alice Christensen began her studies under her guru, Rāma, (early 1960’s) who, before his death, advised her to complete her training under Lakshmanjoo in Kashmir, India. She founded the American Yoga Association in 1968.
Ahimsā or Non–violence essentially means don’t harm yourself or others/things. Harming ourselves most often manifests as self-destructive behavior. Common examples being overeating, overindulging in substances such as alcohol, caffiene, sugar, overwork, stress, watching violent movies, failure to rest, being passive aggressive, harming the environment, uncontrollable emotions, gossip, criticism, to mention a few.
Practice of ahimsā teaches you how to protect yourself from your own self-destructive behaviors. Eventually, your practice will begin to affect others in the world. In fact, when a person completely established in non-violence is present, the violence in the immediate environment must subside. This is what the above sūtra is implying. Christensen further connects ahimsā to love and food, elaborating on how to love unconditionally and to eat without conflict.
Be aware that the practice of ahimsā will turn you into a vigilante. If you forget, there is always tomorrow which will bring more opportunities to practice ahimsā in thought, word and action. When you slip up, make a conscious effort to forgive yourself and begin again the next day.
Rev. J. Carrera studied under his guru Svāmi Satchitānanda Maharāj, whose life embodied the truths of Śri Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras.
Violence is a reaction to fear- a key symptom of dominance that egoism and ignorance have over the mind. Violence is not defined by an particular destructive act but by the desire to see another harmed. That is why ahimsā includes refraining from harm in thought as well in word and deed. Just to avoid doing harm while harboring hateful and spiteful thoughts does not satisfy the spirit of ahimsā.
The mindful struggle to overcome gross and subtle aggressive tendencies is an advanced study in the psychology of violence. Through personal struggles, yogis experience that fear breeds anger and anger ruins peace and clarity. Therefore, yogis understand the pain that violence brings and know that this is something all humans share. Their empathy for the suffering of others naturally brings compassion. Over time, compassion gives birth to a love and understanding so pure that it lifts the mind to a place of peace beyond any tranqulity we had imagined. The calming influence of such selfless love from those perfected in Ahimsā, can make fear and discord vanish in their presence.
It was not about being told to reform my lifestyle choices; I had to learn to be couregeous enough to put a mirror to my actions, and care enough to take the first step towards making small changes – be it overeating, overworking, watching violent movies, harming the environment, judging others or hurtful gossiping. The list goes on. It has not been easy.
The following questions (and more) that were set during my intial Rāja Yoga training continue to be my staff in the practice of ahimsā.
- To observe my self destructive behaviors: How quickly am I able to change negative views into positive thoughts? Does venting to a confidante mean I’m still judging or gossiping?
- To watch my inner conversation (self-esteem/negative attitudes, judging): How active is my inner critic? Does putting down someone make me superior?
- To notice the types of foods I feed my body, mind and spirit: Am I consciously choosing less sugar so I can be less agitated? Am I choosing to live for a higher purpose?
- To monitor my words and tone of voice during an emotionally charged situation: Does it hurt me more in the process of hurting another? Why do I feel the need to judge others?
- To perceive that I am part of a whole: What is my role in harming or protecting the environment? How much waste/trash do I generate?
I still find myself in the beginning stages of this practice. Some days I am drowning in hurtful words, misunderstanding, regret or poor self-esteem. On a few occasions, I have floated closer to what feels like ahimsā. This gives me hope to continue treading water, knowing that I can stay afloat by keeping the faith in the tools of Rāja Yoga.
Instead of submerging in self pity or depression, forgiving myself for repeated mistakes seems like the best possible practice of ahimsā at this time. I am learning that it is Ahimsā to give others time and space to sort out their actions and thoughts without being a trigger. “By cultivating forgiveness, we can turn away from harboring negative feelings and allow the mind and heart to transform”, assures Marshall Govindan, – allowing me to appreciate second chances.
A valid question: Does it mean that a non-violent person never gets angry? Alice Christensen skillfully elaborates on her teacher’s response.
“One cannot be human without feelings; denying feelings is a form of violence against yourself. There is a clear distinction between anger ‘on the lips’ and anger ‘in the heart’. Yogis are able to express these strong emotions in a pure and powerful way. They show anger for a purpose, but the effect on the recipient will not destroy him; it is to teach the constructive use of emotions in order to guide and protect.”
To be established in this ethic means that your practice of Ahimsā is perfect – you are incapable of doing anything that would harm yourself or another in action, word and thought. Alistair Shearer describes ahimsā as a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with loving openness. In the vicinity of such perfection, men and animals who are otherwise violent towards each other, abandon their hostility and exhibit mutual friendliness.
This is when ahimsā or non-harming, itself becomes your protection (Svāmi Venkateśānanda).
Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence, and Achievement. American Yoga Association, Rodale Books, NY, NY.
Taimni. I.K. 1961. The Science of Yoga: Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. The Theosophical Publishing House, Chennai, India and Wheaton IL.
Carrera, Jaganāth, Rev. 2006. Inside the Yoga Sūtras. Integral Yoga Publications, Satchitānanda Āśram-Yogāville, Buckingham VA.
Bell, Charlotte. 2007. Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice. Rodmell Press, Berkley, CA.
Venkateśānanda, Svāmi. 2011. First Edn 1988. The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidas, New Delhi, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2002. First Edtion 1993. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Harper Collins, London, UK.
Aranya Hariharananda, Svāmi; Mukerji, P.N. 1963. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. Reprint 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sūtras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York.
Prabhavananda, Svāmi; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Rāmakrishna Mission Press, Mylapore, India.
Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.
Sarasvati Satyānanda, Svāmi. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2013. Core of Yoga Sūtras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins, India.
Satchitananda, Svami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.
Yogānanda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Svāmi. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sūtras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA
Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada