Ahimsa: the Practice of Non-Harming

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The following is a transcript of an excerpt from community time following the Breath Practice on May 31, 2021 in which Rudy gave a short talk on the yogic principles called the Yamas and Niyamas. He describes the first Yama called Ahimsa which translates to non-harming.

Today is the beginning of an exploration of the wisdom behind the practice of yoga. We will start with ahimsa which is translated as non-violence or non-harming. When the letter “a” precedes or begins a sanskrit word, often it means “without the quality of the rest of the word.” So, “himsa” means to strike, and “ahimsa” means to restrain from striking out, and you can think of it as doing no harm in thought, word, or deed.

History of Yamas and Niyamas

Let me back up just a little bit to talk about where the Yamas and Niyamas come from. They come from an ancient yogic text called the Yoga Sutra, written by Patanjali.  Patanjali, whose actual identity is unknown, wrote the Yoga Sutra as a synthesis of what held true for all different kinds of yoga.  It was written around 200 AD and it was a synthesis of yogic thought and teachings, which began as far back as we can tell.  The most ancient symbols of the practice of yoga are statues of people in meditation found in Indus River Valley in Pakistan, and the earliest yoga practices in yoga wisdom were called Vedanta. “Vedanta,” which means “the end,” symbolizes “this is all you need to know.”  That’s an interesting conversation, but I just reference it because Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra pulls together everything that came before. 

Threads of Wisdom

The word “sutra” is derived from the word suture and serves as wisdom to thread your life together into a complete whole. These writings form the basic text for classical yoga, which is also known as Raja Yoga, practices that enable the yoga practitioner to reach the illustrious royal within; the Supreme Self, the true self — Raja Yoga.  As opposed to Hatha Yoga, which is primarily physical practices, where there’s less of a focus on meditation, stilling the mind.  And when there is more of a focus on meditation, stilling the mind, witnessing, and transcending the mind, that’s known as Raja Yoga.  

Yoga for Daily Living

So yoga is a way of living. There are five Yamas, five Niyamas. These 10 guidelines serve as both a vision of the possibilities of human existence and practical guidance for making skillful moment-to-moment choices. Yoga is designed to bring you more awareness of not only your body, but your thoughts. You can think of the Yamas and Niyamas as yoga’s ethical guidelines, a map written to guide you on your life’s journey. The Yamas are referred to as restraints, restraints of the animal instincts. And so they’re what not to do, while the Niyamas are things to do. They are observances, ways to approach your practice and approach your life. Together they form a moral code of conduct.   

Swami Kripalu taught us that by firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of Yama and Niyama. So, as we go through each week, and explore these, study these, live with them, walk with them, just know that you could take one of these as your main focus in your practice, in your life, and the whole garland of Yamas and Niyamas will become known to you. 

Ahimsa as a Foundation

So, ahimsa is the foundation of the other nine, the rest of the Yamas and Niyamas, which in turn, enhance the meaning and flesh out the richness of nonviolence. So each of these is a seed for the next one, and each of the Yamas and Niyamas inform the previous ones.  You’ll see how that plays out, as we explore. So, “ahimsa,” doing no harm in thought, word or deed. Being in right relationship with others and self. Being in right relationship that’s not self-sacrifice, nor self-aggrandizement. 

I will be quoting at times from different books, and today I quote from Deborah Adele, “The Yamas and Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.”  This is actually a contemporary book, and very well written.  She says, it’s as if the Yogis are saying that if we don’t ground our lives and actions in non-violence, everything else will be precarious, standing on faulty ground.  So, ahimsa is our ability to be nonviolent to others. And it’s directly related to our ability to be nonviolent within ourselves. Our inner strength and character determine our ability to be a person of peace, at home, and in the world. We grow our capacity to be non-violent by learning how to move through the everyday challenges of life, and addressing the things that precipitate our tendencies toward violence. 

Self-Awareness without Self-Judgment

And so today, you may make it a practice to just notice subtle ways in which you may cause subtle harm to yourself or others. What does it mean to be harmful? What are the degrees of harm in thought, word, or deed?  And you can see why Swami Kripalu’s greatest teaching was that the most important practice is self observation without self judgment. So, as you explore nonviolence and what’s harmful, ways in which we’re harmful to ourselves, difficult with ourselves, overly self sacrificing or overly puffing up our importance, notice that with a light touch.  And, maybe just practice gratitude for the opportunity to take the teachings deeper into your life, to be light with yourself, light with others. 

Thanks to Dori Feldman for her assistance with transcription.

Download notes taken by Mary Koster

Join us anytime for the Breath Practice and the on-going conversation about life and living in harmony with ourselves and others and our world.


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2 Responses

  1. Grateful to be learning about yamas and niyamas, and this transcript is a really helpful way for me to review your talk on Monday. I am trying to carry the idea of ahimsa, “do no harm in thought, word, and deed,” with me each day. Working on this is challenging!!

    Self-observation is requiring me to slow down and take care of what I do, think, and say. I practiced it subtly while talking with a friend on the phone yesterday. We were having a leisurely conversation to catch up on a number of things. It’s kind of tricky watching yourself in the moment, but I was able to notice, at least some of the time, when there was judgment or expectation in things I said or feelings that arose, and I was able to pause and make adjustments to a gentler, kinder perspective.

    Rudy and Joyce – thank you for bringing this new learning opportunity to our community.

    1. Thanks for sharing how you are applying ahimsa. It’s the subtle ways that we may be disturbing our own peace that are the hardest to notice.

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