In Yoga Philosophy, the principle of Ahimsa means no harm, no injury, non-violence. It encompasses how we are meant to treat all living beings, including ourselves. It also pertains not only to our actions but to our thoughts as well.
Ahimsa comes from the first limb of the eight limbs philosophy in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is the Yamas. The yamas set the base from which all the other limbs follow, a starting point to guide us on our journey towards the eighth and final limb of Samadhi - the integration of our individual selves with our highest consciousness or enlightenment.
In between these first and final limbs are asana and pranayama, so ahimsa is meant to be considered when we are doing our actual yoga practice. How might this apply to our individual practice on the mat? At first it might seem that it just means not to overdo something and be mindful of where we push ourselves. But it applies to our thoughts as well, so even if we are able to do poses "perfectly" without physical harm, we want to be mindful about where our attention is as we practice. Are we focused on getting the pose exactly right? Or are we concerned about how well we're doing in relation to others in the class? These are distractions that can come up for all of us, distractions that get to be noticed and reflected upon so that we can bring our focus back to the present moment.
Outside of our yoga practice, ahimsa can apply to all aspects of our lives including our relationships, the food we eat, and the thoughts we think in each moment of our day. It may seem like a simple practice, but it's not always as easy as it seems. Let's look at food for a moment. If not harming other beings is part of ahimsa, then how do we eat any animals that we need to kill for food? This is the reason many people who practice and follow yoga principles tend towards a vegetarian or vegan diet. But what if that type of diet is for some reason harmful to the person adopting it? Not harming ourselves first is very important, and all else can follow from that. Many of us are even taught that if we sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, then we are good or better people, so attempting to practice ahimsa towards ourselves may take some undoing of how we've been living and how we've been validating ourselves. That can start in our minds and our thoughts, being able to notice our own ego that might not be in our best interest, as well as any negative thoughts that might be sabotaging our best efforts.
When we start to become aware of our own negative thoughts or distractions, we don't want to just jump over them. It is part of the integration of self to be aware of them, notice them, reflect on them so that we can let them go. If we simply push them aside or push them back down, they will persist until they can be processed. They are there as part of the whole of who we are and can help us move forward in our personal growth.
Having a better sense of our own thoughts and how we act on them can help us in our relationships with others as well. Do we notice that we are judging others in our minds? What in other people triggers us? How can we apply ahimsa to our thoughts, followed by our actions? If we do the "right thing" with the "wrong" thoughts, are we fully embracing no harm? When we do have judgements about others or are triggered by them, the reason often starts within ourselves, although we're not always aware of that or willing to admit it. If that is the case, we may find it difficult to even be kind to ourselves. Many of us have messages that if we are unkind to others, then we must beat ourselves up. That's why this is the starting point...being kind to ourselves first allows kindness to flow from us to others.
Spend some time this week reflecting on ahimsa...take it into your daily yoga practice as well as your interactions and your meditations. Bring your curiosity to it and just notice any places negativity is operating in your daily life, towards yourself or others. Take some time to reflect upon it, and see if something else is possible. It starts with us, and all else flows from there.