The Yama Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the first step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Path. Laid out in the Yoga Sutras, the Eight-Limbed Path prescribes eight steps to take in order to reach enlightenment.
As a hierarchical path, one must master the preceding step in order to progress to the next. So arguably, the first limb – the Yamas – is the most important.
There are five Yamas and Ahimsa is the first, so again, arguably the most important. Translating as non-violence or non-harming, this first Yama is essential to the yogic path and way of life.
What Are the Yamas?
The Yamas are the first limb of the path to enlightenment that Patanjali compiled in the Yoga Sutras.
The Eight-Limbed Path consists of:
- Yamas: Ethical Restraints
- Niyamas: Ethical Observances
- Asana: Seat of Meditation
- Pranayama: Extension of Life-Force Energy
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of Senses
- Dharana: Single-Pointed Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: Enlightenment
As the first limb, the Yamas are the ethical restraints that a yogi must adhere to. These are essentially the “don’ts” on the yogic path.
There are five Yamas:
- Ahimsa: Non-Violence
- Satya: Non-Falsehood
- Asteya: Non-Stealing
- Brahmacharya: Celibacy
- Aparigraha: Non-Possessiveness
Let’s explore the first Yama, Ahimsa, in greater detail.
What Is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence or non-harming and this is an essential tenet to most spiritual and religious practices, including yoga.
Yogic philosophy and ideology strongly believes in karma – the concept that every action creates a reaction that forever changes the course of humanity. The aftermath of karma reverberates and plays out across many lifetimes.
According to this law of cause and effect, violent acts negatively affect future karma. So yogis practice Ahimsa, intentional non-violence, to avoid accumulating negative karma.
And this practice applies across many different aspects of life. Of course, non-violence applies to the most grotesque violent acts (like murder) but it also applies to lesser, more subtle acts of violence (like negative self-talk).
How Do You Practice Ahimsa?
To practice Ahimsa, we must be non-violent in action and thought.
This can apply to the obvious – don’t kill, don’t injure, don’t harm. But it also applies to the less obvious – don’t use violent language or speak violent words. It can even move to more subtle layers – don’t speak negatively to yourself or self-sabotage.
There are many ways that we can practice Ahimsa if we consciously look at the way we live our lives.
We can practice non-violence toward the environment by reducing our plastic waste, volunteering to clean up a local beach, or generally living a more sustainable life.
We can practice non-violence toward our family and friends by carefully choosing our words when we speak, treating them with love and respect, or generally acknowledging their worth.
We can practice non-violence toward ourselves by speaking to ourselves with dignity and respect (even after we’ve made mistakes), feeding our bodies healthy foods, or nourishing our minds with meaningful spiritual practice.
So to practice Ahimsa, we can spare the life of the harmless spider we found in the bathroom, adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, avoid harmful self-talk, speak only words of kindness, and live and let live so that we never send violent energy out to the world.
The Takeaway on Ahimsa and Non-Violence
The Yama Ahimsa teaches us that violence does not need to be so apparent to be considered harmful. So for a yogi, violence must be removed from the inside out.
Practicing non-violence requires us to care for every sentient being, including ourselves.
This practice of Ahimsa allows us to get started on our spiritual path so that we may then fully begin our journey toward enlightenment.