When we look at yoga philosophy, one of the first concepts students learn in yoga teacher training is the 8-limbs of yoga as taught by Patanjali in his yoga sutras. The first limb is called the Yamas, and this word is often translated to “moral discipline” or “moral vow”. In simple language, it’s how we treat others. The second limb, nimaya, is how we treat ourselves.
Of the yamas, the first is ahimsa, or non-violence. There’s a lot to unpack when we start to talk about non-violence, from the ways we demonstrate and act for change, to how we treat one another in a casual setting or in the office. It’s also how we source the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the housing we live in. Like I said, it can be a lot, and there are so many socioeconomic factors which go into this, that I’d like to remind you of two things.
First, no one is perfect at ahimsa. Even the most serene individual, the one who you think is completely unflappable, probably has moments where they wish they’d acted differently. These moments aren’t for self-recrimination or shame (remember ahimsa), but rather learning how we can always strive to be better. Lifelong patterns and trauma make it difficult for many of us practice ahimsa with ourselves. And yet, it’s important we keep trying.
Secondly, part of deconstructing the systems around us is understanding how we can, and can’t, practice each limb of yoga. For example, if you have a health condition that makes going vegetarian or vegan dangerous, then don’t. Non-violence includes non-violence to self, as well. Each of us is doing the best we can with what we have and are striving to do better. But if you live in a food desert, for example, then organic, vegan options may not simply be available to you, and if you’re low income in that food desert, there are barriers to fresh food that others don’t face. Have compassion for those who cannot take the steps you can, and do what you can do.
When I think of ahimsa, I think of non-violence toward self first. This isn’t selfish. It’s healing, and it gives me a firm foundation to then turn to looking at how I interact with others. But if I’m treating myself worse (with negative self-talk or lacking my self-care, for example) than I would my best friend, then I have work to do so I can better embody the 8-limbs of yoga as well as my spiritual principles.
What can you do right now to practice ahimsa?
- If you catch yourself with negative self-talk, take a deep breath. Pause and remind yourself that non-violence includes towards yourself as well. Then think about how you can rephrase what you just said to yourself in a more constructive, powerful way. Example: I fell on the ice. I’m such an idiot. Changes to… I fell on the ice. Accidents happen, and I’m thankful I could get back up again and finish my chores. I’m looking at the best ways to prevent that from happening again.
- Don’t use the concept of ahimsa as yet another cudgel to beat yourself with. Remember, no one is going to be perfect at this all the time, and for those who are unlearning years (decades even) of negative patterns, perhaps reckoning with the trauma which caused it, it’s going to take time. Have compassion with yourself.
- Finally, be present in the moment as much as you can with all of your interactions. Those you have with other people, those you have with yourself. Observe without judgement what happens when you interact with others and think if that’s really embodying ahimsa.
I’ve always found it fascinating that Patanjali choose to start with how we treat others when he wrote his yoga sutras. That tends to mirror many people I know (and my own actions) where we tend to fall into habits of thinking about others before we think about ourselves. It also echoes a collective, a societal responsibility we have to take care of one another.