On Ahimsa: Non-harming in a Harmful World

The first of the yamas is also the most difficult to attain to in many ways.  (For an introduction to the yamas and niyamas, please see our previous blog post.)  Ahimsa means to abstain from causing harm, and besides being difficult to live up to, is also difficult to fully comprehend.  How we understand harm and how we determine fault when harm inevitably arises are both cultural and deeply personal processes.

In order to better understand the concept, let’s look at it in its historical roots.  The concept itself appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest religious text still in use today.  In the Rig Veda, the concept is mentioned in reference to Indra, the god of thunder and warfare, being ‘innocent’ or peaceful towards his worshippers.

Despite being in a context entirely foreign to our modern lives, this idea of innocence is actually very revealing of the character and quality of ahimsa.  From a yogic perspective, ahimsa is not merely an ethical must, but, as with all the yamas and niyamas, a practice in itself designed to catapult the spiritual seeker further along the path.  The innocence of ahimsa is fundamental to its use as a practice, and as a metric for determining what is and is not ahimsa.

In the modern world we currently navigate, innocence is a hard ask.  The systems around us require savvy and the streets cannot abide a fool for long.  Nevertheless, the yogi intent upon self-realisation must maintain a sense of purity and connection with all beings, even should it put them at risk.  To the mind, this may seem insane.  We are taught from a young age to distrust strangers, maintain solid boundaries, read the fine print, and so on.

For the person who is not practicing ahimsa, these are all very important, but for the truly pure yogi (a rare thing indeed), it is understood to be unnecessary.  In the yogic worldview, we are all one being, with the separation between us being the effect of Maya, the illusion caused by the filtering of ultimate reality through the mechanisms of mind.  Being all one, the distinction between the internal and external is quite fuzzy.  It is sometimes said that a yogi who practices ahimsa perfectly will have no violence done to them, even by a hungry tiger.

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The Yamas and Niyamas: A Brief Overview Following a Long Digression

In modern culture, Yoga has largely become a by-word for a certain routine of stretching, exercise and relaxation, and little else.  Those who do Yoga casually may also know of the breathing exercises (pranayam), mudras, and possibly even kriyas (purification rites) and bandhas (energetic locks).  As in most aspects of life, what we know about our world, or the niches within that we’ve explored, has a tremendous amount to do with who our teachers have been.


In the context of a hatha yoga class, these above mentioned topics may or may not come up, depending on the depth to which the student pursues the topic, and the experience of the teacher.  I, for instance, have some limited understanding of bandhas but would not integrate them into my class, because my training didn’t include it, and because the potential for complications increases with the complexity of the tasks being given to the students.

Given that most people who come to a yoga class in the west pursue yoga asanas specifically, and experience it predominantly through the lens of teacher-led asana classes, it is not surprising that there is much that doesn’t fully enter the vocabulary of the new yoga student.  It is here that I will draw the fine line between the yoga student, and the sadhaka (spiritual seeker).  While the yoga student seeks out the more physical aspects of yoga for often quite materialistic reasons (to feel healthier, to lose weight, to cope with pain), the sadhaka approaches yoga from an internal compulsion to reach the heights of spiritual attainment.

Now, let me clear that this is not a value judgment.  One may no more make themselves a sadhaka than they can make themselves a musical virtuoso.  One may learn anything through great effort, but it is impossible to attain to the kind of internal and consistent drives that results from being born to something.  Moreover, whatever reason one comes to seek yoga, the practice has the potential to facilitate transformation regardless.  As in all things, the shape that the transformation will take will be the result of the motivation, intention, and application of disciplined will.

Regardless, only those who’ve inquired into yoga outside of the classroom, or who have particularly chatty and philosophically prone teachers, will have heard of the yamas and niyamas (with exceptions of course).  To sum it up briefly, the yamas and niyamas are the ‘dos’ and ‘do nots’ of classical Raja Yoga.  They represent the ground floor of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (not be confused with the trademarked and codified techniques as created by K. Pattabhi Jois).

In following posts, I plan to delve into each of the five yamas and the five niyamas, examining them and how they fit into our modern lives, and to what extent we can attain to doctrinal adherence in our current society.  In each case, I intend to provide the background on the doctrinally pure attainment of each, and how one can find ways to integrate that into a world and a life which rarely makes room for absolutes.

It is almost certain that I will, through the course of my next ten works, say something that someone disagrees with.  It is impossible to please everyone, especially when discussing ancient doctrines and individual lifestyle choices.  As such, I beg that you understand these works as belonging wholly to me, and not being indicative of any truth beyond that of my personal experience and understanding, and to have compassion and remember that we’re all on the path exactly where we are.

Namaste

Michael