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The Ethics Of Yoga - Ahimsa (Non-Violence)

As you start to take your first steps on your Yoga journey, you’re bound to run into the image of a tree sooner or later. You may see people wearing jewellery or boasting tattoos similar trees too.

There are many reasons for this – but two of them stand out in front of the others.

The first is a snapshot into history and the ties of Yoga to Buddhism. When the Buddha first achieved enlightenment (Samadhi), he was sat in front of the Bodhi Tree. After countless days spent sat under the tree – days that included both starvation and a direct encounter with a demon – Buddha became enlightened.

Another word for enlightenment is “Bodhi”. Hence the name – Bodhi tree. You can find Bodhi trees in most sacred spaces in India. You can even find the “Mahabodhi Tree” in Bhod Gaya, supposed to be a direct descendant of the tree Buddha became enlightened under (It’s only about 250 years younger).

However, the second reason is the one we’ll be delving into in this series.

In the Bhagavad Gita (The original book describing Yoga), Patanjali described the concept of Yoga into eight limbs (Ashtanga – this sanskrit directly translates to Eight Limbs).

The Eight Limbs of Yoga include;

  • 1. YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows

  • 2. NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances

  • 3. ASANA – Posture

  • 4. PRANAYAMA – Breathing Techniques

  • 5. PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal

  • 6. DHARANA – Focused Concentration

  • 7. DHYANA – Meditative Absorption 

  • 8. SAMADHI – Bliss or Enlightenment

These eight limbs act as a guideline on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Supposedly following these limbs (the eightfold path), you will learn to develop discipline, health & learn and acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.

This is why Yoga is often considered to be one of the most user-friendly and approachable forms of practise. There is a space reserved for everyone. If you want to improve your physical health, focus on Asana (a common western form of Yoga). Wanting to work deeper into your soul & further introspect? Try Dharana & Pranayama.

In this series, we’ll be focusing on the first two limbs. The Yamas & Niyamas.

The Yamas & Niyamas are widely considered to be the codes on how one should live a meaningful and purposeful life. Yamas are typically focused on how we treat the external (however, this is not limited to people that aren’t us – Yoga tends the view our body & mind as external from our observing “soul”). Niyamas are typically more focused on our internal state and attitude.

Yamas & Niyamas typically are quite obvious, but also have subtle hidden meanings that go amiss – and so in this series, we’ll focus on each “limb” and see how it can impact your life.

Today’s focus is on Ahimsa (Non-Violence).

The first and most obvious interpretation of Ahimsa is physical. In most Eastern religions and philosophies, those practising take a vow of non-violence. This means they will not bring harm to any creature – no matter how big nor how small. A great way to put this one into practise is next time you spot an insect that might strike fear into your heart (if you come and stay at AmaSER, you’re bound to at least spot a friendly critter from a distance). Instead of reaching for the spatula or a shoe, take some deep breaths, and perhaps try to encourage the creature to leave the room with a cup and paper. And hey – if it’s not bugging you (no pun intended), why bother it?

In Yoga, all souls are viewed as equal, we are not one to judge who lives and who dies.

So, that’s the most obvious example of Ahimsa, what’s next?

Well – Ahisma also applies to your verbal and mental experience. Words can be just as harmful as actions. Practising Ahisma also means being mindful of your language to others, and taking care to ensure your communication with others is constructive and not intended to harm. Now – this isn’t to say be a doormat to everyone. But if you need to confront someone or correct someone – do it without using demeaning language or without being rude. A great western concept of this is Non Violent Communication (See the direct translation?).

And lastly – we have that little niche that Yoga enjoys. Ahisma also applies to ourselves; the way we think about ourselves and portray ourselves to others. Following this principle means not beating yourself up or bringing yourself down. This is one of the hardest parts of following Ahimsa, as especially in the West we have grown used to calling ourselves stupid for a mistake – or throwing around rude remarks in our mind for forgetting something.

I have a great example of this in my own personal experience. A few years ago – I was on my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training. My teacher was something of a godlike figure in my eyes. She was tall, long, super flexible and super strong. She had grown up as a pro dancer, and could pull off almost any pose you could imagine (not that that matters, of course), one day – we were all tired, including this teacher. She was trying to demonstrate the Tree Pose, which involves balancing on one leg.

Throughout this demonstration she kept falling. And you could see in her face her growing annoyance as she couldn’t maintain her super high level. After many huffs and puffs – she opened her eyes, looked at me and with a wink, whispered “Ahimsa…”.

What followed was a solid 5 minutes of laughter and self forgiveness. Ahimsa can be a fantastic opportunity for us to realise when we’re taking things a little too seriously, and too lighten up on ourselves and others. It’s incredible what can come from the space you create by loosening your grip on your life.

Ahimsa can be a very powerful tool to give yourself more power in life, and realise you are the master of your own soul.

Next time, we’ll take a look at Tapas (a personal favourite) – described as the fire in our bellies, determination.


Saul Hope-Robinson

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