Do No Harm: The Art of Ahimsa
Practicing ahimsa (non-violence) helps us create a positive, peaceful, and harmonious world for ourselves and others.
Ahimsa (non-violence), the first and foremost of the five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, entreats us to live in such a way that we cause no harm in thought, speech, or action to any living being, including ourselves. In its pure form, ahimsa is the spontaneous expression of the highest form of love—an unconditional positive regard for everyone and everything.
When our lives are going well, practicing ahimsa seems easy enough. But when stress and fear start to pile up, our best intentions evaporate, as I discovered many years ago. One day, when I was a young newlywed, my husband got annoyed and called me stupid. I saw red, and instantly a hard-covered book went whizzing toward his head. Luckily, he ducked. It took a moment after the book slammed into the wall before the red cleared and I realized I’d thrown it. Once I could breathe normally again, I was aghast. After all, I practiced yoga; I didn’t go around assaulting people. I couldn’t change the maddening way my husband talked to me, but I could change how I reacted.
After this incident, I started to observe what happened when my temper flared and realized that the first harm I was doing was to myself. I noticed how everything—my body, my breath, my thoughts—became tight and jagged. I lost my center. I would go unconscious and objects would fly. The sages say that to create a peaceful, harmonious environment at home, at work, or in our community, we must first find peace within ourselves. This is a process. By observing our habitual reactions and their consequences, we can learn to stop, take a deep breath, and readjust. As we step back and witness, we can choose to respond in new, more loving and accepting ways.
Watch the Drama Unfold
At first I just paid attention. The book or other object would hit the wall, and I would notice my raised arm. But I couldn’t relate to actually picking up the object and throwing it. It was as if some unconscious trickster had taken control of my hand—and mind. After some months of mindful attention, however, I began to notice the trigger point earlier—just as my hand released the object. Then, after a few more months, just as I raised my hand to throw something. Later still, just as I reached down to pick it up. Finally, it was as I noticed my breath changing, turning ragged, and instead of picking up something to throw, I breathed as deeply and slowly as I could. Sometimes I had to walk out of the room before I could breathe normally again—but I stopped throwing things.
I also examined my mental and emotional habits. I traced my intense reaction back to its original source—my father constantly called me stupid—and observed how my unresolved thoughts and feelings manifested in speech and action. When I detected negative self-talk looping through my mind, I replaced it with my mantra. This is a powerful way to create a positive groove in the mind, one that helps us identify with our higher self.
Even meditating for five minutes deepens our connection with the inner source of unconditional love and wisdom.
Committing to a daily meditation practice has also helped. Even meditating for five minutes deepens our connection with the inner source of unconditional love and wisdom. The sages tell us that if we honor this daily commitment, slowly, over time, our mantra and meditation will loosen—and eventually untie—the subtler knots that bind us at an unconscious level.
With practice, I came to understand that in order to stop reacting to taunting criticisms, I had to be secure within myself. Himsa (violence) arises out of fear, and fear leads to insecurity, which causes us to feel separate from others—alone and misunderstood. Ahimsa, however, at its core, points to the underlying unity in all creation—at the deepest level, we are one and the same. This awareness gradually unfolds as we progress in our spiritual practices. As we choose to live more from our inner center and feel this sense of oneness with others, our personality expands, and we become more kind, loving, forgiving, and compassionate. We come to understand that when we hurt others, we also wound ourselves; and when we don’t take care of ourselves, we negatively affect those around us. The more we can accept and enjoy ourselves, with all our faults and idiosyncrasies, the more we can accept others—even infuriating partners.
No More Drama
This doesn’t mean that we should become a martyr or a “doormat,” mistakenly suppressing our own needs to take care of others. I tried that for a while, but the inner resentment it created eventually caused books to fly. Then I remembered the wisdom of the sage who reminded a bruised and battered snake he had once advised to practice ahimsa: “I told you not to bite, but I didn’t tell you not to hiss.” I did stop throwing things; instead, whenever my husband criticized me, I asserted myself clearly, firmly, and as gently as possible. Sometimes, although I hated to admit it at first, he was right, and I had to learn to see that, too.
When ahimsa is mastered, the Yoga Sutra (2.35) says, one attains the siddhi (power) of peacefulness, and whoever is in the presence of such a person feels peaceful. By taking care of our needs in a balanced and clear way we become healthy, happy, and calm. Then, from that place of balance and wholeness, we naturally want to extend ourselves to others—our family and friends, co-workers, community, the earth, and even our adversaries—in loving service. This is ahimsa in action.
Formerly a senior editor of Yoga International magazine, Irene Petryszak served as the Chairman of the Himalayan Institute from 1996 to 2008. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has studied and practiced yoga for 30 years in the United States and India under the guidance of Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She teaches meditation and yoga philosophy at HI.