Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning non-violence.
Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras advises that future suffering should be avoided. He gives the method of ahimsa: don’t cause the suffering of any other being. The benefit is that you will be free from suffering. Most of us mistakenly think that to refrain from harming another only brings benefit to that other. Patanjali offers a different take on the potential result that comes from the practice of non-violence:
ahimsa pratisthayam tat sannidhau vaira tyagah II:35
For the one who is firmly established in non-violence all hostility ceases in the presence of that one.
The opposite of ahimsa is himsa, which means harm or violence. There are three classes of himsa, or ways to cause harm:
1. Physical, by hurting someone’s physical body.
2. Vocal, by speaking against others, hurting their feelings.
3. Mental, by thinking against others Yoga philosophy teaches us that physical harming is only one way to harm, and it may not do the most serious harm.
“Vocal injury is more serious than physical, and mental injury is most serious. By physical injury one can destroy only physical forms. By vocal injury one can destroy both physical and mental forms. By mental injury one can destroy even the form of spirit.” -Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, The Textbook of Yoga Psychology
Mental violence – hatred caused by prejudice – is a major source of violence in the world, and it is at the root of vocal and physical violence. Mental violence can become so ingrained in daily life that it is difficult to recognize. Advertising agencies are routinely employed to perpetuate prejudice in the form of speciesism, encouraging us to condone horrendous acts of physical violence perpetrated upon animals, and to consider these acts normal.
Mental violence in the form of propaganda rises to its height during wartime, when a country will invest much money and effort in an attempt to break down the morale of the opponent and confuse the minds of its own citizens.
In order not to harm others it is helpful to develop compassion. Through compassion you begin to see yourself in others. This helps you refrain from causing harm to them. The practice of compassion trains the mind to see past outer differences of form. You begin to catch glimpses of the inner essence of other beings, which is happiness. Happiness is the inner essence of all beings, not just human beings. Every single being desires happiness.
“If you seek enlightenment, or even if you seek happiness, go to the cause. Nothing exists without a cause. The root cause of happiness is compassion.” -H.H. Dalai Lama
In Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga system, ahimsa is classified as the first yama, or restraint. It is a recommendation for how you should restrain your behavior toward others. It is important to acknowledge that ahimsa here refers to your behavior toward others, not toward yourself. The second limb of the ashtanga system, niyama, consists of observances. These are recommendations concerning your actions toward your own body and mind. Patanjali very clearly classifies ahimsa as a yama and not as a niyama.
Nonetheless, some contemporary yoga teachers interpret ahimsa more as an observance than as a restraint – as a directive not to harm yourself. “Don’t hurt yourself, don’t be so aggressive in your asana practice, be kind to your body,” they say, or “Don’t restrict your diet with an extreme practice like vegetarianism; it might harm you.”
Not harming yourself is a result of the practice, not a directive. If you limit your practice of ahimsa to being kind to yourself, you may experience temporary happiness but you will deny yourself the ultimate benefit of the practice, which is Yoga, everlasting happiness. Everlasting happiness is achieved by kindness, by being considerate of others first. Live to benefit others and all will benefit.
“Who will be the happiest person? The one who brings happiness to others.” -Swami Satchidananda
The universal teachings of ahimsa apply to all situations, whether we are living in peaceful times or war times. Violence is never a valid solution for any problem and should never be condoned.