A friend once told us that there’s really not much difference between the hero and the coward: they both feel the same fears and anxieties. The hero acts in spite of these fears and anxieties, however, whereas the coward turns away from action. The cultural hero seeks to break the chains of his or her culture’s particular illusions; the coward lives in denial.
Throughout human history, cultural heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi have chosen the path of nonviolence, or ahimsa. It is a challenging path to take, because it is rarely the path of the majority and because it takes more courage to meet violence with kindness and compassion than to meet violence with violence. Nonviolence also happens to be the ethical foundation of yoga, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out an eight-limbed plan for liberation called Raja Yoga. The first step is called yama, which means restraint, and it includes five ethical restrictions. These five yamas are yoga’s ethical backbone: Ahimsa: nonharming, Satya: truthfulness, Asteya: nonstealing, Brahmacharya: continence, and Aparigraha: greedlessness.
Ahimsa is a yama, a restraint. It is a recommendation for how you should restrain your behavior toward others, not toward yourself.
Nonetheless, some contemporary yoga teachers interpret ahimsa more as an observance than as a restraint, as a directive not to harm yourself. “Don’t be aggressive in your asana practice, be kind to your body,” they say, or “Don’t restrict your diet with extremes like vegetarianism; it might harm you.”
Not harming yourself is an aspect of ahimsa, certainly, but it is of less importance than the directive to avoid harming others. If you limit your practice of ahimsa to being kind to yourself, you will deny yourself the ultimate benefit of yoga practice, which is everlasting happiness. Everlasting happiness is achieved by putting the welfare of others before your own.
Compassion is an essential ingredient of ahimsa. Through compassion you begin to see yourself in other beings. This helps you refrain from causing harm to them.
There is so much suffering in the world because there is so much violence. There is suffering in your life because you have caused suffering in the lives of others- not necessarily in this lifetime, perhaps in previous lifetimes. We cannot change what we have done in the past and there is no point in feeling guilty about it. What we can do is start living compassionate lives right now.
Patanjali says that future suffering should be avoided, and he gives ahimsa as the method. Do not cause suffering to any being and the resulting benefit is that eventually you will be free from suffering. This benefit evolves, of course, after many years and possibly lifetimes of practicing ahimsa.
Excerpt from Chapter 4, Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul by Sharon Gannon and David Life