I’ve been trying to expand my yoga practice off the mat and pay closer attention to the yamas and niyamas, which make up the first and second of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga. However, like many American yogis, I’m addicted to asana, so I’m still stuck on trying to understand and follow the first yama: ahimsa.
Ahimsa is commonly translated to mean non-harming or non-violence, sometimes even compassion, both towards oneself and towards others. However, as I unexpectedly learned from a Hebrew teacher who happened to be an expert on Sanskrit, ahimsa (like most Sanskrit words) has a much deeper meaning than English translations can justly define.
Ahimsa isn’t simply the practice of refraining from violent words or actions, it’s also about abstaining from violent thoughts. Ahimsa is the total and complete absence of violence from one’s mind, body, and spirit. It’s not only about evading harmful deeds, but about lacking the capacity to engage in harmful thoughts whatsoever.
This, my friends, is much more difficult than “non-violence.” I’m a vegetarian borderline vegan, I try not to kill spiders despite my juvenile phobia of their excessive number of legs, and I couldn’t beat somebody up even if I tried. However, I won’t pretend that violent thoughts don’t cross my mind when I read about situations of self-defense, certain legislature that’s being passed against women, or particular dictators who seem to understand better than we do that the only way to topple the regime is to chop off its head.
Abstaining from violent and harmful actions is easy when you’re comfortable and secure, but abstaining from harmful thought patterns presents a mountain that every single one of us is equipped to climb, yet few of us have the courage and confidence to do so.
However, as I mentioned before, I’m trying to turn my yoga practice into a yogic lifestyle, and if there’s a will there’s a way – literally. Dreams come true, and in the wise words of the Buddha: