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What Does Ahimsa Really Mean?

Gabriella Horowitz
May 29, 2012
May 29, 2012

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:

“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings… As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”

If harmful thoughts exist within my being, then pathways leading to harmful words, deeds, and habits also exist, and it’s a very slippery slope. As Diane Ackerman recently pointed out in her New York Times op-ed, thoughts and experiences literally transform the brain on a neurological level. So for all of your friends who think that mantras are for silly vegan lunatics who burn too much incense and never brush their hair, let them know that neuroscience disagrees. Mantras are a powerful way to transform our patterns of thinking on a neurological level, thereby also transforming our words, actions, reactions, and entire world.

The mantra that I find to be most apt for the task of transforming my way of thinking to exclude harmful and violent sentiments is, “lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu” – May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my thoughts and my actions somehow contribute to that freedom for all. (Of course, each Sanskrit word in this mantra also has a deeper meaning than their English counterparts, but that’s another story.)

All beings. That includes yourself, your family, strangers, the spider in your bathtub, and the tree in your backyard.

Happy and free. The two most basic, inalienable rights of all beings, which we often marginalize or confine to the human realm.

If all beings everywhere were happy and free, then violence and harm would vanish because they’d have no job to do, no reason to exist, and would thus be rendered utterly unnecessary and useless.

Ahimsa is complicated. But ahimsa can be as easy as riding a bike instead of driving a car. Ahimsa is looking in the mirror and not thinking that you look fat in that outfit (and not telling your sister that she looks fat in hers). Ahimsa is as easy as remembering that all beings everywhere have the right to be happy and free. Ahimsa is mindfulness. Ahimsa is an idea that can grow into a reality if we will it so.

That, my friends, is yoga. Asana is just for fun.

Gabriella Horowitz author page.
Gabriella Horowitz
Gabriella began yoga in seventh grade when her Humanities teacher offered to teach a yoga class for PE credit. Since then, Gabriella has become a certified yoga instructor and an enthusiastic practitioner, and is currently part of the leadership for a yoga club at the University of Washington, where she is an undergraduate student. In addition to teaching for Yogis at UW, coordinating other volunteer instructors, and facilitating community events for the club, Gabriella also volunteers for Yoga Behind Bars. Learn more about Gabriella on MyYogaAvenue.