On the practice of Ahimsa
What is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa – the first yama in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, is sometimes interpreted as not killing – but the spectrum of Ahimsa is much wider. Vyasa, Patanjali’s first and most authoritative commentator writes that Ahimsa is the complete cessation of all hostility as well as the cessation of the desire to harm any living creature. Ahimsa, in one way or another, is the basis and the foundation of all spiritual traditions. It is the most fundamental and important practice of all who walk the spiritual path. It is not a coincidence then, that Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga opens with Ahimsa. Prashant Iyengar writes that if the Yamas are a tree, then Ahimsa is the root – without Ahimsa the four subsequent Yamas cannot exist: Satya (truth), Asteya (not stealing), Brahmacharya (restraint) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Just as the branches and leaves nourish the root and the root nourishes the rest of the tree, Ahimsa is connected to the other Yamas – the practice of Ahimsa strengthens the other Yamas and the practice of the other Yamas strengthens Ahimsa.
Vyasa’s definition of Ahimsa is very broad and, in fact, its range is infinite. Absolute Ahimsa is impossible because every living creature consumes resources by its very existence; resources that are necessarily taken away from other creatures. When we breathe, walk, drink and eat, we might harm various bacteria around us, bacteria that exists in food, water, air, etc. Moreover, when resources are limited, their consumption may damage not only microscopic creatures but many other living creatures. But if we do not consume what we need for our existence, we will hurt ourselves and thus again – will break Ahimsa. We ourselves have the right to exist. Therefore, our goal should be to minimize the damage done to living creatures as much as possible – a realistic goal (though difficult to achieve) that we can strive for.
In his book (see p. 45 [3 in the sources list]), Prashant Iyengar notes that there are two levels of Ahimsa: an atomic or relative path (Anuvrata), and a complete, absolute path (Mahavrata). Patanjali clearly notes that the Yamas are Mahavrata – absolute vows that applies at all times and places regardless of consequences and circumstances (yoga sutra II.31). These are universal vows that do not depend on culture or era and should be pursued even when we are likely to be negatively affected by it, materially, socially, economically or physically. However, he had left an open door for the average person to strive for the relative level of the Ahmisa (Anuvrata), probably because he was aware of the immense difficulty of practicing Ahimsa on an absolute level.
Why is Ahimsa difficult?
The average person might be an epicurean and ask: why Ahimsa at all? He may argue that Ahimsa is not natural, because in nature the strong ones survive and animals strike other creatures to survive. Man is a part of nature and evolution has shaped him to survive in that same manner. If I am strong, why shouldn’t I use more natural resources to improve the quality of my life as well as of those close to me? Man has behaved so since the dawn of history and continues to behave so today.
The first answer to this argument, is that man is indeed a part of nature – but is also different than other animals. Although man contains an “animal component” that is motivated by survival instincts, man, unlike other animals, has Buddhi (intelligence) which is the part of consciousness that allows for discretion and moral judgement. Man, therefore, has an animal-like lower instincts but has also a spiritual aspect. Man is aware of his actions and can judge them and determine whether they are right or wrong, she or he can feel the suffering of other beings and act according to altruistic standards.
In the modern era, unfortunately, the sad consequences of human greed, violence and aggression are threatening the wellbeing and even the survival of all mankind; Absurdly, the survival instincts shaped by our evolution may lead to our annihilation. A new evolutionary phase is required for us humans, and this phase will take place by practicing yoga (or any other spiritual practice). It is important, however, to understand that Himsa (the opposite of Ahimsa – the tendency towards aggression and harm) is deeply embedded within us as throughout history we fought other species and other groups of people in order to survive and develop.
Within each of us lie seeds of Himsa. Let us face it – naturally all of us have the tendency towards selfishness and greed; thoughts of the well-being and welfare of the other is not always at the top of our priorities. However, if we follow the path of yoga and accept the practice of Ahimsa we become aware of the existence of these seeds of selfishness, greed, jealousy, etc., and learn how to prevent them from expressing themselves. It must be understood that avoiding harm is not simple and requires constant awareness and practice. As long as life does not challenge us we can be nice, but when someone hurts us, steals our property, threaten us and so on, our tendency to become angry, hateful and violent arises and it is not easily restrained.
- K. Gandhi wrote:
“Ahimsa…is like balancing oneself on the edge of a sword. By concentration an acrobat can walk on a rope. But the concentration required to tread the path of Truth and ahimsa is far greater. The slightest inattention brings one tumbling to the ground. One can realize Truth and ahimsa only by ceaseless striving.”
From Yeravda Mandir (Ashram Observances). Translated from Gujarati by : Valji Govindji Desai. First Published: December, 1932.
We must, therefore, understand that the range of Ahimsa is infinite and not despair that absolute Ahimsa is impossible: “Ahimsa is not accomplished once forever, and we need to continually search for its dynamic source. Only at the highest level of being can someone naturally manifest ahimsa; below that we can only approach it.” Ravi Ravindra (.)
These commandments or great vows (in Sanskrit: Maha Vrata) that Patanjali presents are like the North Star – they show us the direction in which we must walk, even if we can never really get there.
The Various Expressions of Himsa
Himsa, or harming, can take place via action, speech or thought. Speech can hurt more than physical action. When we slander someone, insult them, etc. we can destroy them and cause more serious harm than other types of physical injury. Even feelings of hostility and anger without physical or verbal expression can harm. We can harm through our behavior, facial expressions and how we use our eyes. Sometimes even avoiding action can cause serious harm. Ignoring or neglecting may harm more than direct harm. For example, parents who ignore their children and neglect them hurt them profoundly.
Himsa can be direct or indirect: when we do not personally cause any harm, but cause another person inflict harm, we convey Himsa. Even when we only have the intention to harm it is already Himsa. In fact, whenever we demand something or even expect something from someone, it may be considered Himsa, especially if we are in an authoritative position. If our demands or expectations are contrary to the will of that person, then they can potentially hurt him or her. Parents that have high expectations of their children may harm them, even with the best of intentions.
A superficial and external observation does not always make it possible to determine whether a certain action is Himsa or not. For example, imagine a man standing over another person that lying at their feet, and cutting his body with a knife. This person may be a murderer, but may also be a surgeon who tries to save a patient’s life. What determines is the intention: is there an intention to harm?
Even an extreme action such as killing a man can, in some cases, be Ahimsa; for example, when it is clear to us that killing one cruel murderer will save dozens or perhaps hundreds of innocent others.
Levels of Ahimsa
Non-harm is the result of behavior that can be nurtured on several levels. Three levels can be discerned:
- Mental Ahimsa
- Moral Ahimsa
- Spiritual Ahimsa
Ahimsa on an intellectual-mental level is when I understand the limitations of power and know that if I continue to act violently and hurt, violence will come back to me and hurt me. Or as Mahatma Gandhi said “in a world that follows the rule of an eye for an eye all humanity will soon be blind”. This is a level of “I’m OK, you’re OK” – meaning I understand that to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and achieve reasonable security, I have to restrain from harming others. But mental motivation for Ahimsa is not always enough to change behavior. An example is the cardiologist who continues to hurt himself by smoking compulsively, despite intellectually understanding better than most the damages caused by smoking. Intellectual comprehension is not enough to eradicate the harmful habit of smoking. I might comprehend that the high standard of living leads to over-exploitation of resources and therefore damage plants, animals and humans in many countries (and usually the poorest, most vulnerable countries) and despite this comprehension, I still can’t bring myself to lower my standard of living. It is very difficult to change habits and behavior on the basis of mental knowledge solely. We all know that in recent years global warming has accelerated; this process already has devastating consequences and scientists expect it to have far more serious consequences in the not too distant future. Yet humanity does not do much to stop this process. Why? because of greed. In other words, it takes more than intellectual understanding to sustain Ahimsa.
Ahimsa on a moral level when we realize that our actions can cause suffering to others we start acting according to our conscience decree. Listening to this feeling of justice and morality can somewhat restrain our natural tendency towards violence and aggression. We feel that harmful actions are incorrect and that “we must not do onto others what we do not want done to us.” However, even this level of Ahimsa is not completely immune, because the question is how we react when someone harms us, insults us, vilifies us or robs us of what belongs to us. It is likely that we will still respond with anger and violence.
Ahimsa on a spiritual level is when I see myself in others and the others in me. This is a level in which I feel in every fiber of my being the commonality that all living creatures share and cease to be motivated by selfish interest but rather act altruistically for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is the absolute level of Ahimsa, of “love thy neighbor”, which basically means “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Only by unconditional love can one completely uproot the roots of hatred and harm.
Ravi Ravindra writes:
“Ahimsa needs to be understood not in terms of appearances and external forms of conduct, but in relation to the internal intention and order involved. Egotistic intent and motivation, however placid, peaceful, and non-harming the external behavior may be, always carry seeds of violence in their very core. Krishnamurti said:, ‘As long as I am, love is not.’ As long as the ego is in charge, which is to say as long as there is selfishness, all our actions are without love. If we act without love, there is a violation of the spirit. Ahimsa in full measure is not possible for a person as long as the person is ego-centered.” 
Patanjali wrote (Sutra II.35) that when a yogi is fully established in Ahimsa all hostility around him dissipates. This can only happen when the yogi has uprooted all traces of hostility and radiates unconditional love and compassion to all living things. This is Ahimsa on the spiritual level!
The Depth of the Practice of Ahimsa
Now we can grasp the depth of Ahimsa practice. It embraces within it all of Ashtanga Yoga. In order to fully maintain Ahimsa, we have to be in Samadhi (and of course we can not reach Samadhi without Ahimsa). All the limbs are related and feed off of each other.
Absolute consolidation in Ahimsa is possible only as a result of friendly and unconditional love for all living things (Maitri – see Sutra I.33), because only such love will ensure no harm in done under any condition. It is Ahimsa on the spiritual level, in which we deeply understand that harming another creature is an affront to us, just as a parent feels that harming his children is an affront to himself. In order to be based in Ahimsa we must develop this feeling – which is natural in parents towards their children – towards all creatures. Therefore, we should see in Ahimsa not only a directive of “do not do precept,” but rather a positive commandment. This is the positive aspect of Ahimsa. In order to cultivate Ahimsa, one must cultivate an attitude of universal and embracing love. Mahatma Gandhi said that Ahimsa is not only the passive state of non-hurting, but the positive, active state of love and doing good.
But even love itself may not be enough, since there is also need for discerning knowledge or wisdom. Our intentions may be good and our heart pure, but our ability to discern is impaired. We might hurt without meaning to and without knowing we did. For example, when the harm is inflicted on someone far away. When we consume excessive (non-green) energy we indirectly harm Africa’s poor population – if we do not become aware of the consequences of excessive consumption, we will not know at all that we are harming. Even in our social life, we may insult and hurt without intending to. Therefore, in order to be fully established in Ahimsa we need to develop sensitivity and discernment. It’s called Viveka-Khyāteḥ. In Sutra II.28, Patanjali says that the practice of the limbs of yoga will lead to discerning vision – Viveka-khyāteḥ. The obsessive-compulsive cardiologist from the example above has intellectual knowledge – this is called Viveka-Jñana, but that is not enough. It is necessary to develop a discernment at such a level that it will not allow any harm to ourselves or others. Viveka-Khyāteḥ is a type of understanding that changes behavior.
In order to fully fulfill Ahimsa, the mind must not be affected by its six enemies: Kama (lust), Krodha (anger, hate), Lobha (greed), Moha (delusion or infatuation), Mada (pride) and Matsarya (envy, jealousy). Each of these six enemies (the Sad Ripus), if present in consciousness, will at some point cause Himsa.
To be in Ahimsa there needs to be renunciation, a letting go (Vairagya – one of the two milestones of the yogic practice), because as long as we crave objects, we will want to achieve them and this could lead to harm. Prashant Iyengar notes , p. 63) that according to the psychology of yoga, the basis of Ahimsa is Vairagya, contentment and simplicity:
“Yoga psychology traces the basis of Ahimsa in Vairagya… When there is intense craving for the fulfillment of desires, it only stirs up, it evokes the sin potential, cruelty and brutality… That is why the pursuit of desires should be moderated by cultivating dispassion and thirstlessness”.
Although we may not see a direct connection between non-craving and Ahimsa, analysis shows that a strong desire to satisfy desires sooner or later causes harm.
How to Practice Ahimsa
The first step in the practice of Ahimsa is to recognize our tendencies to Himsa and to identify when, how and why they arise. Without this awareness, we will not be able to move forward. Theoretically, we may agree with Ahimsa and believe we live by it. But what happens when someone steps on our toe? How does anger arise and how can it cause aggression? We must analyze our actions and reactions to the events that happen to us and examine our motives in depth.
The practice of Ahimsa must therefore be part of every action we make in our lives!
We can practice Ahimsa during asana practice if we observe and ask ourselves: am I willing to sacrifice my health for accomplishments and competitiveness? Am I willing to hurt myself to impress the teacher or the other practitioners? To succeed and excel? Such motives may also exist in your personal practice at home, because even when we are alone we can practice in order to excel or impress in the future.
In the book The Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar brings an interesting example of deliberate and unintentional Ahimsa in the practice of asanas (from the chapter Effort, Awareness and Joy):
“On one hand is a deliberate violence because the cells are overworking. And on the so-called non-violent side there is non-deliberate violence, because there the cells dying, like still-born children”.
As teachers, we must practice Ahimsa when we teach: encourage, and strengthen students rather than hurt and weaken them. We must practice Ahimsa in speech, and examine whether our speech is offensive or insulting. Refrain from defaming others and avoid spreading gossiping and unchecked rumors. We must practice Ahimsa when we drive, keeping in mind all those on the road. The practice of Ahimsa should accompany us at every moment.
Prashant notes that to practice Ahimsa directly may be i too difficult for us: “We do not need to practice Ahimsa for the sake of Ahimsa. You will find it difficult in the business of life. It will not be practicable”.
Instead, he suggests developing an Ahimsa infrastructure by practicing other yoga practices: “Yoga is a psychological subject. Yoga teaches the student to develop all the qualities that give you tranquility in the mind, contentment and sedate, sublime state of mind. So keep striking that import and purport of Asanas and Pranayamas in practices, take care of your food habits, take care of your lifestyle and follow Satsanga.” (, p. 65]
The exercise of yoga: asana, pranayama, proper nutrition, simple lifestyle and being around elevated or holy people (Satsanga) will create within us the necessary infrastructure for Ahimsa, the transformation of consciousness that will make the Ahimsa possible:
“Recollect, those who have practiced Yoga, if you have done a long Sarvangasana half Halasana, Viparitakarani for about 45 minutes or for a good hour, or if you have practiced Pranayama successfully, is there a trace of sin-potential in you? That is how infrastructure is to be developed”. (, p. 64)
- On Power and Nonviolence, Life and Change of Mahatma Gandhi, Yohanan Grinshpon
- The Tree of Yoga, BKS Iyengar (Hebrew translation: Eyal Shifroni)
- Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, (philosophy, religion culture, ethos and Practices), Prashant Iyengar
- The wisdom of Patajali’s Yoga Sutras, Ravi Ravindra