Ahimsa, Practicing the First of the First

By  Vanessa Webb | 

The wonderfulness of the First Limb of Yoga, comes from its capacity to be life changing as it unfolds through us. Its very structure (known as the Yamas and Niyamas) offers us freedom.  The anchor that this structure provides means we have the space to be Ourselves, through gaining the trust in knowing our frame of reference. And this is one of integrity.  Adhering to this practice engages us in an awareness, and this awareness brings freedom.

The First Limb of Yoga provides a boundary to respect and requires our discipline.  Which, in itself means, the freedom from being consistently distracted by our mental and emotional whims.  It’s beautiful really, because the Yamas and Niyamas allow us to come into right alignment with our lives, which is what’s necessary to fulfill our dreams. They shield us from the persistent wandering into directions we wouldn’t decide upon, had they been given proper consideration. The longer we carry the awareness of the Yamas and Niyamas within our minds, we will eventually surrender to practice, unable to deny their presence and call any longer. As interaction begins, introductions are politely made…you to them, them to you. You feel each other out, working out the hesitancies and suspicions. You might start by saying “Ok Ahimsa, let’s see what you can do”…and so the relationship begins.

Gradually, growing in responsibility of working the practice, we shift to what it’s really about: “Ok, what can I do?  Who am I in this new way?” It becomes a reflection on what we can do for the practice.  Unwittingly, we’ve gained a great respect and honour. Over time, this practice comes alive with its own momentum, and there is no going back.  Suddenly, you’re on a new road and it’s the Yamas and Niyamas which led you there. The growing gratitude and compassion is merely a fortunate result.
So, let’s start at the beginning, with Ahimsa, the yogic practice of non-harming, the practice which walks along side all other practices.  Whether a first timer or an old hand, it’s always a great idea to (re)visit “step one”…of any practice.  Ahimsa is the first of Yoga’s ethical practice of the Yamas, and is really the most beautiful practice, the more we interact with it. We come to feel better about ourselves, better about what we feel we have to offer, and better about how we’re treating others. There are the more obvious forms of violence in our world, and as most of us don’t take those kinds of actions, we perceive ourselves a non-violent. But violence is many fold and is often woven into our day without our even realizing it. If we can tune in to these subtler acts of violence, we will begin to notice the daily impact on ourselves and on others.  The realization will come more by freeing ourselves up of the violence than by thinking how bad we are for our violent actions, to self and to others. The more we free ourselves from the violence the more options our true nature will provide, to come forward. 

People often ask about anger, and how it relates to Ahimsa. Many people in our world unfortunately resort to violence as their only means of expressing anger (mentally, verbally, physically). But anger is not necessarily synonymous with violence. And it is our role to work the violence out of the anger, so anger can be expressed justifiably. It is true and hopefully the aim of most, to be able to express anger in an emotionally mature manner. To experience and express anger in a way that we can sit with the emotion and bring reason to it, then communicating the emotion toward understanding in some way. Giving anger and its relation to Ahimsa such little space in this post is not meant to simplify this issue, but it is an entire topic on its own. Righteous anger expressed respectfully and appropriately is not necessarily a contributor toward Himsa (violence).  From this practice, the quality of judgement softens, and/or we don’t rely on it with such haste. We naturally grow in our compassion and empathy because of the empowerment that the choice of Ahimsa provides. Because, practicing Ahimsa is a choice…which we realize when we slow down to consider the consequence of what we’re about to do. These are characteristics of being in right alignment with ourselves, as mentioned earlier. We begin to become aware of how like our fellow man we actually are and we recognize the absurdity of aggression; we soon see aggression’s dominance in society. From where do humans feel it’s necessary for that kind of dominance really? And so, we grow in our self-confidence through Ahimsa. It provides a choice, and it increases our experience of the interconnectedness of all of Life.  We begin to experience that Life itself is actually gentle. Life doesn’t require the force of aggression that humans seem to feel is appropriate. The gentleness of Life is fluid and opens our perceptions, which folds into increased Ahimsa. At this point, the layers of violent behaviour start to become more perceptible, and our tolerance of the subtle forms lessens to that of the more extreme…because we see how they feed each other. 

Through Ahimsa, we require more from ourselves. Stopping violent or harmful behaviour creates a space to be filled by something intelligent…because violence is not founded on intelligence.  Compassion is a critical aspect of Ahimsa; not only investing it in to the practice, but the way it expands as a result of the practice. Ahimsa is internally disruptive, no doubt…because it shifts the old ways.  But we can’t let ourselves be distracted by that.  We can’t fall into the churning waves of the Self’s pity party of how awful we’ve been.  Instead, we continue with the practice, through the discomfort into what unfolds out from that.  It’s here that we find the freedom of compassion and of forgiveness…taking right action from there.