Ahimsa translates to non-harming or non- violence. It is often associated with why yogis are often vegetarian or vegan, however there are so many ways in which 'violence' can appear. Of course, there is physical harm we can cause towards another but it can also apply towards harming ourselves. How many times do we push ourselves physically until we are injured or burn ourselves out with work, becoming deprived of rest or even proper nutrition. Even in the name of health we can cause more harm than good. This is something common I see in my line of work, especially at the 'health retreat' where I teach. Over exercising, disordered eating and a mentality of push push push are all forms of harm, even if it disguised as wellness. I know, because I have been there before. In fact, it was this word ahimsa that became a mantra, a tool for healing my obsession with 'being healthy' or at least being thin, that led to an eating disorder in my teenage years. I didn't know much about the philosophy of yoga back then, but somehow I knew of this term, and one day it popped into my head like a loving parental voice and made me take a step back. Slowly, I began to realise that my well being and self care were far more important than the way I looked, and my mental health and inner peace became my priority. I had to learn how to look after myself from a place of self love, rather than self loathing, from a place of love versus a place of fear. Ahimsa was the starting point of this long journey for me and ignited my deep passion for the practice of yoga.
Nowadays, I am understanding more and more that there are many subtle ways we can cause harm or use violence. For instance, our way of communicating can be a form of violence. Have you ever heard of the approach - non violent communication? "Non Violent Communication is based on the assumption that all human beings have capacity for compassion and empathy and that people only resort to violence or behavior harmful to others when they do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs".
Words can be hurtful and cause a tremendous amount of pain and injury so it is important to bring consciousness and compassion into the way we communicate with others. Violent communication can be seen when we judge, blame, criticise, guilt, shame, label, or insult someone, and this implies to all that negative self talk we give to ourselves too. One point I heard in a podcast on the subject was to "seek to understand rather than to win or conquer". How often do we engage in conversation and don't really listen to what the other has to say, instead we are thinking only about our response, maybe to defend our position or win over the conversation in some way or another. How often do we find 'wrongfulness' with the other person and instead of expressing our needs with compassion and gentleness, we point blame and shame. "It's your fault we are late. You are never home on time, now our plans are ruined because of you".
"Be kind" was the slogan of the year after some one in the spotlight was pushed to her end because of the pain words had caused her. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can scar deeply. This also strongly implies to the words we play on record in our own head as well. We are often our biggest bully. "I'm so ugly, I'm so fat, I'm not smart enough, I'm not good enough, I'm not young enough, I'm not rich enough..... you get my point. These are mantras that we believe deeply when we play them on repeat again and again and again. It's imperative to change that record my friend.
Lastly, there's neglect. We may neglect the needs of others in interest of fulfilling our own, or neglect the needs of ourselves to please others. Some forms of neglect are obvious, like not providing aqueduct food and shelter, but others are more subtle. Being emotionally unavailable, being put as low priority, not being seen or heard and being overly controlling/ controlled are all forms of neglect where important needs are not being tended to. This too, is an act of violence, to ourselves and towards others.
So this yama is far more complex than just eating meat or not eating meat. And why is this the first observance that we come across? Well that is simply because when we act from a place of compassion and non-harming, the other yamas seem to make more sense and are far more obtainable. It is the foundation to the whole entire system. Also, because we can do the most advance yoga postures out there, master pranayama until we can hold our breath for an hour at a time, but if we are not living by the yamas and niyamas, our conscience and our heart won't be clear. It's a heavy burden to carry when we become aware of the suffering we may cause to others / our self. Instead of peace, there is regret and ultimately our own suffering. If we stay rooted in ahimsa, and use it as a beacon of light to guide us through this life, we will walk through it with much lighter footsteps. We are not perfect, I am still no where near perfect, but my practice and my studies always bring me back to the right path.
Go in peace my friends. Be gentle, and be kind.