Most yoga practitioners are first introduced to Ahimsa - known as non-violence in English - as part of the moral code that forms the first two limbs of the 8-limbed path of yoga. The purpose of moral codes is to guide our actions towards others and towards ourselves. In the 8 imbs of yoga, Ahimsa is the first of the Yamas, or guidelines for our actions out into the world and towards others. Ahimsa is therefore often framed as a set of rules or guidelines such as: don’t hurt others, don’t eat meat, or don’t speak harmful words, etc.
Are moral codes helpful?
Moral codes tend to split the yoga community down the middle. They always have done and they probably always will. That is just the way things are. So right down through history we find methods that emphasize a moral code and those that don’t. As stated above, the 8-limbed path of yoga, which is one of several methods given in the Yoga Sutras, starts with a moral code; the other methods in the Yoga Sutras do not give explicit attention to morals. And many schools of traditional Hatha Yoga disregard the idea of a moral code altogether. One of the central tenets of these schools may be summarized as ‘sort out your physical and energetic systems and the mind and your actions will follow.’
In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am not one for moral codes. They did not work for me when I started yoga and they don't work for me now.
In the interest of full disclosure I should state that I am not one for moral codes. They did not work for me when I started yoga and they don't work for me now.
This is purely a statement of fact and not a dogmatic position: I fully recognize the support and use that many in yoga - and in life - find in a set of moral guidelines. And because on my own experience, I cannot write anything from a place of authenticity on Ahimsa as a moral guideline.
Ahimsa as a way of being
Now whilst I am not one for moral codes, over the years Ahimsa has become central to my yoga practice. And the reason for this is that I have experienced Ahimsa to be a much bigger concept than the examples of rules given above. References to Ahimsa can be found in many of the traditional yoga texts as well as playing a central part in the Taoist thinking from China. Whilst some of these references do refer to our actions out into the world others go much deeper: they refer to a ‘way of being’ or in a larger sense the ‘way things are’. In this second sense - and for those of us who practise yoga on our mats - Ahimsa is a concept we can take into our practice.
Rather than a practice of action, Ahimsa is a practice of letting go of unnecessary action, of easing off from doing. In this sense Ahimsa becomes the quintessential inner practice.
Easing off to empower
For those of us in the West who have been conditioned into chronic doing, this easing off from unnecessary doing is key to empowering our yoga practice. It may sound contradictory: we ease off to empower. Practising yoga is not like driving a car: in yoga, we ease off the accelerator to gain power! And to empower our yoga we ease off the unnecessary doing in our physical bodies, in our heads and in our hearts. We ease off energetically.
- In our physical bodies we learn to apply the right amount of effort at the right times and in the right places, and we learn to allow softness in action. It is through growing our ability in our physical easing off that our bodies open up, that we start to bring sensation into our own forgotten places.
- In our heads we let go of knowing, we ease off jumping to conclusions about the things we think we know about our bodies and about ourselves as a whole. It is through growing our ability in our easing off in our heads that we open our minds and we start to see things as they are.
- In our hearts, in our feeling, we ease off our emotional additions, we step off that roller coaster that takes us up and down and around and around to the same old places. It is growing our ability to ease off in our hearts that we open ourselves to feel true compassion and love for ourselves and to those around us.
- And energetically we simply (!) ease off on that chronic tendency for closing in…
Ahimsa as a practice on our mat starts with every breath we breathe - or with every breath that we receive. Because it is Ahimsa that guides our exploration of the balance and flow of breath. As we develop and deepen a non-violent relationship with breath - with life energy - we create the conditions to allow ourselves to ease off physically, in our heads and in our hearts. Ultimately it is Ahimsa that fuses the different aspects of our practice on our mats into one practice of being.
Practice means we set our intention and then learn as we go along. The 'thing' with Ahimsa is that as we go along we learn that Ahimsa is a much more mysterious practice than one that can be codified in rules for action. We discover that Ahimsa goes way beyond our actions and deep into our being.
The 'thing' with Ahimsa is that as we go along we learn that Ahimsa is a much more mysterious practice than one that can be codified in rules for action.
Ahimsa in practice
EkhartYoga members can watch this talk with David Dodd which explores Ahimsa as a much deeper practice than can be captured by any moral code or guidelines. Ahimsa as practice - talk, 20 mins