We’ve all heard this concept voiced in many ways. As children, we are taught that hurting others is bad. In the Bible it is taught to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. In Yoga, this concept is called ahimsa. Literally, it means non-violence.
Ahimsa can be practiced in three ways. These are: action, word, and thought. Non-violence is most commonly understood to be in physical action. One who has a slightly deeper understanding knows that non-violence can be practiced through words as well. Very rarely is it mentioned that the practice of ahimsa truly begins in the thoughts themselves.
I was not taught this as a child. The first time I learned of non-violence in thought is when I picked up my first book on spirituality. Until that point, I struggled with thoughts of hatred and revenge for people who have hurt me, and I had no idea how to practice compassion. And the most difficult struggle of them all was with violent thoughts towards myself. This is a common problem which can manifest in different ways. Feeling guilt, resentment, shame, disappointment and even having high expectations of one self are all subtle forms of violence, as they prevent you from loving yourself.
The path of Yoga has very practical methods of ahimsa that can be practiced in daily life, by anyone and everyone. Just bringing more awareness to the subtle, hidden tones of violence in thoughts, words and actions can drastically transform your life. Here are 5 ways I like to practice ahimsa which you can start incorporating into your life every single day.
1. Kind Actions Towards Others
This one seems pretty straight forward – we all know that physical violence is not socially acceptable in any civilization. However, true practice of non-violence takes it a step further than just not hurting anybody. Ahimsa is defined as not causing disturbance to any living being, including mental disturbance. One main way Yogis practice this is by eating a vegetarian diet to avoid causing harm to any creatures. This is one of the main steps you can take to begin your practice of non-violence.
By definition, ahimsa also extends to the environment. By harming the environment, we also cause harm to all the being living within it, including ourselves. We often do not see direct results of our actions in this respect, and so it is easy to continue doing harmful acts without even realizing it. By cultivating more awareness of the results of our actions, we can begin practicing true non-violence.
Take a moment to think: What choices can we make each day that embody kindness?
The answer may be as simple as turning off the lights to save electricity, not buying products from corporations harming the planet, or refilling the copier for the next person when it runs out of paper.
2. Physical Kindness Towards Yourself
You may be thinking now: How is this a practice? I would never deliberately hurt myself. However, it is much more subtle
than that. Most people, including myself, commit violent actions towards themselves every day. And they don’t even know it.
How often do you think, “Doing this or that is not good for me,” but then you go and do it anyway? We may know that eating a bag of candy or a big cheeseburger will give us a stomachache, or that going out late and drinking lots of alcohol will make us feel terrible the next morning. But we do it anyway. Overworking ourselves, staying up late studying, denying our body sleep, going to the gym and exercising past our limits. These are all forms of violence towards our own bodies.
So next time you are practicing asanas and catch yourself straining to push deeper into a posture – just stop, relax, and tell yourself, “I will be kind to my body today.”
3. Non-Violent Speech
Sometimes, this is difficult to practice. Even if we normally speak kindly to others, in an emotional spur-of-the-moment, we may yell at our child, parent, or friend. In a moment of frustration or anger, it is easier to speak in a hurtful way, and quite often people do not realize what they are saying may be hurtful. The key to practicing ahimsa in speech is being aware of your own emotional experience before speaking. There is even a whole process of communication devoted to exactly that called Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
That aside, here is a simple practice to start developing this awareness of non-violent speech. Next time somebody says something to you that stimulates your emotions, before responding, stop – and take three full yogic breaths. Ask yourself, is what I want to say honest? Is it good? Is it necessary?
4. Non-Violent Thoughts
Thoughts are incredibly powerful. Swami Sivananda even wrote a book about it, called Thought Power (which you can read online for FREE here). The thoughts you create affect everything and everyone around you. Have you ever spent some time around a negative person, and noticed that you began having negative feelings and thoughts yourself? This is their subtle influence, and this is the origin of ahimsa. Non-violent thought prevents violent action. That is why it is so important to replace negative thoughts with love.
This is difficult, and will take time. But you can practice this anytime, anywhere! For example – next time you are sitting in traffic and notice yourself getting angry, try replacing that thought with gratitude. Think of how grateful you are that you have a car, a job, a home, or anything else in your life. It is also important to respond with love to others’ negativity. Harboring negative thoughts towards somebody who hurt you will only harm you more. Instead, try to feel compassion for the people who feel they need to do bad things, because they do not love themselves. Send them thoughts of love so they may stop suffering. You can use the simple thought, “I love you,” and watch your mind transform.
5. Forgiving Yourself
This is possibly the most difficult practice of all. It definitely is for me. In society, children are taught to judge themselves from the very beginning. They are pushed to be the best at everything, always compared to others. Memories of shame and embarrassment reside in our subconscious mind and come back to haunt us once in a while, reminding us that we must never let ourselves make mistakes again. These kinds of thoughts are – you guessed it! – violent. They are a great disturbance to peace of mind and a great obstacle to self-love.
You can cultivate non-violent thoughts towards yourself by remembering that mistakes are not a bad thing. They are merely lessons from which you can grow immensely, if you allow it. Without them, you would not be who you are, where you are, doing what you are doing. You may not even be reading this article. Remember that everyone is on their own path, growing at their own pace, and for this reason you can never compare yourself to anybody else.
Forgive yourself, and be free.
I hope this guide gives you a foundation to start transforming your life through the practice of non-violence. Remember, be kind to yourself – start small. Do not expect yourself to master ahimsa in one day, a week, or even a year. This is a lifetime practice. Slowly, slowly, you will see changes, and they will inspire you to continue this inner growth. May All Know Peace.