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A.him.sa / əˈhim, sä/ noun
1. Respect for all iving things and avoidance of harm and violence
By Rina Deshpande

// Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is one of yoga’s ethical principles. Explore its origins and how it might be interpreted and practiced in your everyday life.

When we hear about concepts like nonviolence, we often think of historical figures such as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. leading movements for peace in the face of oppression. Several articles mislabel Gandhi as a “father” of nonviolence, not aware that he was symbolically reclaiming India’s rights and identity from the British Raj by embodying what had long been integral to ancient Indian spiritual teachings: ahimsa.

Ahimsa commonly referred to as “nonviolence” but more literally translated from Sanskrit as “absence of injury” is an ancient concept originating in the Vedas— Indian spiritual and philosophical wisdom dating from as far back as 1900 BCE, or nearly 4,000 years ago. The Vedas, approximately meaning “divine knowledge,” were considered authorless and were originally passed down in oral tradition for centuries. Four Vedas, which make up the Bhagavad Gita, were eventually compiled and written down in Sanskrit by a sage known as Vyasa. Another sage, Patanjali, is said to have studied these Vedic texts and developed what we know as the Yoga Sutra and the basis of classical yoga’s eight limbs.

Ahimsa is part of the first of the eight limbs known as Yama, or practices of self-regulation designed to free us from being victims of our own human impulses. Yama practices are likened to cleaning techniques for our minds, bodies, and spirits that allow us to live more conscious, liberated lives. In addition to being a Yama in yoga, ahimsa is also a foundational principle of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Great leaders such as Gandhi lived by the teaching ahimsa Parama dharma: “Nonviolence is our greatest walk of life.” But with our modern-day responsibilities and jobs, we may not live ahimsa as a sole way of life. Instead, there are ways we can live day to day that allow us to see the benefits of ahimsa in practice.

Witnessing Harm

The word “practice” implies something that takes work, time, and refining. Ahimsa as a practice of not injuring others might seem straightforward in theory: Of course, I shouldn’t throw a tantrum if I don’t get my way. Of course, I shouldn’t bully someone to get in front of them in line at the store. Of course, I shouldn’t lie. We also recognize that this theory is often so much harder to put into practice—and maintain.

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November - December 2019

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