What is Ahimsa?

ahimsaWhat is Ahimsa?

Ahimsa, or non-violence, is one of the powerful ethical guidelines (Yamas) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It provides the framework for much of a perceived ‘yoga lifestyle.’

Historical landscape

It’s easy to seek simple answers and instructions from yoga texts. As Westerners we often come to yoga practices desperate for something to tame our neuroses and point us in the right direction. The texts, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are draped in the cloth of ancient unchanging tradition, saying ‘Yes, Yes, I’ll tell you what to do.” But it’s usually not that simple.

Classicist Mary Beard, in discussion of the legacy of another great body of work, that of Green and Roman societies, writes ‘the study of Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world’ (Beard, 2013, p. 11). In yoga studies, this means we also have to take into account the cultural and historical movements that bring one tradition or aspect of a tradition to the forefront over another, the commentaries and commentaries on the commentaries, and the continual process of interpretation and adaptation for the day and age in which texts are being studies and applied into practice.

For modern postural yoga practitioners, the prominence of Patanjali’s yoga sutras is a twentieth century development and a ‘new tradition’ (Singleton, 2010, p. 186). Yoga Sutras have indeed been adopted and used by many traditions due to their ‘practical contents’ and in particular the ‘eight limbs of yoga’ (Feurstein, 2008, p. 311). This is perhaps contentious to some, but for me does not diminish their power or potential.

FullSizeRenderDefinitions of Ahimsa

Keeping in mind that the yoga sutra containing this guidance (2:30) basically just says ‘ahimsa’ without any guidance on what that means or how to practice it, here are a few commentaries from the books on my shelf.

B.K.S. Iyengar: Love

The Yamas to Iyengar are ‘universal moral commandments.’ Ahimsa is “more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love…Violence is bound to decline when men learn to base their faith upon reality and investigation rather than upon ignorance and supposition…The yogi believes that every creature has as much right to live as he has. He believes that he is born to help others and he looks upon creation with eyes of love…The yogi opposes the evil in the wrong-doer, but not the wrong-doer…Opposition without love leads to violence; loving the wrong-doer without opposing the evil in him is folly and leads to misery” (Iyengar, 1979, pp. 31-32).

George Feurstein: Non-harming

“The most fundamental of all moral injunctions is nonharming. The word ahimsa is frequently translated as ‘nonkilling,’ but this fails to convey the term’s full meaning. Ahimsa, in fact, is nonviolence in thought and action. It is the root of all the other moral norms. The Mahabharata epic employs the word anrishamsya (“nonmaliciousness”) as a synonym of ahimsa.…The yogins motive for cultivating this virtue is a higher one: The desire not to harm another being springs from the impulse toward unification and ultimate transcendence of the ego, which is characteristically at war with itself. Yogins thus seek to nurture those attitudes that will gradually help them realize what the Bhagavad-Gita calls the vision of sameness (sama-darshana) a vision that penetrates beyond the apparent differences between beings to their transcendental Self-nature…perfection in non-harming creates an aura of peace around yogins that neutralizes all feelings of enmity in their presence, even the natural hostility between animal species like the cat and the mouse or, as the Yoga commentaries put it, the snake and the mongoose” (Feurstein, 2008, pp. 245-246)

T.K.V. Desikachar: Consideration

“Consideration for all living things, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are.” (Desikachar, 1995, p. 175)

Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood: Abstention from harming others

“We are to live so that no harm or pain is caused by our thoughts, words, or deeds to any other being. In a positive sense, this means that we must cultivate love for all, and try to see the one Atman within everybody. We must think of ourselves as the servants of mankind, and be ready to put ourselves at the disposal of those who need us.…Patanjali admits of no excuses or exceptions. When he tells us, for example, to abstain from harming others he means exactly what he says. He would have no patience with a man who assured him: “Certainly I’ll abstain from killing – except, of course, in time of war, on a battlefield, when we’re fighting in a just cause and it’s my duty anyway, as a member of the armed forces” (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 2007, pp. 148-149).

Swami Satchidananda: Not Causing Pain

“Ahimsa is not causing pain. Some authors translate it as non-killing, but it is not that. Himsa means to cause pain; ahimsa, not to cause pain. Killing is different from causing pain. Causing pain can be even more harmful than killing. Even by your words, even by your thoughts, you can cause pain.” (Satchidananda, 2010, pp. 125-126) 

Donna Farhi: Compassion for All Living Things

“This precept goes far and beyond the limited penal sense of not killing others. First and foremost we have to learn how to be nonviolent toward ourselves. If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful, and destructive comments and judgments silently made toward our self in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self-acceptance…extending this compassion to all living creatures is dependent on our recognition of the underlying unity of all sentient beings…cultivating an attitude and mode of behavior of harmlessness does not mean that we no longer feel strong emotions such as anger, jealousy, or hatred. Learning to see everything through the eyes of compassion demands that we look at even these aspects of our self with acceptance…In considering ahimsa it’s helpful to ask, are my thoughts, actions, and deeds fostering the growth and well-being of all beings?” (Farhi, 2000, pp. 8-9)

Aadil Palkhivala: Compassion towards yourself and others

“At root, ahimsa means maintaining compassion towards yourself and others. It means being kind and treating all things with care…In class, we often see students being violent toward themselves—pushing when they should be pulling back, fighting when they need to surrender, forcing their bodies to do things they are not yet ready to do. When we see this kind of behavior, it is an opportune time to bring up the topic of ahimsa and explain that to be violent to the body means we are no longer listening to it” (Palkhivala, 2007)


Perhaps the elephant in the room is: ‘Yeah, that’s great, but does it mean I should have that burger or not.’ If you look at the actual text, there is no specific instruction that ahimsa leads to vegetarianism. So we must see this as an interpretation. A recent Yoga Journal article explains:

But according to the Yoga Sutra, you don’t have to become a vegetarian. The confusion stems in part from a misinterpretation of ahimsa, combined with the fact that the first generation of yoga teachers in the United States mostly studied with teachers—such as Sri Desikachar,Swami Satchidananda, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Sri Pattahbi Jois—who, being culturally Indian and Brahmin, tended to be vegetarian. So an idea has developed in the yoga community that conflates yoga with vegetarianism. But the practice of ahimsa is not as simple as that. (Holcombe, 2015)

Iyengar, who did teach vegetarianism, further explains that “merely because a man is a vegetarian, it does not necessarily follow that he is non-violent by temperament or that he is a yogi, though a vegetarian diet is a necessity for the practice of yoga. Blood thirsty tyrants may be vegetarians, but violence is a state of mind, not of diet.” (Iyengar, 1979, pp. 31-32).

I don’t want to wade too deep in these waters as this debate on the relationship of vegetarianism to Ahimsa gets heated for many, which is totally valid. Desikachar stresses the importance of the individual in the interpretation of ahimsa, however it may be: “How we exhibit these qualities and how we strive for them depends inevitably on our social and cultural background, our religious beliefs, and our individual character and potential” (Desikachar, 1995, p. 175). Meaning: it’s up to you.

Personal Practice

When we come to a text like the Yoga Sutras for guidance, we inevitably come back to ourselves. The guidance, often sketchy, provokes and encourages us to think, practice, and find our own way. A few viewpoints to close:

Hillari Dowdle

“Patanjali doesn’t tell you how specifically to “do” the yamas and niyamas—that’s up to you. But if you align your life with them, they’ll lead you to your highest aspirations: peace, truth, abundance, harmonious relationships, contentment, purity, self-acceptance, love, and meaningful connection to the Divine—the essence of happiness” (Dowdle, 2009)

Judith Lasater

“To incorporate ahimsa into your life, look at all the attitudes you have that might be keeping you from feeling at peace. I encourage students to notice how many times they have an enemy image of something—a neighbor, a co-worker, even the government…Write down your five most negative thoughts… these thoughts themselves are a form of violence… hold your negativity in your consciousness and step back from it a bit. Just noticing the negativity will help you stop feeding the thoughts and will lead you toward peace” (Dowdle, 2009).

“The sutras don’t imply that we are “bad” or “good” based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior we get certain results. If you steal, for example, not only will you harm others, but you will suffer as well. This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. It is often said that if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all the other practices are subsumed in it. (Lasater, 2007)


Works Cited

Beard, M. (2013). Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations. London: Profile Books.

Desikachar, T. (1995). The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International.

Dowdle, H. (2009, April 7). Path to Happiness: 9 Interpretations of the Yamas and Niyamas. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/path-happiness/

Farhi, D. (2000). Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit. Dublin: Newleaf.

Feurstein, G. (2008). The Yoga Tradition. Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press.

Holcombe, K. (2015, March 23). Does Ahimsa Mean I Can’t Eat Meat. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/ahimsa-mean-cant-eat-meat/

Iyengar, B. (1979). Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books.

Lasater, J. (2007, August 28). Beginning the Journey. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/beginning-journey/

Palkhivala, A. (2007, August 28). Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/teach/teaching-the-yamas-in-asana-class/

Prabhavananda, S., & Isherwood, C. (2007). How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Hollywood, CA: Vedanta Press.

Satchidananda, S. S. (2010). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yogaville, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.

Singleton, M. (2010). Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.