Ahimsa on the Inside

by Jill Sockman

If you’ve hung around a yoga studio with any regularity, you’ve probably heard the word ahimsa before — usually translated as non-violence or non-harming. Seems pretty simple, as the “thou shalt not kill” of the yoga world. And that’s not incorrect, of course. Killing is pretty much off the menu for any spiritual tradition that I know of, and the notion of doing the least amount of harm seems to fall right in line with a kindly “love thy neighbor” approach to life.

Unlike the Niyamas (observances), which are more personal and address how you treat yourself and till the inner soil, ahimsa is one of the Yamas (social restraints) in the Yoga Sutras. It is meant to be an instruction about how you deal with the world around you, as part of a universal code of ethics. Now, I’m not trying to challenge Patanjali or stir the Yogic Pot, but if you’re anything like me, ahimsa on the outside is pretty easy most of the time. Well, except for when I’m in traffic, but you’ve heard all about that before.

The real challenge for me, and I think Patanjali could get on board with this if we could have a chat, is ahimsa on the inside. If we could make an expanded Yama and Niyama list, I’d like ahimsa in both categories, please. Yes, it’s absolutely necessary in terms of how we operate in the world on the obvious level (not maiming/killing others) and on the subtle level (showing kindness and compassion to all). But how about some non-harming and non-violence toward self? From what we eat, read and watch, to the way we overwork, overpractice, overtrain, and overstimulate, to the disempowering, unkindly, ungenerous ways that we talk to ourselves, I’d say ahimsa as a Niyama would be a welcome addition to the practices.

You with me on this? Can we make a collective move toward a total non-harming attitude — not just to others, but to ourselves? As you move through your day, be watchful for the little insidious unkindnesses you put upon yourself. Choose something else, whether a healthier snack, an uplifting book, a couple of hours off to just relax and unwind, or a kind and compassionate word to yourself when you stumble, struggle or fail. After all, I think the full line was “love thy neighbor as thyself” and that last bit makes all the difference.