Ahimsa – What is it and how do we cultivate it?

Yoga love

Ahimsa is first Yama (which is the first limb in the eight limb Ashtanga system of yoga), so essentially it is at the very beginning. Before doing anything else, we are to practice ahimsa, or nonviolence/non-injury. There are so many interpretations of ahimsa and so many ways to cultivate it. Many start with a diet that is violence-free like a organic or vegan diet. Many start with action in the way the speak or interact with others. In Jainism, they sweep the ground in front of them before taking a step so as not to harm an ant or bug which may be in the way.

Now you aren’t going to see me sweeping before I walk anywhere but it does pose an interesting question. Where does the responsibility of non-harming start and end? Well I believe that like most things, it starts within us. I think we often do the most harm to ourselves. From early on we compare ourselves to others, we talk down to ourselves, we look in the mirror and are taught to criticize and probe for areas of improvement rather than celebrate the bodies we exist in.

This is the beginning of cultivating violence. We cannot wage peace treaties and then go home and tell ourselves how bad we look or that our clothes aren’t good enough. Peace must begin within to radiate out. Why have we fostered a culture where it is easier to be understanding and compassionate to others but unthinkable to treat yourself the same way? Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy”. I cling to that often because my joy is often drained when I start comparing.

I believe we can make it easier to find peace within ourselves and compassion for all our imperfections if we celebrate each other and lift each other up. Give a compliment, release yourself from quick judgments, believe in the innate divine in each person. When we stop comparing our behind the scenes self to everyone else’s highlight reel, the movie will change.

I don’t think ahimsa is an excuse for sloth, or stagnation. I think to be inert is just as harmful to ourselves. But I do think that we are able to take Patanjali’s principle of Ahimsa, and practice it daily, making decisions based in nonviolence when we first cultivate the nonviolent aspect of ourselves.

It should not be more difficult to say, “I love you” or “You’re perfect” to the mirror than it would be to a stranger. When we stop comparing each other, and start celebrating ourselves, we can begin out journey down the road of Ahimsa. Practicing nonviolence first to ourselves, and then letting that shine to everyone else

Challenge yourself to stop the inner monologue of hate and judgement, dismiss it as untrue, and tell yourself something that you would a close friend. Our immediate eye roll reaction to this “lovey-dovey” approach to interacting with ourselves is exactly what we must cast off and just embrace the ooey gooey feel good crap that makes us better people. Smile into the mirror, say an affirmation, and give the finger to the part of you that says you are above that.

-Nick