Yoga – or at least classical yoga – is built on ten principles – the five yamas and five niyamas that comprise the first and second stages or “limbs” of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. The ancient Indian sage, Patanjali, believed that we each need to go through these eight stages in order to reach our ultimate destination – enlightenment.
The yamas are generally thought of as social rules of conduct and the niyamas as personal rules of conduct. Over the following weeks I will explore these ten principles of yoga, offering ways we can develop them in our lives.
The five yamas are qualities we are encouraged to develop to change our behaviour and improve our relationships with others. But they are also ways of relating to ourselves and our ways of thinking about others so that our patterns of thought and attitude are positively altered.
The first yama is AHIMSA. It translates roughly as “non-harmfulness”. It is deeply meaningful that “non-harmfulness” or “kindness” is the very basis of yoga. In fact it’s the first of the basics, the very foundation stone of yoga – yoga being a whole way of living.
The Dalai Lama has said that if “aggression” is seen as natural to humans, then its opposite, “compassion” or “kindness”, is also natural.
Ahimsa is such a broad topic that it deserves a whole book devoted to it, not just a few paragraphs, though I will share what I know. Aimsa means ‘non-harmfulness in thought, word and deed to any living being, including yourself’. That includes animals, insects, plants, the earth – as well as people. Until he died a few years ago, Georg Feuerstein was one of a handful of non-Indians who were considered to be advanced yogic practitioners; he had spent his whole life, from the age of about 15, studying and practising yoga. He has said that people often asked him how far he had progressed along Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. His reply always was, “For many years now I have tried to master the very first principle of the very first limb of the Eight-Fold Path – the virtue of non-harming. And all the rest is unimportant”.
Feuerstein says that “Ahimsa is a truly difficult practice” but that we can cultivate non-harmfulness as a lifestyle, choosing to become kind, tolerant and compassionate as an everyday way of living.
Mahatma Gandhi showed the world the effectiveness of non-harming. He was a master of Karma Yoga – the yoga of non-violent action. He was intrinsic to the ending of British rule of India, not by revolution and violence, but by passive resistance.
Many people think that because they haven’t personally and physically hurt any person, they are therefore practising ahimsa. However, ahimsa also means not benefiting from other people’s harmful behaviour. For example, if you wear leather, you have probably not personally, directly been harmful to an animal, but you are benefiting from someone else killing the animal. It even applies to insects. So, if you get a “pest control” person in to get rid of, say, cockroaches, you are still benefiting from that person’s harmful actions. The Dalai Lama is said to use a matchbox to transport cockroaches to the outside and then set them free. I use the dustpan and little broom. There are certain groups of people in India, notably Jains, who wear masks over their noses all the time so that they don’t breathe in (thereby killing) microscopic beings.
Feuerstein suggests that we cultivate a reverence for life, which is an attitude of non-harming; we should assume responsibility for our aggressive impulses as they reveal themselves, for we are yet to realise and acknowledge that “Our life is built on the sacrificial death of others”.
He suggests that we ask ourselves how or whether our life involves harming others in ways that are not morally justified. He, as a writer, realized that he was co-responsible for the destruction of trees – to make paper. Not only the trees themselves are killed, but great harm is thereby caused to the birds and insects who have their homes, and possibly their food, in the trees. Not only animals are hurt by the destruction of forests, but tribal people whose homes and way of life are in the forest.
Our dietary habits are locked into a vast industry that doesn’t know the moral principle of non-harming; every year 45 BILLION animals are slaughtered for food and other reasons (Feuerstein). This same industry also does enormous harm to our natural environment – the destruction of forests, the vast amounts of water it consumes, the production of methane gases.
Other examples of ahimsa are not so obvious:
- The medical research industry supports gross exploitation of animals in laboratories
- Our “need” for entertainment often leads to animal abuse – hunting, fishing, rodeos, horse and dog-racing, zoos and circuses
- Our high standard of living is often at the expense of people in other countries – every year 100 million people die of hunger
- In our social relationships are we aggressive? Words spoken in anger can be very harmful. Do we talk so much that we don’t allow others to express themselves?
- Our culture generally perceives competition as a positive thing, but it can be aggressive and leave many losers and few winners.
- We are required to pay taxes; but our taxes support a huge military industry that revolves around the idea of harm and violence.
- Our surroundings can be aggressive and harmful: when we go to a large shopping centre, our senses are frequently assaulted by the myriad sounds, sights and smells. I’m always amazed that we seem to “need” music (or someone else’s version of music) in the carpark, and even in the toilet!
- Many people lack kindness to themselves. How many times in a single day do you admonish yourself? Are you kind to your body in your choice of food? Are you kind to your mind in your choice of entertainment and friends?
I currently have a problem in relation to ahimsa. I feel the cold dreadfully, and with winter coming on, I will want to wear my woollen jumpers. However, many instances of extreme cruelty by sheep-shearers towards the sheep have recently been reported. Animal Rights groups are calling on people to wear winter clothes made of fabrics other than wool, so that we don’t support what appears to be gross and routine cruelty in the wool industry.
My conundrum lies in the fact that a woollen jumper is a much more earth-conscious choice, but at the moment, it also seems to represent my choice of my comfort over that of the sheep. And whether you would choose wool or not in this situation, it points out how difficult practising ahimsa can be.
Being kind to the earth is another important form of ahimsa. How frequently do we see trees cut down because they were “in the way”? Do we respect the rivers and waterways? Do we always dispose of rubbish thoughtfully? Do we consciously make planet-friendly choices – in terms of our food, our clothing, our entertainment?
In capitalist countries, for example the United States and Australia, success is measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product), that is, material and monetary wealth. The little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, on the other hand, though materially poor, measures success by Gross Domestic Happiness – a Buddhist country where ahimsa is alive and well.
What a wonderful world it would be if we all always practised ahimsa, non-harmfulness. It is the rock on which yoga stands.
Georg Feuerstein, The Lost Teachings of Yoga (Sounds True, Colorado USA)