If you follow Patanjali’s traditional system of yoga—an eight-limbed path that guides yogis toward enlightenment—nonviolence is one of the first principles you are meant to embrace, even before you start practicing asanas (poses). This ethical principle is called ahimsa in Sanskrit, and it’s equally as relevant to modern yogis as it was in ancient times.
Incorporating nonviolence into your own life fosters love and respect for all creation. It helps to calm the turbulent mind that’s tainted by hostility, anger, and inflated ego, moving you toward the sattvic (peaceful) state that’s needed for the higher stages of yoga. Practicing ahimsa puts you on a path of right action and encourages you to think about the karmic implications of your behavior.
Assuming that you are not a fighter or murderer, you might think you’ve already embraced nonviolence into your life. It’s actually a principle that goes much deeper than physical violence. Here are some ways to take on peace and embody ahimsa.
The saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is facetious. Words can be extremely hurtful. Their negative effects last much longer than physical pain, as we’ve all experienced. By embracing ahimsa, we become mindful of the emotional and psychological repercussions of our words, and learn to speak kindly to others.
It’s wonderful to be kind to others, but how about yourself? Are you harsh, critical, and judgmental toward your perfectly human imperfections? Try to find nonviolence in your internal dialogue. Forgive yourself for being flawed, and embrace it as an opportunity to improve and grow.
A meat-eating yogi is a conundrum. Killing animals is a blatant defiance of ahimsa, so by definition, yogis are vegetarian. Yogis should consume a pure, sattvic diet, but animal flesh is considered either rajasic (stimulating and irritating) or tamasic (dulling and of a low vibration). Yogis also consider every living being to be a form of god; hence, they don’t kill for the sake of sensory pleasure.
How can cutting out meat and eating meat both follow ahimsa? While most of us can survive and even flourish on a vegetarian diet, there are a few exceptions that make meat necessary. For example, those who are emaciated, very weak, or with debilitating diseases may really benefit from adding meat to their diet. To ignore this would be a sort of self-violence.
Even if you’re not emaciated, a vegetarian diet should be taken on with care to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs. Vegetarians who eat a staple-diet of cheese pizza and junk food, for example, are not following ahimsa, as they are actually harming their bodies.
To a yogi, there’s no difference between a cow and a fly. Both have souls; both are a form of god. Neither should be killed. If you have a creepy spider in your bedroom, carefully trap it and set it free rather than squashing it. If you’re going to be out at night in an area with mosquitoes, wear long sleeves, pants, and natural repellent so you don’t have a reason to smash them. All creatures have some role to play in this world, and it’s not up to us to decide if that role is any less meaningful than our own.
Following these guidelines will inevitably make you a more compassionate human being. The closer you move toward kindness and love for others and all creatures, the easier it is to advance on the path of yoga.