Ahimsā means “non-harming,” “non-injury,” or “non-killing” depending on different translations. There are probably many more interpretations beyond this. However, it is important not to get lost in the words. As mentioned by Swami Vivekananda, it is important to understand the spirit behind the words. TKV Desikachar says, “Ahimsā is more than simply the absence of himsā (injustice or cruelty). It means kindness, friendliness and thoughtful consideration of other people and things.” This puts another spin on the topic, because when we start from this position, non-cruelty flows into our words and actions. To use a familiar and popular word nowadays, “lovingkindness” is the starting point and from there ahimsā flows.
The concept of ahimsā can guide us in our daily choices in life. Yoga sees that we are a multi-layered being and that the sum of our actions, words and thoughts create the being we are. Of course, it is more complicated than that in an unjust and cruel system, which also has its effects on us. But to some extent we have the ability to choose how we respond to things, whereas other beings do not have that. If not in the moment, we can always reflect back and try to respond differently the next time. Thus we are given the ability to decide goodness for ourselves and others. Understanding that we are all holy, we would make the best decision always for people. Especially, because we are faced with many situations in life that are not “black and white,” such guiding principles as ahimsā and lovingkindness are very valuable. Ahimsā can be said to be the “main” yama (yogic attitude towards others) in that it is necessary foundation for each of the following yamas and thus is helps guide other principles that sprout from it.
On an emotional level, ahimsā means staying away from negative emotional patterns or inflicting negative emotional pattern on others. On this level, it is more than simply choosing not to be mean to others. It may mean at times not engaging or encouraging experiences that tend towards emotions that do harm to our systems like greed, hate, worry, fear and anger. Often times these emotions just continue to feed on themselves by our choice to engage in them. These patterns become engrained in us, as neuroanatomy tells us, and we are more apt to turn towards those emotions rather than more constructive emotions. When we have ahimsā in mind, in the heat of the moment, we may instead choose a “softer and safer” way to handle the situation. As time passes, the new habits become engrained in our psyches so that our actions, words and experiences become imbued with love and goodness.
That loving and good foundation that comes from ahimsā flows through to the other yamas and combined together, these eventually affect us on a spiritual level. Ahimsā represents a rule that we use in our physical and emotional bodies. But when practicing it, the benefits become apparent. There is less to regret and our minds can be free. If anything do it for your own sake!
Not only is lovingkindness the substrate of ahimsā, so too does compassion come into play. I recently spent time with someone whose actions seemed to me unthoughtful and unkind, in turn triggering my anger and reaction, after which I felt remorse for feeling that way. If I were to practice ahimsā with no other context given, I would find it a high bar to achieve. I may be continually disappointed at not achieving this and that is why something like kindness or compassion is also necessary. I later sat with my feelings and understood that my practice is still that, it’s a work in progress. I practiced kindness realizing that holding this against myself would not help me in the long run. From that space, I was also able to visualize what I can keep in mind for the future. I remembered all the ways that this person was in fact good, how many countless good actions they may have taken, how they have their own things that they are working on too. Bringing this into the heart not only allowed me to let go of that feeling of regret, but it allowed me to drop the self-criticality that could have overwhelmed me and it gave me hope for a better outcome the next time.