Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning non-harming, non-violence. This includes working with compassion and kindness towards ourselves and others in thought, speech and action. In becoming our own best friend. Developing deep trust and patience with life through our own direct experience of noticing and stopping aggression when we see it.
Cultivation of ahimsa is said to lead to spontaneous, all encompassing love because we experience unity in creation. Ahimsa is the first principle of yoga.
On a physical level, we could practice non-harming of the body when doing yoga postures. Most of us don’t deliberately set out to harm ourselves. Yet we do. Why? One part of the answer is lack of awareness. We are usually so distracted by random thoughts and obsessions in the mind that we don’t pay attention to our body – even during yoga class! Sometimes we don’t like our body and have developed a habit of blocking it out of our awareness. Maybe we feel driven to finish a project at work and ignore the pain in our body because we don’t feel we can stop the activity that is causing the pain. Or maybe the person next to us in yoga class can touch the floor with their nose in the forward bend so we try to do the same, ignoring the pain in our back or legs.
Inflicting emotional pain on ourselves and others is also common. Pretend for a moment that you are sitting having a conversation with a good friend. They are telling you about something they feel badly about, something where they did something wrong and hurt someone. How would you respond to them? …. Now pretend you are having a conversation with yourself about a time when you hurt someone. How do ‘you’ respond to this? Would you call your friend a stupid, insensitive idiot? Have you ever said something like that to yourself?
Develop a regular practice of eavesdropping into your mind – pay attention to what you tell yourself about you. Would you want to be friends with this person? The thing about relationships of any kind is that you can only change yourself. You have to let go of trying to change the other person. Good news, here you do have control. If you’ve developed a habit of critical, judgmental thoughts, you can change it. The first step in breaking any habit is awareness. The second is a willingness to lighten up, to observe without judging, to befriend yourself. If you won’t stick up for yourself, who will?
The key element of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy was to practice ahimsa and satya (the 2nd principle of yoga). The Bhagavad Gita and Eknath Easwaran’s book Gandhi the Man are excellent resources on ahimsa.
Part of accepting ourselves is not expecting the impossible of ourselves. You need to be nurtured, to receive, as well as to give. If you continually use yourself up in filling other people’s needs while ignoring your own, you’ll dry out, become brittle, less emotionally resilient, reach bottom, crack up, live your life in a brown fog or at the bottom of an iceberg, frozen and alone. True kindness and acceptance includes you.