If you identify as a yogi, then chances are, you’re aware of the term ‘ahimsa’.
For those of you who aren’t aware, ahimsa is one of the five yamas, or the moral and ethical guidelines that yogis try to live by. And ahimsa specifically refers to this idea of doing no harm, or engaging in no violence.
Ahimsa can be translated in many different ways in our life.
In the specific scenario of practicing yoga, ahimsa can be utilized by listening to your body. You never push yourself beyond what you are capable of. You do not cause yourself injury, and if you think that you might, then you back off a bit and forgive yourself, in full knowledge that if you just keep practicing, then you will eventually be able to push further, much safer.
I have heard ahimsa utilized as an explanation for why someone is a vegan or vegetarian – because they do not want to cause harm to any living creature on this planet.
We might frequently think about ahimsa utilized when it comes to our relationships. Ahimsa is an explanation for why we should not try to hurt other people. Why we should refrain from violence, or from intentionally harming another person’s psyche.
Yet, there is another use of the word ‘ahimsa’, one that I think is vital for everyone, yogi or otherwise, and one that I think needs to come before we utilize ahimsa in our relationships.
We need to practice ahimsa for ourselves.
And I’m talking about a very similar concept to practicing ahimsa in yoga: whenever something isn’t benefiting us, when it is only going to harm us in the long run, then we need to learn when to back off. And, I know, this sounds like common sense to most of us, but I think that there are many factors – some external, some internal – that makes us frequently push ourselves too far for our own health.
Expectations, for example, can be a form of harm that we put on ourselves – whether these be the expectations that others have put on us, the expectations that we put on ourselves, or the expectations that we place on the world at large. When we are constantly striving to prove something, first and foremost, we have a tendency to do harm to ourselves in an attempt to reach that goal. We sacrifice mental health. We pick ourselves apart, creating deep insecurities and self-hatred. We hurt ourselves, without even meaning to.
And according to the practice of ahimsa, all of this is a sign that we need to back off a bit on our expectations. Ease up. Allow things to be as they are, all in the faith that someday, they will grow to become something better. But we will not grow if we are constantly causing ourselves harm.
And there are millions of ways that we cause ourselves harm, every day.
We cause ourselves harm by holding onto toxic relationships that no longer serve us.
We cause ourselves harm by demanding that we fit into a specific image – that we be strong and silent and selfless and beautiful.
We cause ourselves harm when we allow people to hurt us, all in the effort to avoid hurting them.
And as a woman who lives in a society that tells my gender that we should be self-sacrificing at any given turn, as a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety, as someone who has literally self-harmed and battled eating disorders, I am no stranger to doing harm to myself.
But by doing harm to myself, I began to learn just how important self-love is. Because if you cannot love yourself, then you cannot fight for yourself. You cannot stand up and tell people when they are treating you in a way that you do not deserve to be treated.
When you cannot love yourself, then that opens you up to a plethora of harmful behaviours. It might create judgement or jealousy, as you look down on others who have what you feel you lack. When you feel angry about who you are as a person, then you take that anger out on other people, even if they had nothing to do with it.
When you cannot love yourself, then you cannot properly give love to the world around you. And, likewise, when you cause harm to yourself, then you cause harm to the world around you. That is because love will always start with you.
Part of ahimsa, in all of its translations, is simply accepting who you are as a person. Accepting that you are limited, but that you possess the ability to grow if you give yourself the chance to do so. This is why we back off on yoga poses that might cause us harm. This is why we stop being so hard on ourselves and the way that we look, or the place that we are in in our daily lives. Just because we can’t do something today, that doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to tomorrow – all it means is that we have to give ourselves time and patience to get to that place, and if we hurt ourselves in the process, then we stunt that growth. And it is easy to give time and patience to other people, but it is rarely natural for us to give it to ourselves. And we need it. We need it if we are ever going to grow, and do some lasting good in the world and in our lives.
So, breathe. Forgive yourself for what you perceive to be your faults. Give yourself time and self-care and a cookie, if you need it. And remember: do no harm, not even to yourself.
This article is part of a series about the yamas. To read more, click here: