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Ahimsa - Non-Violence

Focus of the month - March 2023

written by Alex Perez



"Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave, cowardice and ahimsa don’t go together any more than water and fire."

- Mahatma Gandhi



Most of us would consider ourselves non-violent. Yet violence can take many shapes and faces, sometimes even disguising itself as kindness or concern.


Ahimsa is the first Yama. The first of the “Ten Commandments” of Yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas. It might just be the most foundational ethical precept of Yoga and serves as a basis for all other principles. Even the most well-intentioned practice or guidance can do harm when not rooted in non-violence, in turn defeating its own purpose.

To understand what Ahimsa is at its core, we need to briefly define violence, all it can be and to whom it can be directed.

What is violence and to whom does it apply?

Killing and doing physical harm are the most obvious forms, but a lack of attention, verbal abuse, anger and neglect are other common ways of committing violence. It can be directed at other humans, but also to other non-human beings, sentient or not. Most importantly, it can be directed at ourselves.


A passerby saw a monkey in a tree with a fish in its hand. The monkey was saying to the fish : “but I saved you from drowning!”.


As the story tells, violence can even come in the form of worrying about someone, thinking we know what’s best for them. This lack of trust in someone else’s ability to care for themselves can cause more harm than it prevents.

Let’s look at a few ways we are consciously or unconsciously committing violence, in, and off the mat.


On the mat

Practicing yoga can seem like a very peaceful thing to do. In its essence it is, but its main power lies in shedding light on the more subtle ways we commit violence to ourselves. Here are a few examples:

  • Pushing ourselves beyond our capacity in our practice, causing physical harm to the body.

  • Not listening to our bodies, to their needs and limitations. Not taking rest when needed.

  • Comparing ourselves to others.

  • Having certain expectations, leading to frustration and eventually lack of self love.

  • Not practicing enough, not going out of our comfort zone. By not challenging the body we are not taking responsibility for it. We are choosing not to trust its capacity for resilience and growth.


Wether to take a child’s pose or to try that crow pose one more time, only you can know which one is the real way of self love. Satya, the second Yama, truthfulness, then comes together with Ahimsa, as honesty is the compass leading to non-violence.

Off the mat

Sometimes, ways of violence that are culturally accepted and ubiquitous stand as the worse.


We all say we are against animal cruelty, that we love animals, we pet our dogs and cats and call them members of our family. But every day we pay other people to mutilate, harm, abuse and eventually kill hundreds of millions of animals, just because we like how they taste.


Each cow, pig or chicken that is exploited is an individual sentient being. It feels pain as well as joy, it has a family, it has preferences and a personality. We are all very good at finding justifications for causing such harm and death. But non justifies taking the life of a living being that does not want to die.

Science has shown us that we do not need to eat animals or animal products to live a healthy life (we might actually be better off), making it needless violence.


The concept of “needed or needless violence” is key. Like all things and especially ethical principles, nuance surrounds the radical practice of non-violence.


Are there instances where violence is justified? Many will say yes. As Gandhi says :


"Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible."


This is exactly what veganism is about, or what certain forms of activism are about : reducing violence and suffering. When some students threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, they were committing an act of violence. But the climate catastrophe, the issue they were bringing awareness to, can be seen as a way more significant source of violence, killing and threatening the lives of millions.


Ultimately, Ahimsa is about understanding that non-violence does not mean only being passive and careful. It means acting from a place of love. It is to trust ourselves and remove unnecessary doubts. It is about making difficult decisions and about being truthful towards ourselves and others. By choosing to embrace Ahimsa, the qualities we develop far exceed non-violence, they demand of us to be aware, truthful, compassionate and strong in holding of our core values.

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