Do no harm.
This is the first principle of yoga – the first of the first. I say first, because while many come to yoga initially through the postures, or asanas, the foundation of yoga is actually in a set attitudes referred to as self disciplines or the yamas.
In Patajalani’s short treatise of the “Yoga Sutras”, he highlights a series of steps to practically take one out of pain and ignorance into the spiritual bliss of the truth. These steps are called the 8 limbs and the first one is the yamas. They are called self disciplines because they refer to the ability to restrain yourself from your more natural, lower instincts.
The first of the yamas is the principle of ahimsa – to do no harm.
What does it mean to do no harm? It is more than just refraining from physically accosting your neighbor or another person. Harm refers to thought, action and deed, and even support of harm by another by not stopping it. It refers not only to how you think, feel and treat others, but also how you apply that to yourself.
Thought. Your thoughts are the impetus behind actions. And even if you do not move forward into actual action from the thought, the very vibration of those mental pathways creates a seed in the universe. Even if you do not carry out the shaking of the person you are angry with, some of that energy is reflected out towards that person through your own energy, subtle behaviors and attitudes.
Thoughts that harm include negative self talk, judgment or criticism, stereotypes, prejudice, closed thinking, focused anger or irritation. Thought may seem hard if not impossible to control. But you are not stopping the thoughts initially as much as you re refocusing them by choosing not to attach to them.
Start by viewing these harmful thought waves as you would any thought in the process of meditation. Allow the thought to rise up, but do not attach to it. See it without engaging in it. Notice it and let it go. Thoughts build energy when you give them attention, when you dwell in them you give them power. Step away from the drama and bring yourself back to focus in another way – using a mantra, an affirmation, a sensory focal point. This doesn’t mean that you are ignoring or repressing the thought or emotion, rather that you are making a conscious choice to move in your energy in a different direction.
Counter thoughts of negativity with ones of love, compassion, peace, acceptance, neutrality, detachment - love being the central thought. When you can truly stand in a place of universal love, there is no place for harm/himsa to dwell.
Actions that are harmful include not only physical harm but gossip and talking behind someone’s back, going beyond your capacity in any activity, excessive behavior such as overeating, excessive alcohol, and drugs; not taking care of your body and yourself.
Living the principle of ahimsa may seem overwhelming at first glance. Break it down. Be gentle. Remember, that yoga is a practice. And in the learning you are not going to be perfect. The first step is to be conscious of what you are doing. Take a day and simply observe how your thoughts or behaviors might be harmful. Try simply to notice without judging – which is in itself harmful. Simply be aware.
The next step is to try to catch yourself in the stage between thought and action. Be aware of the harmful thoughts that trigger the actions and try to restrain the actions. Remember- be gentle with yourself in this process. Give yourself credit for trying and simply try to do better each day. In the meantime, make amends where you do harm.
The next step is to shift the thoughts. As a harmful thought rises to the surface, notice it and choose to travel a different thought path. Use mantras such as Sat Nam, Om, Wahe Guru; or affirmation words like peace, love, we are one. Having a regular meditation practice in which you develop your foundation for centered, focused thoughts will help to re-focus harmful thoughts in the moment.
Being aware and making small changes over time creates a new level of functioning, a new habit of mental and action behavior with ease of being rather than effort of trying.
Take a day. A day to meditate on what ahimsa is – what it looks like, sounds like, feels like. Strive for this day to dip your whole being into it so that you understand on all levels what it means. Spend one day in conscious thought with ahimsa and the seed is planted. See what grows and flows from that seed. What unfolds and invites you into further discipline.
Imagine a world in which we all hold the space and grace of ahimsa – what would it look like to be embraced by love, compassion and acceptance by ourselves and others?
For once you start to give this self discipline of ahimsa to yourself, it radiates out to others and suddenly that energy is bringing out a like energy in others towards you. And if giving to yourself is challenging, start by giving to others. Share a smile and accept its return. In giving, you receive. Open your heart in your thoughts and deeds and you will notice love expanding in your life.
Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.
©2011, Jamie Durner, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner & Wellness Educator at Ayurveda Wellness in Pewaukee, WI