What is Ahimsa, and Where Does it Come From?

Ahimsa is a concept from the Yoga Sutras. Written by the Hindu sage, Patanjali, the Yoga Sutras are a collection of aphorisms, outlining the eight limbs of yoga. Among the eight limbs are the yamas (restraints, or what one should not do) and niyamas (observances, or what one should do). Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, and means “do no harm.”

Ahimsa, rightly understood, is the ultimate weapon; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict. In the practice of yoga, it is important to understand that the same life flows in the veins of all creatures.” – Swami Kriyananda

A Multifaceted Concept

When you think of non-violence, or doing no harm, the tendency is to think of it in relationship to other people or creatures. That, indeed, is a big part of practicing ahimsa. But there’s a lot more to it than just how we treat other beings. It’s also about how we treat ourselves, and our actions toward anyTHING in our lives.

Ahimsa Toward Yourself

Thoughts and responses can have elements of violence, and this often happens toward ourselves. When our thoughts have negative messages like guilt, shame, or feeling “not good enough,” it’s a subtle act of violence to our well-being because it pushes away love, and harms our perceived value. In modern culture it’s an exceptional challenge because there’s so much pressure to look “good,” to act a certain way, and to achieve or accomplish certain things. It’s very easy to be hard on ourselves when we don’t think we measure up. Practicing ahimsa toward ourselves is learning to recognize these negative thoughts, and stopping them in their tracks. When you notice yourself going down a path of negative self talk, remember that we are all humans doing our very best each day. Forgiveness and acceptance are two important concepts in non-violence, especially with ourselves.

Do Not Harm the Copy Machine

We’ve all been there. You’re just trying to print some copies, but the machine is beeping and blinking and flashing, telling you there’s a mystery problem you can’t seem to fix. Frustrated, you slam the cartridges open and closed, you mash buttons, anything to get it to register it’s all clear to finish the job. That aggression toward the machine, that is a lack of ahimsa. Yes, ahimsa is something that we should practice toward everything. It’s more than just avoiding non-violence toward things with feelings. It’s about the energy that we are putting out into the world. Anger, aggression, impatience, frustration – these are all emotions that carry negative energy. And when your project that into your surroundings, it creates toxicity in your life. So we must practice this concept of doing no harm in all that we do.

The Goal

Ultimately, what we are working toward when we practice ahimsa is mindfulness. It’s the practice of being aware of our thoughts, words, and actions, and making sure that they’re coming from a place of love, and not fear. It’s learning to cultivate peace in our lives, through all of our thoughts and actions. When we do this, we can live in a way that is healthy, happy, and calm. And from that place of balance and wholeness, we can extend ourselves to others in loving service. This is ahimsa in action.


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