07 Feb 5 Minute Philosophy Break: The Yamas Part 1: Ahimsa
Welcome to the first episode of 5 Minute Philosophy Break! In these short blogs and videos we’ll discover how to apply the ancient wisdom of yoga to our busy modern life. Today we’ll look at one of the most important yogic teachings – the first yama – ahimsa (non-harm).
But what are the yamas? And where do they come from? For that, we need to talk a little about the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of 196 aphorisms, divided into four chapters, written roughly 1600 years ago by the sage Patanjali. In this sacred text, Patanjali, organized existing yogic wisdom into what is known today as the eightfold (or eight limb) path so that students could practice the art, science, and philosophy of yoga in a more systemized, practical way. Below are the eight limbs from chapter two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
8. Samadhi – meditative oneness, absorption, unity
7. Dhyana – meditation
6. Dharana – single point concentration
5. Pratyahara – conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses
4. Pranayama – regulation of breath & life force (prana)
3. Asana – postures & positions
2. Niyamas – self-care & personal observances
1. Yamas – social & ethical guidelines
It’s important to realize that whenever Patanjali made lists, he ordered them purposefully. By placing the yamas as the first limb, Patanjali was telling us they are the foundation on which our entire yoga practice is built.
So what are the yamas? Chapter 2, verse 30 of the yoga sutras tells us…
II.30 Ahiṁsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahāḥ yamāḥ
To learn to be harmless, truthful, non-covetous, moderate in worldly or material life and to cultivate non-greed verbally, physically and mentally is yama.
– translation by BKS Iyengar
So the five yamas are: ahiṁsā (non harm), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non stealing), brahmacarya (conservation of vital energy), and aparigrahāḥ (non greed, or non attachment)
And just like everything in yoga, the yamas are invitations. We’re invited to see through our own experience how the yamas serve us on the journey to know ourselves more deeply, and to live a more full and joyful life.
So let’s look more closely at the first yama – ahimsa
Ahimsa is non-harm in actions, intentions and words, toward both ourselves and others. Ahimsa is the foundation of all the other yamas, and the foundation of our entire yoga practice because ahimsa is rooted in the idea of unity – the interconnectedness of all beings. And from the experience of interconnectedness – of all beings and all things – grows a felt sense of compassion, courage, loving kindness and universal benevolence. This is the heart of ahimsa. This is the heart of what it means to practice yoga.
Additionally chapter 2, verse 35 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tells us…
II.35 Ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyāṁ tat-saṁnidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ
When the yogi is grounded in the virtue of non-harming, all enmity is abandoned in [her] presence.
– translation by Georg Feuerstein
So what is enmity? Enmity is like a visceral feeling of hostility toward someone. So this verse tells us that when we’re grounded in ahimsa – when our intentions, words and actions are grounded in non harm, we become a haven for peace. We radiate an energy of benevolence, of goodness and light and love. And that energy is a calming influence on everyone around you. That’s how we change the world. Not through hate and violence and force. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King knew. This is what Ghandi knew. This is what countless yogis and rishis and sages for thousands of years have taught.
When we act counter to ahimsa, we move further away from universal truth and the truth of who we are – unified with all creation. When we’re grounded in ahimsa we move closer into right relationship with ourselves and others. And that’s our whole yoga journey. To discover the truth of who we are. To see ourselves reflected in the eyes of all beings and all things.