Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that is usually translated as non-injury or non-harming, but it means so much more than this: compassion, understanding, acceptance, and, at its core, love for all beings. In the Western world, we tend to think of yoga as a physical exercise, and it is, in part, but, like ahimsa, it is so much more than this. Yoga is an ancient philosophy that uses an eight-limbed structure to explain the universe, the human experience, and the interconnectedness of all living things. It is a set of guidelines on how to live in harmony, within ourselves and with all that surrounds us. But yoga is not just a set of lofty thoughts or ideals. Yoga is very practical. In fact, it is a practice, a lifestyle, a way of living one’s life in alignment with the natural world. It requires walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Asana (physical postures) is only one of eight branches of yoga, detailed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the master teacher and wise man accredited with the organization of this system. He lists it third, after Yama and Niyama, which are ethical practices in relation to our interactions with others and personal observances. These first two limbs consist of five elements each. The first Yama is ahimsa. This means that ahimsa is the cornerstone of the entire yoga philosophy and practice. And, just like the first stone laid in a building, it forms the foundation upon which everything else is built. If that stone is removed, the building loses stability and, eventually, collapses.

The verses in the Yoga Sutras are like the practices themselves: tightly packed. The practice is to repeat these things, over and over again. Through this process, the meaning and intended effect open themselves up to us, like a blossoming flower. We start with the grossest level and work our way through subtler and subtler levels until we embody the teachings. Ironically, the more we practice ahimsa, or non-harming of others, the happier we become ourselves. So, how do we do this?


As human beings, we cannot live on this planet without creating some degree of harm. For example, we cut down trees to build our houses and burn fuel to drive our cars. When we begin to practice ahimsa, we become aware—possibly for the first time—of the amount of harm we actually cause in our daily lives: to other people, animals, and the environment. But instead of feeling overwhelmed by this new realization, as yogis, we accept where we are and start from there. Once we notice the things we do that create harm in some way, we are able to do something about it.

On the grossest level, practicing ahimsa means not killing, but there are many other ways we can cause harm through our actions. Cutting off another car on the road could cause an accident, shoving someone in line could cause them to fall, yanking a dog’s chain could choke it, smoking in the woods could cause a forest fire. When we start to examine our actions, we begin to see that they have consequences, that we do not live in a bubble, that everything we do has an effect on someone or something else. Once we know this, we can control it. We see that we have a choice, and that every situation presents us with an opportunity to decide how we are going to act.


Words can be as damaging as actions, sometimes even more so. Often, harmful words precede a harmful action. For example, when two people get in a fight, a shouting match usually precedes any punching. A person’s tone of voice also has the ability to inflict pain. Think about how it stings when someone says to you sarcastically, “Nice going.” You can hear the unspoken words in their tone: loser, idiot.

Noticing how our words negatively impact others can be more difficult to uncover than actions, and controlling those words even harder, because most of the time, we speak without thinking, like a reaction. But when we really start to notice the weight of our words, and then to care about their effect, a funny thing happens. A little gap opens up in the space before we speak, and in this gap, again, there is a choice. We can decide not to say those harmful words, to choose a different, kinder way to get our point across, or to simply remain silent.


And so we work our way from the physical body back to the thoughts, the subtlest form of energy, and we realize that everything starts here. We don’t just kill a bug, for example. We see the bug, feel frightened or repulsed, and think: I’m going to step on it. And then we do it.

Yoga isn’t really about physical exercise at all. It’s about mind control, controlling our own mind, until we are master of our thoughts rather than slave. This comes slowly, with practice, over time. First, we notice that negative thoughts lead to negative, and therefore harmful, words and actions. Later, we learn to restrain, then reduce negative thinking. Finally, we are faced with another, revolutionary, choice. We realize that we have the ability to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, and this is profound. Once we start to do this, our relationships improve, we move through the world with greater ease, we begin to feel lighter and happier. Our hearts begin to open, we remember we are all one, and understand that in harming “others,” we are harming ourselves.

by Laura Golden