The Key Ethical Principle in Yoga
And how it can transform you and your world
First Do No Harm
The first and most important yoga principle, one that encompasses all other yoga principles (yama and niyama), is ahimsa. Ahimsa means “to not strike” which translates as do no harm; nonviolence; or non-injury.
As we know, many in the medical profession also take this ethical precept, which is part of the Hippocratic Oath. There are now numerous updated versions of the Oath, which are taken by graduating medical students around the world. Contained within all of the scripts will be the principle of not doing harm, which comes from the following guideline:
Practice two things in your dealings with disease:
either help or do not harm the patient.
Hippocrates in Of the Epidemics
For yogis (and the medical profession), this principle offers us the opportunity to ponder many moral dilemmas. For instance: what helps one person can cause harm to another, how do we manage this? Who do we prioritise for non-harming? Ourselves? Other people? Other sentient beings? The planet? How do we balance the benefit that one being might gain, with the harm that another be subjected to as a consequence?
The ethical treatment of animals is often brought up when we talk about ahimsa. Many yoga practitioners are vegetarian for this reason. Our society currently has a perception that there is a subject (the human world) and an object (the non-human world). This objectification of Nature means that more-than-humans tend to get poor treatment from us humans. Remembering that we are Nature, will bring us closer to living harmoniously within ourselves and within our world.
Even if one chooses a vegan diet, there are still animals dying in the name of growing our vegetables, pest control or researching new drugs. Some people might need to eat meat occasionally to support their health, which obviously causes harm to the animal being eaten. The Dalai Lama, for instance, eats a small amount of meat twice a week.
Wisdom of Nature
Nature’s wisdom perfectly demonstrates how to practice ahimsa in a balanced way. As we “evolved” from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, we lost our respect for the more-than-humans. However, there is much we can learn from indigenous people who retain a deep sense of being embedded within Nature.
The Yup’ik Eskimo of Alaska view animals as non-human persons (Grim, 2001), and the ongoing relationship between animals and humans is central to their worldview. This relationship is seen as one of reciprocity, with the animals only giving themselves to the hunters who have respect for them as persons in their own right. The similarities between humans and animals are emphasized, rather than the differences. Both are believed to have immortal souls which participate in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. They are also seen as sharing the ability for self-awareness and the ability to control their own destinies. In such a worldview, humans are just one group of persons within a much larger group of animals which are also persons.
Until we truly realise or remember our interconnected nature and build our systems and societies around that understanding we will have to deal with the harm that separation from Nature causes to both us and Mother Earth. And it causes a lot of harm. All we can do at present is to be mindful of the harm that we might be creating, and do our best to minimise it. The Dalai Lama sets a good example for us, by making the conscious choice to support his health by eating the minimal amount of meat needed to keep his body systems in balance.
The ethical treatment of animals is a hugely important issue, especially in these days of climate chaos, deforestation, massive factory farms (increasing in numbers rapidly in the UK) and continued inhumane treatment of animals. However, ahimsa has even wider ramifications than animal welfare. If we look at the following definition, we can see how truly transformative this precept really is.
Ahimsa (non-violence) … entreats us to live in such a way that we cause no harm in thought, speech, or action to any living being, including ourselves. In its pure form, ahimsa is the spontaneous expression of the highest form of love — an unconditional positive regard for everyone and everything.
Attempting the Impossible
Described as such, ahimsa can be viewed as a comprehensive ethical principle affecting all areas of our lives. Yet this all-encompassing aspect of ahimsa can make it overwhelming to practice, it feels completely impossible to not cause harm in our world. Even the most mundane actions: switching on a lightbulb, cooking a meal or driving to an appointment, all create harm to some beings.
To address the conundrum of attempting the impossible when working with this ethical principle, it helps to begin with not harming ourselves.
Non-Harming in Action
In our yoga practice, this means not pushing ourselves physically to the point of pain or discomfort. This applies both on the yoga mat, and in everyday life. If we have chronic pain, this can be a real challenge. We might need a really subtle and mindful practice to ensure that we are upholding the principle of ahimsa throughout.
To a person in pain, pushing through the pain can seem like the only way to get things done. However, if we cultivate the qualities of patience, mindfulness and self-compassion, we can find a way to reduce the amount of pain we might feel. Another practice of ahimsa is to take a rest once or twice a day, to help the body recover from the stress of being in pain. Taking care of ourselves better (having enough water, nutritious food and sleep) is also practising ahimsa. These self-care habits enable us to support our physical body in calming inflammation and instigating repair and recovery of the injured tissues.
Non-Harming in Thought
Another way we can harm ourselves is by how we talk to ourselves inside our own minds. It is common to internalise how we were spoken to as a child, in school or at home. We can also absorb unhelpful ideas from the TV, advertising and our peer group. It is common for people to be quite unkind to themselves in their negative self-talk. Self-critical, judgmental or self-deprecating thoughts about ourselves are often the norm.
Yet, we don’t have to put up with treating ourselves in this way. In the spirit of ahimsa - not harming ourselves - we can change our thoughts. It is possible to use our discerning mind (the buddhi) to become fully conscious of at least some of our thoughts. Then we can make a clear decision to replace the most frequent harmful thoughts with more helpful and supportive thoughts.
As we become kinder to ourselves internally we get used to having more “unconditional positive regard” for ourselves. One effect of this is that we also get more comfortable with extending this warmth and understanding to others.
Ahimsa is a wide-ranging practice that totally transforms our thinking, habits and lifestyle. The best way to start is to use mindfulness and self-compassion. Notice where you might be harming yourself in your thoughts or actions. There are myriad ways we can do this: eating too fast; wearing uncomfortable shoes; making ourselves work when we feel ill; repeatedly admonishing ourselves about a silly mistake we made. The list of our harming behaviour can seem like an endless “gift that keeps on giving” us ample opportunity to practice.
If many more of us considered the principle of non-harming, our world would be a kinder, fairer and overall more pleasant place. Not being kind to ourselves (either in our thought or in our actions) leads to stress, tension and exhaustion. When we’re in a stressed-out state it is more likely that we’ll snap at others, think unkind thoughts about others, have an accident or even get involved in physical violence.
Reflecting Upon and Replacing Negative Self-Talk
If you find yourself having a negative thought, the first thing to do is to congratulate yourself. This is the hardest step, becoming conscious of the thought. Be sure to avoid compounding the problem by berating yourself yet again! Or if you do, do it in a lighthearted way. Often it is not what we say but how we say it that has a harmful effect. Use the experience as a reminder of how important it is to reflect on your “self-talk.” Being harsh on ourselves can have a very real effect on our inner and outer world. In yoga, our inner world and the outer world around us are seen as reflections of each other.
Noticing the little ways in which we harm ourselves and changing those habits one at a time can help us to have more energy, think more positively and be kinder to others. There is a great article here about self-talk habits, which helps to identify the various types of negative self-talk, with suggestions for replacement thoughts. At the end of the day, if we treat ourselves with compassion it’s a win-win situation as we feel the benefit, so does everyone else in our lives.
Dear Yoga Student,
I hope you’re enjoying your weekend!
Spring is in full swing here in London and I’m enjoying the beautiful elderflowers, hawthorn blossom and the bluebells are still to be found in the woodland areas. It feels so abundant and fertile, which makes me feel so very blessed and grateful to be alive. Last weekend a friend invited me to her beautiful allotment and as a group of us sat and chatted it felt like we were in a beautiful oasis, far away from stinky old London town! We left at the end of the afternoon with bunches of various greens for salads, soups and stir-fries. So delicious and vibrant with prana!!
My partner Alistair is running a Sound Healing retreat at Claridge House in Surrey from 27th - 29th May. You’ll be guided to engage with various systems to nurture your inner world, balance your energetic system, aid your physical healing and support your health. For more information, and to book your place see here.
The Monday in-person Holistic Somatic class at Union Church is in the larger room, so there is space to drop in if you wish. For those who live nearby and further away, the Tuesday and Saturday Zoom classes are also running as usual. To book your slot, just use the button below. You can book a private class via Zoom here.
With love and good wishes,