The literal translation of Ahimsa is “to not injure.”  While this concept appeared in the Vedas, it was not emphasized. By the time of the early Upanishads (500BCE), however, the concept had been refined and was considered a lofty virtue.  The Mahabharata, which contains the Bhagavad Gita, speaks of Ahimsa as the highest virtue, although it justifies violence in the necessity of self-defense.

Patanjali’s words on Ahimsa are very simple: When ahimsa is firmly rooted, enmity ceases in the yogi’s presence. – Yoga Sutra 2.35

This can be taken to indicate that a siddhi or magical power rises for the yogi in that no violence is possible in his presence, an indication that the yogi cannot be harmed.  It can also be interpreted that, by not harming or perhaps even threatening others, others respond in kind.  This becomes a version of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In modern times, most western yogis experience relative peace. Ahimsa is rarely about hurting others physically and more about not hurting ourselves or others through our actions or words. It is a frequent theme in yoga classes in regard to not hurting ourselves in postures through insensitivity, lack of attention or competition.

Swami Kripalu focused on Ahimsa as actions that cause other mental or emotional pain:

“Now we’ll see the form as to how the violence is and what the non-violence is. To hurt someone physically in whatever form, is violence. When we speak harsh words, we hurt someone’s heart. Whenever we speak harsh words, we are committing violence.

“Whenever we speak sweetly and without selfishness, we are practicing non-violence. We can say that the highest form of non-violence is love. The lowest form of violence is jealousy. When the jealousy increases too much, we hurt somebody. As long as the jealousy doesn’t increase too much, we commit violence of a mediocre level“ Don’t just believe that we are committing violence when we are sitting on the bank of the lake and catching fishes. We just commit violence sitting right in our home. When the wife looks at the husband harshly and speaks roughly, she also is committing violence. And similarly, when a husband speaks harshly with strong eyes, he also is committing violence.

“If you want to live happily in the family, you must know that you should not allow violence in the family at all…”

As modern practitioners of yoga, Ahimsa provides us the challenge of being both good and real. At a foundational level, yoga teaches us to be respectful to ourselves and everyone else. Then it teaches us to explore what kinds of beings we are and what we really think and feel. The practice of Ahimsa can keep us on track by keeping our feelings that may not be respectful from overflowing out into our relationships. What we can contain we can observe. When we act on our negativity, we create repercussions that make self-observation very difficult.

(Written by Yoganand, edited for this publication by Jodie Padgett)