In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the practice and philosophy of yoga is described in eight stages, or “limbs” that are referred to collectively as ashtanga yoga (not to be confused the rigorous asana practice—Ashtanga with a capital “A” —developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois).
The first limb of ashtanga yoga is the Yamas, a set of five guidelines for living a good life and working towards enlightenment. The limb that we might start to recognize as meditation—Pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal—doesn’t appear on the list until number five, which suggests that meditation is a more advanced form of yoga. However, the Yamas provide an important foundation for all stages of practice, and they can be used to support and enrich meditation practice. In addition, meditation can be a tool that continually guides you back to the Yamas and reinforces the important life lessons they contain.
With that in mind, the next several articles will explore how each of the Yamas can be applied to your meditation practice. We’ll start with the first Yama: Ahimsa.
Ahimsa is usually defined as non-violence or non-harming, which sounds straightforward but is actually more layered than it appears. It’s easy to grasp the concept of not harming others, especially physically: Don’t punch your friend in the face. Don’t kick the dog.
Looking beyond physical actions, Ahimsa requires you to choose your words carefully and not say things that are hurtful to others. And the principle extends to thoughts as well. Consider those moments when you secretly curse someone or something inside your head.
It can be even more challenging to apply Ahimsa to yourself. How often do you beat yourself up for not living up to some impossible standard? Renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg refers to this as “the deifying voice within us that mocks us, humiliates us, and mercilessly puts us down,” and it has a profound impact on how we treat ourselves and, in turn, others.
Letting Meditation Guide Ahimsa
Meditation can be a powerful reinforcement for the practice of living non-violently. First of all, your commitment to regular meditation is itself a form of Ahimsa, assuming you approach it with what is known in Buddhism as right intention, or the intention to do good for yourself and the world.
Meditation also allows you to observe your own thoughts, so you can identify those moments when you lapse into negative or harmful thoughts towards yourself or others and learn to deal with them more skillfully. Since thoughts typically precede actions, meditation provides a golden opportunity to check harmful thoughts before they become actions.
You can meditate using techniques that actively boost Ahimsa as well. Metta, or Lovingkindness meditation, involves the repetition of phrases that direct positive wishes to yourself and to all other beings, and a steady dose of Metta seeps into the fabric of your consciousness and creates a more Ahimsa-friendly outlook on life.
The word “Ahimsa” can be a mantra for your meditation. Or maybe you want to meditate on the qualities of Ahimsa as virtues to cultivate in yourself.
Letting Ahimsa Guide Meditation
When you bring the spirit of Ahimsa to meditation, your practice is also enhanced. Did you skip a day or two of sitting? Well, you can give yourself a giant guilt trip for being so lazy (not very helpful), or you can allow yourself to move past it and re-commit to practice today. Same goes for those times you struggle and feel like your meditation is just not going “right.” Ahimsa will bring you back to the meditation cushion a lot more effectively than beating yourself up.
Those are just some of the ideas you can put into action right away, and you may find other ways to connect Ahimsa with meditation as you become more aware of your own tendencies.