Ahimsā - non-violence and non-harming - how are we getting on?

Yoga might be extremely popular these days, but very few appreciate its philosophical merits. Viewed merely as an exercise regime, many will never have heard of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, nor have any idea of the potential spiritual and personal transformation that Yoga offers.

Believed to be the most ancient text of classical Yoga, the Yoga Sūtras contain 195 sutras (threads) (sometimes argued to be 196), divided between four chapters, discussing the aims and practices of Yoga, the development of Yogic powers and finally, liberation. Like a guiding hand, the Yoga Sūtras detail the potential pitfalls on a spiritual journey and offer the means to overcome them.

 It is understood that Patañjali was not one man, but a group of scholars who were tasked with scripting the path to self-realisation. Like the Buddhist Eightfold Path, the Yoga Sūtras are made up of eight limbs (astanga) or steps, which offers a method of awakening; a path to higher consciousness and liberation. 

The eight limbs include:

  • The yamas (codes of moral conduct);

  • The niyamas (codes of social conduct);

  • Asanas (postures);

  • Pranayama (breathing exercises);

  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses);

  • Dharana (concentration);

  • Dhyana (meditation);

  • Samadhi (self-realisation).

 While most Western practitioners may be familiar with the third limb of asanas (postures), very few will be familiar with the yamas and niyamas, which form the foundation for this wonderful practice (that is more than just exercising the body). 

The five yamas constitute the ethical precepts, which provide us with basic guidelines for living a life of personal fulfilment that will benefit the whole of society. The yamas are therefore about our relationship with the world and about having an awareness of the inter-connected nature of it. They remind us that our every action has a consequence and they help to bring some order to an otherwise chaotic world.

The first of the five yamas is called ahimsā, which is often translated as non-violence or non-harming. In Yoga, ahimsā is believed to be the most important principle, and is mentioned first because the four other yamas are dependent upon it.

Over the years, my awareness of this yama has deepened. While some might argue that you should start first with the yamas and work your way through the other limbs, so that asana follows when you have spent time working with the yamas and niyamas, I have a sense that it doesn’t matter where you start.  You will, at some point, begin to incorporate all the eight limbs into your life in some way or another as your awareness shifts.

So while I may have initially started practising asana for it’s physical, mental and spiritual benefits, my interest and awareness of the other seven limbs has increased over the years and the yamas are very important to me and form a framework from which I attempt to live my life.

This hasn’t happened with any effort either may I add, it has naturally evolved the more I have practiced and the more I have deepened my practice. I don’t believe that you can force yourself to live a certain way, it has to arise naturally for it to be authentic and real. But we can have an awareness nonetheless and sometimes the awareness is what might help to create the positive shift. 

 For example, some argue that ahmisā implies the need to eat a vegetarian diet. Certainly Stewart Gilchrist, with whom I train, and with whom I attended a workshop recently where we discussed the yamas, will argue that ahimsā means veganism. I have been a vegetarian on and off since I was 13 and it is true, that over the years I have become increasingly passionate about the non-harming of all life and questioned the ethics of the meat and dairy industry, choosing a predominantly plant-based diet accordingly.

However, the Yoga Sūtras do not make specific reference to the need to be a vegetarian or vegan per se, it is based on interpretation of ahimsā and how this comes to play out in your life will be dependent on the individual. Vegetarianism or veganism cannot be forced because this forcing may create harm, and this will potentially override any benefit that might be otherwise gained. It needs to evolve naturally.  

For example, when I was younger I thought nothing of killing a fly that annoyed me or squashing a spider that might be in my room, let alone killing ants. Today I wouldn’t dream of killing an insect, I mean yes, it is tempting when the flies are relentless (as they are at the moment), but what right have I to kill? I’m curious how easily we justify the killing of animal and insect life to suit ourselves. 

I try and install in my children the need to help other living beings, and I admit I do struggle with the recent crabbing obsession of my eldest. It seems so cruel to in any way harm other living beings for our pleasure, whether we are learning about those species or not. 

Fortunately, I have managed to steer us to rock pools and merely looking and I’m pleased about that because recently we came across a mother crab literally hugging her baby crab. I didn’t have my camera to hand and I wish I had, because it was a very strong message to me that we shouldn’t be messing with nature, that even mother crabs have babies that they protect, what right have I to move them or separate them?  

 I also believe it is important that my children are aware of the source of their food, whether that be a dead animal or not, so that they can be more conscious of what they are putting into their bodies and the harm that may be taking place. They are too young to truly understand this, at least from my perspective. My eldest son loves pigs and loves sausages, and he is fine with this, despite understanding the connection.

There are many ways that we harm other human beings too. Physically hurting someone is one such way, but we shouldn’t overlook the emotional and mental harm that we can cause to others by the words we use -  harsh words uttered in moments of rage and anger, words used to manipulate and control, words used to put down and disempower, and words that add to insecurity and shame, for example. 

We can hurt by the tone of our voice, or by the volume of it, raising our voice and shouting at both other adults and children unnecessarily. We can harm with our moods and our behaviour patterns, ignoring family members, turning our backs on children because they’ve annoyed us, or even worse, ignoring their crying and neglecting to attend to their needs (children often cry because their needs are not being met, even if that need might just be a moment of our time and sole attention). 

We can hurt people on social media too, by the comments we make, and the judging that we undertake. We can also harm people by publishing stuff that might upset them. For example, I don’t appreciate seeing any images of violence, whether that be to animals, children or adults. I know it exists and I try to do what I can to help to make a positive difference, seeing a distressing image does not achieve anything positive, it just creates more anger and negativity and the world has enough of that already. 

The written word can also harm, not only in the way in which text messages and emails can be misinterpreted, but also in the way that we can be captive audiences. We don’t get to choose what people write to us when they contact us and before we know it they have offloaded on us and involved us in their dramas. It can be ever so draining, and can lead us onto another of the yamas called asteya, which means non-stealing, and the manner in which people steal time and energy from us, but that’s a whole other blog posting!

Of course Gandhi’s views and practices revolved around ahimsa and non-violence. He successfully implemented the rule of non-violence in the struggle for independence in India. He wrote, “non-violence is a power which can be wielded equally by all – children, young men and women or grown up people, provided that they have a living faith in the God of Love and have therefore equal love for all mankind. When non-violence is accepted as the law of life, it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts”.

 I would love nothing more than for non-violence to be accepted as the law of life but I have a feeling that until we are non-violent and non-harming to the ourselves, then it is unlikely we will be able to non-violent or non-harming to the whole of society. 

For many years, I associated self-harm with intentionally damaging or injuring the body, usually as a way of coping with, or expressing, emotional distress. I tried it once, in my twenties when I was full of self-loathing, and it just made me feel worse, not better, but I have known others who experienced some comfort in it. It’s a pretty drastic thing to do and certainly indicates that life is very much out of balance.

I have since come to recognise that there are many other ways that we self-harm, some more acceptable by society, and some so subtle that we don’t recognise them as self-harming until someone points them out to us.

Self-harming can mean eating more than you need, for example, and being greedy, taking an extra helping of cake or chocolate or curry, or whatever it might be that stresses our digestive systems and body generally. Cancer Research UK advises that in 2018, 62% of the adults in the UK were overweight or obese, and that being overweight and obese is the UK’s biggest cause of cancer after smoking. This is most definitely self-harm manifest!

 However, self-harm can also mean not eating enough. Those who read this blog post regularly and have read my books will know that I used to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are definitely a form of self-harm. I also carried a lot of repressed anger and bitterness, and the combination of the eating disorder and the negative emotions resulted in me having to have my gallbladder removed when I was 21 years old -the gallbladder holds bitterness in the body, closely related to the liver which holds anger.

Anger was a theme throughout much of my earlier life, both inherited but also in reaction to life events and the manner in which my life was unfolding, especially in my twenties. This was a form of self harm as I directed my anger towards myself, my inner critique giving me a hard time so that I loathed myself – I didn’t need anyone else harming me because I was doing a good job of that myself with my negative thinking. 

For many years of my life I always adopted a negative mind-set and negative thinking. I didn’t even realise that I was doing it, or that I had a choice about it – glass half full, glass half empty. I just thought that that was me. My negativity towards myself and my life led me to contemplate suicide and one evening I did get more desperate than at any other time in my life and I know that this was – thankfully – a cry for help rather than a genuine attempt at suicide. I had hit rock bottom and this was some serious harming.  

 It was a necessary moment for me though, to wake up to the harm I was causing myself and to ask for help to heal. Soon after this, a wave of help rushed in, through Yoga, Reiki and the love of many Earth angels, which you can read about in my book, Namaste. All of this helped me to realise that I didn’t have to be stuck in negativity, that I had a choice, and I took it upon myself to focus on love, and self-love and positivity instead, trying to shift my mind-set in the process. 

It is difficult to name one thing that made a difference, because all the various healing practices that I engaged had a cumulative positive effect on me. Although I do think that connecting with the angels and inviting the divine and indeed the Goddess into my life have all helped to make a huge difference. At their heart they brought in faith and love, and this made a huge difference in transforming my life in a positive direction. It was then, and much like Gandhi says, that I began to have greater love and respect for the whole of mankind.

However, it is worth noting that we can harm ourselves in the quest to heal ourselves too. In the earlier days of my Yoga practice I practised excessively, triggering the return of the eating disorder, which found me losing a lot of weight in the quest to be the ‘ideal’ yogini, or at least the notion in my head of what I thought was the ideal yogini. This was a journey all in itself, and helped me to see through the illusion that is ever present even in the Yoga world. My periods stopped during this time soon, which is always a sign that something is out of balance. 

We can harm ourselves by pushing ourselves too hard in our yoga practice, causing ourselves injuries. As yoga teachers we have to be mindful of not causing harm to our students in the words we use and the physical adjustments we make. As holistic therapists too, helping others to heal, we have to be mindful of not creating more harm and sharing only what is absolutely necessary and helpful, not dwelling on the negative. 

I harmed myself when I used to smoke cannabis, believing that it would assist with my spiritual development. I was travelling and practicing Yoga, and I convinced myself that it was OK as it was mentioned in the Vedas and there is an association between cannabis and Shiva, plus I hoped it would enhance my creativity and expand my mind. 

 When I look back I see that it was just another smoke screen, another way of distancing myself from the reality of my life and the issues that I still needed to address. I was neither more creative nor more spiritual as a result of the smoking, I just ended up with a nicotine addiction and polluted lungs and liver. Furthermore, I was desperately ungrounded and unable to make anything happen in my life as I floated around in the ethers of denial. 

There is no doubt in my mind that smoking is a form of self-harm. Fortunately smoking has become unfashionable and with good reason, with it being the number one cause of cancer in the UK. The fact that people are still allowed to smoke in their cars in Guernsey with children in the car too astounds me. Surely this is a form of harm too?

Drinking alcohol is also a form of self-harm despite the fact that it is considered socially acceptable. It amazes me how much alcohol underpins the British culture despite the fact that drinking alcohol is known to cause seven types of cancer, including breast and bowel cancer (per Cancer Research UK). Furthermore, studies indicate that those who drink alcohol (regardless of the amount) are more likely to end up with cancer than those who don’t. 

There are many other ways we self-harm too, often as a result of our addictions. One of my yoga teachers always said that we all have addictions, some more harmful than others. Some may be addicted to love and the drama that often accompanies this, others to technology and the need to be online, yet others to sex and to porn, and yet more to pharmaceutical drugs, and those who choose illegal drugs instead. 

We can harm others in the process of harming ourselves too; spending too much time on technology and ignoring our children in the process, in any way buying into the porn industry, uncontrollable and unrestrained sexual indulgences and manipulations, the love drama that destroys marriages and harms children, and promoting the illegal drug trade with its links to sex trafficking and the underworld. 

Buying into Big Pharma is a big deal too. To have children we had to have IVF. This meant that I consciously ingested and injected pharmaceutical drugs into my body, some of which came with warnings of the potential cancerous side effects. Some of these drugs are aimed at, and used by, menopausal women to reduce their menopausal symptoms. I had a choice about whether I take these drugs, and had it not been for my overwhelming desire for children, there is no way I would have put that stuff into my body. 

I tried to do what I could to reduce the negative effects of the drugs, certainly energetically, with holistic means. I was still concerned however about what I was doing to my body and to the embryos created through the use of these drugs in my body, and what might be the effect in utero. Fortunately, both boys arrived safely, not without some drama though, and whether this was as a result of the IVF and use of pharmaceutical drugs or not who will ever know. You can read more about this journey in my book Dancing with the Moon

Going back to the menopausal medication, it saddens me that menopausal women feel they have little choice but to take synthetic drugs to lessen the symptoms of the menopause which, we should remember, is a transition from one way or being to another, rather like menarche for teenage girls, rather than a condition that somehow needs to be fixed (or delayed!). 

That women are prepared to risk cancer, shows how desperate they must feel and it is a shame that holistic means are not promoted as another option. Certainly from an Ayurvedic perspective a change to diet and lifestyle, and the use of some natural medicine can work wonders in supporting this transition, without the unwanted side effects such as cancer. Still we must each feel that we have a right to choose, without judgment, the path we should take, medical or otherwise. 

The fact that so many women still choose to take synthetic contraceptive drugs despite the researched links between the long term use of these drugs and various cancers surprises me. This link is recognised to the extent that doctors will encourage women to stop taking the pill at some stage, when they consider that they have been on it for long enough - this happened to two of my friends, who had never questioned, nor appreciated the risk they were taking by using the pill in the first place. These are subtle ways in which we might harm ourselves, 

[For anyone keen to explore menopause or menstruation further, I recommend reading any of Dr Christiane Northrup’s books on women’s wisdom and women’s bodies, she also has a book devoted to natural approaches to the menopause available through Amazon. For those who have been questioning the use of the contraceptive pill then I highly recommend reading Code Redby Lisa Lister and exploring alternative methods that might allow you to connect with your cycle again and all it will reveal to you in the process.]

I haven’t even started on vaccinations and harm because that is a whole divisive and potentially harming discussion point for all involved. My best friend once told me that we might fall out if we discuss vaccinations so I learned early on that even those nearest and dearest will risk a long-term friendship over this subject. I’m not pro or anti vaccine per se, but I am pro choice, and that people should have the right and freedom to make the choice whether to vaccinate themselves or their children without being judged or in any way harmed by others.

Whether you are harming yourself or others in choosing to vaccinate, is as valid a research point, as the decision not to vaccinate and the impact this is believed to have on the wider population. All I would suggest that in forming your opinion one way or another you undertake detailed and unbiased research, and even then, respect the choice of others. Certainly from an Ayurvedic perspective, it is fundamental to support natural immunity whether you vaccinate or not and cause as little harm as possible whichever route you take. 

We self-harm when we establish poor boundaries be that in relationships or in the work place and when we give too much of ourselves and our energy away. Further, we self-harm when we spend time with people who deplete us or in any way disempower or drain us. We self-harm when we subject ourselves to violent media or to the news, or to anything that in any way has a negative impact on our emotional and mental wellbeing and creates feelings of fear and anxiety in us. 

Then lastly let us not forget the manner in which we harm the planet. Those of us who drive cars, travel by aeroplane, waste water, fuel and food, and buy more than we need are harming the planet on some level. We live in a consumer society where it is all about buying and accumulating stuff. We don’t actually need very much. It’s important we recognise the difference between needing and wanting and consider what it is that we are actually buying. Are we buying into an illusion? And what about the source of what we are buying? Did it cause harm to people or to the planet? Ethical shopping has to be the way forward.  

I can even take this to the buying of crystals. I love crystals and like having them in the cottage, but I have started questioning the harm that was caused, not only to the planet but to the people involved in their mining, to bring them into my life. I went through a phase of returning all the pebbles and shells that we had collected over the year to the beach, considering that these are not mine, and that they should be returned to Mother Earth. I’ve eased up on that a little bit but it’s an interesting point – how are we harming Mother Earth through our actions?

The truth is, once we bring ahimsā into our life we do start questioning things. What once worked for us might not work anymore and that can be a difficult process to go through, not only for us but for our friends and family. There is often a period of adjustment because its implications are far wider than simply giving up meat or ditching the car for the bike

It is more than not being violent or not harming, it is more than an attitude, it is a whole way of life. It extends to all living things, to you, to me, to those we don’t get along with, to animals, to Planet Earth, it is all and everything. Ultimately it comes down to love and respect, and it comes down to being conscious of the decisions we make, and taking responsibility. It’s pretty cool, though, as a framework for living one’s life - ahimsā, being non-violent and doing no harm. 

Emma DespresComment