Long before I discovered yoga, I came across a book called Compassion: The Ultimate Ethic. I had recently become vegan, and the book's message of kindness towards all living creatures resonated with me deeply.
It was years later, when I embarked upon my yoga teacher training, that I discovered the yogic principle of ahimsa, and was immediately reminded of that earlier experience.
Translated literally from the Sanskrit, ahimsa means 'non-harm'. It is one of the five Yamas, or yogic precepts, which are detailed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and provide spiritual direction to those seeking an ethical lifestyle. The other four are satya (truthfulness); asteya (non-stealing); brahmacharya (chastity or sexual restraint); and aparigraha (non-grasping or non-possessiveness).
While there is an obvious correlation between ahimsa (non-harm) and compassion, it is broader than that. It embodies an unconditional acceptance and open-heartedness towards others, which regards all beings as equally worthy of care and kindness.
Many yoga practitioners interpret ahimsa as requiring the adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet, but the principle of non-harm extends towards oneself, so there is no need to blindly apply any rule. Instead, it is more about honouring your true needs and respecting those of others, even if they sometimes conflict.
For example, if you do choose to eat meat, it might mean making that choice more responsibly, and doing so in a way that minimises the harm caused. So, you might decide to buy organic, grass-fed beef, or organic free-range chicken, and to support local suppliers.
Alternatively, you might decide that, for you, practising ahimsa means cutting out meat and fish, but that you feel comfortable continuing to eat dairy and eggs. Or you might switch to a plant-based diet but not have a problem with wearing leather. Or you might eshew animal products altogether, or simply work out your own combination of the above...
My point here is that none of these decisions is right or wrong. What is important is that you decide for yourself what is right for you, and that you act with awareness, making choices that are considered and fully informed.
As well as being a principle for everyday life, ahimsa has a vital role to play in the practice of yoga. It is here that it most strongly applies to self-care and self-respect. Just as you wouldn't deliberately cause harm to a loved one, so you should be mindful not to cause harm to yourself.
When performing an asana (yoga pose), it is essential to treat yourself and your body with compassion. Rather than forcing your legs straight as you move into a forward bend, ease into the pose, tuning into your inner awareness and listening to the feedback your body provides. Can you breathe a little more deeply and release a little further while still honouring your bodily experience? Or are you trying to get too far too soon and failing to treat your body with the loving kindness it deserves? Does it feel right to extend fully in that stretch, or should you ease off a little? Will your body release more if you stay in Down Face Dog for a few more breaths, or would it be best if you came down now and rested in Child's Pose?
In pranayama (yogic breathing), work with your body and breath. Don't impose any particular method or instructions on yourself; let your experience inform the practice instead. Does it feel comfortable to retain your inhalation for that count, or are you creating strain and tension in your body? Ask always what feels best for you. Be kind to yourself. Remember ahimsa.
Whether practising yoga, working, or interacting with others, act always from a place of awareness, and let the spirit of ahimsa permeate everything you do. Tread lightly in this life and the world will be a better place for it.
As that book told me over 30 years ago, compassion really is the ultimate ethic.