Yoga Philosophy for Beginners – Ahimsa

This month I’ve been sharing some yoga philosophy with my online classes, along with the usual strengthening and relaxing of course! Maybe philosophy sounds kind of remote from our day to day reality, but I often find it useful in dealing with many life issues. In fact, it was learning about the philosophy of yoga that inspired me to teach in the first place. I thought this stuff is too helpful and amazing to keep to myself.

We had to do an introductory year of training before the actual teacher training started, and this is where I first learned about the astanga or ‘8 limbs’ of yoga. These were laid out in text form around 1500 years ago but, through discussion with my teachers and fellow students, they gave me great insight and support for dealing with some very 21st century issues.

At the time I was dealing with the unexpected loss of my dad and complicated family relationships. It felt like a lot to start yoga training as well as a full-time job and all the emotional upheaval, but I’d wanted to study yoga in more depth for a long time and the teachers seemed great. I’m so glad I made that decision! Not only has it led to fulfilling work, applying the lessons of yoga philosophy really helped with my grief, anger, sadness, overwhelm (all the fun stuff!) & helped me deal with difficulties in relationships too.

So it’s important to me to share what I’ve learned about philosophy in my yoga classes and I often go to the astanga for inspiration. This month, ahimsa or non-harming was the concept I hoped might inspire my students. It is part of the first ‘limb’ of yoga, called the yamas (a list of attitudes to cultivate towards others). The philosophy suggests that we need to continuously work towards being less harmful to others, it’s probably a lifetime thing for most of us!

The practice of Ahimsa is probably also how yoga became associated with being vegetarian or vegan. Many yoga commentators today, further feel that ahimsa is not just applicable at the personal level, but includes advocating for peace and social justice more widely. I’m a bit wary of that interpretation as I think the vast majority of us have plenty to work on close to home! Plus that easily becomes a political statement in a time where politics has become a tiny bit toxic (and I say that as a bit of a politics nerd!), and the world has become a lot more complicated.

In discussing ahimsa in class, I invited people to think about how they cultivate an attitude of non-harming in their day to day lives. Thinking about how that impacts on their ability to look after themselves too! I also emphasised that it’s a practice rather than a hard and fast rule. We’re still human and will sometimes act in ways that bring harm to others. Thankfully, there are more ideas in yoga philosophy to help us deal with how we cope with that, and I will talk about them in a future blog post.

How do you practice ahimsa? What would you like to know about yoga philosophy? Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Note: I couldn’t have written this article, or hoped to teach about yoga philosophy, without the inspiring and generous teaching of my wonderful teachers, Ranju Roy and Dave Charlton at Sadhana Mala. Their book, Embodying the Yoga Sutra is my go-to reference when I’m teaching yoga philosophy and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in yoga.