Practicing Ahimsa: You are not your thoughts

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As a yoga teacher, my highest intention for my students is for them to learn how to care deeply for their bodies, minds and hearts.

One of the ways I teach these concepts of self-love is through sharing the yamas, or ethical guidelines, as described in Patanjali’s eight-limbed system of Yoga described in his timeless classic, The Yoga Sutras.

The ancient Yoga Sutras is a direct map of the human mind and a holistic guide on how to become liberated through its practice, and Patanjali is a true master who teaches from a place of deep intelligence and spiritual mastery.

The word yama comes from the Sankrit root yam, meaning “to restrain or put in order.” Yamas are like the basic rules of life — engagement and integrity — which are the prerequisites for attaining inner freedom. They are often viewed as the seat of Yoga and form its foundational strength.

The five Yamas, according to Patanjali’s teachings, are:

Ahimsa – non-violence or non-harming
Satya – speaking the truth or non-lying
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – chastity
Aparigraha – non-hoarding

We can view the principle of Ahimsa in action a bit deeper by observing this quote by Mahatma Gandhi, who made this principle famous by freeing an entire nation with its power:

“Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word or deed.

True ahimsa should mean a complete freedom from ill- will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all.

Ahimsa is the attribute of the soul and therefore to be practiced by everybody in all the affairs of life.”

Personally, I cherish this quote and use it to inform my intentions as I navigate life.

To practice ahimsa is to be constantly aware of our thoughts and intentions, with the understanding that what we think or say about others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm.

It has been said that if one masters ahimsa, there is no need to learn any other yogic practices, because, as Gandhi said, “Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle.” It is the beginning and the end.

Ahimsa is not just the absence of no harm, but can be viewed as the ultimate in self-care. When we care deeply for our own well-being, we naturally care deeply for the well-being of others.

I often find myself troubled by our violent world and reflect on the thought that if our true nature is non-violent…how can there be so much violence in the world?

Maybe this Yoga Sutras has an answer. Patanjali states:

“Negative thoughts give rise to violence…they are caused by greed, anger or delusion…Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.”
– Yoga Sutras II.34

The implied statement here is that we are not our thoughts. This is a radical statement for most of us, as many of us completely identify with our thoughts.

Patanjali’s prescription for overcoming negative thoughts is two-fold:

  1. Cultivate thoughts of the opposite quality (positive thoughts).
  2. Stop identifying with your thoughts.

While Step 1 may well be a piece of the most ancient self-improvement advice on the planet, Step 2 is the very heart of Patanjali’s Yoga.

He defined Yoga as the “cessation of identification with thought-waves”.

Through this deceptively simple definition, he was instigating a complete paradigm shift — a profound overhauling of our identity-forming mechanism.

So, the next time you catch yourself caught up in negativeness, find something — anything — that lifts you up. Divert the energy.

Then remind yourself: A thought is just a thought, and you are not your thoughts.

You have the capacity to detach yourself from your thoughts and become their witness.

And you can always choose which thoughts to empower.


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