Ahimsa: Three ways to cultivate the yogic principle of nonviolence by Carmen Caserta

“In Eastern thought, nonviolence is so valued that it stands as the very core and foundation of all yoga philosophy and practice.” –The Yamas and Niyamas, Deborah Adele

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for nonviolence. This principle can be understood as the practice of love and compassion toward all beings, including ourselves. Ahimsa asks that we do no harm, that we live each moment with the highest possible awareness of the ripple effects of our actions. As yogis we are called to act consciously, which means practicing compassionate responsiveness rather than defaulting to compulsive conditioned reactivity. This article suggests three ways of practicing this fundamental tenet of yoga.

1. Love yourself.

Here’s something we’ve heard hundreds of times: we can love others only to the extent we love ourselves. While this is not breaking news, some of us still prioritize the people in our lives while we neglect the tending of our own inner gardens. Selfless service is an important yogic practice, but we delude ourselves when we tell ourselves we are doing good work while we fail to address our own “stuff.” Our stuff includes the way we treat and feel about ourselves.

To the extent we judge, criticize, condemn and otherwise brutalize ourselves, we do the same to others. When we have not fully accepted all parts of ourselves, when we have not learned to love the perfect Whole of our Being, including the traumas, wounds and neuroses, we are unable to accept and love the Whole of anyone else’s Being. We must cultivate unconditional love and acceptance toward ourselves first, so we can free ourselves of the inner hang-ups that prevent us from being able to offer unconditional love and acceptance to others. We can start by implementing a self-compassion practice. (I highly recommend mindfulness teacher Tara Brach for teachings on compassion.) Minimizing the harm we do to others starts with this inner work. There is no other way. 

2. Stop “shoulding” on people

“You don’t have a moral right to try to take away somebody else’s suffering. What you can be is an environment that is spacious enough where they can let go of their suffering if they’re ready.” -Baba Ram Dass

A lot of us like to give advice. This is another area where we tell ourselves we’re only trying to be helpful, but in truth we are doing harm. When we tell others what we think they should do, the message we’re sending – whether consciously or not – is that we don’t trust the other person’s ability to find their own way. This message is harmful because it undermines a person’s ability to trust their own intuitive wisdom, and it sends a subtle signal that something about the experience they’re having is fundamentally not okay.

Ahimsa suggests that rather than trying to cajole others into awakening or taking a certain path, we cultivate an appreciation for everyone’s unique journey. This requires a deep trust in the perfection of life’s unfolding and a developed understanding that our paths are not meant to be the same. What seems like the appropriate course of action for one person might not be appropriate for another. Rather than giving unsolicited advice, Ahimsa asks that we honor and trust everyone’s individual process. We can say, “I trust your ability to find your way. I’m here to love and support you on your unique path.” And then we do the inner work of self-inquiry: who is the “I” that needs to be helping?

3. Give up selfish desires.

Attachment to our desires keeps us stuck in ego identities that believe we need very specific things from people. In this state of ego-identification, we are always imposing some kind of demand on others. These demands transmit fear and paranoia. They also corrode the sense of unity; as long as we are needing something from our counterpart, we are keeping that person separate. We are objectifying them. In essence we are using them to fulfill our own desires. When we feel the people in our lives are not giving us what we think we need, we blame, shame and act out in self-righteous anger. 

“People say, I’m not getting what I need. I’m feeling badly that they’re so caught in thinking that they need to get what they need. It’s that identification where the problem is.” -Baba Ram Dass

It is critical to the tenet of Ahimsa that we work on giving up the attachments that keep us stuck in the destructive cycle of imposing our selfish desires. Mindfulness practices and journaling serve as powerful doorways to uncovering these deep attachments. As we become more conscious of the nature of our desires, and as we continue in spiritual practice, attachments begin to fall away. We become less needy, less demanding, less afraid of not getting what we think we need. As our awareness is less caught in our desires, we become more spacious, more accepting, and more available for others. 

Through this inner work, we become more loving and compassionate beings, fuller embodiments of Ahimsa.


Carmen Caserta is located in Del Mar, CA. She practices primarily Bhakti and Karma yoga. Learn more about Carmen’s yoga offerings on her website, www.deeplyyouyoga.com, and connect on Instagram @carmencaserta.