Patanjali's description in the Yoga Sutras is as follows:
Himsa means to cause painThe translation of Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda goes on to say:
Ahimsa not to cause pain
"Killing is different from causing pain. Causing pain can be more harmful than killing. Even by your words, even by your thoughts you can cause pain".Ahimsa in our lives
(Patanjali Yoga Sutras Book 11.30).
So how do we bring Ahimsa into our life? Firstly, I believe we have to have some understanding of how we can harm ourselves; looking at some areas of our lives that might not be working for us. If we hate our jobs; don’t feed ourselves in a caring way; berate ourselves for not being good, rich and/or successful enough etc... we are acting on Himsa. These are just a few examples, as we all have different ways in which we can cause ourself pain.
Bringing these areas into our awareness, we are then able to make choices and changes. Bringing non-harming to ourselves, enables us to practise Ahimsa (non-harming) to others. Compassion for oneself can then be shared with others.
As with all the Yamas/ Niyamas, we continue to practice this in our lives on a daily basis.
Pattanjali puts this Yama first, before asana and pranayama, so noting its importance… On a personal level, I came to yoga for the asana (poses) and then discovered Ahimsa; and all of the Eight Limbs came into my life (consciously or subconsciously) to varying degrees. When I slip off the beam, I think of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and him saying “practice all is coming”. I interpret this as practice all areas and not just asana.
Ahimsa on the yoga mat
How do we practice Ahimsa on the mat? We can take care of ourselves on the mat by really listening to our body. For example, by modifying poses when necessary; resting when we need to; not looking to see how well someone is doing in their backbend, arm balance etc and then comparing it to our own in a negative way.
Practising ahimsa on the mat, is to practice yoga without judgement, with love and compassion for oneself.