I would hope that not causing harm is an idea that requires no justification. The harm that we cause others and to the world around us, as individuals, as a community, as a nation and as a species is a significant factor contributing to the general level of sorrow we experience as part of simple existence. Patañjali, in the Yoga Sutra, is quite clear about his feelings regarding sorrow and what must be our attitude towards it:
To the observer all is sorrow, be it from the anguish of change, the sorrow caused by our own impulses or the conflicts that arise from the fluctuations of the material world.
Future sorrow is that which must be overcome.
Ahimsa is sometimes translated as non-violence, for example in the peaceful civil disobedience Mahatma Gandhi led to help win India’s independence from the British. But how can merely not causing physical damage to another be anything more than superficially helpful to us in our quest for inner tranquility? As with all concepts that make up the practice of yoga, the doctrine of ahimsa can be taken to the most subtle of levels. Not content with the avoidance of causing injury, the practice of yoga requires us to examine minutely both the causes and the effects of our actions. For this reason we will think of ahimsa as more than simply not committing acts of violence. We shall think of it as non-harming in the complete sense of causing no ill effects whatsoever.
Let us look at the ways in which we might cause harm in three realms of differing scope: direct, indirect and long-term or far-reaching.
Cause No Direct Harm
How do we cause direct physical harm to others, and how do we prevent ourselves from doing so? If our actions are intentionally harmful, the answer is clear. A person who intentionally causes harm to another cannot, by definition, practice yoga. Not committing an act of violence becomes a matter of will. The first step, then, is simply not to commit the act. If you are unable to stop yourself, then seek help.
What are the causes of those occasional unintentional acts that we have all committed from time to time? Are they carelessness or clumsiness? Are they a result of loss of control? The solution to careless or clumsy behavior is simple, but not always easy to enact. Be more mindful. Be aware of your body as it moves through space. Slow your movements down and, if you are a coffee, soda or tea drinker, consume less caffeine. If you tend towards agitation, take the time in your day to relax for a few moments and allow your body and mind to catch up with each other. Take up exercise to burn off some of that nervous energy, preferably an activity that encourages mind/body integration such as hatha yoga or dance classes. If you engage in behaviors that cause you to lose control, such as substance abuse, or indulging your anger, stop those behaviors yourself or seek qualified help.
Cause No Indirect Harm
Once we go beyond mechanistic cause and effect, the potentially harmful effects of our actions become more subtle, though no less destructive. The Indian philosophical traditions of Classical Yoga and Shamkhya developed the concept of the Organs of Action. We have five of these: the arms and hands, the feet and legs, the organs of speech, the organs of reproduction and the organs of elimination. With each of these we are able to affect the world around us.
Let us take a moment and think of speech. Even though the words we say cannot, under usual circumstances, create immediate and direct physical harm to another, they can have a powerful impact on those around us. Words said out of anger or spite can cause emotional turmoil and distress. Once again, we need to look at our intentions behind the harmful words we say. If we intended to do harm, to be practicing yoga truthfully, we must simply stop. If we were unintentionally harmful, we need to look at the impulses that caused us to lash out in the way we did.
We also must consider the impact of seemingly innocuous acts at one, two, or several steps removed from us. A perfect example of this is vegetarianism. Indian tradition does not distinguish between the soul of an animal and the soul of a human. From a yoga perspective, killing an animal is as bad as killing a human. To practice yoga fully, it is important at least to wrestle with the concept of vegetarianism. Even though you yourself may not have gone out and killed the food you eat, violence has nonetheless been committed against the animal you are consuming. Even though the act of violence has been committed at some remove from you in the chain of events, you are still part of that chain. Of course, some people may find that they need to eat a certain amount of meat or fish for the health benefits. If you are to be involved in a chain of events that includes an act of violence, at least be a conscious participant. Choose to seek out humanely raised and slaughtered animals for your consumption.
Cause No Long-Term or Far-Reaching Harm
Even the simplest act can elicit consequences many miles away and many years into the future. Consider the relationships you have with those around you, including those other than with family or loved ones. Could your actions in some way hinder or harm a person at some point down the road? Could the way you live your life be detrimental to the community at large, to the nation, to the planet?
Here is where we potentially enter the realm of politics. There are many different opinions and positions on what policies are harmful and beneficial, and this is not the place for a discussion of such things. It is important, however, to be aware of the organization and political systems of which you are a part. If you live in a democratic state, then the policies of the state are being enacted in your name. You are part of the chain of events, even if only in a small way. The political and economic ins and outs of the modern world are vastly complex, sometimes more so than the average person can comprehend, and not all of us are meant for political activism. Still, it is important to be at least aware of your political environment so that you can act accordingly when you see violence being committed in your name.
Yoga in Action
The Great Vow of Yoga